This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.
George R.R. Martin has, in the past, claimed that A Song of Ice and Fire will end with something resembling the “scouring the shire” chapter from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s the second-to-last chapter in the series, and in it the hobbits (minus Frodo) return to the shire and clear out a gang of ruffians, which turns out to be led by none other than a much-diminished Saruman. Martin admits that when he was younger, he didn’t understand why the chapter was there; it seemed like a pointless side-story, an anticlimax after the events that preceded it. But as the years as have gone by he’s come to understand the chapter as important, as a reminder that the world still exists after the villain has been defeated, and that the effects of war linger long after the war is over.
After last week’s episode, I had thought that this show’s best hope at a satisfying conclusion was to do something similar. Rather than trying to play Cersei up as the final antagonist, change the writing’s focus to the effects, and aftermath, of years of fighting. Watch as characters try to build a new world out of what remains of the old. New relationships, like Jaime/Brienne, Arya/Gendry, and the reunited Stark siblings, offer good avenues to do this. Perhaps Sansa’s perfectly sensible concerns about what everyone is going to eat will finally be taken seriously.
Of course Cersei has to be mopped up at some point, but is she really much of a threat? As we learn early on in the episode, pretty much all of Westeros is now backing Team Dany. All Cersei has left is King’s Landing and her regrets. Instead of making the focus on Cersei, make it on those she still rules, and Dany and Jon’s duty towards them. We could, perhaps, finally see the human consequences of Cersei’s misrule, and the way a responsible monarch would try to provide justice to her people. It would give the characters a chance to re-ground themselves in the world.
I think that could have been a nice way to end the show. But Benioff and Weiss have decided to do something completely different.
I’ll give this episode one thing: it started off well. There’s a mass funeral for those who died in last episode’s battle. Jon gives a nice speech about the importance of remembering the lost. Generally speaking, his leadership ability has been very much an informed attribute, but we do see glimpses of it from time to time. Sansa pins a wolf pin on Theon’s clothing, a nice touch for one of the characters on the show who can be said to have completed an identifiable arc. It’s followed up by some fun moments of comraderie, and practically everyone hooking up with each other. The actors playing Tormund and Bronn in particular seem to have remembered that TV can be fun.
The writing starts to creak and groan the farther it moves away from the post-battle celebration, but there is one other nice thing about this episode: we now know, definitively, why Ned never told Jon the truth about his parentage. Jon can’t keep a secret to save his life. He tells Sansa and Arya, Sansa tells Tyrion, Tyrion tells Varys, and Varys will probably get it tattooed across his forehead or something.
Dany feels threatened by Jon’s claim to the throne and the fact that he holds more of the affection of his would-be subjects than she does. The obvious solution, the one that the fans came up with years ago, is for the two of them to marry, but Tyrion and Varys kibosh this idea for flimsy reasons. Yes, incest, we know, but Targaryens have been marrying their relatives for centuries and the realm put up with it. Tyrion also suggests that Dany is too strong-headed for Jon, but doesn’t elaborate on what that’s supposed to mean. I personally expect that Dany and Jon will marry at some point, but that they want to save that for the last episode, so in the meantime they have to contrive reasons for them not to.
They also once again have to contrive reasons why Dany can’t just attack King’s Landing. She still has two dragons and an army, after all. But Cersei has now gathered a bunch of human shields around her, and Tyrion warns that attacking could cause the deaths of thousands. Didn’t we already do this bit last season? Tyrion’s suggestion then was to weaken Cersei by isolating her, defeating her allies one by one. Now, she has no allies, but Cersei’s power has rarely followed any kind of intuitive rules. Long story short, Dany still can’t attack. Tyrion has his own plan, of course, but Tyrion’s plans have a terrible track record and typically “solve” problems that aren’t satisfactorily explained to the audience. I wouldn’t trust this guy to park my car at this point.
There are so many ways they could deal with Cersei. They could just wait, for example. She’s paying the wages of an expensive mercenary company, and the Iron Bank’s credit is not going to last forever. They could incite the people against her, perhaps reminding them of that one time she blew up a sept full of nobles, clergy, and innocent people, or the several seasons she spent doing one villainous thing after another. Hell, if all else fails they could just use Arya. Have her make a Qyburn and Euron casserole, teleport behind Cersei, stab her, take her face, and poison the wine of the entire Red Keep at once. Problem solved, smallfolk still alive, roll credits.
Instead, Dany divides her army for some reason and sends half of them to Dragonstone – by ship. You’d think she’d have learned her lesson about that by now. You can smell the hilariously impossible Euron ambush from a mile away, and it comes in the form of a volley of ballista bolts that kills one of the dragons (as usual, it’s the one Dany’s not riding). These things are absurdly powerful. They shoot through entire ships like they’re made of balsawood. It’s a good thing no one ever thought of this “let’s try a crossbow but bigger” idea during Aegon Targaryen’s initial conquest of Westeros, or it never would have gotten off the ground. Now Cersei has ballistae for days, and dragons appear to be officially obsolete.
Her ship reduced to splinters, Dany and company wash up on a nearby beach, and Missandei is captured somehow. Dany takes, like, fifty Unsullied and her last remaining dragon and stands outside the gates of King’s Landing, which now seems to be in the middle of a desert. For some reason, Cersei doesn’t attack this tiny force, or order her archers to shoot Tyrion when he’s in range. She does, however, kill Missandei and now Dany is very angry. She’ll probably be in “mad queen” mode for at least one episode.
At the start of this season, I set myself the goal of being less negative about the show. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull it off. It’s fallen back into many of the worst habits of season seven – teleporting fleets, excuses to not have Ghost around, armies that operate under shifting and unexplained constraints, Euron, and repetitive character beats. That last one expecially, to the point of deja vu. Jaime gets over Cersei, Jaime un-gets over Cersei. Cersei seems for a moment like she might not do evil thing, then she does evil thing. Varys and Tyrion think Dany is a good queen, Dany gets mad enough to forget how to make facial expressions, Varys and Tyrion fret about Dany going all Aerys on them. The main difference is that this time we’re close enough to the end of the show that the clock might run out before these patterns can reset themselves again.
Not that Game of Thrones can’t surprise me at all anymore, but the surprises get emptier each time. A bunch of people will probably die in the next two episodes, and it’s possible that really main main characters (Jon, Dany, or Tyrion for example) will die. But none of it will seem real to me at this point. Honestly, I’m more worried about what’s going to happen to Star Wars with this pair at the helm.
Most likely next week will be another Big Honking Battle Scene. I just hope Dany attacks during daytime.
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