Earlier this year, I read a magnificent book about the Troubles in Northern Ireland called “Say Nothing.” It was about a murder and the people who took part in it and the larger context for it. It traced the sectarian violence in Belfast from its late-'60s beginnings to its late-'90s endings. It documented horror and showed its cards. It gestured toward blame and laid out a case for what happened when and why.
I thought about this feat of journalism as I watched the complicated, problematic and often barely satisfying penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones,” because I thought about how easy it is to get swept up in violence when you are absolutely convinced you are in the right.
Listen to our "Game of Thrones" podcast:
Let's begin. We see Varys writing a note. He will never mail it. We hear voices talking about how the Queen (Dany) is refusing food.
Varys: I want the right ruler on the Iron Throne, and Targaryens are either heroes or bonkers, and the jury is still very much out on her.
Jon: I am too emo for this gig.
Tyrion visits Dany, who is shrouded in darkness.
Tyrion: So about your inner circle ...
Dany: It’s Jon Snow, isn't it? I KNEW IT!!
Tyrion: ....It's Varys.
Dany: OK you are missing my point, Handsy. He knows about Jon, which he learned from you, which you learned from Sansa. God, you are such a mark.
Tyrion: Just trying for a better world here, lady.
Grey Worm, who is basically Dany’s button man now, comes for Varys.
Varys: *cues up the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die”*
Varys is reduced to ash. Bald, slightly pudgy, castrated ash. Mourn you 'til I join you, V.
Tyrion: *cues up Pete Rock and CL Smooth's “They Reminisce Over You”*
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Again, all films about violence and power and family tend toward the condition of the first two “Godfather” movies, and Dany is on some Michael Corleone at the end of “Part II” stuff.
Dany: *cues up “I Will Always Love You” at Jon*
Jon: ....... you are my queen.
Dany: Not the answer I wanted.
Tyrion: Can we consider not committing war crimes?
Dany: Naw, dude. I am really angry and the showrunners are falling into unfortunate female character tropes, so I will be acting out of rage here.
Tyrion: Look, if the city surrenders, you will hear bells. That is your cue not to do all of the murders: Bells.
Dany: ... OK, I will hear bells.
Dany: BTW, T: “The next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me.”
Refugees struggle to get to safety in King’s Landing. Arya and the Hound roll up.
Arya: “I’m Arya Stark. I’m going to kill Queen Cersei.”
Tyrion tries out his High Valyrian on some Unsullied to try to see his brother, who is Dany's prisoner.
Tyrion: I guess this is it.
Tyrion: You are the only one who ever cared about me.
There is a genuinely moving hug as Tyrion frees Jaime.
We see the Iron Fleet, complete with that doofus Euron. We are, here, essentially cutting between four stories: The Iron Fleet; Arya and the Hound; Cersei; and Jaime.
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As Unsullied go superhard on some Lannister troops, cut to Euron, whose scorpion crossbows ain’t gettin' it done.
Dany is on Drogon. This time, she destroys the Iron Fleet, then destroys the massive crossbows in King’s Landing.
Suddenly, King’s Landing explodes from the inside. Drogon has blown out the gate from above. The Northern army storms the gates. The Dothraki sack the city. Civilians fall by the dozens. Drogon incinerates a surrendered army. Dany is not screwing around. She means to collapse King’s Landing.
Cut to Cersei, looking ... not entirely there.
Cersei: All we need is one good shot.
Qyburn: Look, even *I* think we are screwed. This is *ME* saying this.
Cersei: Our men will fight hard.
Qyburn: ... Your Grace, where are you even getting this?
Grey Worm and Jon and the Northern army storm the gates. The Lannister army lays down arms. The bells ring. The Iron Fleet is burning in the bay. The city is taken.
And then a line is crossed.
Civilians are clamoring, in a panic. Dany on Drogon incinerates them, soldier and civilian alike. We are deep into the Actual Definition of War Crimes.
Grey Worm: *cues up the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?”*
Drogon is burning bits of the Red Keep.
Cut to Euron and Jaime, running into each other on the beach. The pirate taunts Jaime about his Kingslayer rep.
Euron: I am a king because I boned the queen.
Jaime: *cues up Ray J’s “I Hit it First"*
Then swords. It is a solid fight, two men being idiots over a woman. Euron stabs Jaime, but Jaime bodies Euron.
Euron: “Another king for you.”
Jaime: You are just really wedded to that, huh?
Euron: “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.”
Audience: Nobody cares, you unbelievable jackass.
Cut to the Hound and Arya.
Hound: I’m serious about the whole "gonna die here" thing. Don’t be like me.
Arya: Thank you, but my choices are my own.
But maybe something shifts in Arya.
Qyburn, the Zombie Mountain and Cersei are fleeing from the Red Keep.
The Hound: Hello, big brother. This is the very definition of fan service, so on the nose I am faintly embarrassed by this. Still: Step in the ring.
Cersei: Stay by me, Ser Gregor.
Ser Gregor: ... nah.
Qyburn: Somehow my death was not quite graphic enough.
Cersei: Can...I just...get by you there, guys? Just..let me..keep going down the stairs...Thanks, guys.
The map room is collapsing, seeing as how Dany on Drogon is just laying waste to the city, which is exactly what Tyrion didn’t want. (All over the internet, women who like this show are getting more annoyed by the second. Dany struggles to get power for years, then conveniently loses her mind just as she gets within spitting distance of the throne.)
Jaime and Cersei meet. For the first time in forever, Cersei seems vulnerable. One gets the impression she made zero plans for failure (which seems very Lannister).
Cersei: You're hurt.
Jaime: We’re toast, baby.
Cut to the massive Cleganebowl, the fight long wished for by many, many "Thrones" nerds. It is oddly underwhelming, as it is taking place in a very CGI locale.
This is a fight to the death. Hound stabs Mountain, Mountain pulls out the blade. Mountain tries to pull an Oberyn Martell on your boy and crush his head, "Kids in the Hall" style.
Hound: This is also fan service but [BEEP] it.
He and the Mountain crash through a wall into the fire below.
Cut to Jon.
Jon: We need to fall back because this suddenly looking like My Lai and I ain’t about that.
The Dothraki are slaughtering everyone. This is not what Jon wanted.
Cersei: Don't let me die, Jaime.
Jaime: Nothing else matters. Only us. *cues up Notorious BIG’s “Me and My Bitch”*
Biggie: “And then we lie together, cry together. I swear to God I hope we [BEEPIN'] die together."
The ceiling collapses, and just like that, Jaime and Cersei die in each other's arms, killed by...rocks.
It is, like so much of this season in general and this episode in particular, massively underwhelming.
Cut to Arya, covered in soot. She looks likes like Death. Or the bassist in a black metal outfit.
In case this was too subtle, she sees a pale horse and rides it out of the ruins of King’s Landing. It is one of the hackiest things the show has ever done (which is saying something).
Let me repeat that: She leaves her family to kill Cersei, perhaps the one person in the world she wants dead more than all of the other folks she wants dead, and, without knowing if her enemy is dead or alive or was able to escape or what, just...leaves.
Look, I am not someone who believes that art or entertainment or entertainment-acting-like-art has ANY obligation to "satisfy" fans. You make the thing you make, you release it into the world and people react to it as they will.
But the narrative laziness on display here is just straight-up rude.
It is hard not to notice how completely the writers have tossed the women characters under the proverbial bus. Rape has defined Sansa. Dany has liberated slaves, only to go “mad” when she is so close to the power she craves. Arya has gone from badass in the last episode to ... child running around in this one? Cersei doesn’t even get to go down swinging. Yeeeesh, fellas.
Dany has, as the kids say, done a war crime. Or ten. What is next for her?
Tyrion must know Dany is a mess now, right?
Jon still has the charisma of a well-laundered, white sports sock.
Has anyone considered democracy? As long as foreign powers don’t put their fingers on the scale, it is better than, say, feudalism. Will it come to Westeros?
Violence: Easy to embrace, hard to shake.