Warning: contains spoilers about episode 5 of series 8.
Is it clutching at straws to suggest that, given the increasing criticism swirling around the final series of Game of Thrones, its creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have been engaged in a cunning meta-game with its audience? After all, a key theme has been the danger of believing in false idols: what has the jarring conversion of Daenerys from wannabe People’s Princess to rabid megalomaniac been about other than that? But perhaps the show itself has also been subject to a surfeit of devotion.
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An entertaining fantasy series raised to the level of global news event, it was always likely to buckle under the weight of the expectations – and the theorising – placed upon it. Certainly, last week’s episode inspired a fan backlash that felt dangerously decisive: from the anger at the cursory slaughter of one of the only significant black characters, Missandei, to the now boiling-over irritation at its increasingly rushed pacing, there was a real sense of betrayal in much of the ensuing commentary.
Sadly, this penultimate instalment confirms that Game of Thrones may be about to end its once illustrious existence in ignominy, alongside its diminished protagonist, the Queen of Dragons. Indeed, it’s possible that the show, for all its years of once careful world-building, may come to be remembered for her altogether ruinous decision in this episode – to lay waste to King’s Landing and its citizens, despite their surrender to her, as signalled by the bells of this episode’s title. Abjectly deranged as it is on her part, it is a narrative turn that speaks even more of Benioff and Weiss’s own wrong-headedness.
In the lead up to that fateful moment, as Dany is gearing up for her assault on Cersei Lannister and the Iron Throne, we see other key characters finally, definitively sacrificed to the show’s scrambled plotting. Firstly, there’s Tyrion, who in the episode’s opening minutes, dobs in Varys to his queen after he hears the ever-crafty eunuch, armed with the knowledge of Jon’s true parentage, unsuccessfully trying to persuade Mr Snow to pursue his ruling claim. Tyrion then apologises to Daenerys for his “mistake” in having shared this revelation with his old conspiratorial buddy.
That’s right: we are meant to believe that the Imp genuinely thought he could divulge such pivotal information to a man known as ‘The Master of Whisperers’, without there being consequences for the mistress to whom he is still loyal. It is just the latest humiliating degradation of a character, who was once the show’s Machiavellian lynchpin, into an unguarded fool. Varys is promptly despatched by Drogon’s flames, but it is Tyrion who is truly left burnt by the script.
Once this was a show that intelligently delineated a senseless world; now, truly, it is just nonsense
And talking of convenient stupidity, there is poor Jaime – who last week, of course, decided to backtrack on his whole redemptive narrative arc to leave new flame Brienne of Tarth behind and come to his twisted sister-lover’s aid. Now we find him captured by Dany’s forces, after apparently deciding he could simply ride back into the citadel through enemy lines – not even bothering to conceal his signature golden prosthetic arm in the process.
Anyway, it’s all fine, because Tyrion manages to sneakily release him so he can try to persuade Cersei to give up the ghost. In what turns out to be a farewell scene between the brothers, we hear Jaime claim he cares not a jot for the potential obliteration of the citizens of King’s Landing – despite his life having been defined by his killing of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, in their defence all those years ago. But then, within an instant, he is also converted from his belief that there is no point trying to persuade his sister to stand down, into deciding that this is exactly what he will do. Once this was a show that intelligently delineated a senseless world; now, truly, it is just nonsense.
But all this is nothing compared to Dany’s full-throttle transition into her father’s demented daughter – a twist that was not unpredictable, based on her trajectory in recent episodes, yet now it’s happened, still feels thoroughly unearned. Her hardening into an unconscious tyrant, prepared to sacrifice innocents in her delusional belief that her quest for power served a greater good, was not beyond the bounds of credibility. But to turn her into a full-blooded psychopath, who ignores the capitulation of her potential subjects, and wilfully destroys them instead? After her clear obsession with being some kind of saviour figure? It feels like a complete ceding of characterisation to the necessities of creating an admittedly spectacular final set-piece. It also means that the scenes of mass slaughter, as the denizens of King’s Landing are variously burnt to a crisp by Drogon from above or slaughtered on the ground, are particularly nauseating. Game of Thrones has never been less than Grand Guignol gory, of course, but this simply comes off as a cynical, concluding reiteration of its USP.
And what a shame that, in the final reckoning, the show doesn’t give Cersei Lannister anything like her due. For most of the episode, she is stuck surveying the encroaching havoc from her tower – and then, when that edifice crumbles, she is denied the kind of climactic showdown that her profound villainy has always merited. In the end, despite long-time fan predictions, neither Jaime kills her, nor Arya: the latter is seemingly set up to do so, but reneges on her kill-list mission at the last minute on the advice of long-time love-hate buddy The Hound, who persuades her there’s more to life than revenge. Instead, the Lannister matriarch apparently dies alongside Jaime, as they are crushed trying to escape the castle through an underground tunnel. It is an unceremonious, and frankly uninteresting, end for one of the show’s most compelling characters.
There is one more episode to go, and possibly something to play for. But, by the end of this 90 minutes, as the ash settled, it is difficult not to feel one was looking at the charred remains of an era-defining television show’s integrity. Or have we fans, like the dopey faithful Jon Snow (who barely merits a mention at this stage, with his off-the-peg nobility and single furrow-browed expression) always been blinded by a sense of loyalty that it simply never merited? Benioff has declared he plans “to be very drunk and very far from the internet” for next week’s finale. Some of his audience may feel the need to follow suit.
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