I actually liked this episode a lot more than I have the last few. It had its issues but I thought it was better paced, had more naturalistic character moments, and brought the plot back to the kinds of storytelling that, broadly speaking, made it work.
And the episode isn’t without its problems. There’s a weird amount of casual misogyny in it, some of which seems like deliberate commentary (like the way Tormund and the Northmen are celebrating what an awesome dudebro Jon Snow is for fighting to defend them and how badass it is that he rode on dragonback, while Dany looks on and is clearly all, like guys, I have been doing that for years, it is literally my whole thing) but some of which seems just out of left field and kind of pointless, like the hound randomly bringing up how Sansa got “broken in hard” by Ramsay Bolton. Which particularly stood out because the Hound usually isn’t interested in talking about that kind of thing.
But before I get into the nitpicks and the difficult politics stuff that I am in no way qualified to talk about, I should probably explain my broadly positive reaction.
Mostly, the answer is fairly simple: stuff happened in it. I mean yes, last episode the entire Army of the Dead was destroyed, but that was always kind of going to be a formality, whereas this episode we legitimately got the aftermath of the battle, an effective but efficient sendoff for the characters who died last week, a reasonable sense of the plans for the forthcoming fight against Cersei, a decent helping of political intrigue, the loss of one of our two remaining dragons (Qyburn comes through) and a cheap but affecting character death. And I know every previous episode had people who loved it, and maybe I’m just part of the short attention span entitled millennial generation but I want ninety minutes of TV to give me forward movement on both plot and character, ideally on multiple fronts, and I thought this episode did that in a way the last three episodes didn’t.
Where to begin? Because the structure of this episode is more like the classic structure of a GoT episode (people are geographically together but their plots are thematically separating now the dead are defeated) it probably makes most sense to go character by character, starting small.
Smallest of all: Ghost!
So he’s being sent to the Wall with Tormund Giantsbane? Which means after everybody wondering if he’d died at the Battle of Winterfell, the canonical answer from the show is literally that he’s been sent to live on a big farm upstate with a nice family? I mean I’m not really a pets person so I think this affected me less than it did others, but I understand some people are super upset about it. Because ghost is a good doggy. Yes he is. He is. Oh yes he is.
A little less small, Brienne and Jaime. The episode starts off with a genuinely affecting scene were Jaime, Brienne and Tyrion playing the drinking game that Tyrion introduces in S2 where you guess a fact about a person and they drink if you’re right and you drink if you’re wrong. This proceeds happily until Tyrion turns to Brienne with the statement “you’re a virgin”, which is a subject that Brienne, who has spent her whole life being made to feel inferior because of the way she looks, is deeply sensitive about (although it has been pointed out that she’s also an unmarried noblewoman in a medieval setting so being a virgin is … kind of expected of her?). Jaime defends her but it basically wrecks the evening. And I’ve seen some people complaining that this is out of character for Tyrion and is part of a trend of casual sexism on the show, but (and I’m very much out of my lane on this one, at least as regards the gender politics, I’m more in my lane on the question of Tyrion’s character) to me it read as fairly plausible and better handled than some other elements of the series. Tyrion is clever, but he’s not exactly a woke bae, and like a lot of clever people he will often say hurtful things without thinking about the impact because he’s more interest in sounding witty than protecting other people’s feelings.
Anyway, Jaime and Brienne totally bang, and weirdly this scene bothered me more than the previous one because Jaime in particular is clearly totally wasted. Like this is one of those situations where naive gender reversal is something you have to use cautiously, but if a female character had been that drunk going into a sex scene it would have raised some really difficult consent issues. And don’t get me wrong, I am a Jaienne (Brieaime?) shipper, but I really wish he’d been more sober. Afterwards Tyrion asks Jaime a clearly horrible question about Brienne’s genitals, which Jaime once again shuts him down on and, again, people are suggesting this is out of character for Tyrion, but we’re talking about a man who strangled his lover with his bare hands, on screen. He’s never exactly had a non-problematic attitude to women, and I didn’t feel like the show was validating that here.
Weirdly, Jaime then runs out on Brienne when he gets word from King’s Landing, and he makes this big speech about how he belongs with Cercei because he’s a very very bad man and … it’s kind of odd. It doesn’t help that the show lost all sense of time after about Season Six, so it’s not clear whether this is happening the very next night (which it’s shot to look like) or about a month later (which it would logically be if they’ve had time to get an entire army to the other end of the continent). It also doesn’t help that Jaime basically as good as says he’s going to King’s Landing to be with Cersei, even though it seems more emotionally plausible that he’d be going there to confront Cersei. So either he’s completely jettisoned all of his character development and is going to turn heel for no reason, or he’s decided that he has to be part of the final battle in which his sister might die (which is fair, she’s his twin sister who he also used to have sex with, that is a relationship you want closure on) but then inexplicably decided to express this to Brienne in the most misleading way possible. And there’s a fan theory that he was saying this to protect her feelings or to make sure she wouldn’t follow him but … umm … has he met Brienne? What about her would make him think that she would have any problem with his saying “I wish I could stay with you, but Cersei is my twin sister and my former lover and I have to be there when it ends, your place is here with Sansa because you literally swore an oath to protect her”. Its either a total character reversal, or misdirection for the sake of misdirection, and neither of those are things I especially like.
Next up is Arya, who has a relatively small part in this episode, which is fair enough since she’s already had her big moment. And I like how absent she is from all the celebration here: she’s been through absolute hell the last seven-and-a-half seasons (much like all of her siblings) and has been far more isolated from the world than anybody except Bran (and even he had Hodor and the Reeds with him for most of his journey), so I like that in this episode she and the Hound just ride off into the snow together as two stone killers who can never really go back. Early in the episode, Daenerys declares Gendry the Lord of the Stormlands (Tyrion then immediately explains in an aside why this was a clever thing for her to do, and she acknowledges that she was clever to do it—it’s not totally unfair to suggest that show isn’t quite as subtle as it used to be) and then almost immediately afterwards Gendry asks Arya to marry him and be Lady of Storm’s End, at which point she reprises the that’s not me speech she gives Ned in the first series when he talks about how one day she’ll marry a fine lord and have his sons. And I feel ambivalent about this. On the one hand, fair play to Arya for sticking to her guns, on the other hand I feel the callback is … odd. Because while I can completely see why little-girl Arya didn’t want to get married and have babies, and I can completely see why grown-up Arya doesn’t want to get married and have babies, I feel like they’re actually quite different things. Young Arya didn’t want to be a lady because she wanted to go out and fight with swords and have adventures. Old Arya doesn’t want to be a lady because she’s a literal trained assassin who puts people’s children in pies (but then doesn’t wait for them to eat said pie before doing the big reveal—she’s come so far, she has so far to go). I feel like treating the two things the same undercuts some of her character growth.
Of course the other Stark kid who’s come a long way over the series is Sansa. And I really, really enjoy Sansa in the later seasons. And in the earlier seasons for that matter. Like there’s a bit of a wobble in Season 3 where she’s not doing a huge amount but other than that she’s been the best thing in the show for a good long while. Also I’d happily watch close-ups of Sophie Turner’s “I am conflicted yet also shrewd and increasingly manipulative” face for basically ever. This episode does open with that really creepy encounter with the Hound, and that then goes to an even more problematic place when he points out that none of the shit that happened to Sansa would have happened if she’d just left King’s Landing with him in Season 2, and she responds by saying that without everything that happened to her she’d have “remained a little bird forever.” And ugh … just … no. And this is where it does feel like it’s a TV show problem rather than flawed characters or endemic features of the realistically sexist society of Westeros problem. The last few episodes have had a big “everything has brought you here / this is destiny / you are where you need to be” vibe which I’ve always had a bit of an issue with (I very much side with #mahboiStannis in, I think, Season 3 when he tells Davos “the good doesn’t wash out the bad, nor the bad the good”—Theon burned children alive and helped Sansa escape Winterfell, Jaime pushed a child out of a window and rescued Brienne; if you do something unforgivable and something laudable, that doesn’t mean you didn’t do the unforgivable thing) but this is probably its most pernicious manifestation.
For a start, “female character gets sexually abused and becomes badass as a consequence” is a very common and deeply problematic trope. And when explicitly compared positively to the possibility of her “staying a little bird forever” in a series that has always somewhat valorised the hyper-masculine culture of the North and the Wildlings over the effeminacy of King’s Landing it’s … yeah, it’s very very difficult. Like the Tyrell women were all awesome (until they get blown up or poisoned), they didn’t need to get abused to get that way.
Also, something I’ve been increasingly bothered by as I’ve progressed through my rewatch: how the hell did Sansa wind up getting raised the way she was raised in the first place? She seems to be, like, the only girl in the North who was raised to favour traditionally feminine pursuits. Lyanna Mormont is a warrior, as was her mother before her (and that isn’t even a show invention, as far as I know), and her namesake Lyanna Stark was a horse riding sword-fighting badass who might have actually entered the Tourney at Harrenhall in disguise and beaten fully trained knights in the joust. And a lot of those women are singled out as exceptional but we don’t see a single woman from the North except Sansa who is remotely interested in balls, embroidery, or court. Was Catelyn just really, really controlling? Or maybe you only get to do that stuff if you’re a brunette.
Anyway, apart from that, Sansa is great this episode and all the episodes. She seems to be pretty much the only person in the entire thing who is actually interested in running a kingdom effectively. Her keen governmental insight for this episode being hey, maybe don’t march your armies the entire length of a continent when they’ve just fought an apocalyptic war against the dead? Seriously, just make her queen and Jon and Dany can run off to bang in Qarth or something.
Whiiiich … brings us to Jon and Dany. And by extension to Varys and Tyrion. I don’t know how I feel about a lot of this. The part of me that is still giving the show the benefit of the doubt, deconstruction-wise, kind of likes that we see Jon Snow getting all the credit for the victory over the dead despite Arya getting the killshot and Daenerys being at least as much of a part of the battle as Jonny-boy (particularly when what Jon is getting praised for is mostly how awesome it was that he rode a dragon). On the other hand, Daenerys is increasingly looking like she’ll be a terrible ruler. Actually scratch that, it’s probably better to say it’s looking increasingly like we’re being invited to wonder if Dany might be a terrible ruler (or indeed go full Mad Queen, which is the ending the internet is increasingly predicting), when if you’ve paid any attention as we’ve gone along it’s fairly clear that she’s always been a terrible ruler. Not, I should stress, any worse than basically any other ruler we’ve seen, but certainly not such an obviously great ruler that I could ever understand why the Tyrions and Varyses of this world were so keen to throw in with her.
This is difficult for a number of reasons. One thing that’s making it difficult is that while I’m a big fan of messing with tropes, I think you have to be a bit careful about messing with too many tropes at once, especially when things start getting, y’know, gendered. There’ve been a lot of trope subversions in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark was a subversion of the lone honourable man who stands up to a corrupt system and triumphs. Robb Stark was a subversion of a revenge narrative. Angry internet commentators have turned “subverting expectations” into a meme after recent events but the show has absolutely always been about subverting expectations, and while I do think the twists in the early seasons were more grounded in the setting, I don’t think they were any less made for shock value than having Arya kill the Night King.
The trope that having Dany turn out to be good at conquering but bad at leading would be messing with is the general assumption in fantasy literature that the skills required to overthrow a bad ruler are the same as the skills required to be a good ruler yourself. The thing is, that trope is usually embodied in a male character (Aragorn being the classic example), and doing it with a female character and also having her turn out to be a shit ruler prone to emotional outbursts and utterly unfit for the throne winds up feeling a little problematic. It gets even more problematic because we seem suddenly to be having people decide that Jon Snow would be a fantastic king based on … nothing? I mean they’ve been doing this for a long time, he got proclaimed King in the North at the end of … shit was it season six? And to be fair here Jon and Dany’s arcs have both been largely characterised by people giving them things they didn’t earn and giving them credit for things other people did, which is kind of how fantasy heroes work. Still it feels a bit like a double standard.
One of the things I often feel when the ending of something seems to be less good than the beginning is that the problem isn’t actually with the end as much as it’s with the setup. For example I felt that the reason the battle against the Night King felt unsatisfying was less that Arya bamfed out of nowhere and stabbed him in the dick than that they’d spent eight seasons really pushing two key facts about the army of the dead, those being:
- The army of the dead is too numerous and magically empowered to be defeated by a conventional army.
- Their strategy for defeating it is building a very large conventional army.
There was no good way for that to play out. If they just kind of had a big battle and won that would have felt anticlimactic, but if the Night King had been taken out by some kind of McGuffin, big ritual or prophesied saviour, that would have undercut the entire coalition-building schtick that Jon Snow has been doing this whole time, as well as the whole broader theme of the petty squabbling for the throne distracting people from the wider threat (because if all you need to do to defeat the apocalypse is wait for the messiah to show up then … yeah, you might as well focus on other stuff).
The point here being that often the reason an ending feels unsatisfying is because the foundations it’s building on didn’t leave any room for it to be satisfying. And this is kind of what I feel the real problem is with Dany’s “Mad Queen” arc in S8 really is.
Once Jon tells Sansa and Arya about his heritage (a lot of people are bothered, incidentally, that we don’t see their reactions to this information which … honestly didn’t bother me), Sansa passes that information on to Tyrion as a way of undercutting Dany’s claim to the throne. And again a lot of people are bugged that this is basically her next scene, and we get no shots of her wrestling with the question of whether to break her word, but … well … can’t we just take all that as read? We’ve been following these characters for a decade, Sophie Turner in particular is really good at portraying a complex sequence of emotional reasoning using only her face. We know why she makes the call she makes without needing to spend additional screentime on it. Anyway, Sansa tells Tyrion and Tyrion tells Varys and this leads to a conversation between two of Dany’s most trusted advisors where they debate whether to sell out Daenerys in favour of Jon. Tyrion is broadly pro-loyalty while Varys is broadly pro-betrayal, but listening to the arguments they make, it seems like they’re both weirdly convinced that Jon Snow would make a great king.
Leaving aside the problematically gendered elements of this (some of which are explicitly recognised as part of the setting—Varys points out that the Lords of Westeros would be more likely to accept a male ruler “cocks are important” as he puts it) the issue here seems to be that Tyrion and Varys jump ship from Daenerys for no clear reason. But I kind of feel that the issue is really that they threw in with Daenerys for no reason in the first place. Tyrion flees across the Narrow Sea in season—four I think it is? And he gets this really intense speech off Varys that Daenerys is this amazing ruler but it’s pretty clear even then that she just very much is not. By any objective standard her strategy in Slaver’s Bay is as brutal as the one in Westeros, if not more so (I mean not wishing to state the obvious, but she doesn’t talk about crucifying anybody in King’s Landing), and her understanding of the nuances and realities of rulership as tenuous.
And in some ways the problems go deeper than that. Varys a couple of big speeches in series seven and eight about how he only cares for the people of the Seven Kingdoms, which is why he has no loyalty to any particular king. The problem is that this … definitely isn’t true. At the start of the series Varys is supporting Viserys (Dany even points this out to him in season seven) despite the fact that Robert is a perfectly reasonable monarch while Viserys is sadistic and unstable. And while you could argue that Varys didn’t know how bad Viserys truly was (which was how he defended the decision when Dany lampshaded it), surely if he cared about the common folk that would be a devil-you-know situation. Then there’s the fact that he not only knew about but actively orchestrated the plan for Viserys to arrive with an army of Dothraki, who would absolutely devastate the countryside during the conquest. That is not remotely compatible with him caring about the common people.
The reason for this is that in the book Varys has a whole big master plan involving either the real Aegon Targaryen (son of Rhaegar Targaryen, rescued by Varys before his apparent death at the hands of the Mountain) or a fake Aegon Targaryen (set up by Varys and Illario to be king of the Seven Kingdoms). But for very good reasons the showrunners decided that this was one twist too many (I kind of wish they’d made the same call with Euron Greyjoy, he just came in too late to be anything but weird and slightly out of place). But without his master plan, Varys’s actions in the early seasons make no sense, and pivoting him to this man of the people schtick really doesn’t work. And this kind of thing was always going to happen when you start adapting a long-running novel series for TV before the books are finished. Varys is an iconic character in the early seasons and the early novels, but because the things he does later in the books wouldn’t translate well to TV his presence in the show never quite pays off.
There’s a lot of this stuff when you start looking for it, bits and pieces that only really make sense if they’re setting up for other bits and pieces that wound up being cut (Beric Dondarrion seems primarily there as setup for Lady Stoneheart, for example, which for the non-book-readers out there is when Catelyn Stark gets resurrected as a vengeful fire zombie by the Lord of Light). There are only really three solutions to this. The first is to cut nothing, but that would not only make the series even longer and borderline impossible to follow (does anybody think the show would really have been improved if another pretender to the Iron Throne had shown up in series five?) it would also rely on the books being finished before the series wrapped up, and that hasn’t happened. The second option is to cut heavily from the outset, but again that kind of relies on the books being finished so that you can get a clear overview from the beginning of what parts of the story you want to adapt for television and what parts you don’t. The only really feasible option left is the one we got, which was to stay relatively faithful to the books at the start so you can hedge your bets about what will wind up mattering as things move towards a conclusion, and then start cutting more deeply as you reach the end and start getting a clearer idea of where the whole story is going.
Anyway, Varys and Tyrion talk about how Jon might make a better ruler than Dany, and Varys suggests that the fact that Jon doesn’t want to be king might make him uniquely qualified to be king.
This is … this is not a sentiment I agree with. I can see it in a less complicated story, and one with less of a grounding in brutal medieval realpolitik (yes, realpolitik is a decidedly post-medieval concept, but you get the idea). Heck, it’s basically what Aslan says to Caspian at the end of Prince Caspian (pedant alert: he actually says that if Caspian had felt himself ready to be king it would have been proof that he was not), and it’s the principle behind the Man in the Shack in the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I sort of feel that this epic gritty political drama needs to have a more nuanced understanding of power structures and kingship than a children’s book or a satirical space opera. Because actually we’ve seen several times in the series that not wanting to be king makes you a bad king, because being king is actually a job, and there are important things you need to do. I mean I suppose you could make the case that a king who completely ignores the throne and spends their time hunting or engaging in personal heroics at least isn’t doing any active harm, but at that point you’re just transitioning from monarchy to an unelected oligarchy, and even if the only thing the king does is hand over the stewardship of his realm to advisors, well, he still needs to pick good advisors, and that’s still a leadership skill that I’m not convinced Jon possesses. I mean mostly he likes his friends? Who would he make Master of Coin, Tormund? Well I suppose at least the crown would never run out of milk.
Anyway, Dany and Jon sail-slash-march south to Dragonstone, where they are ambushed by Euron Greyjoy and Qyburn’s new improved artillery, who shoot down Rhaegon and wreck Dany’s fleet. A lot of people are annoyed about this scene because the scorpions (the big crossbow things) are unrealistically powerful but I honestly don’t mind. I’m not a huge fan of the “it’s fantasy so things don’t have to make sense” line of reasoning, but I do think it’s a bit odd that people are bothered about the physics of giant crossbows but aren’t bothered about the physics of dragons. A lot of people insist that the difference here is that dragons are magic, but there’s no indication in either Game of Thrones or … well … any other dragon-related medium that dragons fly by magic (to be mega, mega nerdy for a second, I’ve never known a D&D DM to rule that they can’t fly in an antimagic field). They have wings, and they fly by flapping those wings the way a bat or a bird would, which shouldn’t work by any realistic model of aerodynamics. But if they’re actually held up by some kind of magical force, then that raises far more questions than it answers—does that mean, for example, that dragons are telekinetic? If so, why do we never see dragon-telekinesis? Dragons can fly because flying is the sort of thing that dragons do, and I’d argue that claiming there’s a specific in-world magical explanation for how they fly (especially in a setting that isn’t especially clear about how its magic works) is disingenuous. Dragons can fly because they’re dragons. Qyburn can make dragon-killing weapons because he’s evil Leonardo da Vinci. To me they do both rely on the same genre-based suspension of disbelief.
Also, Cersei has known for like two seasons that she’s eventually going to have to fight an army that has dragons, so Qyburn has spent that time designing weapons to kill dragons. Jon Snow found out in season one that he would eventually have to fight an army that had White Walkers, and everything he learned about how to kill White Walkers he discovered by accident (Sam stabs one with dragonglass to protect Gilly, Jon stabs one with Valyrian steel at Hardholme, they witness the kill-the-walker-kill-the-wights effect as a side effect of going wight-hunting in Beyond the Wall). Qyburn is the best. #qyburnminionoftheyear.
Although I was fine with Rhaegon getting shot out of the air, I couldn’t help but notice that this was, what, the third time that Euron Greyjoy’s fleet has appeared out of nowhere and demolished Dany’s allies (burning Grey Worm’s ships while he was taking Casterly Rock, capturing Ellaria sand and Yara Greyjoy as they traveled to Dorne, and this). I mean I know that when all you have is a hammer every problem starts to look like a nail, but seriously Dany just needs to stop travelling by sea. You can march over land, guys, it’s slower but it’s safer.
And of course when Euron attacks Dany’s fleet he also somehow captures Missandei and this just winds up being problematic however you slice it (although as ever this isn’t really my issue to talk about). There’s the whole weird thing where they put her in chains so they can be all like “where is your the breaker of chains now” to Dany, but … do they know she used to be a slave? Are they just assuming that because she’s black? Again, I’ve pointed this out in previous articles but slavery in Essos isn’t race-based, for all they know she’s just a free woman from Volantis who Dany hired to act as her translator. I’m also not super clear how they know that she’s personally important to Daenerys—in Westerosi culture the only hostages that are assumed to have any value are direct blood relatives.
Then of course there’s the … difficult broader context. It certainly doesn’t help that the Dothraki were the first casualties of the war against the Night King, then Missandei was the first (non-dragon) casualty of the war against Cersei. And it certainly certainly doesn’t help that the motivation in both cases seems to have been the furthering of Dany’s character arc. The plot beats definitely seem to have been presented as “things Dany has lost” (her Dothriaki, her trusted advisors, her dragons) rather than “people who have died following Dany”, and that’s one thing when it’s Jorah Mormont—it’s not like the series is short on Westerosi noblemen who have agency in their own stories—it’s another thing when it’s Missandei or a hundred thousand unnamed Dothraki.
I did still mostly enjoy the episode, although I appreciate that a lot of people will be far more bothered than I am about its various issues. I will add that Varys’s plan to take King’s Landing seems to be to lay in a siege, which presumably involves trying to run the city out of food. At which point I should also remind everybody that if they can’t survive a siege, they won’t survive a five year winter either.