Count me among the chorus of disappointed from last night’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones — to be clear, you shouldn’t take anything I say here with a salt lick, much less a grain of salt. The show has never really been for me. I’ve found it at turns too cynical, too lurid, too inconsistent with itself, and in this way, I suppose the episode disappoints only in the way that it has done what it perhaps has always done. Certainly if we choose a literary criticism based on social justice it’s easy to find enough not to like: the show hasn’t expressed much love for women or people of color, and last night’s episode continues that tradition. (Anyone rolling up here to stammer, “B-but in the Middle uh Ages they–” gets Stormborned, or Stormburned? hella quick.) Certainly the show has long been in love with the Westworldian theme of violent delights have violent ends. So, in some ways, maybe last night’s episode slotted pretty well into what we’ve had, and what we’ve come to expect.
For me, the biggest challenge is the character arcs — so, as I did with Endgame, maybe it’s time to look at those a little bit. See it through that lens. Now, it’s clear that this show was always going to be a tragedy, and a tragedy in the truest theatrical sense, meaning, characters will not only be unable to surpass their flaws but will in fact Oedipally trip over their flaws in an effort to surmount them. The last couple seasons seemed to ease off the tragedy a little bit, suggesting that there might be some heroism in the outing — this is a show where the bad guys are Really, Really Bad, but have always Gotten Theirs in the end. At the same time, the show is what the show is: it is in no way out of its character that it wants to remind us that pretty much everyone here sucks in some capacity, particularly those in power (or those who want that power). But at the same time, last night’s episode fell apart for me. I was bored and bewildered through most of it? The pacing was hasty. It felt like we skipped a whole middle of a TV season to lurch drunkenly toward this moment, skipping at least a ream of character development. If you told me right now, “Oh, Chuck, it’s because you missed three episodes,” I would nod and go whew because that would make so much sense.
But so much of this felt unearned.
Anyway, let’s poke at it, see what twitches.
Oh, uh, there’s gonna be spoilers.
So let’s clear ourselves some spoiler space, this time with stuff cut from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Suppose that communal kitchen years to come perhaps. All trotting down with porringers and tommycans to be filled. Devour contents in the street. John Howard Parnell example the provost of Trinity every mother’s son don’t talk of your provosts and provost of Trinity women and children cabmen priests parsons fieldmarshals archbishops. From Ailesbury road, Clyde road, artisans’ dwellings, north Dublin union, lord mayor in his gingerbread coach, old queen in a bathchair. My plate’s empty. After you with our incorporated drinkingcup. Like sir Philip Crampton’s fountain. Rub off the microbes with your handkerchief. Next chap rubs on a new batch with his. Father O’Flynn would make hares of them all. Have rows all the same. All for number one. Children fighting for the scrapings of the pot. Want a souppot as big as the Phoenix park. Harpooning flitches and hindquarters out of it. Hate people all round you. City Arms hotel table d’hôte she called it. Soup, joint and sweet. Never know whose thoughts you’re chewing. Then who’d wash up all the plates and forks? Might be all feeding on tabloids that time. Teeth getting worse and worse.
After all there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth garlic of course it stinks after Italian organgrinders crisp of onions mushrooms truffles. Pain to the animal too. Pluck and draw fowl. Wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleaxe to split their skulls open. Moo. Poor trembling calves. Meh. Staggering bob. Bubble and squeak. Butchers’ buckets wobbly lights. Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam on sawdust. Top and lashers going out. Don’t maul them pieces, young one.
And, here we go.
Daenerys — Ahh, the Dragon Lady. I don’t know what to tell you here. She’s always had a whiff of the conqueror about her. Always had a temper. Was willing to be merciless and cruel in pursuit of her inevitable goal, a goal she felt was her birthright. She coupled that with a strong White Savior vibe, and has been routinely pulled back from the brink by her advisors. At the same time, this is a character who has been set up (I feel) a little bit to be the hero, or at least a villain you like more than the other villains, right? Characters in this series follow her willingly, not by Plot Convenience but because arguably she earned it. But in this one —
Whew, wow, yeah, we fast-forwarded through the growth of her madness, didn’t we? She went from being a little paranoid and purity-testy to suddenly, YEAH NEVER MIND I’MMA BURN THIS WHOLE FUCKING PLACE TO THE GROUND, ESPECIALLY THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN. Which feels cynical and lurid in a way that bypasses character development? Like, okay, there came that moment where the Red Keep army (or whoever the fuck they were) dropped their swords? And then tension over the bells and the bells ring and whew, yay, it’s over. I’d get her still just roasty-toasting the fuck out of that army. “You surrendered? Nah.” And Jon would be like, “But-but-but they surrendered, this is not honorable, woe.” Or some shit. Because Jon Snow knows nothing.
And I’d get her still going apeshit to burn down that Red Keep down to try to melt Cersei’s bones as revenge for Missandei. But what she does instead is just, I dunno. Ladies be cray? Is that the idea? It felt like the writers just really wanted to burn the city, so they were gonna burn the city — and it’s here where the characters feel like a pawn not in their own game, but rather, for the game of the show’s creators. “AND THEN SHE BURNS THE WHOLE CITY.” “But why?” “BECAUSE SHE BURNS THE WHOLE CITY.” “But that’s not a reason.” “SHE DOES IT BECAUSE IT’S COOL AND GROSS AND LADIES ARE CRAY, AM I RIGHT.” “Oh.”
Give us maybe another three episodes of her going mad, and we buy the Mad Queen.
Without that, not so much. Though again, from a tragedy standpoint, I suppose it tracks — she took the long road around being a Targaryen only to find herself back at being a Targaryen. Just know that someone who wanted that tragic turn could’ve made it work if they really, really wanted to.
Cersei — Another character just waylaid by… I dunno what. Mowed down by the plot, I guess. She’s probably dead. Maybe not — we didn’t see a body. But she’s reduced in this season and this episode to mostly being a pawn to men. We get no sense of who she is as a ruler (aka, the most interesting part). We get no sense of what the people think about her. Or what her acts were. And that’s unusual for a show that has been occasionally pretty granular as to how it treats these characters. It’s mostly just to stand there and have a smug, cold half-a-smile as she denies reality and then it’s over. She escapes, weeping, until Jamie comes to save her, and by save her, I mean, drag her to her death.
If you really wanted to tie a bow on their relationship and their lives — like, in the tragic sense — you have them both have to jump out a window to commit suicide. That’s the way, I think, because it would be the long lash of the whip biting them on the chin — the whip they cracked when Bran caught them Incestually Canoodling and they tossed his ass out a window. Maybe there’s something poetic in having a city fall on her, but it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt like it had no rhyme to it, no echo. That’s what I think storytellers are best at (and like the books or not, something it feels like GRRM is better at, as a storyteller): setting up these important echoes. Chekhov’s Gun is never about the gun — it’s about that the things you set up in act one are not random. The snake eventually bites its own tail. The echo goes down the cave and back. This felt like a snake without a tail at all.
Cersei’s one of the most manipulative, canny, cunning survivors. So it’ll be sad if this how she goes. Even if she remains alive it was hard to watch this vicious scorpion of a woman — smart, capable, the coldest of blood — to be reduced to someone who understands nothing of what has been wrought. Her end as seen so far is this:
She stares out the window until it’s over and time to go, and then she goes, and then she’s gone.
Jaime — I mean, I guess? Again if you’re really, really married to mining the raw tragedy in the truest sense, then his job is to be in thrall to Cersei and to die for her, or with her. I don’t know that this matches every beat they’ve given him over the last several seasons, and it cynically again suggests that his character growth was more an illusion, but it’s a statement. Not one I like, but again, I don’t know if this show has always been for me? I’ve railed at it as often as I’ve not. I watch it mostly to participate in the pop culture curiosity of it, and to unpack it from a storyteller’s POV. I am aware I might be the person who wants a dog but buys a duck and then is like, “BUT WHY THIS NOT DOG?”
Tyrion — was he always this stupid? And inconsistent? It feels like we rooted for him and the show has told us again and again how smart he is but this whole season he’s been a daft wanker. Maybe that’s his tragic arc but I don’t see it. Wouldn’t the tragic arc be him becoming like his father? Or him sodding off and being drunk again? Maybe they’ll go that way yet. We’ve one more episode, after all.
Jon — well at least Jon is consistent as hell. His character beats consist of, “Is there a battle? Then I will wander around it, mostly confused as the battle passes me by, and I will have no impact upon it.” I think Jon’s actually just a ghost? His inability to impact his surroundings is legendary. But, don’t worry, he’ll fail upwards, the Electable Man instead of the Crazy Emotional Lady Who Is Probably On Her Dragon Period Or Something. I swear to hell if the show elevates him over Sansa, I’ll — well, I’ll not be the least bit surprised but I will be very disappointed. (Actually, that’s probably the theme of what I feel over this episode: “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”)
Varys — was he always this stupid, too? Well, now he’s dead, oh well, the end.
Arya — maybe the only character beat of the night I cared much about, though perhaps one a little torturous in its exectuion. . A character who had a list and was sticking to it to suddenly bail on that list? It’s a marked development, and one that suggests she isn’t going to get caught in the Tragic Cycle. Though apparently one that will also try to trample her, literally, for that decision.
Clegane — I suppose it’s always been leading to this, but for some reason I found it kinda boring? Like, oh, he’s gonna fight his undead-who-gives-a-fuck brother now? Cool, sure. Oh, it’s going to take like, 15 minutes? All right. Oh, I see, they fell into fire, I get it, okay. It works on paper, but for some reason I found it really weirdly unsatisfying? Like, that’s it, huh? His tragic circle is closed, but meh?
Euron — Euron is a half-ass Ramsey Snow, an over-photocopied blueprint of the the model of men on the show who are just brutal dick-focused sadists in power. His arc was less an arc and more a hole in the ground: there was no character there, nobody to care about except as a guy you want to see dead, and now he’s dead. Yay, I guess. The fight scene was kinda sad, the result not particularly satisfying, though I can’t say it was necessarily narratively inappropriate? It just didn’t do much for me. Bye, Euron, you sea-brined fuck-bag.
The Night-King — ha ha remember that guy, remember how the show was all like WINTER IS COMING for eight seasons and then winter came and Arya teleported out of the darkness and stabbed winter and now that shit is over I guess?
Is that it? I think that’s it. I’m probably missing something. Mostly I watched last night’s episode through narrowed eyes — again, not mad, just disappointed. Like, really? Really. Okay? Okay. That? This? Huh. Hnh. Ultimately it’s ending up a show that has perhaps misread a cultural moment, and it’s mostly just giving us more of what we already know: dumb men failing upward, the fear of foreign interlopers, the unelectable madness of women. But even if you don’t care about that stuff, it’s hard (for me) to see how this is narratively satisfying in what ended up a clumsily-paced sloppy sprint toward the end. Like watching a drunk prune a Bonsai tree.
(BTW, I’m sure there will be like, four or five YouTube videos from a handful of clown-dicks about how I’m being disrespectful to the story or that my take on this is proof that I can’t write, so really, let me just say again: I’m not super-invested in this show, it’s not really for me, you shouldn’t take anything I say here particularly seriously. This is very, very YMMV. It’s just, from my storyteller perspective, the shit just didn’t hang together.)