So it turns out a one-dragon lead is more than enough. In the world-changing second-to-last episode of “Game of Thrones” Sunday night (spoiler alert), a temperate city was taken, an ice queen finally fell, and the show’s creators more than made up for all those major characters escaping improbably with their lives in the preceding episodes.
Yes, Daenerys lost two of her three precious dragons in the run-up to Sunday’s final battle for the Iron Throne. But it was nonetheless relatively easy for Dany and her allied forces -- northmen, Unsullied, a smattering of Dothraki, and, of course, one ginormous flying lizard with a very bad case of halitosis -- to take King’s Landing.
What was harder was for Dany to do the thing everybody had feared she wouldn’t be able to do: win with restraint. Claim the victory without an accompanying touchdown dance of fire and mayhem.
Her torching of enemy soldiers and commoners alike, even after she had heard the pealing bells of surrender, put her firmly onto the Touched by Madness side of the Targaryen family history book. And all those decent folk who had aligned with her got to watch in horror as their queen caused a holocaust, mostly just for show.
In Sunday’s scenario, a Starbucks cup out of time would have been welcome relief. Instead, major characters died right and left, in manners ranging from execution to hand-to-hand combat to building collapse to mutual tower plunge. Most of these passings, it must be said, seemed fitting and satisfactory, from the long-promised Clegane Bowl to the final face touches of Lannister Family Fun.
And when it was all over, when the flames had settled and ash flakes fell like you imagine in the aftermath of Hiroshima or a hellfire, there was a new queen ascendant.
But what had really been won? In next week’s series finale, Daenerys Targaryen will presumably take her long-coveted Iron Throne, and she can add to her long list of titles, “Incinerator of Innocents.” In fact, it probably ought to be first and in all caps. And her lieutenants will have to reckon with the Pompeii-after-the-volcano tableau she created.
Before Drogon comes roaring down my street to also teach me, for at least a few brief seconds, to fear my rulers, let’s dig deeper for 5 thoughts on “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 5, the One in Which Dany Finally Figured Out How Dragons Work:
1. On the one hand, Cersei is gone, seemingly forever, hooray! It was hugely satisfying to see Ms. Lannister witnessing her defenses disappearing around her from her tower perch, watching the interloper Daenerys win. She was so stunned she didn’t even bother to watch with her constant companion, the jumbo pour of pinot noir.
Through the years the show kept asking us to feel sympathy for this woman, who, after all, only ever wanted to provide a good, ridiculously privileged life for the children she and her twin brother created.
And, yeah, there were a few pangs Sunday as Jaime got to her and they stared into each other’s eyes and petted each other’s faces as the impregnable Red Keep crumbled around and finally onto them. (Major deaths Nos. 1 and 2, although we presume this, but did not see it. They are dead, right? No big surprise next week of Jaime and Cersei rowing into the morning sun on that boat Tyrion had promised them, right?)
These are good actors who’ve carried us along on their journey, however twisted. Heck, a lot of us even bought the theory that Jaime, who showed tantalizing flashes of nobility, wasn’t returning to King’s Landing to try to help Cersei but to kill her. So very wrong. He did managed to dispense with the deadly seafaring peacock Euron (Major death No. 3) en route to his sister, but the plan was always to be by her side. Brienne is better off without him.
And Cersei deserved everything she got and then some. At every opportunity during the show’s eight seasons, don’t forget, she sacrificed innocents to protect her family and its power.
But she did not go out like a lamb. In defeat, she also managed to win. By killing Missandei last week, by placing common folk alongside her troops for their “protection,” she helped goad Daenerys into the unnecessary slaughter that will stain her name forever, by which I mean until George RR Martin finally finishes that last book.
2. On the other hand, um, long live the new queen, hurrah? There’s a lot of shock in TV land at the behavior of Daenerys, who we watched grow from an abused child bride into a woman with great regal qualities and a throbbing sense of royal entitlement -- with several stops along the way at decency toward regular people, if not an outright endorsement of socialism.
But as we were reminded time and again, most recently by Lord Varys in Sunday’s episode, the family chapter devoted to “equanimity” is not the longest. Yes, her brother, Jon Snow’s father, was a good Targaryen, at least up until his young death. But more typical was their father, who earned the nickname “Mad King” for his own human incineration issues.
And events conspired to push Dany into Column Madness. Despite her sacrifices for them in the North, the people of Westeros did not love her and would, at best, fear her, she fretted. Her top aides, in one way or another, plotted against her, she found out.
Worse of all, her lover Mr. Snow turned out to be her secret nephew with a stronger claim to the throne PLUS he had the people’s admiration PLUS he betrayed her by failing to shut up about his birthright PLUS he wouldn’t honor Targaryen tradition and continue to love-love her despite their familiality.
“All right then,” she said in a great and chilling line, after Jon halted Sunday’s smooching. “Let it be fear.”
What was a poor Mother of Dragons to do? At first, it was mostly triumphant stuff as she finally figured out this dragon-attack thing: She went after Euron’s ships by surprise from behind. She snuck up on the King’s Landing defenses and obliterated them before they could get a decent shot at her steed Drogon.
Still, however carefully the show had set it up, it was shocking when you saw the dark light go on in Dany’s eyes as she ignored the bells of peace that Tyrion had worked so hard to make ring out and began a fresh round of, by that point, superfluous dragon assaults. (Side question for medieval physicists: How do dragons consume enough calories to generate so much flame? I’ll hang up and wait for my answer off-air.)
It was more shocking still when you realized Dany wasn’t just going to go after the Red Keep in order to add injury to Cersei’s insult. She was going to execute Plan Fear: Torch the streets and rule from a seat of terror.
It may be sound political strategy, given her diminishing options. But there was a bit of -- what’s the word? -- overkill.
3. Team Dany is in tatters, which should make next week’s denouement fascinating. Tyrion, who makes a dangerous habit of hoping for the best from monarchs, kept saying “she is my queen,” even as Varys argued Daenerys could not be trusted. Tyrion tried in so many ways to keep faith in her, even to the point of turning in the plotting Varys, whom Dany summarily executed for treason (M.D. No. 4).
“I hope I deserve this. Truly I do,” Varys said in his last words. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Narrator: He was not wrong.
Jon (aka Aegon Targaryen) kept professing his love for Dany (but no longer in that way), kept insisting that his bent knee would remain bent, that he had no interest in claiming the throne that was, aw shucks, rightfully his.
But both men had betrayed her by spreading the family secret as if engaged in a middle-school game of telephone. And Tyrion, let’s not forget, also undercut her by freeing his brother Jaime for that final rendezvous with Cersei.
As payback, they both had to watch as Dany betrayed their trust in return. Tyrion had told her the bells would mean resistance was over. Jon had negotiated a surrender of the Lannister loyalist troops, mostly by staring at them while they listened to dragon noises and eventually reached the obvious conclusion.
It’s hard to imagine them returning to her side. It’s hard to imagine her being willing to let Jon live, considering the threat he poses to her queenship. We know Targaryens love Targaryens. Do Targaryens also kill Targaryens?
4. The Clegane Bowl came, and it was satisfyingly brutal and brotherly and just. Amid the crumbling castle, the Hound, Sandor Clegane, nudged his old running buddy Arya Stark aside with a lovely speech about not wanting to spend her whole life seeking revenge, like him. It’s cute that he imagines Arya might regain her humanity.
On the steps, the Hound met his even larger brother, the Mountain, Gregor Clegane. Let’s go ahead and call him his “estranged” brother, for want of an adjective encapsulating decades of mutual death wishing.
Lest there was any doubt of where Gregor’s true passions lie, the re-animated super-henchman was all about the brother fight when the two men met. Ignoring Cersei’s pleas to keep protecting her, he tossed Cersei’s hand Qyburn to his apparent death (No. 5) and focused in on the sibling he had permanently scarred when they were children.
I found the ensuing battle reasonably worthy of the years of hype and expectation about it in “GoT” fandom. We got to see the Mountain’s face finally, which was kind of an ultimate treat/not-treat. The Hound seemingly won with a sword to the midsection and then a knife to the skull, only to watch in horror and then dissolve in laughter as this by-now supernatural creature simply pulled the weapons out.
In the end, the Hound extracted an almost poetic justice. Realizing simple combat would not work, and with his eyes freshly gouged, Sandor charged, and the two men tumbled out of the castle into the streets Dany had set afire far below. (No. 6, No. 7.) Sandor, scarred and shaped for life in a fire by Gregor as a young boy, put his brother and himself to death in fire.
Is this the wrong time to ask about Mr. and Mrs. Clegane as parents?
5. The biggest question is WWAD: What will Arya do? She traveled with the Hound to King’s Landing and announced, “I’m Arya Stark. I’m going to kill Queen Cersei.”
But the Hound talked her out of that plan, in part because of the bitter taste of revenge and in part because the castle she was in, at that point, was not a safe place. We should note, though, that if she had stuck with him, she would have had a clean shot at the Queen.
Instead, Arya served as the eyes through which viewers understood the full indiscriminate terror Daenerys had created. Fighting to stay alive amid panicked people in the streets, she witnessed mothers and children separated, killed, burned.
She saw that even troops from the North, her own countrymen and ostensibly Dany’s allies, were burned alive in the less-than-precision dragon fire. And after almost dying a couple of times, she saw a white horse, riderless, amid the devastation, which was either a symbol or an escape plan.
People are theorizing that her former brother Bran, now transmogrified into an all-powerful mystic named after a bird, sent the pony her way. It’s just as likely, though, that a scene such as the one we witnessed would leave more than a few men unhorsed, and vice-versa.
Either way, it is probably too simple, too conventional, to imagine that Arya will shift her death plot to Daenerys, kill her, and help install “brother” Jon onto the throne for a lifetime of peace and prosperity. But isn’t it pretty to think so?