The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones feels in many ways like the climax of the entire series. After watching it, the biggest question I had is what the show’s seemingly countless disgruntled fans would find to complain about in this one.
Following the death of Missandei, Daenerys somehow managed to restrain herself from flying into an immediate rage, and pulled back to Dragonstone to await the arrival of the Northern armies while her Unsullied and the remaining Dothraki lay siege to the capital. During this time, Varys has been actively plotting against her by sending notes via raven informing pretty much all of Westeros that Jon Snow is the rightful heir to the throne. One of Varys’ little bird spies notifies him that the queen hasn’t eaten in days, leaving an impression that perhaps he’s been trying to poison her – or at least that she fears someone might. Or perhaps she’s just sunken into an inconsolable depression.
Jon Snow arrives by boat ahead of his army. Varys gets to him first and attempts to throw in with him, urging him to consider the possibility of taking the throne himself. Jon won’t listen. He insists that he’s still loyal to his queen.
Tyrion speaks with Daenerys intending to tell her that someone has betrayed her. She already expected as much, though she assumed it would be Jon Snow. She seems disappointed when Tyrion tells her it was Varys. Nonetheless, she connects that dots that Varys learned about Jon’s parentage from Tyrion, and in turn that it’s Jon Snow’s fault for blabbing to Sansa after she ordered him not to. She feels betrayed by everyone.
Varys doesn’t seem surprised at all when Grey Worm and some soldiers march to his quarters to arrest him. In the middle of the night, they bring him to the beach, where Daenerys and her inner circle stand waiting to pass judgment. Tyrion admits to Varys that he sold him out. Varys isn’t upset. All he can say is that he hopes for the whole kingdom’s sake that he’s wrong and Daenerys will turn out to be a just and fair ruler after all. The two old friends say their goodbyes, and Dany’s dragon almost silently pokes its head out of the darkness. With little more than a whisper, Daenerys utters the kill command, “Dracarys,” and the dragon incinerates Varys on the spot. Jon is shaken and visibly shows signs of doubting his queen.
Afterward, Jon has a private conversation with Daenerys. She assesses her situation coldly: “I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” Jon protests that he loves her, but when Daenerys tests this by trying to kiss him, he pulls back. In her mind, this proves her right. She is once again alone in the world.
Tyrion later pleads with Daenerys again not to harm the thousands of innocents inside King’s Landing, but she seems set in her plan to sack the city. He assures her that the people will turn against Cersei and signal their surrender by ringing the city’s bells. He begs her to listen for the bells and call off her attack if she hears them. Daenerys consents to this, doubting that it will happen anyway. Before he leaves, Daenerys informs Tyrion that his brother Jaime was caught while riding to King’s Landing. She ends the conversation with the threat, “The next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me.”
As morning approaches, masses of people continue to flood into King’s Landing seeking refuge from the mad Dragon Queen they’ve been told is coming to senselessly kill them all. The Hound and Arya ride right through the Lannister army by convincing a soldier that there’s no point in him stopping them.
Tyrion asks Davos to smuggle something for him, but we don’t get to learn what it was just yet. Tyrion then goes to speak with Jaime in a prison tent. He sets his brother free, asking him to speak to Cersei and convince her to change her course of action. Jaime thinks that Cersei may still have a chance to come out on top in this conflict, but Tyrion is confident that the war is already over and the city will fall no matter what. He tells Jaime about a secret escape tunnel beneath the Red Keep (the one he used when he escaped imprisonment) that will lead to a waiting dinghy. He begs him to ring the bells and open the city gates, then flee with Cersei and start a new life together far away from the capital. The two brothers hug before departing.
The sun rises. Euron and his Iron Fleet stand at the ready waiting for the battle to begin. Lannister soldiers line the castle walls, a number of them manning dragon-killing scorpion weapons. The city battens down for the conflict. Arya and the Hound make their way inside. On the desert side of the city, the Golden Company army stand outside the walls, facing the armies of the North.
Tyrion tells Jon Snow about the bells that will signal a surrender. They wait and listen, hearing nothing.
Cersei is cocky. She orders the city gates closed, locking out masses of panicked commoners. Jaime is trapped outside. He turns back and heads toward the shore.
It’s a calm, quiet day. In contrast to the last major battle on this show, the sun shines brightly, illuminating everything. Daenerys cleverly uses this to her advantage. Masked by the bright of the sun, she and Drogon fly in from directly above and dive-bomb the Iron Fleet. Euron isn’t as prepared as he thought he was. Daenerys, on the other hand, has learned from her last encounter. Although the ships launch a volley of scorpion bolts, the dragon dodges and weaves between them, blasting the ships with fire. She quickly devastates the Iron Fleet and turns her attention to the scorpion turrets and archers on the city walls. None of them can hit her as she flies low and moves quickly to set them ablaze. The battle has just begun, and it’s already incredibly one-sided.
On the other side of the city, the first sounds of the destruction begin to reach the standing armies. The Golden Company aren’t even sure what’s happening when the wall behind them suddenly explodes from the inside out and crushes many of them. Daenerys flies her dragon straight over. The Unsullied, Dothraki, and Northern armies charge in, easily mopping up any survivors. They swarm into the city, bringing death and destruction to any forces standing in their way. The civilians in the city panic and flee toward the center.
From her perch in the Red Keep, Cersei can see that the tide has turned. She’s not so cocky anymore, but tries to remain defiant, insisting “All we need is one good shot.” Even that mood deflates when Qyburn tells her that the Iron Fleet has been wiped out and all the scorpions were destroyed. They have no more dragon-killing weapons.
When Daenerys’ armies reach them, the soldiers of the Kingsguard can see that the war is lost. They drop their swords. Across the city, calls cry out to ring the bells. Daenerys and Drogon take a perch atop a building and wait. A tense moment passes. Although Cersei cannot concede defeat herself, the bells start ringing, signaling surrender. Jon Snow looks relieved. If this is the end of the war, the cost could have been much higher.
Fury and Fire
Daenerys hears the bells, but cannot be satisfied by the victory. She doesn’t want a surrender. She wants total annihilation of her enemies. Seething with hatred, she flies Drogon toward the Red Keep and rains fire down onto the city, torching countless innocents in the streets below.
When the Kinsguard turn to see what’s happening, Grey Worm follows his queen’s lead and tosses a spear into the leader’s back. The scene quickly deteriorates into chaos. The Lannister soldiers pick up their swords to defend themselves, and Daenerys’ forces slaughter them. Jon Snow is in shock. Watching from outside the city, Tyrion is as well. Daenerys has become exactly the Mad Queen that Cersei portrayed her as.
Daenerys flies over the city, systematically destroying building after building, working inwards toward the Red Keep. On the streets, the armies take advantage of the opportunities to pillage and murder without discretion. Jon has to kill one of his own soldiers for trying to rape a woman, but he’s powerless to stop the tide flowing over the city.
Jaime makes his way to the dinghy on the shore that Tyrion told him about, planning to enter the city through the secret passage. He’s stopped by Euron Greyjoy, who washes ashore at the same location. Euron goads him into a fight, promising to deliver his head as a gift to Cersei. They struggle, and Euron stabs Jaime in each side of his torso, but Jaime manages to impale Euron through the stomach with his sword. Euron knows that he’s done for, but he also knows that Jaime’s wounds will be fatal as well. “Another king for you,” he laughs as Jaime limps toward the tunnel. Despite his defeat, Euron is pleased to be the man who killed Jaime Lannister.
Daenerys begins her assault on the Red Keep itself just as Arya and the Hound enter. The Hound tells Arya to go home. She insists that she’s determined to get her revenge, but the Hound convinces her that it’s pointless. While he has no choice but to press forward and face his brother, he implores her not to be like him. There’s no sense in Arya dying when Cersei is as good as dead anyway.
In denial that the Red Keep will fall, Cersei doesn’t want to leave. Finally, Qyburn talks sense into her. In the process of retreating, they’re stopped in a stairwell by the Hound, who kills their Kingsguard escort. The Mountain steps forward and ignores Cersei’s order to stay by her side. He shoves Qyburn out of the way, slamming him into a wall with enough force to kill him. The Hound has no interest in Cersei and allows her to pass alone as he faces his brother.
The Hound is a seasoned fighter, but is nonetheless outmatched by the giant zombie beast that the Mountain has become. He manages to knock his brother’s helmet off and stab him through the gut, but the Mountain refuses to die. He picks up the Hound by his head and crushes his eyeballs. The Hound scrambles for a dagger and stabs it directly into his brother’s forehead. Even that doesn’t stop the monster. He drops the Hound and stumbles back a step, but reaches up and pulls the dagger out. Blinded but not dead, the Hound charges the Mountain and knocks him through an exterior wall. Both brothers plummet off the side of the castle into a blazing inferno below. Terrified of fire for most of his life, the Hound was perhaps always destined to die in flames.
Cersei works her way downstairs and runs into Jaime. The two embrace and Jaime leads her to the basement. However, he finds their exit blocked by rubble. Cersei pleads with him to save her. She wants their baby to live. Jaime brings her close, tells her “Nothing else matters, only us,” and holds her until the castle collapses down on top of them.
Jon Snow orders his army to fall back and leave the city. Some do, but it’s unclear how many stay to continue marauding.
While trying to escape, Arya bears witness to the horrors of the city as Daenerys continues burning it to the ground. Throughout King’s Landing, explosions of green fire erupt, presumably the result of hidden stores of wildfire. Arya is nearly trampled by a mob, but is saved by the compassion of a random woman. She’s injured and winds up in a shelter with a bunch of terrified commoners, including that woman and her young child. Arya convinces them that they’re not safe and tries to lead them out. The woman is wounded and begs Arya to save her daughter, but the girl refuses to leave her mother. Arya watches helplessly as the both of them are incinerated in a Daenerys fly-by.
When the devastation finally seems to subside, Arya is banged-up and covered in Ash. She looks like she has PTSD. The episode ends with her finding a white horse (perhaps the one the Golden Company commander rode earlier) standing confused in the middle of a street. She mounts and rides it out.
In the wake of this episode airing, I made the mistake of reading some of the inevitable complaints about it online. A lot of people seem to be upset that Daenerys’ turn to the dark side was supposedly too sudden. I can’t agree. It’s been foreshadowed since practically the moment we first met her in Season 1, and the events of previous episodes this season made it an inevitability. In Daenerys’s mind, anyone who ever supported her has either died or eventually betrayed her.
What the criticisms also don’t take into consideration is that Daenerys didn’t actually go insane, but rather knew exactly what she was doing. She had decided earlier in the episode that she’d never win the love of the people and the only way to rule was by fear. As a Targaryen, that’s a philosophy she’d been taught since birth. As much as she tried to reject it until now, recent events convinced her of its validity.
Accepting a surrender wouldn’t be enough to secure Daenerys’ rule as queen. People might cheer for the overthrow, but would ultimately drift toward Jon Snow (a much more beloved figure) or other possible usurpers. Destroying the entire city was Daenerys sending the message, “Don’t even think of turning against me.” The fear she wanted to instill was not just in her enemies or the commoners, but in Jon Snow and all his supporters. She’s telling them that she doesn’t need them. She was single-handedly responsible for winning the war, and anyone who thinks of betraying her will get the same treatment.
Unlike the last episode, I honestly can’t criticize any character’s decision-making in this one, even if I don’t agree with the outcomes. Daenerys had a strong strategy going into this conflict, executed exactly as she wanted it.
I could probably nit-pick a few things in the episode. The so-called “Clegane Bowl” duel between the Hound and the Mountain was too blatantly played for fan-service. The likelihood that Euron Greyjoy would wash ashore at precisely the place and time that Jaime happened to be there is also fairly implausible. And it’s disappointing that Yara Greyjoy had no part in killing her uncle (although, frankly, that probably would have been too much fan-service as well).
Nevertheless, I feel like I’m out of step with a lot of Game of Thrones fandom this season. Even if the episodes aren’t flawless, the scope and scale of what they’re achieving is unprecedented for television, and even dwarfs most feature film franchises. The apocalyptic destruction in this episode left me in awe. I doubt we’ll ever see anything like this on TV again.
I also think that most of the character arcs are progressing toward satisfying conclusions, and that Jaime and Cersei got a fitting end.