Taking Its Toll
Game Of Thrones came back for its eighth and final season three Sundays ago, and here’s Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman with his review of the fifth, penultimate episode. Warning: major spoilers ahead…
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright
“They say that every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.”
And with that portentous line, the series actively begins its descent, I mean resolution. The signs of Daenerys’s decline into madness had been visible since the beginning – she never had any compunction with annihilating people if it suited her, even when she was spouting populist rhetoric about being a benign ruler for her subjects. But it was never clear until that moment what the outcome of seven series of dreary monomania and throne-obsession would do to the character. Emilia Clarke, to her credit, is better than she’s ever been in the show in the early scenes of this episode – her performance brims with paranoia and is a far cry from the six or so seasons where repetitive Esos segments got in the way of all the absorbing (and infinitely more fun) politicking in Kings Landing and Winterfell.
It’s certainly understandable that this episode, the culmination of so many storylines and subplots, has been considered a disappointment by fans – there is little in the way of nuance, and no time to build any genuine drama. With all the paradigm shifts from one chapter to the next, so much needs to be tied up that there were always going to be reductive issues with it. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss, having painted themselves into a corner, couldn’t master what The Sopranos succeeded in doing when that series finally called time – keeping things unfinished, ambiguous and open to interpretation. Furthermore, there are scenes here that lack any logic or sense, given what was said in the previous instalment. So the two series overlords, regardless of all the qualities that brought us to this show in the first place, opted for spectacle instead.
But it is unarguably quite a floorshow. It starts with the treacherous Varys being immolated by Dany’s last dragon, at the behest of Tyrion, keen to get back into the Queen’s good books. This despite all their recent badinage and close friendship, not to mention that the Master of Whisperers saved the diminutive Lannister’s life in series four – but then Varys’s attempt at poisoning Daenerys, no matter how pragmatic and sensible, was always going to be a bridge too far. All the warnings and counsel are for naught when it comes to the Mother of Dragons, as Jon steadfastly refuses to act against her. He really has gotten bland with all that deference this series. And from there, despite the fading desire for noble intentions, the cataclysm ensues.
Unlike last time, when Euron despatched one of Dany’s grizzly flying reptiles, the Targaryen queen rapidly engulfs Greyjoy’s doomed fleet with flames, easily avoiding any pesky arrows aimed at her. Her arrival at Kings Landing presages an equally one-sided affair, with Qyburn’s outsize crossbows and garrison destroyed in an instant, leaving the city and the remaining Lannister army utterly helpless. For a split second, Dany, totally in the ascendant, fights the need for revenge, but gives in as her predecessors once did. From that point on it’s a grotesque yet cinematic triumph, a tableau of panoramic, exquisitely rendered destruction and mass murder.
For the rest of the players and plot strands beneath and within the widescreen carnage, there is still plenty to deal with. Jaime, having been freed by Tyrion (who does deliver a heart-rending line about their relationship, in what is their final scene together) fails to breach the city wall but ends up at a lone beach beneath the Red Keep just in time to battle the psychotic Euron (shades of the fight between D’Artagnan and Rochefort in the Four Musketeers). After barely surviving, he finds and reunites with Cersei, who, knowing her time has come becomes humanized – a rather absurd development given what has gone before in this series. Despite my reservations and the stilted dialogue, it’s a fitting end for the couple that started most of this mess in the first place.
Elsewhere there’s Arya and the Hound (possibly my favourite character in the show), who make it to the Red Keep before Sandor tells his young charge that it would be better if she left rather than turn into what he is (which given what we know about Arya, is moot). Arya escapes as the masonry falls around her, while the Hound presses on, eventually finding his big brother Gregor. Gregor casually tosses his creator Qyburn aside like a rag doll, before the fight that essentially is the motor for both their arcs finally begins. It’s a messy, wonderfully over the top encounter, with the Hound opting for mutually assured death as the only means for getting what he wants – the brothers falling to their doom into the dreaded fire, natch. Arya meanwhile endures the black out of the dust and aftermath, the career survivor attempting to save lives before bizarrely riding off into the sunset on a white horse.
HBO doesn’t do happy endings – those are twee, schematic and dated conventions from television B.S. (before the Sopranos). One knew that a lot of the cast wouldn’t make it, even if their demise had a trivialising retroactive effect on their journeys up to this point. One could argue that the wanton levelling of Kings Landing was part of that recent development – what other ways could the series have been wrapped up, given such expectation? It does conversely seem like a facile and pat move that panders to that while casting aside certain questions, such as how Daenerys can sit on the Iron Throne when it’s under a mountain of rubble.
Nevertheless, despite the thoroughly amoral undertow, there are many moments of catharsis here, even if David and Dan did borrow a wee bit from the Michael Bay handbook. Cersei’s gradual loss of hope is a sight to treasure (although I really thought she had some kind of stratagem up her sleeve) while the Hound is always good value, hugely conflicted and endearingly self-loathing to the end. He was unwittingly the conscience of the show and deserves his own spin-off prequel. And Jon Snow’s failure to stem the tide mid-battle is engrossing (a truly old-school heroic character, he may well be the series’ Achilles Heel, as he goes against the aforementioned HBO edicts).
No need to wonder what next episode’s final, ultimate showdown will be all about, although certain absent characters will no doubt enter the fray. Despite all the misgivings, and there have been a fair few in this series, it’s been a good ride. Hopefully the script will be up to par and leave us something tangible (and unexpected) as we get to see who reigns over Westeros once the music stops. Assuming they can dig up that throne.
Here’s the trailer for this episode
Game Of Thrones is on every Sunday on HBO in the US and on Mondays on Sky Atlantic in the UK.