BURN IT DOWN
Game of Thrones’ Baffling Decision to Turn Daenerys Into a Crazy, Murderous Ex-Girlfriend
The penultimate episode of the HBO epic failed to service its main characters—several of whom met shocking demises. [Warning: Spoilers]
The second to last episode of Game of Thrones succeeds in hammering home one principle that has guided the show and the books it is based on: there is no such thing as a just war. “The Bells” is a spectacle of carnage and horror visited on innocent people by the side we’ve come to know as “good,” unleashing hell in a moral vacuum as Daenerys burns King’s Landing to the ground. That’s the big picture. It’s where the episode makes thematic sense and where it’s most effective—and crucially, consistent with the show until now.
Zoom in a bit closer to the particulars of how this episode handles individual characters’ narratives, though, and it all comes undone. Cersei, Jaime, Varys, and The Hound meet their fates in ways that might subvert expectations built on years of predictions, theories, and textual analysis of the show, sure. But the shock of their arcs’ resolutions, no matter how movingly directed or acted, leaves little behind after it fades. What was it all for? Did any of it mean anything? There’s one episode left that might answer for it. But even then, it’s too late. This is the end of Game of Thrones—and it’s as ugly, abrupt, and pointless as war.
I know, I know—pointlessness is the point. OK. But rushed plotting and writing that fails to crack characters’ interiority has kept this season from communicating that effectively. And this episode’s no exception. Why this all happens, what it says about the people involved, what it means in the context of everything we’ve seen until now—all of it is de-emphasized in the name of upending audience expectations with one gut-punch surprise after another. As a result, characters’ seasons-long stories seem to end mid-sentence. Their decisions feel at times inscrutably random. Nothing means anything anymore. It’s too nihilistic, even for the most nihilistic show on TV.
Adding insult to injury is the nonsensical way Daenerys’ sanity break unfolds onscreen. The Mother of Dragons becoming a “Mad Queen” may work on paper with what the show has foreshadowed for seasons—all this talk of Targaryens’ hereditary madness, and her own streak of cruelty with her enemies—but her split-second decision to systematically murder half a city of innocent people does not.
This is the girl who locked up her own “children” for a year because one of them killed a goat herder’s daughter. She has struggled to balance her conqueror’s instinct with the patience it takes to rule, and can be narcissistic, even myopic in her insistence on her own birthright. But she has never purposely hurt people who were not political enemies or soldiers. She vowed not to be “queen of the ashes.” So why does she pull a full reversal here?
The way the episode is scripted, it’s being jilted by Jon Snow, of all things, that pushes her over the edge. (Not his “betrayal” in telling Sansa about his lineage; Dany tries to kiss him again even after that.) It’s Jon pulling away from the idea of making out with his aunt that hardens her beyond reach: “All right then. Let it be fear,” she decides, forgoing hope for love.
In the 11th hour, Game of Thrones turned Dany not just into a Mad Queen, but into a crazy ex-girlfriend—the laziest of sexist tropes. And one that could have been so easily avoided. There were all the reasons in the world for Dany to snap, from genetics to bad fortune to isolation and betrayals. For the love of God, why make the final straw about Jon Snow?
Listen, no one who watches this show should expect to feel “satisfied” with its ending. Few characters have ever enjoyed the luxury of a satisfying conclusion. But when Robb, Catelyn, and Ned Stark died in the middle of their stories, the show was telling us something important—that being a hero isn’t enough to save you in this world. When Joffrey choked at his own wedding, the show told us that being the most powerful villain in the world isn’t enough to save anyone either. What is the show telling us now about Daenerys? About Jaime? Varys? Does it matter?
It’s hard to tell when the episode barely pauses to consider it.
Aegon the Conqueror vs. Aegon the Schmuck
Again, by all means, on paper it’s fitting that Dany retakes King’s Landing the way that her ancestor Aegon Targaryen seized power: through conquest, not birthright. And the show has always dedicated considerable screen time to subverting the notion that anyone in this world is a hero, no matter how much they (or we) believe they are. But in the path from Dany’s well-known ruthlessness to an act of purposeless bloodshed on a scale that far surpasses anything we’ve seen from her before, a narrative step or two seems missing.
There is no in-universe logic to Dany’s decision; the city has surrendered, the bells are ringing, and she’s already won. Emilia Clarke’s spectacular effort at adding depth to the moment she hears the bells—she careens between heartbreak and fury, her face a whirlpool of conflicting emotions—still isn’t enough to communicate a clear reason for what comes next. (She doesn’t even fly directly for Cersei or the Red Keep! She just windmills around, deliberately aiming Drogon’s fire at civilians.)
The problem is not that Dany goes “mad”—the show always hinted she might—it’s that we fast-forward past her motivation to commit an act of evil after she’s already won.
We know she’s lost two of her dragons and her most loyal friends and advisors; she’s realized she’ll never be loved as much as Jon as a ruler, and she’s fresh off a breakup. Why does this translate into mass murder, and not every tragedy she’s experienced before? If she’s always had violent instincts, why do they manifest this way now, with victory in hand? We never get inside Dany’s head and for a moment like this to work, we needed to.
Even the notion that there are no heroes in this world is continually undercut (or at least, rendered inconsistent) by Jon Snow, perpetual golden boy. Every supposed hero in this episode reveals shades of ugliness or cynicism—think Grey Worm spearing a King’s Landing guard after his surrender, or Arya’s readiness to give her life for revenge until The Hound sets her on a different path. Every one except Jon/Aegon, the character who most fits the fantasy genre’s “chosen one” trope which Game of Thrones has yet to convincingly ~sUbVeRT~ or whatever.
From a viewer’s standpoint, his gullibility, strategic missteps, and failure to foresee obvious problems are all fatal flaws—but not, it seems, to anyone in the show. (Until his dying breath, Varys is “quite certain” about Jon’s viability as the right ruler for the Iron Throne.) The series finale will pit Jon against Daenerys; this episode marks one as clearly “good” and the other not. How does that square with everything else the series tells us about heroes and villains?
Jon’s rigid, honor-bound code does beautifully heighten one of the episode’s best scenes, though, in which every sound but Jon’s breath turns faint, he surveys the chaos around him, and realizes that right now, they are the villains. King’s Landing soldiers are ushering families to safety. Northmen and Dothraki, meanwhile, resort to raping and pillaging. It’s a grotesque moment in an episode full of squeamish ones, and I loved seeing that horror dawn on him.
‘Nothing Else Matters. Only Us.’
After Jaime broke Brienne’s heart and left Winterfell to be with Cersei again, there were people who hoped it wasn’t what it looked like—that he was riding south to kill his twin sister, not to betray the redeemed hero he’d become. So much for that.
The scene he shares with Tyrion just before his little brother frees him—and hatches a crackpot plan for Jaime and Cersei to sail away together—is a thing of exquisite beauty and tragedy. His next scene partner, Euron Greyjoy, provokes a less poignant response. The pirate king insists on a death match against Jaime, wasting precious minutes on a momentum-stalling squabble no one asked for while two hundred more pressing things are happening.
The worst character the show ever mustered has always been more plot device than human, and remains comically one-dimensional until the end. He handled Scorpions with pinpoint-accurate, Rhaegal-slaying ease just an episode ago; now he’s got the aim of a Stormtrooper. His final moments with Jaime are centered entirely around a flimsy love triangle with Cersei. And no, he doesn’t seem to have realized Cersei’s child isn’t his—never mind how Tyrion knew about it. As Euron draws his dying breath, insisting he won the fight, it even looks for a moment as if he’s staring straight into the camera. I half-expected him to wink.
Anyway, as the Mad King’s daughter destroys the city he once saved, Jaime sprints to find Cersei alone and frightened under the Red Keep. Qyburn is dead. The Mountain is locked in combat against The Hound. It’s just the two of them: the queen and her valonquar, who dies the way he told Bronn he’d always wanted to in Season 5: “In the arms of the woman I love.” The crumbling Red Keep crushes them as Cersei sobs over the life of their unborn child. (She really was pregnant then—the one glass of wine she sipped after sex with Euron was a misdirect.) “The Rains of Castamere” plays over the couple’s final moments, with Jaime’s hands wrapped lovingly around her—not to “choke the life” from her, like the books’ version of Maggy the Witch’s prophecy foretold, but in affection.
Jaime has always been toxically bound to Cersei in ways that run too deep to really reverse. But this resolution, like Daenerys’, suffers from the breakneck pace at which it zips from one plot point to the next, never stopping to let characters process their changes of heart. People are often irrational and feelings like love or anger can motivate us to do self-destructive things. Jaime is far from an exception. But I wish we’d gotten a better glimpse of the thinking that brought him here, so far from where he stood only two episodes ago.
Jaime earned his reputation as the “Kingslayer” while protecting the people of King’s Landing from being burnt alive. He embraced a life of being painted as the villain to save those people. In this episode though, we hear him say he “never cared for” those same people, “innocent or otherwise.” Fine, he changed his mind. But why did that happen? Why is this now what he feels he deserves? What extinguished the hope he once had for a different sort of life? All of it goes left unsaid.
The twins’ farewell scene is beautifully acted, scored, and perfectly sympathetic toward two villains who were more compelling than most heroes. It’s hopelessly romantic, fitting for the characters, and resonant the way it’s meant to be. Like with so many character wrap-ups this season, it’s only the moments leading up to it (I repeat: Euron?!) that let it down.
Cleganebowl, No Hype
A through line of this episode is how vengeance has the capacity to destroy a person from the inside out—it corrupts Grey Worm and Daenerys, and it might have consumed Arya too, if The Hound hadn’t stopped her from going after the No. 1 name on her kill list: Cersei. Instead, she redirects her efforts to helping innocent people evade Daenerys’s attacks. It’s through her eyes that we get a ground-level view of the carnage on the ground—the most nightmarish sequence in the episode and one of its most powerful.
It’s a vicious, enthralling way of illustrating the anti-war sentiment George R.R. Martin (himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War) wrote into his books, emphasizing that the ones who suffer most in war are the powerless. “Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe,” he wrote in A Feast for Crows. “They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shots that they are his now. They take the wound, and when that’s still half-healed they take another.”
The people of King’s Landing mostly hate the Lannisters—we saw that through Joffrey’s reign, Cersei’s walk of atonement, and the words of everyday soldiers (and Ed Sheeran) who felt trapped in a never-ending war they had no stake in. The War of the Five Kings was based on a lie, and Dany’s razing of the city is equally devoid of meaning. Focusing on the faces of the ordinary people screaming in agony because of the whims of lords and queens is a harrowing, but fitting choice for this, the “last” war, and true to the spirit of Martin’s books.
Arya’s chaotic attempts to leave King’s Landing and rescue women and children are smartly intercut with The Hound’s opposite path. Instead of choosing life, he embraces a futile death for the sake of killing his lifelong tormentor, his older brother Gregor Clegane. The brotherly showdown has been the stuff of half-joking fan theories for years, so it’s a bit jarring to see it play out in this particular moment. It also shuns the catharsis fans hoped “Cleganebowl” would offer The Hound. He gets his revenge, but it costs him the second chance at life he got after Brienne left him for dead.
The episode makes this reversal literal, by having Sandor plunge both of them out of the tower and into the flames. Like with Jaime, it tells us that ultimately, this is what The Hound felt he deserved and what he wanted, damn the rest. The “why” of that, frustratingly, is also left vague.
But hey, bonus points for not insulting Arya the way Jaime’s plot discards Brienne. Or the way Dany’s final mention of Missandei boils down to the shackle she once wore. (“Her only possession” when they all came to Westeros, really?) Or the way Cersei, the show’s once-greatest villain, was sidelined from her own story for two seasons in favor of an insufferable pirate and a half-baked pregnancy plot. Or the way Yara Greyjoy just…disappeared. Or the way Daenerys’ loneliness and heartbreak is seen as inevitably leading to irrational cruelty, just because.
With one episode left before the end of the series, there isn’t much hope left for a conclusion that justifies a season of mistakes this sloppy. But we’re not asking to be pleased. We’re not even asking to be satisfied—with a show this big, not everyone possibly could be. Just please, make it make sense.
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