The choices made by writers and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in regards to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) are not necessarily bad. They’re are, nonetheless, problematic because the writing/producing duo consistently prove to be bad at writing women. And in a fit of senioritis which typifies this final season, their weaknesses as writers become more apparent. As a result, this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, entitled “The Bells,” get us to the place author George R.R. Martin probably intends for his Song of Ice and Fire endgame in a way both slapdash and exquisitely produced.
And I’ll be honest, I enjoyed a lot of the episode. There’s something appealing about Daenerys finally taking King’s Landing and it looking more like a defeat. There’s even something appealing about her succumbing to her father’s madness and doing the thing Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) prevented by killing the Mad King: burning the city. In many ways, Daenerys Stormborn the Unburnt, First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, and Breaker of Chains should be the final enemy.
She represents a brutal regime with absolute proof that blood confers certain powers. Despite all the years we spent watching her grow as a person, one thing has always remained true: her absolute belief that she should sit the Iron Throne. And considering all the coding around the character, from her hair color to the infamous white savior moment when she freed Meereen, Daenerys and all the Targaryens are the champions of Blood Supremacy. Like the White Tree of Gondor and the blood-conferred nobility of the Dunédain, her powers support a pernicious element of fantasy in which the aristocracy can always produce a truly noble hero out of their decadent nobility should the realm be threatened by an existential crisis. That Martin would turn her into the Mad Queen makes absolute sense. Her victory can only lead to the exact sort of cruelty exhibited by the character this week after someone began ringing the bells and offered surrender in lieu of Drunk Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) doing anything at all.
Unfortunately, the executive producers of Game of Thrones are not nearly as patient as Martin in regards to getting her to the point of madness. As a book reader, it is easy to imagine Dany will shed her trusted advisors as she gets closer to Westeros. Ser Barristan Selmy, Fat Belwas, Missandei, Grey Worm and all the rest will eventually be replaced by Tyrion, Varys, and potentially even Little Finger; leaving her isolated from the warmth of Essos.
In fact, it should be noted that the Targaryens were originally Essosi themselves, making their rule of Westeros a foreign occupation.
Assuming the book version of Jon returns from the dead — and it is still possible he won’t — it is easy to imagine Tyrion, Varys, and Little Finger plotting against her in favor of his “better” claim. Being cast aside could lead to madness and her decision to burn it all.
Which brings us back to the problematic element of this idea. Divorced of gendered concerns, making the return of Targaryen rule the ultimate evil is dramatically satisfying. That Martin tricked the reader into empathizing with the real villain for so long would’ve been one of the great twists. But we live in a world where there is an unfortunate and unavoidable connotation to Daenerys’s fall: it supports a trope that women, if given the center seat of power, will burn it all to the ground because they’re having a bad day. Besides the ugliness of reducing Missandei’s (Nathalie Emmanuel) death to just a “bad day,” the connotation also dismisses all of Daenerys’s character growth because of a whim. To be sure, the executive producers do not see it that way, but in their quest to get out of Westeros, they opened the door to something far more damaging than the Army of the Dead.
The swiftness with which the show took away most of Dany’s most trusted allies means we lost of the impact those moments should have. Ser Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glen) death should feel stronger than it does. Missandei’s death should also have weight. Also, the Dragon Queen’s descent into madness needed time to breathe. Without seeing her go through it, the whole thing just feels forced. But as the executive producers chose their timetable for the ending — it turns out HBO would have given them as many episodes and as much money as they needed — it was their decision to rush through these things and make Daenerys’s turn look far more misogynistic than it otherwise might.
And to be fair, should Martin ever publish his account of events, the underlying misogyny in Daenerys’s turn will still be a credible read of her character arc.
Speed also meant Cersei’s apparent end fell short of what it should have been. With one episode remaining, there is still a chance both she and Jaime survived having a castle drop on them. I mean, Arya (Maisie Williams) survived a few buildings crumbling above her, so anything is possible. But if that cut to black was her end, her story becomes another victim of the sudden brevity the executive producers faced when plotting their endgame. Of course, some of those expectations are on us. Book readers live with the Valonqar prophecy and the presumption a “little brother” will ring her neck. The prophecy never mattered as much on the show — even if Jamie’s final embrace looked like strangulation to someone seeing a future event while in a prophetic stupor — and therefore a moment readers were expecting was never really in the cards. At the same time, their deaths lacks a certain dramatic heft as realized here. It also makes Jaime’s decisions since he left King’s Landing last season look a little bit dim; even for the stupidest Lannister.
This is where I should mention that, yes, people are contradictory. Jaime could hate his sister and still want to be with her at the end of all things. That emotion could override the peace and happiness he nearly found in the North with Ser Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). But within drama, these contradictory things need precise setup and execution to look credible. And with the lack of time — despite the option of endless time — Jaime’s decision to head south looks less like a character’s choice than the move of the writers to fit their plot. In fact, keeping him in the North and out of this conflict would’ve have been a daring choice.
Even still, Jaime remaining at Winterfell would not have fixed Cersei’s complete failure as a villain. To be honest, there is something satisfying to her being all talk. Again, I recognize the misogyny in making her an inferior opponent; especially in regards to the way her father often dismissed her prowess for scheming in the books. Yet, at the same time, Cersei’s maneuvering was always narcissistic, even if she claimed she was doing it for her children. And given her strategy was a total wash in the end, freezing as Drogon burned the city makes a certain amount of sense. But here’s to hoping she survived so she can give one last Drunk Cersei speech.
In the meantime, let’s pour some wine for the victims of Daenerys’s mad turn and remember that kings and queens will always consume the common folk. Let’s pour a whole bottle out for Varys (Conleth Hill), a foreigner who understood Westeros better than any of its native born nobles. Sure, setting the Prince of Indecision upon the throne would’ve still propped up the aristocracy, but Varys was always about avoiding a kingdom of ash. Ironic, then, that he became ash himself.
No wine will be spilled for Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), though. The character, as he appeared on the show, was just a googly-eyed boogeyman with nearly nothing to offer in terms of dramatic weight. At the same time, his death was quite satisfying.
If you want, pour some drink for the Golden Company and the Iron Fleet, who proved to be no threat whatsoever. In fact, let’s specifically point out the Company’s leader, Harry Strickland (Marc Rissmann). He should’ve been a character — the Golden Company matters a great deal in the books — and Rissmann’s look suggests he’s someone you should remember, but alas, he was just more fuel for Dany’s fire.
And speaking of fire, Sandor (Rory McCann) and Gregor Clegane’s (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) lives could only end by descending into flames of the Red Keep. After all the years of Get Hype, it may not have been the tour-de-force action sequence many expected, but it was a thematically appropriate conclusion. Also, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) got exactly what he deserved for creating Ser Robert Strong.
But one question remains. Will the wheel be broken? I’ve lost my faith at this point and accept Daenerys as the cruel winner of the Game of the Thrones. It’s the ending people wanted, after all, just not with the victorious tone they longed for. I’ll accept that as readily as I accepted an ending in which Westeros was buried in ice. Fire does just as well. But considering Benioff and Weiss have checked out, I expect a last minute and conventional victory.
Game of Thrones‘s final episode airs Sunday on HBO.