Game of Thrones Has Become a Cynical Clusterf*ck
A few weeks ago—the day before the Game of Thrones premiere in New York—I was chatting with John Bradley about his character Samwell Tarly, who is often seen as the on-page avatar to author George R.R. Martin.
"George was actually a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War and I think that that contextualizes everything about the show because he's somebody who hates war and hates violence. He's not glorifying it. He's actually condemning it," Bradley told me.
That quote stuck with me as I watched the bloodbath that is the penultimate episode to Game of Thrones' final season. What would ol' Georgie think about this? Nearly 30 years ago he wrote into existence a blonde little refugee who was sold into a marriage by her evil older brother to be used as a bargaining tool for a great army and eventually a conquest. That was the beginning of Daenerys Targaryen's story. Since then she's freed slaves, liberated cities—she's proven time and again to have a good heart. That love is what helped her amass an army and become a beloved Queen across the Narrow Sea. Did he know then that she would go mad with grief and hatred near the end of her conquest and kill thousands of innocent people? Did he want to doom this young woman to the same madness and evil of her father?
The truth is, we don't know. We know that Martin gave the Game of Thrones showrunners a general outline for the story, but this isn't his story anymore. This is the creation of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss now—and when they flipped the coin for Daenerys Targaryen, it landed with the madness side facing up.
In theory, I understand why what happened in Episode Five happened. Daenerys, when given the chance to take the surrender of King's Landing, decided to torch the whole damn thing, innocents and all. It makes for an extremely Game of Thrones commentary on power and violence. For eight seasons fans have cheered on Daenerys Targaryen's conquest. But does violence justify more violence? What makes Mad Queen Cersei any better or worse than Mad Queen Daenerys? It's something Jon noticed during the heat of the battle when one of his own soldiers was attempting to rape a woman in King's Landing. They're no better than any other invading army. Arya also saw this firsthand—looking at the devastation and the carnage after the ash had settled. There are no heroes in war—only death and destruction. And for these reasons, I think the Mad Queen twist fits thematically with Martin's vision.
The problem is, the way we got there made no logical sense.
Daenerys' transformation from the strong and moral young woman we've known for eight seasons happened over the course of one—maybe two—episodes, if we're being generous. Yes, one of her dragon children and her BFF both died, but is that what it takes for Daenerys to totally fucking lose it? To become a different person? To completely abandon all morality? To become a murderer of innocent people? Is the takeaway here that a powerful woman will be undone by her emotions? It seems disrespectful to this beloved character and to anyone who loved this powerful female fictional person. This should have been a transformation to have begun seasons ago. There should have been more at stake for her decision. Daenerys should have been forced into a position where her only other course of action was to take innocent lives. It doesn't make sense to just choose to completely slaughter a thousands of innocent people for no reason.
And also what is the logic behind demolishing the city you're trying to take? Are you going to have to rebuild all this shit now? Do you want to literally be queen of the ashes? Do you want the people you're trying to rule to hate you and think of you as a heartless murderer? Daenerys has always wanted her people to love her. Why would this be her course of action? If the answer is: "she's gone mad" then that's not enough for me. Dany has shown that she has tyrannical-adjacent tendencies, but never once showed any sign that she's capable of mass murder. What was the point of killing all these people? We know it didn't bother Cersei. If we look back at Daenerys' most violent moments throughout this series, there was always some moral justification of it. In Season Five she crucifies 163 masters as punishment for the 163 slaves they crucified. In Season Six she burned the remaining khals alive as punishment for taking her prisoner. Even burning the Tarlys, which was a bad move in Season Seven, still could be justified in her mind. They fought against her and she killed them. Never has Daenerys shown any hint of violence toward innocent people. In fact, she's done everything in her power to protect the innocent, which was always her greatest strength—one she learned from her hatred of a violent, evil older brother. These character traits have been fundamentally part of Daenerys from the very beginning only to be undone in one hour.
Elsewhere the show did another disservice to another great female character. Cersei Lannister's story came to an end cowering in the tunnels beneath the Red Keep with her idiot brother. In the end, one of the greatest villains in TV history followed a man into a basement where they got crushed by some rocks. As my colleague Sarah Rense so accurately wrote last night, "Cersei froze up and stopped making decisions for herself, which was deeply un-Cersei-like, and then let her brother step in to do the heavy lifting, filling the role of knight in shining armor. She died scared and powerless and relying on a man to save her."
It's massively disappointing, which is what I could say about this season as a whole. The prophecies have all meant nothing. Azor Ahai, the Valonqar, The Prince That Was Promised—it was all a waste of our time. The Golden Company was slaughtered in an instant. Those scorpions that quickly dispatched Rhaegal were suddenly easy to destroy. All Daenerys needed to do to take King's Landing was destroy the wall from the inside? If that's the move, then why not just fly right to Cersei at the top of the Red Keep and just kill her there and take the city without losing a single soldier on either side?
It fundamentally doesn't make any sense. All of these plot devices—the bells, the wildfire, the scorpions, Euron—they were pointless in the end.
Though the episode as a whole was a mess, there were some satisfying smaller moments that fans did deserve. The final conversation between Tyrion and Jaime was truly touching. "You were the only one who didn't treat me like a monster. You were all I had," Tyrion tells Jaime. Though their story ended in idiotic fashion, Cersei seeing Jaime return for her was weirdly moving. Arya and The Hound's goodbye was a sweet moment that made the young Stark woman about more than just revenge. Hell, I'm even glad we got the Cleganebowl even though the fight had no stakes and The Mountain without his helmet looked like a bloated moldy Varys (and I maintain that my own prediction for how this would go is better). All of these were less a result of good writing and mostly effective because of the performances of the actors and what little faith we have left in these characters.
But it's hard to appreciate these moments in an episode that's just completely fucking frustrating. What is the point of any of this? It's as if the writers got done with the Battle of Winterfell, and were like Oh shit we actually have to end this show? I don't know just crush them with some rocks or something.
Where does that leave us? What is Game of Thrones trying to say in the end? This has always been a cynical show, but now it's on the verge of ending with complete nihilism. Will Jon be forced to kill Dany? Will he be the ruler of Westeros—sitting on the Iron Throne he never cared about or desired. Will he win just because his dozens of stupid decisions worked? In the end, will he take the Iron Throne because Dany snapped and no one else was fit for the job? Or maybe they can still salvage some sort of message about rebuilding the wheel that Dany broke so it's not just a revolving cast of tyrants on the Iron Throne. At this point, I don't have enough faith in these writers to even pull that off.
What I am certain about is that these final two seasons are the greatest gift that Benioff and Weiss could have given to George R.R. Martin. The poor writing of this show's conclusion, if anything, increases the urgency for Martin to finish his book so we can see how this story deserves to end.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.