'Game of Thrones' Book Reader Review: There's Already a Mad Queen in Westeros, and She's Not a Targaryen
It’s been clear to be for a while now that the show runners are mostly gunning for the end, but this episode was the first time it really solidified for me that they’re not really telling a story anymore. They’re telling an ending. There’s no time to waste on consistent characterization or to tell a story with any kind of nuance or care if it would slow down the march to the end. If they flatten or downright insult some of the characters we’ve spent at least a decade with, apparently that’s acceptable collateral damage to be finished with them. In the best kind of fiction you can imagine the lives the characters are leading after the words or images stop. At this point I don’t feel like we’ll have that sense of these characters, because so many of them have changed so drastically and unnecessarily to get to that point.
We open by honoring the dead at Winterfell. This was the best part of the episode and the part I appreciated the most. I wish there was more time to spend on what these losses mean to some of our characters — Sansa losing one of the few people she feels safe with, and Daenerys losing the person who’s known her the longest — but that kind of thing doesn’t get us closer to an ending.
For an episode that seems to spend a lot of time speculating on Daenerys’s state of mind, or lack there of, she opens it with a very savvy political move AND an excellent party starter; she legitimizes Gendry in front of the dour crowd in Winterfell’s Great Hall. She’s just gained herself a firm ally in the Stormlands and given the crowd something to celebrate. Apparently, she came up with the idea on her own, because Tyrion has NOT been earning his paycheck lately. With the festivities kicked off, we pan around the hall for various conversations tying up loose ends or dumping exposition on us. Notable points are Tormund hazing Jon, the Lannisters playing their truth drinking game with Brienne and Pod, and an errant Starbucks cup. Not super impressed with Jon for letting Tormund gas him up about riding a dragon without at least a WORD that Dany’s the one who got him ON the dragon. Dany leaves because she feels abandoned, and she has been. Tyrion immediately depresses the shit out of the drinking game by asking Brienne if she’s a virgin. We see Sansa confront Sandor as he sits drinking alone. He tries to shock her, but she returns his stare. Sandor tries to tell her that he would’ve kept her safe, but Sansa’s too old to believe in fairytales anymore. She’s smarter and more cynical now, the world made her that way. I don’t see this as her being “grateful” for her experiences, just an acknowledgment that she has been changed by them into the person she is now.
Gendry, high on lordship and a sustained series of unlikely wins, decides now is the time to propose to Arya. He gets an L in return. In other romantic pairings, Jaime has come to attempt to apologize to Brienne but because he’s Jaime he can’t get it out. I’ve seen some questioning the set up to this, with the two of them drinking heavily and Jaime following an obviously distressed Brienne to her room, but she does take his shirt off first. I’ve never been on this particular ship because I have always thought Brienne was too good for Jaime. I’m not wrong, as we’ll see later, but I also want Brienne to get what she wants. And if she wants Jaime, well, plenty of the rest of us have wanted exactly the wrong person. We don’t get to choose who we love.
We hit the second time in this episode that Dany demonstrates keen political insight and social intelligence. She completely understands Jon’s political draw in Westeros, and she knows that if word gets out about his identity he won’t have a choice in what happens. She knows that the secret has to end with the four people who know already. Dany knows Sansa will want Jon on the throne, and she even understands why; what Sansa has been through has made her distrustful of outsiders and intent on maintaining her own power. Sansa has power with Jon, she has none with Daenerys. Jon does not listen to Dany.
At the war council, it’s proposed that they adapt a siege of King’s Landing to starve Cersei out. But Dany wants to move now rather than wait for her armies and her dragons to recuperate. It’s a strategy scene, but we also get a hint of a scene I wish we’d seen, “Ser Jaime has chosen to remain here as a guest of the Lady of Winterfell.” That means Brienne and Sansa have already discussed Brienne’s new relationship, and man would that have been a breath of fresh air to see. A happy Brienne, a sweetly encouraging Sansa? But it doesn’t get us closer to the end. The Stark siblings confronting Jon about his loyalty to Daenerys does. They don’t trust her. They trust Jon because he’s a Stark. Bran lets Jon make the choice, and he attempts to swear his sisters to secrecy. As though this were a neutral secret that they’d have no reason to act on. Ned kept the secret of Jon’s parentage for his entire life and its debatable if that was always the right choice. What’s not debatable is that the best way to keep a secret is to actually keep a secret. Dany told him that. She was right.
Arya has decided to take matters into her own hands in this next war. She joins the Hound on the road to King’s Landing, says she’s not planning to come back to Winterfell. I am so sad we didn’t see Jon’s news landing with his siblings, we only see their reactions. Arya is abandoning the family she had previously made the choice to come back to in order to take care of “unfinished business” in King’s Landing. Sansa just seems rattled and desperate to find a way to make the news ensure the safety of the North and, by extension, her. Sansa doesn’t want a future where she can be ordered in front of another ruler, ordered into another marriage, ordered to send her loved ones to their doom. If it’s Jon, she doesn’t have to worry about any of that. But sure, we’ll pretend it’s just because women don’t like each other.
Jon says his goodbyes on his way out of Winterfell and gives Ghost away, so the less said about that the better. Besides, he’s got a new dragon now! About that …
Tryion and Varys have the first of their Treason Chats. Varys insists that Jon has the “better claim” to the throne, but I’m still confused by that reasoning. The Targaryens have been out of power for almost 20 years now and their reign ended with a historically unpopular king. There’s not a groundswell of support for a Targaryen leader because the people want a Targaryen on the throne. The support comes from Daenerys herself staking her claim with her dragons and her army. Jon is popular among those in the north, but even the Northmen are pretty recent converts and most of that is because he killed all the dissenters at the Battle of the Bastards. The show has really leaned HARD into Jon’s popularity as a leader like it doesn’t remember the whole “murdered by his own men” thing and then later the “could not rally the North against the Boltons” thing. Sure, they loved him AFTER he won the Battle of the Bastards, but if we’ve learned anything from this show it’s that the people of Westeros apparently have VERY short memories. Varys says he worries about Dany’s state of mind and if he’s worried now, what comes next is NOT going to help.
The dragons are soaring triumphantly over the sea when a bolt comes out of nowhere and hits Rheagal. Two more take him down entirely as Euron’s (ugh) fleet comes into view around the bend, every ship outfitted with a launcher. Drogon narrowly clears a flurry of bolts before the weapons are turned on Dany’s fleet sitting right in front of Dragonstone. Cersei, back in King’s Landing, is very pleased to hear the news from Euron (ugh) that a dragon was taken down. She’s bringing the citizens of King’s Landing into the Red Keep to make a human shield, and she has Missandei in shackles. Cersei has definitely won this round. Daenerys, having lost her second child and one of her oldest friends again, wants to attack immediately. Tyrion thinks that treating with Cersei will make a difference because Tyrion is just on a run of bad choices lately.
Second Treason Chat, which is yet another bad choice that Tyrion is making. Varys keeps pushing the idea that Daenerys is going to be a bad ruler, but I think the truth of his objection lies in a bit of a throw-away line; that a marriage of Dany and Jon wouldn’t work because “she’s too strong for him.” Varys knows that Dany isn’t malleable as a leader. She listens, but few people have been able to get through to her. Barristan Selmy probably did the best job of working with her, but then he was killed. Now she’s also lost Jorah and Missandei. Tyrion and Varys have nothing on any of them in terms of devotion or, frankly, insight. Neither of them have pitched any truly good ideas in the last several episodes and now, instead of admitting that maybe they’re kind of fucking this up, they’re blaming Dany and deciding to start over with a new ruler. This show could be making a very interesting point about how people view strength and how strong anyone’s convictions are. The truth is that Jon is an easier choice at this point, not because he has the stronger Targaryen claim to the throne but because he has an established political presence in Westeros and basically no ambition of his own. Daenerys has all the ambition in the world but she needs to build political clout. Staying to help save the North and sacrifice her armies should have helped build that clout, and instead they’re plotting to snatch it out from under her. And now everyone who has ever been a close, understanding, and effective advisor to her is dead, or about to be.
News of Cersei’s attack has reached Winterfell, and Brienne tells Jaime. He decides that this is the impetus he needs to leave Winterfell and return to Cersei, a woman who threatened to have him killed the last time they met. I feel terrible for what they’ve done to Brienne here. There’s nothing undignified about being in love, about having your heart broken. But there was so little exploration of what it meant to her to be vulnerable in that way, to open herself up to the possibility of romance and intimacy. This scene doesn’t weigh as heavily as it should, because we’re not getting the story. We’re just getting the ending.
Finally, we’re outside the walls of King’s Landing. Missandei is displayed on a platform above the gate with Cersei and the Mountain behind her. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge here that Qyburn has been a particularly effective Hand to Cersei. Because he’s the goddamn devil. But if any of Dany’s advisors had half his insight or dedication she would be in a much stronger position right now. Both queens demand the unconditional surrender of the other, which is a nonstarter. Qyburn is not wrong to be confident in his queen; Cersei took down a sept full of people to avoid punishment. She chained Ellaria Sand in a dungeon with her slowly dying (and then slowly decaying) daughter. She has an undead abomination as a personal bodyguard. If there’s anyone I’d put money on to burn King’s Landing rather than let it fall into the wrong hands at this point, it’s the person who already burned down a big chunk of King’s Landing. This is why Tyrion and Varys fretting over Dany’s “state of mind” doesn’t land with me. War is violent. Many characters on this show have committed war crimes and no one held conferences about whether they were insane or not. Was Tyrion insane when he burned hundreds of Stannis’s men alive in the Blackwater? Was Tywin mad when he had his army sack King’s Landing in Robert’s Rebellion? They know there’s a violent tyrant on the throne NOW. They should be working overtime to get her off the throne and working out how to teach Dany to lead Westeros later. Instead, Tyrion tries to appeal to the humanity that Cersei has never had. She responds by having Missandei publicly executed. I was surprised that, after Cersei asked for her last words, Missandei did not step off the platform under her own power. Making one last choice of her own free will even as she stood in chains. Instead, she stands and allows herself to be beheaded. This move seems designed to get Dany to lose control and attack the city immediately. It does look like it takes all her self-control to turn away and retreat. Tyrion brought her here for this meeting, and she got to watch her closest friend and longest-serving advisor beheaded. Right after she watched her second dragon die, and not long after she said a final farewell to her previous longest-serving advisor. Frankly, she’s still holding it together pretty well.
Next week we’ll see how the Last War ends. I anticipate Cersei will die, because it’s Mother’s Day and Benioff and Weiss enjoy their little jokes like that. How she will die, I don’t know. The show notably left off the last line of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy, so it’s not part of the show’s mythology that the valonqar will wrap his hands around her neck. Because of this, I don’t have any solid reason to believe that the person who kills her will be a younger sibling of any kind. They probably will be, just because most of the notable characters left alive with a reason to kill Cersei are younger siblings of SOMEONE, but I’m not counting on it. There will likely be some other notable deaths, but none I’m willing to bet on. I expect the show will keep trying to sell us that Daenerys is “Mad” instead of just a woman suffering loss after loss while her own most trusted advisors plot against her. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you, and I have yet to see evidence that Daenerys is more brutal than any of the other leaders on this show. But again, we’re not here for the story. We’re here for the ending. And I don’t have a good feeling about where that ending is going.
Header Image Source: HBO
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