OK, in hindsight, maybe the Night King had a point.
After all the fighting, darkness and burning corpses that filled “The Battle of Winterfell” a few weeks back, “Game of Thrones” reloaded for Sunday’s long-promised Battle of King’s Landing, which marked the debut of two more destructive forces of nature: a dragon laying siege to a city, and a Targaryen with the history of poor mental health to kick it into gear.
As the horrors of war raged inside King’s Landing for most of the episode’s nearly 80 minutes, ending the lives of countless civilians (and a few significant characters), humanity didn’t come off as something worth all that trouble back in Winterfell. It’s almost a shame the Night King didn’t survive for a run-off election next week.
(And, needless to say, if you haven’t yet watched Sunday’s episode, there are spoilers ahead.)
A few people did their level best to avoid the madness that filled much of the series’ penultimate episode: Tyrion, who spent the early part of the episode waiting on the long-shot bet of his sister’s rational side to come through, as he freed his brother from Daenerys’ captivity to make one last plea for Cersei’s surrender. Jon Snow, who heard the bells of surrender ringing over King’s Landing and, after Daenerys refused to heed them, futilely tried to pull back the army he helped lead. And, not to be forgotten, the Lannister army, who watched a dragon rain hell on the city for about 15 minutes before deciding to throw down their swords.
It didn’t have to be this way, least of all at the hands of a character long presented as a force for good. But this is the outcome “Game of Thrones” had targeted since last week’s unconvincing reveal of Daenerys Targaryen’s “Mad Queen” recessive gene coming to the foreground. The presumptive savior of Westeros has become the next in a long line of tyrants. Sorry, everybody.
At least we know who now has the Iron Throne — if anyone can find it in all the rubble.
Mourning the loss of her longest surviving friend in Missandei as well her dragon Rhaegal, Daenerys was not in a good place. She wasn’t eating, as one of Varys’ somehow limitless supply of young spies reported, which seemed wise given his intentions, and with rings around her eyes and a paranoid disposition as Tyrion informed his queen of Varys’ betrayal, she looked the part of the Mad Queen the show needed to upend its previously established order.
“I hope I’m wrong,” the Spider said before Drogon emerged behind Daenerys to carry out his death sentence. Given the events that led to Varys attempting to overthrow the queen — that is, Tyrion telling him about Jon’s Targaryen roots and claim to the throne — Daenerys put Tyrion on notice that his next mistake would be his last.
The rest of the episode mainly consisted of a long and grim march toward proving Varys right and what we thought we knew about Daenerys for so much of “Game of Thrones” wrong. Jon Snow still pledged his loyalty to his Queen but proved not to be quite Targaryen enough to allow their love affair to continue. She recounted the love Jon enjoyed from his people that escaped her in Westeros, adding, “I only have fear.” She seemed all right with this.
As the armies assembled, Tyrion schemed to free his captive brother, directing him and Cersei to get on a boat left by Ser Davos that would take the sibling lovers out of King’s Landing and into a new, anonymous life in one last-ditch effort to stave off disaster. Like many of Tyrion’s plans, this did not work out.
Meanwhile, the Hound and Arya rode into the city with little need for subterfuge. “I’m Arya Stark, I’m going to kill Queen Cersei,” she told the Lannister guard at the gate, and the Hound advised the guard to believe her. On they went on their respective missions, and somewhere we can maybe imagine a “Game of Thrones” spinoff of these two revenge merchants sharing adventures across Westeros and fighting injustice. This too, sadly, was not to be, as the Hound ordered Arya to save herself as the battle began.
From there, Drogon made quick work of Euron’s fleet and their giant crossbows, and in a few passes all the anti-dragon weapons of King’s Landing were also burned away. (This again raises the question of just how Rhaegal fell so easily last week, but we’ll call it battle fatigue and leave it at that.)
A short time later, the bells of the episode’s title rang in surrender. And despite the clear path to simply flying her dragon to the Red Keep and eliminating Cersei, Daenerys pressed on from above as the Dothraki and Unsullied attacked from below, confirming her Mad Queen credentials by burning down the city. To try to underscore the show’s redefined terms, the episode lingered on civilian casualties and the cruelty of war as a bloodied Arya barely avoided dying amid the carnage (this is the thanks one gets for saving humanity).
Other characters were less lucky. Washed away from his Iron Fleet, Euron Greyjoy came ashore and happened upon Jaime as he considered a boat to safety, and a fight ensued. Jaime wound up wounded but victorious, and the ever-swashbuckling Euron declared that Jaime had killed another king. At least he died happy.
Back at the Red Keep, the Hound and the Mountain finally kicked off what fans had long called “Clegane Bowl” between the two massive brothers. Proving hatred transcends whatever zombie life Qyburn had created, the Mountain disobeyed their orders in approaching the Hound for the main event, killing Qyburn in the process. As the castle collapsed around them, the Hound discovered his undead brother was impossible to kill, and the Cleganes traded eye-for-an-eye wounds before tumbling over the castle walls and to the fires far below. The Hound knew his was a one-way trip to King’s Landing, which was why he ushered Arya away, and his grudge match ultimately ended in a draw.
But the biggest apparent deaths of the show were maybe also the most anticipated. Jaime and Cersei were finally reunited in the dragon-skull-adorned cellars of the Red Keep, but any paths to safety were blocked. For all the speculation about Jaime being the mysterious “valonqar” who would ultimately end Cersei’s life, the two sibling lovers only embraced before the walls fell down and the room went dark.
Their survival seems impossible, which may not satisfy viewers who desired a more pronounced endpoint for the cruel, tormented Cersei, to say nothing of some salvation for her fleetingly redeemed brother. But the swift death of the Night King and Daenerys’ heel turn have taught us that no amount of internet speculation affects a show’s actual plan.
Whether that plan can still coalesce into a satisfying “GOT” ending will be decided next week, but with so much hinging on accepting this reversal by Daenerys — the Breaker of Chains, remember, who just leveled a city she once hoped to rule — that is feeling like another long shot.
But after a battle where there was no longer a force for good on either side — at least not with the capacity to have any impact — “Game of Thrones” is trying to redefine its true villain as something bigger than the Night King or any of the Houses that revolved around the Iron Throne. It’s power, and it might be too strong for whoever survives what’s next.
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