It was never going to have a happy ending. We all knew this.
Daenerys was never going to take King’s Landing without carnage and death on a large scale. We all knew this as well.
We also knew that she was slowly going mad because she’d lost just about everything of importance to her: two of her children, two of her closest and most trusted advisers, her lover, the support of her remaining advisers, the love of the people and even her claim to the Iron Throne. Girlfriend got hit with a lot. And of course, the shadow of her father’s madness followed her for the entirety of her story; the threat of her bloodline determining her actions and fate was built into the story as one of its major themes. All of the major characters have either succumbed to the destiny of their bloodline or actively worked to avoid or change it. You might even say it’s what Game of Thrones has always been about; the power of blood in political, personal and even magical terms. The burning of King’s Landing at the hands of a Targaryen was nearly a foregone conclusion going into the episode.
And we still hated the idea.
The most common rejoinder to any complaint about the show doing something unexpected or unpleasant has always been, “Game of Thrones is meant to subvert expectations about fantasy literature!” Whether we’re talking the beheading of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding or even the fall of the Night King, some of the show’s most powerful and unforgettable moments came when it zigged while the audience expected it to zag. It’s what made Game of Thrones such an unforgettable viewing experience over the years. What should have been the most powerful and shocking moment of all was … a mere inevitability, playing out exactly as a hundred characters over eight seasons warned that it would. “Don’t become the Mad Queen,” they warned. “Don’t burn King’s Landing with all its people inside,” they fretted. “You don’t want to be the queen of ashes,” they implored. Both Dany and Bran had visions of this very outcome, presenting it as a near-inevitability. Yes, Game of Thrones works to subvert expectations, which is why the MOST expected thing to happen actually happening is so disappointing. Would it have felt true to Daenerys and the themes of the series if she’d flipped the script or worked against people’s expectations by NOT committing wholesale slaughter? Honestly, it would have.
Dany’s always been a problematic leader; prone to making mistakes while still demanding fealty, with a clear temper issue and a predilection toward using her dragons to keep people in line or at bay. We have watched her become increasingly messianic and tyrannical in her bearing and her dealings with people. Much of this season has been about watching her make that slide toward tyranny as the people of Westeros either reject her outright or refuse to display the kind of loyalty she expects from freed slaves.Our problem with this turn, aside from its rather dreary inevitability and how un-Game of Thrones that written-in-stone sort of plotting is, was how it was rushed and presented. Dany committed genocide after she got everything she wanted. The city had fallen, the people rang the bells, surrender was at hand. This was an absolutely terrible moment for the writers to have her snap and start killing people for no reason. Even worse, director Miguel Sapochnik made the choice to have her wordlessly go mad on camera, in a bit of painfully cliched facial acting complete with eye-twitches – and then never showed her again through the rest of the episode. Once Dany snapped, she stopped being a character and became a faceless force that all the other characters reacted to. She went from a person to an act of nature, leaving the audience with no choice but to watch her emotional downfall from afar, after having spent eight seasons by her side. What was Dany thinking or feeling as she murdered tens of thousands? Who knows? She’s CRAZY. Forty relentlessly un-entertaining minutes of that. It wasn’t a payoff, it was a flipped switch.
Having said all that, the episode had some particularly well-directed moments. In fact, we’d say that everything up until Emilia Clarke’s “I’m acting CRAZY now” closeup was fairly decent. Varys’ betrayal and execution was sad and sobering; setting up the carnage that was about to come by showing not only how far Dany had fallen, but how completely and utterly useless Jon and Tyrion were at stopping it. The final goodbye between the Lannister brothers was also sad and well-earned; the both of them completely unable to shake their blood bonds, even though they both knew it would mean their deaths. The initial attack on King’s Landing was actually quite thrilling to watch. After having to sit through so many losses and military defeats, it was fun to see the show return to the idea that a dragon is a nearly unstoppable force, even if the writing and direction did have to render hundreds of scorpion crossbows inexplicably ineffective after demonstrating twice how deadly they can be. And Clegane Bowl, such as it was, paid off a story that had been begging for a payoff for the entire length of the series. It wasn’t the most exciting fight in the world. In fact, like so much of this episode, it just felt rather drearily inevitable, but it gave Sandor the sendoff the character deserved; defeating his monster of a brother and falling into the flames.
In a parallel to “The Long Night,” the episode placed Arya in the center of a massive battle and used her journey through the battle to tell a story. Except this time there was no payoff. She didn’t get to kill the Big Bad. She didn’t get to kill anyone. She got a horse. We confess, we didn’t find her scenes particularly interesting except for the moment when she was being trampled by the crowd cross-cutting to The Hound getting beaten by his brother. That was a nicely effective bit of directing and editing that solidified and underlined the bond between these two characters while making the viewer fear that both were about to reach their end. But Arya lived through the battle and is presumably off to steal a face so she can end the Mad Queen the same way she ended the Night King. We’re assuming, of course. We’d like to say her sudden “I really just want to live and give up this life of vengeance” moment was a teeny bit more earned. Like Dany’s madness, Arya’s turn came on suddenly, with no explanation. Unlike Dany’s madness, it didn’t really feel like it was set up in any way.
As for the end of the Lannister twins, that was probably the most disappointing part of all. Dany going crazy was foreshadowed like hell. Cersei and Jaime dying from falling rubble? In each other’s arms? Really? Forget how this ending negates years of Jaime’s character development, the true crime was how it reduced Cersei to … nothing, really. Not only was the Big Bad of the season completely ineffectual; not only did she not have any secret plans up her sleeve (a hallmark of how she plots and rules), but the greatest crime of all was that Cersei essentially had nothing at all to do for the entire last season. She just brooded and drank wine and looked out windows smugly – right up to the last minute, practically. What a waste of this character and of Lena Headey’s tremendous work over the years. And having Euron fatally wound Jaime in a fight that made no sense and no one was asking for felt a bit like the show’s creators twisting the knife a bit; as if to say, “We know this is all hard to watch so we’re going to make it even worse by forcing you to watch this douchebag die smugly.”
We haven’t even gotten into how ruined both Jon and Tyrion are as characters. Tyrion betrayed his best friend for a queen he knew wasn’t fit to rule and Jon marched into battle supporting that very queen blindly. They are as responsible for the deaths of the population of King’s Landing as Daenerys is.
Feh. Have Arya kill Jon, take his face, walk up to Dany and then slit her throat before killing herself. Sansa takes whatever’s left of the Iron Throne. We’d call that a happy ending at this point.