An episode devoted to terrible decision-making reveals a pivot from shocking twists and moments of badass spectacle to quiet, tragic ironies.
Back in season one, Ned Stark laid out a future for his small daughter Arya: “You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights, or princes and lords.”
“No,” she replied immediately. “That’s not me.”
Years later, heading north to rejoin her family, Arya encounters Nymeria, her former direwolf, who now heads a legendary pack in the Riverlands. When Nymeria refuses to come with her, Arya is wracked by a fresh pang of grief… but it eases when Arya realises: “That’s not you.”
We want our favourite stories to reflect humanity at its best, not its worst. We want to identify with goodness, honesty and equality of opportunity — not cruelty, oppression and broken promises. We want our storytelling to be feminist, antiracist and queer, to celebrate solidarity and model allyship.
But that’s not Game of Thrones, which has always punished its most idealistic, honourable characters, and continued to do so this episode. To me, we were watching the characters fucking up, not the storytelling — give or take some actual production errors. Perhaps this episode felt full of upsetting choices because those choices took people further from their true selves.
The spark between Jaime and Brienne has always been the moral conflict between their mutual intimacy and their divergent allegiances. It’s a classic romance narrative: she despised the Kingslayer’s dishonour but grew to love him after he defended her and revealed his inner torment. Meanwhile, Jaime came to see through Brienne’s defensive taciturnity to her immense capacity for tenderness. She allows Jaime to feel like the good man she staunchly believes him to be.
He seeks her out after the banquet, knowing how Tyrion’s drinking game had humiliated her. This was no pity fuck; Jaime had just located the desire in his complex mix of feelings for her. Brienne’s all in, while he hesitates: “I don’t want things ‘growing on me’,” he says; and later, “I’ve never slept with a knight before.”
He’s never slept with anyone but his sister before. His tragedy is that, unlike only child Brienne, he’s never been free to choose his own loyalties. Just two episodes ago he defiantly told Daenerys, “Everything I did, I did for my house and my family.” And his eyes glimmered with pain as he told Brienne he was returning to Cersei: “She’s hateful… and so am I.”
This isn’t callousness; it’s self-loathing. A lot of heat has been tooken about how Sansa Stark’s trauma has moulded her; but Tywin Lannister subjected Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion to a lifetime of emotional abuse. He disparaged them at every turn, forced them to compete for his approval, and groomed them to depend only on each other. (Reminder: Tywin and Joanna Lannister were cousins.)
(And as Bronn explains at the point of a crossbow, all noble houses begin with ambitious scoundrels. Jaime and Tyrion are blindsided by Bronn’s grim professionalism — the opposite of the jovial reunions in which this season has so far indulged. Both of them had felt Bronn to be their friend — but of course that was just their rich-boy complacency. Bronn’s always been all business.)
To me it’s tragic that despite all Cersei’s betrayals and atrocities, neither of her siblings can bring themselves to completely distrust and disavow her. Still, she could have had Tyrion killed where he stood outside the city gate, but she stayed her hand…
There was plenty of fumbled communication in this episode. I wanted a reaction shot from Euron Greyjoy when Tyrion mentioned Cersei’s pregnancy. I wanted to see Arya’s and Sansa’s faces when Jon ‘Um, You Tell ’Em, Bran’ Snow confessed that he’s not, after all, their brother. I yearned to see poor, earless Ghost get even a pat from Jon in thanks for his service. But no.
I did rejoice at the kindness with which Arya kissed a dazed, newly legitimised Lord Gendry Baratheon goodbye. His marriage proposal echoed King Robert’s words to her dad Ned in the very first episode: “I have a son; you have a daughter. We’ll join our houses.” And her answer to Gendry echoed what she once told Ned.
Gendry has slowly been maturing into a lord, but Arya is no lady… and Sandor Clegane is no knight. The return of the Arya and the Hound roadshow felt less screwball this time around. Like Bronn, they’re on a business trip. Watch out, anyone with green eyes. #GETHYPE, everyone else.
I want to talk about the direwolves. Their spiritual symbolism has always been frustratingly downplayed, but the wolf is no mere Very Good Boy, embodying the usual ideas we give to dogs — loyalty, care, protection, and so on. It’s also a familiar spirit, expressing something pure and authentic about its bonded human.
Sansa’s wolf, Lady, embodied her innocence; Rickon’s Shaggydog was a fierce roamer. Robb’s Grey Wind was tragically kennelled when he tried to warn Robb about the Red Wedding, symbolising Robb’s refusal to listen to his intuition. Nymeria found other ways to belong, as Arya has; and mystical Summer died with Bran’s humanity in the Cave of the Three-Eyed Raven.
Ghost has roamed far beyond the Wall, like Jon, and sat sentinel over Jon’s corpse, knowing he’d return. “A direwolf has no place in the south,” Jon says now, consigning Ghost to Tormund’s care. This shabby betrayal represents Jon’s sacrifice of his hurt, mutilated Stark self on the altar of Daenerys’s Targaryen ambitions. It’s also poignant, because Jon is setting Ghost free as he himself becomes more tightly entangled in southron power struggles. As Tormund reminds Jon, “You’ve got the north in you — the real north.”
As counsel for The Realm, Varys will always back stability — even if that’s a reluctant, fail-upwards bozo like Jon. The fact Jon inspires loyalty despite his consistently poor decision-making says a lot about the fatuousness of ‘chosen one’ fantasies. There’s no sympathy for wanting things and setting out to get them in this show.
And while Jon is still struggling to preserve who he was, Dany can’t see who she is becoming. “I’ve served tyrants most of my life. They all talk about destiny,” says Varys, adding that “her life has convinced her that she was sent here to save us all.” But the thing is: that’s the bait-and-switch the series itself has offered us.
As soon as I saw Daenerys’ costumes in this episode — the white Snow tones darkening to Stormborn greys; the veins of dragon’s-blood-red widening and oxidising; the dragon-teeth erupting along her shoulder-pads — I could sense her breaking bad. Or, rather, the show is emphasising that whoever she might want to be, that’s not her.
Her dismay and mounting panic are quite understandable — she knows she’s getting steamrolled. Her subsequent shit decisions — denying her exhausted army time to rest; begging Jon, then emotionally blackmailing him, into staying quiet about his parentage; charging head-on at Euron in fury at Rhaegal’s death rather than sensibly wheeling to blaze the Iron Fleet from behind — come from her need to reassert her power. Nothing works.
My personal fantasy for this episode was the kind of competent coup we’d have expected from the Daenerys of yore: when Missandei said, “Dracarys!” Drogon would rear up behind Cersei, the Mountain, the lot of ’em, and just roast the shit out of everyone. He’d have melted away Missandei’s chains, giving her the free death she’d wanted, and making her sacrifice as meaningful as Theon’s last week. And what a way to bookend the episode: with two funeral pyres.
But that’s not Game of Thrones. Instead, the capture and murder of the show’s one woman of colour as a demonstration of Cersei’s villainy felt both toothless — because we’ve already seen her do much worse — and unfortunate, because it reminds audiences how uninterested the showrunners are in responding to culture’s identity turn.
Still, I do appreciate the way that the show is pivoting from shocking twists and moments of badass spectacle to quiet, tragic ironies. Missandei’s defiant final words have lit a fuse in Dany’s memory. When she fucks up King’s Landing — and I really think the place is going to be a wasteland now — in her mind she’ll be avenging her friend, reliving her greatest chain-breaking hits, being the liberal democrat of her dreams.
But to everyone else, she’ll be just another mad Targaryen tyrant, screaming, “Burn them all!”