This episode challenged its characters to break the chain of vengeance, to decide that different things mattered. Some did. Some couldn’t.
Four hundred years before the events of this episode, the Valyrian Freehold was utterly destroyed, its mastery of dragons, sorcery and steelsmithing reduced to fable when the peninsula’s volcanos, the Fourteen Flames, erupted simultaneously. The fiery cataclysm is known today as the Doom of Valyria.
The sole survivors were House Targaryen, a minor noble family who’d travelled west to the island of Dragonstone 12 years earlier, after Daenys Targaryen had foreseen the Doom in a dream. Nothing else mattered, only them.
I thought of the Doom of Valyria this episode. Daenerys Targaryen’s reign of fire evoked the firebombing of Dresden in WWII, the World Trade Center’s collapse on 9/11, or recent US drone strikes on Africa and the Middle East. Flames rained from above. People fled and screamed and seared. Buildings collapsed. A snow of ashes blanketed charred, huddled bodies.
But the real-world counterpart to the Doom of Valyria — the volcanic destruction of Pompeii — wasn’t wrought by human hands. It was an unstoppable natural disaster. Similarly, vendetta comes to seem like a force of nature, sweeping individuals helplessly along in a relentless cycle of revenge. Throughout Game of Thrones, one death has always provoked another, in an endless chain of vengeance.
Daenerys’ decision to lay waste to King’s Landing wasn’t rushed or unearned. Like an active volcano, it has been rumbling. Not to spend too long on her trail of dead, but her ruthlessness has been clear since her brother Viserys’ gilded death back in season one. And in season two, trying to raise funds in Qarth, she raged, “I am Daenerys Stormborn, of the blood of old Valyria, and I will take what is mine with fire and blood!” Now she has.
“Let it be fear,” Daenerys says ominously to Jon Snow, as if he’ll be the one bringing terror upon Westeros just because he didn’t pash his aunt. This fear/love binary is typical of her all-or-nothing way of thinking — it’s real Dany Darko stuff. We always mocked Ser Friendzone (RIP), but Jorah Mormont’s abject, steadfast devotion reinforced her belief that real love requires absolute surrender. Jon’s mere loyalty and deference aren’t enough. The bells of King’s Landing aren’t enough.
Her ideal soldiers are the Unsullied, who have been conditioned not to want anything but to serve. And this is why Grey Worm’s story is so poignant. Missandei reawakened his human individuality, his capacity to love and be loved; and now that she’s gone, rage has come burning into the void, making a sacked city of his heart.
Fear, on the other hand, has no strings attached. Daenerys has lived with it, knows it intimately, and deals it out freely. Viserys terrorised his sister throughout her childhood, threatening to “wake the dragon” — the irony, of course, being that by trading his sister to Khal Drogo like horseflesh, Viserys woke the dragon in her. And he died because he couldn’t bear to see the Dothraki love his sister more than him.
Daenerys also wanted to be the only one who mattered. She watched the North celebrate Jon Snow the way Viserys had watched the Dothraki celebrate her. Despite her fine words about self-determination, she was basically stoked that the slaves she freed seemed not just to celebrate their own freedom, but also to hyperbolically adore her for freeing them. Her ruthless punishments always came from a place of resentment at not being completely loved. The only surprise this episode was that she only roasted realm-loving Varys (as she had promised she would), and not Jon and Tyrion as well.
Grief, not joy or relief, flickered over Dany’s face as she heard the surrender bells. She knew she’d just achieved her lifelong goal, but it didn’t seem enough of a win. Seeing the Red Keep, the castle built by her conquering ancestors, only hammered home that this city hadn’t loved the Targaryens as it should. So this city needed to pay. Nothing else mattered.
Yes, it was the grossest fanservice, but I yelled “FUCKING CONFIRMED!” at the TV as Game of Thrones finally delivered Cleganebowl, The Hype That Was Promised. Tactfully, Cersei slunk past the two Clegane brothers and down the stairs, but Qyburn made the critical error of trying to check the hype, and paid the traditional price of mad scientists: killed by his own creation.
The fight was fun, I suppose. Undead Ser Gregor pulled out all his best tricks, from the wall/head smash to the eye-gouging technique seen to devastating effect on Oberyn Martell. The only glimmer of humanity remaining in the Mountain’s red Anakin Skywalker eyes was his hatred for his little brother.
Meanwhile, Sandor laughed at the bitter absurdity that he delivered killing blow after killing blow with no effect. His revenge fantasy was never going to end the way he’d planned. Instead, he had to think outside the stair, embracing the two things he feared most — his brother, and fire.
His earlier warning to Arya was another circuit-breaker. When he cupped his fierce little companion’s head — the tenderest gesture we’ve ever seen from him — and warned, “You come with me, you die here,” he wasn’t only speaking literally. He was telling her that it wouldn’t really be living if she were to follow his all-consuming path of hatred and revenge. It’s not too late for her. Other things matter.
And it’s with this realisation that Arya stumbles from the fire-blasted city, and tries to save that mother and daughter. I don’t think it’s out of character that someone who’d killed the Night King just weeks earlier would be shaken now. King’s Landing was already a site of devastating loss for Arya, and it’s literally crashing down around her. And seeing other little girls losing everything only reminded her how depressingly repetitive violence is.
The Faceless Men began as slaves in Valyria whose suffering was so great they longed to die. But now Arya realises she doesn’t have to be trapped in a water-dance of death and service, valar morghulis and valar dohaeris. When was the last time we saw her shed tears? Yet she cried when she saw that child’s charred hand still gripping her little horsey toy. She’s realising, much too late, that other people matter.
Then her own horsey arrived. She approached it with such tenderness that many fans joked Bran must have warged into the horse, ‘ordering her an Uber’. There were also those who likened it to Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings, and those who saw it as the ‘pale horse’ ridden by Death, anticipating that Arya will return to her vocation of vengeance.
I’m not so sure now. There was something sacramental about the lens flare in that scene, the slowly drifting flakes of ash and the music swelling with awe, that reminded me of Ser Davos’s own moment beside Shireen’s pyre, discovering another charred child’s toy. What if the Lord of Light hasn’t fucked off yet, after all?
First introduced as a boozehound and whoremonger, and then emerging as a shrewd politician, Tyrion calls himself “one not-so-innocent dwarf”. But he’s actually turned out to be the sweetest summer child of all. His faith in the surrender bells was touching. “If Daenerys can make it to the throne without wading through a river of blood, perhaps she’ll show mercy to the person who made that possible,” Tyrion tells Jaime hopefully.
Jaime just looks at him.
The difference between Tyrion and Varys is between idealism and realpolitik; having decided Westeros will never accept Daenerys, Varys is seen boldly colluding with a kitchen girl to poison Dany’s food, and pens raven-letters about Jon’s superior claim to the throne. (Who’s even left to receive these? Yara Greyjoy? The unnamed New Prince of Dorne?)
But Tyrion is still loyal enough to Daenerys to dob Varys in for betraying her, and loyal enough to Varys to be ashamed of himself. “It was me,” he tells Varys, in a piteous echo of supreme schemer Lady Olenna Tyrell’s defiant last words.
And as I described last week, the Lannister kids are loyal to each other. Jaime callously admits he never cared for the people, even though he slew Aerys Targaryen to prevent the Mad King from blowing up the city with wildfire. And he knows Cersei well enough to know that appealing to her unborn child will never make her merciful: “The worst things she’s ever done, she’s done for her children.”
Tyrion and Jaime’s love is purer. Jaime rescued Tyrion from the dungeons back in season four; now Tyrion repays the favour. Jaime, who’s always been told he was stupid, was everything to his clever little brother. “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster,” Tyrion says brokenly; and as he sobbed in Jaime’s arms, I cried too.
Tyrion has even indulged in a childish fantasy in which Jaime and Cersei will sail away to Pentos to raise their child. Trust Euron Greyjoy to blunder into the hidden cove, his trademark bravado as heavy and false now as Jaime’s golden hand. You’ve had Cleganebowl — now it’s time for Danebowl!
Jaime and Euron’s fight scene felt irritating and inessential — two exhausted men slanging and scrabbling at each other. It’s a shame that the show never made the most of the mystical qualities Euron had in the books — like his voyage to the smoking ruins of old Valyria, where he picked up the magic horn Dragonbinder — turning him instead into a dickhead who bought into his own PR. “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister!”
Jaime Lannister, however, survived long enough to reunite with his sister. While it’s sad that all the redemptive things he’s done only led him back into Cersei’s arms, wouldn’t it have been far cornier for Brienne’s unalloyed goodness to have saved Jaime? I liked his bittersweet ending. An abused boy, disgraced youth and murderous man realised he could still do good in the world, and broke free from his stifling family for long enough to earn someone else’s love. But only for a little while.
I found it satisfying that Cersei and Jaime were killed by gravity, sealed off from the world, unable to break from the suffocating twin-closeness that made everyone else seem less important. I loved that their deaths were quiet and ignominious — not badass, crowd-pleasing knifings by Arya Stark wearing someone else’s face.
This show has naturalised the view that civil carnage is natural and inevitable; we accept the misery of many if it helps our favourites matter. But what if the true Breaker of Chains is someone who will not always choose violence, or let it be fear? Someone who doesn’t go for the cool, showy option; someone who decides other people matter, too?
Well, there’s still one more episode for the show to disappoint us…