(Read my mid-season review here.)
Oh, Game of Thrones, what you could have been.
Throughout your epic run you’ve flirted with big, brave ideas and teased us with great moments of storytelling. This season had all the potential to cap of the show in unforgettable fashion.
But alas, like the fiery ruin of the Red Keep collapsing onto Cersei and Jaime, so too does the the show crumble beneath the weight of clumsy pacing at the expense of its most cherished and interesting characters.
The incestuous lovers gave us one of episode five’s most poignant moments as they reunited in the ruined map room – testament to the wonderfully complicated relationships we have formed with these at times morally despicable characters.
But that was all the pay-off we were going to get. For Jaime’s story to fizzle out so reductively is disappointing. But for Cersei – the show’s arch-villain – to be dismissed having not uttered a single word to any of her many nemeses all season is just a waste.
Of course, the show’s ultimate antagonist turns out to be Danaerys. Her potential madness has been alluded to all along, but the final descent from avenging liberator to brutal megalomaniac is so extreme and so rushed it verges on ridiculous.
By the final episode, she has gone right off the deep end, taking any pretence of moral ambiguity with her. Drunk on power, promising eternal conquest and whispering desperately of ‘breaking the wheel,’ she becomes a stereotype, fatally undermining our ability to empathise with Jon’s apparent inner conflict over what to do.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the emotional foundation that should have fuelled such divided loyalties just isn’t there. The pair were never able to build believable chemistry in a romance that was just as rushed as everything else.
Dany’s death, when it comes, was surprising only in how little I cared. Like the rest this season, it was predictable and perfunctory, part of a thoughtless clearing of the board under the pressure of arriving at a far-too-simple ending.
Still, despite the writers’ inability to credibly deliver on Dany’s personal downfall, the climactic siege of King’s Landing nonetheless had all the broader, thematic potential to redeem it.
Watching shot after shot of extras writhing in fiery agony, I couldn’t help but recall Missandei-actress Nathalie Emmaneul’s tweet from the week before. ‘Burn bish burn,’ she wrote, to the blood-thirsty cheers, I’m sure, of legions of fans. Many would’ve been disappointed that the actual battle concluded as quickly and easily as it did. As Dany sits atop Drogon and stares off at the Red Keep, part of me wanted her to do it.
The horrifying reality of what comes next is a stern rebuke of what we have for so long enjoyed. Now even our most beloved and moral heroes are complicit in the kind of atrocity they (and we) have always tried to seperate themselves from.
That Jon, born in the ashes of the last Targaeryan king’s reign – who was himself narrowly prevented from razing King’s Landing – should return to the city at the head of the armies of Aerys’ destructive daughter, is poetic. The crimes of the past birth these new crimes and we are forced to wonder if our heroes are truly any different from what has come before.
It’s left to the duel between the Clegane brothers to drive this point home. In one of the show’s best moments, the Hound releases Arya from her vengeful mission and the cyclical trap of vendetta that he – and so many others – have succumbed to.
As he confronts the Mountain on the crumbling stair, the futile nature of this vendetta is revealed: Beneath the once-golden armour, a rotting corpse. “That’s what you’ve always been,” the Hound comments. The true heart of violence, hidden beneath the glittering armour of mythology, is a graveyard.
A worthy reminder, but ultimately convincing. Because in the same breath, the show is titillating us with one of the goriest duels in its history. The Mountain is impaled, cops an ineffectual knife through the eye and attempts a repeat of his infamous eye-gouge coup de grace, which literally exploded the head of its last victim.
As always, Game of Thrones’ attempt to comment is undermined by its complicity in the use of shocking gore and – at other times – gratuitous sex as entertainment. For eight seasons, it has glorified much more than it has questioned, exploiting hyper-violent or sexual imagery to gain a provocative edge. To turn around at the last minute and lay the reality of that violence at the viewer’s feet feels like a cheap attempt to cash out on that in which it has been currying all along.
And after all the destruction, the final conclusion is disappointingly timid. The Iron Throne is melted, yes, and, with a jarring change of tone, Bran is summarily elected as the new king.
The ‘wheel’ of inherited rule is broken, and perhaps a little more democracy has been snuck into the system, but for all its musings on power, love and war, Game of Thrones seems to arrive largely back where it began, eight years ago. The only difference is that now it’s the characters we know and love in the positions of power, or else setting off for new adventures elsewhere.
It’s to the characters that the shows loyalties have always truly belonged, not to the big ideas it has them contemplate. But rushed pacing and questionable narrative decisions ultimately means it fails to do justice to either.
(Read my mid-season review here.)