"Game of Thrones" recap: 5 takeaways from the wreckage of "The Bells"
One war down, one war to go. Sunday night's penultimate episode of "Game of Thrones" delivered the final major fight sequence with Dany's attack on King's Landing in the hopes of reclaiming the throne – by any means necessary. And she, uh, did not leave much room for doubting who won the fight.
Here are our five big takeaways from one of the final episodes of "Game of Thrones" – other than don't bring a big crossbow to a dragon fight.
1. Now THAT'S how you shoot an epic battle sequence
"Game of Thrones" and director Miguel Sapochnik swung and missed on this final season's first big battle. It wasn't just dimly lit; it was overly compressed and poorly optimized for streaming, aka the way most people will watch the thing; the editing strove for thrilling confusion but just landed on the latter; and there was a disproportionate amount of time spent watching two CG dragons get lost in a blizzard. As the resolution to a subplot spanning the entire series, from literally its first scene, it was a bit of an anticlimax.
Sapochnik and company, however, must've been saving their shot for the siege on King's Landing, as last night's savage, thrillingly terrifying 90 minutes lived up to its esteemed place as the series' second-to-last episode. Sure, we can debate the writing – and oh, we will debate the writing – but the craft was out of this world Sunday night as Dany and Drogon went scorched earth, first on Cersei's troops and Euron's fleet (so much for giant crossbows! Great thinking, Qyburn!), then on the entire population of King's Landing.
The early destruction was a thrill, witnessing the firepower of a fully armed and operational dragon as it laid waste to the Iron Fleet and the army guarding King's Landing's doorstep as if they were bugs and she was a big can of flaming Raid. Then things took a turn for the bleak and brutal as she ignored the bells of surrender and laid waste to the entirety of King's Landing – All those people! All that architecture! – along with Grey Worm slicing the remaining troops into deli meats. The Arya long-take sequences, in particular, really captured the vivid sense of chaos and horror as Dany's war tore a city to rubble and a people into ash – but, unlike "The Long Night," without losing the viewer in the process or becoming a monotonous blur.
It was a horrendous rush – and an often gorgeously captured one, with memorable shots of the dragon flying past above Cleganebowl, Arya standing in a light amongst a world of dark char or Tyrion walking through the fire-scarred gates of King's Landing, searing their way into one's eyeballs. Even the way the episode shot Dany's descent into madness, in tight, harsh and meaningful close-up, was well done, doing its best to make up for the script's shortcomings.
Fans will likely debate this episode for the rest of the week, but one thing is inarguable: This was a well-directed, haunting and gorgeous 90 minutes of television that felt worth the wait and worth the infamous "Game of Thrones" price tag. Consider all forgiven with "The Long Night."
2. The Mad Queen's arrived – for better or worse
Well, definitely the worse for King's Landing.
Dany decimating the city's defenses was exhilarating and worthy, but when the bells of surrender chimed through the city and Dany ignored them, what was once a thrill turned into a nightmare of ash and panic, an entire city turned into a maze of death. The Mad Queen arrived Sunday night – and was exactly as feared, willing to rule a city of the dead in order to get what she wants. And that's all after she cooked Varys to death after she caught word of his plans for treason.
On one hand, this particular season did not wholly earn this massive heel turn from a beloved character. The show tried bombarding her with death and deceit over truncated episodes – from Missandei's sudden death to Jon Snow's birthright revelation and the loss of two of her children – but without giving enough time to let the weight of these big losses register and accumulate. It's become brutally clear that cutting the season orders from ten to a mere six or seven has harmed the dense depth and detail that made the show great in its heyday, rushing through bulletpoints instead of telling a story and letting moments breathe the way the show once so masterfully did. One imagines George R.R. Martin spending an entire book or so building Dany's demise to the Mad Queen; this season doesn't quite put the time in to have the tragedy of her fall hit as hard as it should.
That being said, this wasn't a betrayal or some unexpected twist. The Mad Queen's been a potential end point for her character for seasons from the way she handled the slavers to the way she handled Mereen to the way she roasted the Tarlys and even just her reaction to her brother's death all those years ago. Dany has always been a vengeful person with a violent tyrannical streak toward those in her path or even those who did not fittingly bow to her, despite a suspect claim to the throne – even more suspect now than ever. Sure, she said she wanted to "break the wheel," but that was and is now clearly her "drain the swamp," an opportunist phrase to just graduate herself to power with no intention to actually do so. This season may not have given her character's devolution the sun and water it needed to grow healthily into the tragedy it's supposed to be, but the seeds were clearly planted years ago.
Frankly, a lot of the anger over Dany reminds me a lot of the first season of "True Detective." Viewers spent so much time overanalyzing frames of that show and hunting clues, all under the assumption the show was some big whodunnit mystery when the show turned out to not be interested in that at all. So folks turned on the show, annoyed it wasn't giving them the story they thought they were getting. Never mind that the show was always a moody, atmospheric character study more than a procedural mystery; people wanted one story and let themselves hype what they expected as opposed to the story that was actually being told.
The same seems to be happening with "Game of Thrones": Many viewers seem mad that the story they assumed they were going to get, a quite literal YAS QUEEN story of revolution, isn't the one the show's telling – and has never been the one the show's telling. This series has always about the corrupt brutality of those who rule, the cynicism and cruelty of power; who could've expected that to continue with a character who's promised to burn cities down if she doesn't get what she wants? Who could've expected a show about the lie of easy heroism portraying that revolutions can become the deadly oppression they sought to overthrow?
A solid foundation for this turn was built seasons ago and fortified over the years; it's just a shame they put such a leaky roof on it.
3. Cersei = genius (at getting crushed)
Cersei spent this entire season smirking out her window ... for this?
There was something thrillingly satisfying about watching Cersei slowly realize that, for once, she picked the wrong fight, as her troops – from the Iron Fleet to the Golden Company – were utterly decimated by Dany's dragon. Not the army, pretty much just Dany's dragon. This is what happens when you trust a goofy old kook to design your big war strategy, and he comes up with "crossbows but larger than normal." Man, in an episode not quite designed for audience enjoyment (way too many charred innocents for that), there was something deeply enjoyable about watching Qyburn's genius, game-changing weapons get turned into kindling in about five minutes. No character deserved to die as lamely as he did, just getting chucked into some rocks by The Zombie Mountain as he harrumphed about Cleganebowl breaking out.
But to make matters worse, not only was Cersei's lazy strategy totally obliterated on the battlefield, our shellshocked villain managed to sadly stumble herself under a crumbling castle, where she would eventually die due to the city falling onto her. Not exactly a proud, dignified end for one of the show's great, most devious villains. (For those who wanted a more viscerally satisfying death, this is the same show that ended up killing Joffrey in such a grim and unpleasant manner that you almost ended up feeling something resembling pity for the miserable little murderer – or at least those few who cared about him. This has always been a show about avoiding the easy, satisfying and standard heroic beats.)
Still, she got to die a queen – and die beside her one true love, Jaime, who turned out actually DID bail on Brienne and the rest of the good guys' army last week in order to try to convince Cersei to give away the crown with no unnecessary carnage. (That certainly didn't work out!) It was actually a nice final moment between the two, albeit one that could've meant more if Jaime's return to her side, like most things these past two seasons, wasn't such a rushed plot point. Jaime went through quite the character whiplash, undoing several seasons' worth of redemption in about five brisk minutes, and like many elements over the past few seasons, it was a little too rushed and a little too surface-level to really land.
Once again, when the obituary for "Game of Thrones" is written, the cause of death will definitely be listed as "didn't order full seasons over the last few years." Which is a little bit better, I guess, than "wildly underestimated dragons, then had a city drop on her."
4. Cleganebowl? CLEGANEBOWL!
For all the complaining and nitpicking, the internet had one thing it could all agree on this episode: Cleganebowl. We finally got The Hound and The Mountain back in the same room – OK, staircase – and dueling it out. And indeed, they would end up dueling to the death as The Hound, try and stab as he might, just couldn't defeat the undead mound of man that is The Mountain. Even with a blade through the face, Gregor Clegane couldn't stop.
So what to do when a man overtaken by death battles a man overtaken by vengeance? Claim a pyrrhic victory by tackling your opponent through the collapsing outer brick wall and falling at least about a dozen stories to a fiery death. (Or re-death in The Mountain's case.) And really, there was no way The Hound was coming out of that battle alive. That's not a character who made plans for life after murdering The Mountain.
5. Jon Snore on the Iron Groan
It's pretty much inevitable at this point: Jon Snow will end this show on the Iron Throne. And uuuggggggghhhhhh, this guy? Really? A large part of the uproar over Dany's heel turn comes from Jon Snow being just such a wet blanket doofus, a guy who's stumbled his way up this entire series without anyone on the show willing to acknowledge it, yet still being presented as the good and morally sound choice to Dany's increasing crazy. Sure, Dany's not fit to rule after blowing up everyone she was supposed to rule – but him? He's the Joe Biden of the show at this point: a rational if disappointingly uninspired pick, especially amongst much more interesting and worthy choices, and the more he's been pushed as the favorite, the more he's been rejected.
Then again, it simply makes too much sense that "Game of Thrones" – a show about the cancer of monarchial rule, with people slaying one another in their house's name and claiming thrones using blood; about how ambition and power are doomed to lead to cruelty and tyranny – would end with somebody with no ambition and no real attachment to any of his family names landing on the throne.
In a just world, however, Sansa and Arya would split the seat of swords. After all, without them, Jon Snow would've needed two or three more resurrections.
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