Game of Thrones S8E5 Recap: Vary’s treason, King’s Landing falls, the finale is coming

All right folks—lots of stuff to unpack here, this episode was a bit of a doozy. Sorry, I missed last week, I ended up not having any time on my business trip amidst my responsibilities to write it. But enough about me.

***SPOILER WARNING***

Lots of controversy surrounding this episode—as is tradition this season. Some people loved it, some people hated it. I think that this episode as a whole was an incredible spectacle, wonderfully shot, and well done from a cinematic perspective. Overall, I liked it. The visuals of Dany burning King’s Landing (those little green explosions from her father’s wildfire caches were a nice touch) and the battle itself were beautifully shot. I also enjoyed the addition of the perspective from the citizens of King’s Landing because George RR Martin has always made points to show the impact that the ruling characters’ decisions have on the small folk, and that’s something they’ve sort of gotten away from in this season. So seeing the horrors and brutality of violence and war was awesome—particularly through Arya’s eyes. I very much enjoyed her scenes here. And, of course, her moment with Sandor “the Hound” Clegane was awesome, especially since Arya’s whole thing has been accepting herself as a Stark. Seeing her disappear from Winterfell saying “I’m never coming back,” I found weird, so having her realize through the Hound that this life of pursuing death and destruction can only lead to hurt was a nice way to go about bringing her all the way back. The only thing I wish we saw more of was Dany’s face while she was burning the city—just to sell this snap into madness a little more. Although I’m sure we’ll see that in the series finale next week.

I think the big challenge this season has been the show’s overall directional shift away from the more fantasy elements of George RR Martin’s story, such as the dragons and the White Walkers and Bran’s magic and whatnot. Episodes 3 and 4, “The Long Night” and “The Last of the Starks” were the proverbial ending of those things in the show. And while fans of the books and the fantasy elements have certainly been upset, I think they’ve done a decent job with what they had to work with. They’ve certainly made this season visually pleasing, action-packed, and entertaining—regardless of whether or not you thought the writing was good.

What’s bothered me the most was that, prior to the season premiere, Benioff and Weiss, the head writers, gave an interview in which they said that HBO told them that they could have as much time as they needed to wrap up this story. They told HBO, “we need 13 episodes.” That’s the only thing that has really irked me because literally every issue with S7 and S8 could have been fixed with those extra 7 episodes. That’s time to give us all those cutaway scenes, to really give us a more reasonable descent into madness for Dany, a Long Night that’s more than one night, etc. I liked this episode in the context of what the show is now—and I still think it’s one of the best shows of all time—but the shortcomings it has had hurt it a ton when you look at it as a whole. I personally rewatch the whole series before each season (and I’m sure I’ll rewatch after the finale) and to be honest, you really feel that sped-up timeline, pacing shift, and little inconsistencies this season, even more than in S7.

But when it all comes down to it, from a high-level view, the show is still entertaining as Hell, so I can live with it. It’s well shot, well acted, and the visuals are on a scale unlike anything that has ever been done on televsion before. All things aside, let’s just be happy this thing exists.

Like in my previous recaps, I’m not going to go frame-by-frame here. Instead, I’ll point out the things that I thought mattered the most to the story—if you want to point something out, ask a question about the series or want to share a sick theory, shoot me a DM on Twitter @matt_hoff_ or email me hoffman@wtpsports.com. Also, on my podcast, Live from the Middle Urinal, we talk Thrones, among other things. Do a peep and check them out. Or don’t. Whatever.

Main Theme of the Episode

Fear vs. Love. So the big turning point in this episode was Dany’s conversation with Jon on Dragonstone. Just after she burns Varys alive for treason (looks like he was right, huh?), she has a conversation with Jon up in the room with the Painted Table which helps set up some of her decisions later in the episode.

At first, it seems like she’s going to be furious with him, as just a few scenes prior she says that Jon betrayed her. But we realize that she’s not completely insane and she still loves him, and she offers up to him her true feelings: her pain in the fact that she isn’t as beloved in Westeros as she hoped to be (or as Jon is). He tells her he doesn’t want the throne, despite being the true heir, and that she is his queen. She asks him if that’s all she is to him and when she goes to kiss him, he pulls away, resulting in Dany’s “I can rule through love or fear, fear it is” thing. Which is fine as a way to get her to the ruling-through-fear thing, but kind of strange to me for her character. I get that Targaryens are notorious for incest so this wouldn’t be weird for Dany, but Jon has been brought up thinking this is an act of abomination. She’s very clearly OK with his betrayal (she seems to still love/trust him) but she can’t let him grapple with the fact that he’s been having an incestuous relationship with his aunt? In bird culture, this is considered a “dick move.”

Regardless, Dany’s clearly shown to be handling her losses poorly—and she’s lost a lot. She’s lost her family’s place in Westeros, her brother, her child, her husband Khal Drogo (and second husband Hizdahr zo Loraq), her boyfriend Daario, both Viserion and Rhaegal, Sir Jorah of House Friendzone, half of her forces, and her best friend Missandei, among others. So as much as Dany’s been successful in making her way back to Westeros to rule, she’s lost quite a bit in that journey. And here, in S8E5, we finally see it coming to a head. When Tyrion comes into the Painted Table room, we hear that she hasn’t slept or eaten in 2 days, and she looks like it. So clearly, all of this is finally hitting her in one shot, with Missandei’s death ultimately being the straw to break the camel’s back. More on that ahead.

The theme of the episode is also contrasted between both Dany and Cersei. At this point—the start of this episode—Dany has tried to rule through love. We’ve seen her struggle through conflicts in much more drawn out ways (see: Meereen) than she needed to in the name of keeping innocents alive and minimizing civilian casualties. And personally, she’s had many loves—Drogo, Daario, Jon—and clearly shows great admiration and love for those below her on the totem pole. Cersei, on the other hand, has always ruled through fear and intimidation. Her move has always been to kill those who oppose her and to got to great lengths to destroy those who threaten her power with no regard for excessive loss of life. She barely even shows love to the people she actually loves, like Jaime, and she’s cruel to even those who try to help her or are loyal to her. Toward the end of the episode though, we see the roles sort of flip—Dany has clearly decided that she plans on ruling Westeros through fear and intimidation, with no regard for the lives of the innocent inside the walls of King’s Landing; and Cersei is brought to tears, begging Jaime for some way to save the two of them and their baby. She dies in the arms of the only man she loved with their child, the only other thing she loves in her belly.

The 3 Biggest Moments

1. Danaerys snaps. It finally happened! We’ve been building to Dany’s taking of King’s Landing for 7 seasons now, and we finally see it happen here—though maybe not how we expected. Dany’s character arc has ultimately been working to this moment for quite some time. We’ve seen her burn lots of people and places, from slavers to Khals to ships, so that was no surprise. But every time she’s done it, she’s done so to people who, honestly, kind of deserved it. Or at least, each time prior to this King’s Landing battle, she’s had a justification for the destruction she’s brought, and she’s attempted to keep innocents alive. She’s always been a conqueror with the intent of saving people, but now, she’s really pushing the conqueror side of herself alone, without the savior handle attached.

I mean, let’s run through it:

S1: She burns Mirri Maz Durr, the witch who “killed” Khal Drogo and her baby, at the stake. Justified.
S2: She burns the House of the Undying after the warlocks steal her three dragons. Justified.
S3: She burns Astapor upon acquiring the Unsullied, killing all the slave masters in the city and freeing the slaves. Justified.
S4: She burns the Great Masters of Meereen to take the city and free the slaves. Justified.
S5: She burns a Meereenese nobleman as an example for helping the Sons of the Harpy and the resulting death of Ser Barriston. Justified.
S6: She burns Vaes Dothrak after they held her captive and threaten to rape her and such. Justified.
S7: She burns the Lannister army, who she is literally at war with. Justified.

Each time we’ve seen her do something horrible, there’s been some way for the audience to understand her motivations and her reasonings. It’s easy to sympathize with her. And now, we see her burning King’s Landing—not just the Lannister army and Golden Company she is at war with, but the small folk. She destroys a city and kills the people she means to rule, a direct contrast to her approach to conquering Meereen. Even when she burns the Tarleys last season, she gave them a choice (the same choice Aegon I Targaryen gave the Lords of Westeros in his conquest: join or die). It wasn’t just for no reason. So this time, it’s a little harder to sympathize with her.

As a note, we also got some foreshadowing of this in S2E10, when Dany is in the House of the Undying. She has a vision of the Iron Throne, with the Red Keep around it destroyed and covered in what appears to be, looking back, ash. And while the official script for that episode clearly refers to the flakes which are falling as “snow” (some implication about Jon Snow, the coming White Walker threat, etc.), it has very clearly been retconned to be ash. Interestingly, in that vision, she walks away from the throne to be with Drogo and her baby. Perhaps that’s a signal that she won’t end up on the throne by the end of the finale? I’d say most likely.

As for her descent into madness, let’s explore what brought her here. I’ve mentioned her losses that she’s experienced and this episode has clearly put that emotional toll on display. Even her clothing has changed to reflect it—from the neutral whites she wears in E1 and E2, to now the deep blood reds she wears in E5. Since she’s been in Westeros, people have been telling her not to burn the city and not to go full-on nightmare mode, and a lot of that loss has happened as a result of her not acting the way she wished. If she had landed on Dragonstone and simply flown to King’s Landing (with Yara’s fleet in tow to take on the Iron Fleet) and burned the Red Keep to the ground, none of this would have happened. Viserison and Rhaegal would still be alive and Missandei would still be alive. And perhaps, with the added strength of the armies of the 7 Kingdoms that she would’ve absorbed behind her, maybe Jorah and more than half of her forces would have survived the Long Night. She’s done nothing but listen to her advisors and allies since arriving, and all it’s brought her is pain. I don’t blame her for wanting to dish some out for herself.

Ultimately, her desire to get revenge on the woman who held all that from harm (Cersei) coupled with the losses she’s experienced in the past few weeks are a solid justification for her desire to continue the attack when the bells were rung and surrender was signaled.

Interestingly, this lines up a little with Aerys II, her father. Although he was a madman, he was originally loved by the people. He was charismatic and well-liked. But over the years, some built up and somewhat justified paranoia about people being out to get him—some sought to assassinate him and remove him from power, he was abducted by Duskendale lords and rebels, among other events—ultimately caused him to go mad. Dany has sort of, albeit condensed and not over years and years like her father, had the same justified paranoia. She’s been betrayed several times. Her paranoia led her into this madness, and you could argue it was somewhat justified. People *cough* Varys *cough* were clearly out to get her.

I think a lot of people were upset, mainly, less about the fact that she became the “mad queen” and more at the speed at which it happened. In previous seasons, we would’ve been shown more of this over the course of a longer period, with smaller moments of literal insanity (again, unjustified bloodlust, not just doing violent things—Jon hung a kid, remember, and nobody is calling him a psycho) similar to her father’s, building to this moment. But here we are, and with little time to work with, it had to happen quickly. Honestly, kudos to Emilia Clarke for doing some of the most incredible facial acting that I’ve ever seen, really selling the snap moment when the bells ring. I think if we’d been shown more of her face during those moments after, it might’ve sold it a bit more. Or perhaps some type of scene with her grappling with this madness within—sort of like what they showed us in the “Previously on Game of Thrones” when they showed her face at Missandei’s death with all the voiceovers. Either way, I get the criticisms. Welcome to the reign of Mad Queen Danaerys.

2. Cleganebowl. *Reggaeton airhorns* This is a moment that people, especially book readers, have been speculating about and waiting for, for like, 10 years. They’ve teased us with it in seasons past, and now, in the penultimate (that’s a fancy word for second-to-last) episode of the series, we finally get it. And regardless of your thoughts on the episode, I think we can all agree this was awesome for a number of reasons. We get the Hound’s redemption arc completed, we get that powerfully touching moment with Arya, we get the hilarious shot of Cersei just poppin’ on by there, we get Qyburn getting smashed by his own creation, and we get the incredible shot of the two of them on the breaking staircase with Drogon flying by in the background. I mean, look at this:

CLEGANEBOWL (HBO)

And I mean, how poetic was it for the Hound and the Mountain to end their journey together the same way it was born: by plunging into the fire. The Hound has wanted nothing more than revenge on his undead brother for years now, and he finally gets his chance. And while I can’t say for certain that he won the battle between the two (he literally stabs the dude in the head and he’s still alive so who knows if you can even kill this thing at all), but knowing that he knew he was going to die going into it, I’d call it “Hound beats Mountain, 29-29.” (Shoutout to everyone who actually gets that joke.)

I know some (lame ass) people had issues with this as being “too much fan service,” but there is also a reason it had to happen. It’s been foreshadowed and planned for far too long. And even GRRM has said that just because some people on the internet have managed to figure out something you’ve laid the seeds for doesn’t mean you can retcon it to death to keep them surprised. People are meant to figure shit out—that’s the whole point of leaving clues. Some just do it earlier than intended. If you rewrite things to avoid that, you can ruin the story altogether if the plot point in question is big enough (which is what these people are complaining is happening now with the whole show. But hey, you can’t please everyone!).

3. Cersei and Jaime die together. This was one of those moments that was, at first, kind of a bummer. Many people were hoping that Jaime would go to King’s Landing with the intention of killing Cersei, who he’d clearly turned on, to save the city in a similar fashion to how he did with the Mad King. And honestly, they kind of set it up that way. While I’m not entirely convinced that Jaime’s original intentions were to do that (the pregnancy makes me think that’s most likely the not case), he and Tyrion come to an agreement that he’ll sneak Cersei out through the bottom of the Red Keep and into a boat, off to escape to Pentos and start anew. And while that would have been nice, it wouldn’t have done justice to either character. Really, what it did was give Tyrion an excellent goodbye with his brother, as well as one last chance to both allow his new queen to win and save his family. As he said, he had no intention of destroying his family. This was Tyrion’s last chance to save them while still being true to the queen he believed in. Although my guess is Tyrion may be on the chopping block for that. We’ll see.

Back to Jaime/Cersei. While people are complaining that rocks killed our big bad in Cersei (quick note: they’re fucking bricks, you idiots. It’s rubble from a crumbling building, not a goddamn rockslide in the woods), when you think about it, it’s kind of poetic. Cersei has spent her entire life attempting to claim and hold power. From the time she was a girl, she was prophecized to gain the crown, only to have it all ripped away by a younger, more beautiful queen. And whether you like her or not (as a character I mean, no one should like her as a person), she’s similar to Dany in the amount she’s lost. At the start of the story, she’s the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, with 3 children, her love by her side, and her family set to spawn a dynasty that would last a thousand years. And over the next 7 seasons, she would lose all of her children to murder and suicide, see her father murdered by her own brother, her love and twin turn away from her, and all she’d gained slowly ripped from her fingers from all angles. To think that this woman of power who was feared by millions and had destroyed all those who stood before her could be reduced to a sobbing, pleading, and desperate girl in her final moments was incredible. One of the show’s criticisms has been the lack of reparations for Cersei’s actions in King’s Landing. And while the people she ruled weren’t the ones who served that justice, I believe her story ended as it should: with the structure which was representative of all the power and wealth she sought to hold together breaking and crumbling on top of her.

As for Jaime, he has always said he wished to die in the arms of the woman he loved, and while he surely loved Brienne, Cersei has always been his true love and addiction, and this scene certainly showed that. He comes to into King’s Landing to attempt to save the woman he loves from certain doom and to start anew—incredibly representative of his own attempt at saving himself. Jaime is my favorite character in the show. He starts as an arrogant, terrible person, and after being torn down into nothing (captured by the enemy, his sword hand—and identity—stolen from him), slowly builds himself back up into an honorable man who stands with the living against the dead. His struggle with his own identity has been a theme for him in the story. He’s a complicated man who’s done terrible things in the name of his love and his family and has carried the weight of his decisions on his shoulders. From losing his honor and becoming the kingslayer to being humbled and brought back to the light, Jaime’s journey has been a treacherous one. It’s no wonder after sleeping with Brienne, and finally opening himself up to another, he began to question himself and struggle again with who he is. I ultimately think he is redeemed, though, because he came back to King’s Landing not to kill and fight, but to save his child. And when he dies, it’s comforting the woman he loved as she realizes that it’s the end of things.

They came into the world together, and they while they left it together, they left it being in entirely different places: Cersei reduced, and Jaime redeemed. She’s not ready to die, and he’s at peace with his end.

The 3 Biggest Questions

1. What happens with Vary’s letters? We see Varys writing letters (I’m assuming he wrote more than one, right?) to the lords of Westeros informing them about Jon’s true parentage, similar to Ned in the earlier seasons attempting to inform the people of Joffrey’s birth of incest. Will these letters find their targets? Will the people accept Dany despite this? Will they demand Jon be the new king? Will this start another war (probably not, we only have 80 minutes left)? There are so many questions here that remain to be answered. Perhaps the people will find out through rumors as they did with Cersei and Jaime’s incest, but this time they’ll act on it. Or maybe this will bring the Starks/Northmen and others South? All I know is that this was a huge moment, and how the realm reacts will be equally huge.

2. Will Jon kill Dany? I like to think that we’re going to see a similar scene to what happened when Robert’s Rebellion was won, and Eddard “Ned” Stark comes into the throne room only to find Jaime sitting on the Iron Throne, with the body of King Aerys II Targaryen on the floor beside him. At this moment, Ned judged Jaime guilty, and he was shunned forevermore as the “Kingslayer” and “oathbreaker.” Perhaps Jon will enter what’s left of the throne room to find Dany on the throne and Jon will judge her guilty, springing us into the battle between the two. Either way, I think Jon is clearly distraught at what Dany has done on top of already struggling with his new identity and their relationship(s), and if she’s truly gone mad, there’s a chance he completely turns away from her. It might all be too much. But will he be the only one? Will the Starks come South and the Northmen turn on her? I’m excited to find out.

3. Who will sit on the Iron Throne? This is the obvious question. There are so many ways this could go. And while I can’t give you an actual answer to this, I can certainly guess. Here are my 3 most likely scenarios:

  1. Dany rules Westeros as Queen of the Ashes. If we’re looking for a bittersweet ending, this is an easy route. I could totally see the show ending on a Dany one-liner about how she plans to break the wheel down and rebuild it better than ever, only for another mad Targaryen to drive the continent into despair. Whether or not she needs to kill/marry Jon to secure the throne remains to be seen, but there’s going to be some serious tension between the two. If they stay together, maybe things work out in this scenario. Who knows.
  2. Jon rules Westeros as King Aegon VI Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. This is, to me, one of the more boring endings, though there are probably a couple of ways they could pull this off to make it work. Jon clearly does not want to rule, and never has, but he’s always been a good leader. He’s a just man and an honorable one. And as Dumbledore says in the Harry Potter series, it seems that those who are best fit for power are those who never wanted it. We’ll see.
  3. No one rules. Dany has always said she wanted to break the wheel. Perhaps she dies and they replace her with a ruling council or some sort of oligarchy. Or a democracy. This one is kind of a cop-out, but in reality, there are so many ways they could end this show, and based on what the writers have said, there’s a reason to believe it will be somewhat surprising. Maybe Sansa shows up and rules? To be honest, she’d probably be good at it. Or maybe Bran shows up and for some reason becomes king? This is the biggest question of the show, and I just really hope they figure it out in a satisfying way.

Get ready for next week. Let’s hope they end this thing well enough.

Photo: HBO

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