Television

The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones generated enormous controversy among fans. Why has the HBO series provoked such strong feelings? By Geordie Williamson.

Game of Thrones

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones.
Credit: Helen Sloan / HBO

For the uninitiated or merely uninterested, or even the engaged viewer still lost, stumbling in the CGI murk of the recent Battle of Winterfell, the second-to-last episode of Game of Thrones – a show that can feel at times like someone dropped a copy of Burke’s Landed Gentry into a vat of lysergic acid – shakes the dust from the family tree, prunes the branches back to the narrative trunk, and grants us a terrible clarity.

This was the moment we’d been headed for, ever since Daenerys discovered that she wasn’t the Targaryen the Seven Kingdoms had been looking for. That was Jon Snow, King in the North, who as we now know is not Ned Stark’s bastard but the son of Ned’s sister Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen, Daenerys’ brother. Which makes Jon not only Daenerys’ nephew (incest being quite the rage among the show’s upper crust), but also the true heir to the Iron Throne.

From the moment an abashed Jon Snow breaks the news to his dragon-riding girlfriend, the die has been cast. Somewhere Carl Jung writes that “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”. Well, Daenerys has ridden her “mother of dragons” schtick ever since her brother sold her to a Dothraki warlord half-a-dozen seasons ago. The certainty that she is fated to rule Westeros has sustained her through travails that would have driven the rest of us out of our gourds.

Jon’s revelation makes that destiny hostage to more banal and worldly calculations. As the furrowed brows of a thousand Northern peasants have taught her, she is the unwelcome stranger in this world – Jon is the beloved leader. Even her dragons feel the chill up there.

The resulting tragedy is that Jon, the only person who might check the mania that this news promises to induce in Daenerys, is obliged by decency to withdraw from the intimacy that would permit it. Worse still, Stark family loyalty demands that he tell his half-sister Sansa too. Now everybody knows and the pressure on Jon to step up is building.

All it took was the death of one of Daenerys’ remaining dragons at the hands of the Iron Fleet and a gratuitous beheading of her captured handmaiden Missandei on Cersei Lannister’s orders, atop the walls of King’s Landing at the end of the last episode, to loosen the psychic shackles that have been holding the family madness in.

And this is where the whole universe of Game of Thrones – imagined over thousands of pages by author George R. R. Martin and translated into almost three days’ worth of soap opera and digital spectacle – comes to perch: looking over Drogon’s scaly shoulder the following day, as King’s Landing falls to a ferocious assemblage of Unsullied and Dothraki, followed by a war-weary crew of Northern knights.

When the bells of the overrun city ring out to indicate surrender – a signal that Tyrion Lannister, Queen’s “hand” and moral centre of the story in its dying days, has begged Daenerys to respect, in order to spare countless civilians trapped in the city – Daenerys pauses. The camera alights on her elfin features as some dark private drama plays out behind the eyes. Then she and Drogon (this is not a spoiler alert so much as an atrocity alarm) proceed to raze the city and all within it.

The scenes that follow are the bloodiest of a series that has happily wallowed in gore. The flaying of Theon Greyjoy? The Red Wedding? The final fight against the White Walkers? Nothing prepares the viewer for the sheer scale of destruction that occurs over the next hour of screen time. It is as though Pablo Picasso’s Guernica has been animated.

As Drogon does his shock-and-awe work over the city, Cersei watches from the height of the Red Keep, maintaining all the grand expressionlessness of a Romanov faced with Red Brigades smashing the drawing-room china. First she assures herself that the Iron Fleet, under the command of her odious paramour Euron Greyjoy, will kill the dragon – then that the battery of mounted mechanical arrows that line the city walls will do the trick. As her hand Qyburn gently disabuses her of these possibilities, her lower lip is allowed one tiny, Marie Antoinette-ish tremble. The city’s bells may not have done the trick for her people, but they do toll for Cersei. Her death soon afterwards, in brother/lover Jaime’s arms, concludes proceedings for now.

But how should we feel about yet another leading female character copping it tough? Much of the online commentary in recent weeks (and Lord, is there plenty of it – enough to make the biggest GoT nerd suffer neural overload) has concentrated on the show’s failure to honour its women. Certainly, this narrative goes, these women have suffered enough – they deserve better than to come this far only to lose their (surrogate) children, lovers, protectors and friends.

While it is true that Game of Thrones has lingered in unseemly ways on the violence, both sexual and psychological, meted out to the show’s female characters, this penultimate episode suggests something more interesting and creditable: the HBO writers constructing a plausible conclusion to Martin’s as-yet-unfinished novel sequence have decided it is men who are the weaker vessel.

Viewed from this perspective, Daenerys’ decision to destroy King’s Landing in spite of entreaties from her male advisers is not the result of some instinctive feminine berserk but, instead, a clear-eyed response to the situation on the ground. What Cersei taught her opponent in the last episode is that the Westerosi Queen is a connoisseur of human weakness. She identified Daenerys’ soft underbelly of decency and care and drove her blade in, right to the hilt.

What Daenerys understands, in that moment of stillness when the bells ring out, is that a game consists of the rules by which it is played. And rather than play by Cersei’s – a sure way to be bested again and again by a superior sadist – her obligation is to destroy the board on which it all takes place, and all the pieces as well. It was hard to watch the devastation that follows and not recall that line from Tacitus’s Agricola, when the proto-Scottish chieftain Calgacus bitterly observes of the invading Roman armies, “they made a wasteland and called it peace”.

Whether it is Cersei, Sansa or Daenerys – a Lannister, Stark or Targaryen – this lesson is latent in the series’ culmination. Like any real Plantagenet or Stuart royal woman, they suffer politics in a bodily way – not proactively, as warriors, but as bodies through which power plays out. They are machines for making fresh kings; they are bartering chips for marriage, status and territorial expansion.

To be so brutally made aware of how power is inscribed upon the body is a lesson the women of Game of Thrones have learnt only too well. It is the men – Jon Snow, repelled by the exigencies of force; Tyrion and Jaime, made woolly-headed by decency or love – who haven’t got the news. If Cersei is the ultimate accommodationist to the patriarchal game of musical thrones – the Iron Lady who plays better than the men – then Daenerys has decided to smash all the chairs.

How this decision resolves itself in the final episode is perhaps less important than appreciating what the series has already achieved. It is, of course, a bit of high-concept fluff: overwhelmingly glamorous in aesthetic terms, epic in scale, wicked and sincere by turns, very adult in some ways if puerile in others – but, at its best, speaking to some deep hunger in its viewers.

And this hunger involves a paradox. Game of Thrones represents the current evolutionary endpoint of televisual virtuosity. It is the definitive expression of our ability to manipulate and, indeed, supercharge reality for the purposes of long-form narrative storytelling.

Just watch those dragons achieving flight, for example: the ponderous, belly-first lurch before those wings whoosh the creature skywards. They are utterly fantastic and irrefutably authentic, and the entire reality summoned throughout the series reminds us of Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Yet that magic is placed at the service of something mundane. It makes manifest the very thing that is least visible in our dreary contemporary moment: power itself. Neoliberalism in the rich West – the political dispensation under which most of us have grown up – is an essentially managerial system, run by bureaucrats, in which economics is paramount. We despise politicians because they have legislated themselves into insignificance.

Game of Thrones dismantles this lulling, abstract, dispersed vision of power and relocates it in the hands of human agents – women and men whose decisions in a situation of crisis reveal their character for better or worse. It is one of the weirder phenomena of our current situation, that this exquisitely virtualised fairytale for grown-ups should be a vehicle of reconnection with some more urgent, vivid sense of human conflict and connection.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "The power and the gory". Subscribe here.

Geordie Williamson
is a writer and critic.