Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 5 of Game of Thrones Season 8. Not seen it? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
Mother of Dragons. Breaker of Chains. Destroyer of Patriarchy. Khaleesi of a whole horde of Dothraki. Daenerys Targaryen goes by many names, but as Game of Thrones hits its penultimate episode, it turns out her surname is the one that really matters. Daenerys Targaryen. Ruler of Mereen. Liberator of the Unsullied. Mad woman.
That’s how the rightful heir to the Iron Throne apparently emerges in these closing chapters of HBO’s fantasy saga: a spoilt, scorned woman who suddenly snaps under all the fury she hath because of how scorned she is. It’s a disappointing way for the screenwriters to treat her, not because they undo years of presenting her as the Next Great Thing, but because they don’t take enough time to make it properly land.
Daenerys has consistently been one of the show’s most interesting characters, a figure of tragedy as much as hope – someone determined to break the wheel that‘s oppressed so many but someone also so full of ruthless purpose that she slips all too easily into brutal tyranny. Her going one step too far and sacking the whole of Kings Landing has been on the cards ever since she took over Mereen and the place descended into violent chaos – and she responded by torching part of the city and fleeing.
This final season has slowly been removing all those around her who usually keep those impulses in check. Missandei’s death last episode isn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back; it’s the last straw trying to hold a dangerous door closed, after the loss of moral barrier Jorah. Tyrion, meanwhile, has become more flawed the closer he gets to doing the right thing, unable to detach himself from his own family name – and that concern for Jaime and Cersei’s lives has led him to make all sorts of silly decisions, ones that leave Daenerys with even less support from her trusted number two.
But while that arc has been foreshadowed for many seasons – as has the rise of Jon Snow as unlikely hero, unassuming leader and undoubtedly attractive outsider/hero – Season 8 has rushed to complete it, leaving characters’ motivations vague at best and illogical at worst; Dany’s flip is, apparently, mostly due to the fact that people like Jon more than her. That’s summed up by the very opening scene of the episode, in which Varys begins to write ravens spreading word of Jon’s Targaryen parentage – exactly what Dany said would happen if he told Arya and Sansa, who then told Tyrion, who then told Varys, and so on across the high school canteen. Varys, it turns out, is now convinced that Jon would be a sensible, smart and considerate ruler and Daenerys would be a possibly insane liability – a decision that he’s made based on 10 minutes in the dude’s company. It’s unlike Varys to be so impulsive – and, as someone who is vital in the way the show moves and positions its characters, it’s that kind of slip that leaves the overall thing feeling illogical and unsatisfying.
It’s a significant flaw for a show that’s got so many fans to satisfy after so many years – it’s not as if it didn’t have the opportunity to get these details right. But after choosing only six episodes to tie up a plethora of loose ends, the writers have little choice but to condense and simplify everything to hit the plot points they need before the curtain falls. And so Daenerys rapidly becomes the mad queen, Jon quickly becomes the next Messiah, Euron becomes a camp pirate (ok – he was always that), and Bran immediately transforms into a boring non-character. (If they just killed Bran off, Daenerys and Varys could have got a crucial few extra scenes. Just saying.)
Fortunately, Game of Thrones has a cast that have grown into their roles over the years, and they help to bring depth and layers to even the most hurried of exchanges and about-turns. Emilia Clarke, paradoxically, delivers her best work to date as the insecure, furious pretender to the throne, even as the show makes a deliberate point of not showing her up close after she hops on the back of her remaining dragon and, even after the bell of surrender has tolled in Kings Landing, runs around burning down every building and street she can find.
Raining down fire, literally, leaves everyone on the ground scrambling for safety, and some of the best moments are shots of characters in the chaotic, deadly crowds, from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime trying desperately to get to Cersei or Jacob Anderson’s Grey Worm fighting his way through with an angry, vengeful conviction. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, meanwhile, is expertly portrayed as somewhere between shock and remorse, horror and tragedy, as the innocents he tried to protect are incinerated. Even Conleth Hill continues to do superb work as the earnest but calculating Varys, before he’s heavily toasted.
When it comes to toasting things, nobody does it quite like Miguel Sapochnik. The director of the Winterfell battle as well as the Kings Landing conflict, he’s one of the best helmers working on the small screen today, capable of balancing big skirmishes with individual moments. He pulls off that same trick here, and then some, with genuinely jaw-dropping effects and destruction in every foreground and background (Arya Stark riding away on a horse may be borderline ridiculous but is undeniably beautiful to see). That reaches a superb crescendo with Cleganebowl, the much-hyped punch-up between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, aka. The Hound and The Mountain, which descends into an ugly slug fest, before the pair plummet from a crumbling castle staircase into the smoking rubble below – but not before The Mountain smashes Qyburn to a pulp first.
It’s here that Game of Thrones’ The Bells finds its surprising throughline, as The Hound enters the showdown with his brother with a resigned acceptance of his unavoidable fate; from Daenerys reverting to her Mad King heritage to Jaime suddenly leaving Brienne to go back to Cersei, The Bells rings true as it explores the way that people, and situations, can’t really change, no matter how much they want to. And so it is that the episode closes with Jaime and Cersei clutching each other under the Red Keep, as it finally collapses on top of them, killing brother and sister in an embrace that takes us full circle back to Season 1’s opening chapter. Lena Headey, like many of the cast, is shortchanged by a script that doesn’t give her an opportunity to sell everything her character must do – Cersei spends most of the episode standing at a window drinking wine, before suddenly crying and begging to stay alive at the last second – but there’s a suitably bleak message in the way that Dany, like many of the cast, can’t prevent the horrors and casualties of war from racking up. There’s a reason why the thing the Mother of Dragons wanted to break is called “the wheel”: no matter what, it keeps on spinning.
Where else is left for the show to go from here? Whatever the final episode has in store, whether it’s Jon taking the Throne or not, here’s hoping the writers take the time to get it right.