Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on Game of Thrones s8e5, “The Bells”.
– One of the minor mysteries of George R.R. Martin’s text is the Volantene game of cyvasse, an extremely versatile chess-like contest in which the opposing players set ten differently powered pieces and landforms such as mountains upon a board with a screen between them before the match begins, and then contend with each other’s pieces based on what they find after the screen is removed. In Book IV, Arianne Martel, daughter of Dorne’s prince Doran Martell, finds herself imprisoned in a tower after a failed attempt to cultivate Myrcella Baratheon into a new queen, provided with a cyvasse game to keep her company. When Doran finally summons her forth, he expresses that she is supposed to study the game before she plays it.
I find myself thinking a lot about that scene after watching both last week’s and this week’s episodes, because while once upon a time it seemed that showrunners Benioff and Weiss had studied the game they were playing, it seems now more like they are studying the way they themselves played the game — in the former, one gains a wisdom about how any configuration of the board might be played out to a winning conclusion, while in the latter one compounds both the successes and the mistakes that they make each time they choose to play. Myrcella once comments that Doran’s youngest son Trystane tends to set up his pieces the exact same way every time, indicating that he has missed the point of a game in which you might find multiple strategies toward victory.
Which is to say that I remain puzzled and disappointed by many of the character choices and arcs that I’ve been asked to accept as the series winds down, even when many of those arcs have led to images that were at times painfully gorgeous to view. The final battle between the Hound and Mountain; the image of Drogon swooping down from the sunlight; Arya standing amid a street of corpses; these are all breathtaking moments. I will add, however — I am giving a lot of credit for those moments to Miguel Sapochnik’s direction, which in most cases was able to pick up and carry forward the places that the writing let us down.
– I’ll start with the biggest bone of contention, which is the culmination of Daenerys’ descent into a bloodthirsty conqueror the likes of which have not been seen either in this series or in the history of its source material. Cersei’s wildfire-borne destruction of the Sept of Baelor, which murdered several of the city’s civilians in addition to all of her immediate political rivals, was the closest we have seen on this show to enacting such a scale of uncaring cruelty on innocent lives and that moment, even for all of Cersei’s apathy, pales in comparison to what Dany chose to unleash upon the Westerosi capital. Indeed, even among her own bloodline there are few kings or queens to whom she can be adequately compared. Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters Rhaenys and Visenya arguably had their dragons incinerate as many when they first united the Seven Kingdoms in fire and blood, but these shows of force tended to be against armies and garrisons, and nearly all of these stories were quick to note that the kings and lords who knelt, such as Torrhen Stark in the north and the nobles of Oldtown, saw their castles, lands, and people spared of massacre. Others who remained defiant, such as House Gardener of the Reach and House Harren of the riverlands had their lines annihilated and their influence usurped by those who had once paid them fealty.
Besides her own father Aerys II, the Targaryen monarch she might now most resemble was the third of the kings in their dynasty, who was forever and justifiably known as Maegor the Cruel. The show’s intent here, which was underlined by the montage of past voices and moments that were included in the prior episode’s recap underneath Dany’s furious countenance, is that after eight seasons of suffering losses, disappointments, and betrayals, she has well and fully snapped, to the point that she is now willing to cast aside her mercy — a quality she earlier named her strength — to avenge her pains upon a city of screaming, pleading smallfolk who had already surrendered to her forces.
But in order for that to have happened in the way we witness, we must also swallow the story that what made Daenerys strong before now was little more than the qualities provided to her by others. Without Barristan or Jorah or Missandei her moral compass is obliterated; her ability to trust the advice of others has withered under the treachery of Varys, the consistent mistakes of Tyrion, and the unwillingness of Jon Snow to forgo the principles he was raised with to love her as she loves him. We are asked to believe that there was never anything there but madness waiting to be summoned forth by circumstance despite having been given, time and again, evidence that she was not beholden to the excesses and insanity of her family. The story has gone out of its way to tell us she was different and then named her nothing special when it was time at last to cast her aside.
To put it more succinctly — four seasons ago we watched as Daenerys willingly chained two of her beloved dragons inside a pyramid because a grieving shepherd had come to her with the charred bones of his daughter. And tonight we watched as children and their mothers were butchered in the streets and reduced to ash because Daenerys refused to accept their surrender as a satisfying victory, because in the end she had been spurned of their love and she could not handle being so ignored. This is not the queen we were promised.
– Speaking of Tyrion; tonight we also completed his arc from a man whose cleverness, resourcefulness, and heart were underestimated due to his physical stature into a man who had perhaps always earned such harsh estimation. There is much I applaud Peter Dinklage for, as he has never turned in a performance of this character that was anything less than committed. The show stopped being worthy of him some time ago, having never found a way to remind us of the man who had once craftily ruled King’s Landing as its Hand, who matched wits with his sister time and again at the game of thrones and who only lost his position when that same sister stopped playing with wits and started using assassins instead.
Instead, for seemingly the hundredth time, we saw Tyrion approach Daenerys, explain an action he had undertaken or a strategy he had proposed and be told how that action or strategy had failed. He apologizes sheepishly, and is reminded that his queen’s patience is growing thin, but for real this time, no more mulligans. And for as moving as I found it to watch him embrace his brother one last time before freeing him from his chains, I couldn’t help but be reminded of so many other times these two had been together, and how much richer and full of life those interactions had been. This series used to show us that they were brothers bound in love and kinship; now they only have the two of them speak their love for each other as exposition.
– Bryan Cogman’s script for “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was only four episodes ago and I find myself so desperately wishing he’d been given at least one more this season instead of having Benioff/Weiss take the last four on themselves. Their need to rush forward to the big spectacle setpieces finds their characters spouting lines they have said repeatedly or otherwise announcing their intentions to let us know what their characters are doing now, because what their characters are doing now are not things we can fully accept they are doing. How many times has Jon had to say “I don’t want [the throne]” to Dany or Varys or anyone else who tells him he needs to seize it? Arya keeps declaring that she’s going to kill Cersei because the series wants to remind us that she’s always wanted to kill Cersei, and as such it forces her into the phenomenally stupid situation where she goes on such a mission without telling anybody but her traveling companion and then continues along on that mission even in the midst of what looks to be a bloody melee in the streets of King’s Landing. For that matter, somehow Sandor Clegane travels all the way down from Winterfell into the heart of the Red Keep with Arya before it finally occurs to him to tell her not to seek revenge like he’s doing, and while standing this close to Cersei at last she folds under his advice and thanks him for saving her. Varys stays on Dragonstone while plotting to destabilize Dany, acting less like a spider and more like a snail, hoping that he won’t be noticed instead of taking better precautions not to be. Cersei spent so many moments staring out of her balcony at King’s Landing, the show leaning hard on the power of Lena Headey’s enigmatic smirk without giving her anything of the tense, complex scenes that were what made Cersei, and Headey’s performance, such a chilling pleasure to watch. Cersei’s last moments with Jaime in this episode only further serve to remind us how cruelly excised she has been from these last six chapters. Nearly all of her other scenes see her acting from a position of height or distance, pronouncing edicts or declarations, barely able to connect with another person. When she is finally back in Jaime’s proximity the relief and sadness of their entire tortured, twisted romance bears down on both of them; Headey is finally able to act like a human being instead of an archvillain. At the same time in these final moments the writing lets her down again, forcing her to maintain the subplot of her pregnancy despite the fact that she has been using this pregnancy as leverage and despite the fact that it never seemed clear she was pregnant at all.
– But this episode, for all of its finely directed and shot scenes of human misery in the midst of an unjust slaughter, is barely about the human beings in it as much as it is about the violence they are capable of inflicting and having inflicted upon them. This episode is about men staring at each other waiting for fights to break out, and it is about a woman on a dragon burning to the ground a city that we have known since the show’s very first episodes. It feels very telling to me that the most potent scene between two of the show’s long-running characters was not that between Cersei and Jaime but between the brothers Clegane, finally resolving both their differences and their existences in one ugly, brutal clash taking place on an epic, burning stage.
– And I’ll end here with this, for now: The notion of Euron Greyjoy, specifically this version of Euron Greyjoy, being such a vital part of the proceedings that he gets to spend two seasons destroying the combined might of Dorne and Yara Greyjoy, one of Dany’s dragons, and very nearly Jaime Lannister, is so patently ridiculous that it makes me wonder what kind of blackmail Pilou Asbaek has on HBO’s top executives. One more episode to go and I’m just weary of what I see here. My love for Martin’s books, at least, remains undiminished, and I hope that one day in the year 2198 my preserved brain in the jar on the shelf will get to read the whole of the saga.