Did we all watch the same show?
I’ve been just completely amazed at most of the commentary I’ve been reading about the final two episodes of GoT, and while I don’t quite want to wade into every argument—that would lead to a post roughly as long as one of GRRM’s books—there are a few worth addressing.
Mad Queen Dany—Where the hell are people getting this from? It’s not on the screen. (It is in the execrable “inside the episode” trailers that HBO produced, which involves the two showrunners saying such idiotic things about the show which they’ve spent 4,000 hours a year analyzing since Mitt Romney was in multiway primaries, that I presume Milk of the Poppy is involved.)
Yes, absolutely, it would be utterly maddening if we felt that Dany committed a savage war crime out of a fit of pique, or because she didn’t get laid, or because the Red Keep set her off (make that two doses of poppymilk if you buy that story). But that’s not what we saw: we saw Dany having what was probably the easiest major victory in the entire series—we see maybe five casualties on Team Targaryen—and having some kind of painful epiphany. It’s not in dialog, and it’s only somewhat backfilled in the final episode. So what we take from the scene is what we read into it.
People who want to get infuriated seem to think that the writers are saying, “the bitch snapped,” with exactly that level of dismissal of the character. What I saw: after eight seasons of Dany balancing ruthlessness with compassion, she has a realization that an easy win is a temporary one. It doesn’t break the wheel, it doesn’t prevent future contenders for the throne, and it doesn’t cement her victory. Burning King’s Landing, on the other hand, ends the war much as an atomic bomb did—with her as sole superpower.
For those who object that “just having the dragon is enough,” get real. If you live in the 21st century it’s 98% likely you have no conception of what a single modern nuclear bomb’s effects are, and the inhabitants of the only country to ever use much smaller versions in anger are in utter denial about what our nation did 70 years ago. Stopping when the bells rang meant stopping before a deterrence was created. (And not original to me, I read someone’s else’s essay saying, “If you can fire scorpions at Drogon and then surrender scot-free, it’s only a matter of time before repeating the same strategy neutralizes her advantage.” Which, let’s recall, she regards as her child.)
You don’t have to agree with me—the point is, it’s not on the page in episode 5. You can read Emilia Clarke’s face in multiple ways; you can’t definitively establish Dany’s intent from it.
Dany the Megalomaniac—Second, folks are already royally pissed about Dany’s inability to comprehend that “we destroyed the village in order to save it” doesn’t quite fly. At least, not for the audience behind the Fourth Wall, and not for our surrogates on the show.
You know whom it does fly for? That same damned audience when considering an actual war with real casualties. How long has it been since America supported an invasion of choice by four or five to one, with most people buying into “greeted as liberators?” I’ve been hearing people say “nuke ’em until the rubble glows” since the Iranian hostage crisis forty years ago. I’ve heard just about everyone retroactively justify Afghanistan and Iraq because we deposed a dictator and shot bin Laden in the head. (Even antiwar folks have tended to soften some criticisms since those war objectives occurred.)
The words you are looking for are “cognitive dissonance.” Americans want to believe that our country and our population are basically decent, ergo by definition everything we do is basically decent. Oh, maybe we screw up a few things, but our intentions are good. Surely that creates allowances, yes? At least, it creates sufficient allowance that nearly all Americans completely forget about our military actions so long as American casualties stay in single digits.
This is Nora al-Awlaki. She died at the age of eight in a 2017 US attack on an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. She was an American citizen. If you just found yourself thinking, “well, her al-Qaeda father shouldn’t have had her at the camp,” or “it’s horrible but these things happen,” congratulations, you just engaged in the same retroactive justification that distances Americans from horrors like Hiroshima and Dresden—and Dany from King’s Landing.
This is an American child whom my country killed. Discuss and debate that all you like—just don’t minimize it.
If you think it’s unrealistic that someone in a position of power would tell themselves a story that makes them a good person in contradiction of all evidence, you’re holding your fiction to a higher standard than your reality.
Dany the Monster—Many folks are also sputtering mad about Dany’s brand seemingly changing from “liberator of the common people” to their exterminator. This is too much of a switch for them to take.
I’m not going to repeat the dozens of articles that point-for-point demonstrate every plot beat showing her inhumanity against her enemies, ever since she didn’t much mind Drogo offing Viserys. If you think she did an unearned eighth-season heel turn, you’ve already read these and rejected them.
What I will point out, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, is that Dany has spent eight seasons dividing the world into “my people” and “everyone else.” People who are othered don’t count—whether that’s because they own slaves, have gotten wealthy from a slave society, or were the poor schmucks who took up arms at minimum wage on the wrong side of Drogon.
She didn’t merely kill these people, she burned these people. The two lead slavers of Meereen get quick deaths from Grey Worm—who presumably keeps that dagger sharp enough to be painless—but everyone from Lannister soldiers to Euron’s sailors to King’s Landing’s civilians to the Tarlys to Varys burns.
Are there any criminals you consider so awful that you’d be in favor of burning them at the stake as punishment? How about terrorists? Or actual Nazis from World War II? I’m guessing you have a sliding spectrum from “I’d vociferously oppose that” to “it’s not ideal but I’m not exactly going to argue in favor of that bastard.” Congratulations, you just demonstrated how you have a sliding scale of humanization. So does Dany.
Dany the Tyrant—Cognitive dissonance can also explain why Dany is certain that Cersei is a tyrant and she is not—but there are better explanations.
There’s been this weird rush of people saying that they wanted GoT to end on some kind of kumbayah democratic note. Or that Dany was inherently democratic in intent. Look, she freed her slave army and now they fight for her willingly!
Did any of them leave the day she did that? How much does she pay them? Do any of them have skills, interests, or socializations that would allow them to do anything but fight in an army as a profession? Do you suppose that peer pressure in a military organization and the complete absence of any other community might prevent some people from leaving? Did anyone have second thoughts when she told them she was uprooting them all to fight in a foreign land, or when the objective switched from fighting evenly matched humans to a quarter-million undead?
We see the Dothraki deciding—although how much of that is individual choice, and how much is cultural socialization to do whatever the Khal says, might be a worthwhile intellectual exercise. What we do know is that she’s breaking Dothraki cultural taboos; crossing the sea is pretty much the equivalent of holding pork rib and Chippendales night at a Saudi airbase. Surely everyone is acting free of coercion after she barbecued all the Khals they arrived with, walked out of an inferno, and asked for everyone’s support while sitting on a goddamn dragon. (After which, she’s unconcerned about her plan to take Westeros with the equivalent of a Mongol horde, which was the 13th-century equivalent of saturation bombing.)
Dany allows the freedoms she is willing to bestow, none of which seem to cost her anything. Missandei sticks around. Grey Worm never takes a vacation. Jorah keeps coming back even when she threatens his execution.
The premise that Dany was some kind of political liberation proponent is dealt with in the spot-on scene where Samwell suggests universal suffrage. We’re supposed to laugh at the comparisons to allowing horses and dogs to vote—but that’s pretty much historically accurate. The idea that a people should elect their leader was ludicrous for most of human history. It was just as ludicrous to the people who would have formed an electorate—when your monarch is the will of God, suffrage is blasphemy. What you might occasionally get is the tribalism of the Iron Islands—acclamations of minor chieftains, who go on to form the councils that acclaim higher officers. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the community gets to show up to chant Yara or Euron.
The idea that everyone should be able to vote is just a completely foreign concept until 1776. No, wait, that was male landowners. 1820? Nope, still male and white. 1865? Not after Jim Crow. 1920? 1965? How about we note the Georgia Senate election and just say “not yet” in terms of American consensus on this issue. Thinking of medieval, monarchical Dany as a proto-chapter of the League of Women Voters was wish-fulfillment of the highest order long before season eight.
Dany the Subverted Feminist Icon—Nope, not touching this with a ten-foot pole. It’s my role to mostly shut up and listen to what people say on this topic, and I don’t think I have much to contribute because I’m not emotionally invested in the messaging that some people thought was brutally undermined. I will say that just in the last hour I’ve seen feminist criticisms along the lines that Brienne, Sansa, and Anya don’t count as gender representation in the Game’s outcome, because they all establish power in the show with masculine tropes—which makes me wonder if any of these people took a moment to think about how this point of view would sound if they applied the same language to real people who might not be straight or cis.
Look, folks, yes—the last two seasons were just really fucking rushed and a lot of corners got cut. There are all sorts of pacing dynamics we grew to expect from the show during the first five seasons that were jettisoned—and in that change many things that would have been spelled out three times in the past had to be head canon. What I don’t get is why people don’t accept “HBO can’t spend $300 million on another 50 episodes” as a perfectly valid explanation for this. It may not be as satisfying as wizardly writing that leaves no plot holes unfilled and no coffee cups on the great table.
But I’ve already shown you how your standards are likely a lot lower for the world you live in than for Westeros. And that’s where the show gets made.
Update, one day later: I read today on Vox that HBO actually wanted more episodes in the final two seasons, and it was Weiss and Benioff that brought the total down to 13 in a compromise. This completely shifts the blame from one of real-world restrictions to a complete failure to manage creative limitations. I can understand the difficulties of bringing this home in less time; I fail to understand setting those limits on yourself in the first place.