(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
Why does Daenerys Targaryen have it so easy?
That might sound like a deliberately inflammatory question, and it is, but hear me out. Arya Stark has had to shield her gender and class, make pacts with dodgy magical assassins, and travel many miles with some truly seedy company just to get by, only to wind up in the protection of a tiny insurgency that could be crushed at a moment’s notice. Theon Greyjoy spends his days being tortured, then released, then recaptured so he can be tortured some more, by people whose motives aren’t even clear to him. Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, has seen his chickens come home to roost in the form of losing his sword-hand. Tyrion, lionhearted as he is, remains the scarred, “malformed” outcast with little to no hope of acquiring a title or means befitting his greatness. Etc, etc, etc. Meanwhile, in the already-lauded, fairly massive setpiece that ends “And Now His Watch Is Ended,” Dany and her dragon turn on Kraznys the slaver, with the help of the 8,000-strong former slave army she’s just bought, then freed. Which…
It’s clear that audiences love to watch Dany score a win. And why not? Whether or not you’re necessarily a huge fan of Emilia Clarke’s performance – many have expressed doubts, though I am not among them – she’s difficult not to root for, given that she’s the only character on Game of Thrones vying for power who’s neither boring earnest nor openly craven. But on a series where characters have had to accomplish the impossible, Dany’s victory here feels a bit hollow. For starters, outsmarting Kraznys isn’t much of a task, seeing as he’s one of the most overtly buffoonish, most self-inflated Game of Thrones characters ever. Actually, the trickiest aspect of Dany’s ruse is pretending not to register her own mother tongue, if only because it requires not openly wincing at Kraznys’s insults. Beyond that, though, the way Kraznys “organizes” the handoff virtually ensures he’ll be killed, which doesn’t really befit a character who has come to command a massive, elite army of deadly mercenary slaves. What should feel like Dany once again trumping the odds and coming out on top (as with her past successes) feels instead very much like a stacked deck in her favor. And yes, the shot of Dany literally backed by fire is badass, but it’s an awfully familiar image for such a far-flung universe to conjure up.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an effectively staged sequence. While some of the dragon CGI is still a little on the rough side, the sight of even a cartoon-like Kraznys getting BBQ’d is still incredibly satisfying, and the Unsullied’s Spartacus moment is rousing, if a little on the corny side, delivering the Game of Thrones equivalent of the “slow clap.” Taken as a whole, “Ended” is certainly the most action-packed episode since “Blackwater,” and having it come so early in the season might indicate that we can expect a little less plotting and a little more acting-upon-plots this season, which can only be a good thing.
“And Now His Watch Is Ended” kicks up the pace but exposes flaws.
Despite all the fanfare with Dany at the end, however, my favorite sequence in “Ended” comes courtesy of Varys, who reveals how he came to be castrated as a boy, before showing off his most prized possession – the sorcerer who did the deed, trapped in some kind of endless-torture device. I love the way the scene highlights the fact that yes, there is magic in Westeros, and certainly, it’s powerful and a thing to be feared, but the passions and desires of ordinary (or seemingly ordinary) humans can be just as deadly, with the appropriate levels of dedication. Even creepier than that, though, is seeing the throngs at King’s Landing amassed to get a glimpse of their beloved King Joffrey, who, thanks to the delightfully scheming Margaret, has begun to awaken in the lil’ tyrant the notion that to be loved may be an enjoyable flipside to being feared. Watching Cersei respond to that encroaching threat should make for some delightful hamming in the near future.
The least engaging portion of the episode, despite the (thoroughly telegraphed) bursts of gory violence, lies beyond the Wall, where the Night’s Watch more or less collapses under the weight of hunger and dissidence in the ranks. As with Kraznys, there are some problems of execution here: how did the Watch keep it together for so long (centuries?) only to become so fractious over the course of not-that-long a period of time? When we were introduced to the Watch back in the first season, it was framed as a lifetime gig, complete with strictly binding oaths and obligations. With Jon Snow having already departed, and his fellow Crows literally at each other’s throats after a few (significant, granted) setbacks, it strains credibility that they were ever considered a legitimate calling. In other words: so much for that whole “last line of defense” thing.
With Dany and her huge army of ex-slaves on the march, I’ll be curious to see just how much headway her storyline makes this season, especially as her successes this week mirror the ones it took her all of last season to accomplish. If that’s the sort of pace we can expect all season, we should be in for plenty more to be excited about.