The calm before the flames.
The calm before the flames. courtesy of HBO

Last night's episode might have been the most divisive Game of Thrones episode yet (although remember how mad everybody was after the Red Wedding?). As we enter the home stretch, time is starting to feel really compressed, with plot threads and characters behaving unnaturally in order to get this thing wrapped up before Memorial Day. In some ways, it was a breathtaking episode, particularly from a technical standpoint, with one of the biggest set pieces we've ever seen on any TV show ever. In other ways, it felt at odds with the way a lot of people have internalized the story George R.R. Martin originally set out to tell, with a little book called A Game of Thrones, originally published way back during the Clinton administration.

We have feelings! Read on to hear our dragon-fire-hot takes. There are spoilers, obviously.

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HBO
This was a (GOOD/BAD) episode of Game of Thrones because…

JASMYNE KEIMIG: I think this was a hot garbage fire of an episode. Hot. Garbage. Fire. While Dany taking up a scorched earth policy was (shakily and hastily) (sorta kinda) plausible, everything else in the episode was a WTF moment for me. Varys getting caught slipping and then killed. Tyrion working to secure the freedom of his brother (and sister!!!!). Cleganebowl in which we learn Gregor is less killable than the fucking Night King. A Jamie and Euron showdown no one asked for. The incest twins dying unceremoniously. Arya on that damn steed. It was a real letdown for me, and was full of characters making moves that didn’t make sense. Ugh!

ERIK HENRIKSEN: What an airless, joyless slog of an episode. Combine every legitimate criticism that’s been lobbed at GoT over the past two seasons—gory spectacle taking precedence over story; characters getting whiplash from arbitrary plot twists; magical teleportation making Westeros smaller than a Starbucks—and you have “The Bells,” a hundred-year-long episode in which a hundred things happened, all of them in the worst, goofiest, disaster porn-iest ways.

NED LANNAMANN: If Game of Thrones and the books it’s based on have taught us anything, it’s that the GOOD/BAD binary doesn’t really exist in the world of Westeros and Essos. That’s always been one of George R.R. Martin’s hobby-horses, that good and evil don’t really exist in the way we typically think of them; rather, there are honorable people (Ned Stark, Jon Snow) and dishonorable people (pretty much everybody else), and the honorable people aren’t necessarily what we think of as heroes. It some cases they're downright useless. Of course, the show has (or, had) an embodiment of pure, actual evil in the form of the Night King, and Jon Snow has been a white knight in crow's clothing since episode one, but otherwise show runners Benioff and Weiss have, by and large, followed GRRM’s lead in disposing of the typical good guy/bad guy tropes. With all that said, I will paddle against the tide here and say it was a GOOD episode of Game of Thrones in elements of its craft (this is in relation to the overall show, one that I seem to love less than most people and one that I have been consistently frustrated by since season two). I thought there were elements of the Hound's storyline that were well done, and Varys' death was chilling. But it was ultimately a DISHONORABLE episode in the way it dealt with massive plot points at the expense of character development.

LEILANI POLK: It almost felt good, but then it turned very, very bad. Hey, I get it, they gotta wrap things up, and they’ve been very poorly building up this Mad Queen storyline for a few episodes. Okay. But. She victoriously torched and completely decimated the Iron Fleet and the ballistas along the King’s Landing gate, and the goddamn gate for that matter, made short work of the enemy soldiers so that her own army had very little to do, frankly. How does losing her mind happen AFTER she hears the bell of surrender? To be honest, I thought we were being primed for a grand finale of destruction that would also be the final showdown between Dany vs. Cersei. Or at least, Dany torching Cersei to bits. But instead, she… burns the city she just won to ashes? Becoming the tyrant she was only one episode before railing against, and killing all manner of innocent people, and probably some of her own? Who is this person and where is the queen that’s been written for the past seven seasons? Also killing Varys for doing what Varys does, when it was Jon Snow who was ultimately guilty? Also, the cheap made-to-make-you-feel-deep-dreadful-things scenes with the mother and daughter racing around the city, ultimately getting torched, their blackened bodies clutching each other in death? Fuck you, Game of Thrones writers. Fuck. You.

SUZETTE SMITH: At this point the show seems to be running on a rough sketch of events that George R. R. Martin plotted out, which explains why nothing makes any sense anymore. The actors are trying to convey two book’s worth of story with THEIR FACES. While not impossible, Daenerys’ fall into this frame of mind should have happened over a much longer timeline.

I want to say this was a GOOD episode—as unsatisfying and character-arc-whiplash inducing as it was—because it masterfully showed the brutality of war. You think you like battles? Here’s your battle. Burning children. Towers falling on Arya Stark. No Cleganebowl could be as good as you imagined. But filmmakers have shown war to audiences in many brutal ways and it just gives some people a hankering for it. After this episode was over, I just brooded and ate cookies over the sink for a while. I'm depressed.

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HBO
The scene that deserves to be turned into a million memes was…

JASMYNE KEIMIG: Dany razing the city. Or Jon realizing what Dany was doing. Or the moment Cersei knew it was over for her.

NED LANNAMANN: The Mountain tossing aside his maker, Qyburn, like a rag doll on the steps of the Red Keep.

LEILANI POLK: Arya and the Magic Horse. Also, any scene with Jon Snow’s horrified face and its my-lady-be-crazy realization, after Dany starts destroying shit and people she promised to protect. Yah, dude. They pulled the wool over our eyes, too.

Oh, also, Qyburn’s death. It just felt right. Dead with the swat of a giant zombie-man-hand.

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The character that annoyed me the most this week was…

JASMYNE KEIMIG: Tyrion! Not only did he give consistently shitty counsel that was largely how this fucked-up situation happened, but he put his siblings (and his sister who wanted both him and his brother murdered!) before everyone else, including the queen he swore allegiance to.

ERIK HENRIKSEN: Jaime! Oh, sorry—I misread the question. You said “character,” but everything about Jaime’s character that was painstakingly established over the past seven seasons just got thrown out the window like Bran. So in that case, how about Dany, who—ugh, sorry! Everything about her character that was painstakingly established over the past eight seasons just went up in dragon fire! I hereby request this question be struck from the record, as all of GoT‘s characters have been replaced by plot puppets.

NED LANNAMANN: I don’t blame the characters so much as the writing, but the two that bothered me the most were Dany, for obvious reasons, and Cersei, who was transformed into a sobbing damsel in distress who needed to be dragged by the hand by a man in order to get out of harm’s way. (Didn’t work.) This goes against everything we’ve ever seen Cersei do, or say, or drink in the preceding 71 episodes. The internet is angry about how Daenerys was instantly redrawn as a mad queen. I’m angry about how the show’s actual mad queen was instantly redrawn as a sad soccer mom with no instinct for survival.

LEILANI POLK: Pick any of them, and you’ll be right, although Sander Clegane was the least annoying of everyone there. His death wasn’t at all unpredictable but at least it was moderately exciting.

SUZETTE SMITH: This isn’t the right thing to say, and it goes against modern morals, but within the morals of Westeros (where your only options are families fight or families get married), it’s obvious that Jon Snow: could have averted this bloodshed by going down on his aunt. Varys? Tyrion? Helpless. But Jon Snow had the power—often relegated to women—to use emotion and connection to calm a distraught person. He didn’t, and that’s understandable, but a whole city burned because Jon Snow didn’t fuck.

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The thing I really, really, really wished hadn’t happened was...

JASMYNE KEIMIG: Jaime and Cersei dying boringly underneath all that stone. I bet they’re not even dead. Last episode, I truly thought that the Kingslayer was only pretending he cared about his twin sister in order to stab her eyes out. To see these two characters we’ve been with from the beginning regress (Cersei was sobbing about her baby!) and go out in such an unspectacular way was so dissatisfying I wanted to throw something at my TV.

ERIK HENRIKSEN: Most of season seven, and everything in season eight after the kegger at Winterfell.

NED LANNAMANN: There are several things. Obviously the pivot from Dany to madness was absolutely botched. Not in the way it was forecasted—it definitely was, and if you didn’t pick up on that, you were watching a different show—but in the way a momentary grimace seemed to signify a complete descent into genocidal insanity. I also didn’t like how the incest twins got smothered by masonry. And while I liked Cleganebowl for the most part, I thought the final outcome of the battle was fucking stupid, like something out of Benji the Hunted.

LEILANI POLK: Ummm, all of it? But especially the lame ending of Cersei and Jaime. Where’s the justice?

SUZETTE SMITH: I started writing Varys’ obit at the five-minute mark. Some of you know he was a character I liked—some would say he was my favorite character. He was someone I identified with. He had been through a lot of shit, but he was working for a world where the bad things that happened to him wouldn’t happen to other people. He threw a lot of good glances. He helped make the talking scenes more fun than the fighting scenes. And do you wanna live in the talking scenes or do you wanna live in the fighting scenes? I wanna live in the talking scenes because there’s 90 percent less stabbing. If Tyrion survives this whole, uh… game of thrones, I guess... he’ll have to live alone as the smartest man in Westeros because Varys was the only other logical person still alive on this show.

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The character I am most worried about is…

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JASMYNE KEIMIG: At this point, I don’t know! Sansa? Dany’s on a rampage and I could see her wanting to take aim at lady of the north for not obeying her. That is, if the Dragon Queen can get that far before someone stabs her in the back.

ERIK HENRIKSEN: Arya! I mean, I’m not worried about her—she’ll be fine, wherever she ends up—but I am worried they’ll drag her into the final episode. Arya hopping on Shadowfax and riding into the sunset is the best ending she could have hoped for, given how lamely Varys, Qyburn, the Mountain, the Hound, Euron, Jaime, Cersei, and 98 percent of King’s Landing went out in this episode—not to mention how little things now matter for Jon, Dany, Tyrion, and anyone else who’s unlucky enough to still be alive. Ride, Arya! Ride! Ride away before this show gets any worse!

NED LANNAMANN: Ehh… at this point I think we know where everything is going, so I’ll just say Davos, because everyone else who’s interesting has already been killed off.

LEILANI POLK: Tyrion. He’s bound to be executed, eh? What I want to know is, how exactly are they going to make Arya kill Dany?

SUZETTE SMITH: R'hllor hold that dragon tight.

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MVP of the week goes to…

JASMYNE KEIMIG: Varys, I guess? It’s hard for me to believe the Master of Whisperers would stick around in that Dragonstone for even a moment after discovering the truth about Dany. His waiting to be ratted out by his comrades seems silly and against everything we know about the character.

ERIK HENRIKSEN: N/A

NED LANNAMANN: I’m going to change “MVP” to “MUP” for this week and say: Harry Strickland! What a useless character. What a useless Golden Company. What a useless plot development. (Shoulda brought your elephants, guys.)

LEILANI POLK: The Magic Horse. Because it lived!

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HBO
Okay. One episode left! My final prediction for the LAST EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES EVER is…

JASMYNE KEIMIG: Jon kills Dany to end up on the Iron Throne. Since Dany murdered a bunch of innocents, it has backed Jon into a moral corner forcing him to choose between his sense of honor and his pledged loyalty to Khaleesi. It’s an eye-roll of a move that undermines Dany’s development as a character (she’s a hysterical mess) and puts someone on the Throne who I don’t think deserves it. Women deserved better in GoT.

SUZETTE SMITH: I stand by my theory that—within the values of this story—the only things that can bind the kingdom together are battles and weddings. But now everyone is dead, so they can’t have a massive tone-shift rom-com final episode where Varys runs around, planning grim weddings. Last episode, “The Last of the Starks,” kind of sucked because the show glossed over a real opportunity to show the cost of war: the slow rebuilding, the tears, depression, wounds, loss. I predict that Game of Thrones will end on a big, loud note and we won’t get to see any of the interesting stuff: how life goes on.

NED LANNAMANN: I mean, Jon and Tyrion have to take down Dany, which doesn’t feel so much like a prediction as a prescription at this point. My longtime prediction for the ending has always been that Dany wins but dies and that the Iron Throne gets melted down as citizens learn to govern themselves. I think we’ll see the Seven Kingdoms split back up with no centralized form of monarchy, or at least an overruling king and queen as we’ve seen in the past. This already feels like a foregone conclusion, and, now, an ultimately uninteresting one. I will say that it’s been interesting to see the widespread theories of the show being an allegory for climate change getting tossed aside like Qyburn after the quick dispatching of the Night King in episode three. That particular metaphor-boat always felt a little leaky to me, and this final stretch has really gone back to underlining what has always been the story’s and GRRM's central anti-war thesis. (In that sense GRRM is really still a complete Tolkien acolyte.) Dany is obviously meant to represent the nuclear option; even with the best of intentions, the Pandora’s box will be opened and destroy us all. Now that we’re seeing this long-established metaphor play out, it feels forehead-smackingly obvious.

One more bit of armchair quarterbacking: These final three episodes clearly should've been stretched out to an entire season. Maybe they could have stuck the first three at the end of Season Seven, to make that a normal 10-episode season, ending with the defeat of the Night King, and then given the Dany/Cersei war another 10 episodes, allowing Dany's descent into madness and the various hasty assorted deaths to have the room and development they deserved. But hey, that would have involved negotiating everyone a new contract and (gasp) paying them a bit more money. Much cheaper to burn it all down.

LEILANI POLK: I don’t have predictions. We all know where this is headed. People are gonna die, Dany will probably be one of them after a whole lot more bad writing, we’re gonna be pissed about it, and when it’s all said and done, we’ll be left wondering when the fuck the prequel will start shooting and who will be involved in the writing of it, because this last season (which frankly should have been stretched out into two), makes me feel like the current staff needs reevaluating.

ERIK HENRIKSEN: I don’t care.

I’ve been invested in this world—via the books, show, or both—for a decade, and it depresses the Seven Hells out of me how terribly this story is ending. Years ago, in a recap of the “The Rains of Castamere,” I wrote that Game of Thrones “isn’t a story that’s going to end like its characters want it to. And it isn’t a story that’s going to end like the books’ readers or the show’s viewers want it to, either.”

What I meant was that everything we’d seen thus far in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones was not leading to a happy ending—from page one, George R.R. Martin seemed intent on subverting not only the tropes of fantasy, but the tropes of fiction in general. Martin’s was a story about the folly of optimism; the cruelty of the privileged; the inevitability of change, climate or otherwise; and how those with good intentions are destined to fail. I thought all that was going to dismay people. But I was wrong. People won’t be disappointed because of what Game of Thrones had to say. They’ll be too distracted by how poorly Game of Thrones ended up saying it.


Read our earlier discussions of Game of Thrones' eighth and final season!

Episode 1: "Winterfell"
Episode 2: "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms"
Episode 3: "The Long Night"

Episode 4: “The Last of the Starks”