Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 review: Daenerys' last war is a fierce, fiery but empty spectacle
Heading into its final hour (and some minutes), Game of Thrones has to show us that it can deliver more of the emotion and the storytelling -- and less of the spectacle.
For a full recap of episode 5, click here.
As the Red Keep falls to pieces around them, King's Landing too similarly destroyed, Sandor "The Hound" Clegane and Ser Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane engage in a fight to the death. The Hound runs his sword through his brother, stabs him repeatedly — but the Mountain simply won't be overcome. Instead, he begins to choke the Hound, digging into his eyes as he once did to Oberyn Martell — until Sandor leaps to his death off the Red Keep's tower, taking his older brother with him, plunging into the fires that rage below.
The moment is symptomatic of much that is wrong with Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5. The beats fall into place (for the most part) as have long been hinted/expected — but their execution feels hollow and forced.
For instance, "Cleganebowl" — the fight between the brothers that fans have anticipated since nearly the first season of Game of Thrones — had a predestined aspect about it. But in the midst of the utter carnage that Daenerys wreaks on King's Landing, as the Hound and the Mountain hack and hew at each other, it feels more like gratuitous spectacle than the brutal takedown of a nemesis it's meant to be. Even when the Hound plummets to his death — pushing his brother into the fire that once marked him — there is little emotion triggered.
One gets the impression that for this penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, the showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss had a checklist: Destruction of King's Landing, Daenerys' descent into Mad Queen/Queen of the Ashes, Jon's elevation as the deserving and rightful heir, Cleganebowl, a Euron Greyjoy-Jaime Lannister showdown, Jaime and Cersei's deaths — and as each event was depicted, they crossed it off, saying "that's done, that's done, and that's a wrap".
It's among the most by-the-numbers episodes of Game of Thrones ever — at a juncture when the show is facing critical backlash as it heads into its very last act. A lot of that backlash — while strident — has been ill-deserved, but even the staunchest of supporters will find episode 5 disappointing.
You can read a comprehensive blow-by-blow account of everything that happens in Game of Thrones' season 8 episode 5 here, but in essence this is what occurs:
Jon thwarts Varys' attempt to get him to assert his claim to the Iron Throne. By the end of the sack of King's Landing, he probably sees the wisdom of Varys' words.
Tyrion tells Daenerys of Varys' betrayal, tries desperately to save King's Landing and its citizens, frees Jaime (who has been caught trying to move across their lines) in an attempt to give his brother and sister another chance, and by the end of the sack of King's Landing, sees that all his fears about Daenerys' wrath have been realised.
The Hound finds the vengeance he seeks. Before he does that, he shows Arya what a lifetime of living solely for revenge does to an individual. She leaves the Red Keep, only to stagger through King's Landing, injured and dazed at the carnage Daenerys has wrought. By the end of the sack of King's Landing, she is riding away from the city as fast as she can.
Jaime finds Cersei. By the end of the sack of King's Landing, they die -- not by each other's hand, or according to a prophecy -- but in a close embrace, as the walls of the Red Keep tumble down around them.
By the end of the sack of King's Landing, Daenerys' visions in the House of the Undying have come true. The Red Keep and the capital city have been destroyed. The Iron Throne is hers -- or rather, what's left of it.
There are untold numbers of dead and injured.
Daenerys' triumph is over ashes.
There are moments in this episode that do recall the best of Game of Thrones:
The way Varys faces his death (perhaps a fate he learnt of years ago in the flames of the wizard who castrated him?).
Tyrion's emotional leave-taking of Jaime, which calls back to how his older brother once freed him from the Red Keep's dungeons.
Jaime and Cersei's final moments, as the edifice they held up with their lies and deceit and vile deeds collapses around them, burying the twins/lovers under its weight.
Arya's shock at the complete devastation of a city, mirroring Tyrion's sentiments after the Battle of the Goldroad. The charred little girl who clutches onto her toy even in death — like Shireen Baratheon.
The moment Jon perceives he's leading a massacre, not a battle.
The rest of it though, not so much.
The problem is not the Daenerys-Mad Queen arc. Many viewers have been disappointed ever since it became evident that Dany was not going to be the saviour of the Seven Kingdoms she believed herself to be, and that her storyline would take a darker turn. But the seeds of Daenerys' ruthlessness were planted a long time ago in Game of Thrones, and those who were taken by surprise weren't paying close attention. Her first instinct has always been to burn, even if for altruistic reasons like ending slavery.
When she lets loose in Episode 5, however, it is less than convincing. The fault does not lie in this particular episode: Emilia Clarke does a superb job of showing Daenerys' complete and utter isolation, the rage that stems from her grief. A transformation that should have had space and time to unfurl, however, has been squeezed into such a short span that its inevitability (and Daenerys' act of extreme violence against hapless innocents) seems not entirely plausible.
Through most of season 7 and all of season 8, the deadline that the showrunners are working against, has been showing. The clock ticks, and so we have an uncontested rout led by Drogon and Daenerys when just an episode ago, the odds seemed fairly evenly stacked on both sides. After the showrunners made the deaths of two dragons seem (relatively) easy, we're now to believe that Drogon is invincible — that destroying the Iron Fleet and the ramparts of King's Landing is a moment's work, without more than 2-3 bolts being fired at him from the hitherto deadly scorpions.
The sheer magnitude of what Daenerys is unleashing (most of it unnecessary; why not fly directly to the Red Keep and destroy it? Why burn down parts of the city that she knows have only innocent citizens cowering in fear?) dwarfs all the other happenings. Which is why moments like the clash of the Cleganes, which should have been cathartic, end up seeming superfluous.
Among the more unexpected developments of this episode was the manner of Jaime and Cersei's deaths. Never mind the mystery of whether or not she's actually carrying their child, Cersei does evoke a smidgeon of sympathy as she confronts her mortality. While the "Valonqar prophecy" has long been a fan-favourite theory on how Cersei's death would occur (the show, incidentally, has never made a mention of it) it is a slightly more prosaic end for the Lannister queen, if one replete with symbolism. And Jaime does get to die in the arms of the woman he loves. Their deaths are among the few moments that do resound in this episode.
Heading into its final hour (and some minutes), Game of Thrones has to show us that it can deliver more of the emotion and the storytelling -- and less of the spectacle. Otherwise its conclusion may feel as empty as Daenerys' triumph. And that would be a tragedy.
Watch the trailer for Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 here:
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