In defence of Game of Thrones, episode 8:5

SPOILERS – if that is not obvious from the post’s title.

There are a number of commentators – from newspaper pundits to earnest vloggers on YouTube (who have studied story-telling) – who are unhappy with Game of Thrones episode 8:5.

The story was not supposed to go like this.

Something has gone wrong.

The storytellers – the writers – have made a mistake.

The storytellers are to to blame.


For what it is worth, I think the writers got it right.

The baddies are not always the ones who are bad.

Give a person lethal fire power they will tend to abuse it.

Give a person absolute power and, as Acton observed, that power can corrupt them absolutely.

War and chaos cut off and disrupt promising character arcs.

Descents into madness are not always gradual but are sometimes sudden and shocking.

Innocents – women and children and civilians – die when built-up areas are attacked.

Soldiers do disgusting things when nothing can stop them.

For me, episode 8:5 was more insightful about the real nature of war and destruction and chaos and ambition than all the other episodes of Game of Thrones put together.

For there to be complaints that war and destruction and chaos and ambition did not accord with expectations shows that the complainants perhaps do not understand the nature of war and destruction and chaos and ambition.

The whole point of war and destruction and chaos and ambition is that it does not accord with expectations.

The great merit of Game of Thrones is that it is more about politics than about fantasy, and the essence of politics is that things do not go the way you expect, and certainly not the way you have led yourself to expect.


“But the writers…”

“But the plotlines…”

“But the character arcs…”

“But I was so invested…”

Try Harry Potter?


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33 thoughts on “In defence of Game of Thrones, episode 8:5”

  1. I thought it was better than the Winterfell episode to people were excited about.

    Although this “sudden, shocking” turn of events was obvious about 4 episodes ago…

  2. Yes I agree. Power does change the personality of the leader over time and they can start out completely different personalities to the ones we see at the end. Blair, Thatcher and Putin all good examples when you compare beginnings and endings but of course history is littered with them. Danys character arc therefore is realistic. Perhaps also why failed prime ministers or presidents are often more attractive characters in retirement.

    The realistic criticism of GOT is that the transition to mad queen has been rushed and not well explained. Fantasy viewers expect to see heroes and villains and need such a departure from the norm to be well explained to them if it is going to fly.

      1. I haven’t watched the episode and don’t know that much about GoT, but I’ll get with the latest UK zeitgeist … why let that deter me from commenting?

        I don’t think we even need postulate a descent into madness.

        She’s cute, clever, has magic super-powers and can survive fire unscathed, makes heroic speeches and is on a moral crusade to free the oppressed. She has dragons!

        But she’s far from infallible and has made plenty of decidedly sketchy decisions in the past whose consequences have not been adequately rehearsed, several of which have led to many a gruesome demise (albeit her cruelty has been somewhat normalised by the context of the story); her ego makes her who she is … but there’s always been an undercurrent of narcissism.

        So, we have a hugely charismatic (and attractive!) individual bestowed of vast and unaccountable absolute power, fearsomely destructive super-weapons, and an unshakeable faith in her own morality and manifest destiny, who inspires a fanatic devotion in her followers … who would have imagined that this could turn out badly? She is clearly a character the fans are supposed to love and revere: perhaps it was even inevitable that we’d see where that can lead. To my mind, Daenerys has long been the bearer of latent catastrophe.

        Or perhaps she was just hurt, confused, angry, distraught over the death of her best fried and shorn of the faithful advisors on whom she had depended … and possessed of massive fire-power. One more bad or hasty decision and, whoops, there goes a major city and its inhabitants. It’s true that in drama we expect events to occur for a solid reason, and the “great [wo]man” approach to our history leads us to try to analyse the world in similar turns, but in wars innumerable terrible things happen just because they can.

        Or … finally, was the message was just essentially Guernica: did we have a woman cradling a dead child? A bull loose in the streets? A stricken horse, a broken sword?

        1. On that last point, mentioning the mother and child burned together; the thing that rally reminded me of – and I’m fairly sure this is deliberate – were the victims of Pompeii who were preserved in situ when they were hit by the pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius. It was a nice bit of implied meaning – linking back to the description of dragons as ‘fire made flesh’; dragons are essentially an embodiment of a natural force of destruction and death. Deanarys is as much a natural disaster as she is a conqueror.

    1. Dany stated she would take what is hers with fire and blood. She has crucified people and burned people alive repeatedly over the course of the show. She has been brutal and ruthless.

      I’m really not sure why it’s considered out of character or a sudden transition.

      People may have projected a ‘hero’ persona onto Dany but she was never heroic from my perspective. covers my point of view fairly well.

    2. Mad Queen was always on the horizon as at various times she has struggled to keep her impulses in check. It was hinted at again in Varys’
      last words with Jon. Also, the last word spoken by Missandei was a sign of what was to come. Previously Tyrion had entreated her to not be Queen of the Ashes, after Missandei there was no other outcome.
      If you remember back to the House of the undying and the vision she had, it clearly showed her in the throne room with the roof open to the sky.
      The Dragon Queen came through in spades.

    3. it “hasnt been well explained” if youre the type of person who needs everything spoon fed to you. The groundwork’s been laid since the very beginning. I feel like all the complainers barely paid any attention to the show at all.

  3. Spot on David. Couldn’t help thinking of the firestorm bombing of civilians (on both sides) during WW2.

  4. Yes. Medieval rules of siege : If you do not surrender, then the attacking army is allowed to sack the city – later on it was defined to an offer of surrender if a practicable breach was made in the walls, admittedly tricky in this situation. And the sack of a city implied the murder and rape of the civilian population. If you are a common soldier, this is *why* you fight – a chance to behave however you want, with a chance of grabbing something valuable in the chaos.

    For a historic example, try:

    Major cities were practically wiped off the map in this way, even without dragons.

    But given that all the combatants involved knew this – assuming it’s really the Wars of the Roses with dragons – then it’s clearly Cersei’s fault. No one would really blame Dany.

  5. Things may not go as expected in real world circumstances, but they are usually at least consistent in hindsight. This relates to one of the core goals of storytelling: to show us different ways of modelling reality that reveal and allow us to examine our own assumptions.

    The recent episodes of GoT have not seemed like setting up a chaotic playground and considering what might happen; they’ve felt like starting with a collection of desired spectacular or dramatic events and coercing circumstances to allow them to happen.

  6. I do think there are some serious acing issues this season and in season 7. One of the things that made the world of ASOIAF feel real and grounded was that it took a lot of time for people to move around – a sense of people being on both a literal and a personal journey. It feels as though Dany has flipped quite suddenly, but actually that’s just because the time which has passed has done so off screen. Weeks, if not months, must have passed since the battle at Winterfell, as the Northmen marched south. Yet it feels like no time at all has passed. As a result, a lot of character development has happened off screen.

    Compare, for instance, Dany’s brooding at Dragonstone following the loss of Rhaeghul with Stannis’s breakdown in the same place following the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Both times a would-be monarch has sunk to a low point following a major blow. The difference is that with Stannis, so much else is happening at the same time that we switch to several other storylines while The Mannis is locked away from the world. So when we come back to Stannis, clearly a significant amount of time has passed. For Daenarys we see, what, two or three conversations with people all in the same location, all wearing the same clothes even. Only a cursory mention of the Northmen marching South gives us any real sense of time having passed.

    I’ve no problem with the heel-turn, in fact I’d be really surprised at this point if she’d turned out to be a fair and moderate monarch as she sees herself, because so much time has already been invested in showing how she has a darker, violent side. All of this has been heavily foreshadowed.

    I did appreciate this giving us a bit more context and insight into the previous sacking of King’s Landing during Robert’s Rebellion. The scenes of Jon Snow desperately trying to stop his forces from committing atrocities made me think of the (always heroically depicted) tales of Ned Stark fighting his way to the Red Keep. It reminded me of the key difference between the show and the books – in particular that having the same events or prophecies described in different ways by different people drives home the fact that nothing you hear recounted is ever objective truth; that there is a real world which is far less glorious and heroic, which is chaotic and violent, in which the weakest people suffer, and even the most noble can be capable of cowardice and cruelty.

  7. Spot on.
    Surely part of the job of good drama is to reflect the reality & vagaries of life and the consequences of actions, however unexpected and disruptive, on plans/ storylines/ character arcs- because that’s what happens in real life situations.
    Have the complainants never heard the expression “this is real life, not a film/ tv series/ book”?
    I wonder what will happen next, there are plenty of options I’m sure.

    1. I didn’t like the episode that much but at least I wasn’t just waiting for it to end, as I was with the last one.

  8. I totally agree and, brutal and shocking though it may have been, it was refreshing to see a realistic (yes I know, but really) portrayal of the descent into madness that power and conflict can precipitate.

    GoT has not shied away from delivering on this theme in the past, and 8:5 dished it up through a firehose.

    What better time to be shown that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it?

  9. “The great merit of Game of Thrones is that it is more about politics than about fantasy”

    For the first time, I’m curious enough to want to watch it.

  10. Maj Gen JFC Fuller writing in the preface to his volume, THE CONDUCT OF WAR, pub 1961

    “The conduct of war, like the practice of medicine, is an art, and because the aim of the physician and surgeon is to prevent, cure, or alleviate the diseases of the human body, so should the aim of the statesman and soldier be to prevent, cure, or alleviate the wars which inflict the international body. Unfortunately this has been little appreciated, and while in recent times the art of healing has been placed on a scientific footing, the conduct of war has remained in its alchemical stage; worse still, during the present century it has reverted to its barbaric form of destruction and slaughter….

    look back on the two world wars…… instead of being curative they were baneful…”

    and nearly 200 years ago Clausewitz (one of the few who grasped that war “belongs to the province of social life”) wrote

    ” …the first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgement which the Statesmen and General exercises is rightly to understand the War in which he engages, not to take it for something, to wish to make of it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be…”

  11. I didn’t like the episode that much but at least I wasn’t just waiting for it to end, as I was with the last one.

  12. I also agree that this turn of events was quite predictable with the deaths of Missandei and Rhaegal. It was a madness driven by the need for revenge.

    My bet for the conclusion is the destruction of the Iron Throne. Noone wins.

  13. I think they missed a chance to show us the destruction and chaos of war with the death of Lyanna Mormont. Here was a character we all loved. Her decision to fight, against well-meaning advice, was no less than we expected from such a plucky character. And she died bravely, nobly, inspiring others to fight all the harder. (It also anticipated the manner in which Arya killed the Night King). It was the kind of glorious death that Lyanna Mormont deserved. It was very much what I expected. But I think it would have been more in keeping with the realistic style of fantasy that Game of Thrones offers if her death had been quick, anonymous, and no more inspiring than the death of any other soldier soldier. (It would have been no less heroic – her heroism lay in the choice to put her life on the line like any commoner. Heroism does not need to be spectacular. She died the death of a Harry Potter character.

    1. That is a good point Ben.

      A similar point can be made about the survival of Samwell (and the others). Plot armour. I have problems about the Battle of Winterfell generally.

  14. Absolutely right.

    Will her nephew now decide she has to go? Will he in turn become corrupted?

    A shame the Winds of Winter has not been written.

  15. I think that the basic idea of having her butcher the inhabitants of King’s Landing was the right one, but perhaps it would have been better if she had somehow come to perceive the smallfolk as plotting against her and therefore deserving of their fates. The problem is that they had this play out in a way where it was inconsistent with, rather than a product of her narcissistic self-image as a righteous protector of the innocent. Her descent should have been about how, in the end, using violence because you think you are punishing wrongdoers can become an addiction where you look for more and more wrongdoers so that you can get off on more righteous violence. But for violence to feel righteous, it has to be directed against people you believe, for whatever reason, however good or bad, to be guilty. It’s not plausible that Daenerys believes, at this point, that the civilian population of King’s Landing are guilty. If she had taken over and then become paranoid that they were collectively plotting to overthrow her and murder the Unsullied, her butchery would make total sense. But as it is, it contradicts her character, not because she’s ‘good’, or because we haven’t seen her display violent and autocratic tendencies (we certainly have) but because a) she’s always needed violence to have a moral fig leaf, and b) her massive ego is bound up with her (not entirely false by any means) self-image as a protector of the innocent and oppressed.

    (It seems slightly wrong to me to justify it via actual medieval rules of war: Dany and Tyrion and Varys all aspire towards modern liberal ideas in a way that is not entirely true to the setting, but changes what is reasonable to expect from them as characters.)

    1. I get that a reasonable alternative view is that her violence shouldn’t be character-explicable but a product of the heat of the moment, but I think anyone who says that should also be complaining about the lack of realism in Jon’s genuinely ‘good’ character* protecting him from actually taking part in the atrocity.

      (*bar his grotesque selfishness in telling Sansa about his parentage to assuage his feelings of alienation from his “siblings” and sense of honour.)

  16. I get that a reasonable alternative view is that her violence shouldn’t be character-explicable but a product of the heat of the moment, but I think anyone who says that should also be complaining about the lack of realism in Jon’s genuinely ‘good’ character* protecting him from actually taking part in the atrocity.

    (*bar his grotesque selfishness in telling Sansa about his parentage to assuage his feelings of alienation from his “siblings” and sense of honour.)

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