Recap: Queen of the Ashes

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The Golden Company and Harry Strickland (Marc Rissmen) face off against Dany’s armies.

After the second last episode of Game of Thrones, the internet is aflame with people debating the spectacular turn of Daenerys from seeming hero to villain. Dany’s descent into fire and blood has been a long time coming. This spectacular episode showcased the dragon queen’s darker side and more importantly shows the pathos of people war touches.

Lots of characters die in this episode, but it still isn’t clear who will hold the Iron Throne.

Varys

Varys could not continue to support Daenerys once he suspected she would take King’s Landing with fire & blood. Before Grey Worm arrests him, Varys burns a letter he is sending to somebody, who is not clear.

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Tyrion is the one who revealed Varys’ deception to Dany. (c) HBO

Dany sentences him to die and immolates him via Drogon’s fire. It’s a nasty death for somebody who served her well for years.

Ultimately, it is Tyrion who betrayed Varys to Daenerys – and sends his best friend to death in the process. Varys mutters that he hopes what he did is actually successful enough to rise to the level of treason. So what exactly did he do?

Daenerys blame Tyrion for telling Varys the truth about Jon.  (She also blames Jon for telling Sansa, who told Tyrion.)

Dany grudgingly listens to Tyrion’s pleas to spare the city. If the people of King’s Landing ring the bells to signal their surrender, Daenerys reluctantly agrees to uphold it.

After this she informs Tyrion that she is holding his brother Jaime captive and hold him accountable for believing Jaime wanted to side with them in the first place. Dany warns Tyrion that this is his last mistake.

Tyrion

Tyrion sneaks off to the army’s camp to free Jaime from his captors. He doesn’t want his brother to die and he’s hoping that Jaime will persuade Cersei to flee the capital for Pentos, which might just save millions of lives.

Tyrion is playing with fire. Daenerys won’t fire Tyrion except in the most literal sense of the word. She’ll execute Tyrion if she learns he freed his brother – especially since executing Jaime in front of Cersei would have been the ultimate revenge for Missandei and Drogon’s deaths.

The Attack

At the start, it was unclear whether the scorpions could take down Drogon or if Dany could evade the giant crossbows’ bolts long enough to do some real damage.

Dany incinerated the Iron Fleet and much of the sea defense on the city walls within minutes.

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Dany and Drogon incinerate the Iron Fleet as Euron watches from his ship. Moments later his ship goes up in explodes in dragon fire.

She burst through the city walls and burned up large parts of Cersei’s sell swords, the Golden Company.

When Jon and Grey Worm’s men were fighting some of the Lannister soldiers in the streets, the men surrendered and the peace bell rang. But when Dany and her dragon kept attacking and burning, it becomes a free for all.

Now, last week I criticized HBO for not showing more of the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell. I’m taking it all back. This superb rendition of what happens once besiegers break through a city walls – in the real world, of course, this is usually after months, not minutes – more than atones for the lack of corpses and chaos after Winterfell.

This is what I’ve been I’ve waiting for. An episode that reveals what war means for the smallfolk, the innocent civilians, the children – and this episode more than delivers.

The Hound: Clegane Bowl

One of the highlights of this episode was the final battle between the Hound and the Mountain. And it certainly felt epic and apocalyptic as they fight on the crumbling stairs in the Red Keep.

I absolutely loved this scene and the setting. For Narnia fans, it reminded me of what the world might have looked like in Charn where Jadis was from or something like that. I can’t quite put my finder on it, but the setting is wonderful.

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The Hound and the Mountain duke it out as the world crumbles around them. (c) HBO.

A moment of beauty before the face off begins occurs when the Hound in an almost avuncular way persuades Arya not to be like him, not to go to her death trying to kill Cersei. It was kind and Arya finally acknowledges her debt to Sandor, her hated protector and mentor, by thanking him.

The showrunners said that the Hound had to die by fire, and I do see the symmetry in that. But, I kind of wanted him to live. Surely, he deserved a happy ending? He atoned. He protected both Stark girls. He was a victim of circumstance and early disfiguring child abuse.

Jaime and Cersei

Cersei in her last moments in the Red Keep before her death.

Cersei in her last moments in the Red Keep before her death.

Cersei decided to stubbornly stay in the Red Keep and not surrender to Daenerys — not that Dany would have shown her any mercy after that stunt with Missandei.

What’s interesting her is that Cersei has always prided herself on her intelligence, but ultimately other people’s assessment of her “she’s not as clever as she thinks she is” is born out.

Why did she goad Dany by killing Missandei? How could Bronn spot that there was no way for Cersei to win against the dragons whereas she could not?

It’s understandable that Rhaegal’s death might fill Cersei with a false sense of confidence. How could she know that Rhaegal was less agile in flight because he had been wounded in the Battle of Winterfell? And nobody really knows how fast dragons can fly since before Dany, they’d been dead for 300 years.

rhaegal-death

Rhaegal’s death was more likely with his injuries. He had holes in his wings and couldn’t likely move or fly as fast. (c) HBO.

On the way in to the Red Keep via Tyrion’s secret passage, Jaime encounters Euron Greyjoy, who fatally stabs Jaime twice in the gut.

Somehow Jaime manages to make it into the Red Keep and finds Cersei.

Together Jaime and Cersei try to reach Tyrion’s passage, which requires going down into the bowels of the castle. But, when they reach Maegor’s Holdfast, the passageway is blocked with crumbled bricks.

As the ceiling begins to collapse and shower bricks down on them, Jaime and Cersei hug each other and try to forget the world around them.

It’s kind of tragic.

I’d particularly hoped that Jaime would live and go back to Brienne. Hadn’t he atoned enough? Yet this war that he helped start when he pushed bran out of the tower has grown and evolved into something he could never control.

And Cersei, well, she dies as she lived: imprisoned like a caged bird in the tower. Poetically, she is crushed by the Red Keep itself: the very institution that kept her imprisoned since she was 16 years old.

Arya

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Arya after King’s Landing is destroyed. (c) HBO.

Arya entered the city with the Hound, aiming to kill Cersei. After he persuades her that she will die pointlessly if she doesn’t abort her mission, she has to work her way across the city to escape.

By this point, Daenerys and dragon are engulfing the city in flames so hot that brick buildings crack and crumble continuously.

This is “fire from above” and it reminds you of scenes of the aftermath of sky bombings in WW2.

Arya is almost trampled to death, but after a woman saves her, Arya tries to help her and her daughter escape the city. She urges people sheltering in a building that they need to try to leave. The building will collapse and be destroyed.

Through great luck, Arya manages to survive the attack. All that’s left is ashes but a white horse emerges in the dead city streets. Will she be our next hero?

Daenerys

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Daenerys’ expression before she decides to keep burning King’s Landing. She looks confused, bereaved, and like she can’t stop. (c) HBO.

It’s worth saying a few words about Daenerys. I’ve been saying for years that she’s no hero. But I didn’t expect her to bathe the city in fire and blood. I mean, what’s the point of being queen of the ashes?

Dany’s premonition in the House of the Undying of snow falling in the Iron Throne room now makes a lot more sense.

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In Dany’s premonition, the Iron Throne looks like a beautiful ruin filled with snow, but it’s now clear that is ash that Dany created. This is her life.

Dany is the Queen of the Ashes.

Throughout the series, she’s shown us that she can’t control her emotions any more than she can control her dragons.

Missandei told Daenerys to make the city burn, and the dragon queen does exactly that.

Grief stricken after the death of her second child (Rhaegal) and the deaths of Jorah and Missandei, she unleashes her wrath on Cersei’s city burning buildings and innocent civilians when the battle is clearly won.

The internet is angry because they didn’t see Dany’s “turn” coming, but I’d argue it has been there all along.

First of all, conquerors are never good. What gives anyone the right to go into a city and kill thousands of people simply because they want to be the ruler? No modern person would think this is okay. But the perspective of historical biographies, echoed by that in GRRM’s novels, causes us to overlook all the harm from conquest.

Second, as I’ve said before Dany has always been a grey villain who had the occasional lapses into heroism (breaking chains). She’s only ever wanted one thing: her destiny, the iron throne. She never thought that killing even one person to obtain it was a crime.

Her greatest love was the fiercest warlord Essos had ever known: Khal Drogo. The child she was carrying was born a literal monster but would have behaved monstrously if it had survived (“the stallion who mounts the world”).

Third, sure Dany was a very sympathetic character, especially in A Game of Thrones when you get the backstory of how Viserys beat her, etc. etc., but she didn’t exactly develop or evolve the right way. Spending your formative years on the run with your crazy brother and then with the Dothraki didn’t help.

Fourth, last but not least, we didn’t see Dany as a potential villain because she is a point of view character. We are too busy identifying with her to notice that she’s a narcissist.

War is Horrifying

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The horrors of fire from above.

In case I never write another word about Game of Thrones after next week, let me say this. This entire series is about the horrors and futility of war. This is Martin’s magnus opus, his War and Peace.

The scenes of the smallfolk desperately trying to flee Daenerys’ dragonfire in this week’s episode truly does his vision justice.  Certainly, more screen time might have allowed for more story development in places, but Dan & David’s attempt to show us war from the perspective of the innocent on the ground is masterful.

The fire from above appears to be inspired by the Allies 1945 attack on the innocent civilian cathedral town of Dresden, Germany.  Despite the fact Dresden had no military importance, the Allied forces dropped 2400 tons of high explosives and 1500 tons of fire bombs on it. This blew up or burned 25,000 to 35,000 civilians to death in just a handful of hours.

A little reported fact is that these fire bombs included Napalm. Some victims melted when they were hiding in an air-raid shelter. Children under three years were vaporized.

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Dresden after the Allies bombed it with explosives and Napalm.

Napalm, of course, was also used in Vietnam to horrific effect.

The proverb is wrong: Not all is fair in love and war. There is a line. Some weapons are inhumane.

Putting Arya, one of our favorite characters, in peril and making her play the Virgil let us feel some of the terror that real-life victims of war must feel.

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Arya trying to escape the war zone in King’s Landing. Image via Decider, (c) HBO.

If you walk away from this series with one thing, let it be this: we should all think critically about war. War should only ever be a last resort and in the most dire of circumstances.

War leaves famine, plague, death, and destruction in its wake. And if history is any guide, war does so all too often with little having been gained.

These weren’t my beliefs when I began writing about Game of Thrones, but after six years of researching the history behind the series, I believe I now see Martin’s point.

Next Week

Next week wraps up the series, and I’m very sad to see it go. It has provided some truly spectacular entertainment, triggered many fascinating discussions, and made a lot of people think.

  • Did Varys deserve his death?
  • Will Tyrion get the axe next week?
  • Where Arya go on that white horse?
  • Will Jon rebel against Dany?
  • Will Dany end up on the Iron Throne?

Maybe if Dany does end up on the Iron Throne it will be the lesson of the series: the futility of war.

 

 

 

 

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

8 Comments

  • Reply May 14, 2019

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    I’d written quite a long post and lost it (not to the internet this time – I think I pressed a wrong button. I think I’ll have to come back to discuss Danaerys’s madness (or moment of madness). I hadn’t realised that napalm was used in the bombing of Dresden. I know (even though I wasn’t yet born at the time) there was controversy as to whether the “carpet bombing” was needed at that stage in World War II when Germany had lost the war in all but name. The midlands (south midlands of England) city of Coventry was also bombed badly in World War II with both Coventry and Dresden having their cathedrals badly damaged. The Dresden cathedral has been restored and in Coventry a new cathedral entirely was built (the ruins of the old one can be visited). Coventry and Dresden have been “twinned” for sixty years now.

    If Wikipedia is to be believed the poet Robert Southey may have had his faults but the destruction of Kings Landing made me think of his poem “The Battle of Blenheim” or “After Blenheim” where a child finds a skull on an old battle site (in this instance Blenheim) and an old man relates the tale of the battle without seeming to understand why it took place. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45178/the-battle-of-blenheim

    and an excerpt though not the whole thing if nobody wants to click on the link

    ” “They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won;
    For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
    But things like that, you know, must be
    After a famous victory.

    “Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.”
    “Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
    Said little Wilhelmine.
    “Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
    “It was a famous victory. ”

    As I say I’ll have to compose my thoughts about Danaerys but I have wondered (and I may have read it suggested by someone else to be fair) whether her character was in part inspired by Alexander the Great. From what I remember Alexander died of a strange illness, so I have wondered if something unspectacular like an illness could kill Danaerys (though I know Mr Martin’s tendency is to be counter-factual sometimes and in that case the scenario I’ve suggested would not fit.

    • Reply May 16, 2019

      Jamie Adair

      Ah I wrote an article about Dany’s relation with Alexander the Great (Daenerys is No Hero), but I didn’t think this idea up on my own. Lol. 🙂 I heard it indirectly from GRRM himself when I did the HBO interview. (The producer who interviewed me told me he’d said it.)

      The idea of Dany dying like Alexander is interesting. Hadn’t thought of that.

      I stumbled upon the use of napalm in Dresden accidentally. I was quite surprised actually. I’d never heard that before. And describing the napalm as “firebombs” (which is what I have usually read) doesn’t really do it justice IMO. Or maybe firebombs and napalm are the same thing for people in the know, but I wouldn’t have necessarily assumed that firebombs were quite as sticky and inhumane.

  • Reply May 15, 2019

    PAT

    I have read quite a few perspectives about this episode but yours is the only one that interprets Varys’s comments as being that he hoped he had succeeded in his attempt to undermine Daenerys. My interpretation was that he meant he hoped that trying to undermine Daenerys really was treason in as much as she really wouldn’t turn out to be the mass murderer he feared that she would be. Maybe you are correct, though.
    I have read your comments in the past on Daenerys turning out bad in the end but I never wanted to believe them and you were basically correct in that regard. I convinced myself that it would be too obvious of them to set up her going crazy for one thing. I also had myself convinced that The Lord of Light is really the Devil after all and Jon Snow would turn out to the Westerosi equivalent of the Antichrist! I still feel like there is some basis for that reasoning, but I have to admit to myself that I was mainly looking for rationales for the Daenerys that I loved the best not to be corrupted in the end. And yet I think we do have to wonder if Varys had not gone against her whether that might have been just enough for her not to have snapped. As one friend of mine said, it’s really all Jon Snow’s fault anyway. If he had been more like Ned and placed keeping his word and her secret over his other familial obligations, then I am pretty sure it wouldn’t have played out like it did. Self-fulfilling prophecies are the norm in this story, aren’t they? In the books I seem to recall that the whole reason Rhaegar took up with Lyanna was for some prophecy or other, but I think they have left that part out of the show.
    Anyway, thanks for all your writing over the years!

    • Reply May 16, 2019

      Jamie Adair

      You’re welcome. Thank you for reading! Very interesting comments you made.

      re: Varys
      Time will tell if that is what he meant: thats just how it struck me. I might be wrong – lol. Happens all the time. By time will tell I mean… Eg Who did he write to? Was he rallying one of his contacts to overthrow Dany? Would those contacts even have enough juice to make any difference?

      re: Dany
      I really think GRRM did a brilliant job in building sympathy for Dany, especially in AGOT. She really is quite sweet and vulnerable and likeable and relatable as a young girl. But aren’t people always more likeable when you see things through their eyes? 🙂 It’s the antihero/Reservoir Dogs/Sopranos/Dexter thing: it messes with your head and ability to tell right from wrong even.

      I think GRRM enjoys historiography as much as history and Dany is a symbol of historians with skewed perspectives on conquerors. He is creating cognitive dissonance to make you think IMO.

      re: Jon
      I thought about that for a second, but seriously, how can somebody be expected to swallow the biggest secret in the country and hide their true identity from their own family? Just because your selfish entitled girlfriend asks you to? 😉 Also Jon didn’t actually promise Dany he would keep it a secret. (Now I might have to check the episode on that later: it’s late at night and I might be wrong.) IIRC He promised Dany that his *family* would keep the secret, but he refused to hide it from them. Sansa broke her oath as we all knew she would. But I also think you can’t have or keep secrets of that magnitude when they involve you directly. Humans aren’t capable of that or something. I don’t know how to articulate it.

      IRT Dany. I didn’t expect her to go crazy like she did. I was really shocked that it got THAT bad. I didn’t really try guessing at her destiny or anything. I don’t think about her often because she is my least favorite character — e.g., I like Cersei and TV Ramsay (not Book Ramsay) better than Dany. I almost like Joffrey better than Dany. Anyway, I assumed Dany was a villain because I kept coming back to the fact Dany is a conqueror and I’m pretty sure that books are a critical examination of war (and GRRM is probably a (conditional) pacifist even though he is understandably loathe to give himself that easily misunderstood label).

      Anyway thanks for your interesting comments and for reading all these years. If I can actually get my act together, I may try to write a book that might talk about some of these theories in more depth. But we will see if I ever get the time and opportunity… 🙂

  • Reply May 15, 2019

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    I posted yesterday or Monday (or tried to post at least) something about Dresden – I won’t repost it in as far as I can remember it now in case it is being monitored.

    Anyway, about Daenerys. I had typed something a few minutes ago but when I tried to post it received the message “You are not connected to the internet” so that was a problem my end. I had hoped Dany was not going to go the mad Queen route though she has always had a cruel streak (albeit she did not murder book Doreah and in fact was quite kind to Doreah as she died differently in the books) – well since she had the witch burned rather than a quick execution in the first season/book. I was annoyed with Jon for not having more calcium in his backbone and stopping Dany having Varys killed. There are a few videos on the internet (and I’ve limited myself to ones that have been there some while and not ones put up in the last few days) suggesting that Dany might take a dark turning. I’m linking a video somebody put up in 2016 with that theme https://youtu.be/LU2N_5ncnUA I don’t want to spoil the video for anyone who might click on it but it implies a certain sad inevitability about the way Dany’s character has developed considering just how inbred Dany’s family history was. I had hoped she was going to be like Maester Aemon and be a “Targ” who had missed the bad genes. Mr Martin has always said the ending of ASOIAF will not be a conventionally happy one. I had wondered if the promised third big twist might be that Dany might not be the mad king’s daughter but think that unlikely now.

    How she dies? I don’t know. Could she kill herself from remorse when she is no longer in her foul temper? Arya has said “I’m going to kill the queen” a lot of times – could she kill a different queen (as Jorah took Tyrion to a different queen than Cersei back a few seasons). It could be Jon. Or did Daenerys take some of Varys’s little bird from the kitchen’s poison to kill her but not immediately? But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something completely different.

    • Reply May 16, 2019

      Jamie Adair

      Ooh I can’t wait to see the video. Thanks for sharing. Yeah, Ive given up trying to guess because I often guess wrong. It has occurred to me that now that we know Dany is the villain she will keep the iron throne. That would really drive home the point about the futility of war. (All the people who died for Robert’s Rebellion and then a mad Targaryen just ends up taking Aerys’ place — well separated by a couple of decades.)

      Im convinced that Jon Snow will not sit on the iron throne because he will be killed first. (I also have a theory that he isn’t really alive and that he is kind of like an animated ghost after Melisandre brought him back. This theory is partially based on the name of his direwolf.)

  • Reply May 15, 2019

    Em E

    I found this episode emotionally exhausting, but your post convinces me that that was the point. I’ve been a pacifist for a long time which feels very paradoxical being a US citizen and having family in the military. War has affected my family in so many ways. But I think that is the case with so many people all over the world, either directly or indirectly.

    I’m really looking forward to reading your recap of the final episode, and have really enjoyed reading this blog.

    • Reply May 16, 2019

      Jamie Adair

      Aw thank you. I’m glad my comments meant something to somebody. I think your feelings about war and the military are very similar to a lot of people who have family in the military or serve themselves. Did you know that Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games because her father was in the military and she had a lot of critical (iirc) thoughts on war and also partially because I think she grew up as an army brat or something?

      Collins and GRRM are now two of my personal heroes.

      My dad served in WW2 and my grandfather in WWI. (Both generations had kids very late in life.) However, my dad died when I was a kid and hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what war meant.

      I found researching the “histirical clues” about GRRM’s take on history made me read books on subjects that I never would have otherwise: chivalry, military history, warfare. I dont know whether you’ve read my “Chivalry is Death” article doing the research for that was hard. This isnt exactly top level, easy to find information (or perspective).

      When I finally did start uncovering the type of points he was driving at with characters like the Hound, the info was a completely different perspective than what I’d learned as a history major and it made me think critically about how the true nature of warfare is often downplayed and swept under the carpet.

      I recently looked up the definition of pacifism. IIRC it wasn’t that pacifists are necessarily against war in all circumstances. I think it is about thinking critically about war. I just tried to find that definition again and I found the idea of “conditional pacifism” on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/war/against/pacifism_1.shtml

      This probably describes my views. For me, war to stop the holocaust or mass conquest is absolutely necessary. Covertly fueling war by selling weapons to influence the politics in a region towards your favorite African warlords is not so much.

      I think pacifism gets a bad rap because it’s associated with mindless hippy-dippy attitudes.

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