I’m no Game of Thrones expert or superfan, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts considering that the show is ending this weekend.
Now, I should note that I haven’t seen any episodes this season. I’m not technically inclined enough, nor motivated enough, to do what everyone else apparently does and just steal it off the streaming torrents on the Interwebs.
My television access consists solely of a flat screen TV hooked up to a DVD player in my basement, where I watch DVDs that are exclusively rented from the public library, so that I pay zero $$ for my entertainment. But that means I’m usually a bit behind on current teevee—I just watched the last season of Poldark that aired on Masterpiece last year, for example. But the huge 2-year gap between series meant that I was all caught up on all the latest developments on GOT going into this final season. Thus, I was eager to see how they would tie up all those various dangling plot threads and resolve the multiplicity of character and story arcs.
Given all the hullabaloo surrounding the ending of the show, I figured there was no way I was going to isolate myself from the plot developments for the year or so that it will take for it to come out on DVD and wind up on my local library’s DVD reservations list. And so I went the opposite route: I decided to actively read as much as I could about it. Because, let’s face it, I want to know how the story ends just as much as everyone else out there!
And so, my experience of the show has been all second-hand (articles, reviews, and YouTube videos), so I will necessarily be hampered by that. But, having said that, I’m amazed at how negative the coverage has been in the main. Fans, it seems, are quite sore and very disappointed. Unreasonably, I think (although maybe I’ll change my mind once I actually get to see it).
(And, and it goes without saying, that if you ARE one of the people who IS trying to actively avoid any spoilers about what happens this season—and actually think you can accomplish this—then stop reading right now, and do not read any further!!!).
If you’re still here, here a few random thoughts I had about the penultimate episode, with the caveats above.
1. In my opinion, the destruction of King’s Landing by fire seems like the most logical thing to happen, and really is a masterstroke for many reasons. After all, the whole series of books was entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” by its author. So, we had the “ice” aspect of the series resolve itself in episode three with the defeat of the Night King and his hordes of ice-zombies, and so now it is time for the “fire” to play its integral role in the plot with the destruction of King’s landing by dragonfire. Song of Ice and Fire, get it?
2. But why was the destruction of King’s landing so meaningful? Why were there atrocities committed? And why was all of that necessary given the logic of the books?
Well, in the medieval-fantasy genre, war and warfare have traditionally been portrayed as “noble” and “heroic”—as the climax a conflict between “pure” good and “absolute” evil. Look at the final battle in The Lord of the Rings, for example. The standard trope is, the “rightful ruler” takes his (usually his) place on the throne; is just and benevolent; all conflict ceases; and they all live happily ever after, et cetera, et cetera.
George R.R. Martin’s books, by contrast, have always been about bringing a sense of realism to the genre and subverting the usual fantasy tropes. And how could there be a better one than this? After all, this is what happens in actual war. It’s a murderous, bloody, and brutal affair. And it was during the ancient and Medieval periods just as surely as it is today. Isn’t it about time that the fantasy genre grow up and acknowledge this gruesome reality?
George R.R. Martin’s novels have always been steeped in history from the very beginning. I believe that a knowledge of history is not just useful, but, in fact, essential in understanding his writing. With that in mind, there were two major historical events running through my mind as I read the accounts of episode five online. The first was the famous Siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099. Wikipedia summarizes:
Atrocities committed against the inhabitants of cities taken by storm after a siege were normal in ancient and medieval warfare. The Crusaders had already done so at Antioch, and Fatimids had done so themselves at Taormina, at Rometta, and at Tyre. However, the massacre of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may have exceeded even these standards. Historian Michael Hull has suggested this was a matter of deliberate policy rather than simple bloodlust, to remove the “contamination of pagan superstition” (quoting Fulcher of Chartres) and to reform Jerusalem as a strictly Christian city…”
According to Raymond of Aguilers, also writing solely of the Temple Mount area, “in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Writing about the Temple Mount area alone, Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness to the Jerusalem siege because he had stayed with Baldwin in Edessa at the time, says: “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”
Siege of Jerusalem (1099) (Wikipedia)
The second historical event I thought of is far more recent—the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” that took place during the Second World War:
Following the capture of Nanjing, a massacre, which was perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army, led to the deaths of up to 60,000 residents in the city, a figure difficult to precisely calculate due to the many bodies deliberately burnt, buried in mass graves, or deposited in the Yangtze River…B. Campbell, in an article published in the journal Sociological Theory, has described the Nanjing Massacre as a genocide, given the fact that residents were still slaughtered en masse during the aftermath, despite the successful and certain outcome in battle.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that 20,000 women, including some children and the elderly, were raped during the occupation. A large number of rapes were done systematically by the Japanese soldiers as they went from door to door, searching for girls, with many women being captured and gang raped. The women were often killed immediately after being raped, often through explicit mutilation or by penetrating vaginas with bayonets, long sticks of bamboo, or other objects. Young children were not exempt from these atrocities and were cut open to allow Japanese soldiers to rape them…
Nanjing Massacre (Wikipedia)
That is what real warfare looks like. This is what happens. This. This is where the untrammeled pursuit of power by flawed human beings inevitably leads. Always. Is it any wonder that this was the core message that George R. R. Martin (and the showrunners) wished to convey here at the end?
3. But by far the most important historical event alluded to, more than the others in my opinion, must be the firebombing of Dresden (albeit by planes instead of a dragon). I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else, but I’m sure someone else must have picked up on it.
Why this event in particular? Well, one reason is the fire aspect, obviously. But also it was one of the most destructive military events of the entire Second World War, surpassing even the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (only the aerial bombings of Hamburg and Tokyo unleashed more destruction).
Consider this statement by one of the survivors of the bombing:
To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.
Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.
Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: “I don’t want to burn to death”. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.
— Margaret Freyer, survivor.
My guess is that this is the exact feeling intended to be conveyed by the collective writers of GOT in the penultimate episode.
Although I haven’t seen the entire episode, I have seen some of the imagery and clips online. In terms of visuals, I was reminded not of only of the iconic photos of the destruction of Hiroshima, but also of the visuals from the German film Downfall (Der Untergang) showing the unfathomable devastation of Berlin when the war had finally concluded:
From the teaser trailer released online for season 8, episode six, it looks like much of this same visual imagery will be used by the show’s artistic team in the ultimate episode as well. We’ll see. Again, the message is clear: This is what war is really like, and often the people most devastated by the power game aren’t the ones who are playing it.
The second reason is the moral ambiguity of the attack. While it’s true that Germany hadn’t unconditionally surrendered (unlike King’s Landing), the bombing of this city has been controversially considered to be tantamount to a war crime by a few historians.
Several factors have made the bombing a unique point of contention and debate. First among these are the Nazi government’s exaggerated claims immediately afterwards, which drew upon the beauty of the city, its importance as a cultural icon; the deliberate creation of a firestorm; the number of victims; the extent to which it was a necessary military target; and the fact that it was attacked toward the end of the war, raising the question of whether the bombing was needed to hasten the end…Several researchers claim not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, were targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city center. Critics of the bombing have claimed that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no strategic significance, and that the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportionate to the military gains.
Bombing of Dresden in World War II (Wikipedia)
Yes, war is often morally ambiguous, another message I’m sure Martin et. al. were eager to convey here in the final season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the final episode (episode 6) featured attempts by certain actors to “whitewash history” and claim that the destruction of King’s Landing was “necessary” and “inevitable” in the aftermath. History is written by the victors, after all. We’ll see.
And, the third reason I think the firebombing of Dresden is the template for the conclusion of the show (and the books) is a literary reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five.
Now, George R.R. Martin has been a writer his whole life, and he is a keen student of the science fiction/fantasy genre in all of its manifestations. He is clearly a smart guy who knows his history and his literature. There’s no way he’s not intimately familiar with Slaughterhouse Five, and would want to honor the late Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful meditation on the senseless horrors of war. The centerpiece of Vonnegut’s book is, of course, the firebombing of Dresden which the young Vonnegut experienced as a German prisoner of war.
There may be a few other references too. I wonder if Bran’s mental time traveling is somehow analogous to Billy Pilgrim’s becoming “unstuck in time”. That’s just a speculation, of course. But Slaughterhouse Five is one of the few books that can be arguably called “science fiction” to have transcended the genre—to have become something more. It rises to become a work of great literature, a mediation on the fundamental human experience. And I’m pretty sure that this is what Martin is aspiring to as well. So it’s no stretch to imagine that he would want both to appropriate—and simultaneously pay homage to—Vonnegut’s masterwork in concluding his own epic fantasy series.
So, in my opinion, that’s why things unfolded the way that they did. The final episode will probably make this intent more clear (or not, we’ll see).
Now, as for the rather abrupt and jarring transition of Daenerys Targaryen’s character; well, I agree with those who see it as a unfortunate contrivance given the fact that the writers were forced by circumstances to wrap up the series in a very limited amount of time. If you’re a literary author, you can spend hundreds of pages and ten years of writing to bring this about in a logically consistent manner. If you’re writing a TV series on a very tight schedule, by contrast, and millions of dollars are at stake, you have to bang out a conclusion whether it is ideal or not. That’s just the reality.
Clearly this outcome had been hinted at all along during series, albeit subtly and ambiguously. And there were several events featured prominently this season that were clearly intended by the writers to undermine Daenerys’ mental state and set her up for her character’s troubling final turn.
But it fits in well with Martin’s sensibilities throughout the entire series–that anyone who fashions themselves as a “savior” turns out, in the end, to be a monster. Recall Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” I’m sure Martin is familiar with Nietzsche as well as Vonnegut. To date, the only consistently “noble” character has been Jon Snow, who has repeatedly insisted that he is not interested in wielding power, and just wants to live a relatively “normal” life beyond the wall once the war is over. No doubt there’s an intentional statement there.
And that has been a central message of the show from the very beginning. It’s what I believe makes it a truly great work of art (along with the brilliant characters and complex world-building). I feel like many of the fans got so caught up in messy details that they forget about the big picture—what I would argue is the central “message” of Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series of novels in my view.
Which is this: There is no “nobility” in the naked pursuit of power. Once you seek to acquire power over others, no matter how noble your intentions may be at the outset, you will inevitably be forced to do things that are immoral. That’s the nature of the game.
And in these dark times, that’s an important message to convey.
Here are a couple of articles I enjoyed about the show’s final season:
The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones (Scientific American)
The Anthropology of Game of Thrones (YouTube)