9:15am PT by Josh Wigler
'Game of Thrones': 23 Burning Questions Before the Series Finale
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is dead, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) reigns over the ashes of King's Landing, and both Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) are awash in the fire and blood left behind by their chosen queen. Now what?
From director Miguel Sapochnik, "The Bells" leaves Game of Thrones in an incredibly violent and fragile state heading into the coming series finale, written and directed by series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss. At long last, the Mother of Dragons has won the Iron Throne, but at what cost? It's the question on the minds of the characters within Westeros, sure, but it's also on the minds of Game of Thrones fans, many of whom were not pleased with the story's latest descent into darkness.
In the midst of Daenerys' acts of war, more destruction and death: Varys (Conleth Hill), Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek), Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser) and others all lost their lives in the penultimate edition of Thrones. Also featured: the Clegane Bowl, the climactic battle between two furious siblings, long in the making. Where there was death, there was also life, in the form of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) making it through all the chaos and riding off for parts unknown. Where exactly is she going? That mystery and several others are tackled ahead in our latest round of Game of Thrones burning questions — an admittedly poor choice of phrasing, given the current fiery conditions in King's Landing.
1. Daenerys went nuclear. Why?
Because life is meaningless and filled with —
Don't do that. Actually try.
Fine, here's an attempt. Varys warns both Jon Snow and the viewers alike at the top of the episode: "They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath." There's certainly a history of violence within Daenerys' family, with Targaryen rulers' sanity shifting from individual to individual. For much of Game of Thrones, we've rooted for Daenerys. We have been with her through several atrocities, beginning with her most powerless days at the start of the series, through assassination attempts in Meereen and beyond. A central figure since the pilot, Dany has long stood out as the person with the most obvious hero's journey of anyone, including Jon, whose importance to the story wasn't immediately clear back in the day. It's no wonder there was always an expectation Dany would one day arrive in the Seven Kingdoms, unite them and save us all from hell. Obviously, the gods had other plans.
2. So, literal gods are responsible for Dany's heel turn?
It's a bit extreme to add such divine purpose to the likes of George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, but in the case of Game of Thrones, these writers comprise the three-headed deity from which this story was born. Martin is the architect of Westeros via A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series he has yet to finish, and while he has not actively participated in the writing of Game of Thrones since season four's "The Lion and the Rose" (better remembered as the Purple Wedding), Martin has reportedly filled Benioff and Weiss in on key details of his future plans. As the architects of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss are the ones who are bringing their version of Martin's original tale in for a landing. Many details are certain to change between the visions, but probably not the bigger picture idea of this story ending with a mad rush for power resulting in enormous tragedy — Dany's mad rush, to be specific.
3. "Mad rush" is right. Why does it feel like Dany's dip toward darkness happened so fast?
Because it did. Sure, when you look back on Game of Thrones with the benefit of knowing the destructive extent of Dany's story, there are a lot of different moments that pave the way for "The Bells." The various deaths-by-fire she's unflinchingly inflicted upon her enemies over the years come immediately to mind; rest in ashes, House Tarly. Daenerys has hyped her singular vision for ruling Westeros over the seasons, has not always reacted well to feedback from advisors, and then there's the recent string of tragedies: the deaths of Viserion, Jorah (Iain Glen), Rhaegal and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), all brutally killed in a six-episode span. Add to that Dany's chilly reception from the Starks and others in the North, Varys' betrayal in "The Bells," and an apparent natural proclivity for a spot of madness. For years, fans have talked about Daenerys eventually taking a turn toward the Mad Queen, so it's not like it's without some work. But does it feel fast? It absolutely feels fast — and that's a direct result of the final two seasons' shortened episode orders, which have forced many story points to reach their destinations without the slow and steady buildup found throughout the first several seasons of the series.
4. Would the Daenerys twist have worked better with an increased episode order?
Maybe! There are really powerful ideas to explore in Daenerys' actions, and how they advance the greater idea of the series: we can overcome impossible obstacles together, but destroying each other and ourselves is kind of what we do. It's a compelling notion about humanity (and hopefully one with something of an uplifting end result in the finale), but it's one that has arrived with too little time to process the massive shifts in Daenerys. Most (not all) of my issues with the final season boil down to the same issue many others share: not enough episodes with which to work. I think Game of Thrones needed at least two final, full-ordered seasons in order for so many of these big swings to land properly. For example, Tyrion selling out Varys only to realize Varys was probably right about Daenerys all in the same space of an episode in which Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei both die is way too much, way too fast.
5. Not to move on too quickly ourselves, but Cersei and Jaime are dead, then? There's no chance they survived the Red Keep's collapse?
There's always a chance, and given what's already occurred in the final season, it wouldn't register as the biggest shock of the past several episodes … but yeah, I think we can safely assume Jaime and Cersei are no longer with us.
6. Are you satisfied with the way the story ended for them, then? These are two of the series' most prominent characters. Do you feel the show did Jaime and Cersei justice?
The show's another question, but Coster-Waldau and Headey? Performance-wise, absolutely. The final season offered Cersei tragically little in the way of a storyline, and Jaime's arc has been all over the place, but the two stars delivered on the material they were given. I especially loved Tyrion and Jaime's final scene together; the two men crying into each other's arms was incredibly powerful. From a story standpoint, less satisfied! But I do appreciate how Jaime and Cersei are ultimately crushed by their respective vices: Jaime by his addiction to Cersei, Cersei by her relationship to power, and both of them by the extreme forces of their own family. From well before the start of the series, House Lannister fought so hard and so thoroughly to maintain power in King's Landing. It makes sense for Jaime and Cersei to die beneath the collapsing weight of their family's sins.
7. Am I terrible for feeling sorry for the Lannisters?
It's not for me to decide if you are terrible, but at the least, it's not a terrible reaction to what's at stake in "The Bells." The episode's titular moment sees Jon Snow and the "heroes" lined up opposite the Lannister army, "the villains," as the bells ring out in King's Landing — and despite the call for surrender, Dany torches the city anyway, her forces and Northerners alike start slaughtering innocents, and we're left with a bunch of Lannister loyalists killed in the crossfire. We're a long way from season one, when Jaime attacked Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in the streets. Game of Thrones has worked hard over the years to get us to understand the "enemy," if not outright root for them; finally, in the last stretch before the finale, we see the inverse as the men associated with the Starks, Targaryens and the grand notion of "heroism" are the ones who break bad. Even Jaime and Cersei, who doubtlessly inflicted terror on people throughout the years, are worthy of sympathy as they cry and die alone in a claustrophobic cavern, flattened by the actions of "heroes."
8. But wasn't Jaime supposed to kill Cersei?
For years that was the consensus theory, thanks to a prophecy about the "valonqar," or "younger sibling" in Valyrian: Jaime would kill Cersei in some act of defiance or redemption. Didn't happen. Instead, they exited the world the same way they entered it: together. I know I led you astray last week when I posited Jaime was returning to King's Landing to kill Cersei. I was wrong, and I apologize.
9. Weren't you wrong about Arya, too?
I was. In the preseason, I predicted she would die after a failed attempt to assassinate Cersei. I got close to the circumstances, but didn't get them exactly right. In the pitch, I outlined a scenario where Arya reaches Cersei, finds herself with some mercy for her enemy, and drops her guard, paving the way for her demise. In actuality, in the real world outside of my head canon, the Hound (Rory McCann) tells Arya to abandon her quest for vengeance, warning that it will leave her scarred and ugly like himself. She has a moment of clarity, and decides to choose life instead of death. Thankfully, she doesn't choose it too late. I'm thrilled to be wrong about Arya's demise.
10. But I'm hearing theories that Arya died, and that's why she sees the white horse at the end of the episode. Thoughts?
Sounds like a bunch of malarkey to me. Not that Game of Thrones hasn't gone into hallucinatory territory before (Bran's visions of a dragon's shadow over King's Landing just came true, after all), but a full-on scene that shows Arya entering the afterlife on horseback feels way too extreme. More Lost, less Thrones. (Speaking of which, Jaime traversing a crumbling structure while nursing a stab wound to the side? So Lost.) But if that's your read, you may get to keep it. It's possible we never see Arya again, and her riding away on the horse will act as an end for the Night Kingslayer. Not my bet, but not impossible. We'll find out for sure in one week's time.
11. What's your bet? How will the story end for Arya?
"What's west of Westeros?" It's what she asked Lady Crane (Essie Davis) back in season six. Nobody knows the answer. Perhaps Arya is going to set out to find out. After surviving the fall of King's Landing and seeing a version of death even she never could have anticipated meeting, I expect Arya will want to walk away from the Seven Kingdoms and see what's out there in the world. In fact, bold prediction time…
12. Are you about to predict the final scene of Game of Thrones?
You know it! Game of Thrones began at Castle Black, with the gate opening up into a new world. I used to think we would end in a similar place, with the cold menace beyond the Wall still lurking in wait, a nod to the existential threats we will always face. With the Night King dead, I'm less inclined to think the series will end in the North. (Although…) But an ending in which we open the world to something new — like Arya setting off for a western adventure, beyond the charted world of Westeros, an inverse of how she set sail for Braavos in the east back in season four? It's at the very least my call for our final Arya Stark scene, and given her status as the final season's decisive MVP, I'm betting it's going to be the last scene of the series. Full stop.
13. Is Bran the horse?
Don't you dare.
14. Let's talk about other things you got wrong. Didn't you predict the Hound would live?
I did. Oops!
15. Did you get anything right this week?
The Mountain killed Qyburn. Does that count?
16. Technically. Thoughts on the Clegane Bowl? Did it live up to the hype?
Well, it brought us the Mountain's mutant head, which looks like something ripped straight out of David Haller's nightmares, so I'm happy for that. It also brought us another attempt at the Mountain's classic finishing move, as he tried to blow up the Hound's head ala the Red Viper; always here for a red, dead callback. I especially loved how the Hound used his sick addiction to vengeance as a teachable moment with Arya, begging her to turn around and live her life. It's the exact opposite of what I expected as far as her survivability, and I felt like it was an earned subversion.
Why do I sense a "but" coming?
I'm not about to knock the impressive, fiery image of the Hound and the Mountain hacking away at each other on "a stairway to nowhere," as Benioff and Weiss have described it. In fact, it really lives up to the hype, insofar as how the finished product compares to this beloved fan art from some years ago. And I do love how the Hound dies facing his two biggest fears: his brother and fire. I just wish the Hound made the active choice to plunge into the fire rather than kind of haphazardly fall into it in a fit of rage; it would have given Sandor a finer point to the end of his arc, but that's just me.
17. Yeesh, everyone's a critic. What other incredibly unimportant details are you allowing to bog your final season viewing experience?
Are you going to tell me that Tyrion selling out Varys to Daenerys only to find out that Varys was totally right about Daenerys all in the space of oh, I don't know, 40 minutes, is me getting hung up on an unimportant detail?
You are an unreasonable person, and we will have to agree to disagree, because I'm very disappointed with the way in which Game of Thrones sent Varys off into the void, and I'm not alone. In an interview with EW, Conleth Hill expressed his own frustration with the way the series treated Varys in the end, describing himself as "inconsolable" when he found out about his death. He specifically cited his lack of resolution with Aidan Gillen's Littlefinger as a big disappointment, stating: "I was very bummed to not have a final scene with him. I was bummed not to have any reaction to him dying, if he was my nemesis. That's been my feeling the last couple seasons, that my character became more peripheral, that they concentrated on others more. That's fine. It's the nature of a multi-character show. It was kind of frustrating. As a whole it's been overwhelmingly positive and brilliant but I suppose the last couple seasons weren't my favorite." Agree or disagree with the Spider as you wish.
18. Enough about spiders, how about those elephants, or lack thereof?
Seriously! I'm sure Harry Strickland (Marc Rissman) and the Golden Company would regret not having a whole host of elephants at their command in this past episode, had they survived long enough to regret anything. Hard to think of a group of hyped-up Game of Thrones characters more quickly and utterly useless than the Golden Company.
19. Bet you're pretty happy to lose Euron Greyjoy, aren't you?
Definitely, but his death was a given. And even though he was far from my favorite character, and even though I really didn't care for how he shot Rhaegal out of the sky last week with minimal effort required, I'm annoyed at just how easily Daenerys was able to destroy the Iron Fleet and all the scorpion bows in one full-powered fit of fury. How can these be the deadliest anti-dragon weapons in the world in one week, and completely useless the next?
20. You're getting worked up again! Calm down and focus on what you liked about "The Bells," please.
Across the board, the actors were terrific. Even though I don't feel the series earned the hugely radical shift for Dany, I think Emilia Clarke absolutely knocked it out of the park with her performance, especially early on in the episode; her reclusive Mad Queen scenes at Dragonstone were tremendous, a haunting shadow of her own family history. I already mentioned how much I loved the final moment with Jaime and Tyrion, but happy to mention that again here. Circumstances of how it happened aside, the perspective of the destruction from the people of King's Landing was absolutely gutting, impressively directed by Sapochnik; some of his best work in the series, and thankfully well-lit at that.
21. Let's look ahead to the finale. Daenerys has won the Iron Throne with fire and blood. Will she keep it?
She won't, unless Game of Thrones is going to end on an incredibly nihilistic note, which is already at least somewhat of an inevitability. I think she will be stopped, with Tyrion likely to pick up Varys' torch and light the way forward for Jon Snow's reign. "I don't want it," Jon told Varys about the Iron Throne — but want's got nothing to do with it. Make way for King Aegon. Will he keep the thing? I don't think so. I'm officially aligning with the crowd who believes there will not be an Iron Throne at the end of Game of Thrones. So many horrors have been unleashed in the service of the throne. I expect Jon to take it and melt the thing down for parts, leaving the future of Westeros in the hands of an elected leader. Who that will be? I'll meditate on the candidates and get back to you.
22. Sounds good. Any final advice before the series finale? How should I prepare?
Prepare however you want, but here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to watch the series premiere right before the series finale. I want to see the Game of Thrones bookends, back to back. In what ways does the very first episode of this twisted tale set the stage for how it's all going to conclude? Is there anything instructive to glean from a dialogue standpoint, or anything else in the story, especially as it pertains to those who are still alive: Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Arya, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright)? Who knows if it will impart any wisdom, but at the very least, a back-to-back pilot and finale viewing experience feels like a fun double feature.
23. Fun? You're expecting fun from the series finale, even after that bloodbath? Really?
Really. Look, it's Game of Thrones, a once-in-a-lifetime force of nature. It's imperfect. There was no way for it to ever meet expectations. Sadly, its seams are showing in the final stretch, with some sins way less forgivable than others. Even through a dark final stretch, there have been moments of light and joy, and even moments of terror that have been genuinely powerful to behold. Given the current state of the story, there is almost no way to walk away from the series finale fully satisfied, at least for me, but I do expect to love a lot of the character landing places and the little moments along the way — anything that resembles the Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) knighting ceremony, for example, and I bet we'll get more than a few of those kinds of moments in the finale. I hope, anyway. So much of Game of Thrones has been worth the ride. I'm entering the final episode fully intending to surrender to one last look at Westeros. Whether Game of Thrones chooses to accept that surrender? Another matter entirely, as "The Bells" made painfully clear.
Read all of THR's Final Path series, featuring character-by-character predictions:
1. Jon Snow
2. Daenerys Targaryen
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Cersei Lannister
5. Jaime Lannister
6. Sansa Stark
7. Arya Stark
8. Bran Stark
9. Samwell Tarly
10. Theon Greyjoy
11. The Hound
12. Brienne of Tarth
15. Davos Seaworth
16. Jorah Mormont
18. Tormund Giantsbane
19. Beric Dondarrion
20. The Dragons
21. The Night King
22. Across the World of Ice and Fire
23. Final Predictions
Follow THR.com/GameOfThrones for continuing coverage all season long.