Warning, spoilers are ahead for episode four of the final season of Game of Thrones.
While there are no doubt more battles and backstabbings to come, we may well look back on the ending moments of season six as the high-water mark of Daenerys Targaryen. She had decisively defeated her evil enemies in Slaver’s Bay, she had three full-grown dragons, and in the final moments of the season she sailed to Westeros with the mightiest army in the world. She was a flawed but ultimately righteous character, at the peak of her powers.
And now? Her most loyal advisers — those who loved her most — are dead. She has only one dragon. And that mighty army isn’t just a shell of its former self, part of it is mainly loyal to Jon Snow — the lawful heir to the Iron Throne. In the closing moments, as Missandei’s headless body tumbles from the walls of King’s Landing, you could see that her decline into the Mad Queen was almost complete. She was ready to roast King’s Landing, consequences be dammed. Time and again, she’s pulled back from the brink. But now? She seems ready to take the plunge, burn the city, and rule over the ashes.
The show is telegraphing that outcome so strongly that I suspect something else might happen, but it’s worth pausing and briefly reflecting how Dany fell. Aside from the show’s one colossal plot hiccup — the ridiculous mission beyond the wall that cost her a dragon — each decision she’s made since she landed in Westeros has been understandable, mostly defensible, and sometimes altruistic. At the same time, however, each of those critical decisions has weakened her and isolated her, making her more vulnerable to indulging her worst and most vicious instincts.
When she arrived at Dragonstone, she presumed victory and sought to win her war in the most human way possible. So she divided her forces, and gave Cersei room to defeat different elements in detail. Then, when she reacted with ruthless fury to her defeats, she went too far and executed enemies with dragon fire — an action that planted seeds of doubt even in her friends and gave an opening to her enemies to exploit those doubts. She marched north in a virtuous quest to defend the living, but at the cost of most of her army and her most trusted adviser. Slowly but surely she’s being stripped of everyone and everything she loved, and she can no longer embrace the man who loves her. She’s shrewd enough to know that his very existence doesn’t just threaten her reign, it threatens her life.
What about Jon Snow? As he walked up to Sansa and Arya to do the “right thing” and tell his family his secret, I couldn’t help but think of Season One, I couldn’t help but think, “classic Ned Stark move.” His honesty and transparency have now made him even more of a pawn in the great game. He misplaced his trust, and the plots and schemes spread around him.
Where do we go from here? Emilia Clarke has said that episode five will be “bigger” than the Battle of Winterfell, so expect to see the battle for King’s Landing. Given Missandei’s dying words (“Dracarys!”) and given Daenerys’s vision in Season Two of a burned-out Red Keep, I’m expecting to see Drogon unleashed. Beyond that? I hesitate to make any predictions — except that I’m relatively certain that Jon still has one or more acts of honorable foolishness up his sleeve, and those acts may finally mean his permanent death.
Finally, this may sound strange, but I found last night’s episode to be extremely sad. Daenerys is one of the great characters in fantasy fiction, and to see her subjected once again to profound loss — and to know that this may be the loss that finally breaks her — is deeply melancholy. A world that lacks any meaningful trust, where the gods are capricious and uncaring, and the only true faith seems to be self-belief is profoundly depressing. There’s a moment in the episode, as all the scheming begins again before the funeral pyres from the Battle of Winterfell have cooled, that reeks of existential despair. We sacrificed everything for this?
As of now, it seems that no one can truly break the wheel. The wheel is all there is, and it brings despair. The showrunners may ultimately give us a “happy” ending, but we also know that if the show continued — and it was true to the ethos of Martin’s world — the happiness would be fleeting indeed. The wheel would only pause before grinding on, crushing the virtue out of a world without hope.