As the end credits rolled on the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, I was reminded of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. It was chosen by James Mangold as the perfect goodbye song to our beloved Wolverine in 2017’s Logan. The lyrics have a finality to it, about preparation for death as it comes calling. Similarly, Episode 5, billed as the ‘Last War’, has an all-pervasive tone of fatality.
Death has been one of the great talking points in Game of Thrones. As long as the White Walkers were alive, death was never final, as we know it. Cast them aside, and death still isn’t cold and final. It has consequences. It sets future events in motion. In death, was born a new powerful family. In death, was born new power to an old family.
The Game of Thrones ensued when Jaime Lannister killed the Mad King Aerys during Robert’s Rebellion and since then, the value of life has had diminishing returns. It was the death of Missandei and Rhaegal last episode, and Ser Jorah Mormont in the episode prior, that has propelled Daenerys’ story forward now.
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While Varys and Tyrion teased Shakespearean betrayal at the end of the last episode, what followed in today’s episode is straight out of Machiavellian politics.
Dany, for the first time unbraided in this series since the first episode, is brooding, angry and despondent. She takes up Machiavelli on his word: “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” For the girl queen who wanted to break the wheel of overlords that crush the innocent, today’s episode also served as a reminder of another of those wonderful Machiavellian quotes — “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This episode encourages pontificating on death. In this universe, it’s hardly permanent — sometimes like in the case of Jon Snow and The Mountain, quite literally. Gregor Clegane aka The Mountain died a long time ago when Oberyn Martell danced around him with a sword, all the way back in Season 4. But he has been around. When his brother, Sandor Clegane, the Hound, took off from Winterfell to King’s Landing to meet his brother, we knew Cleganebowl was incoming.
For Sandor, whose face was half burnt by his brother just because he took away Gregor’s toy, death was always a destination. The climax of Cleganebowl, although haphazardly orchestrated and with a couple of easter eggs thrown in, was ultimately both satisfying and poetic for me.
Death for someone like Jon Snow is less about the body, and more about honour (his foster father would be proud).
Jon faces the greatest threat to his moral code in this episode. People whom he had grown up with, whom he had saved, whom he had met and loved — none of them appear to be what they are. In A Feast For Crows, George RR Martin through Septon Maribald writes one of my most favourite monologues, titled The Broken Man.
In it, he writes, “War seems a fine adventure till they get a taste of battle. For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first.” The great essence of the book, its position on war, is often lost in translation on the TV show. While the books were opposed to war, the shows glorified them. Yet in Episode 5, which has the curious dichotomy of being incredibly directed, but poorly written, the TV show finally gets what Martin was talking about.
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To Tyrion, death is a matter of belief. To Jaime, it’s about love. To Cersei, it’s about children. The Lannister siblings, however far apart they are, are tied together in this episode particularly by their positions on death. We get a poetic conclusion, but the pacing leaves us with a bitter, bitter aftertaste. One can only hope that when (or if) George RR Martin gets around to finishing his books, the paths will be far more satisfying.
The ending of this episode reminded me of that Cash song I mentioned in the beginning. “And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder And I looked, and behold a pale horse And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him” Death came for King’s Landing in this episode. I doubt it’s done yet.