In the twenty-four hours that have passed since this week’s episode, there have been many reactions and analyses, but the consensus of what I’ve read—from friends and critics alike—seems to be that Shireen’s death was a shocking reversal for Stannis and Dany’s flight was an exhilarating victory. Allow me to disagree with both of those assertions. I found this year’s penultimate episode rushed, poorly written, and ultimately underwhelming.
Oddly enough, Dorne was pretty good! We saw the prince establish his control and take some real positive political action. Even the porny sand snakes seemed mildly entertaining.
Arya’s experience in Braavos did not fare so well. So far this season, they’ve handled her story relatively effectively, even if they needlessly collapsed several characters. All that went out the window this week. There simply has not been enough screen time with Arya as Cat the oyster girl for us to fully appreciate the path that she’s on. And now in comes Meryn Trant. Who the hell remembered that Meryn Trant killed Syrio Forell? I certainly didn’t, and I don’t think I’m alone. I had to look it up. Is her plan to kill a Kingsguard? That seems like it would be noticed and create trouble for her. Plus, the inclusion of his pedophilia just seems gratuitous, except to make Meryn seem like even more of a dick. And then there’s her really terrible trailing skills. Besides, she’s not supposed to be Arya any more. It seems so rushed. If she had completed a bunch of tasks for the House of Black and White first, a murder for Arya would seem like a bigger deal. Now, she hasn’t really left herself behind, so of course she will exact vengeance. The rush just kills the dramatic tension.
Stannis’s actions certainly had dramatic tension. And, while I could have gone a long time without seeing Shireen get burned as a sacrifice, the events clearly worked to build his character. He would sacrifice anything—even a beloved daughter—to get the throne. But, even this creates some character issues. He just sacrificed his only heir in the quest to establish a dynasty. That seems…ill-advised.
But how did we not see this coming? Davos saw it coming, which is why Stannis sent him away, and why he gave Shireen a gift. My only question is, when does Davos just say “fuck it” and leave Stannis behind? I don’t think this will do it. I think he’ll still follow his king’s orders, and I don’t think he will do anything to kill Melisandre.
Everything about Stannis has shown him to be ruthless in his quest for the throne. We all had at least a week to get used to the idea that innocent, sweet little Shireen was going to get burned alive. If anything, the move was telegraphed in a hacky, ham-fisted manner that Martin and the series have avoided before this. If it shocked you, it’s your own fault.
Similarly, as soon as you saw the title of this episode, you had to know how Danaerys’ story would end: dragon. It appeared triumphant, Drogon saving his mother in her hour of need. But how, exactly, are her friends supposed to survive when they’re still surrounded by an apparently endless stream of the Sons of the Harpy? Obviously they will, but it certainly didn’t seem like they should. The Harpy is too powerful, when they should be a small guerilla force. In the numbers they apparently have, they could easily overcome Danaerys’ forces in the arena, but they stopped and attacked one at a time. They kept a secret among hundreds of individuals, planned an intense strategic victory, and then forgot how to mount an attack at the last moment? It seems laughable, and Tyrion et al are still surrounded. Rushed, hackneyed writing.
Before the season began, Martin told us all that the writers of the series are more brutal than he is, and that has certainly panned out. More troubling, though, is that, without Martin’s direct involvement, the writing has become predictable even while it’s horrifying, and rushed even while attempting tragedy.