Like the famous Robert Frost poem about the end of the world, the apocalyptic themes of Game of Thrones raise an elemental question: Will the world end in ice or in fire? If the smoking ruins of King's Landing are any indication, the answer is fire—specifically, fire wielded by a mentally unstable, vengeful woman laying waste to the world out of jealousy and misdirected rage.
We were warned about "Targaryen madness" early and often, this idea that "every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin." Daenerys' father, Aerys II—aka the Mad King—came out on the wrong end of that flip, spiraling into paranoia and a fondness for burning his enemies alive that led directly to the end of the Targaryen dynasty and, very nearly, the destruction of King's Landing by wildfire.
This psychological deterioration took place over the course of many years, while Dany's transformation from ruthless but compassionate wheel-breaker to videogame supervillain took place over the course of maybe two episodes. In the absence of enough runway to demonstrate a gradual descent into mental illness, Dany has to simply snap—to experience a break so traumatic that it explains a heel turn into mass slaughter.
The justifications for her rampage, however, are so flimsy they feel like excuses—as do the rationales for almost every character's actions in Game of Thrones' penultimate episode. Sure, Missandei's death was very sad, but let's not lie: The relationship between Dany and Missandei has never been particularly well developed beyond Missandei's abject gratitude at being saved from slavery; even in death Dany insists that her most treasured keepsake was her slave cuff(!?). The other pretext for burning them all is outrageously petty in ways that feel juvenile and inevitably gendered: She isn't as popular as she wants to be and feels rejected by her boyfriend.
It doesn't help that Daenerys describes her grievances to Jon like some sort of group text debacle where her boyfriend told his sister who told her ex who told his buddy the big secret. It also doesn't help that she then tries to gin up a bunch of drama about how this means he doesn't love her—even though he tells her, and has told her many times, that he does. When he isn't in the mood to kiss after watching her burn one of his colleagues alive, she willfully interprets this as a sexual rejection so profound that it justifies becoming Dark Phoenix.
Her petty jealousy then spirals from Jon Snow to an entire continent, and how pissed she is that Westeros is not kissing her ass to her satisfaction. "Far more people in Westeros love you than love me," she says. "I don't have love here." In other words, she didn't get elected prom queen and her boyfriend doesn't want to make out so it's time to die, King's Landing!
Deciding to burn the world because you feel lonely and can't get laid is a real incel move, but here it also gestures at so many pernicious stereotypes about women as overemotional and petty, prone to inventing slights and overreacting to them, full of unpredictable anger without origin. The corollary, of course, is that they can't be trusted with power lest their unstable behavior lead the world to ruin. Dany dousing the streets of King's Landing in the pseudo-nuclear fire is the narrative embodiment of every joke made by an insecure dude about how we can't elect a female president, because who wants someone on the rag holding the launch codes, amirite?
It rings false because this isn't just Dany abandoning her moral principles; it's Dany abandoning her goals and the entire point of her journey. Her family built the Red Keep, and ruled King's Landing and its people only a generation ago. Even if her goal is naked political power, why would she destroy the precise things she came to reclaim? When her ancestors burned Harrenhal, they did it to make a point, to get the rest of King's Landing to bend the knee. Here, the knee is already bent; destroying King's Landing at this point is basically destroying her own economy, infrastructure, and political capital.
Sure, she can rule over the ashes as Queen of Bones, but as much as the show wants us to think that she's gone Lawful Evil, this is some Chaotic Evil shit for sure. She's not a good guy gone bad, doing terrible things because the ends justify the means; she's the Joker, robbing a bank and then setting all the money on fire just to watch it burn.
If that feels like a nonsensical and unsatisfying conclusion to the narrative arc of a beloved character, wait till you get a load of Arya! When she and the Hound rode out together once again from Winterfell last episode, they were walking parallel paths in their respective quests for vengeance, and they were pretty clear on what that meant: They had no intention of coming back. Where she had once traveled with him as a hostage, they now traveled as equals.
When Arya arrives at the Red Keep just as Cersei decides to flee, it feels like we've finally come full circle: The little girl who once played here with wooden swords is back with steel; the little girl who was once naive and powerless returns as a seasoned warrior, tutored in the world's cruelties and hard realities but ready to embrace the destiny she claimed for herself, no matter what the cost.
And yet when they finally reach the Keep and are both feet away from their respective targets, the Hound stops in his tracks to give Arya a Very Special Episode lecture about the dangers of revenge, as though she were still a little girl chasing cats, playing at violence and death with wooden swords. A few platitudes about not becoming your enemy later, he dismisses Arya and the epic personal quest she has relentlessly pursued for eight seasons with a "go home, girl."
In any world where Arya is still Arya, the person who days ago shivved the Night King, this sort of insulting bullshit would earn either a snarky but affectionate kiss-off or a firm reminder that she's not a child anymore—and that just like him, she has places to be and people to kill. Instead, she looks up at him with wide eyes as though she had never before considered that vengeance might be bad, and actually goes home.
Are we truly to believe that Arya, a woman who has spent years contemplating revenge, repeating the names of her enemies, honing her skills and successfully crossing names off her hit list simply hasn't given the concept enough thought? This is someone who trained as an assassin with the Faceless Men, a guild devoted to the idea that life pays for death, that vengeance always has a terrible cost. It's not that she doesn't know the cost, as the Hound suggests; she is simply willing to pay it.
"You want to be like me?" he asks. That's the wrong question, of course, because she already is like him, and has been for a long time. The show doesn't understand that anymore, or doesn't care, and so it negates all the power and character development she has earned for eight seasons without a second thought.
Could you imagine any other warrior—Jaime, Brienne, Ned, Jorah, Jon—getting turned away from the climactic battle with their sworn foe by a condescending "vengeance is bad tho" PSA? Even Sansa got to set the hounds loose on Ramsay without some moralistic Kool-Aid Man jumping in to derail her quest with "um actually"s. But when Arya steps up to the plate, the Hound denies her experience, her suffering, her growth, and her agency, like a murder daddy who refuses to acknowledge that his little murder girl is now a murder woman. It's a pivotal moment for Arya, and instead of letting her move forward, it makes her regress. When she flees into the panicked throngs of King's Landing, she moves backward into childhood, back to the precise place she started out so many years ago when she watched her father die: a powerless girl trapped in the crush of a crowd, running from death rather than offering its gift to those who deserve it most.
Then, for some reason, there's a horse. It appears, gleaming and white in the wreckage, near the charred corpse of a child holding a horse toy, and Arya mounts it and rides away. I can't tell if we've taken a turn for The Sopranos and this is a dream sequence, or if this is just a totally sweet horse chilling in the middle of a fiery cataclysm. I'm sure there are plenty of theories about what the horse represents: hope, innocence, rebirth, etc., but it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for figuring it out, or taking it seriously on any level.
Perhaps the only interpretation left us by the carelessness and nihilism of the episode is what Tyrion says to Daenerys before Varys dies, that Jaime says to Cersei before they both die, that so many viewers are finally saying to themselves as the show finally comes to a close: It doesn't matter.