George R.R. Martin spent the first three quarters of the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series setting up Ned Stark to be the righteous, honorable hero who will sort out the viper’s nest of King’s Landing. Then he dies and we understand, in retrospect, that Ned wasn’t ever subtle or clever enough to be the savior we wanted. The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, in many ways, played out the ultimate Martin plot: first, spend almost eight seasons showing us the rise of a ruler who has the ability to be truly great and also the potential to fall victim to her worst instincts. Then, at the eleventh hour, when she has a critical choice to make, remind us that people rarely rise to the occasion under pressure. Martin has always been a bitter realist with a dim view of human nature; Benioff and Weiss did not pull any punches in delivering that lesson.
[Please note that there are spoilers through the latest episode below.]