[Spoilers ahead for the finales of both Veep and Game Of Thrones. Obviously.]
Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder.
-- Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones Season 3, Episode 6
Well then, why don't we send WARSHIPS into the South China Seas? I WANT! MY NOBEL! PEACE PRIZE!
-- President Selina Meyer, Veep, Season 5, Episode 10
Last night on HBO, two venal, scheming rulers saw their secret machinations come to ruinous ends — literally ruinous, for one of them.
On Game of Thrones, Queen Mother Cersei Lannister blew up the Sept of Baelor, where she was to be put on trial. In doing so, she exacted a fierce and fiery vengeance against those who had publicly shamed her. And against those who stood in her her way. And against at least one ex. And against lots of random looky-loos who were probably just bored with their lives of boot-cobbling or pauldron-hammering or whatever it is people get up to in King's Landing and just thought, "Hey, let's see if we can catch a trial!" Eat wildfire, Westeros Court TV watchers!
On Veep, Selina Meyer, who has made a series of shady back-door deals to shore up her tenuous presidency (Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays her by affixing a grin to her face that hovers between beaming warmth and feral rictus) saw that presidency sputter out to an ignominious end.
Both women have spent this season on different rungs of what GoT's Baelish famously called the Ladder of Chaos.
For ten episodes, we watched Cersei climb it with cold, implacable determination.
As she did so, she likely saw Selina Meyer slipping down its opposite side, flailing at each passing rung.
Veep lost its creator and showrunner Armando Iannucci when it returned for its fifth season, touching off legitimate concerns about how or if the show could maintain its acrid intensity in his absence.
If anything, under showrunner David Mandel, Meyer — and the show that swirls around her — grew more anxious, more ruthless, more dangerous. Having achieved the position for which she has always ached, the looming threat of its imminent loss has left Meyer swimming in a new, hilariously desperate species of rage: she verbally vivisects those around her with a mirthless precision, she offers the role of Secretary of State to anyone and everyone, and she somehow manages to discover new, astonishing ways to undercut her daughter.
As always, Veep captures the ceaseless, antacid-gobbling churn of a life in politics: the breathless striving to achieve, the need to exploit anything that even closely resembles an opportunity, and the existential dread that arises out of watching all that striving, and every opportunity, crumble into dust.
At the center of the scrum, Louis-Dreyfus' Meyer noisily seethes. We watch her as she watches the brittle alliances she formed by berating allies and nemeses alike shatter, again and again. The finale featured a series of shots in which Meyer reacts to some fresh reversal or betrayal. It's only when she learns that her successor will receive credit for freeing Tibet — an achievement Meyer had hoped to serve as her legacy — that her expression shifts from pitched resentment to the grudging acceptance of defeat.
Meyer is powered only by the need for credit and the fear of blame. It's a fuel mixture that can carry her only so far, and the finale leaves us without a real sense of what she will do with herself now.
A similar question surrounds Game of Thrones' Queen Cersei, First of Her Name. This season has been about Cersei recovering the self she was when we first met her: cool, impassive, imperious, lethal. She ended last season naked and bleeding, she ends this one clothed in familiar finery, a glass of red wine at her lips.
If the loss of her son King Tommen wounded her at all, she doesn't let us see it. This Cersei is past wounding, past bleeding, past allowing the world to gawk at her pain. But where does that leave her?
She's climbed the ladder: her enemies and rivals are dead, she sits on the Iron Throne. True, her son is gone. But her brother stands at her side, and her brother is, as she has said, all that she cares about.
At the end of last night's finales, these two women were each permitted a moment to look around and survey where they ended up, and how they got there.
Selina Meyer at the ladder's bottom-most rung, listening to an Inauguration parade that is, very literally, passing her by.
Queen Cersei atop the ladder, looking out the faces of her subjects and seeing nothing in them but dread, disgust, and fear. The fact that one of those faces belongs to her beloved brother, and that his expression suggests he shares that same dread, disgust and fear, is not something that bothers her.
She's Queen of Westeros now, and though she doesn't know it, Westeros is about to be attacked by fire from the East and ice from the North.
Inevitably, Cersei will descend the ladder once again, or fall from it; she may even be pushed off by someone close to her.
Selina Meyer, for her part, will begin to climb it, because she has to. Characters can't languish at either end for long — they have to keep moving, in one direction or the other, because, as Baelish would say:
"Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."