It Tolls for King’s Landing, Innocent Civilians, and a Once Well-Written Show: A review of Game of Thrones episode 8.5, “The Bells”
Warning: There be dragons! But ye shall be burned even more by the SPOILERS that abound!
So she finally went and did it.
Daenerys Targaryen, who over the course of eight seasons, went from an apparently innocent waif, traded like a piece of chattel, to an assertive and determined navigator of the Westeros chess board who freed entire cities of slaves, acquired two armies in a quest to reclaim her family’s throne from usurpers and tyrants, has snapped, and borne out her family’s penchant for insanity. Not content at conquering King’s Landing, and defeating Cersei, she threw morality and human decency to the winds, and torched entire sections of King’s Landing, turning scores of innocent men, woman and children into French fries for no justifiable reason.
In so doing, she adds The Mad Queen to her list of titles, becoming her father’s daughter, and the true heir to King Aerys II.
And it’s not like this wasn’t pre-ordained, right? Both novelist George R.R. Martin and the producers who adapted his Song of Ice and Fire for the screen, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, made it clear early on, by establishing the Targaryen family’s propensity for insanity, and through the prophetic visions experienced by Bran and Daenerys herself, that she would eventually make it to King’s Landing, but that it would not necessarily be a happy ending, which have always been few and far between on a show that’s always been more about employing subversion to illustrate the horror of war and the dangers of absolute rule by narcissists who see themselves as the center of all things.
In this sense, setting us up to think that Varys deserved to be executed, and to feel joy at seeing the gates of King’s Landing disintegrated as Drogon flies through them on a giant torrent of flame, only to later be horrified when Dany refused to stop, and realize that Varys was “right” all along, is right in line with this modus operandi. Irrespective of her words and even her actions regarding tyrants, Dany has never indicated that hers is a war for egalitarianism or democracy, even if she freed some cities’ worth of slaves along the way. Her actions have always centered upon what she wanted for herself, and her kindness and generosity always stopped at those who came between her and her goals.
So no, her rampage at King’s Landing wasn’t without setup. That isn’t the problem.
The problem is the same one that’s pervaded the entire season.
It’s the writing, stupid!
The last five episodes, especially the last three, have been marred by major established premises that have been ignored or dropped; a conclusion to the Night King storyline that while satisfying on an action level, did not tie into the status quo of Jon or Bran, the Cersei storyline, or even affect Dany’s ability to wage war on King’s Landing; unceremonious exits of important characters like Sam, Gilly, Tormund and Ghost; and plot holes bigger than that one Viserion blew through the Wall.
In “The Long Night”, we saw the Dothraki snuffed out by the horde of the dead, with only one or two horseriders coming back from that idiotic charge-with-no-dragonglass. In the next episode, “The Last of the Starks”, Grey Worm tells Daenerys that half their forces are gone, and takes some pieces off the map. The lone unnamed Dothraki in the room does the same. Yet in this episode, a large group of Dothraki charge King’s Landing in force. In “Starks,” Dany is flying toward Dragonstone, and all of a sudden neither she, nor Drogon nor Rhaegal can see eleven ships below them, allowing Euron’s ships to land not one, not two, but three arrows at Rhaegal in rapid succession, while missing Drogon entirely. According to Benioff, this his because Dany “kind of forgot” about Euron’s fleet. I’m not making that up. Read it yourself.
But now in “The Bells,” she has regained the sense to properly take advantage of her altitude in the very way she should have, and can destroy a fleet that now numbers at least 137 ships? (Yes, I counted.)
But what’s far worse than changed or ignored premises or plot holes is how this season has handled the show’s signature quality: Characterization.
The series has always been one of the best works in modern popular fiction when it comes to depicting the motivations that drive a large cast of characters’ actions, and how those motivations interact with the plot, theme and allegory. But this season, the character work has seemed so phoned-in that AT&T should’ve gotten an onscreen story credit. (Hey, it beats a Starbucks cup.)
Take Varys’ turn as traitor. In “The Last of the Starks”, Dany says she wants to rip Cersei out of King’s Landing “root and stem,” and Tyrion reminds her that the plan is to do that without destroying the entire city. Dany gives no indication that she disagrees with this. Quite the contrary, she adds that under her rule, all of the people of Westeros would live under her rightful rule “without fear or cruelty.” But then Varys starts talking to Tyrion about finding someone else to rule Westeros. This comes about not because Dany’s reaction to Missandei’s execution, because while they sail to Dragonstone before that happens, simply because Tyrion has just informed him of Jon’s true parentage. This appears to have been done to provoke our animus toward Varys for his disloyalty, so that when Dany does go postal, Benioff and Weiss can again go, “Gotcha!” with our expectations. But Varys wasn’t right, since his disloyalty was about being picky about prospective ruler pedigrees, and because Dany ever gave any inclination toward tyranny. In this way, Varys seems to have acted they way he did because he read the script. And I’ve come to expect better from this show.
Then take the Stark women’s soapy motivations. In “Starks,” Arya and Sansa say that even though they harbor respect and gratitude for Dany helping them fight the Night King, that they’ll never trust her because “She’s not one of us.” Really? Were the Wildlings “one of us”? How about that giant, Wun-Wun, who died fighting for the Starks in the Battle of the Bastards? For that matter, Robert Baratheon himself wasn’t from the North. Did the Stark women fail to observe loyalty among their people to King Robert, despite what an incompetent, cruel boor he was? By contrast, Dany loves Jon, and lost one of her dragons just saving Jon’s life (risking her own in the process) and lost half of her soldiers and one of her dearest friends fighting for Winterfell. Just what does she have to do to earn Arya and Sansa’s loyalty? Arya certainly feels loyalty to the Hound. Should Dany kill Arya’s best friend, kidnap her and then ride with her up and down Westeros while occasionally slapping her around?
Of course, this isn’t what lit up the Web following the episode’s premiere.
Daenerys: Portrait of a Tyrant
The real dragon in the living room is Daenerys’s decision to burn large sections of King’s Landing, along with civilians running for their lives. While this may be a fulfillment of the visions that Dany and Bran experienced earlier in the series, and illustrative of how even good people in positions of power can let power go to their heads, it doesn’t ring true on a character level, since characters’ behavior has to make sense in the context of their overall arcs. It’s not enough to point out that people “snap” in real life, or that Dany’s father was nuts. Hell, even he didn’t suddenly “snap”, but was a naturally erratic man who gradually declined due to a combination of age, political tension, and jealousy of his Hand, Tywin Lannister.1 Characterization isn’t about just using real life as a precedent. It’s something that has to be constructed as part of the writers’ craft, just as any other art form, and thus having a character turn arbitrarily to simply match an established prophecy breaks our suspension of disbelief.
Was Dany’s rampage really out of anger over Rhaegal and Missandei? That look of barely restrained rage on her face after Missandei was executed was certainly one we hadn’t seen before. But if that’s the case, her anger should’ve been directed at Cersei and Euron, and Benioff confirmed that this was the case. Instead, she torches peasants who had nothing to do with it. In a behind-the-scenes featurette, episode director Miguel Sapochnik said that Dany felt “empty” when the bells went off, and producer D.B. Weiss explained that at that moment, she decided to make it “personal”. The problem with this is that killing people who probably hated Cersei as much as Dany did, isn’t personal, because it’s been made clear by now Cersei didn’t care about those people.
Benioff also pointed out that before her execution at the end of “Starks,” Missandei’s last word, “Dracarys,” which was her way of telling Dany to burn them all. So what? Dany has spent eight seasons fighting against slavery, tyranny and cruelty towards the innocent, and now she’s grown so myopic over the death of her best friend that she decides to honor a condemned woman’s dying wish to murder innocent people—even though she repated her anti-tyranny platform to Tyrion after Missandei’s death? Sorry, but this is a poor rationalization any way you look it.
Some reviewers have attempted to argue the Dany has always been a mad queen, pointing to her past brutalities to people like Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Pyat Pree, Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the Tullys, but this ignores the fact that those people had actually transgressed against her. Like it or not, “The Bells” represents the first time she has committed acts of unambiguous murder upon innocent people who had done nothing to her.
I noticed that the episode seems to try to provide other excuses for Dany, but none are particularly convincing. Consider her statement to Tyrion in Dragonstone’s throne room that she would not allow Cersei to use her mercy as a weakness. This cannot explain her killing spree, since she embarked upon it after the Lannister army surrendered. And if her actions at King’s Landing was Dany’s way of merely making a point to Cersei about Cersei attempt to use people as a defensive tactic, then this means that Dany committed mass murder out of spite.
There’s also the scene where she tries snogging with Jon in front of the fireplace, and after he fails to return her affections in earnest, she resolves, “Alright, then. Let it be fear.” Seriously? She burned countless civilians to a crisp because Jon wouldn’t give her some sugar? In HBO’s “Inside the Episode” featurette, D.B. Weiss states that this was the moment when Dany resigned herself to the belief that she would need to resort to committing an atrocity in order to “get things done,” but this ignores the fact that she had already gotten it done without it.
I want to make clear: I don’t have a problem with the idea of sympathetic characters taking tragic descents into darkness, provided that it naturally follows what’s been established up to that point. I do not, for example, have a problem with Grey Worm’s actions, since they were not inconsistent with his character. Ditto for the Dothraki and Northmen committing atrocities, since even if Dany decreed to the former that their raping and pillaging days were over (much as she had done with Yara and Theon), they may have taken her lighting up the city as a sign that it had gone out the window.
Dany burning large numbers of citizens would be more believable if it was prompted in a way that made things at least a bit more fuzzy: Imagine this: Cersei ties random citizens up against the walls of the city, and the Red Keep, using them as personal human shields. Dany then makes the decision to burn them because those innocents’ deaths are unavoidable, and then during the smoke and ash, it becomes more difficult for her to clearly see the Lannisters surrender, and to discern who is a civilian and who is a soldier, a tragic iteration of what happens in the during the “fog of war”. But this didn’t happen, as there was no “fog.”
There is, however, one nagging detail I noticed in the episode that gives me cause to hold off on final judgment of her turn, one that leads me to hope that what we saw in “The Bells” is not all that there was to see, and will pay off in the finale, once again prompting us to reevaluate what we previously thought was true: After that shot of Dany after the bells tolled, we never got a close-up shot of her during her destruction of the city. Why is this? Wouldn’t showing her face twisted into a grimace of pure rage during her rampage be crucial to that scene? It makes no sense not to show her face during this. I got to thinking that maybe they plan on showing us her rampage again in the finale, only from Dany’s POV, revealing something similar to what I just described. Perhaps she was trying to destroy fortifications that looked like armories or barracks or assets that Cersei could use to hide or escape, and Drogon’s limited precision with fire killed some civilians near those buildings, and when Grey Worm saw this, he misunderstood this, and took it as justification for embarking on a vendetta on those who murdered his love, and everything just snowballed from there. Perhaps when Dany then saw the fighting resume, she then took this as a sign that Lannister soldiers were ignoring the bells, and justified doing so herself, a sequence of causality that neither Jon nor any other single player would understand at the time. All of this could render her actions in a more morally ambiguous light. It would also fit squarely in the wheelhouse of both Martin and the showrunners, who have relied heavily on contrasting POVs in this way throughout the series. Is that what they’re going to do here, in order to make Dany’s actions and her reasons for them more morally ambiguous, with their seemingly threadbare explanations in the behind-the-scenes material a cover for it?
In perusing the Web, it seems that I’m not alone in noticing the lack of a close-up, with another reviewer speculating that the reason for this is that Bran had warged into Drogon to burn the city. If Dany spent the rampage trying helplessly trying to regain control over her dragon, this would explain why they couldn’t show her in close-up.
Not with a bang, but a whimper. And falling bricks.
Even if this is borne out, the rest of the major characters’ arcs fair little better, and unlike Dany, theirs are finished.
To understand what’s wrong with what happens to the characters in this episode and others, you have to look at how their stories have been developed to date, and you’ll see why they’re called arcs. For example, Tyrion sees his father writing a letter in the third season premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” that includes the phrase “ripe for the trap.” In that season’s finale, “Mhysa,” which is the episode that takes place after the Red Wedding, Bran tells a story of the Rat Cook, who cooks his guests into the food served as a feast, an act whose heinousness stems from the Westerosian view that killing a guest under one’s own roof is an unforgivable sin. This establishes a cultural viewpoint explaining how the Red Wedding is regarded by the people of Westeros, warring families or not. So when Arya bakes Walder Frey’s sons into the pie she serves to him in the sixth season finale, and then poses as him to oversee her murder of his soldiers in the seventh season premiere, these cease to be mere events in individual episodes, but pieces of a cohesive whole. A single tapestry, in which climaxes feel more satisfying because they come as the payoff that follows a long setup. That’s what separates an abrupt shocking plot twist from a carefully crafted one.
This is what’s missing from this season, and this episode.
I just assumed, for example, that when Arya set out from Winterfell for King’s Landing to kill Cersei, that it was as much a mission handed to her by Dany as it was a personal vendetta. But nothing here indicates that Dany thought to take advantage of the skills she knew Arya had. I also assumed that this arc would tied into Cleganebowl, and with Cersei’s ultimate fate. Maybe Arya made her play for the Queen, killing a bunch of her guards in the process, and just when she was about to strike the killing blow upon Cersei, it’s blocked by the Mountain, who suddenly appears and beats Arya nearly to death. And just when he’s about to deliver a fatal blow to her per Cersei’s order, that’s blocked in turn by the Hound, who then has the fight of his life with his brother for Arya. This might’ve been an even sweeter turn of events if Arya and the Hound hadn’t been shown leaving Winterfell together. If they had the Hound leaving to go find some quiet hillside to retire, failing to convince Arya to stay at Winterfell, his sudden appearance there would be a more satisfying and poignant surprise. Maybe during this brawl, Cersei could have ended up falling from a tower into the spot where Ned Stark was executed, making her end all the more poetic. Or something like that. Anything.
Instead what we got was two tall brothers who decided it was time to fight when they could’ve done when the confronted one another in the seventh season finale, a number of gratuitously implausible stab wounds inflicted upon Jamie, and a bunch of bricks falling on Cersei. Instead of layering these denouements in a way that tied them together along with the Night King arc and the Azor Ahai prophecy, in a way that echoed with the series’ overall mythology, what we got was thematically flat. A series of endings that were journalistic rather than resonant. We got the who, what, where, when and how, but not the heart. The Night King was done away with mid-season, and Cersei is killed not in the series finale, but its penultimate installment.
Are there some good moments? Sure. That moment when Arya addresses The Hound by his given name for the first time ever was a nice touch. And the FX were excellent. That one over-the-shoulder shot of a Lannister soldier as a split suddenly appears in his torso upon the swing of a Northman’s sword was extremely impressive. But the sum of these individual moments does not add up to a story that transcends them.
Speculation for the finale
So going into the finale, what are we left with?
We saw Arya mount a white horse, much like Death, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation. Where she’s galloping off to is fairly obvious, as is the conflict that will drive the violence in the finale. The only question will be whether she will kill Dany, or be foiled be Grey Worm, leading to a duel between them, which I admit, would redeem the Cleganebowl somewhat.
Perhaps as they fight, Jon finds a still-intact scorpion, perhaps half-covered in debris, that Dany and Drogon missed and then use it on the Drogon? I noticed that contrary to what Qyburn said, we didn’t see Drogon destroy all of them, and one shot of Drogon showed him passing over a number of them on his way to destroying a corner tower at the city gates. And if this leads the Unsullied to attack Jon and the Northmen, seemingly to the point of near-defeat, and they are saved by the arrival of Tormund on the Wildlings, with Ghost biting off Grey Worm’s head, it would redeem their inelegant departure in “Starks.” If only.
And then there’s that little girl, the last of Varys’ little birds, allowing one last manipulation of his to survive his death and manifest itself in the series finale.
Benioff and Weiss have not played their last hand, and I haven’t lost my last ounce of faith. The season is what it is. But the show can still go out on a high note. When Sansa told Tyrion about Jon’s secret parentage in “Starks,” one reviewer took issue with what he perceived as irresponsibility on her part, not realizing that this move was deliberately written as a “master stroke” of manipulation, as Dany herself tells Jon a few scenes into this episode, so it’s not like they’ve completely lost the ability to write good character work, and even disguise it.
In spite of everything I’ve written here, the lower quality of this season’s writing has not soured me on the sprawling epic created by my fellow native of Hudson County.
In fact, I’ve just started reading the first novel in the series. I intend to read them all, perhaps putting my run through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series on hold in order to keep the continuity of the story fresh in my mind from novel to novel, and who knows, maybe by the time I’m done, my fellow native of Hudson County, New Jersey will have finished writing the final two novels, or at least decided upon a firm release date.
Hope springs eternal.
1. Martin, George R.R. (2014). The World of Ice and Fire. Bantam. pp. 113 – 129.