There was a point around midway through “The Bells” – when Daenerys heard the innocent people of King’s Landing crying out in surrender and inexplicably chose to burn them all anyway – when I thought to myself, “do I hate Game of Thrones now?” (The short answer is no, but we’ll get to that.)
But the decision seemed so unearned, so out of left-field, that I completely understand why Emilia Clarke said that Daenerys’ final scenes of the series “f—ed me up… Knowing that is going to be a lasting flavor in someone’s mouth of what Daenerys is…”
We still don’t know how the show will choose to end her story in next week’s finale, but it seems unlikely that there’s any way of redeeming her now; she has become exactly the kind of monster she saw Cersei as. And although there’s something poetic about that trajectory on paper, in execution, it feels like a betrayal – not because it’s impossible to imagine that Daenerys would lose her mind or any sense of perspective after suffering the immense loss and betrayal she’s endured this season (the show has foreshadowed the possibility that she might follow in her father’s footsteps since the beginning, so it’s certainly not out of character for her), but because the writers have rushed that progression so clumsily over the past four episodes. It feels like someone just randomly fell over and knocked into the big red “Mad Queen” button, turning Dany into an irrational psychopath in the last half of the penultimate episode just because the plot necessitated it for the final showdown.
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This doesn’t feel like the Daenerys we’ve watched suffer and evolve and struggle over the past eight years – someone who has lived in fear of becoming the kind of ruler her father was; who has been treated like a pawn in a larger game and had her agency stripped away by people in positions of power for most of her life. Back in Season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards,” after Tyrion told her exactly why Jaime killed the “Mad King” (for threatening to do exactly what Daenerys ended up doing in this episode, funnily enough), Daenerys made a rousing declaration: “Our fathers were evil men, all of us here. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re not going to do that – we’re going to leave the world better than we found it.”
Yes, she has always had the capacity to be callous and cold when threatened, to act without mercy when her enemies opposed her, but she has never used her ambition to oppress the innocent, or those who are too helpless to fight back. She calls herself the breaker of chains, not the burner of children. But in one fell swoop, she went full Mad Queen, killing civilians and burning the city, despite her previous insistence that she had no intention of being “queen of the ashes.” (I did love that the show made good on her vision of a decimated Red Keep with ash instead of snow, as some of us had predicted, and the fact that her fire spree set off some of the wildfire caches that her father had planted around King’s Landing back in the day, bringing the whole Targaryen arc full circle. And thank goodness she finally learned something from the Battle of Winterfell and Rhaegal’s death and started using Drogon tactically.)
In David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ Inside the Episode interview, when explaining why Daenerys made the baffling choice to destroy King’s Landing, Weiss gave the deeply flimsy justification that “she sees the Red Keep, which is, to her, the home that her family built when they first came over to this country 300 years ago. It’s in that moment, on the walls of Kings Landing where she’s looking at that symbol of everything that was taken from her, when she makes the decision to make this personal.” But the city already surrendered. No one was threatening her supremacy or challenging her conquest. She had already won.
Sure, I can buy that she wanted to make it personal and take revenge on Cersei for breaking their alliance and killing Missandei – but she could’ve flown straight to the Red Keep, torched Cersei and the men who were most loyal to her, and still come out looking like a hero (albeit a slightly terrifying one) to the citizens of King’s Landing. Now, there basically aren’t any citizens of King’s Landing, and why should the rest of Westeros bend the knee to someone who is completely willing to treat her subjects as kindling whenever she has a bad day?
(It’s worth noting that back in the Inside the Episode segment for “Battle of the Bastards,” Weiss said that even though Daenerys has a natural Targaryen ruthlessness, “She’s not her father, she’s not insane, and she’s not a sadist.” What a difference two years makes.)
The difficulty of the past two seasons in particular (between outpacing George R. R. Martin’s books and the showrunners’ insistence on shortening both seasons to give us 13 episodes to end the story instead of 20) is that we haven’t had an opportunity to simply sit with the characters and learn how they’re feeling or what’s motivating them. In the books, we know what all of our main characters are thinking because chapters are told from their point of view, which means – if the show is indeed following Martin’s plan for the ending – we’ll get to hear Dany’s internal justification for why all of this is happening, so that it feels like a natural progression and not a switch being flipped.
Remember back in the good old days of Season 1 and 2, when Benioff and Weiss would actually invent scenes that weren’t in Martin’s books – such as Robert and Cersei’s incredibly revealing conversation about their doomed relationship, and Arya’s entire storyline at Harrenhal with Tywin Lannister? They didn’t move the plot forward in obvious ways, but they served as vital context for the decisions our characters were making – their ambitions and insecurities, hopes and fears.
In compressing these final two seasons (something that was entirely Benioff and Weiss’ call and not HBO’s, for what it’s worth) we’ve lost that emotional underpinning in the race to get to the next big setpiece or plot twist, and without the books’ internal monologues for POV characters, that insight is even more valuable – and more noticeable when it’s missing. But Benioff and Weiss seem to have purposefully kept the audience at a distance over the past two seasons in favor of pulling the rug out from under us, so that we would be just as surprised as Littlefinger when Arya and Sansa revealed that their conflict had been an elaborate ruse to trick him (and us).
In theory, a couple of small narrative misdirects can be satisfying, but when you have the writers insisting, “What really upsets Jon is that he’s a blood relative to the woman he’s in love with,” while Jon keeps making out with her and has never once expressed that an incestuous relationship with his aunt bothers him aloud on screen, it feels less like clever plotting and more like narrative corner-cutting. And that’s how you get Daenerys insisting, “Mercy is our strength; our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant,” and then incinerating anyone who could feasibly create a future generation, because she’s too busy being a tyrant. (The Walking Dead fans have already been through this with Glenn’s dumpster dive, and we all saw how that turned out.)
But one thing I’ve been grappling with this season in particular, as someone who read George R. R. Martin’s books and is required to immerse myself in fan theories and wild speculation as part of my job, is expectation versus reality. (My colleague Terri Schwartz eloquently tackled the same issue after being disappointed by “The Long Night.”) While I think Daenerys’s abrupt decision to abandon all her morals is sloppy and rushed and potentially ruinous, depending on how the finale goes, the people who have been in charge of this show for the past 72 episodes believe it’s completely valid and justifiable. (Although they’ve been willing to handwave away other rushed narrative choices plenty of times before.)
And given the divisive reactions for “The Long Night” and “The Last of the Starks,” this season more than any other feels completely dependent on how much each of us has invested in this show, which aspects we enjoy most (battles vs. character moments especially), and who we’re rooting for to end up on top. I’m certain that there will be a multitude of viewers who were waiting for Daenerys to lose it and burn the world down, and this episode probably played like the best episode of the series for them.
But similar to the way Season 2 of Westworld felt like a predictable disappointment after months of frantic speculation and the obsessive dissection of every possible fan theory, easter egg, and clue, I’ve got to accept that Game of Thrones will likely play out in a far more predictable fashion than I may have hoped for. The writing has been so heavily telegraphing Daenerys’ heel turn this season (but only by having other characters fret about it behind her back, rather than giving us any insight into Dany’s actual mental state from her) I was certain they were setting up a delicious eleventh-hour twist that would see Dany subvert everyone’s expectations and perhaps even sacrifice herself for the greater good. But I was apparently giving the show too much credit, and ultimately that’s on me, not the writers.
I’ve been trying hard not to score this season’s episodes based on whether I agree with the characters’ decisions or not, because it’s so subjective; and for that reason, I’m ranking this episode fairly high – even though I just spent 1000 words laying out why I vehemently disagree with a major aspect of it – with the immense caveat that any score I could give this episode (or any episode after “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which I honestly found close to perfect) feels completely arbitrary to me at this point. I’d rather just pull a random number out of a hat than try to come up with one that I’ll still agree with in a week or a month. So if you don’t agree with the episode being an 8, rest assured, I’m not completely happy with it either. Think of it as a 5 if that works better for you!
There are parts of “The Bells” that feel like an easy 10, and parts that feel like a 4 or 5, and I felt the same way about “The Long Night” and “The Last of the Starks.” Some of these characters are making decisions that feel completely incomprehensible to me, but they’re clearly working for a large chunk of the audience and the showrunners (and presumably the cast and crew who have been with the series from the beginning), and their opinions are every bit as valid as yours and mine. And as much as I may gripe about narrative shortcuts and how frustrating it is that the show feels like it’s sprinting at the end of a marathon when it could just as easily take its time, even at its worst, Game of Thrones is still better than 90% of other TV shows in terms of its ambition and the time and care it has invested into these characters. The disappointing part is that I was fully expecting to give every episode of this season a 10 out of 10, based on the possibilities laid out for it, and it breaks my heart a little that I’m not feeling the level of awe or satisfaction that I expected to feel. But again, that’s on me.
(In hindsight, I will admit I was far too impressed by the tension and spectacle of “The Long Night” – and that badass ending – when I initially scored it a 9.5; if I had to rank it right now, it would’ve been a 7, between the plot contrivances and the fact that you couldn’t see half of it – but that’s the downside of reacting to longform storytelling in the moment, rather than having time to process each episode with a rewatch or two.)
It’s entirely possible that when we look back on this season as a whole, it will feel cohesive and earned, but by losing the quieter moments of character interplay, we’re losing the beating heart of Game of Thrones, which has always been about the relationships between these flawed and fallible heroes, so much more than spectacular action scenes. Sure, if we’d seen Jon and Bran telling Arya and Sansa the truth about Jon’s lineage, we would’ve been hearing repeated information, but we’d also have been able to see exactly how that family-shattering news affected Jon’s sisters – did they reassure him that they still loved him regardless of his Targaryen blood? Did they express sympathy for the fact that he felt betrayed by Ned all those years? Did Sansa immediately start scheming about how to undermine Daenerys, or did it force her to look at Jon in a new light? We’ll never know, because the writers decided it would be more satisfying to have Sansa drop the bombshell on Tyrion instead, and rob us of Arya’s reaction entirely.
Cersei Lannister has arguably had the most frustrating trajectory of all. It feels like she’s had a grand total of 20 lines this season, and while Lena Headey has always been adept at conveying multitudes with a simple sneer of her lips or narrowing of her eyes, Cersei was a character we once knew intimately – how desperate she was to protect her family, how belittled and underestimated she felt by every man in her life except Jaime, from her husband to her father to her sons; how much more strategic she was than most of the people in power around her. We may not have agreed with her decisions, but her motivations were always clear. This season, we had no real sense of why keeping the throne was so important to her, beyond the implication that she was pregnant (which many people thought was a lie). Headey beautifully demonstrated Cersei’s disgust every time Euron Greyjoy touched her, but for a character who was once so outspoken, she was rendered practically mute in her final three episodes, which feels like a great disservice to such a complex character.
Still, Cersei dying in Jaime’s arms was a fitting demise for her (and even if I disagree with Jaime’s self-destructive choice, it makes slightly more sense than Daenerys’s), and in some ways, is the only logical death for the Lannister twins, considering where they started. This was a ruin of Cersei’s own making, one that could easily have been avoided if she’d actually focused on what was truly important to her – her family – rather than trying to hold on to power at any cost. And Jaime got to fulfill his own wish, to die “in the arms of the woman I love” (even if it subverted the books’ Valonqar prophecy, which, to be fair, was clearly left out of the show on purpose).
And we finally got Cleganebowl! The choice to intercut between the Hound’s fight and Arya’s flight was a powerful and effective one, and seeing the Mountain attempting to pop his brother’s head, Oberyn Martell style, was unexpectedly panic-inducing. Unlike Dany’s twist, the end result felt inevitable and earned here. It was gut-wrenching to see Sandor willingly plunge into a pit of flame just to extinguish his evil brother, but as the old saying goes, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
But the moment that pulled me back from the brink of throwing my remote at the TV when Daenerys started burning it all was seeing Jon’s horror as his men and the Dothraki started turning their blades on the inhabitants of King’s Landing after they’d surrendered, followed by Arya’s harrowing run through the city, attempting to save as many people as she could while it crumbled and exploded around her.
Some may say that Arya’s decision to abandon her quest for vengeance seemed just as abrupt as Daenerys’s literal meltdown, but to me, it signaled a realization that vengeance is ultimately futile, something she probably realized after taking out the Night King, when she admitted that it didn’t feel good to kill him, but it felt better than dying. As The Hound pointed out, Cersei would likely die one way or another in Dany’s attack, but there was no reason for Arya to throw her life away in pursuit of revenge – it hasn’t been bringing her joy or peace or closure since Ned’s death, after all. But by saving lives and helping those who couldn’t help themselves, she was able to use her skills for something good instead of something destructive for the first time in years, and that’s exactly what the world will need after all these wannabe monarchs stop fighting amongst themselves. (If only The Hound could’ve given Dany the same pep talk.)
And as disappointed as I am that the show really does seem to be setting Jon up as the last man standing, despite the fact that he checks all of the cliched “hero’s journey” boxes that it initially seemed Martin was out to subvert, it was poignant to watch him realize that the men he fought and bled alongside in “The Long Night” are no better (in fact, they’re actually worse) than the Lannisters on the other side. You’d think he would’ve learned by now that people are all too eager to follow their worst impulses when no one’s looking, after what happened among the Night’s Watch, but it’s a chilling and Purge-like moment nonetheless. One consistent truth in Game of Thrones: Jon Snow still knows nothing.
If you’re still looking to catch up, here’s how and where to stream Game of Thrones Season 8.
Miguel Sapochnik has always been one of the most gifted directors on the big or small screen when it comes to capturing the immediacy and claustrophobia of battle, and even more than the chaos and carnage of the Battle of Winterfell, the Battle of King’s Landing proved to be every bit as spectacular and powerful as the cast had promised (partially because we could actually see it this time around).
While “The Long Night” showed us an army that was outgunned and outnumbered, but one that had nevertheless chosen to fight, the true horror of “The Bells” was that these casualties were innocent civilians – people who have no role to play in the game of thrones, and probably don’t give a damn who’s wearing the crown as long as they can still feed their family and keep a roof over their heads. It’s the most realistic depiction of war the show has ever given us, seeming to purposefully evoke some of the horrifying images we’ve seen in the Middle East and even closer to home in recent years – with bloodied civilians covered in ash, desperately searching for loved ones.
Whether you agree with some of the characters’ choices or not, the destruction of King’s Landing gets to the heart of what George R. R. Martin seemed to be exploring when he began writing A Song of Ice and Fire – that even if you win a war, you still lose, and that those who suffer most are usually the ones who have the least power. If Game of Thrones leaves us with that nihilistic (but ultimately honest) message in the finale, it won’t have all been for naught, even if the events of this penultimate episode seem to guarantee that the final installment will be a divisive one.