Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.
In the second scene of Game Of Thrones, Ned Stark executes a man.
We saw that man, a member of the Night’s Watch, in the opening scene. He was running from the threat of the White Walkers, and what the men in the North dismissed as madness was in fact a warning of the greatest threat that Westeros thought it would ever face. And yet we also know that Ned Stark’s choice to execute him is no choice at all: he has deserted his post, and death is the punishment for this crime. With Bran watching on unflinchingly, Ned swings Ice and delivers what we recognized as justice.
This was the last time the decision to execute someone felt so simple. It wasn’t simple when Joffrey went off-script to murder Ned and ignite the War of the Five Kings. It was justice when the Night’s Watch executed Mance Rayder, but it was for the crime of fighting to keep his people alive. It was pure tragedy when Stannis burned his own daughter at the stake, and while it was justice when the Night’s Watch hanged Jon’s murderers it didn’t feel like it. As the show’s world became more complicated, the choice to execute someone changed from a question of justice and honor to a question of choice: did the person who gave the order have one, and if they did, what does their decision say about them?
Cersei’s decision to execute Missandei was not about justice. Cersei has been motivated by justice before. It was justice in her eyes when she blew up the Sept of Baelor, albeit a cruel and barbaric form of justice with thousands of innocent victims. It was justice when she poisoned Tyene Sand and forced her mother Ellaria to watch her die like Jaime had to watch Myrcella die. But with her fight against Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei has not been wronged: she is being threatened, and defending what power she has. Killing Missandei was simply an act of cruelty, and it’s one that awakens the dragon in Daenerys Targaryen, and sets her on her own path toward “justice” when she discovers that her advisor Lord Varys has been plotting to place Jon Snow on the throne instead.
Daenerys’ decision to execute Varys sets “The Bells” in motion, creating a race against the clock. Tyrion is convinced that Cersei will give up if it’s clear that the battle is lost, and elsewhere in the story Jaime, Arya, and Sandor Clegane are riding toward the city with their own plans to stop the coming siege from even taking place. The episode creates the situation where it’s easy to get ahead of the episode a bit: once the bells ring out, the scale of the episode could shift to Jaime trying to save Cersei and Arya trying to kill her, with CleganeBowl as a halftime show. If Daenerys isn’t forced to burn the city to the ground, it’s not as though there isn’t a story to tell: it just becomes a smaller story, a high stakes heist of love, revenge, and how we move on from the aftermath of a war where the scales of justice tilted wildly and often without warning.
But much as Daenerys had a choice in the moment when the bells rang, so too did the show’s writers. And whether motivated by their conversations with George R.R. Martin, or simply their own understanding of this story, they made a clear and decisive decision: Daenerys Targaryen does not need to burn down King’s Landing, but she chooses to do so anyway as vengeance for the death of Missandei, but also as retribution for the way Westeros has refused to honor her claim to the throne and embrace her as its queen. Varys told Tyrion that every Targaryen’s sense of morality is a coin flip, and Daenerys’ actions here strongly suggest that the coin landed on the same side as her father, Aerys, and her brother, Viserys. It’s a choice that decisively reorients her as the show’s villain, and sets in motion a harrowing glimpse of the war crimes she commits in the name of a misplaced sense of justice.
It’s also a fundamentally controversial choice. Even without wading into my Twitter feed, I knew that the decisiveness of Dany’s attack on King’s Landing would ignite a complex conversation about whether this was the right decision, but also more pressingly if it was a justified decision. And it is here where I think we need to separate out these two questions, because we’re dealing with two different issues.
The first question speaks to the core ideas of the story development, which is about the corruptive nature of power. And on this question, I will go on the record as saying that the choice to have Daenerys burn down King’s Landing is a logical and to my mind effective way of ending this story on a thematic level. The way it reshapes the rest of the episode is a striking reframing of the violence that has defined the show, but this time with the knowledge that Jon—often our point of view on the horrors of war—is on the side committing that violence. Once the Lannisters lay down their weapons and give up the city, everything after that is a war crime, and Jon, Davos, Tyrion, and we as the audience are faced with that violence in a new light. After Miguel Sapochnik’s work on “The Long Night” hid the carnage of the army of the dead in the shadow of night, he shoots the horrors of Dany’s attack on the city in the light of day, and Arya’s staggering trip through King’s Landing leaves no question about how many innocent people were killed in the name of a queen’s vengeance.
The second question speaks to this as a character development, and here is where things get undeniably trickier. I think it would be a mistake to say that Dany’s actions are unjustified. Varys’ suggestion that every Targaryen is a coin flip makes it easy to be led to think the show itself flipped a coin and turned Dany in the process, but I would argue the show is not claiming she simply went mad like her father.* Her entire character arc has been defined by her struggle to learn how to lead a continent she’s never set foot on, and the past two seasons have shown just how much her messy experiences across the Narrow Sea failed to fully prepare her for what would happen upon her arrival in Westeros. Her actions are an immediate reaction to Missandei’s death, but they’re also fueled by her realization that all the work she put into learning how to rule is being steadfastly ignored in favor of a man who doesn’t even want to sit on the Iron Throne. It wasn’t that she was destined to commit these atrocities because she was a Targaryen: Being a Targaryen and having her dragons gave her the capacity to do so, but her choice is a response to a collection of life experiences that left her believing that ruling with fear was the only path ahead of her.
* I will note here that the “Inside The Episode” segments don’t air after the episodes in Canada, where I am currently located. If the writers are actually arguing this, they’re ignoring the nuance of the story they’re telling, which has been a consistent problem with those segments.
Let’s put the consequences of this decision on the table upfront. The show has taken its most powerful female character, whose arc was framed by questions about whether or not women can lead, and turned her into a war criminal placed in opposition with a boring white dude who is positioned as the savior of Westeros. It took the remnants of her foreign armies, the only representation of people of color in the series, and turned them into the savages that Westeros imagined them to be. Regardless of the thematic value of these stories, or how much they were or were not justified by the story, I would argue the episode barrels forward without fully reckoning with how the choices being made echo the series’ longstanding issues in these areas.
But I realize that many of you don’t actually care about all that, and I understand that for many this is more about a personal connection to the story than a philosophical one about how female leaders are framed by media representations. Yet if I’m being honest, I realized reading the response to “The Bells” that I can’t imagine feeling angry about the choices being made with these characters on a simple level of personal attachment, suggesting I’ve detached from them in one way or another over the course of the series. I think it was my instinctual reaction having lived with the series for so many years as a book reader, and taking Martin’s willingness to blow up his story with character deaths to heart. The point-of-view focus of the books pushes us to relate to the characters intensely, but for me it also warns us of the consequences of that choice should the story go in a different direction. And presuming that Martin is heading toward a similar conclusion, if not necessarily through the same means, the books are designed as something of a trap: We’ll have spent an entire series empathizing with the point of view of a leader who is eventually going to go down a dark path, taking you with her and pushing you to reflect on how she came to be there.
That hurts if you’re someone who has earnestly embraced the “good vs. evil” battle of the show, or someone who cites Daenerys as your “favorite character,” or particularly—as Twitter has latched onto—someone after whom you named your daughter Daenerys or Khaleesi in the past decade. And it’s a reminder that there has rarely been a show that has achieved this level of cultural status where the story they choose to tell perfectly lines up with the promotional machine and subsequent discourse among its audience. I can imagine how Benioff and Weiss would rationalize this decision, imagining—perhaps rightfully—that anything less than a complete heel turn for Daenerys would be dismissed as predictable, and that the braver but more controversial choice is the better path. And I can see how Martin himself, no stranger to tragedy, would perceive this to be the last breath of tragic melancholy that would define the darkness of the world he built.
What I will say is that while I didn’t have an intense subjective response to Daenerys’ heel turn, I do think that the writers failed to create the necessary structure for it to play out as they imagined. It works in the context of the episode, setting a harrowing backdrop for the remaining drama that I promise I’ll get to in a second. And although it may place me in the minority, I’m ultimately glad that they chose this path, story-wise. But in the context of a rushed final two seasons, and a Daenerys story arc that was always at odds with the rest of the show due to its isolation and its erratic pacing, it’s hard for me to get a firm grasp on the character’s journey as demonstrated by the show.
There were pieces of the puzzle they could have latched onto here—like her prophecy in Qarth, echoed by Cersei’s later in the series—but chose not to, leaving this to be read as an immediate reaction as opposed to a cumulative story development. The fact that Daenerys Targaryen committed these acts does not betray the arc of her character, but it is the kind of development that requires nuance that the ensemble spectacle of the series just might not be built for, and which the show certainly never achieved. Emilia Clarke sells it as much as she could while riding a CGI dragon, but I don’t know if there was anything the television show that Game Of Thrones chose to be could have done to pull off this story development in a way that lived up to its full thematic potential.
Given that the other stories in “The Bells” are driven by a sense of closure, there’s less complication there by design. In the case of CleganeBowl, it has always been a story of revenge, with Sandor living his life in search of retribution for his brother’s cruelty. Their fight is suitably gruesome and reaches a thematically appropriate end, Sandor tackling Gregor into the fire that came to define his life after his brother’s attack on him as a child. But whereas we once imagined CleganeBowl would serve as part of Cersei’s trial, or a consequential battle for King’s Landing, the show clears out everything around it: The Mountain kills Qyburn before it starts, and Cersei just sidesteps it entirely, with no horse in this particular race. It makes for a very clean ending to the Hound’s journey in the story, prefaced by a scene with Arya where he explains that she doesn’t need to follow his same singular path for revenge. The fact it’s all taking place during the climactic scene of an Uncharted game where the entire environment is crumbling around you is ultimately insignificant, an evocative backdrop to a grace note that delivers what you expect and doesn’t try to overcomplicate things.
I’d argue that similar instincts are operating with Jaime and Cersei’s story, but the consequences are much greater. Jaime’s final scene with Tyrion is a lovely bit of full-circle storytelling, the roles reversed from the aftermath of Tyrion’s trial, and I do think that Jaime riding to try to save Cersei is thematically valuable. He was never able to stop loving her, even after the Sept Of Baelor, and so the idea that he was just going to ignore her ultimately reckless attempt to hold onto the throne wouldn’t have been true to the character’s stubborn refusal to give up on her to date. But I expected going into the episode that this was leading up to a moment when Jaime would have to stop Cersei from doing something even worse, or where he would see that the cause was lost and play some role in stopping her. And so as the story kept moving, and it became about Jaime being there to comfort Cersei in her emotionally vulnerable moment of reckoning when faced by her imminent demise, I was more than a bit confused.
It’s a tension of the show spending so much time framing Jaime through an arc of redemption, especially this season, and then more or less abandoning that for the argument that his bond with Cersei was too strong. I would ultimately argue that it is here, and not in the case of Daenerys, where the show changes course too rapidly. I’m open to the argument that their characters’ fates should be tied together, but to see this ending play out without Cersei being forced to reckon with her own actions, and with Jaime never stopping to take stock of this decision, is hard to swallow. Are we supposed to be moved by Cersei’s vulnerability after we’ve seen her so steadfast at committing the same kind of atrocities that just turned Daenerys into a villain?
If you go back to when the series debuted and said that Cersei and Jaime meet their final end reunited in the dungeons of the Red Keep as the city crumbles around them, I’d say that more or less makes sense. They’re co-dependent, and toxic, and both motivated by complex scales of justice that shift as they struggle to hold onto their senses of power and honor and family. But something about the way the story played out—the pointless swordfight with the pointless Euron, the focus on their unborn child—just felt too clean, boiling the characters down instead of building to a final cumulative moment in their respective arcs.
And maybe that’s the core truth revealed by “The Bells.” There may just be too many arcs in this show for these final episodes to feel truly earned as an ending, too many threads that were just destined to never connect. As a book reader, watching the show for the past few seasons has been a reminder of just how many threads Martin created, and how many the show has chosen to ignore entirely. But this final season has expedited this process, pushing aside characters who are no longer central to the endgame that will ultimately, for better or worse, define the show’s legacy. But two weeks after the Night King was revealed to be something of an empty antagonist, and a week after Cersei was reframed as the ultimate evil, to have the focus shift again to Daenerys feels like whiplash, not poetry. There’s a thematic through-line about the toxic power of vengeance, but it feels sort of thrown together, because how can ending a show this sprawling not feel that way?
Striking cinematography sells the aftermath of Daenerys’ decision, and the imagery goes a long way to establishing the weight that now falls on Jon, Arya, and Tyrion as they confront the tyrant Daenerys has become. And I think we’re meant to be impressed by the weight the writers have put on their shoulders by turning a fan-favorite character into a villain, but I leave “The Bells” believing it’s a decision that mostly reveals the cracks in the foundation built over the course of the previous seasons. It’s not that the final season is failing to live up to my specific expectations of what was supposed to happen, which I avoided having for that reason. It’s that the final season is failing to live up to what I believe a final season should do: enriching the show that came before it. And while the notion that power corrupts has always been at the heart of this story, the way it manifests here feels like a simplification of the show and its ideas, as opposed to a culmination of its larger journey.
- My thanks to Caitlin PenzeyMoog for filling in on last week’s episode while I was traveling—if you’re curious about how my feelings about this episode connect with my feelings on that one, I did review the episode later in the week at my personal blog. And you can hear what Katie Rife and her guest (which is sometimes Caitlin) have to say about the episode in tomorrow’s episode of Winter Is Here.
- Love that they took the time to introduce the new head of the Golden Company just so we could vaguely recognize one person who gets burned by a relentless and apparently unstoppable Drogon assault.
- Speaking of: The show implicitly suggests that Drogon is able to avoid the spitfires because Daenerys is guiding him, and that Rheagal, like Viserion, was incapable of avoiding them without that assistance, but I will say that the incompetence of both the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company seemed a bit too convenient.
- I saw someone mention that they felt the show was trying to fake us out that Arya might die in her journey through the horrors of Drogon’s attack on the city’s civilians, but I think I’m so used to the fake-outs at this point that I never really took the various cuts away from her story seriously.
- Qyburn No Longer Gonna Qyburn: R.I.P.
- I realize it makes sense that stores of wildfire around the city would explode, but it felt more like the effects team was like “oooh, green fire would look cool,” and it was weird that it never came up as a plot function in any way.
- I really loved the Carmen Sandiego map of Westeros set when they introduced it last season, so I appreciated that we got some key scenes set in that room here before it collapsed.
- I can never see an episode of television where two characters are trapped by a cave-in without thinking about the episode of Fraggle Rock where Red and Boober are trapped in a cave. True story!
- The choice not to cut back to Winterfell here was smart, I think, but my guess is we’ll see the rest of the show’s characters warp their way south to finish out the story next week. There’s no way the story can stay divided by locations when Sansa and Daenerys’ dynamic was so critical to the season.
- Hard to believe there’s only one week left, but let’s never say the show didn’t give us plenty to talk about. Appreciate the patience on this review—expect next week’s finale to be similarly difficult to get a firm grasp on in the immediate aftermath.
How much of this is (hypothetically) going to happen in the books?
So this is even more loaded question this week, huh? I’m willing to say at this point that Dany’s heel turn is Martin’s endgame, but I feel pretty confident that it will play out extremely differently. I think my biggest question would be how he would frame it from a point-of-view angle: Does he take advantage of the views of those around her seeing the change in her demeanor, or does he use the advantage of the interior POV to sell us on her emotional state? As I note above, I think Clarke sold this as well as she could, but Martin has more tools at his disposal, and I expect he’ll use them.
But I also look at something like Lady Stoneheart, which is sort of preparing the reader for this: a hero who is wronged, who returns from the dead to enact vengeance, but does so with a skewed sense of justice? It may not be a necessary thread for the show to explore, but I wonder if Martin intends to use some of those extraneous threads to lay groundwork that the show decided just wasn’t feasible but might have been a productive foundation for these developments.