Eh. So that was something. The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones just aired, and many have issues with it – so let’s point out how frustrating it really was by showing how easy it would have been to fix! Spoilers below, so don’t read if you aren’t ready.
First things first, if you enjoyed “The Bells” I am truly happy for you. This article might not be for you. The production value was amazing, the actors have been bringing it all season. There’s a lot to like. But some of us have grave concerns.
When you commit to a story, even one as “expectation defying” as Game of Thrones, you come to expect a certain consistency to the characters that make up that story. That’s not to say they can’t grow or change, but that rapid departures from their core are unsettling, and they can leave the audience thinking the story failed them.
There are plenty of places where this is evident; What was Cersei’s plan? Why the unremarkable about-face from Jaime? Why was Varys suddenly just telling people what he was doing? Hug your doggo, Jon Snow! But of all the strange twists of character and plot, the worst of all was when Daenerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains™ does a full heel-turn and becomes a genocidal monster, killing untold thousands of civilians after already winning the war.
A brief aside; the first half of “The Bells” was excellent. There is tension when the armies face off, excitement when Drogon and Daenerys finally deliver that sweet-sweet dragon revenge we all wanted for so long, and anxiety when we don’t know how the battle will turn. Killing off the Golden Company, only introduced with their new “character” Harry Strickland, was awesome – because we didn’t have eight years of character development for Harry and his crew. It was a lovely send-up of the trend to endlessly add characters to GoT and The Song of Ice and Fire. So far, so good!
Here’s where things start to fall apart. As Daenerys sees victory at long last in her hand, all her feelings catch up to her and she begins her slaughter of King’s Landing and the Red Keep. Everyone is targeted; actually targeted is a bad word. Everyone is just strafed with dragon fire until all are dead.
Up until this point, Daenerys has been defined as a sometimes strong-willed and brash leader, but one who genuinely wants to protect those that cannot protect themselves. She kills those that betray her, and brutally dispatches those that would hurt innocents (see the Tarly’s and the Wise Masters respectively). She makes bad decisions (usually for the right reasons) all the damn time.
But there is a huge distance between that Daenerys and the Daenerys we saw in the final half of The Bells.
One simple fix to do that character justice.
Let’s jump back before the heel-turn. At this point in the story, Daenerys’ forces have taken King’s Landing, Cersei’s remaining forces have just surrendered. The civilians of King’s Landing, that Daenerys knows are being used as human shields (as opposed to flat out supporting Cersei) are calling for the bells to be tolled to surrender.
Daenerys is angry, angry that these people don’t love her. Despite being warned this for about eight seasons – it must hurt more seeing it in action after losing so much to save them. She’s also angry that her children were killed by these enemy forces whose remaining numbers only now surrendered. She is distrustful of them.
Instead of accepting their surrender, she turns on them. It would be roughly the same spectacle as we see in this episode, but instead of streaking back and forth across the city to kill innocent people, she’s killing pockets of soldiers that have already surrendered. Killing surrendered enemy combatants is goddamn horrific, especially by burning them to death, but still within her character. Maybe we see some civilians who were too close for comfort die as well, cementing how reckless she is with the lives of people around her.
And if you must have the mass death of thousands; the dragon fire catches those pockets of wildfire and that leads to a lot more suffering and damage than Daenerys intended, but for which she is still responsible. She is rash, and angry, and hurt – but the leap to genocidal is too much. It is an insult to the character we have been following for years. We don’t need to see her as an innocent, but we do need to see her be true to herself. It would be far more powerful to see a good leader misstep in a tragic way.
Instead, we get Mad Queen Daenerys, Slaughterer of Innocents.
I’ll never forget the look on Daenerys’ face as she’s spending the next half of the episode systematically killing everyone inside that city – because they never bothered to show it. What expression could Emilia Clarke have given to make Daenerys seem anything other than a cartoonish monster? What explanation can there be?
“All Targaryens are a coin-flip away from being insane.”
That’s the hot-take on a thousand fans’ lips. We were told from day one that the Targaryens all suffer from potential mental illness, and great power can magnify that. I want to make this clear; it is incredibly problematic to jump from a person that shows signs of depression, anxiety, and even rage to a person capable of willful mass murder. That’s just fucking bad taste, and lazy, sloppy, rushed writing.
At this point, why not flip the coin on Jon to see if his Targaryen mental-illness DNA kicks in and his obsession with honor causes him to force celibacy on everybody in Westeros?
We get that the series only had six episodes to wrap up the entire story, but that was a creative choice the producers will have to live with. I think it’s fair enough to judge the results.
The back-end of this season has been packed with odd choices that leave us feeling unfulfilled. When characters stop being true to themselves and instead just step back to serve the plot and general ascetic of a show that “defies expectations” as the norm, you have a bad story. It’s all the more tragic that it wouldn’t have taken much to fix it.
I’ve joked about George R.R. Martin having allowed the series to overtake his books intentionally as a means of getting mass market research, but I do believe that with several more novels to play with the fall of these characters, he will do a better job with it. But will we still be willing to give it a chance?
With one episode left and the intense social pressure we have to experience this show together, I am certain most people upset with the turn in Game of Thrones will still watch it – but I’m not so sure about myself. At some point we need to stand up when we’re unsatisfied, and let people know, and not just by our social media and blog posts, but by our viewership. If not, the only lesson mass-media producers will take away is that leaving people angry and unsatisfied is good for ratings. Eh. You can always watch it a day later.