GAME OF THRONES 8×05: "THE BELLS"

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

So it goes.

The girls that Billy had seen naked were all being killed, too, in a much shallower shelter in another part of the stockyards.

So it goes.

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

— from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

Settle in, folks. This one is going to take a while, and it may not be pretty.

I think it is safe to say, at this point, that "The Bells"—written by creators Benioff and Weiss, and directed by veteran Miguel Sapochnik—is the most divisive episode of Game of Thrones ever. And, given the popularity of this show, and its dominant position in the cultural zeitgeist, that probably makes it one of the most controversial episodes of any show in the history of television. The debate about "The Bells" began on social media, as it always does, while the episode was still airing, and as I write this—several days later—it shows no signs of abating. Seemingly every entertainment writer, news outlet, and pop culture site in the world has published a take on it, and many of them have published several.

And the general consensus seems to be that it tastes like ashes.

I haven't read any of the countless reviews and think-pieces—I never do, before I write my own—but just from seeing the tweets and headlines, and speaking with friends, it is clear that a large percentage of the viewers thought "The Bells" was an absolute abomination: a clumsy defiling of Game of Thrones' characters and a vicious betrayal of its fans. As of this writing, nearly a million disgruntled fans have signed a petition to "remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers."

(Personally, it seems to me that "The Bells" should have special resonance for fans who want to burn down the thing they claim to love out of disappointment, rage, and an overblown sense of entitlement. But hey, good luck with that, guys.)

To be fair, there does seem to be a much smaller (but not insignificant) contingent who have hailed "The Bells" as a masterpiece. And there are, no doubt, an infinite number of more nuanced takes existing on a spectrum somewhere between those two poles. (I gather that even those who think the episode brilliant are willing to acknowledge some major flaws in the overall storytelling, and that even those who think the episode an abomination will concede that it was beautifully directed.)

But in general the reaction has been extreme, and emotional, and I understand why. However else you feel about it, "The Bells" certainly represents the boldest storytelling swerve Game of Thrones has made in many seasons, and arguably the boldest storytelling swerve this show has ever made. (And that—for this show—is saying a lot.)

So if we admire nothing else about "The Bells," I think we have to admire its chutzpah. Benioff and Weiss certainly knew what kind of final season fans were expecting. I have no doubt they could have fulfilled those somewhat predictable expectations, and I have no doubt they knew roughly how this brutal thwarting of those expectations was going to go down.

For "The Bells" is not just a surprising or upsetting episode of Game of Thrones: It is the kind of episode that deliberately forces us, as viewers, to reconsider our entire history with the show: our expectations for the plot, our investment in the characters, our trust in the creators, our entrenched convictions about where this was all going and what it would all mean. It is the kind of episode that demands that we interrogate the reasons why we loved the show, and why we had the expectations we had, and why we are so surprised—let alone so sorely disappointed—to end up where we have. It is almost taunting us: You thought you loved this show, this story, these characters? See if you can love them now. 

Be angry with the creators if you must, but recognize that doing this sort of thing in the penultimate episode of a phenomenally popular and successful long-running TV series is, if nothing else, courageous. Because "The Bells"—very deliberately—puts the entire legacy of Game of Thrones at risk.

Drogon in GoT 8x05 - The Bells

Was upset by "The Bells?" Of course I was. Primarily, I was offended—as I have been for all of this season, and most of last—by the rushed, truncated nature of the storytelling, and how it made character-shifts that might otherwise be logical feel unearned. For example, "The Last of the Starks" had ended with a shot of Daenerys Targaryen's face, and she looked justifiably angryBut the first time we see her in "The Bells," the writers are suddenly writing her—and Emilia Clarke is suddenly playing her—as crazy. For the first time since we've known her, she's got the crazy eyes, and the crazy hair, and the crazy makeup. I actually have absolutely no trouble believing Dany could go fairly swiftly from angry to crazy—given all of her experiences lately—but this six-episode season elides this very important transition in a way that is frustrating, to say the least.

(Oh, what I wouldn't give for a 10-episode final season. Imagine at least one or two episodes between "The Last of the Starks" and "The Bells," in which a war between Dany and Cersei raged in a stand-off of equals, and in which Team Targaryen tried, and failed, to win the hearts and minds of the people of Westeros. It would have served all of the characters better, particularly Dany and Cersei, who bear the brunt of the hurried character assassination here.)

Throughout these last two seasons, I have discussed several times the fact that Benioff and Weiss are taking some serious narrative shortcuts in their race to the finish line. They are actually counting on our long familiarity with these characters, and trusting us to fill in the emotional and motivational gaps around some otherwise thinly developed character turns. It's an understandable strategy, and—most of the time—I even think it works. (Last week, for example, I felt like I knew Jaime Lannister well enough, after eight seasons, that his decision to return to Cersei didn't feel as abrupt or unmotivated as it might otherwise have seemed in the moment.) But it's a lot of effort to ask from the audience, and it doesn't always work: If even the most obsessed of us find ourselves going Huh?, the creators have—at best—dropped a stitch or two in their storytelling.

So yes, I spent much of "The Bells" feeling disappointed, even angry. In addition to Dany's horrific transformation in this episode, other characters—like Varys, Tyrion, Cersei, and Arya—make inexplicable pivots or otherwise act in ways that seem out of character. (If I wanted to spend 10,000 words and a lot of imaginative effort justifying each of their choices, I might be able to do that. But, again, I sort of resent feeling like I should have to.)

Drogon, Dany, and Jon in GoT 8x05

But the prominent feeling I had throughout "The Bells," if I'm honest, is the feeling of being duped. And this, I suspect, is the source of much of the fan-rage about this episode, and this season. We thought defeating the Night King would be the story of Season Eight: It wasn't. Then we thought Cersei Lannister would be the final adversary who must be overcome: She wasn't. Now, going into the final episode, we find that Daenerys Targaryen—the only person other than Jon Snow with a plausible claim to being the "hero" of Game of Thrones—is actually the Big Bad. This season, the show has repeatedly zigged when we thought it was going to zag, and we have been fooled.

And the feeling of being fooled can result in a range of responses: We can admire how cleverly we were misdirected in our expectations (if we think the storytelling was fair), or we can get angry about it (if we think it wasn't). To be honest, I've had both reactions, and many more. And, because I have the luxury of setting (and abusing, and ignoring) my own deadlines, I have waited longer than I usually do to begin writing about "The Bells," in the hope that some clarity might come to me.

But very little clarity has come. I have thought about little else but "The Bells" for several days, and still I find that there are simply too many things about it to keep in my mind at once, too many aspects and levels to my reactions to organize into a fully coherent viewpoint. Even if I were to restrict myself to the central issue—the holocaust Daenerys Targaryen unleashes on the city of King's Landing—I find that there are too many pieces I want to write, and that many of them (if not all) would challenge or contradict each other.

For example, I want to write the piece about how this was all carefully telegraphed and foreshadowed, in ways that now make "The Bells" seem not only logical but inevitable. I want to go back through the series, and catalog every moment in which we should have realized—because it was obvious—that Daenerys was a super-villain in training.

In procrastinating about writing this piece, I actually did go back through my own reviews of this series, and took note of every quote—and there were dozens—in which I said something like this: "The question we have to ask of her is one we must ask of many characters in this show: Is she a hero, or are we witnessing the early days of a monster?"

Or this: "It is to the show's credit…that we had so much sympathy for Daenerys as she began her journey, but I am increasingly concerned that her capacity for love died with Khal Drogo, and that now she is a monster in embryo form, on her way to becoming a power-mad Targaryen like her father and brother."

Or this: "Dany is a colonialist, and we know from our own experience that the history of colonization is a troubled one: Outsiders greeted as liberators often end up seen as invaders or conquerors […] She is caught between love and fear—between being the ruler she wanted to be or being the Mad King—and right now it could go either way."

Or this: "There is nothing admirable about Daenerys Stormborn here: There is barely anything human about her. She is pure destruction, a demon come down from on high to rain a purging fire on humanity. "

Or this: "So far, Daenerys Targaryen is not changing Westeros: Westeros is changing Daenerys Targaryen. She's not breaking the wheel: She's simply taking her father's place atop it."

Daenerys in GAME OF THRONES 8x05 - THE BELLS

So I could write that piece, arguing that what Dany does in "The Bells" is entirely consistent with her character, and that we all should have seen this coming. But writing that piece would be not only obvious but disingenuous. To selectively pull-quote all the times I recognized the very clear possibility that Daenerys Targaryen might become a monster, I would have to deliberately ignore the fact that, for most of the series, I was fully on Team Daenerys. Despite all of her flaws—and sometimes because of them—Dany represented hope and progress to me: the possibility that Westeros could end up being ruled by someone who actually wanted—as she has said many times—to leave the world better than she found it.

I'd have to ignore the times I said stuff like this: "Daenerys has always tried to rule from a place of love, and she is still ruling that way."

Or this: "HOLY FUCKING SHIT THAT WAS TOTALLY AWESOME."

Or this: "With the War of Five Kings all but over, it's the Queen who gives us hope that leadership can be based on the recognition that all people are family. It's too early in this epic story to be naming a victor, but for now, in the endless game of thrones, this may be what winning looks like."

Or this: "The goodness and hope of the Targaryen line—and perhaps whatever hope remains for all of the Seven Kingdoms—now lives in Dany. Where people like the Boltons represent ice and death, Dany may be the embodiment of fire and life."

So, as it turns out, I could write a piece about how "The Bells" represents the inevitable fulfillment of Dany's character arc. Or I could write a piece about how "The Bells" represents a complete betrayal of Dany's character arc. And, strangely, I suspect I could write either of those pieces with conviction, because these inherent tensions have always been essential to Dany's character arc. Looking back through everything I've written about Daenerys Targaryen, I find that nearly everything I've ever said about her—including most of those quotes above—included a "but." It was always either: Yes, that thing she did is troubling, but Dany is totally awesome!; or, it was: Yes, Dany's heart is in the right place, but she did horrible things!

("They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath," Varys reminds us here. And the simple metaphor is apt in this instance, because a coin is one thing, not two. Both sides of the coin are the coin: It's just a question of which face you see at any given time.)

Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones 1x01

There are other pieces I could write. I could discuss, for example, how brilliantly the show suckered us into rooting for Daenerys Targaryen from the start, in ways that "The Bells" forces us, now, to question. We are forced to interrogate both our view of Daenerys Targaryen and our investment in her. For example, if she had been anything other than a young, angelically beautiful woman, would we perhaps have been more suspicious of her right from the very beginning? Isn't there a part of us that—like Jorah Mormont, like Tyrion Lannister, like Jon Snow—fell in love with her on first sight and assumed—in spite of a lot of evidence—that she was fundamentally a good person? ("Princess, you have a gentle heart," Jorah told her, way back in Season One, but Dany swiftly contradicted him: "I do not have a gentle heart, Ser," she said. Perhaps we all should have listened to her.)

Throughout this series, people—particularly men—have always underestimated Daenerys Targaryen, and projected their own expectations onto her. Did I do the same thing? If this character had been a man—whether that man looked like Viserys, or Jon, or The Hound—would I have given her as much benefit of the doubt as I have? Would I not have judged her arrogance, her entitlement, her swiftness to violence more severely? Might I not have recognized the genocidal tyrant staring out at us more easily?

And let us be honest: Part of Dany's appeal was always that she was a beautiful young woman who was capable of wreaking unbelievable destruction. (Beautiful girls who can wreak destruction are practically a fetish in pop culture, particularly—as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kill Bill, and Atomic Blondeto name just three off the top of my head—in pop culture written by men.) Just last week, I confessed that "I like it as much as anyone when she kicks ass and lights shit up with her dragons," and frankly that was an understatement: In episodes like "Valar Morghulis," "And Now His Watch is Ended," and "Book of the Stranger," I have celebrated Dany's firebombing capabilities. I have delighted in her pyromania. I have sung exuberant arias to her scorched-earth policy and reveled in the wholesale slaughter she unleashes as an expression of female empowerment.

And now "The Bells" has slapped me in the face with all of that. Oh, you like seeing Dany get mad and unleash her dragons? it says. Watch this, and tell me how much you like it now. 

Game of Thrones has always had a complex relationship to the uses of power, and forced us to question the moments of violence we find justified and the moments of violence we find reprehensible. "Why is it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?" Tywin Lannister once asked, and it is actually a good question. (We feel like it is, but Game of Thrones forces us to ask ourselves why it is. And if it's wrong when Walder Frey does it, it is somehow right when Arya Stark does it?)

So, looking back, I find they're complicated, my reactions to Dany. So many of Dany's actions felt justified in the moment, and perhaps they were. But did all 163 noblemen of Meereen really deserve to die? And—if they did—was crucifying them alive really the right way to go about it?  If Joffrey had done this, would we have glossed over his crime so quickly as simply a matter of questionable judgement? If Jon Snow's preferred method of execution was burning people alive—instead of the quicker, more humane methods of beheading and hanging he has employed—wouldn't we judge him for that?

To be clear, it's not like we never noticed all of these problems: I (and most other writers) have discussed them from the beginning, and viewer reactions to Dany's character have been decidedly mixed. But I think Dany's gender has always made our relationship to her use of power complicated: because so few women in this world had any power; because she mostly used her power against really terrible people; and because she used her power with better intentions than pretty much any of the men.

Daenerys in Game of Thrones 3x10 - Mhysa

Similarly, I think Dany's gender has trumped her race in my assessment of her actions. Looking back, I am pleased to see that I at least gave passing lip-service to the notion that Dany's white body crowd-surfing on an ocean of brown bodies in "Mhysa" was "a troubling image," and that "the history of colonial intervention is not a promising one." But I also celebrated her being hailed as "Mother" by the people of Meereen as a mark of her different, better, more feminine approach to ruling.

Which is to say: If it had been Viserys—or even Jon Snow—being hailed as "Father" by these people, I think I might have found it much more "troubling." The same is true of Dany's violent purge of the Khals in "Book of the Stranger," which turned out to be a unilateral decision to single-handedly eradicate Dothraki culture. If she had been a man, I suspect that I might have put more energy into interrogating Dany's White Savior narrative—as plenty of writers, particularly writers of color, did—and focused more on the parallels to our own world's disastrous legacy of white intervention in, and colonization of, black and brown cultures. I suspect it might not have taken the brutal evidence of "The Bells" for me to start thinking about the parallels between Daenerys Targaryen and America, both spouting humane and democratic ideals, both viewing themselves as spreading freedom, and both using their unchecked power—naively at best, self-servingly at worst—to leave unconscionable devastation in their wake.

(As I mentioned last week, I regret that the show has not given us any indication of how things are going in Essos since Dany left. She basically upended their entire way of life through force, left a weak puppet government in place with Daario "All-Rulers are-Either-Butchers-or-Meat" Naharis in charge, and buggered off to conquer new worlds. Nothing about how that experiment has played out in our world suggests that the scenario will play out any happier in Game of Thrones.)

So I find that "The Bells" has forced me to go back and reconsider my own reactions to Daenerys Targaryen over the years, and to think about how easily I fell for her promises, excused her mistakes, and ignored evidence of her true nature. Is that something to be angry with Benioff and Weiss about now? Or is it something to admire? If I was duped, was the fault theirs, or was it mine all along? Is "The Bells" a brilliant, necessary deconstruction of, and corrective to, the problematic White Savior narrative I had fallen for? Or is it just a big fucking mess?

Daenerys in GoT 3x10 - Mhysa

The question isn't that simple, I recognize. For one thing, even if we decide that Dany's turn in "The Bells" was both believable and necessary, given the character's problematic history, we can still take fault with the way it happened from a storytelling perspective. Where we ended up is one issue; how we got there is something else entirely.

And it's complicated for other reasons. Because we can completely buy into the motivations of the character as believable, and accept the machinations of the plot as logical, and still decide that the take-away message is fucked up. And—as someone who has gone to great lengths to defend Game of Thrones against many (though not all) accusations of misogyny—I find myself deeply troubled by Dany's embracing of the dark side here.

One of the most exciting throughlines for Game of Thrones, since the beginning, was the empowerment of women. Westeros, when we first encountered it, was a strictly, oppressively patriarchal place. Men ruled everything, and women were victimized and objectified everywhere, with even the high-born women traded as political pawns and treated as breeding stock. Over the course of the series, however, we saw the glass ceilings begin to shatter in the general upheaval, and we saw a lot of great female characters rise above their assigned stations and take a more active role in shaping this society.

Many of these characters fell along the way: women like Catelyn Stark, Ros, Shae, Ygritte, Osha, and Margaery. But it was a thrilling moment to look up at the end of Season Six and realize that this world was now ruled by women. Cersei and Daenerys were queens; Sansa Stark and Lyanna Mormont were major powers in the North; women like Yara and Olenna and Ellaria were occupying seats at the table that had previously been occupied exclusively by men; women like Arya and Brienne and Missandei and Melisandre and the Sand Snakes had all become forces to be reckoned with. A show that had begun by earning (entirely justifiable) criticism for its objectification of women seemed now to have been working all along towards moving its female characters from objects to subjects.

But then, in Season Seven, that whole narrative began to fall to shit. The show seemed to go out of its way to demonstrate that these women were terrible at occupying positions of power. Dany's military strategy—crafted, to be fair, largely by her male advisors—led to disastrous defeat after disastrous defeat. Olenna and Ellaria and the Sand Snakes were all murdered without accomplishing anything, while Yara was kidnapped by the man who had stolen her crown. Arya began the season committing mass murder, and then joined her sister to spend much of the season playing out a ridiculous pantomime in which they both seemed to be annoyingly petty and vindictive. Cersei seemed to be the only woman who was at all effective, but she was effective at being evil, and even that required hooking her up with an odious but powerful male (Euron Greyjoy) and rolling back her narrative by giving her what now seems like a completely pointless pregnancy.

And Season Eight has continued this frustrating agenda of systematically disempowering and/or undermining these powerful women, hitting a particular nadir with the death last episode of Missandei of Naath, who unfairly ended exactly as she began: a slave in chains, completely denied any agency over her own life and death.

Yes, of the surviving women with power, Sansa Stark is probably looking the best right now, as she was right about the stupidity of this plan and the untrustworthiness of Daenerys Targaryen. But Sansa also ended up cowering in the crypts with the "women and children" during "The Long Night," despite having previously proven herself an effective leader and a good military strategist. (She has no fighting abilities, it is true. But the same is true of Tyrion, who nevertheless gets to argue that maybe they could help, while Sansa just gets a speech about how useless they all are.) In the following episode, she gets yet another maddening speech, this one seeming to imply that getting repeatedly raped and tortured by men was the best thing that ever happened to her.

Yes, Brienne of Tarth is deservedly made "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," and she fights bravely during the battle. But this image of her as a powerful warrior is quickly overshadowed by the sudden and unnecessary literalization of her romance with Jaime Lannister, and by the last image we get of her: As a weeping woman in a nightgown, falling apart because her man is leaving her.

Yes, Arya Stark is the Hero of Winterfell: She kills the Night King and saves the world. But Arya also gets saddled with a love story (for the first time ever), and a ramping up of her vulnerability throughout "The Long Night." Here, she is suddenly convinced by the Hound to run away, and abandon the mission of revenge she has pursued for half her life. (I have no doubt I will discuss Arya more next week, and by itself I do not object to her storyline as much as some of these others. But as part of the overall pattern—in which formidable women suddenly become weaker, emotionally compromised, and unstable—it is also part of the problem.)

Cersei Lannister in GoT 8x05 - The Bells

And then there's Cersei Lannister. The most formidable woman in Westeros—and the only female character whose rise to power matches Dany's—Cersei has proved herself throughout the series to be clever, resilient, and ruthless. She was a character who defined herself as wife and mother for most of her life—drawing indirect power from those relationships to men—but with the death of her last child in "The Winds of Winter" she became something else: She annihilated her enemies, and claimed her own power, and claimed the throne. Just last week, she proved herself to be capable of going blow-for-blow with the Dragon Queen, delivering Dany a devastating (if slightly implausible) defeat that seemed to level the playing field between them.

But that was when the show wanted to manipulate us into thinking (briefly) that Cersei was the Big Bad. Now, suddenly, in "The Bells," Cersei is just a weak and helpless woman, intellectually and emotionally ill-equipped for war. Dany's two dragons seemed utterly useless against Qyburn's scorpions in "The Last of the Starks," but now just one dragon takes them all out with ridiculous ease. And Cersei, it turns out, has no other plan: This woman who always had an ace up her sleeve suddenly doesn't have any more cards to play. All she can do is watch while Dany torches her city, pathetically deluding herself that everything is going to be fine. She needs one man (Qyburn) to explain to her why she's doomed, and she begs another man (the Mountain) not to leave her side. She ends the episode—and presumably her life—crying in the arms of yet another man (Jaime), begging him hopelessly to save her and her unborn baby.

Who is this woman? I think we all expected Cersei to die, but I doubt any of us expected her to go out like this. We thought she would have more tricks up her sleeve. We thought she might plan to destroy the city with wildfire, as she destroyed her enemies before. Perhaps Jaime would have to kill her, bringing their entire twisted relationship, and both of their arcs, to a sort of resolution. Perhaps Arya would kill her, while Cersei stared the little assassin down and apologized for nothing. Perhaps Cersei would kill herself when the battle was lost, as she was prepared to do during the Battle of the Blackwater. I would have been happier if Cersei had just stayed in that window, watching the Dragon Queen come closer and closer, until the Red Keep filled with flame. However she went out, we thought, at the very least, that Cersei would go out strong: this woman who has seemingly been prepared to go down fighting for several seasons. Instead, Cersei ends weak, weeping, delusional: Her entire arc crumbles around her like the castle, and she dies as nothing more than what she was when she began: a powerless mother dependent on men.

Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones 8x05

And finally there's Daenerys Stormborn, of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.

As I've already discussed—though I would have liked to have seen it play out a bit more slowly—I actually have no problem buying into the turn Dany's character arc takes here. "I don't have love here," Dany tells Jon, early in "The Bells." "I only have fear." Dany's storyline has always been about the choice between love and fear. (In fact, I'd argue that this is more or less what Game of Thrones has been about.) She has always been caught between the two, and she has not always made the right choice.

And that was when she was surrounded by support. Now, she has lost Jorah, and she has lost Missandei, and she has lost two of her "children," and she has lost most of her Unsullied and Dothraki. She has been betrayed (to her mind) by Sansa, Varys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow. She has lost, even, the two things that kept her going and justified all of her actions to herself: her rightful claim to the Iron Throne, and her mandate from the people. (The first she lost when she discovered Jon, not she, was the rightful heir. The second, however, she never had in Westeros: The moment she left Essos, she stopped being the "Breaker of Chains," and we have not seen her do a single thing to win over the people of the Seven Kingdoms. Here, she has jealously noted the love people have for Jon, and she has effectively become her brother Viserys, who whined in "A Golden Crown" that no one had ever given him the love that he saw the Dothraki give to Dany.)

And so all she has left is fear. All she has left is force. She has given a lot of lip-service to the concept of "mercy" throughout her rise to power, but we have seen the limits of her mercy, and we have seen her justify horrendous actions in the name of mercy. Now, this week, she redefines "mercy" itself in the sort of convenient rhetorical leap that we have seen countless genocidal maniacs make: "Mercy is our strength," she says. "Our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant." With this thin justification—kill a bunch of people now to save a bunch of people later—she gives herself permission to do what she has wanted to do since she got here: punish the people of Westeros for not loving her enough. These people, she has realized, are never going to call her mhysa. 

So, as disturbing as it is, I can actually buy all of that: It is fundamentally in line with her character, in line with her style, in line with her overall sense of entitlement. But it is, simultaneously, incredibly problematic.

Daenerys in GOT 8x05

For Dany's switch to the dark side is the final and most damning debunking of any claims that Game of Thrones ever had much of a feminist agenda. Benioff and Weiss lean heavily here into the sexist trope of the woman who goes crazy with too much power, forcing Dany to join such troubling fantasy figures as the X-Men's Jean Grey, The Avengers' Wanda Maximoff, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow Rosenberg—all of whom became the most powerful heroes in their stories, and all of whom eventually went mad and became villains and tried to destroy the world. It's the old misogynistic cliché that women simply can't be trusted with power: They are too emotional, they are too petty, they are too mentally unstable.

Obviously, the idea that power corrupts is an old, old theme, and one fairly central to Game of Thrones. And it is to the credit of Martin, Benioff, and Weiss that this female character has been as complicated a figure as she's been throughout this story, embodying conflicts and contradictions and complicated arguments about the use of power. (If she had been as uncomplicatedly saintly as Jon Snow throughout, she would be annoying for a whole different reason.) But it is an unfortunate side-effect of endings that they tend to discard complexity and dismiss nuance, ultimately distilling themes down to something simplistic and stark. And what Dany's story has been reduced to is this ancient cliché about the fury of a woman scorned: scorned by her lover, and scorned by her people. This doesn't feel like a nuanced character study or a sophisticated discussion of the uses of power: This feels like the final reel of Fatal Attraction. 

Looking back, I realized that Dany has not really been a character since she arrived on the shores of Westeros. Prior to "Dragonstone," Dany was in her own, separate show, and she was the star of that show: We saw everything through her eyes, and we understood her motivations, and we sympathized with her struggles even as we wrestled with her decisions. But that all ended the moment she set foot in Westeros: Suddenly we saw her almost exclusively through the eyes of men—Tyrion, Jon, Varys—who watched her from a distance, discussing and debating her actions. In George R. R. Martin terms, Daenerys Targaryen stopped being a point-of-view character. In overall terms, our female hero went from being subject to object.

And that reaches its frustrating culmination in "The Bells." In the early scenes, men tiptoe cautiously into her quarters, cringe at the insanity in her eyes, and tiptoe back out: She's not a character, she's The Madwoman in the Attic. And once we reach King's Landing, Dany disappears almost completely. Emilia Clarke is actually very good in the one scene she gets to sell what happens next—the long shots of her waiting to hear if the bells ring, and then deciding to ignore their message of mercy—but that is almost literally the only time we see her. We are not with her on that dragon. We do not see her point of view. We do not have any indication of what she is thinking or feeling—whether it is anger or sadness or glee—when she makes the unconscionable decision to start burning civilians and soldiers alike. This all could have played out the same way—in fact, it would have been far more interesting and rewarding—if Benioff, Weiss, and Sapochnik had allowed Daenerys Targaryen to retain her subjectivity, her complexity, her humanity.

Tyrion Lannister in GOT 8x05 - The Bells

And I realized watching "The Bells" that none of this matters anymore. Over the last few seasons, Benioff and Weiss stopped bothering to show us anything about the government or society of Westeros. We never got a lot of information about what was happening in the Seven Kingdoms, but we used to have a lot of discussions about what it meant to be a good ruler or a bad ruler, and which candidates for the throne cared about the welfare of their people. We used to see rulers having to make decisions, and we used to see at least some sign of how those decisions rippled throughout the kingdoms. There has been none of that lately. Is Cersei a good ruler or a bad ruler? Do the lords love her or hate her? Are the peasants horribly oppressed, or living in prosperity? We have no idea.

So Dany's entire quest to take the throne has been reduced, ever since she reached Westeros, to just an ego trip. Her motives are entirely selfish, stemming from resentment and entitlement. We never saw her learn a single thing about the people she came to "liberate," and we never saw her make the slightest effort to convince them why she would be a better choice than Cersei. (One speech in "Eastwatch" was the sum total of her messaging campaign, and it ended with her burning the Tarlys alive and scaring everyone else into submission.) Dany's cause was clear when she was in Slaver's Bay, but here we have not the slightest idea what her stated claim to free the world from tyranny and leave it better than she found it would look like. She went from being an idealistic (if sometimes misguided) reformer to just another self-serving climber.

So it goes. This is where we are. The greatest monster in the history of Game of Thrones is Daenerys Targaryen. She is worse than Joffrey, worse than Ramsey, worse than Cersei. (Tiny little explosions of wildfire across the city put Cersei's destruction of the Sept of Baelor in perspective: They are just small green puffs, almost lost in the orange conflagration.) She is worse than the slavers she overthrew in Essos. For my money, the murder of Shireen Baratheon by Stannis and Melisandre was as evil a moment as Game of Thrones ever saw, and we get a callback to it here, as the little girl Arya tries to save (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) carries a little wooden horse, like the one Davos made, which Shireen was holding when she burned. That was a heinous crime to secure the crown, and that was only burning one child; here, Dany has burned hundreds, perhaps thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. And she has done it for no good reason.

Scene from Game of Thrones 8x05

Am I angry? I honestly don't know. For eight years I have put a considerable amount of time and effort into writing about Game of Thrones, and in that writing I have consistently argued that the show was far more structurally and thematically coherent than it appeared. I have trusted, and tried to argue, that there was an integrity to Game of Thrones: a plan, a purpose, a meaning that was greater than the sum of its parts. And I suppose I still believe that, regardless of what has happened this season, and regardless of whatever happens in the final episode of the series. Even if I hate the ending—even if I think it the worst conceived finale in the history of television—I doubt it will change my opinion about the value of the series as a whole, or make me regret a single moment I've spent thinking and writing about it. (In the words of the great David Milch, "The idea of the end of a thing as inscribing the final meaning of any experience is one of the lies agreed upon that we use to organize our lives.")

But I keep coming back to that feeling of being duped, and I find it goes deeper than the level of character arc and plot expectations. I have spent eight years arguing that Game of Thrones was a fundamentally humane story about a lot of issues, chief among them the importance of empathy. I have repeatedly described this story as if it were a crucible in which the characters were melted down so that they could be reformed as kinder, more compassionate people. As I said last week, I never expected a wholly idealistic, utopian ending, but I dared to believe that this show might end with at least the tentative possibility of a more just world. I dared to believe the show might end by reminding us that people, and societies, can get better.

Instead, we seem to be ending on a trite and fashionably depressing message that nothing ever gets better, that history just repeats itself, that people and societies are fundamentally incapable of change.

Watching "The Bells," it was hard not to hear Ramsey's oft-quoted line from way back in Season Three: "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." I really thought I was paying attention, but I guess I'm no longer sure about that. I really thought the writers would have something substantial to say when we got to the end of Game of Thrones, but—with just 24 hours to go—I'm no longer sure about that either.

And so it goes.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Oh, did I forget to discuss the episode itself? Sorry. For the record, it was brilliant, except for the many, many parts of it that weren't. Director Miguel Sapochnik and cinematographer Fabian Wagner more than redeem themselves for the murky mess of "The Long Night" here: Visually, this is one of the best episodes of Game of Thrones ever. There are more fantastic shots than I could possibly include in this post, and the editing of some of the sequences—like the cross-cutting between Arya and the Hound—was absolutely brilliant.
  • I have to pour one out for Varys, the unsung hero of Game of Thrones: Apart from being a manipulative schemer who was comfortable using children to poison monarchs, he might have been the best person on either side of the Narrow Sea. I do not understand why such a smart man wasn't better at hiding his attempt to overthrow Dany, or even why he remained in Dragonstone at all once he realized she would need to be overthrown. (My head-canon explanation is this: Varys was tired, and couldn't face restarting the whole process of installing a new ruler again. He knew she would kill him, and by that point he was okay with that.) Neither do I completely buy that Tyrion would rat him out. (It seems more in character that Tyrion would tell Varys to flee, give him a decent head-start, and then tell Dany.) But it is nonetheless a sweet moment when Tyrion puts his hand on Varys's arm: I had never thought about it before, but I'm not sure anyone has ever touched Varys in eight seasons of Game of Thrones.
  • As frustrated as I am with both of them—and with everything surrounding Missandei's death—I sort of liked the brief scene between Dany and Grey Worm, in which she gives him Missandei's slave collar. Whether this was her personal slave collar, or whether it was a souvenir from Dany's liberation of Meereen, I'm not sure, but it doesn't really matter: Either way, it was a symbol of Missandei's faith in Daenerys Targaryen as a "Breaker of Chains." Grey Worm's burning it is a pre-warning that both he and Dany know that that particular mission is over. 
  • The entire plot point of Jaime's being captured seems now to have existed purely to engineer the scene between he and Tyrion. It's a nice enough scene—and both actors play the hell out of it—but it's another example of Benioff and Weiss not knowing where time and energy are best spent. We didn't need to see Tyrion set Jaime free, just because Jaime once set him free: What's the point? And we didn't need any further resolution of Tyrion and Jaime's relationship: They were absolutely fine.
  • "Cleganebowl" felt like something Benioff and Weiss threw in because the fans demanded it, but I doubt many fans were satisfied. It was oddly lifeless, curiously unemotional, and it occupied way too much time that could have been better spent elsewhere in the episode. Honestly, I would have been happier if Sandor and Arya had both decided to say "Fuck this shit," and gone off to get drunk and eat bread with Hot Pie.
  • An even worse example of Benioff and Weiss misjudging the allocation of resources: the stupid fight between Jaime and Euron. Unlikely, unmotivated, and completely unnecessary, it felt like it belonged in a far lesser sort of show than Game of Thrones. (Would anyone—with the possible exception of Pilou Asbaek—have minded if we never saw Euron again after Dany blew up his boat?)
  • I could have written this entire post about how much better Jaime and Cersei Lannister—and the actors playing them—deserved. The only reason I didn't spend more time on it is that I'm not entirely convinced they're dead. (I assume they are, and it would be ridiculous if they're not, but I'd happily trade a little willing suspension of disbelief for just one more conversation that was worthy of their extraordinary arcs.) I'll try to circle back around to it next week, one way or another.
  • That being said, if Jaime and Cersei are dead, I'm relieved they didn't get to enact Tyrion's plan of sailing off across the Narrow Sea to raise their infant child in secrecy, just like the last Targaryens did! That sort of "history repeats itself" conceit might, actually, have made me throw up.
  • I know I skipped very quickly over Arya in this episode, in part because I have no doubt we will be spending a lot of time talking about her next week, and at this point I'd just as soon discuss her arc as a whole. But Maisie Williams is unfailingly awesome, and the scenes of Arya making her way through the chaos were probably the best parts of "The Bells." (I didn't even mind the dreamlike ending, though I know I should. We get it: Death rides a pale horse. But it was beautifully shot, and a lovely grace note at the end of an infuriating episode.)
  • Thank you for bearing with me this week. I know this one was less a "review," and more just me thinking out loud. (Here's my dirty secret, though: That's what all my posts are.) Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go enjoy my last 24 hours of believing that Game of Thrones can still end on a perfect note. See you all next time, for the last time.

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8 thoughts on “GAME OF THRONES 8×05: "THE BELLS"”

  1. Your GOT analyses are always more thoughtful than any of the others I've seen. Thank you for doing this. Though, ironically it was your departure from intellectual decorum, the "HOLY ________ THAT WAS TOTALLY AWESOME" review of "And Now His Watch is Ended," that got me to start watching the show. That being my introduction to Daenerys, she seemed heroic at the time. It also seemed to her credit that in that time period, she was delaying her planned conquest of Westeros in order to liberate the slaves in Essos. The cynical view, however, is that she was paying the long game, buying time for her dragons to grow to full size. One article I've read traces plot points all the way back to Season 1 to showing that what Dany does to Kings Landing is essentially what her late husband Khal Drogo vowed to do while she looked on enraptured.

    Coming into the series at that point also affected first impressions of Cersei. She seemed halfway sympathetic in her bid for female empowerment which was rebuffed by a very unsympathetic Tywin. It took only a few more episodes to show how villainously narcissistic she was however.

    "We thought she might plan to destroy the city with wildfire, as she destroyed her enemies before."

    That may actually have been Cersei's plan if all else failed, but Dany's rampage beat her to it.

    "Oh, what I wouldn't give for a 10-episode final season. Imagine at least one or two episodes between "The Last of the Starks" and "The Bells," in which a war between Dany and Cersei raged in a stand-off of equals, and in which Team Targaryen tried, and failed, to win the hearts and minds of the people of Westeros. It would have served all of the characters better, particularly Dany and Cersei, who bear the brunt of the hurried character assassination here."

    Completely agree there.

    "But Arya also gets saddled with a love story (for the first time ever), and a ramping up of her vulnerability throughout "The Long Night." Here, she is suddenly convinced by the Hound to run away, and abandon the mission of revenge she has pursued for half her life."

    I don't mind Arya's love story, since, unlike some other characters, she maintains her agency throughout it. Her decision to take the Hound's advice and get away is actually the wise choice. By that point, Cersei was almost certainly going to die anyway and, if Arya continued her pursuit, she most likely would have died with her. And we need Arya alive to deal with Daenerys.

  2. What a brilliant review. Thanks to you, I am now looking forward to the final episode with perspective and renewed hope for a fitting and meaningful conclusion.

  3. Brilliant as usual –
    I started watching GOT about a week after the Red Wedding and frantically binge-watched the show so I could see that episode and be just as surprised as everyone else before someone spoiled it for me. Your posts were required reading after every episode and added weight to the themes that I might have glossed over if I were left to my own devices.
    Waiting to hear about last night's finale – but I will say that I (mostly) called it with regards to one scene…

  4. Hi Michael! I think your profile pic may illustrate pretty well how you probably feel after the end of this great story. I, for one, have been depressed for an entire week. Still, I'm sure many of us can't wait to read your final thoughts on "The Iron Thrones," and this fantastic journey that was Game of Thrones. Thank you again for everything!

  5. C'mon UC, when are we getting the finale review? There's no Season 9 to wait-until-just-before-the-next-one-premieres to then release it. 🙂

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