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Friday, May 17, 2019

The Madness of ‘The Bells’

The fifth episode of the final season of Game of Thrones brought rioting from its fans. I’ma talk about it. As if you didn’t already know, spoilers ahead.

The scene was set thusly: The Iron Fleet is burning. The city’s gates are breached. The dozens of scorpions that line the city’s walls have been reduced to ash and splinters by the creature they were designed to kill. The allied troops of the Mother of Dragons are within the walls of the city, though not yet the Red Keep, where Cersei stands looking out, stone-faced and in denial.

Dany, atop Drogon, is perched on a tower, looking down at her troops facing off with Cersei’s. The opposition drops their swords, an unmistakable sign of surrender. Then the bells begin to ring out across the city, an established signal to all and sundry that the city as a whole is capitulating. In a word, Daenerys Stormborn has won. All that remains is mopping up the Red Keep, doing a dracarys on Cersei, and giving the Iron Throne a good disinfecting.

It is then and only then, in a wordless and commendable moment of the actor’s craft, that we see in Dany’s eyes rage and hate overwhelm her. Really, it’s a brilliant bit of acting on Emilia Clark’s part. Unfortunately, it’s also completely undeserved in terms of her character’s arc.

Some people disagree. They point to all the many harsh and bloody things Daenerys has done in her struggle for power. They tote up the body count, as if every death was equal, and equally heinous. They are not; not in fiction and not in real life. If they were, every soldier would be a war criminal. Whatever your beliefs about violence and nonviolence, the world has come to a general agreement that, even in war, there are actions that are too inhuman to countenance. We call them war crimes, and when the stars align, we punish them as such.

But let us put modern, real world notions of war atrocities aside. Let us look solely at the previous actions of the Mother of Dragons. She crucified slavers in the hundreds, and burned others of them alive. She looked on as her husband killed her abusive brother, the rightful Targaryen heir, in an exceptionally brutal fashion. She burned to death a powerful witch who killed her husband and unborn child, making her barren in the process. She locked another powerful, treacherous lord away in a lightless cell, there to die of thirst and starvation. She killed a powerful, thieving sorcerer. She burned the collected leaders of the Dothraki when they were going to imprison her. She burned two noblemen who took up arms against her to death, because they refused to bend the knee. She executed by means of dragon fire lord Varys, for the crime of treason. And of course countless enemy soldiers and sailors have died by her hand or at her orders.

In short, if you are powerful and/or belligerent and oppose her, maybe don’t make long-range plans.

But do you know who she’s never killed, or had killed? Peasants. Commoners. Children. The powerless. People who have not threatened, harmed, or taken up arms against her.

In nearly eight seasons, she has shown exactly who she is – a ruthless, powerful woman who will fight to her dying breath to reclaim what she sees as her birth right. But she has also known and shown what lines she was not willing to cross.

Let’s go back to Dany, perched on Drogon atop that wall. The bells are ringing. King’s Landing is prostrate before her. Her enemy, the one who beheaded her close advisor days before, is about thirty seconds away as the dragon flies, waiting to get dracarysed.

And so Dany decides she’s gonna torch the defenceless, surrendered city, with her troops still inside it, instead of flapping straight to the Red Keep – which holds Cersei and any remaining troops willing to fight for her, and the iron throne. Why torch the town first?

Because fuck those filthy peasants, I guess.

The truth is, we know why. The showrunners decided that Jon and Dany had to go at it in the last episode. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the only reason. They tried to backpedal the character in the last season, putting her on an ‘I saved you all, why don’t you love me? The brown people loved me when I saved them!’ jag – with tasteless overtones of jilted lover sprinkled on top for added flavor – that was somehow supposed to prepare the ground for what she did in King’s Landing.

It didn’t. Most fans weren’t fooled or satisfied, because for six plus seasons they watched Dany grow into who she was. And it wasn’t that. It wasn’t perfect, mind you – but it definitely wasn’t that. The Bells required Dany to not only be insane, but stupid. To burn what she had already won. To delay destroying her worst enemy for the sake of murdering a city full of nobodies.

‘But she wants them to fear her!’ I hear the Game of Thrones writer’s room cry out. ‘She can’t have love like in Meereen, so all that’s left is fear!’

Except she’s got a fucking dragon and the living already fear her, and the dead fear nothing, and Dany is not stupid enough to not understand either of these points.

‘But she’s craaaazy now!’ that same writer’s room bleats. ‘She snapped! There’s no accounting for craaaazy!’

Except there is. There was a way to show Dany deciding to finish off her dear old dad’s bucket list item of roasting King’s Landing, a way that, while unsatisfying, would at least have made a grudging sort of sense. If she had destroyed the Red Keep first, and then some dumbfuck commoner had pelted her with horse dung while she was giving her liberation speech, I might have reluctantly swallowed the ensuing incineration. It would have been at least tenuously supported by her character development.

But that’s not what happened.

The Bells, and indeed the entire seventh and eighth season, has displayed other instances where the decision was made to prioritize plot expedience over established character development, but none were as unearned and unforgivable as those few, wordless seconds showing a woman atop a dragon deciding to destroy what she had just conquered.

The Bells should serve as a reminder for every writer that your plot needs to be true to your characters. If it’s not, we’re watching or reading about puppets, not people – and even Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy.

Shoutout to the Goodest Boy.