This week, on Game of Thrones, Benioff & Weiss laid out the true horror of war.
That horror, apparently, being that it is completely possible to use weapons of mass destruction and an army at least partly made of up rampaging horse-warriors renowned for their commitment to indiscriminate slaughter and looting, to conquer a city in a precise and controlled manner that produces a near-zero rate of civilian casualties. Unless somebody decides to randomly go on a murder spree for no reason afterwards.
I should probably say first of all that I absolutely, one hundred percent, no takesie-backsies believe that this is Martin’s intended ending for the series. I should add that I believe this on the basis of no evidence, but he’s said in interviews that he didn’t think his ending would be so very different from the show’s ending, and if you look right back to the beginning Dany was clearly always supposed to be more conqueror than saviour. Then there’s the fact that B&W cited three “holy shit” moments from their original discussions with Martin back in the day, of which one was the burning of Shireen Baratheon, one was the origin of Hodor’s name (and … it’s weird that Martin thought that was worth mentioning) and one, it seems extremely likely, was this. Although having said all that I don’t quite buy all the people who are claiming that it’s been super obvious all along that Book Daenerys was going this way and it only feels out of character on the show because the showrunners changed her character in the earlier seasons (a lot of people are arguing that Dany’s final heel turn will make more sense in the books based on (a) things that also happened in the show and (b) things that they’re assuming will happen in books that haven’t been published yet).
As so many people all over the internet are saying, the problem here is less what happened than how it happened.
For the past three weeks people have been asking “so is Cersei the big bad now” and I’ve been pulling confused faces at YouTube thinking “why on Earth do you think that a big bad is the kind of thing this show needs or has ever needed.” I was even more confused by those who expressed the question in terms of a “final boss” as if the politics of a pseudomedieval fantasy kingdom were some kind of video game to be resolved by a set-piece battle against a massive bucket of hit points. I was similarly bothered by the question of who would kill Cersei. Cersei was only ever a middle-aged woman in a metal hat, killing her was never going to be the difficult bit.
The thing is, confused as I was by the way people seemed to be expecting that the entire decade-long narrative arc would come down to the question of who got to beat up a pregnant forty-five year old, I couldn’t entirely blame them because the show had been bending over backwards to fake out not just the events but even the style of its ending. It was fantastic to see Drogon finally getting to be the unstoppable engine of destruction that we’ve been led to expect dragons to be throughout the books and TV show, but this comes after a series of episodes in which we’ve seen dragons being profoundly ineffective and surprisingly easy to kill.
Having had to sit through the overlong and ultimately pointless battle sequence of The Long Night, it was really nice to see that this battle was so profoundly one-sided—Aegon the Conqueror took over Westeros with three dragons and a fraction of the armies Dany now possesses, and it was great that we got to see that recreated in the “present” day of the Seven Kingdoms. But why spend the whole of episode four trying to fake out the idea that this would in fact be a close battle? Why have all those bits in the last two seasons where Euron teleports his fleet in from nowhere and destroys everything if “use the dragons to burn the iron fleet” really was a perfectly viable strategy the whole time (and one that would by definition involve no civilian casualties)?
There seems to be a genuine thing recently in visual media where fear of spoilers and love of surprise have trumped pretty much any other concerns, to the detriment of any other aspect of storytelling. I’ve heard stories (well, read articles on websites) that people filming scenes for recent Marvel movies have been given their script pages out of order and not told the context of the scenes they’re filming so they can’t leak story details. If true, this is … ludicrous. People still watch films when they know how they end. People watched the first season of Game of Thrones even if they’d already read the books. But it seems increasingly like making sure that people can’t guess what happens next is the only goal of people making films and television shows, which I really don’t get. If all I wanted from an entertainment medium was to be uncertain what the outcome would be, I’d sit at home and watch a random number generator spit out digits.
This episode was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who previously directed The Long Night and The Battle of the Bastards. He’s directed others for the show, but these three form a sort of peculiar tryptich. His episodes tend to involve action-heavy set pieces, but what’s interesting about BoB, TLN and now The Bells is that the first is very much shot like a war movie, the second like a horror movie, and the third like a disaster movie. Which is … a thing (I know shit all about film)? In the Battle of the Bastards, Jon faces off against Ramsey Bolton in what amounts to a very traditional military conflict with shield walls and cavalry charges, while in The Long Night the armies of the living face a literal zombie horde and Arya even has a survival horror stealth segment. The Bells, by contrast, shows Daenerys just raining down fire and devastation on an essentially helpless King’s Landing.
The thing is, I really like the creative choice here—emphasising the effect of this horrific event on ordinary people really worked. Yes it leaned on some slightly awkward cliches (the burned corpse of a child holding an adorable toy, really?) and still notably found time to include the confrontation that I understand the fandom has taken to calling “Cleganebowl” (I assume that’s an American Football thing), to have Jon save a woman from being raped because Jon Is Still The Hero You Guys, and most bizarrely of all to have Arya ride out of the ashes on an actual white fucking horse like she was in the dream sequence from Blade Runner. Still I was really pleased that Cersei just died in the collapse of the Red Keep (seriously, nobody needed to “get the kill” here) and that Arya took a turn at least for a moment from trying to murder people to trying to save them. I was even pleased that the Golden Company got so thoroughly wiped out because … umm … yeah. This is what dragons are supposed to have been all along.
What I didn’t like was the storytelling that got us to this point.
I talked a bit in a recent post about why Dany going mad queen is difficult. I mean yes on one level it’s a subversion of a bunch of difficult tropes about true rulers and destined saviours and the like. But those tropes are almost universally embodied through men and when you set out to challenge the idea that mysterious returned heirs are always the best people to be on the throne while also making your mysterious returned heir a woman then … well … your take home message does feel like it reduces very quickly to “chicks … amirite?” And obviously this is a difficult one, because in an ideal world we’d be in a position where a female character could descend into tyranny and madness and it wouldn’t have any unfortunate implications, and I’d like to think that we were way closer to that now than we were in 1991 but … yeah, I don’t think we actually are.
A big part of the issue here is that it effectively reduces Daenerys to a supporting character in Jon’s uncomplicated heroic story. I mean he might not end up killing her, but given the whole Azor Ahai thing, I think it’s unlikely. For non-book-readers, or people who haven’t been obsessively listening to YouTube fanvids for the past month, Azor Ahai or “the prince who was promised” is a legendary—although peculiarly non-westerosi—figure who a bunch of characters in the books are supposed to be the reincarnation of. For the purposes of this line of thinking the really important deal with Azor Ahai is that he creates a magical sword called Lightbringer, but he has to sacrifice his own wife to do it. Which, like Tyrion’s murdering Shae in the show, is very much framed as his tragedy. Basically it looks an awful lot like the core story of A Game of Thrones is shaping up to be the heartbreaking tale of poor old Jon Snow, who just can’t help falling in love with women who he then has to kill. At this stage it doesn’t even especially matter if he winds up on the Iron Throne—the show has pretty much doubled, trebled, and quadrupled down on the notion that he’d be this shitballs amazing and wise king (Varys says exactly this to him—I mean not exactly, he avoids the word “shitballs”—and Varys also turns out to be dead on right about Dany being a dangerous pyromaniac), so the only thing really left to see now is whether he turns out to be too noble to sully himself with politics, or so noble he’ll take a throne he doesn’t want for the good of the realm (or maybe to be cruelly denied it at the last moment). My yes-they-would-wouldn’t-they money is on his getting a cake and eat it ending, giving up the throne but in such a way that his vision for a better Westeros is carried out by less noble people (I suspect they’ll wind up abolishing the inherently corrupt Federal Govern… I mean Iron Throne and delegating power back to the State… I mean Kingdoms).
And it super, super doesn’t help that Dany’s descent into mass murder is framed so specifically against the backdrop of her never-hugely-convincing romance with Jon breaking up. So not only does she go full evil, but you can make a reasonable case that she … kind of goes evil because a boy doesn’t like her? And I know there’s other things, like because Missandei got fridged and because her dragons were implausibly taken down by weapons that in this episode she could trivially destroy on Drogon. But it still feels a bit … gendered. I mean basically she’s jealous that people like Jon better than her (and according to the showrunners, Sansa betrayed Dany out of jealousy too, and since Cersei’s motivation comes from a prophecy about being replaced by a younger more attractive woman she is … also kind of motivated by jealousy? I mean it’s a bit patterny when you step back).
I will say that the one aspect of this twist I do like, but which I suspect might be unintentional (and which I know other people are super angry about) is how this stacks up alongside her exploits in Meereen. Because to me, Daenerys going full mass murderer is actually a pretty reasonable and weirdly satisfying deconstruction of the whole white saviour thing that the show is so uncritical about in seasons one through six (and which by my recollection, the books are only slightly more critical about). A lot of people are really angry about the fact that she goes from being the liberator of Slaver’s Bay to the destroyer of King’s Landing but … like … this is a woman who has been used to massive crowds of people—and I mean entire cities and whole cultures—bowing down before her, literally prostrating themselves, and carrying her over their heads like she’s actual Jesus. Just take a step back for a moment and think about how horrendously fucking entitled somebody like that would actually be, and how much of a gigantic temper tantrum they would throw when they got to Westeros and were suddenly getting treated the same as everybody else.
And when you think about it, it kind of says something really difficult about our wider perceptions of different groups of people that we find it so easy to imagine that the quasi-Asian, quasi-Mongolian and quasi-Middle-Eastern people of Essos would drop to their knees the moment a pretty girl showed up with a magic lizard, when it would feel completely wrong for the proud, honourable people of Westeros to do the same. In Essos literally everybody she meets either worships her, or tries to murder her. Things fall apart when she encounters the Westerosi, who behave like human beings with agency.
Again I keep coming back to what a fantastic subversion of toxic genre fiction tropes Dany’s arc would have been if she was a dude. You start off thinking this guy is a tough smart hero who just cares too darned much, and then you slowly realise that actually he’s always just been this awful manchild who saw every single other human being in the world as toys in a game he was playing with himself for his own gratification. Because actually somebody who burns a city on a whim has a lot in common with somebody who decides to end slavery on a whim. And even more in common with somebody who decides to end slavery on a whim, sulks when it gets difficult, turns randomly violent and ultimately bails with the job not even half done, leaving their grateful subjects in the hands of a man whose official policy, let us not forget, is “fuck the people.”
But there are two big problems here. Firstly, Dany isn’t a dude, so we go from “actions that seem heroic are often driven by the same sense of inflated self-worth and lack of regard for the reality of other people as acts that are plainly villainous” to … and I’m going to say this a couple of times this post … “chicks, amirite”. And secondly … for all I think you can make a good case that Dany’s good and bad actions really come from the same deeply problematic place, I don’t think you can make a coherent case that this is intentional on the part of the showrunners. Basically I tend to view Dany as kind of a Westerosi Donald Trump. Not only does she have distinctive hair and a fine line in three-word catchphrases (“break the wheel” is basically fantasy “drain the swamp”) but she also has a tendency to rage at her advisors, a tremendous need to be conspicuously adored by her people, and an ironclad belief that she can unilaterally solve problems that have challenged her predecessors for generations. I feel like the showrunners view her more as torn between a good side (that wants to free slaves and get carried around by grateful people of colour) and a bad side (that wants to burn things). Which is also valid, but then you do wind up with this terrible whiplash where the great liberator becomes a great murderer in the space of about a hundred and thirty minutes screentime, much of which is taken up with zombies and Euron Greyjoy.
A lot of people are saying that the problem with the plot beats of this final series is that major plotlines have been rushed. Which … I think is partly true, although having just done a slightly weird out-of-order rewatch I’m increasingly of the opinion that pacing has never exactly been the show’s strongest point, even in its earliest seasons. It’s true that a lot of the character arcs we’re seeing now would previously have been spread out over more episodes but that’s because those episodes would have been padded out with a lot more overlapping plotlines, which obviously ceases to be an option as the show narrows towards endgame. How much actual screentime does Ned’s investigation of Robert’s bastards have in season one? Yes it’s spread out over the whole series, but it’s really not that much. Arya’s journeys cover seasons and seasons and seasons but really she … has some fencing lessons, wanders around a bit, then goes to Braavos? The series has always taken an impressionistic approach to both storytelling and character development—we get a sense of who people are and what they’re going through, but we’re often working with inference rather than information. That’s why it’s taken so long for people to notice that Tyrion has stopped being clever. People put this down to the shows moving past the books, but he hasn’t actually done anything clever since season two, it’s just that his framing has maintained the sense of his cleverness long after it stopped really existing.
To put it another way, people suggest that the battle against the Night King and Dany’s descent into madness could have been expanded over more episodes, but I find myself wondering … what would actually happen in those episodes? Do we really want another half-a-season of Arya and the Hound riding across Westeros, of Jaime wandering the Riverlands and Daenerys sitting around in a castle doing not a huge amount? I mean they had eight seasons, it’s not like there was no space to foreshadow a descent into madness or work out how to defeat the Night King or any of those things, and it would still have felt jarring and unsatisfying when it happened because to some extent endings always are.
Ironically I wonder if part of the issue here isn’t that the show is something of a victim of the very genre tropes it (and the books—which are going to have to solve a very similar problem although weirdly the TV show has done GRRM a solid by at least priming people for it to end this way) seeks to subvert and challenge. Because while people complain about the Dany arc being rushed, it has clearly always been part of her character, and there are soooooooo many examples. Like I’m pretty sure we can do at least one per season:
- S1: She gets, like, mega-excited at the speech Drogo makes after Robert attempts to assassinate her. The speech where he says he and his Dothraki are going to sail to Westeros, burn down all the castles, kill all the men and rape all the women. She also burns Mirri Maz Duur alive.
- S2: She watches with joy while her dragons burn the warlocks, and then she seals up Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and one of her own damned handmaidens, inside his own vault to starve to death. This latter act being show-only and having been held up fairly recently by some commentators as an example of the show being too negative in its portrayal of Daenerys.
- S3: Burns a slaver alive and commands the unsullied to “Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child.” Which is framed as her being totes noble, but she’s still kind of ordering a genocide here. Also depending on how literal the Unsullied are, she might have just signed the death-warrants of hundreds of innocent wagon drivers and ox-herds.
- S4: Crucifies 163 people.
- S5: Rounds up a bunch of Meereenese nobles, has a random one of them burned by dragonfire, then tells the others: “Who is innocent? Maybe all of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.” There is no indication that this is a bluff, also she already had one of them burned alive and watched him die screaming with no particular sense of remorse or compassion.
- S6: Burns all the leaders of the Dothraki alive. Repeats Drogo’s “let’s go commit mass murder in Westeros” speech to her new horde. Achieves rather less butchery than in previous seasons because she’s without her army and her dragons for most of it.
- S7: Executes Randall and Dickon Tarly by dragonfire. This is arguably excusable, but can we just take a moment to appreciate that having two men horrifically burned to death is one of the least psychotic things she’s done in the last seven years.
- S8: Burns down King’s Landing for not bowing down before her the way the Essosi did.
I’m not saying I think it’s well handled, I’m not saying I think it’s well paced. I am saying that (a) I don’t think another couple of episodes of Dany going “mad” (which is a whole other kettle full of problematic fish) would make a difference, and (b) that everything people are claiming makes this make sense for “book Dany” and not “show Dany” is right there in the show, it’s just that because a lot of people are disappointed with the way the show is going “books good TV bad” has become kind of a default reaction for large sections of the community.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the slavery thing is the real problem here. And this is … difficult. Slavery, like Hitler, is one of those things it’s hard to have a productive conversation about without getting derailed into issues that—for perfectly good reasons—people don’t like to see treated as throwaway debating points in discussions about a TV show. But it’s kind of at the point where you can’t really discuss this TV show without discussing slavery in way more detail than I’d normally be comfortable with. Because ultimately the extent to which Dany’s turn in this episode feels earned to you depends in large part on the extent to which you’re willing to view the Great Masters of Meereen, the Wise Masters of Yunkai, and the Good Masters of Astapor as “innocent people.”
And again I should stress that this strays into thorny real-world issues that I’m in now way qualified to talk about, and I do not blame you if you want to skip the white-guy-talks-about-slavery bit.
So anyway. All over the internet right now, the conversation is going roughly like this:
“It makes no sense for Dany to be killing innocent people.”
“Dude, Dany kills innocent people all the time.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“She crucifies a hundred and sixty three people in Meereen, and they’re chosen completely at random.”
“But they were slavers, slavers aren’t innocent.”
And this is … complicated. It’s rendered significantly more complicated by the role the transatlantic slave trade played in the evolution of modern racial politics (especially in the USA) and the tendency of 21st century racists to explicitly downplay the evils of that specific instance of slavery in order to justify racist ideas. In some contexts I can completely see why “there are no good slave owners” is a really important mantra to stick to (and why people are squicked out by “good slave owner” tropes, especially when they’re specifically applied to the transatlantic slave trade). But the thing is, Slaver’s Bay isn’t the Antebellum South, and Daenerys Targaryen isn’t Abraham Lincoln. And there’s a world of difference between thinking it might be a good idea to tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee, and believing that Robert E. Lee should literally have been crucified.
Again, I know I’m on thin ice here, but if we’re accepting that merely owning slaves in a slave-owning society is a terrible enough crime that you deserve a slow death by torture and the desecration of your corpse (remember that Dany is hostile even to the idea of letting Hizdahr zo Loraq take his father’s body down off the pillar, and remember that she doesn’t bother seeking out the masters who actually crucified the slave children, she just selects randomly from amongst the aristocracy) then that suggests a pretty harsh judgement on a whole raft of historical figures, some of whom—not to put too fine a point on it—are still on banknotes. I really don’t want to oversimplify complex historical concepts (and I think the basic problem with Dany’s Meereen arc is that it does necessarily oversimiplify them) and it isn’t my intention to come across as glib but, well, if we accept that what Dany does to the Great Masters of Meereen is at all morally acceptable then we should also watch Hamilton in the belief that at least half the characters deserve to be nailed to a tree and left for the crows.
What this ultimately comes down to isn’t a question of the show being rushed or of bits of book content being cut. It’s a question of a really problematic framing for the first part of Daenerys’s arc. Neither the slaves nor the slave-masters of Slaver’s Bay are given the same reality as the people of Westeros, despite our spending season after season amongst them with Dany. If Dany had ordered that a hundred and sixty three random Westerosi noblemen be hunted through the woods and torn apart by dogs, or stripped, sexually humiliated and shot with crossbows in retribution for the crimes of Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon, then it would be easy to see how small the step was from that to burning a city for refusing to grovel. But when she does it to the Great Masters of Meereen it’s obfuscated by layers of coding that make it hard for us to see her actions with emotional or moral clarity.
This is made even worse by the fact that the codes which lead to our difficulty in sympathising with the Great Masters of Meereen pull in two very different directions. On the one hand, you have our instinctive revulsion at the notion of slavery, which is natural, correct, and extremely important in the modern world because of the persistent relevance of that historical injustice to modern politics. But on the other hand, you have the fact that the Meereenese aren’t white, and their culture isn’t quasi-European. You absolutely shouldn’t try to minimise the historical evils of slavery, but you maybe also should think twice about making your most prominent non-European-style culture a group of bad slavers who it’s okay to indiscriminately kill because they’re bad slavers. We are never really invited to view the Essosi cultures or their people as real, and this is great for misdirection, because it allows us to sympathise with Daenerys even as she does terrible things, but it also stands in sharp contrast to the nuanced way we are expected to see even the most repugnant of Westerosi characters.
Wikigroaning is a terrible and unscientific way to assess this kind of thing, but it’s a good way to make a cheap point, so I went to a fan wiki (gameofthrones.fandom.com, in case you’re wondering) and compared the length of a few articles about important parts of different plotlines. The crimes that most foreshadow Dany’s descent into a full war criminal are her crucifixion (and following that crucifixion, her other various arbitrary executions) of the Great Masters of Meereen, so I thought I’d have a look and see how much information the wiki had on this particular social group; their culture, traditions, and motivations—what might have led them to defy Daenerys in such a way that she was provoked into taking such terrible retribution against them. The article on the Great Masters of Meereen—the people who used to be in charge of the city in which Daenerys spends three full seasons—is 803 words long. The article of House Frey, a minor Westerosi noble house that is, admittedly, involved in some fairly major plotlines (although not, I would argue, as major as Dany’s three-season rulership of a city) is 3240 words long.
But okay, perhaps that’s unfair. While House Frey are small politically, they’re a major part of plot because of the Red Wedding. What about House Dayne? They’re both minor, and so inconsequential that they’re hardly mentioned in the show at all. Yet they still merit an article of 845 words. Hell, even The Bear and the Maiden Fair merits 950 words. It seems like we have more information about a comedy folk song than we do about the people who Danerys conquers and rules for nearly half the series.
I know this is partly just cheap point-scoring, but there is a serious issue here, especially with reference to how Dany’s arc was built up over the season. In this episode, Dany burns King’s Landing for seemingly no reason, and it feels incredibly out of character.
But it feels out of character because of the framing. We’ve met people from King’s Landing, and this whole episode focuses on the plight of the civilians caught in the dragonfire. It would have felt a whole lot less out of character if they’d actually shown us the sack of Astapor. When Dany trades the Unsullied for one of her dragons, she gives them the following order: “Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child.” Now we only get 529 words about the Good Masters of Astapor, so it isn’t entirely clear who, exactly, Dany has ordered her 8000 Unsullied to kill, but they seem to be the ruling elite of the city. We do know that the status of “Master” in Slaver’s Bay seems to be roughly equivalent to the status of “Nobleman”—that is, it’s more about social status than what you actually do. And we also know that the cities of Slaver’s Bay make great use of slave soldiers.
Which means … I think technically in season three, Daenerys—with no particular thought of the consequences—passes a death sentence on everybody who is (a) an adult and (b) legally able to own slaves in a slave-owning culture. And also on all the slave-soldiers protecting them (presumably even if they surrendered—the Unsullied are trained to be merciless and obey orders without question, you say kill all the soldiers they will kill all the soldiers). This would have been a massacre every bit as terrible as the one in King’s Landing, one that would have littered the streets of Astapor with corpses, but we’re never invited to see it as one.
And gosh this is long now.
Very quickly, the other big complaint people have about this episode is that Jaime goes back to Cersei. I … I honestly don’t mind it. People seem to think that his decision not to leave his sister to die alone in the dark undermines his character development over the series, but to me that … well … it comes back to #mahboistannis and his extremely correct statement that #agoodactdoesnotwashoutthebadnorabadactthegood.
Because character development is funny, and almost a completely artificial construct. Imagine for a moment that we’d never seen Jaime right up until he catches up with Brienne in season 3. Imagine that she knew nothing about his past—none of the Kingslayer stuff, none of the incest, and so on—and imagine that we started getting little hints about his relationship with Cersei as they travelled together, culminating in S8E4 when he finally breaks and tells her about the time he threw a ten year old boy out of a tower window, because the boy saw him fucking his sister.
That’s exactly the same “redemption” arc Jaime has in the books and show, but if you frame things in a way that we get reminded of all the fucked up shit he did at the end then suddenly he becomes a tormented and conflicted character whose inner torment is gradually revealed, rather than a bad guy who turns into a good guy. And that, more or less, is the problem I have with “redemption” arcs. I mean imagine for a moment if this was real life, if there was some celebrity or candidate for high public office who had a pretty okay if slightly edgy reputation, and then suddenly it came out that he once tried to murder a child. And not even, like, a long time ago. Like a few years ago. Would you say “oh, well he’s come a long way since then and it would undermine his whole arc to hold him accountable now?” (I mean, if there’s one thing we’ve learned post #MeToo, it’s that a lot of people would in a lot of cases, but I’d remind you we’re talking about literal child murder).
I mean, basically nobody is getting a happy ending on this show but if anybody definitely doesn’t deserve one it’s Jaime the things I do for love Lannister.
Dany burns down King’s Landing in this episode, so they’ve missed their last chance to #showusthegrainsilos, but I was quite pleased that we got to see the occasional cache of wildfire going up—it would have been easy to either forget about it entirely or to cop out and make it do more damage than the dragon (which would let Dany off way too easy), so it was nice to see it just being there.
Next up, season seven recap, and the last ever episode.
I feel strangely hollow.