After 72 episodes of heart-stabbing, head-popping, quasi-medieval political treachery, HBO’s take on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire is coming to a close, and despite the ambition and grandeur of the production, the pacing and plot resolution are driving the majority of fans into a rage worthy of House Targaryean. Unsatisfying deaths, bizarre twists, and inexplicable character behavior are the fodder for endless (and often hilarious) memes and social media diatribes. The series’ penultimate episode “The Bells” is possibly the franchise’s most controversial, drawing ire from viewers who feel that their beloved cloak and dagger epic has officially jumped the dragon. Regardless of how the story ends, Game of Thrones has been phenomenal, with its dynamic characters, labyrinthine conflicts, and moments of unparalleled joy and misery, and “The Bells” in particular was not only a feat of filmmaking but also a masterstroke in allegory.
The main reveal was Daenerys Targaryan’s completed transformation into the Mad Queen. After effortlessly defeating the Lannister army and the Golden Company, the Breaker of Chains became the Murderer of Innocents as she reigned inexhaustible dragon fire down on, well, everyone. The majority of the episode featured sharp cuts to various extras being either cremated or buried in rubble, while the other main characters dealt with both the destruction and the realization that they were backing a monster, or more accurately a pair of monsters. Once she huffed and puffed and decided to roast King’s Landing, Dany was never seen again. There were only shots from below; she had become one with the dragon, and mayhem ensued.
For the legions of fans who saw Daenarys as a feminist heroine and were inspired by her ability to wrest power from warriors and slaveowners on the way to liberating Essos, this was especially troubling. Twitter was alight with those flabbergasted by this heel-turn. Liberal magazines like Slate, The Guardian, and Huffington Post wrote screeds about how the writers had destroyed her character arch and let the fans down. There’s even a petition for HBO to remake the season. This sour grape grousing implies that writers are somehow required to appease their audiences. Critics and jaded fans appear to be of the mind that — to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr. — the moral arch of Game of Thrones is “long and bends toward justice.” Clearly these people haven’t been paying close enough attention.
The appeal of GRRM’s saga resides largely in its unpredictability. No characters are safe; nothing is off-limits. Characters die, often horribly. The bad guys occasionally get away with it. There are, of course, delicious moments of comeuppance as well, but from the instant Ned Stark’s head was separated from his shoulders, viewers have been approaching every Sunday with knuckle-biting anxiety and for good reason. Obviously, the notion that Dany or Jon or insert-your-favorite-character-here would claim the throne and rule comfortably as the curtain fell is patently absurd. With a plot as expansive and elaborate as this one, there is simply no way to pull everything together and land safely in a place that will please even half the audience.
Moreover, this shift in the Mother of Dragons has been foreshadowed since the opening season. First there is her notorious family lore — the legendary wrath of the Targaryeans, the Mad King’s pyromanic lunacy — that prompted the legend about Targaryean disposition being nothing but the Gods’ coin toss between benevolence and malevolence. There were also a bevy of moments where Daenarys seemed all too comfortable killing those who crossed her. She showed no emotion when Khal Drogo poured molten hot gold onto her brother Viserys’ head. She also burned the witch woman alive and relished in her dying screams. Viewers had no issue with these punishments as both were guilty of grievous offenses.
As she progressed, however, Deanerys’ brand of justice was doled out more liberally, and not to those who had wronged her directly, but rather to those who stood in her way on her quest for power. She smote several leaders of various towns in Essos. She crucified slaveowners and posted them along the side of the road. When she returned to Westeros, she incinerated Randyll and Dickon Tarly when they refused to bend the knee. The daughter of Aerys Targaryean had been anything but a pacifist.
But it felt right to root for Dany, particularly early on when she was the wide-eyed, innocent, silver-haired girl with the asshole brother. We watched her be given away to a strange man and raped. Then after making the best of a bad situation and somewhat domesticating the Horse Lord, she was abruptly widowed, had a miscarriage, and was abandoned. Her road to power was no doubt arduous. However, what might have been considered ambition and perseverance metamorphosed into callous brutality and a pathological desire to win the Iron Throne. Even her ostensibly kind-hearted emancipation efforts served the ulterior purpose of building up an army.
In this season her response to Jon’s revelation about being her nephew and rightful heir told audiences a great deal about her lust for power. Toss in the sideways glances she gave him as he was praised by his men and the fact that her dragons, best friend, and oldest protector were all brutally killed in front of her, and well, no one should be surprised that she snapped.
In the episode, Daenarys and Cersei met in “The Battle of King’s Landing,” or what Daenarys referred to as “The Last Great War,” but what should have been called “The Battle of the Bitches.” This showdown turned out to be the Red Wedding of House Lannister, with basically everyone being massacred except Tyrion. Deanerys Stormborn had indeed won the throne. A poignant aspect of the 80 minutes was the way in which the two queens had seemingly switched places. The prophecy made when Cersei was but a teenager did foretell of her replacement by a younger, more beautiful queen. And so it proved. But not only was she supplanted in a sequential sense, Daenarys managed to become every bit as savage as Joffrey’s mother and won the Seven Kingdoms in perhaps the most tyrannical and wicked way possible. Meanwhile, Cersei’s last moments showed the oft callous blonde afraid, despondent, pregnant, and weeping in the arms of her twin/lover/baby-daddy as the walls she had so viciously and painstakingly earned crashed on top of her. In terms of deaths, few on the series have been more poetic than Cersei being crushed and buried by the object of her cruel ambitions.
One of the most interesting and salient storylines of Game of Thrones has been this juxtaposition between Daenarys and Cersei. The two, who were only in a few scenes at the same time, had reciprocal journeys on either side of the world. They represented two sides of the same coin. They depicted the rise of impressive female power in a world dominated by sexist and violent men. The superficial similarities were numerous and obvious. Both hailed from distinguished royal families (with a penchant for incest). Both had two brothers, one of whom they despised. Both were married off to warriors for political reasons. Both were widowed and had lost children. Both demonstrated a willingness to do anything to achieve power. But of course, Cersei was loathed and Daenarys — at least until the immolation of King’s Landing — was loved. Why is that?
Ask yourself: what’s the moral difference between Cersei beheading Missandei when Camp Dany refused to swear fealty and what the Dragon Queen did to, say, the Tarleys? Audiences were shocked to see Cersei obliterate the Great Sept of Baelor with wildfire, thereby vaporizing her enemies, civilians, and members of her own family, largely for revenge. In parallel, Daenarys torched the town, presumably killing some of her own loyal soldiers, in a spastic fit of vengeful mania. What should be clear is that there is scant difference between the two. The only difference was we have been observing Cersei after she had already become an evil conniver, obsessed with ruling. We just happened upon the origin story of Daenary’s similar villainy.
And herein lies the first allegorical point made by the episode: the difference between good and evil is never as cut and dry as we would like to think, and every evildoer — in both actual and fictional universes — has a backstory which led them on their path of depravity.
It is much more comfortable for us to imagine that evil is innate, that it is inexplicable and unfortunate. The Night King, for example, was easy to accept. He was a spiky, blue mass of nihilism, driven by some vague desire to eradicate the human race. He was Evil, with a capital E. And while figures like that are disconcerting, there’s something comforting in the idea that they are typically supernatural and/or confined to works of fiction.
People like Cersei and Dany (or insert the worst historical figures here), however, were at some point normal. Through a cocktail of circumstances they evolved into one capable of insouciantly taking life. It is difficult to imagine a young Dany strafing through King’s Landing on a giant flame thrower. It’s equally impossible to envision a teenaged Cersei encouraging her brother to push a child out of a window. But each was hardened by a coarse world, and when combined with a familial legacy and a sense of destiny, they were both molded into tyrants by the ultimate corruptive vice: power.
Next, the episode depicted the ways in which other sane and presumably moral individuals will follow someone even after they’ve proven themselves to be corrupt and unworthy of any sort of leadership position. Grey Worm, the eunuch commander of the Unsullied, sullied his near-sterling reputation by mirroring the bloodlust of his queen and massacring a group of Lannister soldiers who had already laid down their weapons. His soldiers, the Dothraki, and even many Northmen swept through the streets indiscriminately killing men, women, and children.
There are regrettably historical events where soldiers committed similar atrocities (albeit not under the cover of dragon fire). Based entirely on statistics one has to assume that not a solid percentage of those various malicious forces were sociopaths. The readers of history are always left to wonder how the normal soldiers could follow through. Indeed, even today people are dumbstruck by the ways in which some constituents will follow their candidate right off a cliff. “The Bells” provides a rationale: tribalism creates a moral blindness; once there is an us vs. them dichotomy there simply is no limit to what one will do to win.
It also levels a harsh indictment against war in general and technological warfare specifically. In Westeros Drogon is a devastatingly advantageous artillery piece, a medieval weapon of mass destruction. By showing the annihilation of King’s Landing from the ground level, the show appears to be criticizing the use carpet bombing and drones against populations with inferior weaponry. Deanerys was safely removed from any danger and couldn’t possibly see, in detail, the carnage she was unleashing. Reigning fire from above is easy; the distance dehumanizes the targets below. From Jon, Arya, and Tyrion’s perspective, however, we get an intimate, PTSD-inducing montage of fear and blood and gore. From the innocent people fleeing for cover from the person who purports herself to be their liberator to Arya’s white-faced emergence from the dust and rubble a la 9/11, the allegory about the pointlessness and brutality of war could not have been plainer.
Thrones’ fans may not be pleased with the rapidity of its resolution, but they should appreciate the robust and philosophical nature of its characters and plot. “The Bells” was one of its best, wrought with allusions and easter eggs, poignant images and thought-provoking circumstances surrounding topics like human nature, power, relationships, and the use of violence. Even the title of the episode — a clear reference to John Donne’s poem — alludes to the brevity and interconnectivity of human life. Perhaps most of all, the episode reminds us that the purpose of art is not necessarily to make us happy, but rather, to make us think.