I guess it’s fitting that the episode of Game of Thrones that aired on Mother’s Day would be the one where the Mother of Dragons let her last remaining child run wild and slaughter the population of an entire city. I guess that’s appropriate somehow.
No, wait. It isn’t.
I’m not saying they haven’t foreshadowed this in the books—or even, to a limited extent, earlier in the show. We’ve seen Daenerys relish in the power of her dragons before. When she freed the slaves of Astapor by unleashing Drogon on the slaver Kraznys, we loved her for it. When she took back the city of Meereen from the Sons of the Harpy, we cheered her on (even if we weren’t quite on board with how the show handled the Dothraki, but, well, it’s not like they’ve ever given us reason to expect better). And any time her dragons turned their firepower on the Army of the Dead, we knew the living had a decent chance of winning that fight. We know she’s been frustrated by the reception she’s had in Westeros, having blazed her way across Slaver’s Bay in a haze of victory and dragonfire only to find that the realm that had once been her family’s saw her as a terrifying outsider, not the, um, liberator she’d been led to believe she was.
(And this has as much to do with her advisors as anyone else, let’s be clear. Varys and Tyrion both had plenty of opportunities to explain to Daenerys that Things Work Differently in Westeros, particularly for women and both have the context to do so; this would probably have made for boring television to anyone who wasn’t a total book nerd, but there were ways to imply that it had been done without showing it directly. Her expectations did not match her reality from the second she arrived in Dragonstone at the beginning of Season Seven, and the introduction of Jon Snow as a rival who is preferred largely on account of having a dick is a legitimate source of aggravation that most non-cis-men can understand.)
We also know that the Targaryens have a history of madness. “When a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin,” says Varys on the show. In the books, it is Barristan Selmy who speaks the line, as a quotation from the first king he served in the Kingsgaurd, Jaehaerys II:
“But every child knows that the Targaryens have always danced too close to madness. Your father was not the first. King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” – Barristan Selmy in A Storm of Swords, Chapter 71
This is a conversation that Barristan has with Daenerys shortly after she conquers the city of Meereen, and he has already specified that he had been watching her before pledging his service to her to determine whether or not she was mad like her father. Having decided she wasn’t, he agreed to serve her until death.
While there are plenty of criticisms to make of Barristan himself, and of what he does and does not reveal to Daenerys about her family history, the fact is that, up to the point at which the books end, she is the one amongst her siblings who isn’t mad. Viserys clearly is—we see that from the start—and while Rhaegar is romanticized, his actions started a war that killed thousands, so clearly he isn’t the greatest role model either. Daenerys, at this point in time, chooses to stay in Meereen instead of sailing directly to Westeros precisely so that she can learn how to rule, something neither of her brothers bothered to do. This is supposed to set her apart from the rest of the Targaryens.
A version of the conversation between Daenerys and Barristan happens on the show, but in a different context. There, Daenerys is already Queen of Meereen and she is dealing with insurrection by the Sons of the Harpy. Barristan takes her aside after one a petitioner demands that she destroy the rebels, that “all [the slavers] understand is blood.”
Barristan warns Daenerys that what she calls the “lies” about her father are in fact true, that he was mad and bloodthirsty:
BARRISTAN: When the people rose in revolt against him, your father set their towns and castles aflame. He murdered sons in front of their fathers. He burned men alive with Wildfire, and laughed as they screamed. And his efforts to stamp out dissent led to rebellion that killed every Targaryen except two.
DAENERYS: I’m not my father.
BARRISTAN: No, Your Grace. Thank the gods. But the Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved. And each time it made him feel powerful and right. Until the very end. (Game of Thrones 5×02, “The House of Black and White”)
That last paragraph is the kicker, and it shows that the seeds for Daenerys’ downfall were, at least in theory, laid relatively early on. But the showrunners have clearly forgotten about many of these seeds in their desperate desire to shoehorn the endpoints given to them by George R.R. Martin into a plot that they like. And what they like is chronically unimaginative, trite, and lazy.
Woman is enslaved. Woman gains power beyond anyone’s imagination. Woman goes crazy and must be destroyed by men. Also brown people are scary and will murder you for no reason, so they must also be stopped. Able-bodied white men who can win face-punching contests are the only acceptable heroes.
That, in a nutshell, is what we saw in “The Bells,” a cinematically stunning episode that falls apart if you look at it too closely.
We begin with the end of Varys, who is supposed to be one of the cleverest men in this universe. In the books, he has managed to survive no fewer than five different monarchs, most of whom wanted to kill him at one point or another. He has built up an extensive, powerful spy network, and he knows everything. (In the books, furthermore, he is also spearheading an enormous conspiracy to place a pretender on the Iron Throne, but the show threw that plotline out the window in Season Five even if it appears to have kept the big finish, namely the destruction of King’s Landing in fire and blood.)
Unfortunately, while the show did right by him for the first four seasons, as soon as he left King’s Landing, his arc fell apart. That is, I suspect, because they dropped the pretender Targaryen plotline from the book that had been the mainstay of Varys’ plotting, which then left him with nothing to do other than tentatively agree to support Daenerys until he decided not to…because the showrunners can’t handle clever characters and prefer dramatic idiots.
The Varys of Seasons 1-4 would have conceived of a low-profile, terrifyingly subtle plan to undermine Daenerys over a period of several years until nobody could trace it back to him. This Varys might as well be wearing a t-shirt reading “Ask me about treason.” He writes, blatantly, to persons unknown about Jon’s Secret Targaryen identity, he approaches Jon head-on about the topic, and he’s already expressed his fears about Daenerys to Tyrion. Daenerys is absolutely in the right to be furious with Tyrion for not telling her earlier on about Varys’ reservations; as Hand of the Queen, keeping her informed of threats against her is one of his primary functions.
Varys meets a fiery end after a brief, touching moment with Tyrion that feels both unearned within the context of the season and deeply depressing on a meta-level, since they’re two of the cleverest characters on a show that has lost any use for cleverness. Tyrion has also suffered unduly from the transition beyond George R.R. Martin’s written narrative. One of the most interesting characters from the books, played by one of the most gifted actors in the series, he’s fallen into a one-note slump for the past two seasons, dispensing terrible advice and underestimating his enemies.
(For instance, how did neither Tyrion nor Varys suggest to Daenerys that a more effective way to get rid of Cersei would be to use one of the hundreds of secret passages beneath the Red Keep that both of them know about and send an assassin, or even a small group of assassins, to take her out along with her main councillors? They could even have enlisted the Hound, tasking him to handle FrankenGregor; hell, they already have a mostly trained Faceless Man with a grudge against Cersei and a talent for killing Big Bads. But I digress.)
Instead, Tyrion continues to inexplicably demand a rapprochement between Cersei and Daenerys despite the fact that anyone with half a grain of sense can see how impossible that is. His stated goal is to save the citizens of King’s Landing, but he never once thinks about ways in which he could do so by stealth despite the fact that all of his victories in the first several seasons come by stealth and cunning. It’s one of those instances where the character is clearly smarter than the writer, and the writer has another, far stupider, agenda.
That agenda is to turn Daenerys into the Mad Queen so that Jon (and, presumably, Arya) can be justified in taking her down. As I said earlier, there were perfectly reasonable ways to do this that did not involve the sloppy characterization and lazy writing evidenced in “The Bells.” Deadspin even provided an alternative that only requires changing one event in the prior episode. Their alternative also pinpoints one of the stupidest parts of “The Last of the Starks,” namely the utterly unnecessary death of Rhaegal that would have been far more effective as part of the final attack against King’s Landing. Having the Mother of Dragons react to the death of her second “child” by unleashing hell on King’s Landing would have made far more sense. It would be no less horrifying, but it would at least follow some sense of internal logic and character arc.
It highlights how plot-vulnerable the dragons and Euron Greyjoy both are. In one episode, a dragon gets punctured full of holes by nothing more than a comically large crossbow. We have been told over and over how powerful and indestructible dragons are. We’ve seen Drogon get shot at multiple times in Meereen and survive. How, then, does a single bolt through the neck—not, as one might anticipate, through the obviously vulnerable point of the eye—kill Rhaegal? The short answer is that the bolt didn’t do it; the plot did it. Similarly, Euron’s magically teleporting and all-powerful fleet gets smashed to smithereens within the first five minutes of the battle of King’s Landing. Were the visuals amazing? Yes. Yes, they were. Like the charge of the Dothraki into the darkness in “The Long Night,” those shots were breathtakingly beautiful. Did it make any goddamn sense? NO IT DID NOT.
Speaking of the Dothraki, apparently there are enough of them left to fulfill all the lazy stereotypes about brown barbarians. Between them and the Unsullied massacring women and children in the streets of King’s Landing while Jon Snow’s white knights (literal and figurative) exercise something resembling restraint, it was not a good day for anyone who expected better than racist bullshit.
But that brings us to the bells of the title. Tyrion goes on and on about ringing the bells. Ring the bells to signal surrender. Ring the bells to beg for mercy. On a logistical note, how the citizens knew that that was the signal when Tyrion is outside the walls is a mystery to me, unless we’re meant to assume that Jaime started the chant while fumbling his way through the city in search of the best way to the Red Keep even though Tyrion already told him of the secret passage into the city. But that’s another quibble for another day.
In A Dance With Dragons, we get another story about bells.
“Last night he’d dreamt of Stoney Sept again. Alone, with sword in hand, he ran from house to house, smashing down doors, racing up stairs, leaping from roof to roof, as his ears rang to the sound of distant bells. Deep bronze booms and silver chiming pounded through his skull, a maddening cacophony of noise that grew ever louder until it seemed as if his head would explode.
Seventeen years had come and gone since the Battle of the Bells, yet the sound of bells ringing still tied a knot in his guts. Others might claim that the realm was lost when Prince Rhaegar fell to Robert’s warhammer on the Trident, but the Battle of the Trident would never have been fought if the griffin had only slain the stag there in Stoney Sept. The bells tolled for all of us that day. For Aerys and his queen, for Elia of Dorne and her little daughter, for every true man and honest woman in the Seven Kingdoms. And for my silver prince.” (Jon Connington in A Dance With Dragons, Ch. 24)
According to this tweet, Martin had told Benioff and Weiss about a plot point where Jon Connington (aka Ser Not Appearing In This Picture) sacks King’s Landing in a fit of grief, rage, and PTSD, after the citizens ring the bells to signal their surrender. This, in turn, is a reference back to the last time the city was sacked, by Tywin Lannister at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. That event is held up as the Westerosi equivalent of a war crime, capped off by the brutal murder of Princess Elia Martell and her two children by Gregor Clegane and his men. In the first four seasons of the show, it came up repeatedly, most effectively during Oberyn Martell’s duel with Clegane in “The Mountain and the Viper.”
With those touchstones in mind, how the ringing of the bells would signal not mercy but the end of mercy makes perfect sense. Instead, here, we get no indication. Not a word from Daenerys—Emilia Clarke gives it her all, but the script gives her nothing to work with. Daenerys hears the bells. Daenerys burns it all down.
As with her miraculous “forgetting” of the existence of the Iron Fleet in “The Last of the Starks,” Daenerys here gets an ex post facto explanation for her actions, that she looks at the Red Keep, remembers everything her family lost…and sets fire not to the Red Keep itself (although she eventually gets there) but to the city below, thus earning herself a place alongside Tywin Lannister in the annals of great Westerosi war criminals.
Speaking of Tywin, how did his sack of King’s Landing never come up in this episode? I was literally shrieking at the screen on several occasions that someone ought to mention the last time King’s Landing was sacked and exactly what happened then. Tyrion could have brought it up to Daenerys in an attempt to urge her to be better than her enemies. Tyrion could have suggested getting the gates open by treachery, just like his father did. FFS, Cersei ought to have remembered it, given how proud she is of her House and heritage, rather than spouting off nonsense about how the city has never been taken. It has. It was taken by your father.
But nobody remembers it and history repeats itself; only this time, it’s the dragon and not the lion.
Which brings us to the end of House Lannister as we know it, and the other phenomenal disappointment in this episode. When Jaime rode away from Winterfell, my assumption—and that of many others—was that he was riding to kill Cersei or die trying. Attentive book readers were keeping an eye on Maggy the Frog’s prophecy (truncated in the show) that Cersei would die at the hands of the valonquar (Valyrian for “little brother”), and reminding themselves that Cersei often forgot that both Tyrion and Jaime were her younger brothers. Book readers also remembered Cersei’s assertion that she and Jaime came into this world together and extrapolated that the only way for them to leave this world would be together.
Instead, Cersei Lannister—one of the premiere villains from the first season onward—dies not with a bang but with a whimper, sobbing about how she doesn’t want to die as the ceiling collapses upon her. Such a disappointment. That’s not tragic or even cathartic; it just happens. (And the show saw fit to waste a bunch of time on a pointless fight between Jaime and Euron that did nothing for either character.)
One of the episode’s best moments was between Jaime and Tyrion early on, when Tyrion paid Jaime back for saving him back in Season Four. Another was between Arya and the Hound, when he sent her back before charging in to kill his monstrous brother. It didn’t entirely make sense—Arya came all the way to King’s Landing with one goal in mind—but given the context of a collapsing castle, I did like that the Hound saw fit to send the little baby assassin of whom he is so proud out of the wreckage in hopes that she would survive.
She does survive, via a Plot Horse who is appropriately pale (and whose name is presumably Death), and it seems quite clear that a new person’s name has been added to her nearly empty list. Daenerys, it seems, will face the god of death in the near future.
Bloggers and journalists have rightly praised the spectacle of this episode—its “ant’s eye view” of the horrors of war. The conjunction of visual and musical cue was often magnificent. After skipping the Season 7 soundtrack, I am absolutely planning to get my hands on the final season for that conflation of “Light of the Seven” and “The Rains of Castamere” alone because UGH CHILLS.
But…the plotholes. The broken characters. The barely veiled racism and misogyny. It’s exhausting. It’s like looking at a copy of a copy of a text that might have been brilliant but now survives only in fragments. We know the touchpoints, but we don’t know how to get there.
And that, quite frankly, is tragic.