Game of Thrones 8.5: The Bells

Subtitle: going down a path I can’t follow

Where do I begin?

I was not surprised by Daenerys burning the city. Going into this season, it seemed clear to me she wouldn’t be crowned so the options were die a hero or become a villain. Last week set up the latter. I believe the hype that it was always going to end this way. I agree Daenerys and her dragons have been destructive all along. But there was always a purpose. It’s difficult to understand her actions in this episode except as a descent into madness and that is what I take issue with. That is what horrifies me. That and that this is the end. Daenerys will die a villain.

Anakin Skywalker is my favorite fictional character ever. He, too, struggles with madness and prophecy and secrecy. He stops listening to his mentors and becomes fixated on power. He loses hope and he transforms into a monster. Daenerys turning to the Dark Side is not going to make me love her any less.

But first off, Daenerys achieved her goal. It’s as if Palpatine gave up and the Jedi awarded Anakin by accepting his marriage and promoting him to Master and he still decided to kill all the younglings. If she’d gone after Cersei or Jon directly, it could be read as protecting her win, but she just destroys everything because she can.

And second, the way Daenerys is positioned against Jon leans into sexist tropes about women being too emotional to rule, and their ambition making them unlikable. Both of which are points brought up on screen by Varys. It’s not subtle, it’s textual.

I love complicated characters who are deeply flawed. I love stories about good people making terrible choices. I love consequences. I live for a redemption arc. Daenerys is on track to die irredeemable and the reason given is Oh well, she was born that way. She doesn’t get to CHOOSE her fate. She doesn’t even speak once the battle begins. She is an instrument of annihilation and they want us to believe that is all she ever was, all she ever could be.

I refuse.

The episode begins with Jon Snow’s arrival in Dragonstone. He’s greeted by Varys who suggests Jon should depose Daenerys because he’s a good man who will rule wisely and she’s an incomprehensible woman with a temper. Jon declines. He doesn’t want to rule and he doesn’t want to betray Daenerys.

Unfortunately, the way she see it is he already has: Jon told Sansa his secret, Sansa told Tyrion, Tyrion told Varys, and here we are. Daenerys is in a terrible state. She’s not eating, not grooming, probably not sleeping. She won’t talk to anyone, Drogon is her only companion. She is clearly severely depressed – Varys isn’t wrong to be concerned, but his entreaty to Jon only feeds her paranoia and victimization.

Tyrion informs on Varys and he’s sentenced to death by dragon fire. Drogon is the scariest he’s ever been when he appears out of the shadows to burn the traitor. Daenerys orders “Dracarys” in a flat monotone with no affect, further selling her depression. She doesn’t raise her voice the whole episode and only sounds like herself once, when she threatens Tyrion that the next time he betrays her will be the last. After which nearly the first thing he does is betray her by setting his erstwhile brother free and securing both his siblings passage to safety.

Prior to the battle, Daenerys has three individual scenes with her remaining men. First she gives Grey Worm Missandei’s slave collar, calling it her only personal possession from Naath. I am already on record that it is a failure of imagination and storytelling that Missandei and Grey Worm’s story arcs only ever reference their status as former slaves but this is straight awful. Why would she keep it? It’s not from Naath! It’s a symbol of her oppression, not her home! Why would Grey Worm want it? Why would Daenerys choose to give it? Missandei has been a close aide to the Queen for years, she would have accumulated her own wealth.

What if she had a collection of trinkets, pebbles from each place they’d travelled, a dragon carving, a broken spear point she saved because it was once Grey Worm’s? What if she had hair clips she intended to bring her sisters in Naath? I don’t know if she has sisters, because the story never found it interesting enough to tell me, but imagine if she did, and she had a bag of things she’d collected for them, and after her death Daenerys found it, and understood, because they’d talked about the families they’d lost, and she and Grey Worm cried about it. And Daenerys, vulnerable and exhausted, said Maybe we should leave, bring this to Naath, give up the quest, let Jon have the throne, I’m so tired, it’s brought nothing but death. And Grey Worm said, No. Missandei told us to fight. Missandei died for this. We have to honor her.

Instead, we get Grey Worm throwing Missandei’s shackle into the fire. And I think it is meant as a connecting thread – Daenerys freed Missandei and all the Unsullied by burning the slavers and their city. Missandei’s last word references that moment. Cersei is the final slaver, the final power to be overthrown. The threads are there but it is not a well constructed tapestry. And it’s not fair to Missandei or Grey Worm to be reduced to shackles that burn.

Then Daenerys once again opens up to Jon and Jon once again doesn’t get it. Jon has always been naive, now he is stubbornly so. Everyone, including Daenerys herself, is telling him she’s struggling and he reiterates that he doesn’t want the throne, as if that matters, and that people just don’t know her yet, which ignores the fact that the entire North went out of their way to not get to know her. She straight up tells him fear is the only card she has left to play because no one in Westeros loves her and instead of addressing that he says “I love you”  – and then immediately negates it by rejecting her kiss.

Here’s the thing – no one loves Cersei. She could be brought down by a well run campaign that convinced the people of King’s Landing Daenerys was their savior – a part she has been playing since season two, if not before. High Garden is next door and empty, a prime place for the evacuation of King’s Landing. They would only have to convince a few to take the chance. Cersei would be forced to attack her own citizens or lose her human shield. If she attacks she’s instantly the tyrant Daenerys’s whisper campaign cast her as and Daenerys has every right to swoop in to save the city. If she doesn’t attack Daenerys can burn her down with no worry for innocents. Either way Daenerys wins the throne and the love of the people. If only she had anyone on her side able to look at the big picture (if only Sansa was on her side!).

Finally, Tyrion asks her spare the city if they ring the bells, signaling their surrender, and she agrees. This is repeated at least four or five times leading up to the bells actually ringing so it was excruciatingly clear that they were going to ring, and almost certainly be ignored. It would subvert expectations and be a more complicated story if they weren’t ignored, but I guess that no longer matters.

Daenerys tells Tyrion that his brother was caught sneaking past their lines and she blames him for being wrong about Jaime’s loyalty. Tyrion and Jon have both been vocally supportive of and loyal to Daenerys since the Aegon reveal, but Tyrion is related to Lannisters and Jon to Starks and it is hard for her to trust they are on her side.

The night before the battle, Tyrion releases Jaime and tells him to go get Cersei out of the city. He’s the only one with any chance of getting through to her, ring the bells of surrender, and then escape to Pentos. I’m sort of sad this doesn’t happen – if we are resetting the table to the beginning the way it seems we are, the Lannisters would be playing Daenerys’s mother’s part in this scenario and I like the symmetry.

Tyrion’s actions allow for a final heartfelt scene between the Lannister brothers, which I appreciate. Tyrion tells Jaime “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster,” – a theme both personal, in that Jaime doesn’t treat Cersei like a monster either, and with wider impact in that Daenerys becomes the monster because she’s lost the people who didn’t treat her like one. The monster theme is also present in the Clegane subplot and Arya’s overall arc in the series, and many previous stories throughout its run.

Arya and the Hound arrive and join the throngs of people behind the walls of King’s Landing. They spend most of the battle trying to get to Cersei and the Mountain in the Red Keep. If only they knew about the underground tunnels. A lot of the horror of this battle and episode (and series) could be avoided with better communication. In any case, they are right in the thick of it for the whole terrible event.

The battle opens on the combined forces of the North, the remaining Dothraki and Unsullied standing opposite the Golden Company. Euron and his Iron Fleet sail the bay, looking for a dragon to shoot. And he finds one, dive-bombing his ships. Without the element of surprise Euron has no chance against Drogon and his fleet is almost immediately on fire. So Daenerys and her dragon move on to the city and take out Cersei’s hired army and the scorpions on the wall, and blast open the gates. The Dothraki yell, the Unsullied march, and the battle is begun in earnest – with Cersei already suffering catastrophic losses. It becomes very clear very quickly that Daenerys could take the Kingdom with her one remaining dragon alone.

And so the Lannister armies give up. Their queen has done little to endear herself – she’s the one who previously blew up the city, remember – and she has next to no allies. All their defenses against the dragon are in flames, they have no chance of winning and this is not worth dying for. They throw down their swords and they ring the bells.

And Daenerys ignores them, choosing instead to resume her torching of the city and all the people within its walls. Grey Worm follows suit, throwing his spear into the heart of an unarmed Lannister soldier and leading his troops into battle. Jon Snow stares in shock for about twenty minutes before finally snapping out of it and calling for everyone to retreat outside the burning city gates.

If Daenerys wanted to rule by fear, she’d accomplished that. If she wanted to honor Missandei’s last request, she’d accomplished that. If she wanted to make an example, she’d accomplished that. If she wanted to eliminate her enemy, she should have flown at the Keep not zig zag around the city. I don’t know why she does it. I don’t accept the ‘Mad Blood’ argument. As for foreshadowing, the battle before the ringing of the bells was already terrifying and over dramatic and the kind of symphony of fire and blood Daenerys is known for. It was already enough to make her appear dangerously unhinged and give them an opening to crown Aegon instead, or Gendry if Jon refuses. She didn’t need to go full Mad Queen for that story to be told and the sudden left turn is too much. If the Lannister soldiers kneeled to Jon, that would at least be a trigger. This is played as inevitable and it wasn’t.

Cersei, too, doesn’t want to give up, though it makes sense on her end. If Daenerys had flown straight to the castle to kill the queen, I suspect Cersei would have blown up the city herself – Aerys/Cersei’s green fire is seen activating as Drogon’s fire sets it off and I’ve no doubt she had a plan for it, which I suppose Daenerys’s erratic and crazed attack foiled – and I think I would have preferred that, as I would have preferred the alternate ending I suggested for last week’s episode. Either would give both Daenerys and Cersei more agency than they appear to have here. But Qyburn finally convinces Cersei to leave her balcony and flee with him and the Mountain.

Having failed to make it into the city before the gates closed, Jaime sneaks into the castle the way he intends to sneak out, through the underground tunnels that lead to the sea. On his way in he’s stopped by Euron who washed up on the beach after the dragon destroyed all his ships. Euron could easily have stolen Jaime’s escape boat and survived but instead he goads the knight into attacking and they have a knock down drag out fight in the wet sand. Jaime wins, but only after Euron mortally wounds him with two well placed daggers to the torso. Euron was never more than a shell of a character and I only wish he’d died sooner.

The Hound and Arya make it to the Red Keep, but it is already crumbling and Sandor tells Arya to let go of her revenge fantasy and get out while she can. Arya protests but he makes her look at what he’s become and tells her she deserves better. She thanks him for this insight and runs off to escape. Because she’s a Stark, she tries to rescue and lead people as she goes, but is unable to save anyone. The last time Arya was in King’s Landing her father lost his head while the crowd cheered so it’s doubly meaningful that she tries so hard to save them (and probably meant to contrast Daenerys ugh).

Now alone, the Hound finds his brother, with Cersei and Qyburn, attempting escape. They square off, ignoring Cersei’s demands that Ser Gregor stay by her side. Qyburn orders Gregor to listen to his queen and Gregor backhands him into the wall, breaking his skull open, without taking his eyes off his brother. At this point Cersei tiptoes around the two to beat a hasty retreat alone. And we get the long promised and anticipated ‘Clegane Bowl’ between the Hound and the Mountain and I’m happy for everyone excited to see it, but I don’t much care.

I liked two things about this: 1) that they intercut Arya’s escape with the Hound’s fight, inextricably connecting the two characters, and suggesting that in convincing Arya to live the Hound served his ultimate purpose and now lives on in her. And 2) that Sandor addresses Cersei as “Your Grace” when he first arrives, reminding us that he doesn’t care who is King, and never has. Sandor Clegane is an incredible character and I wished he’d gotten to retire in peace, but at least he got the closure he wanted. The brothers destroy each other and fall into a ball of fire.

Cersei stumbles across her giant floor map, completely alone and surrounded by the rubble of her dreams, when she catches sight of Jaime coming out of the shadow. They run to each other and embrace amidst tears, dust, devastation and blood. Which describes them well. Cersei is distraught that Jaime is hurt but he waves away her concern and ushers her back the way he came.

They end up under the castle, surrounded by dragon bones and fallen stones, the tunnels filled with rubble, their escape cut off. Cersei is crying and begging for her baby’s life but the sky is literally falling and they have no way out. Jaime pulls her into his arms, forces her to look in his eyes, and reminds her Nothing else matters, only us.

Honestly, I loved this. I’m angry for Jaime, who grew past his worst impulses, fought honorably, and found love, only to be dragged back into the toxic relationship that kept him from that for so long. I’m angry for Brienne. But I like this ending for Cersei. She’s so human. Scared, desperate, wanting. Her armor is gone, her ambition is gone. And Jaime is there for her, because he loves her. As twisted and tragic and terrible as it is, he loves her and she loves him, and they die as they lived: together despite everything. I cried. I’m crying now.

The episode ends with Arya waking up surrounded by ashes. We assume Jon got as many people as possible to safety and Daenerys eventually landed to rest. I like to believe she sheds tears like Anakin on Mustafar. The streets are empty and silent. A white horse covered in blood approaches Arya, she mounts up and gallops away.

There are many ideas about what this strange end is: Daenerys was given a white horse in the first season. Strickland rides one in the battle. The little girl Arya tried to save was carrying a white toy horse. Bran sent the horse to her, or warged into it, possibly after it died. Arya on a white horse represents Death. Or a Jesus-like figure. Or Ned Stark. Because I always see chess metaphors in everything, I think it makes Arya the White Knight and next week she will protect the White King (Jon) from the Black Queen (Daenerys). In any case it is a beautiful sequence, soft, quiet, gentle, and hopeful after a full hour of devastation.

We only have one chapter left to this story. I don’t know what to expect and I only want one thing. It seems highly unlikely after this week, but here it is: I want Drogon to survive. He’s already the last dragon, let him fly away to obscurity.

Winning: Sansa Stark, who didn’t have to witness this mess and can now say I told you so.
Dead: Varys, Strickland, Euron Greyjoy, Qyburn, Gregor Clegane, Sandor Clegane, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister

Next Week: the end

If this episode made you question why you’ve invested eight years of your life in the series, Amy Imhoff suggested on twitter we channel our anger for good and spend any money we might have put towards merchandise into charities supported by the cast:

Even if you loved the episode, give to a good cause!

1 thought on “Game of Thrones 8.5: The Bells

  1. And second, the way Daenerys is positioned against Jon leans into sexist tropes about women being too emotional to rule, and their ambition making them unlikable.

    This is why I hate “The Favourite”

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