Eagles star Chris Long, will recap Game of Thrones and share his thoughts on each episode every Monday on SI.com.
In another dimension of gripping television, Kawhi Leonard had just slowed time to a standstill as his towering shot arced down upon the rim, careening for what seemed like an eternity. Minutes later, time stood still again in living rooms across America. And this time, instead of a ball, it was a bell. We listened more than anything.
Dragon screeching, swords falling and a ringing that we almost knew was too good to be true. And as the Bells rang Sunday, it seemed the trajectory and legacy of the show hung in the balance. As we squinted and breathed out of our mouths for seemingly minutes, we heard voices echoing through the cobbled streets of King’s Landing. The voices carried news of surrender.
Ten days ago, Episode 4 sunk the morale of Game of Thrones fandom to a seemingly new low. Naturally, as we held our collective breath Sunday night, co-creators/showrunners/writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, said “hold my beer.” We know what happened next, and we know the hysteria that’s followed. Embiid’s defeated gaze in Toronto was exceeded only by that of Tyrion’s in King’s Landing, as he watched his own decisive contest end in an instant.
I saw multiple tweets proclaiming that we’d just seen the worst Thrones episode of all time. (Rotten Tomatoes agreed.) It’s Twitter, so we love to read the room and double down on the outrage. To be fair, most people I’ve talked to in person enjoyed the episode to a degree. Some tweets, though went as far as saying it’d been the worst episode of television in human history. The worst. Worse than any episode of The Walking Dead. Worse than Jimmy McNulty running around prank calling people. Worse than these tweets that are being fired off a week after Episode 4. I want some of what you’re smoking.
Episode 5’s “battle” has been dubiously preceded by a large scale, apocalyptic clash worthy of a crescendo in scale. “The Bells” is also sandwiched between a critical disaster in Episode 4 and an impending finale. It was set up to fail. And most people couldn’t separate their disappointments in the season as a whole in judging the episode or its pivotal moment.
Admittedly, I’m a contrarian, but it’s not a terrible strain playing devil's advocate here. I understand a lot of the general frustrations. My issue is that they’re being heaped on what is far from the worst episode of the season, and on the writing of a twist that is far from the worst culprit of the spring. Even in its imperfections, it’s writing that follows a waypoint George R.R. Martin set.
A viewership that’s ballooned from 2 million to nearly 20 million over a decade span has grown accustomed to a character web that Martin intricately spun. Benioff and Weiss have seemingly discarded much of that effort, but however imperfect Dany’s heel turn may have been, the vitriol it’s received is more fitting elsewhere. And this episode has been no exception.
THE BAD AND THE UGLY
The writers authored character disasters all season that were far more deserving of criticism. Episodes ago, the show’s most mysterious figure was dead ended at the hands of Arya Stark. For eight seasons, the Night King was the most ominous force in the realm. But we never got a “why.” And Sunday, the show’s biggest character assassination of the night was carried out on Jaime. Eight years of development couldn’t overcome the tractor beam pulling him back to Cersei.
As the gates to King’s Landing closed, he waved his clunky, golden hand like a guy who couldn’t get the bartender’s attention. He opts for a convenient passageway and ultimately ends up running into the show’s worst character, Euron Greyjoy. The well-known cartoon villain had just washed ashore after swimming some distance directly to the secret smuggler’s cove. There we have one of the most pointless sword fights in cinematic history. Euron, reportedly far less useful than the literary character that inspired him, should’ve been punted into the air by an orca off the coast of King’s Landing.
But instead he dies on a rock, delivering the cringe-worthy line “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.” No, as it turns out, you’re not. And as much as I wish you’d have been Maury’d before you were put out of your misery, you died thinking Cersei’s baby was yours.
Tyrion’s character arc was certainly ruined. Once the wise sage of Westeros, now I wouldn’t trust him to manage the $3 in my son's Nike account. He’s fumbled multiple times, and his decision making has spiraled at a pace only exceeded by Dany’s regression. I was actually emotionally invested in his character, but I’ve reminded myself that he’s actually a fictional character played by an actor from New Jersey (take notes, Dany stans).
Beside the character mishaps, there were irritating details, as has been tradition this season. The newfound ability of the Dothraki and Unsullied to “respawn” like zombies in Call of Duty is sort of annoying. The guy who most notably dropped the ball on Cersei’s elephant errand got impaled by a wooden spear. All he brought to the table, really, was an elite flow. Harry Strickland, who sounds more like an EPL midfielder than a Thrones warrior, looked awkwardly fast running from Dothraki horses who had a full head of steam. Rest in obscurity, Harry.
And lastly, one of the most unrealistic portions of the episode was the treatment of A-Rod. After well over a decade of watching him play through everything, I’m supposed to believe he went out dressed like Aladdin in the streets of King’s Landing because of a little dragon fire?
No way he’s dead. My brother plays for the Bears and I’ve had to sit through this routine before.
There was still a lot to like about “The Bells.” The first 30 minutes was paced beautifully. The score was on point. But above all, it was a visually redeemed version of Episode 3. Cinematography was a thing of beauty, even in the show’s most savage moments. The dragon footage was second to none, from Dracarys emerging from the blackness to execute Varys to aerial shots of destruction over King’s Landing. The scale of the dragon is really revealed, and so was the destruction. Bran’s haunting premonition was put into real-time action, and who could’ve imagined this would be the context? It’s obviously curious that an episode ago Euron’s fleet could hit a dragon center-mass three times, only to be no match for it Sunday. But the fire, the ashes and all the terror down below played beautifully. We also got to see the destruction caused by this medieval WMD from below, something we hadn’t really seen on this scale.
Caught in the crossfire were the Hound and the Mountain. This scene was long awaited, and critically acclaimed. There’s a brilliant shot of the two approaching each other on the crumbling staircase as the dragon passes above. Its power is only exceeded by the shot that followed. Poetic and satisfying, Sandor gets his revenge, taking his brother bungee jumping with no rope into the fire below. But the writers nailed this scene, down to Cersei’s unspoken understanding in stepping aside and allowing the combat to ensue. Qybern’s head exploding so easily was a nice touch, but it made the Hound withstanding so many of his brother’s blows a bit of a head-scratcher. Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, though.
Speaking of horses, the strongest scene in the episode was the scene that closed it. Breathtaking and ripe with symbolism, the emergence of the mysterious pale (or white?) horse allowed Arya to ride off and recoup before hopefully playing hero in the finale. Immediately, many of us thought of biblical symbolism. “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death, and hell followed with him.” Another horse in revelations is a shade lighter. “I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” Arya could soon fit the bill of a righteous conquerer, a harbinger of death personified or a combination of two. And as she rode the bloodied, ashy horse out of the carnage, what followed her was certainly a living hell. And one of Arya’s recurring themes has always been death and its different faces. Here’s hoping she can introduce the green-eyed, newly minted tyrant. But, first, she’s presumably got to ride back to Winterfell and tell Sansa that Dany turned King’s Landing into a marshmallow. I’d imagine her reaction will go something like this.
Now that I think about it, I felt the same way when the credits rolled.
THE DANY PROBLEM
What constitutes good and what constitutes evil? What happens if your good intentions produce evil? Does the end justify the means? -- GRRM
Daenerys Targaryen seemingly pivoted from pop icon to a polarizing shell of herself faster than you could say “Dracarys.” This coming Sunday night, as the ashes weightlessly settle onto thousands of charred King’s Landing remains, her legacy will have already landed. Throughout the show, characters have been redeemed. Atrocities have been erased. Theon, Jorah -- even Jaime for awhile. In our world, we prefer things cut and dry, but good and evil are never neatly packaged in Westeros. Complicated, conflicted characters thrive in the realm GRRM created. And because atrocities are a relative term here, these characters have a hard time crossing the threshold of irredeemable. But forgiving genocide is impossible for even the least judgmental viewer. Even when the author of it has been a fan favorite for nearly a decade. And especially since she’ll cease existence within the next 90 onscreen minutes.
Sunday night, Dany rode her dragon like a zero-turn mower, scorching every square inch of King’s Landing. In her wake -- ruins, bodies of the innocent and viewership indignation on a massive scale.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more visceral reaction to a character’s fate. Beneath the rubble, there’s a layered confluence of disappointment in her heel turn that transcends Game of Thrones’ fictional confines. It’s a perfect storm of cognitive dissonance, and I’ve certainly had my bout when it comes to Dany. Her character arc -- the foreshadowing, the development or lack thereof -- has been hotly debated. There’s no real metric for understanding the intensity of a debate, but the one surrounding GoT and ultimately Dany, has veered into political-level hostility. The argument will likely never be settled, let alone by Sunday night as the show’s legacy is cemented.
For some viewers, she’s too worshipped to cope with her fate. They say she deserved better, that she had no history of unjustified violence. Some see it as emblematic of the show’s struggles to represent female characters appropriately. And for many, the frustration has blurred the lines between fiction and reality altogether. This especially well-represented crowd has aimed their collective animus squarely in the direction of the lately maligned showrunners -- two guys who seem more like irresponsible tenants renting a GRRM’s beautiful hand-crafted home. But Dany did not deserve better. There are far stronger, more compelling female characters I’d love to see sitting on the Iron Throne (actually at this point, please don’t let it be any man but Samwell). And although Benioff and Weiss have deserved their fair share of criticism, there have been far more noteworthy blunders throughout this underwhelming season. Perhaps this one isn’t that egregious.
Wishing Dany’s character was cooked more slowly is a reasonable position. Many viewers feel like they witnessed the writers throw eight ounces of Kobe beef in the microwave. But there was foreshadowing. And there were signs. Admittedly, I never wanted to see her occupy the Throne. It wasn’t personal. I’d prefer Jon fall out of the running, as well. Her 37-second, self-important introductions. The messiah complex. Her uncompromising, punitive nature. There were bothersome qualities that were often swept under the rug. That’s not to say Emilia Clarke didn’t portray the character brilliantly. She did. It’s not to say that she didn’t have positive qualities.
Her upbringing, in the shadow of her infamous, unstable father Aerys, raised almost exclusively by her treacherous brother Viserys (whose murder she ordered and witnessed) should’ve put us on high alert. And some of us were. But maybe we saw her ashy Season 2 premonition of an empty Iron Throne and didn’t get the message. Maybe we didn’t hear her in Qarth when she threatened “I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true,” adding the assurance that she will take what’s hers, “with fire and blood.” She certainly had a righteous passion for the liberation of the oppressed, which was long endearing. But it’s statements like these (delivered because she essentially wanted ships with no credit score and couldn’t get a loan) that blur the line between altruism and blind ambition. “When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who have wronged me. We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.” Fellow football player and Thrones fanatic, Donte Stallworth summarized her resume nicely in a thread.
She warned us for years that when faced with any opposition, her first option is always pyromania. But Dany fans who thought she “deserved better,” due to a lack of track record (and a healthy infatuation) argue she was always righteous in her penchant for violence.
When it came to the oppressors, she made capital punishment cool. Even if they were bad people, she brutally executed those standing in her way. And not in the heat of battle. We all cheered. But therein lies the issue. When Ser Barristan cautioned her to answer injustice with mercy seasons ago, she made it clear she’d rather answer with justice. And her brand of justice often teetered on playing God. Her slide into genocidal behavior wouldn’t catch people as off guard if it occurred in today’s world. Consider a leader who’d crucify enemies and burn the surrendered alive for not bending the knee.
A history of someone with this punitive, violent behavior would make genocide only mildly shocking. She’s gotten a pass because she’s relatively more noble and likable than many of her onscreen counterparts. She was never Twyin. She was never Cersei. We’ve lifted her up as infallible, enabled by the application of a fictional lens when convenient. No one is questioning the nobility of her early conquests, but there was problematic behavior that this lens enabled us to gloss over.
Regardless of the framework with which we judge Daenerys’ actions, we know that in fiction and earthly history alike, power drunk leaders have slid down the slippery slope between run-of-the-mill human rights violations and genocidal behavior. And above all else, as she saddled her dragon and torpedoed down on the Iron Fleet and ultimately King’s Landing, she was part soldier, part queen. She brought with her all the ambition and self-righteousness of royalty, marinated it with the hatred and vengeance of a fighter in a foreign land and charbroiled the capital.
It’d be sufficient to say that the Fog of War consumed her as it has countless souls in battle throughout earthly history. The fog has been enough to turn the machine guns and bayonets of common men on the surrendered, taken hostage and worse yet -- civilians. Only instead of a sword or a musket, she’s got her finger on the fantastical equivalent of the nuclear codes. Sunday night, so many nameless “good” men who were presumably principled warriors prior seemed in a trance as they cut down innocents in the streets of kings landing. But bloodshed is currency in the realm. Can we truly be surprised by any of it?
All this justification and we haven’t even uttered the words “Mad Queen.” The long rumored genetic predisposition that follows all Targaryen’s like a ghost has been teased throughout the show. Being born into Dany’s bloodline has history that can’t be ignored, and as for the odds of being a bad apple, it’s a coin flip. Season 8 has been notoriously rushed and sloppy at times in the acceleration or pivoting of character arcs. These are legitimate gripes. But I’m not quite sure the uproar matches the mismanagement here. Sure, her father’s mental state slid for quite some time compared with Dany’s. But who are we to set the pace of a foreshadowed slide into madness, or to define the threshold for her sanity?
The people critical of the suddenness of her breakdown are likely unhinged on a daily basis by very mundane obstacles. Dany lost two children, one of her closest advisors and her best friend was beheaded in front of her -- all within a few episodes. She’s sleep deprived, and thanks to Varys’ efforts to poison her, she hasn’t eaten in days. She feels ostracized and paranoid in her new home, her love interest has flamed out. But above all, her greatest love -- power -- is hanging in the balance. The detonation of a genetic, psychological landmine is not justified by the buildup according to many viewers. Quite the hardened, ironic commentary on mental wellness from fans who legitimately grieve over the loss of a fictional character.
We freak out over the loss of a good parking spot or someone getting our order wrong at Starbucks (maybe they forgot her two packets of Splenda all along) and Dany can’t lose her shit over the atrocities she’s experienced? Oh... just a little detail called a giant motherf*cking dragon. If Tormund has a terrible day, he destroys a village (and who’s to say he hasn’t somewhere along the way?), but that’s about all he’s personally capable of. Come to think of it, how many villages do you think he’s needlessly pillaged because of low blood sugar? I’m setting the over/under at eight.
Seasons 1-6 were all about Dany’s unlikely rise to power. These past two seasons, her grip on that power has loosened. In the days before her defining moment, she often telegraphed it. She wrestled with her advisors. “(King’s Landing Residents) should know who to blame when the sky falls down upon them.”
Her mental gymnastics in blaming Cersei for the possible outcome reek of delusion. She’s grown distrustful, speaking High Valerian to Greyworm in the presence of Jon. And when her last ally in King’s Landing doesn’t return her affection, she utters the heavy-handed warning: “Alright then, let it be fear.” It’s likely that her “f*ck it” had little to do with Jon specifically. It seems to me that she’s grown accustomed to conquering, freeing the oppressed and subsequently being worshipped.
And Kings Landing’s residents did not fit this bill. They did not need her. They would not worship her. And moreover, they represented the occupation and theft of an object she’s mentioned being entitled to all along -- power. While I am sympathetic to the disappointment in the pacing of the arc, backloading the slide doesn’t bother me as much as it has for others. What’s not provocative to me is the argument that she’s always been this infallible figure. She’s always been a wolf in sheep’s clothing, even if she didn’t fully understand her own nature. A character like Cersei, for instance, has the self-awareness to show her teeth plainly.
Finally, as if there weren’t enough controversy surrounding the night, there are sociological implications for the “ruining” of Daenery’s character. As the show’s most celebrated female, there’s a debate raging over her fate and subsequently over the fate and depiction of all the show’s leading ladies.
But as someone whose favorite remaining characters include Arya, Sansa and Samwell (not exactly a beacon of “traditional” masculinity, a stereotype I prefer challenged), allow me to invite the wrath of the Twitter mob by saying I never cared for Dany. If you hitched your wagon to the most “traditionally beautiful” female lead (who happens to drive the hottest medieval sports car), that’s your prerogative. But I’ve been far more drawn to Arya’s unlikely ascension to heroics. Brienne’s honor, bravery and humility have shined bright. We’ve all marveled at Sansa’s growth and lately her foresight. In fact, if Jon Snow would’ve listened to his sisters, we’d not be in this mess at all.
I may never understand how frustrating it must be to see women misrepresented or stereotyped onscreen, and I’m sure at some points the show has fallen short in this department. But without the strong female characters, we’ve watched throughout the series -- the show (and the characters in it) couldn’t survive. Since Tywin Lannister was cast aside, women have reigned. And their personalities and tendencies have ranged widely.
Cersei (my favorite character in the show’s entirety) has ruled King’s Landing. Dany’s called the shots to the North. Arya earned the right to extinguish the Night King. Sansa’s been one step ahead. Lyanna Mormont valiantly killed a giant. And Jaime’s life is ultimately spared due to a chain of endorsement that takes three women to complete. Let’s not forget Melisandre laying down her life to play her part in preserving the human race. The track record of the women still standing has me hoping for a rightful Queen. I just never wanted the ruler to be Dany, or her recently useless nephew for that matter.
Characters in this make-believe world are complex. And in GRRM’s world, as long as the character is developed sufficiently, anything goes. Benoif and Weiss seem generally incapable or too rushed to follow the rule’s key qualification. But they didn’t blow it here -- at least not as badly as the Internet would lead you to believe. Martin’s endgame was largely communicated to the writers, meaning Dany likely destroyed the city all along. For this show, her descent is a symptom, not the sickness. The illness that may kill the show’s legacy altogether has been a mad dash caused by the writers choosing to stick the landing in less episodes. Bad writing and a number of hastily resolved character arcs (especially more minor roles) have plagued Season 8, setting the tone for the hysteria and hyperbole accompanying Dany’s demise. And, hey, if you’re self-important enough to be enraged by it all, imagine being some of the few hundred people who’ve named a child after Daenerys. I’m only impressed by your commitment to the character, and sympathetic to your situation... if you fully committed.
Allow me to try on my showrunner shoes. Here’s what should’ve happened assuming GRRM’s Dany directive was nonnegotiable. Dany would’ve still ignored the calls for surrender, but I would’ve used Missandei’s head in a SEVEN kinda way (Whats in the box?!). Here’s how. The bells ring. Dany grapples with the decision. She flies toward Cersei (how she didn’t find her in Episode 5, I have no idea. Try the penthouse, genius.) There’s a tense, momentary stare down from a distance. Cersei defiantly proceeds to dangle Missandei’s decomposing head over the balcony, dropping it several stories below once more. Dany absolutely loses it. She attempts to close the distance and fry Cersei personally, but the Mountain assists her in disappearing into the bowels of the Red Keep. Qybern takes the brunt and could actually get eaten alive by the dragon, T-Rex style. Something gruesome.
Here’s where it gets interesting. She’s intercepted by Jaime, who urges her to carry out his secret plan. The Hound and the Mountain can fight to the death somehow, separating from the Lannister couple along the way. As Jaime and Cersei reach the beach, around the corner emerges Bronn. He’s come to cash in his chips, ordered by Tyrion in private to kill both of them.
This would preserve Tyrion’s arc without telegraphing the move. Jaime’s arc is still ruined, but at least it’s in favor of an unexpected twist. Above ground, Dany torches the city as Tyrion looks on. Arya’s trajectory remains the same, dodging flames and rubble. She still runs into the mother of the year. That mother still expires. But the child holding the white horse escapes, her fate unknown.
And next week, the big payoff comes. We know Dany’s got to die, and I’ve got the perfect candidate. The little girl somehow reconnects with Arya, and hatches a plan as her protege. The long play of the girl following in Arya’s retribution minded footsteps is plausible played out over a flash forward. Only she’d be able to kill her prized target - Dany. That’d entail Dany taking the throne for what seems like the end of the episode.
The girl could also presumably get close enough to Dany, seeing as she’ll undoubtedly be starved for love in any form. What could be more disarming and adorable than the girl coming to meet her new queen, who happens to be starving for affection? Think Braveheart girl, only she’s got a flower in one hand and a dagger in the other.
What’d be more plausible -- the girl letting Arya borrow her face for a few minutes. Once Dany’s dead, there’s obviously a clash. Northern loyalists join forces with Yara and company. I’m not sure who wins, but I’d love to see a Stark girl take the throne. But knowing the way this season’s gone, I’m not getting my hopes up.