Monday, May 13, 2019

Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells”

“Let it be fear.” These are Daenerys’s words to Jon after Jon can’t bring himself to return Daenerys’s affections early in the episode, and they are supposed to signal a sea change in her rule of Westeros: if she can’t win their love, then she’ll rule by fear. Much later in “The Bells,” Dany acts on this threat, using Drogon to raze King’s Landing and destroy much of the Red Keep, slaughtering Lannister soldier and innocent Westerosi civilians indiscriminately, despite the Lannister forces and the citizens of King’s Landing ringing the city’s bells midway through the battle to signal their surrender. Dany spares no one, and in doing so, has seemingly become the exact kind of terrible tyrant she always claimed to be fighting to eliminate from the world.

The razing of King’s Landing is suitably harrowing -- more on that below -- but does Daenerys’s motivation really hold up to scrutiny? This episode certainly tries its damnedest to make it seem so. On the one hand, she’s lost nearly all of the advisers who might have tempered her impulses, particularly Jorah, and she’s also grieving the loss of Missandei and Rhaegal. She wants to exact revenge on Cersei for these losses, and that means having Cersei watch as her hostage ploy fails miserably.

Perhaps more significantly, Daenerys also discovers that Jon disobeyed her and spread word about his parentage, further undermining her claim to the throne. She executes Varys (R.I.P.) for switching his loyalties to Jon, but not before Varys has a chance to send ravens to the far corners of Westeros revealing Jon’s claim. Whether or not Dany is aware of Varys’s ravens, she probably assumes that it’s only a matter of time before others in Westeros similarly side with him. Perhaps in that pregnant moment where Dany sits atop Drogon on the ramparts and looks at the Red Keep in the distance, she’s overwhelmed by the frustration of being so close to what she’s long considered her rightful destiny, only to have it seem to slip through her grasp, and decides that the only way she’ll ensure her rule is through fire and terror.

On the other hand, her razing of King’s Landing betrays a lot of what we thought we knew about her character. While Dany has always mercilessly murdered her enemies (Mirri Maz Duur, the leaders of Qarth, slavers, khals, etc.), she’s also usually careful to distinguish her enemies from innocent bystanders. I find it difficult to reconcile the Dany who freed Meereen and crowd-surfed on a wave of grateful former slaves with the Dany who could so wrathfully incinerate the citizens of King’s Landing, no matter how much grief and rage she felt over the loss of those closest to her, or no matter how insecure she was over her right to rule. After all, she locked away Viserion and Rhaegal when she discovered that her adolescent dragons were growing big and strong by feasting on the children of sheep-herders. Yet here, she’s presented with a way to avoid further bloodshed, yet she proceeds to murder everyone anyway. Game of Thrones seemed to settle -- long ago -- the question of whether or not Dany possessed the heredity insanity that has plagued the Targaryen bloodline. Having her seem to succumb to it in "The Bells" smacks of retroactive continuity.

Yet that is precisely what “The Bells” tries to convince us of, making a concerted effort to link Daenerys’s actions to that of her father, Mad King Aerys Targaryen II. She’s essentially following in his footsteps by making good on his threats to destroy King’s Landing during Robert’s Rebellion. As Dany burns the city, we even see pockets wildfire erupt; these are Aerys’s hidden caches, which he intended to use to prevent the city from falling into Robert’s hands. However, no image better distills how “The Bells” twists Daenerys into a mass murderer than the moment where Drogon emerges from the darkness behind Dany when she orders Varys’s execution. There’s no majesty to Drogon here; instead he’s become a hideous beast comprised of fangs and darkness. His looming above Dany suggests that her regality and benevolence has merely been a mask hiding a terrifying monster beneath the surface.

Yet in twisting Daenerys’s character this far, I fear Benioff and Weiss have broken her. It’s fine to have heroes turn into villains – often such characters are richly rewarding because we know where they’re coming from and can see the chain of events that have brought them so low. And there’s certainly potential in turning Dany into a villain, which could be an interesting interrogation of what happens to heroic figures when they are denied what they consider as their heroic destiny. Moreover, Dany’s razing of King’s Landing will likely invest the finale with some high drama (more on that below). However, despite some seeds for Dany's turn being planted in earlier episodes, it still feels far too sudden, far too evil, and far too thinly motivated to withstand the pressure that years of sympathetic behavior have built up. Her villainous turn seems as flimsy as the Red Keep when Dany topples it with dragon fire. This botching of her character is especially ironic, considering that Game of Thrones has been so successful in the past at performing the opposite transformation, turning villains into heroes, particularly Jaime and the Hound.

Speaking of the Hound, he finally faces off with the Mountain in the Clegane Bowl. Unlike Daenerys becoming a mass murderer, everything about this confrontation was wonderful, particularly the setting: Sandor and Gregor fight one another in one of the Red Keep’s spires as the castle crumbles around them. Gregor reminds us of his ridiculous strength when he dashes Qyburn’s (R.I.P.) head open for daring to try to intervene (the Clegane Bowl will not be denied), and once Cersei realizes their fight is not about her, she hilariously slinks past both of them in silence, leaving them to finish their feud in private.

The battle itself is suitably epic. We finally get a clear view of Gregor’s face post-resurrection, and it’s even more disfigured than Sandor's. We also see how Gregor has become even more of a monster than he was when he was fully human, shrugging off what normally would be fatal blows, both to the chest and head. Before Gregor can finish off Sandor with the same skull-crushing move he used on poor Oberyn Martell, Sandor kills them both (R.I.P.) by pushing them through the Red Keep’s crumbling walls and tumbling into the fires far below. Ultimately, Sandor’s two most defining traits -- his hatred of his brother and his fear of fire -- are combined into a single moment of suicidal revenge. If only all Super Bowls were this satisfying.

Even the lead up to the fight is well-written. Sandor convinces Arya to abandon her quest for vengeance, lest she let it ruin her life like he’s let his brother ruin his life. It’s a wonderfully symmetrical moment, because Sandor tries to save Arya in precisely the reverse of the way he tried to save Sansa way back in “Blackwater,” here telling Arya not to go with him, rather than the other way around. It's the most loving thing Sandor can do, and he is rewarded for his efforts by a heartfelt thank you from Arya, one that speaks not only to his urging her away from certain death, but also to all of the time they spent together in the past as well.

So, if Arya has abandoned her quest to kill Cersei, what’s left for her to do in this episode? She must scramble to stay alive in the thick of Daenerys’s razing of the city, driving home the horror of Daenerys's wrath. Despite the flimsy motivation behind her bloodthirstiness, Daenerys’s assault is mostly well-conceived and executed (with one caveat, discussed below). From the moment Dany decides to raze the city, she disappears from the episode, her presence implied only through shots of Drogon flying around and burning people and things to the ground. It’s a fitting way to depict Daenerys from here out: she’s abandoned her humanity, thus she’s represented by a monster for the remainder. And Drogon truly is shot like a monster in this battle. It’s a huge departure from “The Spoils of War,” where Dany riding Drogon into battle is a gloriously cathartic moment of triumph. In “The Bells,” outside of the moment where she decides to raze the city, we hardly see any clear shots of her riding her dragon, or any shots that allow us to more easily sympathize with Drogon. Instead, we most often seem him from ground level, flying by in a flash and leaving destruction in his wake, just like how the people of King’s Landing see him. He’s absolutely terrifying, and it helps that one of the series’ most beloved characters is imperiled by his devastation.

The one caveat to my praise for this sequence (aside from the problems with Dany’s motivation) is her swift elimination of the scorpion crossbows. She simply dodges the first volley of crossbow fire and then roasts them all when they’re reloading. Why bother establishing these weapons as such a grave threat by having them kill Rhaegal in “The Last of the Starks” if Dany is so easily able eliminate the Iron Fleet and dispatch the crossbows lining the walls of King’s Landing here in “The Bells”? Dany’s initial assault was almost totally devoid of suspense, which seems like a real missed opportunity. Moreover, Drogon’s domination also makes the supposed evening of Cersei and Daenerys’s military forces into yet another contrivance. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all that the Night King took out half of the northern forces and Dany’s armies, nor does Rhaegal’s death matter all that much either, since Drogon is more than enough to easily destroy nearly everyone and everything. As soon as Dany flew behind King’s Landing’s defenses, this battle was over. Dothraki and Unsullied need not apply.*

* Rhaegal's death does have one effect: it prevents Jon from riding him into battle here, which would have forced Jon to make a choice about whether or not to try to prevent Dany from razing the city. Were he to follow his Queen, he would be complicit in the slaughter, tarnishing his heroism. Were he to try to resist her, then the conflict that seems earmarked for the finale would need to play out here instead. However, this problem is avoided entirely if Jon can do nothing but watch as Dany makes up her mind.

“The Bells” also answers my questions about Jaime’s intentions in returning to Cersei. Evidently, he was returning to try to save her rather than kill her. Jaime is captured by Dany’s forces, which yields one touching, final scene between him and Tyrion, where Tyrion thanks Jaime for being a decent brother. However, the scene is most notable for paralleling a similar scene from season four’s “The Mountain and the Viper,” where Jaime visited an imprisoned Tyrion. The only difference is that here, Tyrion does more for Jaime than Jaime was willing to do for Tyrion. Back then, Jaime was unwilling to betray Cersei and side with Tyrion, but here, Tyrion betrays Dany’s orders to give Jaime a chance to spare King’s Landing from Daenerys’s wrath, even though Tyrion knows it means Daenerys will likely execute him for betraying her.

Of course, Jaime fails in his quest, just like he failed in his quest to protect the Stark girls when Catelyn similarly freed him from captivity so many years ago. On his way to the Red Keep he encounters Euron, and the two fight to the death. It’s fitting to have these two characters confront one another, since Euron is more or less a version of the character Jaime used to be when the series began: cocky, arrogant, cruel, convinced of his own cleverness, and hot for Cersei. When Jaime finally kills him (R.I.P.), it’s like Jaime’s ultimate repudiation of his former villainous self. Yet it also makes Jaime and Cersei’s final scenes that much more underwhelming.

Once Jaime finally gets past Euron, he encounters a now entourage-less Cersei (standing, ironically, atop her giant map of Westeros, the Red Keep crumbling around her), and escorts her to the cellar, only to find their escape path blocked by rubble. They die holding one another as the Red Keep collapses on top of them (R.I.P.). While it is certainly appropriate that Jaime and Cersei die together -- Cersei has always been Jaime’s Achilles heel -- their deaths fail to deliver any of the emotional beats I had hoped for. Cersei’s death tries to revive whatever dregs of sympathy viewers might still have for her by once again leaning hard on her lone redeeming trait: her love for her children. She sobs to Jaime about not wanting to die, and about wanting their unborn baby to live.

However, the scene fails to solicit my sympathy (and thus fails overall) because Game of Thrones has done such a wonderful long-term job of making an ostensibly pitiable character like Cersei into such a loathsome villain. The scales have been tipped far too heavily toward her antipathy for too long a time (ever since Tommen took a nosedive out of the Red Keep) for me to want anything for Cersei other than a miserable death, preferably one where she’s forced to acknowledge that her fate is a product of her own foolish spitefulness (which could have been accomplished by, say, having Dany making a bee-line for the Keep and flying Drogon down her throat, rather than stopping to burn every building between them first). The closest “The Bells” comes to Cersei making such a realization is when she watches Drogon begin to raze the city, and her smug satisfaction freezes into a rictus of incomprehension. Tears stream down her cheeks, but she’s crying for the end of her rule, not because she realizes that she was once again the architect of her own suffering. This is far from the cathartic demise I had hoped for.

Cersei and Jaime’s death scene also does a disservice to Jaime, who dies holding Cersei, soothing her panic by telling her that nothing else matters but them. Perhaps Jaime is just trying to calm her before their inevitable death, but there’s also some truth to it, considering that he returned to save her. By soothing Cersei in this way, they both exhibit the same shortsightedness that plagued them from the beginning of the series. While Jaime might not fully believe anymore that nothing else matters but them, and while there is some poetic irony in having them reconfirm the ethos that has both literally and figuratively led to the collapse of everything else around them, it’s frustrating to see these characters seem to revert back to square one, as if they have learned nothing from these past eight seasons. The obvious falsity of their belief that nothing else matters is little compensation for it seeming to undermine the character growth we’ve seen Jaime undergo. Rather than providing an opportunity to demonstrate his change in character (like with his murder of Euron), instead the scene has him giving in, once again, to his inexplicable love for his largely wretched sister.

In fact, none of the Lannister siblings come off particularly well in this episode. The writing has been doing Tyrion a disservice for a long time. He’s remained quick-witted, but his cleverness hasn’t served him well very as Daenerys’s adviser: his rule of Meereen in Dany’s absence was disaster, as was his plan of attack once they arrived in Westeros, and he was thoroughly duped by Cersei at the summit concluding season seven. It’s little wonder Dany is loathe to listen to his pleas not to slaughter the people of King’s Landing, since so little of his council has been useful in the past. When Tyrion reveals Varys’s betrayal, Dany rightly tells Tyrion that Sansa played him for a fool, hoping Tyrion would begin to doubt Dany, and spread the truth of Jon’s claim, which is precisely what Tyrion did. Tyrion never should have told Varys, and wouldn’t have, if he truly believed in Daenerys.

Certainly Daenerys’s razing of King’s Landing will give him even further cause for doubt, and he won’t be alone. After all, we see hints of doubt in the sidelong glances Jon gives Dany when she murders Varys. Murdering to protect the realm is one thing, but murdering to protect a lie about your right to power is something else. The horror of her rampage only seems to bolster those doubts. Along with Arya, who didn’t trust her to begin with, all three seemed poised to turn on her in the finale. It would be fitting for Game of Thrones to end with complex characters once again on opposite sides of a conflict. I just wish that the writers had arrived at such a scenario without subjecting Daenerys to such wild contortions. Hopefully the ends will justify the means, and the fates of the remaining characters will be more satisfying than those of Cersei and Jaime, but after an uneven final season (to say the least), my own mounting doubts are increasingly harder to ignore.

Other thoughts:

- For all of Varys’s foresight and spycraft, he seems a bit foolish to so swiftly and obviously switch his allegiances, and especially so for testing the waters with Jon in full view of Tyrion. I suppose he trusted his friendship with Tyrion to safeguard him from betrayal, but he more or less broadcast his intention to spread Jon’s claim in “The Last of the Starks.” Seeing Varys approach Jon at the start of this episode simply confirmed Tyrion’s need to inform Dany.

- Dany asks Jon: “Is that all I am to you? Your Queen?” Me, yelling at my television: “You’re also his aunt.”

- Dany’s razing of King’s Landing also parallels some of Westeros’s ancient history. When Aegon the Conqueror (the original Targaryen ruler) first arrived in Westeros, his first move was to use his dragons to blast Harrenhal to ruins. History repeats itself.

- Some nice stylistic touches in that moment where Dany hears the bells and struggles with whether or not to continue her attack. First, we get a shot/reverse-shot sequence implying that Cersei and Daenerys are starting each other down across the vast distance between them. Second, shots of Jon and Tyrion waiting to see what Dany will do each hints at where their sympathies lie: they each face screen right, seeming to align them in opposition to Dany, who is facing screen left.

- Arya's makeup is excellent when she's scrambling to stay alive amidst the slaughter. By covering her in powdery gray debris from the rubble, the makeup deliberately invokes 9/11 imagery, thus increasing the entire sequence's effectiveness by subtly linking its horror to real-life horrors. Another nice touch: through the haze of the battle, she even resembles Ned at some points.

- For as horrific as this episode is, it still manages to sneak in some humor by returning to that old, reliable wellspring of Tyrion trying to speak Valyrian.

- The scene where Dany warns Tyrion not to fail her again has some nice use of Dany’s musical motif: it’s subtle but full of menace, much like Dany.

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