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In Defense of ‘Game of Thrones’: Episode 5, “The Bells”

Note: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones’ most recent episode, and the entire series to date

There have been a lot of repeated, conventional criticisms of the current, final season of Game of Thrones, and I happen to agree with a whole lot of them.

The season’s storytelling has been way too rushed, as it might have been better to have 10 60-minute episodes than six 90-minute ones. It was, indeed, impossible to tell what the hell was going on on screen in that White Walkers battle episode. The show has been way too flippant about, essentially, wiping out entire ethnic groups, such as the Dothraki and wildlings. That Sansa Stark speech about rape having made her stronger was horrendous. And of course, they somehow left a friggin’ coffee cup in a scene without anyone noticing.

However, I can’t agree with the consensus from fans of the show about the most recent episode, “The Bells.” What happened in the episode, especially in the Daenerys plot, makes perfect sense within the world of the show, and is absolutely true to her as a character.

The Mad Queen

In Sunday’s 5th episode of the season, Daenerys, who has been on a series-long quest to retake the Iron Throne, made like her father, “The Mad King,” in essentially burning King’s Landing to the ground, in the process ignoring a full surrender from Queen Cersei and mowing down thousands of innocent civilians.

The sudden turn outraged many fans of the show, who have been rooting for  Daenerys for the last 8 seasons, and believed it out of character for the “breaker of chains” to commit genocide via dragon. Others believe the switch by Dany – what pro wrestling fans would deem a “heel turn”- wasn’t backed up by enough character development.

I think those people are wrong.

Fire and Blood

I agree with Beth Elderkin‘s piece in Gizmodo, which was much more level-headed than most reactions to the episode.

Throughout the entire run of Game of Thrones, including her multiyear, mid-series plot in Slaver’s Bay, Daenerys has sought to solve problems with politics and leadership, has failed at doing so, and has then instead solved those problems by killing her enemies with fire. Sure, these have often been memorable, satisfying and crowd-pleasing moments, especially when the people getting burned alive have been slavers, White Walkers, or other loathsome bad guys.

But make no mistake about it – Dany has killed many, many people, throughout the series, and they haven’t all necessarily deserved to die.

She’s always been driven equally by a desire to be a good and just ruler, and by an unquenchable desire to reclaim the throne. In this case, the latter won out.

And once again, Dany’s turn hasn’t come out of nowhere. The season, rushed as it’s been, has given Daenerys a series of setbacks and traumas – the deaths of her second dragon and of her friends Jorah and Missandei, the knowledge of Jon Snow’s true parentage that could threaten her claim to the throne – that had driven her to the point of wanting to burn everything down. She even said out loud, in the 5th episode, that she knew she wouldn’t be loved, so her best bet was to be feared.

This isn’t to say that Daenerys is a purely evil character. She’s always been driven equally by a desire to be a good and just ruler, and by an unquenchable desire to reclaim the throne. In this case, the latter won out.

You could say the same thing about Jaime Lannister’s character arc, which has also been lambasted by some watchers. For the entire series, just about everything drew him to Cersei, even when other impulses drove him to try to be a better man. They fought last season, Jaime decided he needed to fight the White Walkers, but once that battle was over, it would have almost been untrue to the series for the two to not die together.

War is Hell

Beyond everything about the characters, I believe the creators are making a point about war itself, especially in the brutality of the King’s Landing scenes. When there’s a war, in real life, that’s what happens. A whole lot of innocent people get killed, pointlessly and bloodily. No matter what any government says about extraordinary measures being taken to avoid civilian casualties, that’s never quite how it goes.

As for Dany’s statement that she’ll rid the world of tyrants, and later herself becoming a tyrant? Welcome to the trajectory of just about every coup, anywhere in the world, in the last hundred years.

The Sins of the Father

Fans of Dany are starting to sound an awful lot like fans of Tony Soprano or Walter White, the sorts of people who are so blinded by the realities of the show they love, or perhaps just conditioned to root for protagonists, that they don’t realize their hero has done some monstrous things over the years.

…the people making this argument are starting to sound a bit like the “George Lucas raped my childhood” crowd, in vilifying show creators…

Then there’s the reaction by some fans that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have “ruined” the vision of author George R.R. Martin.

First, you can’t possibly know what Martin’s vision was, or which parts of the post-books portion of the series were him and which were Benioff and Weiss. To do either is to assume facts not in evidence. Secondly, the people making this argument are starting to sound a bit like the “George Lucas raped my childhood” crowd, in vilifying show creators when, let’s not forget, they also created and supervised the show you loved in the first place. (Benioff and Weiss, naturally, are next directing a Star Wars movie, set for release in 2022).

Then there’s the argument that it’s somehow sexist or gendered to show a female character in a violent, murderous rage. Now, I absolutely respect that a lot of show’s fans, especially women, have related to the Daenarys character for the last several years, and even admired her. Others have written that they related to Dany for another reason, as someone who was struggling with the legacy of mental illness in her family, which I can respect as well.

…another repeated theme of the series has been children repeating the mistakes and misdeeds of their fathers.

But in the world of Game of Thrones, mass killings have more often than not been a male thing, from the Red Wedding to the various war crimes carried out by The Mountain. And of course, we know a man (the character’s own father!) who  also planned on a “burn them all” sack of King’s Landing.

It’s something that’s been mentioned repeatedly throughout the series, even though The Mad King is a character we’ve never met. And another repeated theme of the series has been children repeating the mistakes and misdeeds of their fathers.

Speaking of fathers…

This assurance, first off, isn’t true. Benioff’s father, Stephen Friedman, was chairman of Goldman in the early ’90s, but does not hold that job currently. But even if he did, I’m not exactly sure what bearing it has on anything happening on Game of Thrones, as if we’re supposed to judge artists by what job their parents have, or used to have.

And besides, when Benioff wrote the classic 2002 film The 25th Hour, or when he wrote and produced the early Game of Thrones seasons and episodes that everyone loved, he was still, at that time, the son of a former chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Game of Thrones: Endgame

Will Game of Thrones stick the landing on Sunday? I have no idea, nor do I offer any predictions about how things will end. But I will say that Game of Thrones has never been a show about heroes winning, evil being punished, or power being wielded responsibly and honorably. Those who thought it was, appear to have been watching a different series – and a different Daenerys Targaryen – than the rest of us for the last 8 seasons.

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