Daenarys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, burned King’s Landing last night. Game of Thrones has hinted for two seasons that this might be coming. But the final devastating gut punch of “The Bells,” which I certainly didn’t see coming, was she burned the city after it surrendered.
That moment up on the wall, when the bells tolled the city’s submission, was one of Emilia Clarke’s finest. The script has not given her a great deal to work with, this season or last. And Clarke poured her all into the wordless scene of Daenerys’ spirit finally and utterly breaking. Two of her dragons — her children — are dead. Her fleets and armies have suffered several egregious defeats since arriving in Westeros. Virtually all her close friends and advisors are either dead, unreliable failures, or (in her eyes) traitors. It was as if, in some bleak secret mental place, she’d already decided this could not end in any way except fire and blood. Her ability to imagine an alternative had already been closed off. Then, in that last moment when the chance of another ending became possible, she discovered she no longer had it within herself to grasp hold of it. Daenerys’ face was that of someone knowingly and deliberately committing spiritual suicide.
There was also a brutal realpolitik logic to Daenerys’ decision. As she told Jon, she has no love in Westeros. As much as Daenerys’ troubled and sometimes brutal rule of Meereen resembled George W. Bush’s messianic disaster in Iraq — and that in itself was foreshadowing — she was loved there. Even in Westeros, had she taken King’s Landing without bloodshed, she might have yet earned that love. But the wild card of Jon’s own Targaryen ancestry and claim to the Iron Throne ruined it all. As Varys’ turn against Daenerys demonstrated, even a peaceful end to the siege would immediately give way to efforts to depose her. If Daenerys was to rule Westeros, it could only be by fear. And like many would-be liberators before her, Daenerys essentialized herself, obliterating all distinctions between deliverance for the people and her own ascension to power. Truman dropped the atomic bomb and incinerated hundreds of thousands of innocents not only to end World War II, but to put the Russians in their place and cement the new post-war balance of power. Only by burning King’s Landing to the ground could Daenerys inspire the awe and terror that would secure her rule.
But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s acknowledge the episode’s (and the season’s, and the show’s) problems. Daenerys’ moral unraveling, as riveting as it is as an idea, was never given the space it needed to breath and unfurl. Similarly, her love story with Jon, which should have played as sweeping star-crossed tragedy, has felt obligatory and truncated. Varys’ execution, which should have been the climax of an episode itself, was shoved through “The Bells” as a table-setter. (Though once again, Conleth Hill and Peter Dinklage played the hell out of the scene.) The Ironborn fleet and its massive scorpion crossbows, which had been built up as an existential threat to Daenerys’ army and her dragons, were magically reduced to cinders in a few short minutes. And what, in the end, was the point of Euron Greyjoy, other than as a half-assed retread of Ramsay Bolton?
At this point, I think we all know what happened. George R.R. Martin bit off more than he could chew with the sheer scope of his epic, leaving himself unable to finish the source material ahead of the show. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as the showrunners, found themselves five seasons deep, and still stuck in a bloated second act that would require another five or six seasons to really finish off properly. That would’ve been a herculean effort by everyone involved, even before you factor in the massive budgetary size Game of Thrones has achieved. Instead, they just blitzkrieged through the last three seasons, providing the sketch of an epic narrative rather than the deliberate, meaty storytelling of the early seasons.
Benioff and Weiss also had to improvise a great deal. And while they seem like capable storytellers in the classic Hollywood mold, they don’t have Martin’s instinct for knife twisting, or his weird combination of compassion and merciless pessimism for human nature. Like a lot of people, I was looking forward to the final showdown the Hound and the Mountain. It was visually arresting, shot through the dust-filtered sunlight in the stairwell of a collapsing castle. And I appreciated how Sandor Clegane managed to endure and thwart the same skullcrusher move that killed Oberyn Martell. But in the end, watching Cleganebowl felt like eating a Snickers bar: enjoyable in the moment, but bereft of nutritional value.
Far more poignant was Sandor’s final moment with Arya. The show has relentlessly teased us this season: Do these two characters actually care for one another, or was their’s really just a camaraderie of cynical convenience, as they kept insisting? Yet in the end it was the Hound who turned Arya, the human missile, from her quest for vengeance. The youngest Stark sister has always been a fan favorite for her badassery, but it’s more in keeping with Game of Thrones’ spirit to acknowledge the sadness and meaninglessness that would lie at the end of her assassin’s quest. Unlike Daenerys, Arya could still imagine a different future. You could see the change in Maisie Williams’ body and breath as her character contemplated simply dropping her long-cherished list of names, and found she could bear it. And her final “thank you” to Clegane — like Bran Stark’s similar benediction to Theon Greyjoy — was an achingly simple and human moment unveiled at the end of a long road of suffering.
Another genuinely wise move by Benioff and Weiss was to use Arya as the audience’s point of engagement in the midst of the carnage of King’s Landing. I don’t think Arya has ever been more sympathetic than she was in “The Bells,” repeatedly trying and failing to save the people in the streets. Daenerys disappeared from the action after she made her fateful choice, becoming a kind of natural disaster, bringing death from the skies as the camera kept its focus on the everyday citizens, providing us nameless-but-recognizable faces to hold onto and grieve. Game of Thrones has had its moral stumbles, but this unremitting focus on the people who bear the cost of their rulers’ gambits was an admirable choice, if also almost too punishing.
Now, about Cersei: Count me as someone who thought for sure Jamie would have to kill his sister and lover in order to save the city. But the more I ruminate on Cersei’s fate, the more appropriate it seems. After all her masterful calculations, her ruthless elimination of her enemies at the Sept of Baelor, and the sheer scope of her cruelties, Cersei deflated like a popped balloon last night. There would be no final clash with Daenerys, no defiant build-up to an unrepentant end. The very hatred Cersei had festered betrayed her: The Mountain, even in his undead state, abandoned her to pursue his vendetta against his brother, shockingly killing Qyburn — his own creator and Cersei’s right-hand man — in the process. Down in the bowels of the Red Keep, her final escape blocked and doomed to die in a shower of rubble, Cersei finally became recognizable: Desperate for life, grieving for her unborn child. In no way did she earn the grace that fell to others like Theon and Melisandre. But the show forced us to ultimately see Cersei, not as a monster, but as a human, wretched and pitiable.
Jamie did not fare so well. He was another victim of the show’s mad rush to reach its ending while packing everything in, yanked back and forth across the Westerosi continent, and between his divided loyalties to Brienne and Cersei. I buy that Jamie would ultimately choose the latter. And it was moving that his final words to Cersei were a request that she look at him, really see him, present there for her (just as the Hound had asked of Arya, as it happens) and reassure her one last time that it remained the two of them against the world. It was a subtle end for a man with the legendary reputation of the Kingslayer, but it didn’t really fit with the show’s recent whipsaw treatment of his character. After the writers’ decision to actually have him sleep with Brienne — a plausible but heavy-handed turn — a grand over-the-top love triangle end where Jamie is forced to kill Cersei seemed more fitting.
Jon Snow did not fare well last night, either. In fact, he was rendered utterly impotent, doomed to watch his Queen and her armies betray all the morality and honor he thought they stood for, and butcher the city. But that seemed more appropriate. There is an inherent mockery in the title “Game of Thrones.” The whole point is that the game is a meaningless, decadent preamble; the skills and characteristics required to win the game have nothing to do with the skills and characteristics required to rule well once you’ve actually won. To rule, whether in a Westerosi monarchy or a modern real-world democracy, is to occupy a place of public service, not a meritocratic reward. There are plenty of complaints flying around that Jon is neither particularly strategic or ruthless, and that he’s been routinely bailed out by others (mostly women) who do possess those capabilities. But this misses the point. Assuming those capabilities are valuable to the end goal — a just and lasting order — is precisely the mistake the story sets out to expose. Jon is compassionate, honorable, merciful, which is precisely why Varys understandably wanted him to sit the Iron Throne. (Though preferably with Sansa as his hand, perhaps.) And it’s precisely why Jon was doomed to helplessly watch Daenerys’ slaughter.
All of which brings us, finally, to Tyrion. He actually hasn’t had all that much to do this season, but I think he’s sort of been the heart and soul of things. Tyrion was supposed to be the answer to Jon’s limitations — of good moral character, but also cynical, knowing, technocratic, unromantic, modern. An ugly dwarf and whoring rich kid who defied all the prejudices and stigmas to become the smartest and most valuable man in Westeros. If Tyrion were alive in our world, he would’ve been the most beloved official in the Obama administration. And like everyone in the Obama administration in the post-Trump world, Tyrion has discovered he was sitting atop vast tectonic forces he scarcely understood and could not hope to control. He did defy the odds and become his best self — and in most stories, that would be the climax. But in Game of Thrones, it’s only the second act. The final lesson is that, even for all his victories and intelligence and prowess, Tyrion remains a contingent human with frailties and limits. These last two seasons have seen him hit those walls one after another: His military strategies often failed, he couldn’t save his brother or sister, and finally his effort to guide Daenerys turned out to be about as fruitful as an effort to guide an avalanche. There is so much that, in the end, was simply beyond him — and, by extension, beyond all of us. Forces in the world that set individuals, rulers, armies, cities, and nations on courses they cannot be shoved off, no matter how terrible the ruin at the end.
And yet Tyrion responded to all his failures with unflagging decency. In his powerlessness he found himself anew, in a way. Tyrion’s best moments in “The Bells” were his goodbye to Varys, his thanks to Jamie for the simple gift of brotherly kindness in a cruel world, and his sardonic willingness to risk execution that thousands of innocents might be spared from suffering. In the end, he and Jon were not so different, both of them laid equally low. There is just so much in the world — and in ourselves — that we cannot change.