“The Bells” S8 E5
Ok, friends. Let’s talk about authenticity. We throw the word around like it’s confetti at a wedding; still, it retains value. One of the major disconnects between the American people and the American political system is that the ruling class are, for the most part, at a loss when it comes to presenting themselves as authentic persons to the electorate. Say what you will about the tyrant-in-chief, at the very least the person he presents himself as is an authentic representation of what he feels and believes!
In contrast, the tyrant that is now the final villain on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has, in one episode, become one of the most inauthentic characters in modern television. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
In the most contemptable moment in “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen has achieved the triumph she’s dreamed about since the first episode of the series. She’s conquered King’s Landing, squashed the insurgency in her ranks, and all but assured that she would be the uncontested ruler of Westeros. She has won the lowercase game of thrones. And she decides to lay waste to King’s landing anyway. In a terrifying and well-composed homage to the original 1954 “Gojira,” the episode abruptly shifts to the point of view of the common folk as an unstoppable reptilian beast rains fire upon them as if compelled by divine providence. It’s great visual storytelling; it’s also gratuitous and horrifying. So much for the dragon-killing bows made out to be game-changing last week —they’re wiped out without explanation, alongside Dany’s empathy and sense.
Sure, the series has long hinted that this might happen, in fact, multiple times in the episode the storytelling goes out of its way to remind the audience that indeed, this outcome was foreshadowed. But that underlining and reminding betray a weakness: Dany’s madness wasn’t a realistic possibility until a few hours ago. Her potential for tyranny was winking in the distance, in a direction that the show was galloping away from. She was more likely to lose than to turn heel completely, and “Game of Thrones” is not professional wrestling. This isn’t meant to be cheap thrills — that’s what made it different.
Her love of the impoverished and oppressed, on the other hand, was an ironclad truth —it’s what made her a character worth loving. Throwing it away in an instant only to justify another reversal of fortune, another turn of the wheel she vowed to break, isn’t just a slap in the face — it undermines the work the storytellers put in for the past eight years and takes for granted the attention that people have paid to the narrative. Maybe there’s some message here about how absolute power corrupts, and how the hearts of rulers are weak and fickle. If that’s the subtext, it’s barely sketched out at all.
But foreshadowing is foreshadowing, and this turn might be forgivable if it didn’t relegate characters who were even more lovingly detailed and fleshed out to the garbage heap. Jaime and Cersei, undone by an all too convenient pile of rubble, die a quick and meaningless death. Sure they exit the world the way they came in, but a carnival mirror is not a rich thematic arc. Jon Snow, the ostensible protagonist, King Arthur with immaculate facial hair and pouting lips, might as well not be a part of the story at all. Davos Seaworth accomplishes nothing. Euron Greyjoy barely gets a one-liner in. Lord Varys hatches an incompetent coup in one scene and five minutes later is dismissed from service and the plot — his death by burning looks gorgeous but it’s the equivalent of having him slapped. Tyrion Lannister, whose actor has top billing, consigns his brother, best friend, and himself to almost certain death for no conceivable reason. Because of all these failures, Dany’s rampage became the only thing that matters in the story any longer, and that’s not the richly layered thematic storytelling that this series made its mark with.
All’s not lost, however. for the fifth episode in a row, Masie Williams’ Arya Stark continues to become a more interesting and lovable character. She and Sandor Clegane, like Dany, fell right into foreshadowed plot lines — her turn away from revenge, and his fight to the death with his zombified brother. Unlike Dany’s, their arcs didn’t need to be telegraphed and felt both real and compelling. The long-awaited Cleganebowl, set in a staircase to oblivion in the collapsing Red Keep, is a triumph. Arya’s attempts to rescue a few citizens of King’s landing from a fiery demise may have been futile, but they hinted at a character whose belief in the value of human life has been reaffirmed by her close shaves with supernatural death. Hers is the hero’s journey; she’s returned from the brink of monstrosity wiser, but not godlike.
George R.R. Martin has supposedly outlined parts of the end of his series, which the showrunners have used to create the end of “Game of Thrones.” I can only assume that Arya and The Hound’s arc come right from his mind. And if they don’t, let’s hope he takes the hint, Martin hasn’t finished a book since the series began. One might cynically assume that, like his wiliest characters, he’s waiting and watching to see where lesser minds make mistakes in order not to repeat them. Here’s hoping that’s the case, and “A Song of Ice and Fire” can deliver justice to Daenerys Targaryen.