Game of Thrones Book Reader Review: The Whimpers and Bangs of 'The Bells'
This was the last word spoken in the previous episode. It’s the last thing Missandei ever said to Daenerys. It’s what Daenerys said to burn the masters in Astapor and free Missandei. It’s what she taught her dragons in do to feed themselves, and then save her in the House of the Undying. It’s what she said when she executed Randyll and Dickon Tarly. It’s what she used to command Drogon to burn the army of the dead. It’s a command that has a variety of contexts; aggression, protection, defense, liberation. It has always served her well, at least in her own understanding. When reading the books I thought that I’d be happy with a story that saw Daenerys never get close to the Iron Throne. Where she liberated all the slaves in Essos, from Astapor to Volantis, and never gazed across the narrow sea. What’s so great about Westeros? Why be a queen when you can be a legend? But all characters need a fatal flaw, and the desire for the Iron Throne is certainly both fatal and flawed.
We open with Varys writing letters revealing Jon’s true identity, and discussing his plot to poison Daenerys with one of his ‘little birds.’ Dany isn’t eating. Is it paranoia when they really are out to get you? We don’t see if Varys has sent out any of his letters, but we do see him greet Jon and start trying to turn Jon to his plan to depose Daenerys. Jon is sticking with Dany. Tyrion, watching this meeting, decides it’s time to come clean to Dany. But she already knows. For someone who we’re meant to see as experiencing a descent into madness, Daenerys has a stunningly good grasp of reality at this point. What she does not have is mercy for traitors. Varys is brought to the beach where Tyrion confesses that he was the one who sold Varys out. The two share a goodbye, after years of history together. They’ve not always been friendly, but they’ve always seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Dany steps forward and calmly sentences Varys to death as Drogon growls above her. Steadily, she says “Dracarys” and Drogon complies. Fire removes Varys from the earth, just as in the next scene fire destroys the last possession of Missandei, the collar that used to bind her. Before the fire Daenerys confronts Jon about his choice to tell his sisters who he is, and how it happened exactly as she said it would. Standing in front of the fire, he pledges his allegiance to her but cannot be with her the way she wants. His heart has turned. “Let it be fear.” Fire can be warm and comforting, even life-giving in the right circumstances. Unless it gets out of control.
Tyrion is in the throne room pleading with Dany to spare the city, but Daenerys knows that Cersei is counting on them not to be willing to harm the citizens to win the war. Again, she’s not wrong that Cersei has weaponized the citizens of King’s Landing against her on the presumption that she won’t want to harm them. She also informs Tyrion that Jaime has been caught trying to sneak back into King’s Landing, trying to get back to Cersei. Tyrion had vouched for Jaime previously, saying he had abandoned Cersei. Dany warns Tyrion that this mistake needs to be his last. Jaime’s not the only one on the way to King’s Landing, citizens are still pouring into the gates and the Northern forces are camped on the beach. Arya and the Hound have also arrived at the city. Feels like Arya and the Hound should have gotten there before Jaime? But I’ve spent enough time complaining about the messy timelines on this show. It does seem like it’s been a month, at most, since the battle of Winterfell. In a month (maybe) Daenerys has lost half of her armies, two of her closest advisors and oldest friends, another dragon, and has figured out that her own current advisor and Hand have lost faith in her and one tried to poison her. It’s been a rough time.
Jaime is being held by the Unsullied, and Tyrion goes to visit him for another of their brotherly chats about Cersei. Tyrion is willing to let Jaime go if Jaime will convince Cersei to surrender, but Jaime rightly points out that he’s never been able to convince Cersei of anything. Tyrion persists in believing that her pregnancy means she’ll suddenly be open to failure. It’s a new kind of sexism for Tyrion to assume that pregnancy will turn his sister into an entirely different person and disregard literally EVERY single action she’s taken up to this point just because she’s got a bun in the oven. He’s been fucking up a lot lately, and this is one of the most egregious examples. He keeps thinking that if he just gives Cersei one more chance she’ll see reason and Cersei keeps… being Cersei. If he does not have the stomach to see Dany violently depose his sister the time to figure that out was before he became her Hand. It’s a touching scene between these two brothers, who we’ve seen a lot of over the years. But it’s not hitting any new beats and considering what happens in this episode I wish we’d spent some more time elsewhere.
Out on the Blackwater Bay we get to see that those scorpions are actually pretty onerous to load and aim! Who knew? Weird how it seemed super easy last week, right? Almost like last week they had to get rid of a dragon to make this week more tense, but THIS week we need to think that there might be a lag in reloading and firing them. The citizens of King’s Landing are fleeing into homes and into the Red Keep. So are Arya and the Hound. The last time Arya was in this city she was desperately trying to escape the Red Keep and then out to the country beyond. Now she’s retracing her steps. Jaime has also slipped into the city, right past the Golden Company headed out to guard the gates. The Unsullied and Northern forces are amassed across from the Golden Company. Tyrion reminding Jon to call off the men if the bells ring in surrender. Cersei strides to her balcony overlooking the interior of the Red Keep, confident and calm as she observes the mass of humanity in the courtyard below. Arya and the Hound make it into the Red Keep, Jaime does not.
Out on the water Euron (ugh) spots something in front of the sun. Coming directly out of the light is Daenerys on Drogon, plummeting towards Blackwater Bay in a straight dive, before leveling out and torching the ships. While the men struggle (!) to turn the scorpion (!!) she makes another pass. Before they can reload (!!!) she takes out Silence and cruises right up to the walls of King’s Landing, drawing the bolts there. As the scorpions reload, she lights them up. At the gate, two armies face each other, both waiting. Suddenly the ground starts shaking, and the gate collapses behind the Golden Company in an explosion of fire. Dany’s united forces charge through the breech and start mowing down Lannister guards. More scorpions go down as Dany cruises the walls of the city. In the Red Keep, Cersei watches the burning ramparts and starts to look worried. Tyrion strides among the dead soldiers deep in thought, as though he’s never been in a war before. Qyburn tries to tell Cersei that it’s over. The scorpions are destroyed, the Iron Fleet is burning, the gates are down. Cersei maintains her confidence but her voice isn’t as strong as it has been. Dany lands Drogon. Jon stares down the Lannister army. They surrender. People start yelling for the queen to ring the bells. Dany, perched on Drogon, gazes around the city and stares at the Red Keep. Her face is a mask of anger, giving way to something that looks like uncertainty as the moments draw out. Finally, the bells begin to ring. On Drogon Dany’s face betrays nothing but tension. She starts to sob, and then sets her face and steers Drogon over the city towards the Red Keep. We see the image from Bran’s vision, of a dragon over King’s Landing, and then the fire starts.
Daenerys has certainly always been capable of great acts of violence, but she has shown a lot of discernment in how and when she deployed that violence. Burning the masters in Astapor. Crucifying slavers in Meereen. Burning the Khals in Vaes Dothrak. And those were the acts of general violence, rather than the specific punishments we suffered by Viserys, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the Tarlys, and in this episode Varys. Even there, though, she’s no worse than most of the other characters in terms of the harm they’ve inflicted on other characters. She has never resorted to violence for the sake of violence, and her targets have always been clearly chosen for a reason. She showed discernment with how she used that violence tonight. At first. There was a chance in there. After she’d taken out the ships and most of the scorpions, and burned down the gate to let her forces into the city. A moment in that calm to let one lone bolt fly into Drogon. Not even a fatal strike, but something that would trigger a panic response in her, and then rage. Same outcome, but a more interesting character moment. Even targeting just the Red Keep would have been more logical but still would have required them to grapple with the question of a lot of dead civilians in the aftermath. Instead, they leaned HARD into the “Nope, she’s just crazy” interpretation, didn’t they? I don’t want to hear about anything discussed in the Inside the Episode featurette, Benioff and Weiss wrote this episode themselves. Anything they wanted to happen on screen happened. And there was nothing that happened that would clearly show us why Daenerys would suddenly and without provocation turn Drogon on the innocent civilians of King’s Landing. There was a way to get her there, but like so many other stories this season it was short changed. Up until now she has grown more alone, more afraid, and more desperate. But she has also been shown using reason, clearly understanding her circumstances, and demonstrating at least a modicum of political insight. Deciding to burn them all, after the bells ring in surrender, seems like somewhere she was approaching but hadn’t gotten there yet. Except that the end requires her to be here. Dragonfire built King’s Landing, and now it’s undoing it.
Rather than write “and then more people got burned” a few dozen times, I’ll just touch on the other major plots happening amongst the destruction of the city.
Jaime tries to sneak backward into King’s Landing but is found by Euron (ugh). The two fight it out there on the rocks of the bay, with Jaime sustaining a mortal wound and Euron (ugh) finally dying. I realize these things are subjective, but I don’t think this fight was 1. necessary or 2. needed to take this long. I think we all would’ve been fine assuming Euron (ugh) had been burned up. But sure, give him the glamour shot as he dies. Whatever.
Cersei finally seems to be grasping how desperate her situation has become, as Drogon begins strafing the Red Keep. It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the Great Hall was taken out which means there may be no more Iron Throne. After seasons of Cersei choosing violence, finding strength in unwinnable situations, it looks like she’s come up against something she has no response to.
Arya, on the cusp of getting to Cersei, is talked out of her mission by Sandor. After years, she seems to understand that there is no future in vengeance. She turns away, while he heads into the castle and finds Cersei and her retinue in mid-escape. He easily dispatches her other guards and then calls for The Mountain. Even as an undead zombie The Mountain knowns he hates his brother and dispatches Qyburn when he tries to interfere. (Qyburn should’ve died harder. Yes, I think he should’ve died harder than having his head unceremoniously smashed in by his own undead golem. That looked relatively quick and painless.) Sandor allows Cersei to slink past him, alone and unguarded, as he approaches the man he’s spent his life hating. Or at least what’s left of him. If The Mountain was hard to kill before he died, it hasn’t gotten any easier since then. But we do get a look at The Mountain and his head is not Robb Stark’s decaying skull. (Book reader thing, don’t worry about it.) It’s a brutal fight, showcased in a way that will make everyone who was looking forward to Cleganebowl thrilled. It’s an ending, but at least it’s an ending where the story was told long enough ago that we’re not trying to catch up as it’s happening. Whatever Qyburn did to Gregor he’s a lot stronger than the wights from up North. Finally, Sandor faces all his fears at once and dive-tackles his brother through a wall into an ocean of flames. And that is the end of the Hound.
Cersei and Jaime find each other as they both wind through the Red Keep and embrace. Jaime is awfully forgiving of that whole “sent Bronn to kill me” thing and Cersei is awful forgetful of that “swore to have him killed” thing, but I guess when the walls are crumbling around you some things aren’t worth arguing over. A lot of people assumed Jaime was coming back to King’s Landing to kill Cersei. As much as I think it would have been more satisfying from a narrative perspective, that’s not the version of Jaime we’ve seen on the show. I’ve always thought that, as a character, he almost never had a chance. Joining Aerys’s King’s Guard at 14, Tywin Lannister for a father, Cersei Lannister for a true love. Jaime has always had a weak moral character and been content to be driven by whoever close to him has a stronger one. That’s why he’s better around Brienne and worse around Cersei. He did one thing in his life that was a true, uncomplicated heroic thing and spent the rest of his life turning away from it. Letting it, and how other people reacted to it, poison him. Because in himself he did not have the moral certainty and strength to trust his own goodness in that moment or ever after. As Jaime attempts to lead Cersei out of the Red Keep they find their path blocked by rubble. I knew Cersei would die on Mother’s Day, but I wish that she had gone down fighting. Gone down like a lioness, true to who she’s been for the last eight seasons. Instead, we see her scared and pleading that she wants her baby to live. It’s fine for her to be scared, but to see her go out with a whimper rather than a bang so Jaime can comfort her in her last moments feels like a let-down. It’s his moment, not hers. And in the end the valonqar wraps his arms around her and the life is choked from her body.
Arya’s flight from King’s Landing brings her face to face with the danger of the collapsing capital. Somehow, in a city of a million people and the chaos of everything, she manages to run into the same woman and child three separate times. It’s a tense sequence and puts us among the common people, something this show almost never does. Even though I was sure they wouldn’t kill off Arya here, it was harrowing to watch her try to make her way through the city becoming progressively more frightened and injured. We see more humanity coming back to Arya as she gazes upon the burned bodies of the woman and girl she attempted to save. As ash falls around her a white horse appears, also covered in blood. She calms the horse, and rides out of the ruined city. A rider on a pale horse.
I have no qualms with this episode from a technical standpoint. Most of the acting was excellent and the visuals were breathtaking. In particular, Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey had to do a lot of their acting while looking at green screens and portray complex emotional turmoil while doing so. I feel that perhaps we could have found a way to give these characters more time to explore those emotions, but the actresses themselves did everything they could with what they had. The weakness this week, as it has been lately, was with the writing. We were left to guess at character intentions and feelings, given little to no insight into the build-up to dramatic actions. We also had several characters seem to end up on something like a hamster wheel. Jaime left King’s Landing for the North only to return to King’s Landing with little apparent growth or change. Arya seemed to embrace her assassin side and abandon Winterfell, only to be talked out of her mission at the last possible moment. The two women at the center of the action, Daenerys and Cersei, had no scenes that truly explored their states of mind or their plans because both of them were alone in many ways. While there was the “shock” of Dany turning on the city, the show did everything to telegraph exactly that outcome except through Daenerys herself. We were treated to a lot of discussion about how her state of mind was slipping, all while she continued to demonstrate acute awareness of what was happening around her and correctly predict future outcomes. Some of you thought there was some grand hidden meaning there, that the incongruousness was the point and we were meant to be on the side of Dany as everyone waited for her to go crazy. I wish I were still that optimistic about the way this story is being told.
If you are wondering what’s going to happen next episode, just imagine what’s the dumbest and most obvious possible outcome going by a complete surface reading of every piece of dialogue and interaction we’ve seen so far and I’m sure you’ll get close. There are ample spoilers available if you are interested in finding out for sure, but I ask that you not discuss them here. Some of us like to spread our disappointment out week to week.
Header Image Source: HBO
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