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The Bells Toll on the Seven Kingdoms

Daenerys wins a convincing battle but loses much more.

The battle could have been over before any of this carnage happened.
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Remember when Arya plunged the dagger into the Night King, and we thought the existential evil was banished from the metaphorical world? Turns out, evil more than survived.

In retrospect, maybe we should have known. Maybe, when Daenerys looked haggard and vacant as she turned her back on Tyrion and gazed out the window, we should have known that she might snap. Maybe, when she threatened Tyrion with execution if he made one more mistake, or when she told Jon if she couldn’t have love, she would settle for fear. Or when she gave the “ends justify the means” speech stating that innocent peasants of the present may have to die to forge a better life for those of the future. Maybe then, we should have known.

Maybe we should have realized it when she summarily sentenced Varys—the one character in her inner circle who unfailingly championed the forgotten people of the realm, and who may have been trying to poison her to achieve his aims—to death as a traitor and burned him on the beach. With his voice of reasoned opposition silenced, maybe we should have known that the realm could do nothing but suffer under Daenerys’s heavy hand.

There have been hints, all along. She crucified 163 masters of Meereen as retribution for the morbid display of corpses that, surely, only a few of them had a hand in placing along the road to point her way. After the Slave Cities joined forces, she would have burned Astapor and Yunkai to the ground, had Tyrion not convinced her of a gentler way. Yet Tyrion was unable to stop her from burning Samwell Tarley’s father and brother for refusing to kneel to her. Her counselors had guided her away from her worst impulses, but feeling increasingly isolated since learning Jon’s secret, she was less inclined than ever to listen to their advice.

The madness, then, could seem inevitable, looking back. But the way it played out on screen in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, titled “The Bells,” was just so senseless. Dany’s ambition has always been to rule the Seven Kingdoms. But that ambition appealed to others only because she coupled it with a determination to rule justly. She showed her benevolent ambitions by freeing slaves, paying recompense to peasants victimized by her ravenous dragons, and exacting a promise from Yara Greyjoy to end the pillaging, reaving and raping that had been the Iron Island folks’ way of life for generations. Varys, of all people, joined her retinue because he saw in her the best promise for peace and justice in the realm. Is it realistic, then, for her to sit on Drogon’s back atop the city, with the bells announcing that Cersei’s forces have surrendered and her dream is realized, to go instantly mad and burn the city and all its inhabitants?

“Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air,” said Varys, “and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” Sometimes, it feels as if the same could be said of HBO choosing plot points.

There have been misses before, and we chronicled most of them. But this one is harder to ignore, because the end is upon us. How do you satisfactorily explain it all with a single episode remaining? George R.R. Martin shared his planned ending with show-runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, so we have to assume Daenerys’s turn of character is part of his grand design. Some of the vocal frustration must come from how many people were fans of Daenerys (some even naming their newborn daughters after her—a decision many must deeply regret, now) and feel cheated to have been so wrong.

How could a cherished character with such a tender heart suddenly, inexplicably, go on a murderous rampage? We cheer for the redemption arcs of Theon and Jaime, the personal growth arcs of Sansa and Sam, and the impossible social climbs of Gendry and Davos. But after Dany has been painted as a paragon of goodness and decency—albeit, counterbalanced at times with a temperamental strain—for the length of the series, her last-minute turn to serial killer in the next-to-last episode violates the expected story-telling norm. Why would she burn those she came to protect? It makes no sense.

Madness never does make sense, of course. That’s an unsatisfying answer. But seeking any reason other than inexplicable insanity for Dany’s flight of mayhem is itself a mad endeavor. In the rush to finish the series and in the translation from the unwritten literary intent of the author to the shining screen, the nuance that justifies the madness turn was lost in translation. Whatever the case, it caused fury among the show’s loyal followers. The show has only eighty minutes to redeem itself, a task so monumental that it seems impossible.

The Bells

Tyrion’s last hope to save the city is for Jaime to convince Cersei to surrender. The signal to call off the attack, as we heard repeatedly, will be the ringing of the city’s bells.

The battle itself bears little retelling. The scorpions that connected on three shots out of three, blind and around a mountain, to knock Rhaegal from the sky in the last episode are unable to touch Drogon. While the commanders ironically shout “fire” at the men on the walls trying to shoot Daenerys down, the dragon torches all of them, blasts the outer wall with bolts of flame that seem much more like incendiary artillery than the fire that burned Varys where he stood, and the battle is effectively over in a matter of minutes. The bells ring. Daenerys has won.

But when she reignites hostilities, her forces take up the spears again. Grey Worm exacts furious vengeance on any Lannister or Golden Company soldier he can reach. Dothraki riders (miraculously resurrected after their foolhardy charge in “The Long Night, I guess) sweep their arakhs at retreating masses from horseback. Honorable northern followers of the honorable Jon Snow drag women down alleyways. As they kill, Daenerys sweeps back and forth, felling buildings and incinerating fleeing citizens with dragon fire. War makes the worst of everyone. Not the most profound message, though doubtlessly true.

Before and during the mayhem, the show demonstrated its grasp of moment and scene, even amid its struggles with the scope of the unwieldy story as a whole.

As Varys faces execution, he tells Tyrion he truly hopes he deserves it—that he hopes he is wrong about Daenerys Targaryen. He had said he would do what was best for the realm, no matter the personal cost. Tyrion touches his hand, and though Varys knows the dwarf informed on him, he says with full sincerity, “Good-bye, old friend.” In spite of the treachery, the line rings true. When Drogon burns Varys, Jon and the others assembled to witness the event are aghast. They say nothing.

After learning that Daenerys’s forces had captured Jaime, Tyrion plays Jedi mind tricks to send the guards away so he can free him. He tells Jaime where to find an escape tunnel so he and Cersei can row away for a John Grisham escape to the tropics of Pentos, and then embraces him, saying he would not have survived childhood without him. When Jaime—the dumbest of the Lannisters, after all—redundantly reminds Tyrion that Daenerys will execute him for treason, Tyrion delivers the line of the night: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives, one not particularly innocent dwarf. Seems like a fair trade.”

Arya and the Hound are among the last admitted through the gates to the Red Keep. But as the walls crumble around them and the Hound heads up the stairs for his confrontation with the Mountain, he convinces Arya to choose life. Cersei will die anyway, and there is no reason (apart from warding off horrible anticlimax) for Arya to perish with her just to deliver the death blow. “Sandor,” she says as he starts his climb, “thank you.” Sometimes, something as simple as saying someone’s name can be so poignant.

We almost waited until the end. But #CleganeBowl finally happened.
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Sandor gets his Cleganebowl revenge on his brother. The Mountain’s face is a bloated rendering of Emperor Palpatine, so it should come as no surprise that a sword buried to its hilt in his chest and a dagger directly through the eye sockets do not phase him. He tries the eye-gouging trick that he employed to kill Oberyn Martell, and the Hound, realizing that his brother is basically a giant wight, bull rushes him through a crumbling wall. They fall to perish together in the fires that Sandor had feared his entire life.


Which of the following major characters is least likely to survive the final episode?

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    None of them will die.
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    All of them will die.
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Arya’s attempts to escape through the frenzy of crowds and ongoing destruction in the streets—all while trying to save a mother and child who appeared throughout the episode—raised fears that the Hound’s noble persuasion may have gone for naught. The mother and child perish, and Arya awakes in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, wounded and coated in ash. A white horse covered in dirt and blood (maybe the one ridden by the Golden Company leader?) appears, and she rides it out of the city, prompting the latest round of what-does-it-mean theories that, like most theories this season, will turn out to be wrong.

Aside from these moments, even the most callous observer would have to admit the spectacle was deftly done. The dragon assaults looked real. Buildings erupted, and even Arya—one of the show’s most indispensable protagonists—seemed in genuine peril.

On balance, though, the episode missed on too many important matters.

If you cheered when Euron was blasted from his ship, your mirth was premature, of course. George R.R. Martin has criticized the show for increasing the role of some characters, presumably referring to Bronn (who is still lurking about to kill Tyrion, don’t forget) and Lady Mormont, among others. Those decisions came of fan engagement. But who wanted Euron to hang around? He was a terribly written, weakly portrayed plot device who outlived his usefulness long ago. Yet he survives dragonfire to swim ashore and fight Jaime. As he presumably dies (please, Saint George!), he celebrates being the man to kill Jaime Lannister. We celebrate Jaime’s last benevolent act: dispatching the useless King of the Iron Islands, about a season too late. Of course, Euron did not really kill Jaime. The castle did. We’ll get to that. The point is, there was no point to the fight scene. None at all.

Cersei is dead (or, like Euron, presumed dead; would we really put a ridiculous Lazarus moment past the show, at this point?) but the outcome fans had so long wished for came with no punch. She dies beneath the crumbling city, in the same manner as thousands of its common inhabitants. Sure, there is a certain symmetry to this. Cersei orchestrated many deaths but presided over none. That her own death should be remote and unremarkable has a certain ring of justice. She did not deserve a final blaze, and the show deprived her of one. It just doesn’t satisfy our own thirst for the retribution she deserves. Worse than the method of her passing is that she dies in Jaime’s arms, apparently reconciled to him and leaving the world exactly as she might have chosen, with her brother/lover by her side where she can put the finishing touches on his ruination. It’s anticlimactic in the extreme. Ramsey Bolton got no such docile passing. Nor Joffrey. Nor Littlefinger. Cercei was as evil as any of them.

And what of Jaime returning to her, in the first place? As with Dany, whose eight-year character development seems utterly wasted now, Jaime’s journey of personal redemption is equally trashed. He came back not to stop Cersei, but because even after all he had been through, after the high point of knighting Brienne and knowing wholesome love with her, he could not break the spell of his sister even though he knew she was evil. Those who cheered for this guy must feel duped.

Prophecies Unfulfilled

Much of the guesswork about the story’s ultimate outcome has originated in the show’s many prophetic statements. Some have come true. Melisandre and Varys did, indeed, both die this season in Westeros. But was Cersei really killed by a “valonquar,” as the show went out of its way to promise through a childhood vignette? Has Arya fulfilled her destiny to close brown eyes, blue eyes and green ones? Has Azor Ahai manifested himself? The direwolves—two female and four male, one of which was an albino—were supposedly fated for the Stark children. But though each played some role, they turned out so unimportant in the end that Jon indifferently walked away from his. Has Daenerys suffered three treasons, one for blood, one for gold and one for love? Does the dragon, in fact, have three heads?

Some of these are so obscure that they can be forgotten. But after being drummed with the Prince who was Promised lore again and again, its meaning has to become clear. Doesn’t it?

Winding up to Wind Down

After eight years, so much remains unresolved. Yet we have only one episode remaining. Is it possible to tie it all together in eighty short minutes? It seems unlikely. At the table read before filming for this season began, the cast was so moved by the final denouement that, after a moment of silence, they erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation. Was that because, in the end, the story ties into a neat package of clarity? Odds on that outcome seem especially long. Perhaps it was merely catharsis at finally seeing a project that consumed nearly ten years of the main players’ lives through to the end.

Satisfying fans who were invested in the books and who became invested in the show over its long run was probably an impossible mission. If only we could have back some of the time we wasted in Dorne and Meereen, we could put it to better use. If only Tywin Lannister and Lady Olenna Tyrell could have outlived the Greyjoys. Ah, well. So many opportunities missed.

What is this all supposed to mean? What is the message, and why is it important enough to warrant seven books, eight seasons of television and millions of dollars of production costs? That question, on the eve of the conclusion, is largely unanswered.

Maybe Yara will emerge from her storyline purgatory to earn her rescue. Maybe Daenerys will attempt to burn Jon and Tyrion for treason, but they will be impervious to her flames because they are both Targaryens. Maybe Arya will actually use her tediously earned (but awesome) faceless man skills for something more important than revenge on a perverted nonagenarian.

What was the point of all this destruction?
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Next week we’ll spend a great deal of time on “The” question: What is this all supposed to mean? What is the message, and why is it important enough to warrant seven books, eight seasons of television and millions of dollars of production costs? That question, on the eve of the conclusion, is largely unanswered.

Some things must happen. The new world order must be established, whatever it is. That last dragon must die; it creates an untenable imbalance in the world. Daenerys, in one way or another, must answer for her crimes. If you ask me, the Iron Throne must be melted down and recast into something more symbolically palatable. The perfect outcome would even set the world’s seasons straight again. But that’s surely hoping for too much.

I’d like to think that when it’s all over, I’ll mirror the cast, spontaneously standing and applauding. Obvious missteps, detours and dalliances aside, the show has been an unparalleled spectacle with many brilliant performances. It’s a technical achievement not soon to be eclipsed. I will miss it when it’s gone.

But I predict with great confidence that the show’s outcome will leave me wanting more. For the truly satisfying resolution, we’ll need Creator George to finish the original build. If he’s up to the task.