I am thinking of Ser Barristan Selmy, who those many seasons ago once Meereen was conquered (Remember that? Season four?) advised Daenerys that she should not crucify the Great Masters of Meereen just because they had cruelly crucified children as a warning to her. Sometimes, it is best to answer injustice with mercy, he tells her. Be the change you want to see in the world. In other words: Teach mercy and kindness in leaders by showing it yourself. “I will answer injustice with justice,” she coldly responds and promptly crucifies all of the Great Masters in front of their families.
In season five, when Daenerys plans to execute a member of the Sons of the Harpy, Barristan suggests a trial first. He tells her that her father was cruel: set entire towns on fire, killed children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children, executed people using wildfire, and generally exercised his will through violence and cruelty. He seems to hint that such a legacy is hers unless she tempers her own sense of justice with mercy. He reminds her that her father was so brutal that the people rose up and supported Robert Baratheon’s rebellion. She agrees to trials instead of summary execution. Then, Ser Barristan the Bold is ambushed by the Sons of the Harpy. In response, Daenerys has the heads of the noble households of Meereen brought to her and feeds two of them to her dragons.
In other words, there is precedence for Daenerys seeing her own use of violence as a form of justice, and there is precedence for her going a bit overboard when she feels betrayed, hurt, or that she has lost someone vital to her that she has grown to love.
Make no mistake, Daenerys has lost a lot. Ser Jorah, whose earlier betrayal of Daenerys was revealed by Ser Barristan, leading to Mormont’s dismissal from Khaleesi’s service, was welcomed back. Though his romantic love was unrequited, he is one of her longest-lasting supporters, there since season one, and she loved him in her own way. His death was a blow. She responded to Selmy’s death by having dragons eat folks uninvolved in the Sons of the Harpy (though perhaps supporting that group). She lost Jorah. She lost Missandei, beheaded in front of all by order of Cersei. She believes she has lost Jon; he “betrayed” her by telling others his true identity when she asked him not to. She believes she has been betrayed by Tyrion and Varys, the latter executed by dragon fire for conspiring against her. The former was told, “The next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me.” Dany has lost it all – betrayed, alone, angry, and ready for some righteous payback (i.e., “justice").
I’m thinking of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose book, The Prince, was a love letter to governance via Lorenzo D’Medici in hopes that Machiavelli might be allowed to return from exile, who said, “It is better to be loved than hated, but it is better to be feared than loved.” This line is almost quoted verbatim when Daenerys attempts to kiss her boyfriend/nephew and he is clearly over it and not into her. Daenerys has been loved by her people, but now those closest to her are turning, and the hoi polloi in Westeros don’t seem to care much who is on the throne, so long as the violence stops. “All right then,” she says, “let it be fear.” (She should have kept reading; Machiavelli also says, “Do not touch your subject’s property, pride, or women,” and Drogon kinda burned all three. Dany is now willing to have Westeros fear her. The episode begins with Varys recounting an old Westerosi proverb: “Every time a Targaryan is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.” With Aegon (a.k.a. Jon), the coin came up good; Daenerys, on the other hand, seems to be demonstrating that she belongs to the “Mad Monarch” branch of the family.
I’m thinking of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general of Civil War fame. His most famous quotation is “War is hell,” which this episode also demonstrates. He also said to Professor David Boyd of Virginia, his friend and a secessionist, in 1860:
You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it... You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else, you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first, you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail…If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail…
Even in the “North /South” dichotomy, this applies to Westeros, as well. The Lannisters were winning for a while in seasons seven and eight. Cersei is cunning, but naïve. Even with the Iron Fleet (now burnt and lying at the bottom of Blackwater Bay), with the “scorpions” that killed one dragon already, the Golden Company and the resources of King’s Landing – it is obvious that Cersei cannot stand against a dragon and Dany’s battle-hardened army. Strategy and trickery have kept the Lannisters in power, but brute force versus brute force and they lose that battle – we saw that all last season.
One of the pleasures of the episode is watching Cersei come to the realization that she is screwed. Her death under the Red Keep may have been long awaited, but she is killed by a falling building, with her beloved brother in his arms. She does not die through direct vengeance – nobody, not Arya, not Dany, not even the valonqar (whomever it was supposed to be) kills her. Her death is indirect, from Dany and the dragon destroying the Red Keep. It will be a long time before we have confirmation of her death, if they even decide to dig out the cellar of the Red Keep.
I am thinking of Arnaud Amalric, the monk and Papal Legate who oversaw the massacre at Bézier. When told the city had Catholics amongst its Protestant population, Amalric allegedly said, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.” “Kill them all. God will know His own.” In the more modern vernacular this has become, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” It reflects an attitude towards warfare in which one simply decimates everything on the other side. In fairness, Dany displays a worthwhile strategy, worthy of Sun Tsu. In all past battles and fights, the surviving members of the losing side rise again to fight back. Exhibit A: the Stark family. Exhibit B: Dany herself. If you don’t want to rule, always wondering when those you have conquered are going to rise against you, make sure there are none of them left to rise (Exhibit A: Arya and the Freys). Dany goes on a search-and-destroy revenge act against King’s Landing, which, after all, is not innocent. The people supported and benefited from Lannister rule. None of them did anything to help or protect the Targaryans. She owes the people nothing.
The problem is, of course, that attitude goes against Daenerys’s nature. She is the breaker of chains, breaker of the wheel. Another person sitting on the Iron Throne simply perpetuates the entire system of the Iron Throne. Burn it to the ground and start over. She has always claimed to have done everything for the people. Now, she’s killing them by the thousands.
I’m thinking about Varys, may he rest in crispy pieces. The episode begins with him telling Jon/Aegon, “Men decide where power resides, whether or not they know it.” I read this in two ways, the first being an indictment of privilege – whether or not you want to admit it, you have power that others do not. Jon, despite being mislabeled a bastard for two decades, has had a privileged upbringing. Jon is every person of unquestioned privilege claiming they can do nothing to change the system, when they are the ones who can do it most easily. The second is the opening words: “men decide.” If the internet is to be believed, this episode is the capstone on a parade of misogyny that began back in season one and evolved into this episode’s problematic dynamic. Cersei is irredeemable, literally. She cannot be forgiven, fixed, or brought back into human company. As one commentator on CNN put it, Theon, Jorah, Jaime - every male – gets the chance to evolve, apologize, and be redeemed. Women are not forgiven anything. Cersei is evil. Dany becomes unstable and proves herself a questionable ruler. We are clearly being set up for Jon, Tyrion, or Sansa to sit on the Iron Throne since the other options are not good.
Tangentially, in the Game of Thrones dead pool I’m in, none of the players (myself included) thought Dany would finish the series as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, most of us saw Jon on the throne. “Wow,” wrote Tori, who ran the pool, “Even in Westeros, there is a glass ceiling.” There is something to that. In GoT, most women are victims, sexual objects, or evil. There are obvious exceptions, strong women who are round characters: Ygritte (dead now), Arya and Sansa, Daenerys (just went full evil), Brienne of Tarth (just did the deed with Jaime and cried when he left, totally undercutting her status as a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms), and Missandei (nine inches shorter than she was last season). No wonder there is an article on Huffington Post entitled “‘Game of Thrones’ Built Up Its Female Characters Just to Watch Them Fall.” Hence, a lot of internet ink being spilled on the question of whether or not Daenerys’ behavior is true to character or whether the showrunners have thrown a powerful woman under the bus for no good reason.
“It’s like Hilary,” my wife said to me when the show was over. A woman who is highly qualified, very intelligent, a proven leader who is not without flaws, and who has made mistakes but who would have been good in the highest position in the nation is denied the opportunity. You can’t help but think there is at least some sexism there. I hear that argument. The actions of Daenerys in “The Bells” are within character, but they are also the choice of showrunners who decided to make their strong, powerful female lead go a little cray. And while there are other strong, powerful female leads (I'm looking at you, Sansa and Arya.), this can feel like a slap in the face to those who wanted to see a narrative in which the woman against all odds does succeed. A man, the argument goes, would have been allowed to. And more importantly, if he wasn’t, it would have been okay, because representation matters, and we have yet to normalize women succeeding in this way.
I’ll go one step further. Even more than Daenerys going “Mad Queen,” I was offended by Arya’s arc. For the past six seasons, she has trained as an assassin and killed multiple enemies through stealth, guile, and skill. She and Sandor Cleagane ride all the way from Winterfell to King’s Landing. She even tells the guard who confronts her that she is on the way to kill Cersei, and he backs off because she means it. She killed the Night King. Every night before bed, she quietly repeats her list of those she will kill like it a prayer. (In a way, it is.) When she gets to the Red Keep, the Hound tells her not to bother, Cersei will die somehow, and Arya’s response is “okay” and runs out to be another victim in the streets. Between Tyrion and Arya, we have two of the cleverest, perhaps even the most cunning characters the series has seen. The best option would have been to have one of them finally outwit Cersei and end her. Instead, Dany uses brute force and a dragon to kill Cersei by a building. The characters deserve better; the audience deserves better. Arya, like Daenerys, acts counter to the character we have seen in previous seasons and who we believe we have come to know. They are acting like characters in a bad horror movie who completely change in order for the plot to move forward. SMH.
So, I get the frustration with Dany’s indeterminant slaughter of innocents and cannot help but think gender is behind it. And yet I also see in Daenerys the continued theme from GoT and our own culture that saviors are unreliable at best and often highly flawed. JFK was a serial adulterer, Jimmy Saville of Jim’ll Fix It helped hundreds of people but was later revealed to be a serial child molester and rapist, in the eighties Bill Cosby was “America’s Dad,” and the list goes on. Gustave Flaubert (yet another old man) reminds us that, “You should not get too close to your idols, some of the gilt comes off on your hands.” In other words, heroes are better at a distance, because we hold them up and project our dreams, desires, and idealizations upon them. When they are revealed to be merely human, or worse, not very good human beings, or worst of all, predators who use their hero status to hurt others, we feel betrayed. Dany believes she was betrayed by those closest to her (e.g., Jon, Tyrion, Varys, Jorah, etc.), and, in turn, audiences are supposed to feel betrayed by her, giving into rage instead of demonstrating the better angels of her nature. Yet audiences are feeling betrayed by the showrunners.
Which brings me to Tyrion, who wandered King's Landing looking hurt and betrayed and the oldest we have ever seen him. The eponymous bells rung in surrender. Yet Dany broke her promise, burned the city and killed thousands upon thousands herself, encouraging her army to rape and pillage, as well. That is not creating a more just society. That is just another conquest. Jon Snow was appalled that his fellow soldiers would attack and kill men who had surrendered. If I am honest, that part does not bother me as much. Westeros has no Geneva Convention and, let us be honest, had the battle gone the other way, neither Cersei nor the soldiers who follow her would extend the mercy they ask Jon for, to Jon and his men. Dany’s army would have been executed and the remaining souls enslaved. If no mercy is planned if you win, you should not expect mercy if your plan doesn’t work.
It is the slaughter of the innocents that hurts. And, as I have circled around, it hurts twice. One, it is horrific that innocents suffer. The showrunners give us the mother and daughter who save Arya as the point of connection for the thousands of others being killed. We feel their individual deaths more acutely than the CG crowds. They should not have died. They were good. They were innocent. This was not their war. But it hurts again from who was doing it, and I feel for those who think Dany should not have been made the bad guy, even if it makes sense for both the character and the narrative, it is a betrayal of the higher aspirations of the character and the story.
Here is where I congratulate everyone involved in the show. You have crafted a narrative in which the action of fictional characters has a profound emotional effect on people IRL. If we did not care about Daenerys, if we did not worry about Jon, Tyrion and Arya, if we did not despise Cersei, none of this would matter. But we do and it does. You have created a story which has generated great meaning for a number of people. That is remarkable. And not everyone will be happy with every aspect of the show. But fandoms are funny things. They feel ownership over the things they love. (Every fan is a potential stalker, not in the literal sense but in that they believe the thing they love belongs to them in some sense and they have some say in how that thing exists in their life.) As another not-so-old man posted on the Facebook: Fandoms should still be respectful of each other and differences of opinion. (Thanks for the reminder, Bryan.)
One show remains. One eighty-minute wrap up to bring this whole thing to an end. We have lived with these people for eight-plus years. Now, its down to the last episode. More than Lost, more than The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, this feels like the end of an era. It will be weird living in a world with no new Game of Thrones in the future, but we will survive. Yet, even though HBO and George R.R. Martin plan more narratives set in this world, I cannot help but think that while I enjoy the music of Wings, they weren’t The Beatles. You can bottle lightning once, but after Battlestar Galactica comes Caprica. They tried, but it isn’t the same.
See you at the end, true believers.