The very next paragraph contains a description of the events of “The Bells,” the fifth episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, which aired last night. If you do not want to know what happened in that episode, stop reading now.
The assault on King’s Landing was going off more or less without a hitch: the Golden Company and Iron Fleet were ash, the dreaded Big Crossbows were splinters, the Lannister soldiers were laying down their swords, the bells were ringing in surrender, and Cersei’s reign was utterly broken. The war was over. And then Daenerys Targaryen decided to do genocide to a city of a million cowering innocents.
As a standalone piece of visual storytelling, “The Bells” may have been the greatest episode in Game of Thrones’s entire run, a legitimately terrifying war-horror movie rooted in the wise choice never to return the camera to Dany’s perspective once she launched her annihilation of the prostrate city. With her choice to lay waste to King’s Landing and its people, she transitioned, instantly, from a protagonist character to an incomprehensible, inhuman destructive force in the sky, a slow-motion hydrogen bomb or the sweep of some wrathful deity’s arm, both to the soldiers and commoners fleeing in terror on the ground, and to those in her service who’d until then felt they had some hope of channeling her into a reasonably benevolent expression of her increasingly godlike self-image. For eight seasons Game of Thrones has observed the license taken by the powerful to reach down from the heights and journal their personal issues across the world in the blood of commoners; “The Bells” followed that to an astonishing endpoint—rage, grief, isolation, and vengeance, in an unchecked warlord who rides around on a nigh-indestructible doomsday device—portraying more effectively and frighteningly than the show ever has before an ant’s-eye view of a boot.
The problem is, as a plot development in a larger story, it seems badly undercooked. Sure, you can (rightly) argue that the basis for Dany’s growth into the Mad Queen has been in clear development since the first season. But she was broadly herself—vengeful and dangerous, yeah, but also human, in possession of a conscience, and still largely animated by her sense of a mission to make the world better and more just for common people—as recently as like two episodes ago. The show seems to be offering as the immediate triggers for her all-at-once descent into total genocidal madness a set of hardships—Rhaegal’s death; Jorah Mormont’s death; Missandei’s execution; literally all of her advisers being untrustworthy morons and/or traitors; Jon Snow rejecting her as a lover; and the dislocation of identity caused by leaving a continent whose common people loved her as a liberator for one whose people (in absentia; Game of Thrones essentially deleted the broader Seven Kingdoms from the story the moment Olenna Tyrell died) view her as a frightening invasive force—that don’t satisfy as the narrative framework for a plausible character with Dany’s traits to make the sudden conscious decision, “What the hell, might as well spend an afternoon murdering innocent women and children by the hundreds of thousands.”
Last night, discussing the episode with some Deadspinners and ex-Deadspinners who like me suffer from the gravest of brain rot, I think we came up with a neat way that the show could have arrived at the events of “The Bells” in a way that would not only make better sense as a series of events, but that would be more Thematically Uh Like Rich Or Whatever and also clear away a couple of very silly absurdities from past two seasons of the show. Here, my friends, is How It Should Have Gone.
Okay. So. Stay with me, here. Two (but not all) of this season’s hardest-to-swallow moments related to the war for the Iron Throne have been:
- In “The Last of the Starks,” the fourth episode of the season, Bugs Bunny-ass Euron Greyjoy popping out of nowhere with a huge fleet of Big Crossbow-armed warships that nobody noticed in broad daylight, and somehow fatally shooting a flying dragon (Rhaegal) full of holes from like a mile away. Broadly, the show has not seemed to have much use for Euron beyond deploying him as the hand of the writers to make wild shit happen all of a sudden, and mostly that’s been a cartoonish kind of fun, but this moment was pretty stupid and felt like an undisguised contrivance, something that happened not because the events of the show led to it, but because Dany’s future heel turn demanded it.
- Dany, at what she could have taken as her moment of triumph, or even as the moment to get angry revenge on Cersei by flying straight to the defenseless Red Keep and melting it with dragon fire, seeming to make the deliberate choice to slaughter hundreds of thousands of unarmed commoners. Again: I liked this episode and I think having Dany ultimately fall into villainy is actually a cool and good story development! But in the moment, it felt like the show left vast dramatic potential on the table by failing to set this up in a way that made her choice appear both awful and unforgivable and also legible and rooted in her character, rather than a sudden snap into total madness explained as “Uh, Jon Snow rejected her and her Targaryen Insanity Gene just activated right then I guess.”
A better way to do it, that avoided both of those, would have gone like this:
First of all, Euron does not shoot Rhaegal down in “The Last of the Starks.” He still wipes out Dany’s fleet and captures Missandei, and Missandei still gets executed atop the wall of King’s Landing in front of Dany and Grey Worm and Tyrion. (Since all of the characters’ battle plans and movements have been driven by narrative need rather than strategic goals this season, the show could have had Dany and Jon flying the dragons somewhere else at the moment of Euron’s ambush, to make an opening for him to wipe out her fleet and capture Missandei without the dragons roasting his boats.) Dany is still hollowed-out and pushed to the edge by the loss of Missandei and the final breakdown of her trust in the people around her, but she enters the battle of King’s Landing with two dragons, and with Jon riding Rhaegal.
This avoids the silly, temporary attribute buffs both Euron and the Big Crossbows needed in order to make Rhaegal’s death happen the way it did. This way, when Dany attacks King’s Landing and makes quick, short work of all the dozens and dozens of Big Crossbows along the outer walls of the city, it makes better sense: We saw a Big Crossbow wound Drogon, so we know they’re dangerous, but we never saw Big Crossbows make a frickin’ pincushion out of a flying, moving dragon a mile away, with shots fired from the rolling deck of a moving boat, so there’s no reason to think they’re capable of doing anything like that, which is good, since that ought to be completely impossible even with weapons much cooler and more sophisticated than Big Crossbows.
So, Dany’s got two dragons; her on one, and Jon on the other. And just like in “The Bells,” she trashes the Golden Company and the Iron Fleet; she and Jon circle King’s Landing, wiping out the wall-mounted Big Crossbows, and she blasts a huge hole in the wall of city for her army to pour through. It becomes shockingly apparent, right away, that for all of Cersei’s small-time victories in the lead-up to this final battle, there’s still nothing to match two full-grown dragons and she cannot possibly hold the capital.
The people of King’s Landing surrender, just like they did in “The Bells,” by ringing, uh, the bells. The Lannister soldiers drop their swords. Dany and Jon perch Drogon and Rhaegal on high points and look toward the Red Keep. Maybe they share a weary but guardedly affectionate glance. And then Euron skewers a stationary Rhaegal through the fuckin’ eyeball* with a Big Crossbow heretofore hidden on one of the rooftops of King’s Landing!!!!
*In his writing, George R. R. Martin has made clear that the only previous time in the history of this fictional world that a weapon that wasn’t a dragon itself has ever killed a dragon was when a Dornishman landed a million-to-one shot from a Big Crossbow straight through the eye of a dragon, one of the only places where it was not protected by scales as hard as steel. In fact no subsequent attempts to kill dragons with Big Crossbows ever yielded so much as a serious wound. So this would be both a good nod to the written text and a plausible way for Euron to kill a dragon.
Dany can only watch in brain-melting shock and grief as one of her two remaining children—the loves of her life, the sources of her identity—whom she’d nurtured back from the brink after the Battle of Winterfell, topples to the streets dead as hell, killed pointlessly and vindictively at what should have been the end of a battle she’d already won. His fall takes down and (as far as she can tell) kills the doofus she still kinda loves and relates to, the one dude in all of Westeros who still unquestioningly supported her claim to the throne. And—oh shit, there are still big arrows flying at her, from an untold number of Big Crossbows still out there on the rooftops of King’s Landing, camouflaged on the rooftops of civilian buildings; she can’t even really tell where the big arrows are coming from!
It’s where a wiser leader, one more suited to the awesome power she’s spent her life working to claim for herself, might withdraw, marshal her resources, and commit to some combination of a siege and a house-by-house clearing of the city by her infantry. But in her rage and pain and sorrow, and painfully out of reach of all the advisors who’ve helped her rein herself in over the years, Dany reacts—not making a conscious, deliberate decision to do genocide to innocent people, but lashing out as a wounded dragon, as the thing she always has had inside of her, at both the Big Crossbows and at the entire society that has taken so much from her—and just fuckin’ lays waste to King’s Landing.
Pushed beyond her breaking point and separated from the people who care about her, in the moment, Daenerys Targaryen fully becomes, finally and for all time, the Mother of Dragons—and in so doing not only categorically disqualifies herself from ever being accepted or loved as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, but also forsakes her humanity and destroys her own soul. From there, “The Bells” plays out the way it did—only this way, it’s tragic! It reaches back farther than just the previous handful of episodes to fulfill and resonate with what’s been happening to Dany over the course of the whole run of the show! It changes what came across last night as a frankly evil and inexplicable conscious choice (Now I shall melt thousands and thousands of frightened children) into an uncontrollable firestorm of grief and fury! It leads to all the same breathtaking carnage “The Bells” delivered last night! Frankly, it rules!
This is how it should have gone. It wouldn’t have been perfect, and it still would have left huge chunks of the show’s audience feeling angry and betrayed; that was always guaranteed from the moment the show-runners decided to wrap up six seasons of unmanageable narrative sprawl with 13 rushed episodes of frantic ending-making. But if you take the broad outline of this ending as a given, and the series-best visual spectacle of “The Bells” as a must (and I do), then this would have been a way to arrive there via minimal changes to the backstory—and, crucially, it wouldn’t ask the audience to buy the incel-ass idea that getting rejected by Jon Snow is enough to turn a relatable protagonist into frickin’ Hitler.