!You know the drill, SPOILERS BELOW!
Insanity is a term that we’re all pretty familiar with, even if we’ve never experienced insanity directly. It’s a term that’s thrown around nonchalantly; stories are insane, people are insane, the ending of sporting events are insane. It’s a pumped of version of crazy, which is to say, it’s usually something that’s difficult to believe or hard to explain.
When we think of insane, we’re rarely thinking of a person who has gone mad, a person with a mental illness that has likely been festering inside of them genetically or induced by some immense trauma. When you told your friend Barbara she was insane because she put ketchup directly on to her fries, you probably weren’t worried that she was going to burn down your house for challenging her sauce application techniques.
But this is where we are now as Game of Thrones fans. We now live in a post Daenerys as the Mad Queen world and for some people this is a bridge too far. For others, this turn has been telegraphed since season two. How could we forget the promise of fire and blood, the breaking of the wheel, and the death of all tyrants.
I’m not here to help sway you into believing one way or another about this particular episode. I think what happened last night is a watermark for prestige television and is certainly A version of the cumulation of steps this show has taken in continuing to surprise us with spectacle after spectacle. Last night was good television; shocking, disturbing and gruesome television but undoubtedly engaging. Some of the best shots in the entire series happened amongst the horror that was unfolding before our eyes.
I think the who and how of it all is what’s keeping people from enjoying this episode in any real, guilt free way. Good episode, terrible writing. I really don’t want to continue to bemoan the accelerated pace, the lack of source material to adapt and the general apathy the show-runners seem to exhibit every chance they get. This has been covered ad nauseam across twitter, podcasts and every possible blog, and I’ve added my voiced to the cacophony. So if the obvious explanation for all of the woes is apparent and can almost answer every nagging question, what’s left?
Taking stock of the choices made for a show that we’ve been invested in for nearly a decade.
(Also, while we’re here, tough look for parents that named their kid Dany or Daenerys…)
So what do we think about our Mad queen? Not Cersei, who has legitimately embodied all of the traits we were worried Dany would exhibit during her conquest. I suppose Cersei’s been rotten since episode one so it was a bit easier to stomach her setting part of the city on fire a season and a half ago. Or the fact that since Tommen died, she’s been completely detached from her humanity, caring not for what happened to the rest of the realm as long as she was ruling over whatever remained.
The question is what do we think about Dany? It’s interesting to see how a part of the fan base freaked out about Arya still being a child in their eyes while she experienced “adult” things, when Dany wasn’t much older (in show) when she was sold like a mare to Khal Drogo. Both women have gone through an incredible amount of pain and suffering at an incredibly young age, and have been shaped in kind. The fact that Dany has any compassion at all by the time she’s astride Drogon on the battlements is a testament to her resolve. Recall how worried we were about Arya’s detachment and bloodlust and imagine what would have happened if she’d had a dragon.
Think about the sieges that Dany has been a part of up to this point. We’ve always seen them from her perspective, or those of her proxies. We’ve been clearly in the seat of the conquerors, the invading forces, that have always painted themselves as liberators, breakers of chains. Things haven’t always gone well throughout Dany’s occupations but governance is hard! But at no point have we ever seen things from the perspective of the people invaded, conquered or freed. We’ve seen responses, the Sons of the Harpy chief most among those responders, but never the true perspective of the small folk, the civilians en masse.
We saw what that looks like in King’s Landing. We saw what Dany’s conquering force can instill in a populace. Who’s to say that people didn’t feel this same sense of unease and dread in Mereen. We can only speculate about the past, particularly since none of the freedmen were looking up to see their new Queen riding a dragon. The same cannot be said for the people of King’s Landing.
Throughout GoT’s run as the premiere TV watching experience of the last decade, we’ve been treated to wholesale slaughter at least once every other season. We’ve seen countless soldiers butchered and buffeted and never really batted an eye, considering that these folks were faceless warriors, committed to fight and die. If you run down any Top GoT Episodes lists, you’re bound to find a correlation between body count and belovedness. The macabre likely peaked with the Battle of the Bastards, men’s bodies literally cascading on top of Jon. Brutal and beautiful and easy to experience by at arms length.
Nothing was easy about last night’s episode, The Bells. Watching Dany take off, eyes burning, teeth bared, sinking fully into her dragon so much so that we never saw another shot of her face for the rest of the episode was beautiful and terrible as the dawn. It was like when you see someone walking down into a basement in a scary movie. Just sitting and watching, helpless and horrified.
Maybe you thought for a moment that she was heading directly for the Red Keep, to burn Cersei where she stood, or that Drogon would unleash a column of flame directly onto the remaining, recently surrendered, Lannister soldiers. So when the first blast of dragon fire took both civilian and soldier alike, completing in full that seemingly self fulfilling prophecy, how else could you feel.
Confused? Smug? Stunned? Betrayed? Most likely angry. I don’t think it’s an accident that as the destruction devolved fully into slaughter, our focus shifted away from the fighting men and to the faces of the people on the streets. I also don’t think it’s an accident that these scenes and images mimic footage from war torn countries and videos of drone strikes. Knowing George R. R. Martin’s stance as a conscientious objector and having him lean into the brutality of war to justify that stance has been on display throughout the series run. But this… this was something entirely different.
I think betrayal is beyond appropriate, whether you’re talking about Dany or show-runners Benioff and Weiss. Without writing an additional treatise on the effect this sped up timeline and supercharged “character development” has had on the story and our favorite characters, I can still arrive at a discordant conclusion. I think that where we are right now in this narrative is a logical end to the plot and I don’t think how we got here, or more importantly how the characters have arrived, has been earned. As viewers, this isn’t what we “signed up for.”
Are we mad that Dany has gone Mad? Certainly a swath of the fandom has seen this coming, seen this as inevitable, which is beyond valid. It’s also valid to think this is happening way too quickly, that while seemingly every character not named Arya or Sandor (tears) is regressing to some laughable facsimile, some incompetent caricature, Dany falls fully and immediately into her final role.
Looking at her motivating factors of late, we see her: losing Rhaegal, losing Missandei and not finding the love of the people as easy to come by in Westeros as it was for her back in East. Clearly upsetting! And all the advisors she’s counted on to lead her to victory in this unfamiliar land has consistently failed her. Things are definitely not going the way she’d dreamed, and as she’s fond of telling people, her dreams are different. But is that enough for the level of stomach churning destruction we just witnessed. Popular opinion leans towards no.
We’re left with a different understanding of how things are, as if everything we knew changed over the course of 80 minutes. This episode almost felt like it was from a completely different show, which makes you wonder if what we thought we were watching was only a reflection of our own desires and interpretations. Maybe Dany torching the place lifted the fog of our own intent and revealed this narrative for what it was all along. Having her “turn” isn’t something that, when run through the subversion shock processing machine that GoT has always been, doesn’t track. But does that mean it works?
I know what the fandom at large feels. In the last 18 hours alone, GoT now sucks or has been ruined. It feels like an uninspired copout from a set of creatives that wouldn’t relinquish their hold on the property but who weren’t committed enough to see things through in a way the characters, and if I can be so selfish, the fans deserved. All I feel is conflict. I haven’t even begun to parse out the other so called failings of this episode, because they all ultimately boil down the same issues that bestowed upon us our Mad Queen. It’s just… Dany rides on the back of a dragon, so her issues are a little easier to notice.