WARNING! This post contains many spoilers for Game of Thrones.
UPDATE: I’ve added some comments after seeing the finale.
Audiences all over were shocked and upset by the most recent episode of The Game of Thrones called “The Bells.” The exact problem that so many people had with the episode has been somewhat difficult to pin down. One of my friends on Facebook opined that the episode defied expectations and the disappointment was just a sort of sour grapes reaction to not seeing their favorite theory confirmed. Others have said that what they saw in the characters was completely out of line with the arcs that had been established. In fact, there are a lot of memes out there about how the character arcs failed.
I should caveat all of this by saying that I really haven’t read many reviews of the episode. This is just my understanding of other people’s thoughts based on comments on FB, a couple of articles and YouTube videos, and various memes. Hell, I haven’t even watched the entire video above as I write this. So, it’s possible I have misjudged the level of confusion surrounding this episode. I welcome any data that could quantify the variety of audience reactions.
Anyway, I don’t think it’s really any of that, but actually just bad storytelling. Bad by the standards I’m accustomed to in television and movies, but I’ll explain that in a bit.
It’s worth noting that not everyone found the episode so distressing. A number of people have said that they saw these events coming and some have even said that if you didn’t see it coming, you weren’t paying attention.
I don’t think that’s completely right, either, but I do think that there’s a strong case to be made that these seemingly uncharacteristic actions are actually in line with the arcs of those characters. I’ll explain and I’d like to focus on three characters in particular: Daenarys, Arya, and Jaime. There are some others, but I am going to focus on these.
This is where the spoilers come in. You were warned!
So, the thing that angers people about “The Bells” is that Dany flips out and just kills pretty much everyone in King’s Landing, not just soldiers and warmongers, but women and children as well. Instead of flying Drogon straight to the Red Keep and burning that down, she spends approximately 156 days burning the surrounding town before turning her attention to the Keep. It’s brutal and weird. It is her defining moment as the Mad Queen.
Given that Dany has spent a lot of time freeing slaves and advocating for personal autonomy in her subjects — so long as they agree that they’re HER subjects — and being a seemingly benevolent dictator, this seems like an out-of-character thing for her to do. It is her concern for her people that wins over Tyrion and Varys and Jon Snow and all the folks who named their children “Khalseesi.”
But, hey. She’s a dictator. Fact. That’s been her aspiration since she figured out she couldn’t be burned by climbing up out of that funeral pyre with her baby dragons so long ago. She’s been telling us that she wants to rule.
And there have been several moments when she has had to be cautioned by her advisors against just sailing into King’s Landing and burning everything down.
She’s threatened to burn people for “betraying” her. And then she actually does burn Varys for doing just that. And he’s been an ally to her for most of her life! Tyrion and Varys actually expressed their doubts about her shortly before this happened.
Leading up to the destruction of King’s Landing, Dany thinks she’s been betrayed by a lot of people, yes. And Missandei was brutally murdered. She lost another dragon. And it seems like maybe her closest advisors were plotting against her. And her lover, Jon, seems poised to take her throne from her.
She’s very much an iron fist in a very thin silk glove. And she has all the makings of a mental breakdown as well. The pieces are there.
So, just to be clear: I don’t think there’s anything truly out of character in her decision to burn King’s Landing.
My complaint is that we, the audience, aren’t quite sure why exactly she burns King’s Landing. It’s suggested that she may have a bit of that good ol’ Targaryen insanity. But the story has suggested she might just be a tyrant.
In the moment, it seems like she just snaps, but they don’t show what makes her “snap.” They don’t really give us an explanation for why she chose that moment to go Mad Queen on everyone.
If it’s that she’s insane, we don’t see her struggling with her sanity or humanity. We see her iron-jawed and ordering the execution of Varys. But she doesn’t really seem unhinged.
And at the moment of her decision to kill everyone, there’s nothing really happening. She skated into King’s Landing and sunk the Iron Fleet and destroyed all those scorpions without even trying. The walls are down and the Unsullied have marched into the city and all of Cersei’s soldiers have surrendered. The day is hers.
Then she just goes starts crying and kills all those people for no clear reason. One would think if her crying is a sign of her insanity, we’d have seen signs of emotional instability before this.
If she isn’t actually insane, and her decision is a deliberate, conscious one as part of a domination play, she only gives the barest of hints, “Let it be fear,” but no real explanation. We’re left to speculate.
All we would have needed for the insanity angle to make sense — and it would have increased tension as well — were a few moments over the last few episodes of her acting progressively more emotionally unbalanced. Maybe laughing inappropriately a couple of times. Crying for no reason. Seething with barely contained rage at a minor inconvenience. Savagely lashing out at an innocent servant for a minor mistake. Just a few touches like that would have signaled to the audience that she’s not quite right in the head and that no matter what she’s said in the past about freedom to all those slaves, she’s actually a mad tyrant and doesn’t deserve to be queen.
Then, when she snaps, she only would have had to scream something like, “FIGHT ME, YOU SLAVES!” and it would have brought all the pieces together.
For the dictator angle to make sense, we’d have needed some sort of threatening conversation or comment. Maybe she could have visited Missandei’s grave and sworn to burn the city in retribution.
But they didn’t do any of that. Her decision to kill everyone seems like it came out of the blue.
UPDATE: In the finale, Grey Worm says that the decision to slay everyone who served Cersei was at Dany’s orders. This makes it clear that Dany didn’t just snap. She planned it ahead as part of her plan to conquer the world. And she later says so herself. I am SO happy they made this explicit!
Arya is my favorite characters in the whole series. She’s such a little badass.
Here’s the thing about Arya: she saw her father unjustly executed and then dedicated her life to killing all the people who caused her family’s downfall. She even goes so far as to study at the literal temple of DEATH to become a Grey Man assassin.
The importance of various details isn’t spelled out, but it’s worth saying now that she never fully converts to the death cult. In spite of saying, “The girl has no name,” and mastering the ability to wear the faces of the dead, she never really gives up on her loyalty to her family, thus her identity as Arya Stark. Sure, when she returns to Winterfell, you can tell she’s not really right in the head, but she still has that loyalty to and love for her family. She even teams up with Sansa to kill Littlefinger. And she greets Jon Snow with tears in her eyes.
We understand, though, she she hasn’t given up on her kill list. When she heads off to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, we aren’t surprised because this has been her singular goal through the series. When she gets to the Red Keep, Dany is burning everything down and it’s pretty clear that if she proceeds toward Cersei, she’ll die in the process. The Hound even says so. But instead of going ahead, Arya runs away.
ARYA RUNS AWAY.
She literally studied at the TEMPLE OF DEATH and decides that she values her life more than the contract. That’s not how the Grey Men do. And there’s some expectation that it’s not how Arya do.
Again, this outcome is actually not out of line, but there’s confusion about it because it’s not fully clear why she does what she does.
So, for this to make sense, I think the show needed to connect a few more dots. It needed to be more clear to us that Arya isn’t the sociopath she trained to be. She’s actually just a very capable and very savage defender of her life and her family. And it is her life and her family that she values more than her promise to see the people on her list dead.
To do explain this to the audience, we might have only needed a quick conversation between Arya and Sansa explaining her decision to leave Winterfell ahead of Dany’s army. Explaining that she loves them to pieces and that’s why she is going to kill Cersei in hopes of ending this war without putting her family in further danger. This would have made it clear that her core value is her family and life with them.
We just needed a little something that would justify what otherwise seems like uncharacteristic cowardice on the part of our death-defying, beloved killer. The good news is that we do have one more episode, so the storytellers have a chance to straighten this one out. (Actually, they could theoretically sort all of this out in the next episode, which is why I’m still hopeful about the series.)
Update: In the finale, Arya leaves Westeros to explore whatever is off to the west of Westeros. She affirms that she has given up the life as an assassin, but still lives for adventure. Her family is safe and thriving and she’s now able to live the life of one of the heroes from the books she loved as a child.
I think Jaime is one of the more complex and interesting characters in the story. To see it, you have to put on some blinders to ignore the incest thing a bit, because that isn’t the biggest part of his internal turmoil.
The thing that Jaime has wanted most in his life is to be seen as a hero, an honorable man. As a child, he aspired to be the head of the Kingsguard. But under Aerys, the Mad King, he was called to action and had to kill the Mad King in order to save he kingdom.
As a reward for his efforts, he has been scorned and mistreated. People routinely refer to him as “King Slayer” and talk about his treason, rather than the fact that his “treason” was for the greater good.
In the wake of that, he is bereft. He has no honorable standing in society. Sure, he’s the best swordsman in Westeros, but he’s not good for much else and people laugh at him behind his back. Rumors swirl that he’s in an incestuous relationship with his sister. His own family doesn’t think he’s all that smart. He’s just another pretty face. And he internalizes all of this to the point that he doesn’t think of himself as worth much more.
It’s on his adventure with Brienne of Tarth that he begins to fumble his way toward redemption, toward his honor once again. It’s almost as if it’s a joke that he decides to defend her. He is chivalrous and rescues her. Unfortunately, he loses his sword hand in the process. But he seems to realize that he really did do something heroic there.
And across the several seasons of the show, we see him struggling with this conflict. Does he go back to Cersei as her boy toy, otherwise worthless, or should he continue to redeem himself? He says and does many things that show that he is vacillating between the two images of himself.
When he turns up in Winterfell to assist Dany in fighting the Night King, he does so on his independent judgment and Brienne steps up to defend him. It seems as if he has chosen his honor and has committed himself to redemption.
I think Brienne recognizes him in that moment as an honorable man and she also realizes she has deep feelings for him.
But then he decides to return to Cersei instead of staying to fight on the side of what everyone believes to be the side of righteousness. Why?
Jaime’s a character of many possible motivations thanks to his inner conflicts, but his decision to rush back to Cersei when it’s clear that the armies of the north and Daenarys are going to attack King’s Landing and the fact that Cersei did hire Bron to kill him — after so many positive experiences leading him away from Cersei and that mess — make that decision… odd.
- He loves Cersei.
- He loves Tyrion.
- He loves Brienne in a way.
- He wants to be honorable.
- He wants to be recognized as honorable.
- He wants to fulfill his knight’s vows.
- He wants others, like Cersei, keep their commitments as well.
- He wants to live.
- He wants Westeros to be at peace.
I’m not sure what we could be shown that would sort this out for us because Jaime’s arc is so complex. I’m not sure I need an explanation here, though. I like this ambiguity.
UPDATE: Dude just got squished real hard. That’s all there is to it.
All in all, I think the finale was a good ending for this show. The last season (or two) were pretty rushed and I think they missed some essential points in the storytelling, but over all I think it was good.
Which brings me to…
Does This Episode of Game of Thrones Demonstrate a Shift in Contemporary Storytelling Mechanics?
I almost made this subheading the title of this entire post, but I didn’t think it was catchy enough. Also, I didn’t want to fall into the if-the-headline-asks-a-question-the-answer-is-no trap. Spoiler: I still think the answer is no, but let’s play a game of thinking about things for fun.
If you’ve never seen it before, go watch Hitchcock’s Psycho.
If you’ve only ever seen clips or heard about it, you’d think it’s a tense horror movie about a guy who thinks he’s his own mother who kills people who stay in his hotel. In reality, Psycho is about the woman he kills in that famous shower scene. It’s actually a story told in the traditional horror style of making the horror a metaphor for the corrupting effects of moral vice on a person’s life. Being a liar and a thief will kill you! It’s an early form of the sort of story that the killer in Scream is mocking.
I’ll spare you a lengthy discussion about horror stories and all that. What I want you to notice is the way the story is put together. You could watch a lot of Hitchcock movies and get the gist of what I’m going for here. Psycho is BORING.
It’s so SLOW! The first 16 hours of the movie are about a woman doing secretarial work and driving around town. We’re shown every step of her process in excruciating detail.
Now, I’m not opposed to seeing step-by-step process in film or a written story. This can be a useful technique for controlling the pace and tension and even perspective in a story.
Consider Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. He often gives detailed, naturalistic descriptions of scenes so that the reader can experience the investigation through the eyes of the investigator. All details have the same weight, so the reader isn’t able to tell what is important and what isn’t. If the reader wants to solve the mystery themselves, the reader must identify the relevant details on their own because Larsson won’t help.
But I think Hitchcock’s plodding recording of steps is not an artistic decision to control any of those factors. I think they reflect the audience’s need for that level of detail in order to understand the sequence of events.
If you compare a modern movie to an older movie, you’ll notice that we modern audiences take a lot for granted. Modern audiences are familiar with the lexicon of film, the language of storytelling on screen that we don’t need to see every step of someone parking their car and walking to the front of the store. If you show someone going to their car and then show them in the store, we know they drove to the store and parked. But if you weren’t as accustomed to watching 38 hours of television in a day in watching 11 four-hour movies over a weekend, you might not understand all these sudden cuts and jumps from one scene to another.
This isn’t really comparable to storytelling, but it’s a fun thing to know, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. When Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring premiered people freaked out a little bit.
When first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation. Many have called the first-night reaction a “riot” or “near-riot,” though this wording did not come about until reviews of later performances in 1924, over a decade later.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkwqPJZe8ms
I confess: when I first tried to listen to it, I found it strange and disjointed in places. But after listening to it for a bit, I “caught on” and I was able to make sense of it and I can understand why people might enjoy it.
Science has shown that when it comes to music, our brains actually change and adapt so that we’re able to understand things better. And that may explain why people were upset at The Rite of Spring initially, but later praised it.
My personal hypothesis is that storytelling — while it may not change the structure of your brain — has a similar requirement: audiences have to understand the “language” that the story is being told in in order to understand and appreciate it. Language here refers to the way the action is portrayed, what is explicit and what is left implicit, what certain things “mean” when we see them on screen.
Going back to Game of Thrones, many complained that the episode “The Long Night” was too dark. It was literally dark and I even wondered why they didn’t shoot the episode in blue light instead of actual blackness. After all, modern audiences understand that “blue light = night time.” This is part of the accepted conventions of storytelling in film.
So, with so many important things that would clarify characters’ motivations, I found myself wondering: am I falling behind in the language of storytelling for television? Am I actually at fault for not picking up on some subtle details in what characters have been saying and doing? Could it be that what audiences need to be told explicitly in order to understand the action of the story has changed so that I’m just not able to keep up?
I think the fact that so much of the audience was similarly perplexed, including people who take storytelling on screen very seriously and watch these stories very closely, is all the evidence we need to say “no,” but it’s in interesting to contemplate.
It’s too bad the writers of Game of Thrones didn’t do a better job telling these stories up to this point, but I am still hopeful about the last episode tomorrow night.