The Madness of Queen Daenerys
Ooooookay. So I talk about Game of Thrones on Twitter from time to time, but it’s hard to do without adding to the minefield of spoilers already out there, and as someone who watches on Monday I hate doing that. SO. Blog post time! I’m writing this after S08E05 “Bells”, and it may be obsolete by this Sunday. Who knows! But there are spoilers through that episode below.
Spoiler break/saxophone solo!
Okay. So, like most of the internet, I watched this episode and was … not thrilled. Because I am hashtag on brand, the stuff I immediately complained about was various tactical and world-building failures, and these are pretty awful. Why do armies in Westros keep lining up outside their defensive walls, for example? If Cersei is assuming the scorpions will keep Drogon away, sending the Golden Company out to fight a field battle is just kind of dumb. Speaking of scorpions, uh, what happened to them? They were deadly accurate in the previous episode over incredible range with a high rate of fire, and in this episode Dany’s brilliant plan to destroy them is just … not to get hit. If she was going to do that she could have sunk the Iron Fleet last episode and saved Missendei. The most impressive Darwin Award, as usual, goes to Jon Snow and his merry band, who decide to run further in to the city that their dragon-wielding queen has just started torching. Great job guys!
Dany’s plan, even from the beginning, makes no sense, since she doesn’t need to risk her army at all. If we’re assuming that for some reason Drogon can take out the scorpions, all she has to do is fly to the Red Keep, annihilate Cersei and all her closest advisors (which Drogon is apparently easily capable of) and then wait for everyone else to give up. The Golden Company certain isn’t going to fight for an employer buried under a ton of rubble.
Blah blah blah. I could go on. (I did, actually, about the question of what tactics to use against a zombie army. tl;dr doesn’t matter, you’re screwed.) But these things are honestly not why this episode, and this season as a whole, are bad. They don’t help. Logic and consistency are the underpinnings of story, the skeleton holding up the juicy parts. They’re not what it’s about, but and a few failures are easy to forgive, but the worse it gets the more everything starts to look flabby. However, to my mind, there are larger problems, and two of the big ones a the substitution of spectacle for emotional connection and Dany’s broken character arc.
(Note: there are other problems! Race problems! Gender problems! The frankly bizarre decision to finish with the Night King first, as though he were a mini-boss, is hard to assess not having seen the finale, but I’m pretty confident it was a terrible choice. My analogy has been it’s like if Return of the Jedi had Luke defeat the Emperor, then go back and deal with Jabba. I mean, plausible, I suppose, but structurally/dramatically nonsense. Anyway, these are just the subset of problems I’m writing about today.)
I joked to my friends after episode five that I think the problem with this season is that they have too much money. And that’s … not quite a joke. The amount of production work lavished on these episodes is mind-boggling, but I can’t help but feel like — especially in the case of “The Long Night” — it’s an attempt to cover for something missing. Like the showrunners know that their ending, plot- and character-wise, isn’t especially satisfying, but they’re trying to make up for it with sheer awesomeness: more dragons, more zombies, more cities exploding. But it doesn’t work if there’s nothing happening.
I found myself literally bored during these episodes, especially the middle section of “Long Night” and the back half of “Bells”. There are long stretches where the screen is full of movement, people are screaming and burning and getting eaten, but it feels like nothing is happening because the situation isn’t changing from moment to moment, from shot to shot. In “Long Night” it’s these endless montages of people fighting zombies — ok, yeah, still fighting, ok, he’s also still fighting, ok, sure, still fighting, we get it. In “Bells” it’s actually even worse because it’s mostly not even main characters we theoretically care about, there’s just shot after shot of a street of buildings exploding and people running out on fire. Which like, yeah! This is a big event. We understand. But it feels indulgent.
What it comes down to for me is people say they like spectacle, it’s what they remember, but what really draws them is emotion. In Lord of the Rings, we remember Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields, and those definitely were big special-effects extravaganzas, but they also both pack a hell of an emotional punch. Things happen, during the battle, that get us excited — in “Bells”, once Dany starts burning down the city, it’s all over but the shouting. All that’s left to find out is which characters survive.
So that brings us to Dany. And here’s where the show has, to my mind, fallen down most badly. Game of Thrones has always been about understandably awful characters — the kind of people who are fascinating to watch because you can sort of see why they do things, even though it’s terrible. Jaime and Tyrion, Stannis and Melisandre, Varys and Littlefinger. And Dany is very much one of these characters — as various people have noted, it’s not like this is an out-of-nowhere face-heel turn for her, she’s committed her share of war crimes and atrocities.
It feels like the burning of King’s Landing as her tipping point, the final straw for Jon Snow and her other allies, could be a thing that works. The possibility is there. I keep seeing apologia for “Bells” citing all her past problems, trying to say that the show has been building up to this, and … yeah, it’s definitely a thing. To get meta-textual for a minute, I suspect this was one of the infamous “three surprises” that George told D&D, the other two being Hodor’s origin and death and Jon Snow’s parentage. All the Dany-flirts-with-madness stuff was there in the early seasons because it was there in the books, and later because they knew they were headed for this moment.
But they have absolutely fucked it up bigtime.
The problem is, the staging of the big moment — the point where Dany decides to burn the city down — makes it so that the only option for Dany’s character is that she has just gone full-on ax-crazy, underpants-on-head insane. And that’s not a logical progression of her character arc. What we’ve seen from her is obsession and a need for vengeance, neither of which point in the direction of “burn the city down after it surrenders”. Burn it down before it surrenders, on the ground of military expediency — sure. Burn down the Red Keep even after surrender, on the ground of revenge against Cersei, sure. Any number of atrocities against Cersei and her henchmen personally would be totally in character for Dany (and horrifying to Jon Snow et al) and could serve a similar purpose. But the only way to get to her burning down the city, under the circumstances they gave us, is just … she’s crazy now, and her decisions don’t have to make sense. She passes out of the realm of those “awful but understandable” characters and into just being a loon. (Note that in “Bells” we don’t see Dany again after she decides to burn the city — Drogon is just there, like a natural disaster.)
And the tragic thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. Offering rewrites of stuff like this is always a mixed bag, because often so much would have to change, but in this case you can sort of see what they were getting at so a better way feels tantalizingly close. So let’s think about the following scenario:
Imagine that, somehow, Team Dany comes up with a way to negate Cersei’s scorpions. Maybe they do a commando mission to burn them or something. Whatever happens, when the smoke clears it’s now obvious that King’s Landing is at Drogon’s mercy. But! Cersei reveals her last gambit — she’s re-created the Mad King’s wildfire plan, and placed caches of the stuff all over town. If Drogon attacks, it will touch it all off and everyone in the city dies in the conflagration. She demands that her enemies surrender, with the helpless citizens as hostage.
Now Jon and Dany can have an argument about burning the city that makes some kind of sense. Jon could say, there’s a million innocent people in that city, we can’t do this, we have to back off and find another way or cut a deal with Cersei. Dany could say, if we back off our army will melt away, we have to finish this now, the Iron Throne is mine by rights. And then, eventually, Dany goes off on her own and flies to the city herself, confronts Cersei, and burns everything.
The key here is that this kind of madness does follow from what we know of Dany so far. She struggles to be a good queen, to care about the lives of her subjects. But she’s prone to violent flares of temper, and she has an absolute obsession with the right to the throne of Westros, in spite of everything. Burning the city fits with her character, and while Jon and company would still consider it a horrible atrocity, setting up the final Jon/Dany confrontation, Dany would retain that quality of being understandable that has made the show’s best characters work. It’s not the only viable scenario, obviously, but it’s an example of the kind of thing that would work better.
(It also brings to mind the weird lack of focus in these episodes. Like after all this time, all this buildup, after Missendei’s death and the plotting and Euron’s killing Rhaegal and on and on … Dany and Cersei never come face to face? There’s no scene where Cersei is drinking her wine in the tower, and Drogon rises up in front of her, huge and menacing. Instead the climactic moment of the fall of the Red Keep is dedicated to a confrontation between … Sandor and Gregor Clegane, two characters whose animosity hasn’t been mentioned in like four seasons, one of whom is already dead. It’s frankly baffling.)
Anyway, this is why I think you can say both, a) Dany’s potential madness was foreshadowed in the show, but also b) “Bells” was deeply unsatisfying and butchered her character. Because “madness” doesn’t just mean “now this character’s actions stop making any sense at all,” at least with competent writers.
NOTE TO PEOPLE OF THE FUTURE, SPECIFICALLY AFTER NEXT SUNDAY: So, an odd detail is that there are definitely pots of bursting wildfire in the city while it burns, and I’m not sure why. It’s barely possible that they’ll try to pull something like, “Dany knew that Cersei had mined the city and burning it with Drogon … stopped that somehow?” If so, I’m calling bullshit on that in advance, for all kinds of reasons…