Another episode of Game of Thrones and another cry of indignation from fans. This seems to have become the norm with this season, the cracks having started to form in the one previous. Coincidentally, these are the seasons where the showrunners have truly had to go on without source material; season six was still dealing with the consequences of five/Dance with Dragons. And while I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting Martin’s book–I’d argue the show has mostly been superior to the books–they are now exposed. A series that was once full of clever and unexpected upheavals of tropes has now become a well-crafted but conventional spectacle.
The obvious defence for these guys is that this is an extraordinarily difficult position to be in. How do you possibly satisfy a legion of fans after setting the bar so impossibly high with moments like Ned Stark’s beheading, the birth of Dany’s dragons, the Red Wedding, and the Mountain vs the Viper. Not even Martin himself seems to have an answer as it is now eight years and counting since the last book. I’m sympathetic to this position, but I still can’t help but vent my frustrations nonetheless.
Discussing the latest episode, “The Bells,” D&D said something along the lines of wanting to shock fans. Fair enough. The series has defined itself by shocking moments, a few of which I listed above. But these shocking moments have felt more like empty spectacle than the hard-earned storytelling twists of previous seasons. And now Daenerys Stormborn, mother of dragons, breaker of chains, first of her name, has turned heel faster than Gendry Baratheon ran the Great Northern Marathon.
I recently wrote about fans throwing undeserved shade at creators for plot points not going according to their liking, and I think there’s a lot of that going around with Daenerys right now. Personally, I’m fine with her character arc in premise, but take issue with how D&D put it in practice.
To sum up, Daenerys opened up a can of whoop ass on King’s Landing, as she is wont to do. However, when Cersei rang the bells in surrender, Dany decided to go nuclear and burn the city to the ground, innocent lives be damned. A lot of people defending this plot twist have pointed out all the misery that has befallen her since coming to Westeros, and even before that. And I’m inclined to agree. She’s been through a lot and was at a breaking point. Also, give it up to Emilia Clarke for some excellent acting. Without having to say a word, she emoted so much with those expressive eyebrows.
Here’s my issue: Throughout the series, Daenerys has been shown to have a mean streak. There’s no denying that. Now, having lost so much she’s ready to snap. That’s all on the table. However, on the other hand, we have seen time and again the lengths she’ll go to protect innocent lives. She locked her dragons away in a cave because they killed one child. And while D&D did show that she can be ruthless to those that dare oppose her, they never once hinted that she was willing to go back on her commitment to the people.
That’s why it was so shocking to see Drogon mowing down streets of families. I could understand if she had just attacked the Red Keep after the bells rang, which caused some causalities and then her soldiers got outta hand, etc. That was within reason given everything leading up to it. But to go full nuclear on King’s Landing was beyond the pale. Sure, you can say that she had a complete breakdown and went crazy. She’s a Targaryen after all. But I don’t buy that. Her sanity was never really in question.
Which brings me back to my point about empty spectacle. I think the showrunners wanted to have that moment on TV of Daenerys burning King’s Landing to the ground. And fair enough, it was compelling drama. The production team all deserve tons of credit. I almost feel bad criticizing the episode, like I’m an ungrateful brat. But it’s not the same as great storytelling, which is what we really want.
All Game of Thrones fans have had to endure at one time or another the snide remarks of the uninitiated dismissing it as “that show with tits and dragons.” But fans know that what puts GoT above its peers is how Martin uses tropes against the audience, the way he builds rich character arcs, and his willingness to explore moral grey areas. And that’s what’s so disappointing about the latest two seasons; they’re guilty of all the things its detractors claim.
To me, it seems like D&D decided they wanted certain moments, like Rhaegal burning down the wall and Dany torching King’s Landing, and the plot had to wrung through a Procrustean bed in order to make that work. Maybe Martin will get around to finishing those last two books and we’ll get something better. But something tells me that he doesn’t know what to do, either.