1:16pm PT by Maureen Ryan
Critic's Notebook: In the End, 'Game of Thrones' Finds a Way to Make Its Woman Problem Worse
[This story contains spoilers from the May 12 episode of Game of Thrones.]
"Don't do it. Don't do it. Do not do this!"
I shouted that at the TV screen Sunday night, but I wasn't talking to Daenerys. I was shouting at the writers and architects of Game of Thrones, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
But they did it. They not only gave Daenerys the least-earned character turn in the show's history — maybe in television history — they rubbed our faces in this colossal mistake for what felt like an eternity. To say the show befouled the bed in its penultimate episode, "The Bells," is putting it mildly.
Let me ask you this: What prompted Dany to burn King's Landing? In the moment, that is. The allied forces of Dany and the North had won. In the interests of time, let's leave aside the fact that it was comically easy to kill a dragon only a week ago, but this time, the dragon deftly avoided every projectile and Dany destroyed every scorpion without even breaking a sweat. That was the first laughable moment in an episode that, ultimately, was anything but funny, given how it left the HBO drama's unreliable reputation for quality in smoldering ruins.
In any event, when Dany rested her dragon on a King's Landing wall and realized that she was victorious and the Iron Throne was (probably) hers, what — right then and there — prompted her to decide to burn the city?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
There was no proximate cause, no essential reason for the character to take that horrific action at that moment. To say that a character — or a person — has mental illness in their family tree and thus has no control over their actions is astoundingly reductive and plays into harmful and lazy stereotypes. It's also just boring writing to make a character do something stupid and then handwave it away with "Something, something mental illness!"
That's not only offensive, that's a generality that does nothing to justify that drastic action in that particular moment. All in all, the show has done a piss-poor job of explaining why Daenerys would decide to destroy the very prize she had set her heart on ruling a decade ago. We watched eight seasons of a woman at least attempting to use or think about power differently. Until she didn't. Because … reasons.
Because she had been burned by personal losses? No, sorry, that won't fly. The deaths she's endured recently have certainly contributed to her current mental state, but in the past, we've seen her go through horrific experiences and major grief without murdering thousands of people. Even when she has made mistakes, it was usually in the midst of making strategic decisions that were designed to get her to the next stage of her plan. "Because she was angry" doesn't work, because we've seen her be furious while also demonstrating restraint and realistically assessing the best way forward.
Inescapably, infuriatingly, what we're left with is apparently the central message of Game of Thrones: Bitches are crazy.
Here's how little the show thinks of Dany and how ill-served she was in "The Bells": Once the attack on King's Landing began, we didn't see her face. A core character was reduced to a vengeance-fueled cypher. All we observed, for what felt like pummeling hours, was dragonfire roasting citizens, knocking down buildings, and terrorizing soldiers and civilians alike. Despite Emilia Clarke's superlative acting abilities, we didn't see Dany for the majority of the episode's running time. She was just a faceless, personality-free supervillain, the kind you see in a by-the-numbers blockbuster. We'd been invited to understand Dany's point of view for all these years, but as the endgame approached in "The Bells," the writing made her less interesting than the purple potato known as Thanos.
In its best moments, Game of Thrones has been so much better than this, but every season has been uneven, and this season has been the most slapdash, rushed and insulting of all. At this point, I don't care what happens in the series finale, because the show has already destroyed its legacy, as far as I'm concerned. Of course, a good chunk of that legacy has to do with how ill-served its female characters have been, and the show went out of its way to double down on that in "The Bells."
Brienne was last seen wearing her robe, crying over a boy who broke her heart. The show took the beauty of Jaime knighting Brienne and — again, thanks to tin-eared, threadbare writing — turned it into a bad subplot on a crappy soap opera.
Game of Thrones used to be intermittently interested in exploring and complicating Cersei, which makes sense, given how tremendous a performer Lena Headey is. But this season especially, Cersei has been reduced to a flat, one-dimensional villain, one who is mostly offscreen, except in the occasional scenes in which she smirks or drops smug, acidic commentary. Cersei barely spoke in "The Bells," except for when the show was about to kill her off.
Sansa wasn't even onscreen. Everyone in Westeros has made mistakes in their time, Sansa included, but at this point, she's shown more wisdom than most of the characters left alive. She's the most level-headed leadership material the kingdom has at the moment. So, of course, she sitting around tending the hearth in the North and hasn't been given much of interest to do (aside from being portrayed as disloyal to Jon Snow). Not surprisingly, the continually ineffectual Jon Snow wandered around in "The Bells" and once again, didn't really accomplish much. And the show is apparently just dying to put a crown on his head. Because … reasons?
If the show had given us more than a couple minutes of Arya and the Hound actually interacting in the past few episodes (or seasons), maybe her decision to forgo revenge on Cersei — you know, a huge part of the motivation that has driven her for years — would have made more sense. It's not that I needed her to kill Cersei, but once Arya was in the Red Keep, the writing for her was abrupt and took the path of least resistance. Maisie Williams gave a terrific performance in the episode, but the messages "The Bells" was sending were so depressingly incoherent that it was hard to care about any of it.
"The Bells" was full of sound and fury that signified nothing, aside from an ungainly sprint to the finish line. It made me feel ill to see so much effort and money wasted on such trivial, silly, nihilistic and sexist storylines. And honestly, the men didn't fare much better: All that character development of Jaime was apparently wasted, and I'm trying to come up with a list of good decisions Tyrion made lately and I'm not coming up with much. This superlative cast deserved better.
In "The Bells," there were moments that could have contained emotional resonance, but that potential was overshadowed by decisions that Benioff and Weiss set up and executed with little or no foresight or thoughtfulness. At this point, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Game of Thrones creative team thought spectacle would make up for the lack of well-honed concluding character moments. As impressive as the visuals in "The Bells" were, they were ultimately hollow: The explosions served mostly as a reminder that Game of Thrones likes to kill people in large numbers when it runs out of ideas.
Landing like enormous chunks of masonry were so many adolescent, superficial takes on what could have been meaty themes. If it was saying anything, "The Bells" appeared to be stating that cycles of oppression and abuse can't be undone. Rulers are always self-serving and driven by greed and paranoia. Most people can't see beyond their own self-interest. The little people will always get crushed. Douchebros like Euron Greyjoy will always wear leather pants.
So much money spent, so much time spent, all for a show that never knew how to write its women consistently well and that had immature conceptions of how to end their tales. The best-executed major plot turns are moving and tragic because they feel surprising and yet inevitable. Given the right kind of in-depth character development, we could have wept for the choices Daenerys, Brienne, Sansa or Cersei made. I grind my teeth when I think about what this show turned out to be versus what it could have been. At its best, its characters have given us moving and wonderfully complex moments, but "The Bells" was Game of Thrones at its worst, and it did untold damage to the show as a whole. It's going to be hard to think of the show without feeling nauseated by what it did — especially to its women — in the home stretch.
And now that Benioff and Weiss are done dumping on one pop-culture touchstone, I feel even more depressed about the fact that they've been tapped to work within the Star Wars universe. The writing staff of Game of Thrones was almost exclusively male and white, as were the ranks of the show's directors. This lack of inclusion has contributed to eight seasons of writing for women — especially women of color — that was problematic, to say the very least. The writers and directors of the Star Wars franchise — and the showrunners it has hired for TV — are almost all white and male as well. As in Westeros, as in Hollywood: The cycle repeats itself.
At this point, it doesn't matter if we ring the pop-culture bells, it doesn't matter if we surrender to this state of affairs. What are the odds they're going to burn that beloved property to the ground too?