Game of Thrones' penultimate episode "The Bells" has caused the biggest uproar in the show's fandom, ever. Season 8 episode 5 saw the final big battle sequence of the series unfold in King's Landing, as Daenerys and her army tried to 'pluck' Cersei Lannister from her stronghold in the Red Keep.
The big turn in "The Bells" came with the sounding of the titular instruments: Tyrion Lannister managed to negotiate a chance at mercy for King's Landing, if the people simply rang the cities bells to signal their surrender, and allegiance to Queen Daenerys. The bells ended up getting rung, but instead of mercy, Daenerys chooses to instead lay waste to King's Landing, burning the city and its inhabitants (men, women, and children) in a horrific rain of dragon fire. That turn in the character now has Game of Thrones fans claiming that Daenerys is "The Mad Queen" - a reference to her father, The Mad King's, attempt to do the same to King's Landing years before. Needless to say, after "The Bells", a lot of viewers are not happy about turn in Dany's character.
Since the episode aired, social media has been lit up with complaints that Daenerys' turn from liberator of slaves to murderer of innocents was rushed, unearned, or downright wrong. However, that assessment arguably comes from a lot of fans projection of who they want Daenerys to be, rather than the actual character that George R.R. Martin has been building in his books (and subsequently the show) all along. Here is the reason that Daenery's big turn in "The Bells" wasn't madness, but rather the necessary strategy for ending the war with the Lannisters.
The "Chain Breaker"
A lot of viewers saw the pivotal moment of Daenerys' change to "Mad Queen" happen during that big pause in battle, during the Siege of King's Landing; however, the turn in Dany's character arguably came much earlier in the episode, when Jon Snow comes to Daenerys to try to once again (foolishly) argue that his Targaryen heritage will not threaten her claim to the throne. Dany listens to Jon's pleas, but she knows better: she's seen how the people of Westeros operate, and knows that they will inevitably side with Jon over 'the foreign queen' they see her as.
It's important to stop here and note the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen we've witnessed up to this point. A lot of fans have chosen to focus on the 'Daenerys the Liberator' persona that grew out of later seasons of Game of Thrones - but at her core, Daenerys has always been one thing: a survivor with one, sole ambition: taking back the Iron Throne in the name of her family. Dany has killed for that mission in some horrific ways before, either to hold on to her own resources of power, or to quell anyone who dared challenge her claim to rule. Acts like liberating slaves, freeing cities, saving the innocent from peril: these have always been political moves for Daenerys, and we've repeatedly seen her bury personal empathy or desire in order to further the mission (see: breaking ties with Dario and Sir Jorah). It should be no surprise by now that Daenerys is capable of burying noble moral ideas like mercy in order to commit a violent act for the sake of political power and advancement. It's been the arc of her character (almost) the entire time Game of Thrones has been unfolding.
...Which brings us back to the scene with Jon Snow in "The Bells". Jon has been the only real deviation in Dany's arc: a source of emotion and affection that supersedes her political ambitions. When Dany confesses to Sansa that she loves Jon, it is a show of genuine emotion; comparatively, even Dany's relationship with Khal Drogo in season 1 was seen to be a strategic conquering, meant to advance her political goals. So by the opening acts of "The Bells", it is quite significant that Dany is willing to give Jon even one last shot, after the writing is clearly on the wall that she will never be welcomed as ruler by the people of Westeros (see: Varys trying to poison her). Following that same character thread, it also becomes clear why Jon Snow did far more damage than he ever considered, when he rebuked Dany's affections in that intimate scene between them.
As Dany clearly tells Jon, the options for her rule are acceptance by way of either love or fear; when Jon (representing the people of Westeros) also shows that he cannot love her fully and genuinely, Dany's deviation from character is over. When she says "Fear then" to Jon, it is the turning moment, as Dany accepts the heavy re-commitment to her original and solitary motivation (solidifying her rule), with the crystal-clear knowledge that Westeros (from King's Landing all the way North) will never welcome her, despite her attempts to both personally and politically secure their love.
Once in full ruler mode, Daenerys sights turn to her immediate enemy and challenger: Cersei Lannister.
Clash of Queens
Let's go back to that big, pregnant pause scene during the Seige of King's Landing. As stated above, a lot of fans mistakenly take this as the moment of Daenerys' big "Mad Queen" turn. To be fair, "The Bells" director Miguel Sapochnik kind of confuses the moment with how he presents the scene, shooting it as if Dany is somehow going mad at the sound of bells ringing (as if!). As pointed out above, Daenerys had already made the decision about the hard tactics that were going to further her politics goals in this conflict (read: fiery slaughter), before the Seige of King's Landing ever began. So what the hell is that contemplative moment all about, then?
While Tyrion's perspective is included to build tension around the whole bells metaphor, the main thrust of the bell ringing scene are the cuts between the perspectives of Daenerys and Cersei Lannister, staring at one another across the expanse of the battlefield. What we're witnessing is not the typical clash of swords that we see on Game of Thrones, but rather the clash of wills between two powerful would-be queens, and more importantly, two women with very different perspectives on the pathways to claiming power.
As Cersei has lamented in her best (read: drunken) moments, her quest for power has always had to bend and wind around the wills of men. Whether it was Rhaegar Targaryen, her father, King Robert, or even her sons when they were crowned king - Cersei has been all too aware of how submission has been her only leverage to obtaining power. Conversely, since the moment she stopped letting Khal Drogo bend her over and have his way with her, Danenerys has been defined by achieving power through not submitting - including not submitting to her own heart (the sacrifice she makes when Jon rebukes her).
That brings us to the people of King's Landing: Cersei's entire point of gathering the common people around the Red Keep isn't benevolent protection (obvs!) - it's to push Dany, her female opponent, into a position of forced mercy. And it's a plan that almost works.
Dany's adviser (Tyrion) and lover (Jon) both push her for mercy - which arguably would've seen both men once again fall into Cersei Lannister's trap. Because while it's nice to imagine that the surrender of King's Landing would've made Cersei come to her senses and call off all conflict and submit to Daenerys' rule, there's literally zero evidence from anywhere in the preceding story to support such a turn in Cersei's character. Dany's mercy would've more likely been Cersei's chance to once again spin things to her advantage - and Dany seems to be the only character in her war council (and a fair amount of the audience) to understand this.
At the end of the bell ringing moment Dany doesn't go mad: she has to face the dark resolve of showing Cersei Lannister what 'willpower over emotion' truly means. That's arguably why the sequence of Dany burning down King's Landing never really features shots of her up close, where her emotional narrative would be evident: The destructive act is a strategic decision for Dany to demonstrate the depth of her resolve - her emotions about it are literally and figuratively irrelevant in the moment (the finale episode will have to resolve that matter). And when Dany does commit to the carnage, refusing to be cowed into mercy, Cersei knows for sure that she's been defeated by the younger queen who was always prophesied to beat her. Dany saw the challenge, met it, and won the Clash of Queens.
The Hysterical Woman
The problem with a lot of the reaction to Daenerys' turn in "The Bells" is that a lot of viewers mistake it for some kind of emotional breakdown, rather than a painful strategic decision by a powerful leader. It takes a great deal away from the character to paint her as a "hysterical woman" stereotype, when the character work has been carefully laid out to show otherwise. The complexity of a female leader making a strategic decision that flies in the face of usual stereotypes of female nurturing and passivity shouldn't be ignored or overlooked here. After all, it's a subject that's quickly becoming part of the growing debate about our imminent political future.
Now, it *is* perfectly fair to argue that the execution of this pivotal character transition was mishandled in "The Bells". It's fair to argue that the scene of the Dany's "Fear then" conversation was too understated, while the moment of the bells ringing was too overdone. However, calling it a "rushed" or "unearned" character turn for Daenerys Targaryen is arguably missing the point of the episode - as well as seven seasons and four episodes of character work building up to it.
You probably disagree though - let us know why in the comments!
Game of Thrones' final episode airts this Sunday @9/8c on HBO. Odds are, fans are only going to be more angry afterwards.
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