Last night’s penultimate Game of Thrones episode, “The Bells,” is officially the most disappointing in the show’s history. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%, it ranks even lower than season 5’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” (54%) which featured Sansa Stark’s brutal, controversial rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. In fact, a Redditor’s data analysis of Rotten Tomato ratings over the course of the show’s history shows a steep, one-way decline in ratings since the beginning of season 8.
The fact that those two episodes stand out as outliers in a show that’s otherwise been fairly well-reviewed is no coincidence. Sansa’s assault, seen through the eyes of a submissive, broken Theon (presumably in order to show us how helpless HE feels) felt like a gross injustice to the eldest Stark daughter’s character arc. Likewise, Daenerys Targaryen’s sudden Mad Queen pivot feels completely out of line with what we’ve been conditioned to expect from her so far. If there’s a lesson the Game of Thrones showrunner need to learn, it’s that trauma doesn’t equal character-building in women.
After eight seasons of claiming that she was seeking a better world, Daenerys instead chose to burn her birthright to the ground.The episode begins with her mourning Missandei, murdered by the Mountain on Cersei’s orders. For any other character, that might provide the necessary push to seek revenge at all costs. But Dany’s entire life has been full of setbacks, many worse than this one, and she’s never reacted this way. And so, we’re left wondering: Is it because Jon rebuffed her? Because she believes the only way to get to the throne is to erase it completely? Because she’s upset that Westeros didn’t welcome her with open arms? Because she felt lonely on Mother’s Day without two of her children? Because she lost the one person whose main function appeared to be braiding her hair? (Sigh, Missandei deserved better.)
It all feels incompatible with the Daenerys who once locked up her dragons because she was distraught that they ate one (!) Meereenese child. How could that same Dany heartlessly set fire to thousands of innocent women and children?
One could argue that her advisors — first Jorah Mormont, then Barristan Selmy, Tyrion Lannister and Varys — had always been around to reign her in. And we did see a glimmer of this “burn it all” attitude last season, when she responded to the Tarlys refusal to bend the knee by having Drogon roast them alive. The problem is, as with everything this season, that it all feels much too rushed.
There is a case to made for a storyline about a woman coming to terms with the fact that everything she believed about herself is not so. Daenerys rose from the ashes of Drogo’s hut with three live dragons. From then on, she knows herself to be special. She’s not just any queen, she’s the Mother of Dragons, and the Breaker of Chains. And for a while, everything seems to confirm this. The people of Meereen and Yunkai welcome her as a savior as she frees them from centuries of slavery; the Dothraki follow her across the Narrow Sea they so fear. And then she gets to Westeros to find that the people there have not, as she’s long been told, been sewing dragon banners and praying for her return. They’re just trying to survive A) The Night King, and B) their own petty squabbles. And that is devastating to her self-esteem.
But that’s not how the story actually unfolds. Instead, Daenerys arrives in Westeros, burning her way through the Lannister forces, and showing no mercy, despite her vows to be the ruler to break the cycle of violence and cruelty. Then Jon shows up, enlists her help to fight the Night King, and bends the knee. From there, Daenerys assumes that her birthright is settled, until she runs into Sansa, the first person in Westeros who doesn’t actually believe in her right to rule. And then...she kind of loses it. That last, major shift in character happens over the course of literally three fractured episodes, with that whole Battle at Winterfell thrown in.
So, you can understand why Daenerys’ sudden decision to follow in her father’s footsteps, after eight seasons indicating the contrary, might feel a narratively confusing. It’s like the show is saying — you thought you knew who the Big Bads were? Think again! We’re throwing the biggest one in at the last possible second — and she used to be the hero!
Just as a producer was quick to defend Sansa’s arc back in the day, showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss attempted to justify Daenerys’ dramatic shift in a post-episode featurette, emphasizing the fact that she feels betrayed by Jon (and — eye roll — the fact that he won’t sleep with her knowing she’s his aunt) as a reason for her to choose violence.
In reality, this is a storytelling flaw we’ve been seeing all season long: Jaime and Brienne have sex, and he suddenly leaves to pursue his true purpose; the Night King will be the death of everyone and everything, until he’s anticlimactically stopped half-way through the season. The pacing feels off. That’s what happens when you only have six — albeit super-sized — episodes to end an epic tale as multi-faceted and intricate such as this one. But it’s no excuse.
Worst of all, Daenerys arc appears to indicate that the show’s ultimate message will be that we cannot escape our fates, the very opposite of what it has been getting at over the course of eight seasons. And if that’s the case, then what was it all for?