Reviewed by Tania Evans
Part 5 in Tania’s review of the last season of Game of Thrones, read her review of Episode 1 here, Episode 2 here, Episode 3 here and Episode 4 here
Textual analysis, especially of popular television, is all about math. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner famously asked, what queer theory could teach us about X? When we textually analyse a text like Game of Thrones, we think through the sum of the parts, asking: what we get if we plus X with Y? What if we multiply by Z? In real terms we might ask, what do we make of a novel that presents a subversive account of gender, only to reinforce racial hierarchies? What are we to do with a television series that disarms our preconceptions about religion and sexuality, only to avoid engaging with issues of class? When matrices of power are articulated through one another, can a text really be said to add up to a ‘positive’ message if they divide us?
This ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ representational argument is limiting and out of date in cultural studies for good reason, but I bring it up now because after watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones and watching its reception unfold online and in real life, I fear that it is a trap the fandom is falling into. “The Bells” sees the siege on King’s Landing wherein Daenerys Targaryen’s forces face off against Cersei’s. Daenerys is victorious but she consciously chooses to set the city ablaze after the people surrender, making clear that she is unfit to rule Westeros after all.
Feminist fans have been quick to point out that this character arc makes little sense for Daenerys for a range of reasons, and that it is sexist given that Jon Snow is clearly being marked as a worthy substitute. I agree, and I have a lot of questions about the new direction Season Eight has taken in terms of its feminine characters. From the outside, it does not look good: Daenerys is mad, Cersei cowers in Jaime’s arms as the palace falls down around them, and Brienne was left weeping in Winterfell.
And yet for all of this sexist meandering, “The Bells” also presents a complex and important message about the (mis)use of violence and bodily autonomy: namely, that using violence to empower yourself is monstrous, whereas using violence to protect and empower others is not only acceptable but heroic. As I have argued elsewhere, the Martinverse often presents Cersei’s violence as disgusting because she uses it to maintain her own power and reinforce patriarchal structures, whereas Brienne’s violence is positioned as acceptable because she is committed to improving the world through chivalry (2018). Where previous seasons have seen Daenerys engage with an ambiguous mixture of these approaches, she fully indulges in individualistic violence in “The Bells.” After burning her advisor Varys alive, she flies to King’s Landing where she sets the Iron Fleet on fire and then burns the city gates down so her army can invade.
Jon leads Daenerys’s forces into the city, and they come across a large group of Lannister soldiers. All of the characters pause for a moment as the sound of Drogon destroying the city walls is audible in the background. The Lannister soldiers surrender, placing their swords on the ground. Soon thereafter, the city bells ring, signalling surrender. Viewers see Daenerys watch this scene unfold from Drogon’s back in a medium close up, rage visible on her face as she chooses to destroy the city she has worked so hard to save.
Mirroring Daenerys’s bloodlust, Grey Worm throws a spear at one of the Lannister soldiers who just surrendered, and the two armies enter into a bloody battle. Savvy viewers will have noticed that the violence was at its goriest: blood sprayed every which way, people burned alive, and bloody and smoking corpses littered almost every scene. More than just a simple gore-fest, this grotesque mise-en-scene works to critique Daenerys’s rage-fuelled violence.
“The Bells” is certainly not the first time Daenerys has killed people with dragonfire; she destroyed the Meereenese nobles in “And Now His Watch Is Ended” (S3E4) and set all of the Dothraki Khals on fire in Book of the Stranger (S6E4). What distinguishes her violence in “The Bells”—what makes it unacceptable—is her motivation. In the other episodes I have mentioned, Daenerys uses violence to empower slaves and Dothraki, respectively (even though that empowerment is tinged with colonialist assumptions about bettering the subaltern, who certainly do not speak in Game of Thrones). But in “The Bells,” Daenerys chooses to use violence out of anger: she is angry with Cersei for murdering Missandei and Rhaegal; she is angry with Jon for telling others about his parentage; and she is angry at the Westeorsi because she believes that they love Jon more then her. These reasons are not well expressed onscreen, but her anger is clear. Daenerys’s rage drives her to violence, and her violence is consequently presented as horrific. There are subtle nods to the ways in which Daenerys and Cersei have become similar: both women wear red, and as Daenerys’s army invades a reprise of the song “Light of the Seven” is audible, the same song that was used when Cersei blew up the Sept of Baelor to destroy her enemies (“The Winds of Winter”). Daenerys, like Cersei, has become a monstrous woman because she uses violence in ways that reinforce patriarchal structures.
Amid the mayhem, Jon Snow and Arya Stark become the heroes of the episode as they fight to protect the innocent from slaughter. Along with securing an initially peaceful surrender from the Lannister forces, Jon saves a woman from rape by killing the rapist. Meanwhile, Arya and Sandor Clegane journey to the Red Keep, intent on murdering Cersei. But as they walk across the painted map of Westeros upon which Jaime abandoned Cersei in season seven, Sandor persuades Arya to abandon her quest for violent revenge. He says, “You think you wanted revenge a long time? I’ve been at it all my life. It’s all I care about. And look at me. Look at me! You want to be like me? You come with me, you die here.” Arya looks at this queer father figure and says, “Sandor. Thank you,” before leaving the palace. The conversation is perhaps the most significant in the entire series for Arya, for her character shifts from her eight-season-long quest for vengeance against those who have wronged her to something new and potentially more productive. Sandor’s vengeful fight with his brother Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane is edited so that it is intercut with scenes of Arya trying to flee the mayhem, highlighting the fact that Sandor’s violence leads him to die whereas Arya is helped by the smallfolk around her. She spends the rest of the episode trying unsuccessfully to save other unnamed characters the citadel. We are invited to empathise with the blood-soaked Arya as she tries in vain to help those who are less powerful than she. Through her, the audience is also presented with the brutality of Daenerys’s violence: the charred remains of a child holding their mother, and a girl holding a toy horse. The camera lingers on these corpses and the audience is encouraged to share in Arya’s sadness and frustration.
“The Bells” presents us with a strong message about masculinity and violence. Anger and any other individualistic motivation are unacceptable reasons for using physical force. If violence is to be used at all, it must only be in service to others: protecting those who cannot protect themselves, overthrowing harmful regimes, making the world a more liveable place. These messages are significant for the real world as nations like the United States and Britain grapple with right wing attempts to put the national self before the global Other regardless of the very real economic, environmental, and human losses that individualism causes. “The Bells” leaves us with a timely message about the importance of caring for the Other, and the devastation that unrestrained violence causes. The ash from Drogon’s fire echoes the snow in Winterfell and the army of the dead, reminding us that our own violence is just as likely to bring along the Long Night as environmental disaster.
“The Bells” adds up to a critical and timely critique of violence, but is its value ‘worth’ Daenerys’s descent into madness? Is it more important to reject individualistic violence than it is to represent women as powerful leaders? What is being subtracted from the series through this sudden antifeminist shift? What can Game of Thrones teach us about X?
Berlant, L. and Warner, M., 1995. Guest column: What does queer theory teach us about x?. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, pp.343-349.
Evans, Tania. “Vile, Scheming, Evil Bitches? The monstrous feminine meets hegemonic masculinities in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.” Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies 5 (1): June 2018.
Tania Evans is a cultural studies researcher at the Australian National University, Australia. Her PhD on masculinity and Fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - current) and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011-2019), was recently passed and she will be graduating in July 2019. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika Journal, Masculinities, and Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. She teaches literary studies, film, and feminist theory.
Read more of Tania’s work on Game of Thrones here:
- An article on Cersei in Aeternum: https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
- A meme version of this article: http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/10-memes-explain-how-game-thrones-cersei-lannister-blowing-patriarchy
- A book chapter on Shireen: https://www.palgrave.com/jp/book/9783319964560