Following Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell, fans were ready for an epic engagement along the walls at King’s Landing. Even with her forces diminished, Daenerys Targaryen looked to be more than a match for Cersei Lannister. The “last war” would be one for the ages. But what happened during the series’ penultimate episode took many fans completely by surprise.
To help me through the wreckage of this week’s episode, I called upon two experts in their respective fields. First, an author and a medieval scholar who focuses on the portrayal of medieval themes in modern culture. The second, an expert on fantasy literature, herself an accomplished educator and author. Together, we tried to make sense of a horrific display of savagery, even for a television series well-known for not pulling its punches.
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5, “The Bells.”]
In last Sunday’s penultimate episode, “The Bells,” the siege of King’s Landing quickly flashes over into a massacre. Moments after launching into the air on her dragon, Daenerys lays waste to the Iron Fleet, utterly destroying Euron Greyjoy’s formidable warships and their payload of deadly ballistas. She then circles the city from the air, catching dozens of weapon emplacements unaware before blasting the city’s defenses — and its gates — to rubble. The army of expensive sellswords arrayed against her are immolated, and the civilian population soon follows.
Paul B. Sturtevant, Ph.D. is the editor-in-chief of The Public Medievalist, a “volunteer, scholar-run online magazine devoted to the idea that the Middle Ages matter to people today,” and the author of The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. To him, the massacre at King’s Landing was reminiscent of similar atrocities that occurred after the end of the Roman Empire.
Sturtevant says the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, the climax of the First Crusade, sprang instantly to mind as Dany took flight over King’s Landing. But, so too did a lesser-known episode from early Christian history called the Albigensian Crusade. Under the reign of Pope Innocent III, a Catholic force attacked the European city of Béziers. The killing was so indiscriminate, and the destruction so wanton, that it’s said one of the Crusaders coined the phrase “Kill them all! God will know his own.” That phrasing would eventually be modernized into “Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out.”
But the intensity of the destruction was such that the only true corollary, in Sturtevant’s mind, was in the more modern concept of total warfare.
“The bombing of Dresden was during World War II,” Sturtevant says, “and it was when the Allies used incendiary devices ... and killed everyone in the city. Not through the explosive power of one nuclear bomb, but through progressive strikes that were meant to burn the city to ash and everyone in it.”
“This [episode of Game of Thrones] feels very modern to me,” Sturtevant continues, “because we are currently living in the age of the machine-gun. We are currently living in the age of the mass killing, the age where one person can kill 500 people with a single weapon without ever seeing their faces. Where we can drop bombs on people from above and from afar and never have to hear their screams. And that is one of the uniquely horrifying things about our current advanced technological age, and it has nothing to do with the Middle Ages.”
We are also in an age in which political ideologies that were put aside long ago by civilized societies have been reinvigorated. Sturtevant sees it in the almost willfully ignorant, regressive, and revisionist takes on Medieval history found in popular media, something that his work at The Public Medievalist is meant to combat. That made him particularly sensitive to the portrayal of Grey Worm in this week’s episode — a black man, a freed slave, a military leader, and the instigator of an out of control slaughter.
“This soldier who we have shown to be so spectacularly disciplined,” Sturtevant says, “is shown being the person who becomes — notably, the one black person that was still left on the show — he is the one that begins the murderous rampage.
“It all fits very nicely into this sort of post-Confederate fantasy of, ‘If we free the slaves, then they will rise up against us, they will exact their vengeance upon us,’” Sturtevant says. “It is exactly that narrative, but done on screen, in a way that I found really frustrating.”
The episode was no less frustrating for Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor at University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. As a self-described fan-girl of the Song of Ice and Fire series from George R. R. Martin, Thomas had hoped that the portrayal of Daenerys would have gone in a different direction.
“It was another mad woman who went the route of total war,” Thomas says. “But we already had a mad queen, which was Cersei. I thought that they were going to go with the ruthless queen arc for Dany, because she’s sort of reenacting her ancestor’s journey.”
Daenerys, of course, is the descendent of Aegon the Conqueror, the same man who united the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros with his own force of powerful dragons. He was also the same man who built The Red Keep, making Cersei the usurper not just of Westeros but of Dany’s ancestral home. It would have been rational, albeit ruthless, to attack Cersei and The Red Keep alone after the bells rang out. But Dany went much, much farther.
“I had found her an extremely compelling character,” Thomas says, “because what I thought [Martin] was doing with her [...] was sort of deconstructing the pretty, petite, blonde, white princess. Sort of the epitome of the desirable female character in western fairy tales.”
Instead, Thomas says that this latest episode turns Dany into a kind of caricature. While showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are responsible for the episode in detail, Thomas says that Martin has publicly said that this is roughly where Daenerys’ character is headed in the novels to come. She compares her to Maleficent, who literally becomes a fire-breathing dragon at the end of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty.
“I think the fear is on the part of the storyteller,” Thomas says. “And I know people are going to get mad at me for saying that. But what was so dangerous about making that girl act like Aegon the Conqueror?
“I’m not trying to offend,” Thomas says. “I think people think at this point that I’m angrier than I am. I’m not. Because I understand fantasy, I think [Martin, Benioff, and Weiss] just didn’t understand what that would do, either to girls and women who were listening to Dany for inspiration — which I wasn’t — or to someone like me who’s read fantasy over a lifetime. My god, I just wanted to see the pretty blond white woman deconstructed and become a badass and not a damsel.
“Instead, they did something else with Dany.”
The final episode of Game of Thrones airs on Sunday, May 19. Neither of the scholars we spoke with expect the Mother of Dragons to make it out alive.
The only question is how, ultimately, she will meet here fate.
“I’m sure they’re going to have some kind of grand, final fight between Daenerys and her allies, and unfortunately it’s going to be Daenerys and the last people of color now fighting against the cis-white dudes,” Sturtevant says. “Game of Thrones has become its most nihilistic self. I don’t need everything to be flowers and bunnies at the end, but I feel like it has become its most nihilistic, and therefore it’s most predictable, and least interesting self.”