Game of Thrones season 8: Daenerys' decimation of King's Landing needs to be seen in the context of this historical event
Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 has concluded and left in its wake a few beautiful moments, lots of shattered fan expectations, and several nuanced thinkpieces.
There were certain scenes in The Bells (full episode recap here) that are worthy of mention: The Tyrion-Jaime farewell, the end of the Lannister twins, the Hound dissuading Arya from the pursuit of vengeance, the wordless exchange between Jon and Ser Davos in the midst of the sacking of King's Landing, and (for better or worse) Cleganebowl.
But towering above all those moments was Daenerys Targaryen's destruction of the capital of the Seven Kingdoms.
Visually, it made for a fearsome spectacle: Drogon's silhouette looming over the roofs of King's Landing, right before his rider decided to unleash her fury on its hapless citizenry; the dragonfire setting off those long-hidden caches of wildfire (laid at the command of Daenerys' father, Aerys II Targaryen), the flames chewing through stone and flesh indiscriminately.
The action itself — Daenerys' transformation into Queen of the Ashes — has had viewers divided.
Read our Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 review: Daenerys' last war is a fierce, fiery but empty spectacle
Many cannot reconcile her previously heroic persona — the "breaker of chains" — with this queen who would decimate an entire city and its residents in the space of several minutes.
Some believe that in choosing this path for Daenerys, Game of Thrones has shown the scant regard it has for its strongest female characters.
Others say that there was sufficient foreshadowing on the part of Game of Thrones to indicate that this was an inevitable conclusion to Daenerys' trajectory. They do, however, feel that the manner in which showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff have rushed through the "Mad Queen" metamorphosis makes what should have been a natural progression of Daenerys' character arc seem forced, contrived.
George RR Martin does lay the groundwork for Daenerys' transformation in a far more masterful way in A Dance With Dragons. It would have been a feat near impossible for the showrunners to replicate on screen, mainly because in the books, we have access to Daenerys' thoughts and state of mind — and an unlimited expanse of pages to explore them in.
But Weiss and Benioff do get points for trying: For instance, if there's one thing The Last of the Starks (S8 E4) achieved, it was in demonstrating Daenerys' isolation from those around her. In The Bells, that isolation is even more complete — there is no one with whom to share her grief. When she lost Drogo and her baby, she had Jorah, Irri, Doreah, Rakharo, part of a khalasar around her, and then she had her dragons. When she lost Viserion too, she was surrounded by those who cared deeply for her — and then there was Jon. Now, when Missandei has been executed and Rhaegal shot out of the sky, she is alone. Her Hand (Tyrion) fears her and she believes he still retains some allegiance to his siblings. Her advisor (Varys) no longer believes that her reign would be in the realm's best interests. And Jon and she have been driven apart entirely by the revelation of his parentage and their blood ties.
The desolation Daenerys channels at Dragonstone in the initial minutes of The Bells is all too real.
Is it enough to make plausible her actions in King's Landing? And more importantly, the split second switch in which she decides to raze the city to the ground?
An excellent critique by The Atlantic's Megan Garber argues that the suddenness of Daenerys' shift in The Bells, was what ultimately made it so horrifying.
Garber points out just how much can be read into this "switch": the ways in which the whims of the powerful dictate the lives and fates of the powerless, how wars (even those fought with the most altruistic of intentions) frequently spin out of control, the consequences of unchecked might.
Beyond this articulation, Daenerys Targaryen's actions in The Bells are better understood when viewed through the lens of one real world, historical event — America dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It may not match in all the specifics, but an overview does provide several points of similarity: A young nation perceived for the most part as honourable, fighting against the forces of evil, having previously sustained a harrowing attack on home turf, uses a weapon that wreaks utter devastation on its adversary. A weapon that doesn't just bring the opponent to its knees, but also decimates hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian lives, turning their cities to rubble to ash.
One can't be certain if Weiss and Benioff were influenced by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in how they chose to depict Daenerys' path at King's Landing. However, readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire books and Game of Thrones viewers have thought of the story as an allegory for various modern-day wars.
George RR Martin told this writer in a 2014 interview that he didn't intend for his book to be an allegory for events from contemporary history.
"People can take out of a book what they want to take out of a book, and the best book is one that has many levels. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I put those things in the book. Tolkien famously was very much against the idea of allegory and didn’t want people to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory — and I kind of get where he is coming from. If I wanted to write about Vietnam or about Iraq, I would write a book about Iraq. Yes, I think there are certain universals that you can look for in fantasy, that you can look for in Ice and Fire, issues of war and colonialism… But I never intended for A Song of Ice and Fire to be an allegory for the Iraq War or for anything that’s going on in the modern world. It’s a medieval world fantasy and its themes are the universal themes of [to use William Faulkner's phrase] the human heart in conflict with itself," he said.
Be that as it may, Weiss and Benioff did stay true to what Martin has always tried to drive home about war:
"War is central to so many fantasy books from The Lord of the Rings onwards, so I think if you’re going to write one of those traditional fantasy stories, you really have to grapple with the subject: not just the realities of war, but also how you’re going to best depict those realities and that’s something I’ve tried to do. Wars can be exciting to read about, but at all times you must remember the cost of war and the human tragedy that is involved in war." [Martin, in his 2014 interview with this writer.]
When we mull over what might have made Daenerys Targaryen's carnage in King's Landing align better with the idea we've had of her in our minds, it would do well to remember that there is historical precedent for people having acted in a fairly similar way.
Maybe the problem with the "Queen of the Ashes" depiction in Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 isn't so much about Daenerys' awkwardly rendered evolution. Maybe it's that we're holding fiction to a more exacting standard than we've held ourselves.
Updated Date: May 16, 2019 17:16:24 IST
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