What a difference some daylight makes!
Visibility was the most obvious difference between the sacking of King’s Landing, which took up the vast majority of Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, and the Battle of Winterfell, which went down just two weeks and several alliances ago. And it certainly helped make Dany’s conquest an easier viewing, from a comprehension standpoint if not an empathy one. All those aerial shots from the Red Keep helped position an invader’s unstoppable advance in a way Winterfell’s confused jumble of quick cuts never did. All those terrifying looks at Drogon bearing down from above made for a much better use of Thrones’ CGI budget than the aerial dragon fight that took up long, confusing passages of “The Long Night.”
But the mere presence of sunlight doesn’t fully explain the disparity between the two episodes, both directed by Miguel Sapochnik. The Battle of Winterfell used dark to convey the confusion of battle, not to mention as a metaphor for the eternal night threatened by the White Walkers. Yet that device ended up being fundamentally at odds with viewers’ ability to invest in either the larger struggle for survival or the dozens of individual fights that comprised it. In “The Bells,” Sapochnik’s filmmaking and its intended effect were much more in sync: showing the total, almost Pompeii-like destruction of Westeros’s capital in an avalanche of flames, and instilling fear of the person responsible.
Some brutal honesty for a show that revels in it: From a writing perspective, Dany’s heel turn hasn’t been sold nearly as well as a reversal of this magnitude needs to be. In the weeks leading up to this confrontation, during which Dany’s Mad Queen destiny had been heavily foreshadowed, Game of Thrones earned widespread criticism for erring dangerously close to sexist tropes like the “crazy” woman unsuited for authority in its treatment of the character. Those criticisms still hold after “The Bells,” which saw Dany consciously choose to target civilians against the advice of both her hand and her love interest, for little reason other than “Targaryens are just like that”—and, of course, plot convenience. Dany has vindictive and violent tendencies, but never before on this scale, and never before directed at innocent people rather than enemies she believed had wronged her.
While actually watching the episode, however, one could be forgiven for temporarily forgetting such narrative qualms. Because, while the scenes leading up to the assault on King’s Landing don’t justify figures like Varys turning so completely against Dany in such a short period of time (or thinking Jon would be any better at wielding power than his dead uncle), the battle works as its own explanation. By the time Arya rides out on her very own pale mare, it’s clear why she’d be determined never to let the city’s desecrator anywhere near the Iron Throne. She’s just seen the same things we have.
In keeping with Tyrion’s warning that a concern for the people’s well-being is the most important distinction, in both image and substance, between Dany and Cersei, a consistent visual motif in “The Bells” is the fate of the small folk. They’re the ones boarding up their houses and gathering their children in anticipation of what’s to come; they’re the ones who Cersei bars from the supposed safety of the Red Keep by the thousands; they’re the ones who suffer the consequences when Dany ignores the namesake bells of surrender. This choice builds on last week’s conversations about whose interests Varys truly prioritized, and how little separates the Seven Kingdoms’ nobles from the peasants many of them used to be. And it’s in keeping with the brutality of the war Game of Thrones refuses to glamorize. Some of the most striking passages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire remind the reader that Stark and Lannister troops alike are guilty of war crimes like rape; in the latest chapter of its adaptation, Jon Snow dispatches one of his own soldiers for assaulting a woman in the heat of battle.
More even than her adoptive brother, the character who communicates this theme throughout her experience of the invasion is Arya Stark. It’s fitting, because Game of Thrones seems to be positioning Arya—having already saved the entire human race—to save her country from yet another would-be tyrant. Foreshadowing aside, however, Arya gets a compact arc within a broader conflagration that serves as a pointed demonstration of Dany’s impact as well as potential motivation. Along with the Hound, Arya sneaks into the city, intending to kill Cersei. Before she can reach her target, Dany hits the Red Keep with dragonfire. Arya finds a woman who’d helped her earlier, along with her young daughter, and attempts to return the favor. She witnesses her death instead.
In an episode that elsewhere reduces Cersei to a silent, fearful wisp and dedicates precious minutes to the fan theory–satisfying, if not particularly engaging, Cleganebowl, Arya’s journey through a city in ruins makes for the most effective case against Dany’s fitness for the crown. Still, it’s not the only one: The sight of the Mad King’s leftover wildfire preserves going up in flames, a few green dots amid Drogon’s massive swath of orange, was another simple visual illustration of Westeros’s supposed savior becoming just another affliction. Not only has Dany opted to continue her father’s legacy in all the worst ways, but she’s also dwarfed even his firepower, becoming exactly what Jaime Lannister ruined his reputation to prevent.
The logistical problems that have afflicted this results-oriented era of Thrones are still an irritating presence. Why, for example, if a handful of giant crossbow bolts were all it took to kill Rhaegal, was Drogon able to take out Cersei’s entire arsenal in a matter of minutes? Once you start to catalog these inconsistencies, they’re hard to unsee. But in the moment, the sight of the most disciplined mercenaries in Westeros laying down their swords by the hundreds is arresting. So is the sight of the disarmed Golden Company fleeing the mythical beast bearing down on them, side-by-side with the commoners they’ve joined as Dany’s victims. All the while, Jon experiences a reversal of fortune, from one man standing against Ramsay Bolton’s army to one man unable to stop his own.
Sometimes, as with “The Long Night,” Game of Thrones’ battle episodes fall short as storytelling. Sometimes, as with “Blackwater,” much of the storytelling is done in quieter moments, away from the fever pitch of the action. In “The Bells,” Game of Thrones accomplishes a rare feat: fusing an epic clash with the purpose it serves for the larger story. As Game of Thrones rushes toward next week’s long-awaited conclusion, it’s grown better at flexing the muscles that come with HBO’s ever-greater investment of resources, and worse at the ground-laying that once defined its style. The grand has long since overtaken the subtle. “The Bells” just serves as one last, best example.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.