The Bells – Game of Thrones’ Ozymandias

The preview for the Game of Thrones series finale has zero words, but pounds on images of the aftermath and the end as Daenerys marches forth into a world forged in fire. I thought of the last lines of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Much has been made about prophecies as of late. Shelley’s famous sonnet details its own prophecy, that of a great ruler’s kingdom reduced to an arid wasteland, prideful boasts notwithstanding: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” As the dust settles on Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode of the series, much has been made about whether Daenerys’ trajectory was earned. But looking back on Daenerys’ downfall from agency to entitlement and finally towards her manifest destiny, there was no other trajectory for her that could’ve seen to this completion.

“The Bells” was the episode that was promised in the same way Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” was promised – which saw to the total collapse of Walter White’s house. We saw the inevitability when Walt plucked a former student of his, when he took advantage of his brother-in-law-enforcement’s position at the DEA; when his decisions and dealings would risk the family he claimed was his reason for doing this. We knew it was all doomed to come crashing down whether by fate, chance, or consequence, but we pretended otherwise.

The first time we meet Daenerys, she’s staring across the Narrow Sea. All she ever wanted was to go home. It’s the only desire she has up until that point. But there are forces beyond her that will demand more of her. Her brother Viserys plants the first incarnation of the idea that will ruin her – to take back what they lost and rightfully rule the Seven Kingdoms. She perceives it as long-awaited due justice and homecoming.

She then becomes a savior, a liberator. She bears the might of responsibility and fairness, and commits herself to right the wrongs in her path. In Essos, the wrongs are obvious: slavery, slave owners, chains. Her fiery wrath is given agency with clear cut agents to destroy, thus her means no matter how swift or brutal are justified. But these city-wide victories were never going to be enough. Her sights had always been across the Narrow Sea.

She fought slave owners who had slave armies, so when the tides turned in battle, slaves had forsaken their masters. In Westeros, battles aren’t as easily won. It requires patience; it takes promises, compromises, and diplomacy. All of these things can be broken or tossed away i.e. Targaryen rule established in “perpetuity” and Robert usurping the throne, or truces to fight in the North only to have Cersei turn her back. Deception, ruthlessness, brutality; those are the things that establish and maintain rule.

People lie and shift alliances all the time in Westeros. It comes with the territory. Daenerys is sorely inexperienced in this manner. (Hell, Jon Snow had more experience with diplomacy than her.) She has to learn through loss and failure. She feels the tide shifting against her for once. She’s in places she’d never thought she’d be at the place she’s only wanted to be. It’s isolating and confusing for someone who’s been bestowed with titles like Khaleesi, Queen, Mother.

Consider what happens to her across Seasons 7 and 8. (Maybe if there wasn’t a 2-year gap, this would’ve been much easier to identify.) Just as quickly as she gains allies, she loses them: the bulk of the Greyjoy ships, Dorne’s cause, Lady Olenna and Highgarden. Her quest is then put on pause as she’s re-routed to the North to fight the Night King – a conflict that claims the life of one of her children.

In episode 2, she finds out she’s NOT the only surviving Targaryen in the world, after all.  (We might’ve sat with that information since Season 6, but that knowledge is earth-shattering for her; it threatens the belief that she was the rightful heir.) Episode 3 she loses Jorah, her most loyal advisor. Then in episode 4 she loses a second child AND her most trusted confidant. She’s lost the pillars in her life all for her pursuit of the throne. By the time she learns of Varys’ betrayal, she’s surrendered her free will.

The tragedy of Daenerys’ story is that she achieved peace – true peace – in Essos. By all rights, she could have stayed in Meereen and perhaps staying could’ve been enough. Inevitably, she gives in to the belief that all monarchs resign to in order to press forth their rule – self-obsessed notions of destiny. She decides Meereen is not enough because it’s not home. She believes Westeros will see her the way Essos has come to see her because it is home. She remembers she’s not just a queen, but a conqueror.

Jon Snow might have the literal namesake of Aegon the Conqueror, but it’s Daenerys whom fate has entrusted to fulfill Targaryen destiny. Targaryens descended from Old Valyria, traversing Essos and the Narrow Sea following The Doom of Valyria and forging the Seven Kingdoms as we know it, and did so with fire and blood.

That’s what she felt atop Drogon, alone and above a city in surrender: the weight of destiny. Winning the battle for the Seven Kingdoms wasn’t enough in that instant, nor being savior or liberator anymore. Daenerys left that in Essos. She chose power and fear; to conquer, not liberate. Daenerys had said she will not be queen of the ashes. It wasn’t up to her after all. The Iron Throne, tragically, was the conquest she had devoted her entire life and it comes at tremendous cost.

Everyone in the game of thrones believes in something higher than them, an unseen force or an unattainable ideal. For smallfolk, it’s in the old gods, or the Light of the Seven. For lords and ladies, kings, queens, and prominent players of the game, it’s belief in entitlement, their manifest destiny. (That’s what places Daenerys higher than her predecessors. She not only believes in her destiny, but has both the conviction and the means to realize it.) That’s the crux of nearly every protagonist the show has put forth. Characters believe they can forge their own destiny, but wind up powerless in fate’s cruel grasp. It’s not up to them, and perhaps it never was.

When Ned rides South to take his place as Hand of the King, he’s not just reliving memories of Robert’s Rebellion, but that of his father and his brother whom the Mad King sentenced to death. As he crosses the throne room again, even sitting on the throne for a time, he’s made to relive the past— perhaps it’s what fuels his resolve to restore order and justice to the realm. But he doesn’t realize that those virtues died a long time ago, and he’s doomed to the same fate as his father.

Robb believed he could avenge his father’s death and seek retribution upon House Lannister by sacking Casterly Rock. He holds the same ideals as Ned, which is why he’s doomed for the same trajectory, though the ensuing slaughter is far more catastrophic.

Stannis, in turn, believed himself to be the one true king. He wanted to believe in it so blindly that he killed his own brother with blood magic then committed his own daughter Shireen to be burned at the stake. They all are thrust with – or thrust upon themselves – greatness, but are doomed for something terrible.

Prior to this, they’re all given a chance in some way to avert their fates. Cersei gave Ned the opportunity to go back to Winterfell. Robb himself could’ve marched home. Stannis could’ve fought a common enemy alongside Renly, or could’ve won favor and diplomacy in the North. Oberyn could’ve killed the Mountain without pomposity. Tyrion could’ve run away with Shae had he not enjoyed the game so much. Jon Snow could’ve stayed in that cave with Ygritte.

In this season, Theon could’ve gone home. Missandei and Grey Worm could’ve sailed away to Naath. Jaime could’ve stayed with Brienne. Of course, there’s an even bigger what-if knowing that Robert’s Rebellion was a lie. What if Robert Baratheon hadn’t usurped the throne? Would Viserys have been a loving brother? Would she have gotten to know Rhaegar, or her own mother for that matter? Daenerys sacking King’s Landing wasn’t just revenge upon Cersei, it was the forces of fate and history converging on the Seven Kingdoms.

It’s no surprise that there are startling reactions to “The Bells.” (Of course it’s shocking. It’s mass genocide on the level of the bombing of Dresden  or Hiroshima to force the end of a conflict.) The Red Wedding similarly ignited a shockwave across viewers. But going back, the clues to Robb and Catelyn’s fate were there. We chose to ignore it because we rooted for them. Our empathy guaranteed we’d look past the blind spots and red flags and instead hope against hope that they’d succeed. We, too, hoped Daenerys would rise above the heeds and warnings of her Mad King father. Like the Red Wedding, “The Bells” puts forth a cataclysmic case of history repeating and outdoing itself, leaving us with no choice but to watch it unfold.

History is the unforeseen higher power behind this song of ice and fire, the hands of fate— the great ruler of these characters. The knowledge should’ve prepared us, but our empathy blindsided us. Empathy, after all, was the very thing that GRRM wielded against us to devastating results.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

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