The long-awaited clash revealed that Thrones has robbed its characters of the power to choose.
One can dream that someday we can read George R.R. Martin’s description of the destruction of King’s Landing, as Daenerys Targaryen rains fire from above and her soldiers sack the city, much as it happened in “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. But, unlike the show’s depiction, it will feel earned. Perhaps “The Bells” hewed closely to Martin’s vision, but, rather than being the well-developed emotional hammer this series deserves, Dany’s cataclysmic action was the latest victim of the accelerated pace and uneven plotting. The awesome, visceral destruction felt like an inevitable plot point to drive the story to its conclusion, and thus failed to satisfy. The fiery and ostensibly surprising carnage failed to capitalize on Thrones’ notable lack of squeamishness, as the violence did little to enhance the story and the audience’s reaction to it.
Thrones has often used surprising, graphic, and/or fiery violence to great effect. “Baelor,” “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Hardhome,” “The Winds of Winter,” and “The Spoils of War” all used the shock and spectacle to raise the stakes of the story while creating iconic moments that meant more than the sum of their bloody parts. While Drogon and director Miguel Sapochnik made the most of HBO’s production budget, the death and destruction in “The Bells” failed to live up to the standard. This seems to be the audience consensus, but I believe that the problems which led to the failure of Dany’s scorching heel turn also manifest themselves in one of the more well-received parts of the episode.
Within “The Bells,” many fans found some consolation in the long-awaited Cleganebowl, the gruesome conclusion to Sandor Clegane’s lifelong vendetta against his monstrous older brother, Gregor. It had its moments, and the brutal clash was nicely book-ended by Sandor’s farewell to Arya and by what ended up being an appropriate conclusion to the showdown, with Sandor taking his brother with him over the edge to a fiery demise. For many viewers, this was a satisfying payoff to a favorite prediction, and one that felt earned and developed despite being a show invention.
However, the showdown was, given its circumstances, heavily scripted and contrived, and felt, like Dany’s descent into madness and murder, like an inevitability of the showrunner’s desires to get to certain plot points, rather than a meaningful development of the world of the show. Cleganebowl – again, a total show invention – could have worked if the clash came about naturally, such as when the twin brothers Erryk and Arryk Cargyll found themselves opposed in the halls of Dragonstone, rather than in an apocalyptic Anakin vs. Obi-wan style duel. By forcing the issue in this way, Cleganebowl took violence and made it a tool of the showrunners’ vision, an obligatory dish on the familiar Thrones buffet, rather than a deliberate choice made by a character. The decision to be violent – to use deadly force as a means to an end and as a way of interacting with the world – became impersonal as Sandor was shoehorned into a place where he had to participate.
As Cleganebowl raged and Dany went nuclear, Thrones sundered the characters from their own violent actions, making the choice itself a plot point and the consequences self-contained. In short, the inevitability of this destruction robbed Sandor and Dany of agency and thus drained the violence of its potential significance.
I’ll explain this by continuing to explore Sandor and Cleganebowl because, as I noted, this has not been as scrutinized/criticized as the burning of the city. Sandor has been, throughout the show, one of the characters who teaches others as well as the audience about the world. Varys and Petyr lecture about power, Ned exhibits honor, Tywin emphasizes legacy, and Sandor teaches Sansa, Arya, and the audience hard truths about violence.
“Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer,” he says to Sansa, “Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.” “Killing is the sweetest thing there is,” he says to her later, “What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing. I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then.” Though (proudly) not a knight himself, Sandor is one of the best killers in Westeros. Fighting and killing are his meat and mead and fundamental to his identity, but he has the freedom to decide what to do with that violence. When he has finally had enough at the Battle of the Blackwater, he curses King Joffrey and leaves. He captures Arya and hopes to sell her back to her family for ransom, but as these efforts fail he uses his talent for violence to keep her safe on the road. There is even some optimism in his voice when he considers the opportunities available to him as a mercenary in Essos. In the show, when he is pulled out of retirement he decides to fight for some version of good. Throughout, he seems doomed to a life of violence, but he is free to make certain choices along that bloody road.
Not so with Cleganebowl. Yes – of course – Sandor could have just stayed in Winterfell or gone anywhere but King’s Landing, but this was the first time where it felt like he was doing something because he was destined to. He hates his brother and desires revenge, but the notion that he would, after all these years, decide that now he had to get his revenge for a childhood trauma is a fatalistic contrivance. He claims that hate keeps him going, but even if that’s true he had previously channeled that hate into a begrudging guardianship of the Stark sisters. He’s a bitter, traumatized man, but not one bound to carry out a suicidal revenge mission. His character is richer than a simple vendetta, and his arc could have ended without getting his revenge. But it didn’t. Instead, the showrunners decided that this fan service needed to happen. Again, if it had happened some other way, and he had happened to run into Gregor and been obliged to fight him, that could have been fine, but this cinematic clash was all about the showdown instead of its context.
There is a moment in Cleganebowl when Sandor realizes zombie Gregor is impervious to his attacks, and he shouts, in his signature style which has made him an icon, “FUCKING DIE!” In the past, his profanities have played for laughs but are still engendered by his current mission. In this instance, it falls flat as he’s saying it because the writers thought it would be cool. He’s saying it because he’s supposed to say it, in the middle of a showdown he’s supposed to be a part of. The Sandor of past seasons had the power to choose how he was violent, but the grand, gruesome spectacle of Cleganebowl was – again, given the way it played out – forced upon him for our sake.
“I choose violence,” says Cersei late in Season 6 when she dismisses the Sparrows from the Red Keep, Gregor at her side. Two episodes later, she makes the violent choice to blow up the Sept. It was a choice, one that made sense but not one that she had to make. And she faced the consequences. Choice and consequence used to define Game of Thrones, including the choice to use violence. The violent choices made became part of their character, for better and worse. The choice mattered to the character, to the world of the story, and to viewers. As a result, the violence became about more than the bloody spectacle, and made those icky moments watchable.
It’s important that we remain aware of and critical about how we consume violent content. Ours is a violent society, and while I’m not in the “violent video games make children violent” camp, I do believe what we watch and play has real and potentially damaging effects. It matters that we talk about what goes into making a violent film/show/game that is “okay” for us to engage with. Violent content can be artful and useful, and, in Thrones, it used to challenge our notions of cruelty, heroism, and narrative. Not so in “The Bells.” Even at its “best,” it was about the spectacle and fed our collective bloodlust, and, in so doing, repurposed a character who used to have as much to teach us about violence as anyone.
Finally, I just want to say that, as much as I didn’t want Cleganebowl to happen like this (if at all), I’m glad it ended the way it did, and it is an acceptable end to one of my most favorite characters. Sandor is one of the most entertaining, most complex characters in a show full of great ones, and Rory McCann’s performance was similarly excellent in a loaded field. Whether or not he comes back in the books, I’m glad the show decided to reintroduce him.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria