Why Did King’s Landing Burn?

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Yes, I am weighing in on Game of Thrones. In a polarising final season, the penultimate episode has proven especially divisive. Critics have derided it. An online petition to remake Season 8 has 900,000 signatures and counting. Personally I liked it. Here’s why.

*Spoilers will follow*

Criticism for Season 8’s ‘The Bells’, the longest Game of Thrones episode to air, and the second-to-last of all time, is laid most heavily on Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing, and the fate of Jaime Lannister. Conversely few can deny its cinematic weight.

Since last episode the Dragon Queen has flipped from slave-freeing heroine to mass murderer without rhyme or reason. Game of Thrones prides itself on its unpredictability. Viewers sit on the edge of their seat, not knowing whether their favorite character will live or die. Eddard Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, however, were believable and consistent with character motivation. The burning of King’s Landing, meanwhile, seemed less because of an authentic and foreshadowed shift in Daenerys’s character but because the story demanded it.

This all-powerful plot, which defies character or sense, has plagued the show since Season 5. How did Danaerys reach Beyond the Wall in Season 7 all the way from Dragonstone in time to save Jon and friends from the White Walkers? Why did no one important die in the crypts in Season 8’s Battle for Winterfell? How did Jaime, the Hound, Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm and Ghost survive the army of the dead? How did Cersei and her minions identify Missandei? Not because it was credible, but because the plot demanded it.

Critiques of Daenerys’s murder spree follows similar reasoning. The Targaryen Queen spends half of ‘A Dance with Dragons’ mourning an unnamed child scorched by her dragon. Why could she destroy an entire city, just because a few of her friends had died? Why did Jaime, after all he had been through, still go back to Cersei and die in her arms?

Though I concede Season 8’s character arcs are rushed and haphazard, the burning of King’s Landing is not unexpected.

A million people live in King’s Landing, according to Tyrion Lannister. That would equate Danaerys’s slaughter with the Rwandan Genocide if she killed half. By sheer body count, it is leagues worse than anything Joffrey, Cersei, Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King ever did. Despite vowing to never be like him, Daenerys ends up fulfilling her father’s last wish: Burn them all.

It is a fallacy to think great leaders hold themselves to a high moral standard. Alexander the Great crucified 10,000 outside Tyre and burned Pasargadae to the ground. Julius Caesar perpetrated genocide in Gaul and Genghis Khan killed 5% of the world’s population. Burning King’s Landing resembles the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden, two acts committed by the ‘good guys’ of WW2. It is not always madness or bloodlust which demand the death of innocents, sometimes and it is cold and calculated strategy.

Daenerys knows the people of Westeros will never love her. She therefore opts to instill the fear of God in anyone who would cross her by turning King’s Landing, its surrendered defenders, and innocent inhabitants to ash. It signals that anyone else who defies her will meet a similar fate. Now her advisors who cautioned forbearance have either betrayed her or are dead. In Daenerys’s mind only unquestioned obedience will guarantee peace and her right to rule. The ends justify the means.

Season 8 has alluded to this.  Though it was handled somewhat clumsily, I appreciated the paradigm shift. As our heroine burned the innocents to death and Jon’s soldiers murdered and raped, it became clear good and bad are relative concepts, a cornerstone of Game of Thrones’s moral lens. What’s more, pitting Jon and Daenaerys against each other makes for a higher stakes game than if Cersei Lannister remained ‘the big bad’. I pray the finale will satisfy.

Update 19/05/9: finale did not satisfy.
Update 27/05/19: petition has over 1,500,000 signatures.