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The Game of Thrones Debate Has Overshadowed the Show’s Best Acting

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

It’s been three days since “The Bells” aired, and I suspect that the debate over Daenerys’s descent into despotic madness will continue to smolder as long as we’re still talking about Game of Thrones. Did showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss lay the foundation for this moment way back when Dany dispassionately watched her brother die, had Mirri Maz Duur burned alive, or carefully arranged 163 crucified slave masters throughout the streets of Meereen? Or was this development merely telegraphed without the necessary buildup to make it ring true? I’ve tried to map all the evidence, like a TV detective with a bulletin board, and I find I can make the math come out both ways.

What really struck me about the collective reaction to the Daenerys arc, though, was how it epitomized a way of talking about Game of Thrones that’s become especially pronounced in recent seasons — namely, an intense dissection of how valid or skillful the writers’ choices have been. The specter of the author has always hung heavy over Game of Thrones, whether fans were pointing out how the show’s best lines and scenes came straight from George R.R. Martin’s novels, or speculating over the secret knowledge he passed to Weiss and Benioff about how the story would end. Recently, the discussion seems to take the form of cursing Weiss and Benioff for cramming too much plot into too few episodes, sacrificing characters’ interior logic (or any logic, really) in the race to the finale.

But to lay the entire success or failure of Game of Thrones at Weiss and Benioff’s feet, or even Martin’s, ignores another set of authors shaping this work: the actors, who have the power to grip the camera, and us, through fissures in the script. Look, “The Bells” didn’t always make a ton of sense. (Remind me again how dragons are supposed to work?) But it also had some of the rawest, most affecting moments I can remember, moments that had the kind of primal, nightmarish logic of the Red Wedding or the death of Shireen Baratheon. And for this we have the actors and the episode’s director, Miguel Sapochnik, to thank. The acting in Game of Thrones has been heralded since its earliest episodes, but lately an appreciation of that craft has taken a backseat to debating plot holes, prophecies, and other things the writers kind of forgot about. And that’s part of the fun of the show! This is a story about stories and texts and the interpretation of those stories and texts! But as Lady Crane showed us in Essos, as she turned a schlocky scene into a moment of high tragedy, a talented performer can work all sorts of subversive magic with the words they’re given. The more I think about it, the more apt I find this sense that the show’s script is crumbling under its own architectural weight as it winds down, letting a few final, bright glimpses of heart-stopping acting and imagery shine through.

“The Bells” may represent the most hotly debated moment in Daenerys’s narrative, but it’s also some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen from Emilia Clarke. Those clamoring, overlapping bell chimes provide a hallucinatory prologue to Daenerys’s fateful decision, but it’s those sustained shots of Clarke’s face, gripped with exertion and pain, baring her teeth ever so slightly, that make me believe in this moment — if just for a moment — Daenerys could really become the mythic destroyer she transforms into. This wasn’t the first time that Robert Oppenheimer’s famous “I am become death” quote came to my mind this season, but the fact that we never see Daenerys’s face again, just Drogon’s form as the two lay waste to the city, heightens the eerie sense that she has sublimated herself into a weapon, a living atom bomb. Was she driven to it by romantic rejection, hereditary madness, or simply the heat of battle? Certainly it feels like the finale will have to answer this in order for us to understand what kind of political message we’re supposed to take away from 70-plus hours of wheel-breaking discourse. But in the moment of that horror, the importance of that rhetorical analysis fell away.

Similarly, because the script whiplashes us from episode four, in which Euron’s fleet seemed to effortlessly destroy Rhaegal and Daenerys’s ships, to episode five, in which Drogon just as effortlessly turns the tables and decimates the Greyjoy ships, Lena Headey has to navigate her own sharp emotional turn as Cersei. In the earliest moments, I stumbled to follow along. Wait — why is Cersei so sure of her army’s strength? Why does she seem to have such blind faith in Euron or the willingness of her troops to fight, when she’s never trusted anyone besides herself or her family? Cersei’s trust and passivity may not have tracked for a woman who’s been built up as a schemer and a tyrant. But Headey gave this string of scenes such a finely drawn internal coherence, I forgot the disjointedness with what came before. Headey has always been best when given room to play beyond a one-note sneer, and in “The Bells” she manages to make Cersei’s fear so tangible, so grounded, that I could see all kinds of colors in her performance.

Her shakiness brought me back to the Battle of Blackwater, and how Cersei spent that clash cooped up in Maegor’s Holdfast in a gold Lannister breastplate, nursing old wounds about how Jaime was “taught to fight with sword and lance and mace” while she “was taught to smile and sing and please,” despite the fact that they looked so alike, their own father couldn’t tell them apart. Now here she is, her hair cropped in a soldier’s style, watching the destruction of her city as it dawns on her, terribly, that she may not have been the military genius the true child of Tywin Lannister that she always secretly thought she was.

I remembered her broken sadness when she learned of Myrcella’s death, one of those bright threads of softness and pain that run through Headey’s series-long performance. As she stood at the window, her normally ramrod posture faltering, her eyes widening briefly, I had a flash of Tommen’s quiet, forlorn tip out of his chamber window. It was that death, too — so silent, with its beautiful grace notes of Tommen’s fluttering coat — that was on my mind as the walls of Maegor’s Holdfast crumbled around Jaime and Cersei. As she babbled quietly and Jaime held her, it was if they returned to the quiet, dark womb that marked the beginning of their twinned lives.

“Look at me,” Jaime soothes his sister. “Look at me,” Sandor Clegane too exhorts Arya. This is an episode that forced us to attend to the presence, the force, the beauty of actors’ bodies. Arya was our focal point through the harrowing Children of Men–style tracking shots through the streets of King’s Landing. But there was also the recurring visual motif of the terrified mother, her hair cropped short like Cersei’s, with her young child, who clutched a white toy horse that recalled Shireen Baratheon’s little carved stag. The most affecting, memorable deaths on Game of Thrones have always involved an almost suffocatingly intimate sense of the violence done to victims’ bodies, from the flames of Shireen’s stake to the slicing wounds of the Red Wedding, from Hodor’s jerking limbs to Oberyn Martell’s tender eyes. While the sustained attention on the brutality facing the smallfolk of King’s Landing seems ghoulishly expedient, given the show’s only intermittent attention to the fates of common people, the constant visual repetition of parents’ bodies curling around their children, with their burned skin and ash-streaked hair, has an unshakable power. They echo plaster casts of Pompeii’s victims — a glimpse of ancient history at the moment of its terrible preservation.

Generations after this second sack of King’s Landing, the history books of Westeros may spin tales of corrupt monarchs, chaotic military strategy, or the fading of a dynasty. Next Sunday, Weiss and Benioff’s finale may resolve the show’s narrative inconsistencies or it may not; it may offer a coherent political message or it may not. Whenever Martin finishes the final Song of Ice and Fire novel, it will presumably tell how Daenerys scorched the city she had come to rule, but might take advantage of its broader canvas and access to characters’ inner thoughts to take us step by step through the Dragon Queen’s transformation. The same story can be written many different ways. And in “The Bells,” a talented cast of actors and extras wrote the story of Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister’s battle with their bodies, bringing the horror of war to an unbearably intimate level.

“Look at me,” they say.

The GOT Debate Has Overshadowed the Show’s Best Acting