The Problem about “The Bells” and Game of Thrones That No One Talks About

A lot of people are angry about “The Bells”, the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, mostly with regard to the development of the character of Daenerys Targaryen.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

So Daenerys, Jon Snow and their respective armies are besieging King’s Landing. The city has already surrendered and the bells are tolling, when Daenerys suddenly says, “Burn them all” and proceeds to do just that, riding her lone remaining dragon. In true Game of Thrones style, the resulting slaughter is shown in great and exhaustive detail. The reasons given for Daenerys suddenly deciding to roast a city full of civilians are that she is (understandably) furious after losing two of her beloved dragons, many of her troops and her friend and adviser Missandei, who gets beheaded on Cersei’s orders in what is clearly one of the more problematic and senseless deaths in Game of Thrones and that’s saying a lot. Besides, some people are fond of pointing out, the Targaryens have a disposition to mental illness due to inbreeding. Roughly fifty percent of them go insane (“The Gods flip a coin”) and since Jon Snow, since revealed to be actually a Targaryen, is not insane (so far), it was Daenerys’ turn. Never mind that Daenerys’ brother, killed halfway through season 1, was also insane (so it’s two thirds of Targaryens), the idea of a hereditary mental illness turning people into murderous psychopaths is actually bloody offensive, since the overwhelming majority of mentally ill people and the overwhelming majority of people resulting from incestous relationships are not murderous psychopaths.

Now I have to admit that I gave up on Game of Thrones halfway through season 4, because I simply had enough of all the gratuitous slaughter and death. And with all the likeable characters about whom I gave a damn either dead or in the process of turning into monsters themselves, I didn’t see the point in continuing. In fact, part of what made me give up on Game of Thrones was Daenerys having one hundred and twenty people or so crucified, because she was furious at that slaveholder city which used crucified people as signposts. At the time, I recall little comment about that, but now people are suddenly digging up that long ago event and others like it (because Daenerys has killed a shitload of people) to point out that Danaerys was always destined to become the mad queen. And yes, I agree that Daenerys is a horrible person, but then Jon Snow, Westeros’ golden boy, isn’t much better. In fact, the other thing that made me stop watching Game of Thrones was Jon Snow killing a Night Watch brother played by Burn Gorman. Okay, so that Night Watch brother was a horrible person himself (it’s Westeros, land of the murderous psychopaths), but I’m a huge fan of Burn Gorman, a vastly underrated actor whose inevitable fate it seems to be to get killed in genre films and TV shows. In fact, I’m still amazed that his character actually survives Pacific Rim. Besides, that character wasn’t the only person Jon Snow killed. Some time ago I came across an “all the deaths in Game of Thrones” compilation video (which I can’t seem to find right now, because YouTube is full of Game of Thrones death videos) and realised that Jon Snow had killed a shitload of people as well, a lot more than I remembered, including presiding over the hanging of a teenaged boy. So in short, both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are horrible people (as is nearly everybody else in Game of Thrones) and neither will make a good ruler. But since it’s extremely unlikely that Game of Thrones will end with Tyrion and Varys introducing democracy (never mind that Varys is apparently dead), it was clear that Westeros would end up with Jon Snow and/or Daenerys Targaryen on the throne (I actually assumed it would be both). And then the whole crap will start again in a couple of years.

But while I’m no longer actively watching, I do follow the recaps and watch the occasional video out of an idle interest in how this story will end. Nonetheless, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I suspect Westeros is screwed either way. I saw a clip of Missandei’s execution, noting that it was remarkably restrained by Game of Thrones standards. No blood, no severed head, instead just the horrified reactions of Grayworm – yes, Game of Thrones, you don’t have to show every atrocity in exhaustive detail. Then today, someone posted a link to a video of the scorching of King’s Landing accompanied by Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in the comments at File 770. So I clicked and watched and found myself unexpectedly angry. Not at Daenerys, Cersei, Jon, Grayworm, Tyrion, Arya or any of the other characters on screen or even at the slaughter of fictional people in a fictional city itself. No, as I watched the video I kept thinking, “Oh my God, how could they shoot those scenes in that place? How insensitive can you get? And how come that no one is outraged?”

Now King’s Landing is fictional, but the scenes set there are shot in a very real place, the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Croatia in general and Dubrovnik in particular have long been popular filming locations for European films and TV shows – the Karl May movies of the 1960s were shot in Croatia as was the German children’s TV show Die Rote Zora und Ihre Bande (Red Zora and her Gang) – but Hollywood didn’t discover Croatia and Dubrovnik until fairly recently. And the reason for that were the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Taken together, the Balkan Wars were the deadliest military conflict in Europe after WWII and cost the lives of approx. 130000 people, many of them civilians. And one of the more notable events of the Balkan Wars was the Siege of Dubrovnik, which lasted almost eight months in 1991/1992 and during which the city was repeatedly bombed and shelled. The Siege of Dubrovnik was later eclipsed by other atrocities, but it was a terrible event and headline news, at least in Europe, at the time.

And now a TV show decides to stage the siege and burning of a fictional city in a city which suffered exactly that fate only twenty-seven years ago. Those wounds may have scabbed over, but there still raw. Never mind that most of the extras in those scenes were likely Croatian and that many of them would still have memories of the war and the siege. Worse, several scenes show recognisable buildings in the city being blown to bits and burnt to the ground. Honestly, I don’t even want to imagine how triggering watching “The Bells”, let alone performing in it, will be for someone who survived the Balkan Wars and the siege of Dubrovnik. And unlike a movie about the actual Balkan Wars, people don’t necessarily expect being triggered by Game of Thrones. Of course, they know that parts of the show are shot in Dubrovnik, especially since the city is very recognisable, but they couldn’t necessarily expect to see the city burned in such a gratuitous way.

Of course, Game of Thrones and other Hollywood productions (the Canto Bight scenes of The Last Jedi were also shot in Dubrovnik) bring a lot of money to Dubrovnik and Croatia – both directly via jobs created and indirectly via an increase in tourism, though Croatia and Dubrovnik were already popular tourist destinations before Game of Thrones came along. In fact, Dubrovnik is badly affected by overtourism along with its fellow Adriatic city Venice and has taken measures to reduce it.

I actually was surprised at my anger at seeing Daenerys Targaryen and her troops burning and sacking a city that was recognisable as Dubrovnik, because while I clearly remember the Balkan Wars, I didn’t have any strong connections to what was once Yugoslavia at the time. I do know quite a lot of people who hail from there – students, coworkers, the guy who paved my driveway, the owners of a restaurant I visit regularly. Some of them are the descendants of immigrants who came in the 1960s, but in most cases their families came here as refugees during the Balkan Wars. Most of them never talk about the war, though many are clearly old enough to remember. It was on behalf of those people and many others like them that I was angry. I was angry because the Game of Thrones producers don’t seem to care about the people those scenes hurt.

Furthermore, this is not the first time that Americans have used the Balkan Wars as a picturesque background. There was also the case of Kosoko Jackson’s proposed YA novel A Place for Wolves, which had the brilliant idea to use the Kosovo War as a background for a gay romance between two Americans. That case launched a dozen angsty think pieces about “cancel culture”, whereas I just shook my head and thought, “They’re honestly surprised there was a backlash? Because that book sounds fucking offensive.” And no, I don’t think the book should have been cancelled. Even bad books have a right to exist and there is a minuscle chance that this one is not as bad as it sounds.

But what annoyed me was how many people, inevitably American, completely failed to see why setting a romance featuring two Americans against the backdrop of a bloody war, complete with genocide, that happened barely twenty years ago was hugely problematic. Whereas those same people would be (justifiably) outraged about a romance between two tourists set against the backdrop of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The Game of Thrones example is not nearly as bad, if only because King’s Landing is a fictional city that just happened to be portrayed by Dubrovnik. Nor was the real Dubrovnik ever besieged by dragons, but the effects of a mortar shell and dragonfire on buildings look much the same on the screen. But both examples show a troubling tendency on the far side of the Atlantic to treat the Balkan Wars as something that happened a long time ago in a place far away and ignore that the wounds are still raw and the pain is real.

In cases like these, the question always is “How soon is to soon?” And there is no one answer to that question, because people are different and react differently. My Dad, who consciously remembers WWII as a kid (born in 1938), nonetheless enjoys watching WWII movies and even news reels. On the other hand my Mom, whose memories of WWII are more fuzzy (born in 1942), steadfastly refuses to watch Captain America: The First Avenger, because WWII is not a cool background for a retro superhero movie for her. And I got angry, when I saw a trailer for a TV movie based on the Gladbeck hostage crisis (most of which, contrary to the name, actually happened in Bremen) and yelled at the screen, “If you must make that movie, can’t you at least show a fucking trigger warning before the trailer, cause there are people who remember.” I realised at the same time that my reaction was not exactly normal and that thirty years between event and movie should be long enough. But I had passed Huckelriede bus station where Hans-Jürgen Rösner, Dieter Degowski and Marion Löblich (she’s often not mentioned these days, but IMO she’s just as culpable) took the No. 53 bus hostage only the day before. I had been on that very bus many times before. My aunt and uncle lived just around the corner from the bus station and when we heard the news, we called them up to make sure they were safe. One of the victims, Silke Bischoff, came from a neighbouring village and had gone to my school. She was friends with the sister of a classmate. One day, I will probably visit the memorial that was been set up for the victims at the bus station two months ago (better late than never), but so far I haven’t. So for me, I guess it will always be too soon with regard to the what has become known as the Gladbeck hostage crisis. And there are many people who were much closer to the events than me.

I’m not sure how to resolve this. But creators should at least be aware that the historical event they’re planning to use either directly as a backdrop to their story (A Place for Wolves, Gladbeck) or that they indirectly and maybe not even consciously reference (Game of Thrones) is someone else’s painful history and open wound.

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1 Response to The Problem about “The Bells” and Game of Thrones That No One Talks About

  1. Pingback: And the Iron Throne Goes to… | Cora Buhlert

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