If you’re like me, and the millions of viewers who watched the penultimate second-to-last episode of Game of Thrones last night, you were left shocked and devastated by the death, destruction and carnage done to our immortal city of Dubrovnik (aka ‘King’s Landing’) and to the character defamation of everyone’s favorite Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryeon.
Ominously named, “The Bells,” Sunday nights episode gave everyone a reason to reflect and reminisce, and to those of us living in Dubrovnik, memories echoed back to war experiences from the not so distant past. As an early GOT fan and having read George R.R. Martins books when they first emerged in the mid-1990s, I was seriously let down by what unfolded on the largest Samsung screen I could hostage for the night (thanks for the tip Emilia Clarke!). From the opening moments of the Battle for King’s Landing, filmed outside CGI imposed-gates hovering alongside the actual tower of Minčeta and Revelin Fortress in the background, to the cameras zooming in on St. John’s fortress and the harbour area, to Lannister troops scaling and mounting the city’s wall ramparts, the cinematography was incredible in its intensity and brutal reality. The first gut-wrenching moment of the night came when Drogon, Dany’s faithful and last remaining dragon, heaved upward from his mount position atop the Sponza Palace and began flying above the old quarter, weaving above Stradun and the northern-side of level two, while spewing cauldrons of fire along the way and destroying everything recognizable for an incredible 45-minutes of bloodbath, apocalyptic explosions, and scorched earth policies.
So, what went wrong? To begin with a whole hell of a lot. Let’s start with the creepy feeling just about every Croatian viewer in the world (myself included) were left with when the closing credits finally came up – that we’ve seen this before, lived this before, and survived this before. It was all eerily familiar and struck a particularly painful chord, on Mothers Day to say the least. The walls of the city hit with heavy explosions, indiscriminate targeting of the civilian population – women, children and the elderly, raping, plundering, pillaging and burning. All while the bells of the real-life Franciscan Monastery on Stradun street ring and ring, begging for mercy in the form of a ceasefire which isn’t heeded by Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, and the Breaker of Chains. Why?
I suppose HBO had three agendas to serve: (1) shock factor; (2) viewer eyeballs; and (3) Nielsen ratings. In the tempestuous world of cable television vying for the number one slot and having to contend with rogue players like Netflix and Amazon Prime, we must give it to HBO. They certainly packed in a punch, no argument there. Other than the NBA finals, I don’t know what anyone else on the planet could have possibly been doing last night other than pumping up the volume, manoeuvring a chip bowl, and ensuring the dog was walked well before 9:00pm EST without missing a moment of action.
However somewhere along the yellow-brick-road that was meant to tie up loose ends and provide a series wrap, the shows producers, David Benioff and David Weiss, got ahead of themselves and committed some major faux pas which die hard fans are left reeling from. The first one being the character torching demonization of Daenerys Targaryeon, a woman who had been, up until the last two episodes at least, universally beloved and immortalized. For many viewers, myself included, Daenerys was as synonymous Game of Thrones as Apple Pie is to America and Queen Elizabeth to England. She’s quite arguably the number one reason many people even watched the show in the first place, and her journey from a meek, bullied and malleable young women, thrust into an unenviable position due to her sinister brothers power-thirsty lust, only to emerge a strong, fearless and decent leader, loyal and steadfast to her friends and the downtrodden alike, made her story one of the central plots of the last eight seasons and humanly relatable to all. Along the way, she garnered an army of Unsullied, a horde of Dothraki, an entire Iron Fleet, and three, frightfully beautiful dragons, thus cementing her position as everyone’s favorite comeback girl and Queen of Hearts. She was the champion of the low-born, the freer of slaves, and the rare decent female leader in a show known for its cruelty toward women, and depiction of them as power hungry wenches. Not Dany. At least, not until Sunday night.
Suddenly, as if not knowing where to go and what to do with her character now that her lover-nephew Jon Snow (aka Aegon Targaryeon) had his identity thrust out of the Citadel closet (literally) and feeling truly rushed for time, the producers decided to throw in the wrench, abandon decent scriptwriting, take the audience for a fool, and throw Dany under the bus. Without resorting to hyperbole, allow me to state that HBO spent 8 years building up the character of Daenerys Targaryeon, who rose from nothing, freed slaves along the way, and helped defeat an entire army of dead things, only to tear her down in less than 2 episodes and turn her into the living incarnation of Slobodan Milošević with dragons. Literally.
Not withstanding the fact that all the male characters on the show - including our beloved Jon Snow, have done much the same if not worse (seven hells, we even felt pity and remorse for Stannis for allowing his daughter to be burned alive?!), the writers decided to quickly spin a web (woven by Varys of course) that would have us believe the only female lead character who showed mercy towards innocents is suddenly stricken with a case of sociopathic-degenerative madness typical for a woman who is a mere stones throw away from achieving penultimate power. Sexism at its best.
Come on HBO? Do you take us for Dontos-sized fools? This is the same person who painfully, and at great cost to herself, locked up two dragons in Season 5 for burning ONE goatherds child, but by Season 8 you enable her to disintegrate so low throughout the course of 118-minutes that she unleashes a pyromaniacal meltdown on a civilian population like Pol Pot with napalm? Not today.
Perhaps I’m too invested in Dany, being a female and trying to be a leader daily. It’s true, I am impartial toward her and am still rooting for her despite the fact she burned my entire city down. No pun intended. What truly riles me is that adage that just as one giveth, so one must taketh away. Game of Thrones certainly did that in the most cunning of ways.
When GOT first came to film on Croatian shores during the early days of Season 2, tourism in Dubrovnik was growing at a slow but steady pace for a city that had only just emerged from a modern-age war seven years earlier. What happened after GOT arrived is the subject of a lot of Croatian government speculation and civilian coffee discussion wars (no Starbucks here folks). Official figures aside, let it sink in that before GOT showed up, our tourism digits were still in the single digits. Not even ten years later, thanks to incredible marketing, the cleanest and most azure sea in the seven kingdoms and more UNESCO heritage sites than we know what to do with, Croatia has emerged as a global tourist hotspot, and everyone from their Mother, to her postman, to Beyoncé and Ronaldo, have become eager visitors looking to get their gram on. Last year alone, the city and the country reaped the acclaim of numerous number one accolades (re: Top 5 Places to Visit in 2018, Most Instagram-able European City, Top European Destination, Top European Beach, the list goes on and on) in a summer that saw the World Cup team take second place and millions of GOT obsessed tourists clog every highway, hotel, hostel and home searching for Dany, Jon Snow and King’s Landing. I’ve met tourists who didn’t even know Dubrovnik had a real name and seriously asked me when it was renamed. I cannot count the number of times I’ve passed the Spanish Steps by Gundulić square to witness droves of tourists - usually Australians and Asians – chanting ‘shame’ while mimicking Cersei’s walk for their IG and FB story. What’s even more tragic is that I have done it myself. Sigh. Such has been the colossal success that the GOT franchise brought to this city, only to slowly peel it all away and pivot, in much the same way as poor Daenerys’ fate.
We sow what we reap, or so they say. In our haste to roll out the red carpet for royalty (Prince Edward arrives on Friday), Hollywood celebs, and yacht-obsessed dotcom billionaires, something tragic happened to Dubrovnik along the way. We lost our footing and forgot our bearing. HBO brought in tourists by the double million digits year over year, and for that we are eternally grateful, but in the process our city lost its integrity year after year, season after season. It used to be the case that you could freely walk from one end of Stradun to the other or find a spot for your beach towel larger than a napkin at any time of day at Banje beach. You could saunter unobstructed through Pile Gate aiming for the perfect Kodak moment. Anyone who hasn’t visited in the last decade should know that those days were laid to rest in 2012. Today, the city faces the same problems as all large, European metropolis’ that suffer from tourism overdrive, and while we’ve come to expect that from places like Venice, Rome and Barcelona, one tends to tend to forget that Dubrovnik is one-tenth the size and stacked like a Lego-board with medieval, gothic and renaissance relics at every nick, turn and cranny.
They also forget or don’t rightly know what happened here in the latter half of 1991 and in fairness, to them, it’s not a story most of us wish to remember, let alone talk about. But as of Sunday night, its once again on our minds, this time thanks to HBO. Somewhere in the basement of my parents’ home and in the attic of my grandfathers’ house we have a collection of VHS videos stored, which we labelled “Borba za Dubrovnik” in Croatian (translated as: The Battle for Dubrovnik). These aren’t WWII black-and-white reels taken by an army officer ancestor, rather celluloid taped clippings from the Croatian state news network that aired in 1991 and that we videotaped so that our grandchildren and those that followed them, could view and remember. We didn’t think we’d survive the Siege of Dubrovnik (it later became a siege) and in those days nobody had yet heard of DVDs or streaming. When we view these grainy, low-quality VHS produced images today, they don’t do justice to the fear and agony most people experienced during the brutal fall and winter of 1991-1992. Not in the way HBO was able to capture it on flat screens the world over on Sunday night.
What followed was a fiery spectacle of an assault that had all of us here in Dubrovnik flashbacking to 1991. Picture this if you will Benioff and Weiss: a centuries old European city under siege, hundreds of war ships in the harbour with assault rockets pointed at 12th century walls meant to hold back arrows and spears, F-16s flying over and raining cluster bombs on UNESCO palaces, churches, monasteries and cloisters, igniting remnant bombs from WWI and WWII along the way, while a defenseless civilian population hovered in cloisters, towers, staircases, basements, doorsteps and any conceivable baroque and renaissance corner in a city once described by George Bernard Shaw as ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic.’
Sound familiar? For seven long months the same bells tolled for a ceasefire, but nobody cared. No one came to our rescue. Nobody dared. For us, every day was dark and full of terrors and we prayed winter would come and the warships would sail away. No fairy tale. No dragons. No Lannisters, Starks, Targaryeons or Baratheons. Just a city holding its breath while a tyrant from a nearby realm used it as a pawn in a chess game in one final attempt to hold onto seven republics which no longer cared for central rule. Daenerys did not deserve to be placed in the same metaphor as Milošević and yet, somehow, that’s where she wound up. Dubrovnik did not deserve to be levelled to the ground and reduced to ashes in the way it did, yet that too managed to occur before our war-weary eyes.
To watch it unfold again in a fabled, Sturm-und-Drang representation served by the Maestro of Cinematic Battle-Scenes, Miguel Sapochnik, was perfection at best but bittersweet to most, and especially to the citizens of Dubrovnik, the shows stand-in for Kings Landing. What happens next week during the long awaited finale doesn’t even matter anymore, and if there was any real justice in the world the writers would take a lesson from the history pages of Dubrovnik and pay homage by eradicating the figure of a central ruler altogether and aim for a ruling Council made up of noblemen and citizens alike. If Dubrovnik, Daenerys and Drogon are to remain standing in any capacity at all by next Sunday, and at this point I highly doubt they will, then that would suffice for the sort of poetic justice and Pyrrhic victory that all GOT and Dubrovnik-obsessed fans could accept and lay to rest. Dracarys.
By: Mirella-Marie Katarina Radman