Still from 'Game of Thrones' showing three characters trudging through a burning city.
HBO

Game of Thrones’ destruction of the capital of the Seven Kingdoms revealed a city of mean living conditions and rampant inequality.

Warning: If you haven’t seen last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, this article is one long spoiler.

In the midst of the recent hullaballoo about “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, something got missed in the confusion. The true star of the episode was neither a newly unsympathetic Daenerys nor her fire-breathing baby. The real focus was the city of King’s Landing itself, shown up close and in remarkable detail just at the moment when it, and its unlucky residents, were being scorched to smithereens.

(HBO)

It’s poignant that we finally got an eyeful of King’s Landing just as it was being turned into a weapon to crush its own citizens, watching Daenerys’s dragon turning its main streets into rivers of fire. For one of the first times in the series, we saw the city’s true extent, and we grasped the sheer density of people packed inside its walls. While the city’s residents have in the past mainly been presented for local color—as, say, courtesans, hammering blacksmiths, or jeering crowds—in “The Bells” they appear for the first time as a huge mass of fairly ordinary people, with whom we identify as they flee for their lives into doorways and down alleys.

The geography of the city scattered through the episodes has (as has been noted elsewhere) changed over the series. King’s Landing has metamorphosed from a tightly-packed peninsular citadel, resembling Dubrovnik, to a sprawling metropolis bounded on one side by a plain, which seems more based on Pre-Ottoman Constantinople. Despite this discontinuity, the place remains effective as a backdrop. Even as its greatest buildings mushroom to fantastical proportions, it isn’t a world away from many still-inhabited places fringing the Mediterranean.

Looking to real-life settings in Dubrovnik, Valletta, Malta, and Girona, Spain, the series’ designers have merely elongated and elaborated on existing architecture. They’ve added a knock-off of the Hagia Sophia and a vast overbearing fortress that’s a mash-up of the Alcazar of Segovia and France’s Mont Saint-Michel. The fantasy buildings aren’t far off the originals in spirit: It’s hard to look out on a wild sea from the delicate, lacy cloister at the summit of Mont Saint-Michel without feeling a little like Cersei looking out to the harbor from the top of the Red Keep. Meanwhile, anyone wondering what King’s Landing would look like transplanted to our world, and the present day, would do well to visit contemporary Istanbul.

(HBO)
The Ottoman-era Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. (Fatih Saribas/Reuters)  

Despite all that grandeur, something else rings even more clearly now we see the city in full. King’s Landing may be impressive to look at, but it’s largely a miserable place to live in, and the world that created it is rotten.

This is a civilization that can construct buildings so impressive that they make soaring real-life medieval cathedrals look like shrubs in comparison. The streets beneath the citadels, however, are largely mean, dingy warrens so tightly packed with people that a jumping flea could travel the city’s circumference without ever leaving a body. In “The Bells,” incinerated spires crash from the sky and onto the terrified folk below—death by authoritarian architecture. Faced with a dragon, not even the city walls are much use to the people shown desperately trying to press through their gates to what they think is safety.

The island monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, a clear model for King’s Landing’s Red Keep. (Thibault Camus/AP)

This is a world that raised the Red Keep to skyscraper height and built a northern anti-Wildling barrier taller than any cliff, but which has scarcely bothered plastering a single internal wall or invented any heating better than an open fire. And while the Starks and their allies’ last-minute race to turn volcanic dragonglass into weapons is understandable, it does make you wonder why they couldn’t have been kinder to themselves and turned some regular glass into window panes to keep out the cold.

This, of course, fits with the series’ real-life templates. Europe’s medieval cities were notorious plague pits, and stayed that way for a long time. Until quite recently, residents of the dank, lightless back alleys of Dubrovnik’s old city were poor and rather looked down on by officialdom, something that apparently persists today just up the Adriatic coast in the (scarcely less striking) old city of Split. But while it might be painful to see a character previously portrayed as her world’s savior laying waste to the people she’s supposed to be liberating, Daenerys wasn’t entirely wrong to reduce King’s Landing to rubble. As we can now say having seen the city in its dramatic but sordid entirety: The place is a dump.

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