There are few winners and many losers in a grim installment that is satisfying until you think about it for a bit.
As the fifth and penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, “The Bells,” finished airing, everybody at my viewing party erupted in lusty boos. For many of them, the episode had betrayed any love they had once felt for the show.
That’s because “The Bells” is almost the entire final season of Game of Thrones in a microcosm — some interesting ideas, some cool moments, and some great acting, but if you think about most of what happened for more than a couple of seconds, it starts to implode. It’s better in theory than it is in execution, and it’s full of moments that are supposed to pay off years of the series, but fall extremely flat. (Hello, Cleganebowl!)
However, here’s the part where I’ll admit that even though I kind of liked it in the macro, I have a ton of complaints about this episode. It didn’t really make sense. And the show’s execution of the “Daenerys goes mad” arc is one of the most poorly handled things it’s ever done, especially if this was all part of a long-term plan (as it seems it was).
At best, it was foreshadowed by Game of Thrones’ scripts but undercut by its aesthetics (which constantly portrayed Dany as a folk hero). At worst, it peddled a weird spin on the idea that women are too emotional to lead. Either way, to quote a climactic moment on another show, “Not great, Bob!”
Yet boy was the central idea of “The Bells” — to illustrate how war tends to spiral out of control into fire and violence and massacres as the conquering army rides in to overrun the conquered — a fascinating, compelling one, and one that factors heavily in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels while having largely been avoided on the show (with exceptions). On a visceral level, the episode was a horrific ride through a world that has completely shattered.
Just, y’know, don’t think about it too hard, or for too long.
Here are four winners and 10 losers from “The Bells,” and the fact that there are so many more losers has less to do with my feelings about the episode as a whole and more to do with how fucking grim it was you guys it was so grim.
Winner: director Miguel Sapochnik
Say what you will about “The Bells,” but it looks great.
Okay, I could have done without the vaguely Zack Snyder look of Cleganebowl and assorted other scenes in the dragonfire-scorched King’s Landing. The streaks of pale sunlight and grey ash floating over everything reminded me of nothing less than 300, the 2007 movie that was kind of a weird Iraq War apologia if you squinted at it for long enough.
But so much of the rest of “The Bells” is, at the very least, really impressive on a technical level. The shot of Drogon first lighting the Iron Fleet on fire — where the camera is pinned to Euron whirling around on his ship, powerless to stop Dany’s sudden ability to avoid giant arrows — and the many shots of Arya trying to escape the fallen King’s Landing are the sorts of things you rarely see executed so well on television. The episode captured the chaos of battle for me in the way that episode three, “The Long Night” (which was also directed by Miguel Sapochnik), just didn’t.
But the gorgeous visuals extended beyond the battle scenes. The early moments at Dragonstone, which are mostly lit via firelight, are evocative and stunning, and they do more to sell Daenerys’s turn toward unchecked violence more than anything in the script. The shots of the citizens of King’s Landing crushing toward the Red Keep’s gates, Jaime desperately trying to flag down someone who will let him in, are deeply terrifying.
In its final season, Game of Thrones has gone all-in on carrying most of its emotion in its spectacle. The storytelling doesn’t have to make perfect sense if the visuals all look like the cover of a heavy metal album. And, honestly, “The Bells” is perhaps the most heavy metal album cover-esque episode of Game of Thrones yet. (And yes, I mean that as a good thing.)
Loser: Daenerys Targaryen
Honestly. What. The fuck?
I wrote a piece earlier this season about how I expected Dany to become the show’s final villain. I’ve read my colleague Andrew Prokop’s numerous previous articles arguing the same thing. And I am at least somewhat persuaded that Game of Thrones has been nodding in this direction all along by showing just how bad Dany can be when she doesn’t get her way.
So I’m ready and willing to accept the “Daenerys starts indiscriminately setting people on fire” turn of events. She’s ambitious and arrogant and certain of her own destiny. She knows she is the one who will set the people free, and she’s forgotten that “setting the people free” is her previously stated ultimate goal. There is room to work here.
But now. She’s a Targaryen, so… welp! The idea that she’s suddenly scorching everything in sight because she’s trapped by her father’s DNA, by the mental illness in her genetic code, which has apparently largely come out of nowhere, in response to a series of traumatic events, when this is a young woman who has lost a husband and a child and so much else and been kidnapped and raped and all manner of things — that’s an idea Game of Thrones simply can’t pull off.
My guess is that Martin has some version of this planned for the ending of the books. But in the books, Dany is a point-of-view character, so readers are well-acquainted with the way she thinks about the world. When she takes a turn toward the fiery, Martin will trace every step of her mental journey. The show doesn’t have that luxury.
Should it need that luxury to work? For ages, Game of Thrones was so good at creating characters who were complex and conflicted, who sometimes didn’t quite understand their own motivations.
But in its last few seasons, it’s increasingly flattened them out into the most basic versions of themselves.
Now, Dany is far from my favorite character on this show. I’m using her as a bit of a shibboleth. However, “The Bells” finds multiple ways to contort various characters in ways that make absolutely no sense, in the name of getting to the (admittedly fascinating) big finish. The episode sacrifices so many different ideas of who these people are — or even the idea of consistent character development at all — in get everyone to a place where Dany can go mad in exactly the way the show needs her to.
Loser: putting character development in the Previously On
The weird shot of Dany watching Missandei’s death from episode four, while a montage of voices swirled around her as if she was Marge Simpson trying to stop the Springfield monorail or something, felt like it was trying to set up her turn toward madness. Again: What. The fuck?
Loser: King’s Landing
On a very obvious level, King’s Landing lost because large portions of it are now on fire and/or exploded. (How does dragonfire explode city walls and buildings when previous stories on the show have been about how those walls can become prisons in event of dragons? Ask again later.) And on another very obvious level, a large portion of the city’s population is dead.
But the city is also a loser because once the fire starts raining down on the people of King’s Landing, we have absolutely no idea how they feel about Cersei, about Dany, about anything. Game of Thrones simply offers us hearsay about how they’re probably on Cersei’s side, but maybe they’re just afraid of her, and… that’s not nearly enough to explain the ground-level politics of what happens in this sequence.
I don’t need Game of Thrones to introduce a whole bunch of characters within the walls of King’s Landing or anything like that. But I do need to have literally any sense of how the city feels about its queen when the fire starts. Even if that feeling is “no matter who wins, things are gonna stink.”
Loser: House Lannister
It took forever, but the Lannisters are basically dead. Tyrion is still alive, but he’s sworn his allegiance to Daenerys, and it feels like if Dany finds out that he freed Jaime in an attempt to get Cersei and Jaime out of the city ahead of the invasion — which he somehow thought would lead to surrender bells — then the Lannisters will be done for for good.
Cersei and Jaime die, crushed beneath the rocks of the Red Keep’s crypts when the building finally begins to fall. Never mind how strange it is that the two of them ended up together again. I kind of appreciated the grand opera of the pair reuniting in the middle of the Red Keep’s giant map room, their dreams squashed beneath the rubble as surely as they are about to be.
Honestly, I’m not sure why Game of Thrones kept Cersei around for this season. She had long been the show’s best character, but it seemed to lose interest in her for this final stretch of episodes: She barely appeared, getting sidelined in her own plots by a pirate who seemed to have arrived from another TV show entirely. Her death — and, honestly, Jaime’s death — felt like an afterthought, like the show suddenly remembered it had all of these characters left on the board and it might as well bump them off.
Loser: Euron Greyjoy
Euron tried to take credit for killing Jaime, but honestly, the crumbling rubble probably got the win there. And beyond that, he was just sort of terrible at everything, after several episodes where he seemed to expend zero effort and succeed in utter lack of proportion to what he tried to do. Thus, Euron died as he lived: turning up at the least opportune moment to fuck everything up, then grinning about it.
After years upon years of hype, Cleganebowl aimed for the epic while feeling utterly inconsequential, which is maybe a great subtweet of “The Bells” as a whole. (Shut up, VanDerWerff! You liked it! You liked it! You said you did!)
It took place on a crumbling staircase (cool), as a dragon periodically flew overhead (COOL), and as we looked upon the zombified remains of Gregor Clegane (COOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!).
But as it was happening, I realized I had absolutely no emotional investment in what was unfolding, beyond having a vague idea that I was sad the Hound couldn’t escape his own cycles of abuse and trauma. It played out in the most perfunctory fashion possible, though I’m pretty sure that it would sound so much cooler if scored by the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road.
This sort of sums up David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s approach to Game of Thrones’ last couple seasons in a weird way — they’ve finally gotten to a place where they can put some of these huge moments from Martin’s future books onscreen, but they’ve struggled to lay the groundwork for those moments in a way that will make them land, which leaves them feeling stranded.
The show is still leaning so heavily on the character work from its first few seasons that it’s all but impossible for these scenes to sing in the way they need to, which leads to gigantic, epic visuals in service of clunky storytelling.
Varys likely knew he was signing his own death warrant when he began spreading news of Jon Snow’s true parentage far and wide (to whom, we still don’t know). What he likely didn’t bet on was Tyrion being the one to rat him out to Daenerys after Tyrion had been the one to tell Varys about Jon in the first place.
What I’m still torn on is whether or not Varys’s actions align with the rest of his character arc to this point. Using information to press an advantage, even if it might put him in grave danger, is something he would do, sure. But I can’t square his actions with the previous version of the character when I think about how he’s apparently done all of this because he’s just convinced Jon is the guy to bring peace to the realm.
How did he come to have such allegiance to the idea that he would risk his life — and, indeed, ultimately die — for it? The greatest flaw of Game of Thrones’ final season is that it’s never once sold us on Dany as the villain or Jon as the hero, and with just one episode left, I don’t have high hopes that it will figure out how to do that. Varys’s death is a sad example of how the show never solved this central conundrum.
Winner: Game of Thrones’ cast
The Daenerys arc doesn’t make sense, but boy did Emilia Clarke very nearly sell it. Cersei didn’t have anything to do this season, but boy, did Lena Headey play the shit out of her wailing about how she wanted her child to live (to the degree where the voice in my head snarking, “Does she?” was quieter than usual). Tyrion’s release of Jaime also didn’t make any sense, but his whole “I’m suddenly worried about the human cost of war” thing was beautifully played by Peter Dinklage.
I could go on and on down the line. So many moments in “The Bells” don’t make sense if I try to explain them from the level of “this is how humans behave,” but in the moment, I sort of believed in them, simply because Game of Thrones’ actors are so good at conveying the inner turmoil of people marked by the horrors of this endless war.
In particular, I want to single out Clarke, who took a whole bunch of scenes where the show’s writers just sort of threw up their hands and said, “Dany: The struggle is real!” and found some genuine meat in them. I’m haven’t always been a fan of her performance, but this season is weirdly turning into one of her best, even as the writing for her has largely been abysmal. And if we’re looking for performers who had a good night…
Winner: Maisie Williams
A bunch of scenes in this episode are just Arya going on a tour of King’s Landing as it’s falling apart. And even if those scenes are largely proving the point advanced by our friends over at Vox sister site Polygon that the characters on Game of Thrones are video game characters, Maisie Williams plays the shit out of them.
Arya goes from being happy to have broken whatever cycle of violence she was trapped in to simply trying to survive over the course of a few hellish hours.
So much of Game of Thrones’ final season has been built around just turning the camera on Williams and watching her work, and so many of the results have been great, almost entirely thanks to her.
Loser: the breaking of cycles
Much of Game of Thrones, thematically, has been about breaking destructive cycles — whether political cycles, cycles of violence, or cycles of oppression.
The show and Martin’s books have introduced a world where everything is built atop cycles that need to be broken, then brought in a bunch of people who are very well positioned to break it. (For more on this idea, check out Twitter user @chachch_changes’ thread on Cleganebowl.) So some portion of the ending will be at least somewhat hopeful about the possibility of breaking these cycles, right?
Nah. That turns out to mostly not be the case, and it turns out to not be the case in the most bitter and dark way possible, as Daenerys succumbs to what amounts to a family curse, the Hound plunges into battle against the Mountain, and Jaime returns to Cersei after seeming to swear her off multiple times previously. The one character who has a real chance at shattering these cycles is — sigh — Jon, which is probably why the series finale will feature some variation on “Jon kills Daenerys and then is killed himself.”
Here in its late going, then, Game of Thrones is revealing just how cynical it truly is about human nature. Daenerys originally said she wanted to break the wheel — but she only wanted to do so in a way that would bring her power. And so many other characters ultimately don’t believe they are worthy of love, in ways that lead to their destruction. Aw.
So if you thought Game of Thrones was a show about making the world slightly better, about the slow march of progress, uh… you’d better be a Jon Snow fan? Good luck in the finale!
Loser: the “Inside Game of Thrones” segments at the end of each episode
Honestly, these are the stupidest fucking things. Have you ever watched them? Scenes from the episode replay, while showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss try to explain what’s happening in them.
And the one for “The Bells” takes the cake in terms of having the showrunners tell us what we’ve just watched. They say, in essence, that Daenerys is triggered by the sight of the Red Keep, which was taken from her family, which prompts her to … burn a bunch of people who had nothing to do with that? I mean, maybe. Sure. I could see it. But what Benioff and Weiss describe has little to no relationship with what we’ve just seen onscreen.
I realize the joke is on me for actually watching these things, when I know they’re going to have next to nothing insightful to say about what I’ve just seen. But even by bottom-of-the-barrel standards of segments meant to discuss an episode you’ve just watched in the most superficial way possible, they’re so, so bad. Benioff and Weiss either don’t want to share insight into their characters or can’t. HBO should just dump these segments entirely.
For when you absolutely need to get out of King’s Landing in a hurry.
Loser: anybody who named their kid Khaleesi
Every year since Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, we’ve heard about how many Game of Thrones baby names there are, and every year, I think, “Boy, shouldn’t you wait for the show to end?” This is why, people. This is why.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff