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Game of Thrones Season Eight Episode 5: “The Bells” Is A Cynical Disappointment

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In the most striking moment of “The Bells,” Game of Thrones‘ relentlessly loud penultimate episode, two queens stand alone across the capital of Westeros. On one side, stood history; Cersei, all her manipulations and machinations, poised high in the war room of the Red Keep. The other, stood the supposed future of Westeros; the Breaker of Chains, the one who unified the armies and allegiances of the Seven Kingdoms with her vision for the future. In the middle, lay the most talked about, written about, over analyzed fantasy series in modern history – and”The Bells” feels every ounce of that weight in its biggest moment, leading to a laughably incoherent, anticlimactic final showdown, a strange (and eventually, rather redundant) abandonment of everything it built in its early seasons.

Again, Game of Thrones abandons nuance for spectacle in “The Bells”, and assumes the fire and blood will pick up the narrative slack; it doesn’t, and haunts the episode’s collection of climactic moments.

In the end, the pressure was too much for Game of Thrones to handle; and although Dany successfully sieges King’s Landing (killing Cersei, Jaime, and half of the population of King’s Landing in the process), “The Bells” is too scared to bravely march forward, instead cynically reinforcing the lessons and presumptions of history repeating itself once again. Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing is neither prophetic or poetic: it’s just a fucking bummer, cutting off years of character development off at the knees in favor of the rushed post-sex-with-nephew arc of jealousy and bitterness, turning Dany into the show’s villain at the 11th hour. It only feels like a logical conclusion in the moment, because she was pigeon holed into this position by the writers, inorganically forced to collapse in her defining moment because of the way her character was reconstructed in this final season.

Game of Thrones The Bells

The collection of half-baked ideas about complicated genetics, stalled revolutions, and Tyrion’s miscalculations does not come to satisfying fruition in “The Bells,” instead turning her into just another jaded Jealous Woman lacking a king’s supposed emotional control. Even more disappointing? She’s just another in a long line of genocidal Westerosi leaders (directly following in her own family’s footsteps), one who ignores the warnings of every one of her leader’s not to engulf the city in flames and kill everyone (not to mention immediately turning every member of her own armies into rapists loyal to Jon Snow) – and most importantly, she’s emblematic of Game of Thrones’ fear of change, letting her embody the lessons of the past (ignoring your advisers to forge on a violent, deeply personal quest of conquering) in rather underwhelming fashion.

The most frustrating part of it all is there’s a world where Dany burning King’s Landing to the fucking ground makes sense; but it’s not this one, where the terrible pacing of the last two seasons have sapped any coherency from Dany’s heel turn here – instead, all we get is a few scenes of her feeling isolated, threatening everyone and wearing bad makeup to show her emotional distress.

Sure, we can point to the moments in the past where Dany’s burnt down witches tents, small cities, land owners with tangential connection to the main plot – but those moments came in service of a much more complicated arc of an inexperienced leader whose reactionary tactics couldn’t survive the rigors and patience demanded by forming a political body; Dany’s evolution was slow, but over the years, Game of Thrones took great care in developing her compassion, determination – and most importantly, her sense of . The Breaker of Chains was deigned to be the leader of a philosophic revolution in Westeros – which is why her arc over the past season feels so dissonant with Dany as a character, isolating her and turning her entire council against her, in turn exaggerating the worst habits of her family’s lineage, turning “The Bells” into an unexpected genocidal rampage.

Game of Thrones The Bells

“The Bells” wants us to be convinced Dany loses her shit when she hears the bells of surrender ring out from the city, but doesn’t see any of Cersei’s followers accept her as their leader. Dany expects something different, something extravagant – and when that doesn’t arrive, and the voices of her council, all either dead or estranged, are not there to keep her in check (because, you know, women be emotional), her seven year journey across the seas comes to an anti climactic conclusion. Again, it is understandable Dany suddenly feels the weight of her entire blood line, and decides to ransack the city to appease her anger at not being loved by the people like Jon is; but in the moment, and given the show’s history with its female characters, her nose dive into committing some heinous war crimes feels unearned at best, and thoroughly underdeveloped at worst.

Unfortunately, the logic of “The Bells” falls apart long before Dany’s character does. The opening twenty minutes alone are a laughable affair, a series of conversations it feels like Game of Thrones is having with itself, to convince itself the line of bullshit it’s fed the audience this season has led us to this epic, coherent conclusion. And as soon as the actual siege begin, nothing makes any sense, leading with Drogon making surprisingly easy work of the Iron Fleet and Qyburn’s scorpions guarding the gates of King’s Landing. For some reason, after seeing three arrows take out one dragon in ten seconds, Euron decides this is too unfair to the dragon, deciding to only shoot a couple arrows at a time lazily towards Dany – this, predictably, leads to the easiest domination of King’s Landing seen in the recent history of Westeros.

Game of Thrones The Bells

From there, “The Bells” kicks off a collection of strangely indulgent character moments; another central conceit of Game of Thrones is the shocking, unsatisfying ending for so many characters. Joffrey never faced justice, Ned’s honesty was unrewarded, and Catelyn couldn’t save her unborn grandchild; so much of Game of Thrones has fixated on rejecting the easiest endings for its characters, closing off character arcs in deeply unsatisfying (and thus, thematically rich and narratively complicated) fashion. Nothing about “The Bells” is even surprising; like every episode the past two seasons, “The Bells” is but an exercise in wish fulfillment, Game of Thrones ensuring its white characters get the poetic endings they deserve (rather than be served up for the sake of plot, like Missandei, the Dothraki army, or any non-white character on the cast not named Grey Worm), which makes for a disappointing hour.

There are brief pockets where Game of Thrones is able to recapture the magic of seasons past: but those moments are fleeting, and often only work in the specific context of this episode. Jaime’s fate follows the same principles as Dany’s; given the disappointing, truncated arc his character’s been given the past year, him dying in the arms of Cersei as the Red Keep crushes them both makes total sense. But again, it feels like a rejection of the show’s entire arc of challenging the cyclical nature of history; Jaime the Kingslayer was as much a prophet for change as Dany, until the show decided it was easier to just regress him to the man he once was, a man so obsessed with his sister he’d use his best friend, and then leave her in order to die next to the sister he once ruthlessly raped (over their father’s dead body, I might remind you).

Game of Thrones The Bells

It shows that Game of Thrones, ultimately, believed in Jaime Lannister’s loyalty to Cersei more than they believed in challenging themselves to deliver something less simplistic; instead of offering a nuanced ending for what was once the most distinct character arc of the series, “The Bells” sends Jaime off with a tragic storybook ending for him and the most cunning ruler of Game of Thrones, a ham-fisted “dude, prophecies are complicated!” ending to one of the show’s most complex, rewarding relationships.

It’s so strange to see 70 episodes of a series, rejected in favor of delivering the most simplistic, one-dimensional conclusions imaginable for its characters. As Arya trips, falls, and rolls around a collapsing King’s Landing, “The Bells” struggles mightily to justify its running time, or the narrative decisions made to get to these final moments. Even Cleganebowl turns out to be a disappointing affair; unlike say, the Viper vs. Mountain fight from seasons ago, The Hound fighting The Mountain offers no twists and turns, just a repetitive, brutal slog of two brothers battling consumed by their hatred of each other, ensuring that three years of telegraphing The Hound’s death comes to fruition (and without the complication of having Arya anywhere near the scene; he seriously couldn’t have convinced her not to chase Cersei, using the same logic, before they arrived in the Red Keep?).

Game of Thrones The Bells

Again, Game of Thrones abandons nuance for spectacle in “The Bells”, and assumes the fire and blood will pick up the narrative slack; it doesn’t and haunts the episode’s collection of climactic moments. Cleganebowl is a clear example of why this approach doesn’t work, a loud, gorgeous battle scene that, in the larger scheme of the episode and the series, rings as hollow as every other climactic moment of the episode.

With Varys smirking down from above, “The Bells” is a perfect encapsulation of Game of Thrones‘ regression in recent seasons, as visually arresting and thematically half-baked episode as the most middling episodes of the series. Where “The Bells” ends is perfectly believable, sure – but how it gets there, how it specifically accomplishes its goals of felling Cersei and complicating Dany’s rise to queen of Westeros, feels hollow, and borderline disingenuous at times: on some level, any penultimate episode with this much collective pressure on it is going to feel disappointing. But with so many decisions running contrary to the arc of the series as a whole, “The Bells” unfortunately feels like an empty, theatrical display of nothingness, emptily embracing Westerosi history whole cloth – which, while logical, feels like an abandonment of everything Game of Thrones has built to during the past eight years.

Save for Jon trying to figure out what the fuck to do when Dany starts burning everything (confusion that lasts exactly four seconds, before Jon’s killing Lannisters and trying to stop his own people from raping), there isn’t any nuance or moral ambiguity to the events of “The Bells”. In the end, that one-dimensional approach (which has plagued the entire final season, in all its truncated, thoroughly undercooked glory) buries what should be the most gloriously climactic moment of the series. In its most important moments, Game of Thrones has consistently chosen plot over character; in the process, it forgot what made it great in the first place, and “The Bells” suffers mightily from those priorities, in an overwrought eighty minutes that will, unfortunately, define this show’s legacy for years to come.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • it’s strange to reach the moments we’ve all talked and pontificated about for eight years, only for them to arrive and feel so dramatically empty. The only tension in “The Bells” is how we are going to get to the most predictable ending for each character, abandoning the why in favor of the empty spectacle and a collection of self-gratifying endings.
  • Hey, some of those press interviews from the red carpet premiere have a bit more context now, don’t they…
  • Love how Cersei’s military strategy is “hopefully we get one lucky shot”.
  • We get it, Game of Thrones – you know Arya is our favorite character, so that’s why she falls down 4,196 times through the episode’s third act. Though it rings hollow, it is part of the episode’s most visually arresting sequence; the camera following the destruction of King’s Landing, using each falling brick to shift its attention to a different part of the battlefield.
  • Remember an episode ago, when Cersei sent Bronn to kill Jaime and Tyrion? Yeah, it appears the show forgot about that, too.
  • The episode cutting back and forth between Arya and The Hound is visually arresting, but lacks anything substantive beyond that, begging the question of why the sequence is constructed in such fashion.
  • Three seasons of being a  terrible adviser lead Tyrion to make the most boneheaded decision yet; he frees Jaime, thinking he’ll convince Cersei to peacefully surrender.
  • Grey Worm, the most honorable soldier in Westeros, spears an unarmed man in the back to kick off the many war crimes in King’s Landing. Why tho?
  • Instead, we get Jaime fighting Euron to the death on the shores of the Red Keep, because… well, why the fuck not, right? Plus then we can have Jaime get stabbed a bunch, stumble for a minute, then be just fine when it comes time for him to survive long enough to die in the collapse of the Red Keep.
  • It’s funny to think the next two projects from Benioff and Weiss are the already-maligned Confederate, and a Star Wars series. Like it or not, these two and their writing style are here to stay!
  • There is a Biblical reference randomly thrown in at the end, when Arya rides the pale horse of the Apocalypse (the sign of a kingdom falling) out of King’s Landing.
  • WHY is there one nameless woman who interacts with multiple main characters before being unceremoniously murdered? Such a silly, weightless representation of the commoners in King’s Landing.
  • had Game of Thrones accelerated Dany’s earlier arcs a bit (did we need to spend three seasons fighting slave masters?), there might’ve been room to develop the Mad Queen arc of this season. But this show always posited her as the evolution of Westerosi politics, a leader learning from the mistakes along the way (negotiating with slave masters, burning the Tarlys, being terribly reckless with her own dragons, etc). Instead, Game of Thrones decides she, and Westeros as a whole, are incapable of growth, as cynical and pointless an ending as I could possibly imagine.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    May 13, 2019 at 11:32 am

    This is such a great review that it almost made me change my mind and dislike the episode.

    I had a huge problem with how the dragon was killed in the last episode. This week, not having the dragon die however made sense.

    They mentioned several times before the battle that they were waiting specifically for the moment the sun rises so she could use the sun to blind the solider of King’s Landing, making it very difficult for them to shoot down Dragon. That is why I was able to believe the dragon was able to not only survive but cause so much destruction.

    I also like having Arya run around the city while it was falling apart because we needed the point of view of a character like her to see the horror. Jon Snow’s POV wasn’t enough. Without those scenes, this episode wouldn’t have been as emotionally devastating for viewers.

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote but you also say it isn’t hard to believe that we would get this ending from Dany.
    That is why I think this episode if great. The show has given us enough scenes and enough dialogue to warn us and the characters that Dany could go mad at any point.

    The problem isn’t with this episode. The problem is with the last two seasons as a whole. They should have filmed the usual ten episodes so they could have enough time to flesh out these story beats and character motivations etc …

    But judged as an individual installment, “The Bells” is in my opinion, a great episode.

  2. Alex Aldridge

    May 14, 2019 at 7:31 am

    This is another great review of a seriously misfiring end to one of the greatest shows in the history of TV. It’s hard to know who to blame more out of GRRM or D&D, as theyr’e flying blind without his writing talent to help better contextualise the character turns that are being inexplicably rushed at the finish line.

    Game of Thrones was always so popular because it eschewed Hollywood popcorn bombast in favour of more intimate bursts of brutality and betrayal that were the results of carefully conceived acts of deceipt and cunning, rather than reactionary madness and genocide.

    There’s no denying that, as a spectacle, the last two seasons have delivered big moments that have been well-directed and are visually impressive, but it does the series a massive disservice to expect fans to swallow such flimsy logic and setup for what should be the biggest payoffs of all. The general consensus I’ve seen (and agree with) is that people aren’t really having a problem with Dany as the mad queen (hell, GRRM wouldn’t let this be the end if he wasn’t in agreement with it as the end for his storu), but her heel turn layered on so much extra nonsense that shouldn’t be just accepted. Actively targeting women and children was given absolutely no foreshadowing other than her having a mental dad, worse still that the Unsullied can turn into backstabbing cowards and the Northmen into child rapists at the first sign of dragonfire.

    My biggest beef is that some of the best characters are becoming swiftly eroded and reduced to almost generic fodder, whilst others are, as Randy rightly points out, being swiftly reverted to their type from season 1, seemingly out of creative bankruptcy. Jaime’s entire redemption arc was a massive waste of time when it appears he wanted nothing more than to boink a virgin and make her cry before he dies cuddling Cersei. Varys disappeared for two seasons, before coming back as the least cunning shit-stirrer ever. Telling everyone his plans of betrayal, writing letters and getting caught within a day doesn’t seem like the actions of the slippery shitheel he was back in the early days. Tyrion is nothing more than a snivelling, drunk moron, badass Cersei – the remorseless and immoral MegaBitch who will execute defenseless women just to piss her enemies off – spent the entire episode crying and hoping for a Scorpion bullseye. Did she spend all her clever points or something?

    The wait was really long for this payoff, but the delivery has been overly predicatble and cautiously adhering to fan service without earning much (if any) of it. I dread what will happen next week, and have no idea how this mess will hold up against the name of Game of Thrones in the years to come.

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