As this episode aired at 2am in the UK, this review contains spoilers.
8.5 The Bells
Game Of Thrones, in its final season, is taking something of a beating, as far as fan perception goes. Fans are complaining a lot about how characters are being positioned, plot holes being left open, fast travel between places that used to take weeks, and so on. That blame is being left at the feet of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The two that brought George R.R. Martin’s sprawling unfinished book series to the small screen are taking heat, because once Martin’s material ran out, the show’s quality and focus shifted to something a little less complex and something a little more plot-driven. It’s fair to blame them for the change in the show’s tone, but it’s unfair to blame them at the same point.
Before the TV adaptation began, Dan and Dave sat down with Martin and got some sort of show bible, with an ending point that Martin said will match the ending in the books. They also had four novels of material to work with, which lasted quite a while. Then the book material ran out. It’s unclear how many plot points Martin left them to get them to his desired ending. The only people who would know for sure are David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and George R.R. Martin. However, they were given the end point, and have been left to figure out how to get there. Hence, the last couple of seasons.
Part of being a good supervisor is giving your employees leeway. If you give them exact directions, there’s no room for growth. If you give them a goal, the best bet is to let them get there on their own. The position Benioff and Weiss have been put into is they’ve been given half the directions, marched into the middle of a maze, and told to find their way to the predetermined ending while the guy who got them into the maze wanders off to do guest spots on Z Nation and talk about the Giants. That’s not a thankless task, nor is it an easy one. Even if you’re working off the writer’s original material (and there’s a lot of stuff in Martin’s books to prune), it’s up to you to get the show to the end point, one way or another.
To their credit, they’ve spent their money wisely. After the complaints about the brightness of The Long Night, The Bells is very well lit by lots and lots of dragon fire, torches, and other sundry explosions and bursts of flame. That destruction by dragon is only matched by the destruction wrought upon King’s Landing by the invading foreign armies of Daenerys Targaryen, First of her Name. If this is a surprise, then the viewer should remember the words of the Targaryen family: Fire and Blood. They’re conquerors, not heroes. The Seven Kingdoms didn’t exist until they were united under the heel of a Targaryen boot, and without the Targaryens around, they began to split apart as seen in the civil wars plural of previous seasons.
All her friends, advisors, whatever you want to call them have been trying to restrain her from her baser instincts, but as they fall away, betray her, or both, Daenerys Targaryen is becoming increasingly unhinged. The entitled girl who smiled as her brother’s head was melted by boiling gold, who desires to rule the Seven Kingdoms without even really knowing anything about them or the people who live there simply because she believes it’s her birth right? That’s the same Dany who freed the slaves because the concept of slavery offended her (plunging the cities she conquered into, you guessed it, civil war and terrorism). Daenerys only knows how to rule through absolute power, for all her talk of freeing the poor and downtrodden from beneath the yoke of the upper classes.
Instead, what The Bells shows is a world in which the powerful take what they want, the identity of the good guys and the bad guys depends solely on whose side you’re taking yourself, and nobody is going to get a happy ending, especially not the people who suffer most under the boot of a “liberating” army of foreign mercenaries and murderous barbarians who have no compulsion about putting people who don’t look like them to the sword. This isn’t the rightful queen of the Seven Kingdoms regaining her throne to the cheers of the people, it’s a foreign invader with an army of foreign invaders (even the Northerners are ‘foreign invaders’ to the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, since they don’t have knights and live a much different lifestyle than the rest) turning the capital city into a pile of ashes and rubble. This is the woman who swore, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood,” and she’s fresh out of advisors to talk her down from the ledge.
That fact is established pretty early on in the episode, when Dany and Grey Worm have a brief meeting in Dany’s chambers. She gives him the only thing Missandei left Essos with, and he grimaces and throws it in the fireplace. The die is cast at that point. Grey Worm doesn’t care about these people—he’s an outsider and he’ll always be one no matter what he does—he’s as blinded by revenge as his queen. Varys, who has served many mad kings and queens in his time, is smart enough to see the writing on the wall. Tyrion is, as well, but Tyrion is guided by his heart, more than his brain. He tries to make Dany see reason, he tries to get Jaime free to do the right thing and stop the battle from happening, to prevent Dany from walking into King’s Landing through a river of blood, and, eventually, Cersei does the right thing and surrenders the city.
To their credit, Benioff and Weiss do justice to the Cersei Lannister character at the end. She’s not a monster, as Tyrion points out, she loves her children, and it’s that attempt to save the child in her belly that guides her to give up the city, and her position as queen. This is the woman who was ready to kill her youngest son to spare him torture the last time King’s Landing was besieged. She fought to hold onto the throne for her children, even after they proved to be unfit rulers, because there’s no such thing as a retired king. Her last moments, for all her faults as a character and all of Jaime’s aborted growth as a character, are fitting to her true nature, and to his. Sadly for Brienne, she was just a rebound fling, and Jaime couldn’t stay away from the woman who he truly loves.
But they don’t get a happy ending, because no one is going to be getting a happy ending. Even when the fans get what they want, like Cleganebowl, they don’t get the ending they want. This is the opposite of fan service, this is actively alienating the fans and crushing any hope of a happy ending for most of these characters. Miguel Sapochnik does a stellar job in both handling the actors (Dany’s heel turn is clearly on her face the entire time) and in orchestrating the action sequences. Dany has finally learned how to perform aerial combat, and she uses her new skills to serious effectiveness, both in dealing with the Iron Fleet and in taking on the scorpions mounted along the walls of King’s Landing. The initial stages of the battle are handled really well; this isn’t a fair fight, this is a slaughter, even from the beginning. Varys actively tries to betray her to stop it, and Tyrion tries to play off her desire to be seen as a rescue figure, but neither is successful. Even when she can stop the slaughter, she refuses to do so, determined to take by fear what she could not take with love.
To his credit, Sapochnik makes sure that this battle is horrifying in ways that the other battles on this show haven’t been. This isn’t a clash of armies. This is surrendering soldiers getting cut down by screaming Dothraki. This is women and children fleeing as a dragon swoops overhead, burning indiscriminately. This is huddling in fear. This is being crushed by a mob against a door, swept away by the force of sheer panic all around you, stumbling and getting trampled half to death and calling yourself lucky for it.
The Hound tells Arya to turn back, or she’ll be consumed by revenge and become just like him, and she listens. She gets a second chance, possibly thanks to Bran’s intervention, after being exposed to the full meaning of warfare. Arya doesn’t see the deft hands of the Faceless Men performing assassinations on righteous targets. She doesn’t see the forces of good striking a blow against the forces of evil. She doesn’t see striking a blow against the House that killed her brother and betrayed her family. She sees a bunch of armed bullies terrifying unarmed children, raping women, and striking down people at random.
Like her cousin/brother Jon, she’s learning a hard, painful lesson about the true nature of conquest. There’s not a lot of joy to be had in victory. Doing the right thing, and making the right choice, doesn’t always work out in the end. Redemption arcs in the real world are very rare indeed, and only go so far. The Hound didn’t change his stripes; he walked into his revenge knowing it would be his undoing. You can run from what you truly are, but it tends to eventually catch up to you. The madness of the Targaryens has finally caught up with the Unburned, as the city she came to rule has now been destroyed.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, The Last Of The Starks, here. Watch Game of Thrones seasons 1-8 on NOW TV.