Spoilers for “The Bells”, season eight, episode five of Game of Thrones.
“The Bells” was a disastrous episode of Game of Thrones.
Technically, it was incredible. From a pure production standpoint, it matched, if not exceeded, “The Long Night”, with scenes that were as likely to inspire awe as they did horror. It’s doubtful that another show on television will ever deliver the level of theatrical carnage that director Miguel Sapochnik put on display Sunday night. Literally, “The Bells” was a disastrous episode of Game of Thrones that reveled in the amount of disaster it rained down on King’s Landing. If we dissociated the visual from the thematic, then it would’ve been one of, if not the, best episode of the show ever. But there are pesky little things like plot, character, common sense and intelligence to consider. Even the best of the shows tend to bungle one or two of these once in a while. It’s rarer for a show, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the medium, to eviscerate every single one in the course of an 80 minute outing. And yet, Game of Thrones did just that, with one episode left in the whole series to make heads and tails of the wholesale destruction that it wrought.
It all starts with Daenerys Targaryen, the newly, unduly crowned Mad Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her descent into madness has been telegraphed since her birth; the child of forced sibling incest, she represented a prophecy of mental illness, which Cersei and Varys have related to a coin toss. Also telegraphed was Daenerys’ lack of agency, her brutalized subservience and abuse, her destiny to be lost to history like the rest of the Targaryens. Since Game of Thrones’ beginnings, she has subverted every Westerosi expectation of her. The core of her series arc was about exceeding the limitations of her legacy, her gender, everything. She lost her husband and unborn child, and she brought three dragons to life after centuries of dormancy. Every time someone took from her, she took back with twice the force. She battled warlords, thieves, slavemasters, and the undead (in case everyone forgot that minor world-saving detail). She didn’t become “Khaleesi” by default; she earned the respect of her subjects, and ultimately the audience, through her hard-fought trials and tribulations. Even at her ruthless worst, Daenerys still operated from a place of basic decency, stemming from her disgust at her brother’s entitled cruelty and reaffirmed through her mission of freeing slaves upon viewing the savageries committed in Astapor and Yunkai. Was she was predisposed to madness, maybe. But why shouldn’t Daenerys reject that legacy as she had all the others? And if she were to succumb to hereditary psychosis, shouldn’t it be, as her ascendancy was, deliberate, thoughtful, and executed well?
“The Bells” offers the polar opposite. Even if you make the case that Daenerys’ barrage of trauma – problematic in its own right for its narrative contrivance – pushed her to dragonfire-fueled genocide, there was nowhere near enough narrative space and time to truly explore it. Instead of delving into the so-called seeds of her madness through conversation or argument or the myriad ways Game of Thrones would’ve normally handled this, her insanity was fast-tracked in two episodes. Daenerys switched from savior of the world to monstrous sociopath, with only her increasingly disturbed looks offering the resemblance of context (the only positive is that Emilia Clarke has been delivering the performances of her career). Daenerys transformed herself from voiceless victim to powerful leader, and she at least deserved a thoughtful cataloguing of the destruction of her development, if we were supposed to accept it. What she got instead were plot grenades disguised as plot justification, people talking about how terrible Daenerys was (and no one besides Missandei acknowledging how much she’s sacrificed) as if the last seven years never happened, and then some bells.
Daenerys dissolving into madness isn’t a bad plot point, but for those damn bells – signifiers of her successful victory – to drive her to lay waste to her ancestral home and the people she wanted to acknowledge her is so devoid of narrative and character logic and foundation that I swore it was a Dallas dream sequence. What’s even more frustrating is that, with one possible tweak, Dany’s breakdown could’ve made sense. What if the bells came a moment too late and Dany destroyed everything because she thought she was losing? What if she realized during her initial rage that she had committed hideous war crimes against innocents ready to surrender? I imagine the gravity of realizing everything you thought you were and wanted to be has been destroyed by your own impetuousness and a horrible twist of ill timing is enough to drive someone predisposed to madness over the edge. Well, sort of, but it would’ve at least framed Dany’s acts within tragedy instead of plot-dictated ridiculousness. Instead, the Mad Queen now walks into the series finale a fully-fledged villain that will certainly be vanquished, and the last seven seasons of her journey feel pointless.
“The Bells'” carnage didn’t stop at Daenerys’ soul. No, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff laid siege to three other deeply compelling characters who deserved much better than they got. I had no doubt in my mind that Cersei Lannister was going to die, and I suspected Jaime would too after he slept with and then left Brienne last episode to return to Cersei’s side. The most popular theory around their demise was that Jaime would kill Cersei, reclaiming the Kingslayer moniker once again to save the Realm, even at the cost of the woman he loved. It also fulfilled Maggie the Frog’s prophecy from Cersei’s childhood that her brother would be the one to kill her. Cersei thought it would be Tyrion, and technically she was right. After seven years of dogged, ruthless defiance in the face of insurmountable odds – the Battle of Blackwater, the Faith Militant – Cersei died. But there was no comeuppance, justice, or tragedy. There was no last smirk of defiance as Drogon roasted her, or glare of righteous indignation as Arya stabbed her, or look of shock as Jaime strangled her to death. She was crushed by a (heavy) pile of rubble, clinging to the brother-lover she wanted dead but an episode ago. As for Jaime, he was crushed with her, as was his series-long redemption arc that restored to him a sense of honor and decency, despite the attempted child murder and incest. He didn’t die honorably or decently. He didn’t die fighting the darkest part of himself (Cersei), or defending her, or defending the living, the reason he left Cersei in the first place. No, just crushed in a damn basement. This pair of lions dying such an ignoble death is so uninspired that it almost negates the tragic irony at its core. Even Arya, inarguably the MVP of this season, wasn’t immune to the flames of nonsensical plotting. Years of training and planning to kill the woman who executed her father in front of her and the world, and the moment she’s given the chance, she gives it up to spend the next 30 or so minutes running through the crumbling streets as a victim? All because The Hound told her to? And we haven’t even gotten to Varys’ mind-boggling laziness, Jon’s staggering uselessness, Tyrion’s absurd incompetence, Grey Worm’s seething bloodthirstiness, or Euron’s downright implausible existence.
At this point, anything can happen, although I can hazard a pretty good guess: Jon Snow, the King of failing upwards and complaining about it, will be King of whatever Daenerys leaves behind after her imminent death. Tyrion, the ostensible strategic mastermind who has stunningly failed at every conceivable opportunity, will be his Hand. That this scenario might conclude one of the most subversive, fascinating, and narratively rich shows ever produced is an astonishing, horrifying feat. There is a chance that Weiss and Benioff might pull something reasonable out of their self-sanctioned chaos, but I doubt it. There is no goodwill or faith left; “The Bells” burned it all to ash.