Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Bells,” the bloody and fiery penultimate entry of the series.
Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.
David Sims: A crucial part of the lore of Game of Thrones—and the George R. R. Martin novels the show is based upon—is the sack of King’s Landing. The legendary attack happened long ago at the end of the rebellion that put Robert Baratheon (remember him?) on the Iron Throne and forced the Targaryens from power. The sack was led by Tywin Lannister (remember him?) and was notorious for its brutality, as Tywin demonstrated his loyalty for the new king by brutally wiping aside the reign of the old. And it was repeated, even more terribly and bloodily, by Daenerys Targaryen on tonight’s episode, “The Bells,” as she swept away the remnants of the Baratheon–Lannister dynasty. The writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss clearly wanted to drive one point home: Everything old is new again. But wasn’t this show supposed to be about ending the cycle of conquering for the sake of conquest, about breaking the wheel?
Of course, there’s still one episode to go that can upend things further. But “The Bells,” an installment caked in terror and death, was meant to underscore a miserable truth about war: that it destroys everything in its wake, most of all the common folk whose allegiances are being fought over. Daenerys has run rampant through the series as an all-powerful, dragon-riding warrior queen, taking eastern city after city with ease. Why wouldn’t she do the same in King’s Landing, a city she barely understands, one occupied by the woman who just executed her closest friends? The capital of Westeros is, after all, the site of her family’s greatest failure, when they were turfed out decades ago; her wrathful reclaiming of it made a sort of sense.
Except it didn’t. Not really. I can see the underlying story structure at work here, and perhaps it’s one that Martin laid out to Benioff and Weiss when he told them his general idea for how the A Song of Ice and Fire series will end. Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair wisely pointed out last week that Martin has long expressed his love for “The Scouring of the Shire,” the vicious, anticlimactic, penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, where the heroic hobbits return to their idyllic home only to find it consumed by war and violence. Daenerys’s ride to victory would have inevitably led to chaos, so it’s reasonable to depict that chaos.
But so much of “The Bells” depended on Daenerys’s final attack being entirely vindictive and emotional—and far beyond anything she’s attempted before. Yes, the Dragon Queen has always had a passion for execution by fire, and yes, she is now without her two best counselors (Jorah and Missandei), who often kept her from acting recklessly. Still, the episode was written specifically to give her an out—to give Cersei and her remaining troops a chance to surrender, which they did, and perhaps spare King’s Landing from total annihilation. Instead, Daenerys, in nothing more than a fit of pique, decided not only to unleash her dragon on the Red Keep, but also to burn the city indiscriminately, incinerating street after street filled with the ordinary folk she intends to rule.
The show could have laid the groundwork for this turn; it didn’t. Daenerys has so long been presented as a leader who was fundamentally shaped by her experience as a captive piece of property, someone who abhorred slavery and had little taste for pure cruelty. Game of Thrones could have easily demonstrated the nasty reality of her fight for Westeros without putting the choice to massacre innocents directly on her shoulders. Instead, “The Bells” ended up painting one of the most pivotal plot points in the final season as an emotional lashing out from a tired, lonely, paranoid young woman. That choice bodes poorly for the finale, since Jon was presented here as Daenerys’s counterpart, still holding on to his dignity and morality as his queen’s foreign-invasion force pillaged the city and killed civilians.
If the idea is that the “game” itself—the unending contest for the Iron Throne—is broken, well, I imagine every viewer figured that out a few episodes into the first season. The characters that audiences have been invested in for so long had been evolving into something new, pointing toward a deeper change for this rich and fascinating fantasy world. Instead, in “The Bells,” more often than not, characters reverted to their base nature. Daenerys turned full Mad Queen. The Hound sought out his brother for one last battle. Jaime found Cersei and they died in each other’s arms. So many of these moments were well done—in general, this episode was beautifully executed and really well-acted, with a lot of clean action and intelligent cross-cutting between set pieces. But it felt so hollow to me, the narratives stakes entirely obliterated, once Daenerys made her move. Lenika and Spencer, are you as disheartened as I am?
Lenika Cruz: The way last week’s episode ended, I had a feeling “The Bells” was going portray and be a disaster, but the degree to which it did both still left me gobsmacked. This is, in my book, the worst Game of Thrones episode ever—though not in a technical sense, as you pointed out, David. The acting was spectacular. The effects were stunning. But that prowess was in service of a story that was extremely obvious in some ways (Dany becoming the Mad Queen, something fans have predicted for ages) and absolutely illogical in others (Dany burning babies alive mere hours after professing that “mercy is our strength”).
The Mad Queen thing in and of itself isn’t shocking, nor is it a bad storytelling move. Almost every major plot development in this episode—Dany razing King’s Landing, Jaime and Cersei being crushed to death together, Sandor and Gregor falling to their doom—could have made for an excellent penultimate installment. What I take issue with is how clumsily Dany’s transformation was portrayed—and that clumsiness, at this late stage in the show, with the stakes so high, feels unforgivable given how avoidable it was.
Maybe it’s a waste of space to list all of the “ARE YOU SERIOUS?” moments of the episode, but I don’t want those to be totall overshadowed by all the grand spectacle. So here are some things that made me type in angry all-caps in my notes: Jaime wandering into King’s Landing with a hood and immediately taking the glove off his golden hand despite the fact that he knows his sister wants him dead and he would be very recognizable to any member of the Queensguard. Arya and the Hound also showing up, barely disguised, in King’s Landing at roughly the same time. Varys hastily setting fire to a scroll and then immediately placing into a covered metal tin, which would have put out the fire (not to mention his horribly plotted spy efforts in general). The Hound changing his mind about Arya’s mission—right as they approach the Red Keep, after the fighting has broken out, after they’ve traveled thousands of miles from Winterfell—and telling the girl who assassinated the Night King she shouldn’t try to kill Cersei after all because … it’s too dangerous.
I could go on. But most frustrating is the fact that Daenerys, a character whose many virtues and moral blind spots Game of Thrones so skillfully sketched out over the years, suddenly lost her mind within the last couple episodes because of the Targaryens’ well-documented predisposition to mental illness, the death of her best friends, and the fact that her nephew no longer wants to sleep with her. In its rush to deliver a wild reversal—or if you want to be charitable, subversion—of everything the show had established about Dany’s deep-seated goodness and sense of justice, Game of Thrones all but destroyed her character. Where some viewers might see a satisfyingly awful upending of expectations about Dany’s supposed goodness, I see an unearned negation of the identity she had spent years building for herself.
What I love about the show’s defining moments of horror—the Red Wedding, the death of Ned Stark, the death of Oberyn Martell, the destruction of the Sept of Baelor—was how perfectly they fit with everything that had come before while also catching me off guard. Perhaps Dany’s massacre wasn’t ever supposed to be part of that hallowed category but was meant to be its own class of inelegant monstrousness.
For all my unhappiness, I was still moved by a few scenes. My heart hurt during Jaime and Cersei’s final moments and when Arya tried to save a mother and daughter only to see them both melted by Drogon’s breath into a single, charred mass. Those doomed pairings, along with the Hound and the Mountain diving off the Red Keep steps in each other’s arms (a fitting end to Cleganebowl, I suppose), underlined how powerful the notion of dying togetheris—whether the animating reason is love or hate. I wonder whether this idea will be relevant for Jon and Dany in next week’s finale. Everything tells me that Jon must now defeat Dany and rule the Seven Kingdoms whether he wants to or not. More interesting and Thrones-ian, of course, would be if neither “wins”—if somehow the cruel destiny that brought these two together will want to see them entwined until the very end. Then again, as this episode suggested, I might no longer have a great sense of what is or isn’t “Thrones-ian.”
Spencer Kornhaber: I understand your dismay, but I’m going to mount a defense. The episode came into focus for me when The Hound thwacked off Darth Mountain’s helmet to reveal the bloated eggman beneath. “Yeah, that’s you—that’s what you’ve always been,” Sandor grumbled: not only a clutch line in a long-awaited duel, but also an explanation for what underlay the destruction of King’s Landing, which was a scandalous, wrenching, enthralling, and appropriate culmination for Game of Thrones.
Definitely, though, I groaned at various points throughout the mayhem. The mega-crossbows that had seemed so lethal on the seas an episode earlier became instant kindling; Tyrion’s plan for Jaime to sail away with Cersei was obviously D.O.A.; Euron Greyjoy running into Jaime at the cave is the kind of TV coincidence that no one wants. On the great question of the episode—what the hell are you doing, Daenerys?—it was impossible not to be baffled at first. But that’s because of the greater failing of the show lately: pacing. A series that used to meticulously—even tediously—build foundations for major character decisions instead has instead been sprinting through plot checkmarks. I’ve just become resigned to Benioff and Weiss’s shoddy motivation-explaining, I suppose. With just six episodes this season and seven in the previous, there hasn’t been a long enough runway for Dany’s murderous departure.
Sill, the pieces of her decision-making apparatus were all on screen, even if the show hasn’t put them together all that sturdily. Yes, there’s her “mad queen” lineage; yes, there is the quite noxious suggestion that she scoured King’s Landing out of some emotional jag. More important, though, is the strategic principle that Dany has learned time and again: Fear works. Love has worked for her too before, but as she pointed out to Jon, Westeros hasn’t exactly erupted in cries of “Mhysa!” since she arrived. If she’d more mercifully taken the capital, would the people have been swayed to her? Maybe. But Varys’s betrayal and all its implications—about all her supposed allies who spread the incendiary news of Jon’s parentage—gave her reason to think that she’d be a marked woman after even the gentlest of victories.
She cogently laid this thinking all out in her scenes with Jon and Tyrion, which had the crackling air of an impending storm. How striking to see this new Dany, styled not to look “mad” but rather just plainer and wearier. A dark clarity had settled over her. The scene of her executing Varys, on a visual basis alone, with her dragon materializing from the blackness behind her, is something that will populate a generation’s nightmares. The queen’s delivery elevated it further. In her calmest tones, Dany recited her titles and pronounced her sentence. She didn’t have to explain her reasoning. All assembled understood it.
On some nauseating level, after the shock wears off, they may come to understand—but never approve of—her reasoning for what came later. Whereas the Battle of Winterfell took a scenario that seemed apocalyptic and, somewhat cheaply, gave it a pat happy ending, the battle of King’s Landing really did torch expectations in the way that Game of Thrones is supposed to. We all know by now that George R. R. Martin loves to raid ancient and medieval history for its most horrifying tidbits, and that’s what happened here. The total obliteration of cities in war is a very real phenomenon with an obvious if vile logic. Alexander the Great crucified men on the beaches of Tyre after he conquered their city not only because he could; he did it to discourage other would-be resistors on his drive to dominate the world.
Dany—a registered crucifier herself—knows the power of intimidation. She believes that she’s just bought herself insurance against too much trouble from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Sure, Varys may have gotten a raven or two out with word of Jon’s claim to the throne. But now that Dany has demonstrated her absolutely terrifying weaponry and her willingness to use it on any and everyone, who in Westeros will dare to back another claimant? Not the “new prince of Dorne” and other unidentified vassals, I’d bet.
Well, okay, maybe all the confidantes who’d pleaded with her to go easy on King’s Landing will turn. Their horror at her actions must be thick and rich. Jon had to stab his own soldiers to stop them from taking Dany’s cruelty as license to rape innocents. Arya witnessed the bloody cost of the razing first hand; this, appropriately, seemed to reconnect with greater human race just after she made the choice to turn away from spending her life as a revenge-bot. Tyrion now surely realizes he made his gravest judgment error yet by turning in Varys. These characters could now find themselves in an oddly inverted and lonely position—set against their chosen queen at exactly the moment when the rest of the continent bows, tremblingly, to her.
What ever happened to breaking the wheel, you ask? Dany will argue that there’s no better way to do that than by melting what’s long been the seat of despotism. Her mercy, as she said, is to future generations who will supposedly thrive under her fair hand. Granted: that logic is megalomaniacal, monstrous, and exactly the justification that any given tyrant uses. Varys, diagnosing her “destiny” talk last episode as just the raving of another would-be iron monarch, was absolutely correct. This is who she’s always been, it turns out, and who can say they didn’t at least suspect that could be the case?
In other ways, too, this episode brought into relief what’s been going on all along on this show. Dany’s choice ended up burying various optimistic assumptions by viewers while also paying off on characters’ long, tragic arcs. The Hound admitted to staking his life on vengeance before he unmasked his brother and took him down into fire. Jaime staggered back to Cersei to, as he always wanted to, die in the arms of the woman he loved. Cersei in turn trembled at her ultimate fear, her own death, which indeed came to pass with her brother’s hands on her neck, as her dreaded prophecy foretold. Jon had to pick between his two great virtues, loyalty and honor, and in choosing the latter, it meant killing his own men and implicitly disobeying his queen.
The cinematic pyrotechnics to accompany this grim symphony were occasionally repetitious but overall extraordinary. We’ve seen dragon fire before, but not zig-zags of it across the map of King’s Landing. We’ve seen hellacious slaughter before, but not from soldiers we’ve been trained to root for. We’ve seen battles and betrayals that burn the show down to its foundations, but arguably never as radically as this. Perhaps another turn is coming that will see green shoots coming up from the ashes. But if you think this has a happy ending, well, you know what Ramsay said.