To say the latest episode of Game of Thrones has divided opinion would be an understatement. I was nervous going in, because I’ve been disappointed with the final season as a whole and time is running out for the show to redeem itself. It’s difficult to gauge the overall reception of the episode. I’ve tried to seek out as many opinions as possible. I asked everyone I knew what they thought of it, and neither of them had any issue with the episode. But when I log into social media, I’m inundated with furious claims of betrayal and abject disappointment. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap, when you feel so strongly about art, of assuming there is one definitive verdict to be ascertained. And when differing verdicts clash in the catchbasin of spunk that is the internet, you start to consider the potential therapy to be had in committing seppuku. If you‘re too negative you’re a “hater”. And if you’re too positive, you’re deemed a “fanboy faggot”. So I decided to try and base my verdict purely on my own experience of the episode, and not be swayed by fears about whether my opinion makes me this or that.
Because there’s so much to cover, I’ve decided to structure today’s post as a series of rapid-fire reactions to specific talking points.
- What did I like best about “The Bells”?
What I find really compelling is the destructive power of secrets. I figured the truth of Jon’s Targaryan heritage would lead to him and Dany getting married. But what happened in this week’s episode is much more interesting. It mirrors the way Rhaegar and Lyanna’s secret relationship led to a conflict that not only upended the political landscape of Westeros, but affected millions of lives. This entire series is in many ways the continuing fallout of that illicit affair. There have been many opportunists along the way that have determined the direction of events (for instance, Tywin, Littlefinger, Varys, et cetera), but everything can be traced back to Rhaegar and Lyanna. And in this light, Jon’s birth seems kind of tragic, because his very existence- regardless of his own actions and decisions- is a promise of more destruction. I think Samwell, Sansa, Tyrion, and Varys all had good intentions when spreading the secret of Jon’s heritage, but by spreading it, they have inadvertently caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, which leads me to my next point…
- Dany torches King’s Landing.
I predicted on this very website that Dany losing her mind was a red herring. I thought she would almost go insane, but her good heart would prevail and pull her back from the brink. Like I said, for the longest time I figured she would marry Jon and become pregnant with his child. I also wanted this to happen as a fan of Daenerys. But as much as I like her, I have to admit that what happened is more nuanced than the happy ending I craved. The moral corruption of a hero is an interesting theme. George R.R Martin has said that the big plot points of the show’s conclusion will be the same as the books. And Dany going batshit insane and reducing King’s Landing to ashen rubble seems like a pretty big plot point to me. So I think this was always the ending we were going to get- but I don’t necessarily like how we got here. I don’t think the buildup to this episode over the past two seasons has been very good, but I like this episode in and of itself. I still cringed when I saw my favorite character literally zig-zagging through the residential districts and murdering innocent people though. The show didn’t do a very good job of setting this up. We know that Dany can be volatile, but she has always seemed concerned with the welfare of the commoners. I would have bought it more if the civilians seemed like collateral damage, but Dany appeared to be targeting everyone indiscriminately. It was uncomfortable, but I think the fault lies in previous episodes.
- Dany burns Varys.
I predicted this would happen, but not in the way it did. I was sure it would manifest after the battle. I also didn’t think Tyrion would be so quick to turn on his friend- and it must be remembered that Varys helped save Tyrion’s life in season 4. But having rewatched the episode, it now makes more sense to me. In the opening scene we see that Varys is actively trying to poison Dany, so it makes sense that Tyrion tries to put a stop to him before this happens. At this point Dany is not too far gone, and there is a battle to win. So Varys’ death was necessary in my opinion. His crime was unforgivable. But I’m glad he went out like he did- plotting and scheming. I don’t think his death was pointless either. Given what happened afterwards, I think Tyrion will come around to Varys’ way of thinking. And I’m very curious to see how many letters Varys managed to send regarding the truth of Jon’s heritage.
- Why didn’t Jon make out with Dany in order to save King’s Landing?
I’ve seen a few people ask this question. He should have just “taken one for the team” and banged her brains out, right? But that isn’t how Jon Snow operates. He’s so rigid in his sense of honor and duty that he’s completely ill-suited to playing “the game of thrones”. He is so much like Ned Stark in this regard, who famously lost his head in season one for flat out announcing his intentions of usurping Joffrey to Cersei. An infuriatingly-honest move, but it’s a theme that George R.R. Martin likes to explore- the limitations of honor. I also like that it doesn’t matter that Jon isn’t Ned’s biological son; he was still raised by him, and has grown to resemble him more than any other Stark in the show.
- Is Daenerys evil?
The more I think about it, Dany really is a tragic character. In many ways, she is a prisoner of her own birth- much like Jon is. She never had a chance to forge her own identity. From the moment she was born, she was conditioned into this identity of being the true heir to the Iron Throne, and it’s grown into this unhealthy obsession. She doesn’t know how to be anything else. It’s all she has ever known. Both she and Jon were born innocent, but simply being Targaryans makes them a target. Since Dany was little, she has been hounded by assassins. And the same would have been true for Jon, had Ned not kept his identity a secret. If it weren’t for their namesake, they probably could have had a happy life doing whatever they wanted. But their paths were set in stone from the moment they entered the world. So I feel a lot of sympathy for Dany, because this fixation with the Throne is product of her particular upbringing. I think her descent into craziness was cemented by Jon’s rejection of her sexual advances. At this point, she has no one left. Despite helping win the Battle of Winterfell, she did not attain the love of the people. She’s lost Jorah, Missandei, and two of her dragons. Jon had the power to keep her sane, I think. He was the last thing she loved, and when he rejects her, she feels completely isolated. So I don’t think Dany is evil; I think she is a complex character that feels alone and unloved, and this pushes her into doing something awful.
- Tyrion and Jaime say their farewells.
This was one of the most touching scenes for me. It was well-written and superbly well-acted. I think this is one of two scenes in the episode that even the harshest of critics will have liked, the other being…
To my mind, this couldn’t have been shot any better. The visuals were outstanding. I love that image of them staring at each other, with the keep crumbling all around them, and the dragon flying past. I think it was real poetic the way they died in the fires below as well. It’s long been speculated that fire might be the only way to defeat the unkillable monster that Ser Gregor has become. And fire of course is what started the feud between them. I also thought it was poetic that Qyburn was murdered by the monster he created. I loved how unceremonious and darkly comedic his exit was. The Mountain literally discards him like a piece of trash. It reminded me of that cutscene in the Bioshock Infinite DLC where the depraved scientist gets an oversized power drill up the urethra. Good times.
- Were the Golden Company an utter waste of time?
Yes and no. In the books they are pretty badass, but I suppose if you want to find out more about them, you should read the books. I think their role in this season was simply to stack the odds in Cersei’s favor from a numerical perspective. But narratively-speaking, I have no problem with them getting annihilated by the Dothraki. After all, they are just mercenaries. Why they were positioned outside the city walls I have no idea however, but this seems to be a thing in Westerosi battle tactics this season…
- The Sacking of King’s Landing.
This is where my opinion probably diverges from a lot of the critics of this episode. I can understand where people are coming from when they say that everything seemed too easy and straightforward. In the previous episode, we see a few ships take out Rhaegal with ease. But in this episode, Drogon burns the entire Iron Fleet while suffering no damage. So it probably seems a little inconsistent. We went into this episode thinking that Dany had no chance, given how accurate and deadly these scorpions seemed to be. Personally I’m more bothered at how easily Rhaegal was shot down rather than how easily Drogon destroyed the scorpions. I can see why they killed Rhaegal, I just think they executed it poorly. As for the destruction of King’s Landing, I was surprised by what happened but not disappointed. It was built up to be this massive battle, but it was more of a slaughter. And a slaughter is much more interesting. I think a battle would have made for a good spectacle, but a massacre committed by our heroes is orders of magnitude more nuanced. I like that there was so much focus on the suffering of ordinary people- that’s more intriguing to me than an elaborate fight scene where Drogon picks up a war elephant and drops it on some jagged rocks. Sure, that would be entertaining, but it would be devoid of substance. Even though it might not be consistent with the logic of the previous episode, Drogon annihilating Cersei’s forces makes a lot of sense from a narrative perspective. I think we’re meant to interpret it as the product of Dany’s anger and determination. She’s fired up. And of course, there’s a shift in our emotions- we don’t expect to be feeling sorry for the Lannister forces but we do. We see the heroes of the Battle of Winterfell go too far. And this shift in our emotions wouldn’t have been possible if it were an even conflict.
- The Bells.
This is the most pivotal moment in the whole episode. When the bells ring in surrender, Dany hasn’t crossed the point of no return. At this stage she has only struck at military targets. Most of us still believe in her at this point- both the fans and the in-universe characters. This was the moment I expected her to rediscover her compassion. Instead she indulges the worst parts of her psyche. Feeling, as I said, alone and unloved, she has nothing left but her hatred for Cersei and her determination for the Throne. I still think her decision to slowly and methodically massacre the civilians like a perfectionist lawnmower was strange, and I totally understand viewers criticizing this. I’m hoping the next episode can explore this decision a little, but I think it’s more than likely that this was the ending George R.R. Martin gave them, and the showrunners executed it without providing the appropriate character development. I don’t quite understand why Dany didn’t just go straight for the Red Keep.
- War Crimes.
What follows Dany’s decision to ignore the bells is the worst part of the slaughter. And it’s not just Dany that loses her morality in the ensuing bloodlust. We see several Northern soldiers murdering innocent civilians. Jon looks on in horror as his own people start slitting the throats of women and children. One Northerner tries to rape a defenseless woman in a side alley, and as Jon pulls the man off of her, he simply stares at him in bewilderment. He realizes the impossibility of holding his people to his own strict sense of honor and morality. And the man then lunges at Jon- his own leader- because he’s entered into the primal frenzy that’s taken hold of so many of the soldiers. I find this very interesting, because it reflects real-life instances of wartime atrocities, where a dark side emerges in some people that may never have surfaced if not for the circumstances. I get the feeling that many of the soldiers aren’t even thinking about what they are doing. Dany attacks and they follow after her, carried by the adrenaline and this herd mentality.
- Why does Arya abandon her mission to kill Cersei?
A lot of people took issue with this, but I liked it. Does this make me a “shill”, a “pussy”, a “pleb”, a “beta male cuck”? Maybe. That’s not for me to say. But my reason for liking her goodbye with the Hound is that it doesn’t just indulge fan service. Instead, we get a really interesting character moment where the Hound teaches Arya that revenge won’t bring her any peace. Throughout the entire show, Arya has been motivated by revenge. But it’s much more satisfying to see Arya throw away her list rather than simply finish it. It’s not too late for her. She has a chance to be happy- she has Gendry and her siblings, who all love her. Whereas the Hound has nothing except his desire for revenge. He represents what Arya could become if she makes revenge her life. So from a thematic point of view, this scene works. It completes the Hound’s character arc because he takes the chance to do something good. He never expected to love Arya the way he does, and the lesson he gives her is a neat parting gift. It’s a far more significant act than killing his brother, which was more about personal satisfaction. I also think the scene makes sense from a logical standpoint too. Neither the Hound nor Arya expected the battle to be so one-sided. When they arrive at King’s Landing, taking out Cersei seems pretty important, because victory is far from guaranteed, and the sooner she dies, the more innocents could seemingly be saved. By the time they are in the Red Keep however, the Hound realizes that pressing on further would be pointless. It would be a waste of Arya’s young life, and the potential happiness she could have. The whole place is crumbling around them. So I have no problem with this scene at all.
- Arya’s plot armor.
I didn’t mind her plot armor so much as I did her decision-making. I mean, yeah, she was hella lucky to make it out alive, but I think that was just to provide tension, especially given that Arya chose to live, rather than dying with the Hound in pursuit of vengeance. I did think it was strange that she kept insisting this mom and daughter come with her, only to drag them from the relative safety of the indoors out into the open. So I’m not quite sure about that scene. I don’t know why the streets should seem any safer than the buildings when Dany is engulfing them in dragonfire.
- Euron and Jaime kill each other.
This was a weird scene, but definitely an entertaining one. Euron had to be a given a more satisfying death than getting burned by Drogon aboard his ship, and Jaime was a pretty good candidate to do it. The setup to the fight was somewhat clumsily written, but I liked the aftermath; the idea that a mortally-wounded Jaime is dragging himself via sheer force of will through the Red Keep just so he can die in the arms of the woman he loves.
- Cersei and Jaime perish.
I both did and didn’t like this. I love the moment they reunite. I thought it was beautifully acted, and it was really interesting to me the way they humanized Cersei at the end. They could have just kept her as a villain, smug until her last moment, but once again they shun fan-service in favor of something more nuanced. Cersei has done some atrocious things, but she is still a person. We’re so used to her pulling another trick out of her sleeve, but once she realizes that all the scorpions have been destroyed, she unravels. Now she’s not so smug and cunning. She hedged all her bets on taking down Drogon, and when that failed, she knew she had lost. And seeing such a powerful and self-assured character break down is very interesting to me. In the end, she was a victim of her own stubbornness, and this is reflected in the way the roof collapses in on her. It’s like she created this tomb for herself. It was her decision to be so uncompromising, and now there’s no exit. When you are as inflexible and unyielding as she is, you run out of options. So in that sense I liked it. I think sudden and unceremonious deaths can be very effective. But a big part of me wanted her to get captured or confronted in some way.
- What was my favorite scene?
If I have to pick one, then probably the moment that Dany blasts through the main gate to the city. I loved seeing the Dothraki charging through the streets and doing what they do best.
- What was my least favorite scene?
Probably when Arya gets that mother and daughter burnt to a crisp. Didn’t make sense for me.
- What did I miss?
The most talented quarterback in NFL history! Aaron Rodgers makes a sneaky cameo as a Lannister archer at the beginning of the episode. It’s hard to spot though.
- The Verdict.
Overall I liked “The Bells”. In and of itself, I had little to no problems with the episode. What I do have a problem with- a big fucking problem– is the way the past two seasons have been treated. I don’t say this easily or gladly. Game of Thrones is my favorite show. I care about it, and that’s why I’m mad. I’m not happy with the pacing and the character development in particular. I don’t want to get too far into it, because I think a discussion of these larger issues would be better suited to its own blog post. I just want to point out that the problem- for me at least- doesn’t lie in this episode, but in the buildup to it. To my mind, “The Bells” was the most quintessentially Thrones episode we’ve had in a long time. It feels authentically George R.R. Martin’s. And the reason for this, I believe, is that it has been confirmed that the show’s ending is in keeping with the ending that Martin has in mind for the books. He told Benioff & Weiss a few years ago how he envisioned the series ending, and he’s stated several times over the past year that he isn’t going to change his original plan for the conclusion of the books. The main plot points will be the same; the differences will be in how we arrive at those outcomes. I don’t think Benioff & Weiss have done the best job of arriving at this episode, so I share and sympathize with the outrage of many of the fans.
- What comes next?
Well I was wrong about both the Battle of Winterfell and the Battle of King’s Landing, so my predictions don’t count for much. I’m not sure what the ending itself will be, but there are a few things I am confident will happen:
–Grey Worm and Jon will fight to the death. Anyone that is going to stop Dany is going to have to get through Grey Worm first. I kinda think that Grey Worm would beat Jon in a fight too, so I’m thinking there will be some twist, like Arya shanks him in the back.
–Arya will try to kill Dany but fail. The reason I think she will fail is because she’s already killed the Night King. I think she might take part, but I think Jon has to do it. Jon has done very little this season. For me, he has to do something significant in the finale.
–Dany will attempt to execute Tyrion. She did warn him not to betray her again, and by freeing Jaime, he’s committed treason of the highest order.
–Dany will NOT get the Iron Throne. I think it’s possible we may see her regret her decision to massacre King’s Landing. I don’t think she will get what she’s always wanted, because now she will forever be the decision she made when the bells rang. However much she may regret it, nothing can undo what she did.
–Drogon will die. I have no idea how, but I do believe that Drogon has to die. There can’t be any lasting peace if there’s a weapon of mass destruction flying around. Drogon and Dany are a package deal, and I am certain Dany will die, so therefore you have to lose Drogon.
–Jon Snow will remove Dany from power, but not take the Throne. I think Jon will be feeling hopeless and cynical by the end. He will kill Dany, but then exile himself beyond the wall or something.