WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 EPISODE 5 ‘THE BELLS’ AHEAD
Game of Thrones is such a consistently high quality production that no episode can really be said to be bad. However, that also comes with the Catch-22 situation that when an episode shows flaws, those failings are magnified; they can hit viewers harder, almost feeling like a betrayal. For this reason, The Bells has, ironically, been the most incendiary episode to date, eliciting confusion, anger and frustration from fans. These reactions are completely justified because despite this episode’s excellent presentation, the story essentially felt like a compilation of unfulfilled expectations:
- Going into the episode, we expected an epic battle in the vein of some of the show’s greatest outings. What we got was a short, one-sided fight, followed by a poorly explained heel turn.
- In the first 20 minutes of the episode, we experienced powerful, nuanced character performances, setting up myriad possibilities for the part each character would play in the impending battle. What we got was little follow up on those possibilities, but instead an hour of spectacle and destruction from a show seemingly intent on completely draining its fire budget.
First, let’s talk about the dragon-riding, genocidal, despotic elephant in the room – Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Although her dragon Rhaegal was killed by the Iron Fleet’s ballistas in last week’s episode after being hit by several arrows within 20 seconds of each other, with the implication that Drogon would have been next had Daenerys not turned and retreated, this week Drogon was able to handily eliminate the entire Iron Fleet and the line of ballistas mounting the walls of King’s Landing with no assistance or distraction by her allies – but this oddity was overshadowed by the turn that Daenerys was about to take.
After the Queen’s Guard quickly dropped their weapons and surrendered the city, Daenerys, having finally gained control of Westeros – achieving the goal that we’ve seen her scratch and claw toward for eight years – inexplicably snapped and went on a killing-spree, murdering thousands of her newly-won subjects.
The Targaryen history of madness has been well established, with Varys (Conleth Hill) earlier reminding us that ‘every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin’, but this sudden turn was just baffling and infuriating. After everything Daenerys has suffered through to get to this point, the idea that her feeling alone (because Jon Snow (Kit Harington) had ‘betrayed’ her by telling his family the truth of his birth) flipped a switch that made her abandon her quest to ‘break chains’, ‘eliminate tyrants’ and ‘leave the world a better place than when she found it’ and become a murderous tyrant seemed completely unbelievable. Or more to the point, the way that her mental state was conveyed to the viewer was insufficient to get her story across, an issue that will likely be addressed in the final episode, but here just left fans unsatisfied.
Drawing out Daenerys’ rampage for the majority of the episode marred one of the most long-awaited moments in Game of Thrones – the death of Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady). This was handled so poorly when you consider that the last few years have been spent building up Cersei as one of the most hated villains on television, and this episode was set up to kill her off in a satisfying way. However, the immediate defeat of her forces took away the excited uncertainty – it changed the question from ‘Will Cersei Die?’ to ‘Where will Cersei die?’. Combine this with the rarity of Cersei’s appearances in this season and the ineffective attempt to make viewers feel empathy for her in the final forty minutes and it just screams of wasted opportunity.
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) also bowed out of Westeros along with his sister in a way that, while frustrating for people who have become supporters of the Kingslayer over the years, was true to the character. Unable to break Cersei’s hold on him and be a better man, he rushed back to fight by her side, spending his last moments trying to flee the destroyed capital before being crushed in the rubble together – dying along with the person he cared about more than anyone.
On the topic of family members coming together in their last moments, the long-brewing confrontation between The Mountain and The Hound (Rory McCann) finally came to fruition in a battle that must have sprung from the mind of Michael Bay after spending a week spent playing video game final boss battles. Complete with a crumbling castle setting, fire raining from the sky above and erupting from the ground below and the nonchalant murder of a frail underling to illustrate just how evil the villain is, it strode past the fields of grandeur and straight into cheesy territory but was reigned back to the former due to its stomach-churning brutality and some excellent editing work – specifically, the repeated sudden transitions between The Hound’s mauling and Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) struggle to escape King’s Landing.
The Bells delivered in many of the facets that we’ve come to expect – including the claustrophobic, uncomfortable depiction of war from the point of view of the people who suffer through it, as well as some excellent performances – most notably Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of a troubled Tyrion Lannister who was willing to risk his life for the chance to prevent any bloodshed and protect the family he had left; a sign of the growth he’s undergone as a result of his journey, a far cry from the hedonistic snob who only cared about self-preservation that we were introduced to years ago.
So where do things go from here? History has come full circle – back to the situation that preceded the events of the first season, a mad Targaryen in power and the Starks standing in opposition, ready to try to force them out. It feels like the writers have painted themselves into a corner as fans are so attached to their favourite characters (and everyone has their fair share of supporters) that however the show ends, it’s going to be controversial. Indeed the showrunners recently joked that they plan to go into hiding for few months after the finale airs. Whatever happens, it’s going to be can’t miss TV.
Overall, The Bells aimed high and delivered in terms of visual spectacle and performances but was let down by flawed execution and inadequate explanation of its most pivotal moments, leaving many fans with a bitter taste in their mouths.