Oh, Game of Thrones. What are we to do with you? I can see the fandom and viewership at large struggling with the stages of grief in this last season, and this episode in particular, although instead of passing from one stage to the other it seems as though people have planted their feet in a particular stage and decided to stay there. You have tens of thousands of bargainers signing a futile petition to remake the final season; those in denial are dismissing Benioff and Weiss as talentless hacks who hate women, despite the fact that they are also responsible for the things we like about the show; The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion projected a kind of weary and resigned acceptance in this week’s Talk the Thrones; and there is more than enough anger and depression to go around.
I get all of those reactions and don’t want to invalidate any of them. We are entitled to our honest responses, if nothing else. We’re certainly not entitled to force creators to remake their stories at our whim: As many others have said, that’s what fanfic is for and if George R.R. Martin is not our bitch then neither are Benioff and Weiss. Nevertheless, I can sympathize to a certain extent with all of the reactions above, even the one that wishes we could have a do-over so that the thing we love is as good as we hoped it would be. But therein lies a problem: This story is ending, which is inherently about closing off possibilities and choosing between ideas for what this story is and how it should end. Even if we got a remake, not all of us would be satisfied. When people talk about creators delivering on the “promise” of a story, I get the uncomfortable feeling that they’re talking in contractual terms.
Maybe my feeling of zen is due to the fact that I worked through a lot of my issues with Dany’s story last week. The things that bothered me most about how we got here were, I felt, more glaring in episode 4. Which isn’t to say that episode 5 was an easy watch: I think I experience the five stages of grief within the episode itself, and subsequently on rewatch and each time I’ve opened twitter since Sunday. If I had written this review two days ago my guess is that it would have been entirely different, and yet again two days from now. Is this final season flawed, perhaps fatally so? Sure, I don’t disagree with that. What does work is working in spite of some glaring missteps, in particular the (now baffling) decision to cut the final two seasons short. If I could have a do-over, that’s what I would want: Time for the end of this story to breathe and develop its ideas. Because I don’t think its ideas are inherently terrible. I can almost taste the extremely nuanced version of this story. I sincerely hope we get one. What I’m saying is, “Write, George. Write like the wind.” (Who knew these old chestnuts would become so relevant again? Ah, the halcyon days when we thought Martin’s failure to publish might actually delay the show.)
Enough of the hand-wringing. Look, all of this is a preamble to my confession to finding myself in a vocal minority that thinks “The Bells” is better than the current internet discourse and “hot takes” would have it. Thematically, I feel that what happened is perfectly consistent with the world and the “message” of Martin’s narrative. There is no way to simultaneously break the wheel and sit on the Throne: Those are contradictions. Ridding the world of tyrants through the assertion of one ruler’s absolute authority is hypocrisy. For that reason, I have never felt fully on board with the Messianic Dany train. Her talk of taking what is hers “with fire and blood,” burning cities to the ground, and the widespread belief in her divine right and impregnable morality has never sat comfortably with me. Though I still find the racial dynamics muddled, “The Bells” even gestures at an answer to my previous quibbles with Dany as a “white savior.” Yes, the episode implies. She is in the white savior tradition, and that’s part of the problem. One of the best defenses of “The Bells” that I’ve seen is this thread by Darren Mooney which examines Dany’s arc from the perspective of imperialism. Mooney repurposes the Hound’s quote upon seeing the true face of the Mountain:
“Yeah, that’s you—that’s what you’ve always been,” Sandor remarks as Gregor removes his helmet and reveals a monster.
“The Bell” does that to Daenerys. She is not a liberator, but an occupier. She is not a rightful ruler, but an invader.
She does what empires have always done.
I’ve been caught out a few times by “Game of Thrones.” Once or twice, I’ve wanted a character to “win.”
But that’s the trick. The point is to realise that the game has no winner, and that the board as it stands needs to be flipped.
Dany’s taking of the Throne isn’t a victory, it’s a tragedy. Same as it is for every character who has managed to get there. Same as it would be for Jon. The wheel crushes those on the top as well as those on the bottom. It’s the One Ring: None of us can wield it, not even Dany. Throw it into the fire and be done with it.
“The Bells” is, more than anything else, a final grand statement of this theme of violence and power. Before we move on to what I imagine is a more character-specific final episode, I think it was fitting to use the penultimate episode to do a big, spectacular demonstration of what the Game itself has always been: A monster more deformed than the reanimated Mountain, who has always been the show’s purest and most uncomplicated embodiment of violence. I think it’s important that the Hound cannot kill the Mountain in traditional battle. His is more an idea than a person, something as cyclical and inhuman as the White Walkers. He’s the spirit of violence in the world. His destruction requires self-sacrifice and, as Sansa said, looking the truth in the face. The Hound has to face his biggest fear and go into the fire with his brother in order to destroy him. As for Dany, I’m wondering now if she’s Frodo, who got all the way up to the ledge before succumbing to the inevitable. (And let us note that some readers felt betrayed by Tolkien’s choice there, too: One fan wrote to him that Frodo should have been hanged as a traitor.) Or perhaps Dany is Gollum: An addict who, in the course of her tragic downward spiral, takes the object of her obsession with her into the flames, inadvertently saving the world by losing it.
The Lord of the Rings parallels are far from exact, of course, and here we get into what’s making people uncomfortable. It’s not just that Dany reenacts the Baratheon/Lannister sack of King’s Landing or the original Targaryen invasion or any other number of brutal conquests before her. It’s the contradiction with Dany’s apparent “gentle heart” and her repeated concern for the downtrodden. Here’s where the seams in characterization start to show. Think of Theon’s wonderful tragicomic arc which develops over the course of season 2: No matter how reprehensible his actions and how stupid his decisions, I always understood what Theon wanted and why he was choosing to do what he did. Conversely, Dany’s motivations are muddled: Is she truly mad or was this atrocity a conscious choice? Was she specifically targeting innocent civilians, or merely burning indiscriminately? Although I understand her rage upon hearing the titular bells — which represent the fear of the people she’s come to save rather than the longed-for adoration — is this really enough to justify the subsequent massacre? I can talk myself into decent answers for each of these questions, but I’m lacking the clarity I’ve come to expect from characterization on this show. The issue of “madness” is the key factor here. With a dearth of time to develop Dany’s isolation and paranoia (much more prominent characteristics in the books), the show relied on visual clichés like her messy hair and baggy eyes. If we could have had a ten-episode final season, I would almost be tempted to put all three extra episodes between the previous episode and this one. Emilia Clarke has upped her game this season and is doing everything she can to sell Dany’s downfall, but time is against her. I suspect that your reaction to this episode depends very strongly on which objection to Dany’s reign you are more focused on: Her family’s history of “madness” or potential for despotism. The latter has been far more well-developed, justified, and foreshadowed than the former, but that doesn’t mean that I entirely dislike the point they’re making.
For example, I love what I expect we’ll see next episode: The ironic fulfillment of Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying. Queen of the ashes, indeed. And yes, I know it’s a retcon. I don’t care. I love a good retcon. To quote Jacob Clifton, “There is no foreshadowing in TV, only retcon.” No one has everything planned out ahead of time: The best writers know how to make their story retroactively fit within the context of the text, rather than swearing fidelity to their own prior intentions. Tolkien was fantastic at it — we would never have got The Lord of the Rings without his ability to recontextualize what he’d already written. Did J.K. Rowling always intend Riddle’s diary in The Chamber of Secrets to be a Horcrux? If so, brilliant. However, if she didn’t make it a Horcrux until she got to The Half-Blood Prince … also brilliant! I see no difference in terms of artistry. Within the context of a story where dreams and prophecies are repeatedly misinterpreted to tragic effect, the flip from snow to ash makes beautiful, heartbreaking sense. As Tyrion said, “She walked into a fire with three eggs and came out with three dragons. How could she not believe in destiny?” She still has the audience’s sympathies. This is what I hope for Dany in the final episode: That her arc is played as tragic rather than wicked.
As for the battle itself, it is satisfying in a sick kind of way to see the kind of conquest we’ve previously only heard or read about. “The Spoils of War” gave us a powerful preview of Drogon’s unstoppable force. Since then, the dragons have been somewhat neutered and diverted north. Here, we see the fruition of what Jaime said to Cersei after the initial “loot train” battle: Nothing can stop Dany’s dragons, and Cersei cannot win this war. Within the first minutes of the battle, Dany takes out the Iron Fleet, the dozen or more scorpions, and the entire Golden Company. Which was honestly pretty hilarious. This is exactly how the Targaryens took and held power for three hundred years. Cersei and her allies have swords and shields and big crossbows. Dany has a nuclear bomb. This was never going to be a close fight. Visually, I thought it was stunning and Miguel Sapochnik shot the hell out of it. His previous experiments with long tracking shots in “The Spoils of War” and “Battle of the Bastards” culminate in Arya’s harrowing trek through the city, dodging soldiers and rubble and dragonfire and reclaiming her season 1 role as point of view from the ground. Comparisons have been made to the 1985 Soviet film Come and See which depicts a village’s slaughter by German soldiers in WWII:
Last night’s Game of Thrones took inspiration from Come and See, a Soviet war film that features German soldiers burning down villages in what is now Belarus. “Come and see” is also the line in the Book of Revelation before Death rides a pale horse and Hell follows pic.twitter.com/vMtYj96zDF
— Alan Zilberman (@alanzilberman) May 13, 2019
Maisie Williams is on fire this season and Arya continues to defend her title as season 8’s MVP. A pale rider on a pale mare, I’m more excited to see Arya’s role in the finale than anyone else. Has she fully reclaimed her humanity and Stark heritage, renouncing the Faceless God, or will she take up her infamous list and become one of his assassins once again? Like Harry Potter‘s third brother, Arya has always had an ambiguous relationship to death: Both its servant and its conqueror, one who says “not today” but who also greets it like an old friend. I am so pleased to see the writers use her to this extent in the final run of episodes.
What else happened in this episode? Cleganebowl was ridiculously over the top, which was totally appropriate. Cersei tip-toeing past the brothers? Genius. That image of the Mountain and the Hound on the apocalyptic staircase to nowhere, with dragon overhead? Utterly hilarious. If you’re going to indulge one of the most beloved fan theories ever, you might as well do it in as excessive a manner as possible.
Euron Greyjoy got a surprisingly strong ending in with his ecstatic, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.” I’m not sure whether to find it frustrating or humorously on-brand that he didn’t kill Jaime Lannister. Similarly, I was surprised, and frankly underwhelmed, by the quietness of Cersei’s end, let alone how little she had to do in this final season all together. Perhaps there is a point to the pathetic quality of her last stand. Cersei always got ahead by provoking her enemies, then outdoing them in brutality. Here she finally provoked an enemy far more powerful and capable of going much farther than she. While I was hoping for a more dramatic show-down (not, to be clear, something more gruesome, just something that really let Lena Heady shine), I can make my peace with Cersei ending in the crumbling ruins of the kingdom she helped destroy. Like Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair, I read Jaime’s cradling Cersei’s head in his hands moments before being they are suffocated as a nice little subversive nod to the Valonqar prophecy (and perhaps it’s wise not to make too many fan-theories come true in one episode). And the womb-like cavern underneath the Red Keep is an appropriate tomb for these twins who came into and left the world together.
As for Jaime, his return to Cersei is admittedly one of the more disappointing character resolutions of the series, though am I disappointed in the character or the writing? I’m still not sure. Jaime’s arc, much like Theon’s, was always two steps forward, one step back. Speaking of Theon, I can’t help but think of his quote to Maester Luwin who said, “You’re not the man you’re pretending to be.” “Maybe not,” Theon replies. “But I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else.” Like Theon, we have a host of characters here — Dany, Jaime, Arya, the Hound — who are better than the choices they are making. The Hound and Jaime knowing that the object of their pursuit would destroy them, and they warned away their loved ones Arya and Tyrion from becoming like them. Arya and Dany are still alive and have the ability to choose life. But have they gone too far to choose anything other than death?
I’m not sure how coherent any of that was or if I’ll feel the same tomorrow. Regardless of how my feelings on the specifics may waffle, however, I liked this episode more than I disliked it. My problems are more with how we got here than with the result, and I hope that holds true for next week. I hope no one who feels betrayed by this episode thinks less of me for this opinion and that we can all have a good dialogue about character development, narrative fulfillment, and that sick, sad feeling of one of your favorite stories ending. If you want to discuss it, leave a comment below!