REVIEW: Game of Thrones, S8 Ep5 – The Bells

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The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones was its most devastating yet not only in terms of structural damage and casualty count but also, more egregiously, in terms of character assassination.

While this episode delivered on epic battles and spectacles to overshadow and outshine the Battle of Winterfell (mostly because we could see everything this time), The Bells still suffered from the pacing issue that has plagued the last seasons which has led to some ridiculous developments and character choices. This whole season seems to have been building up to Daenerys following in her father’s footsteps (despite all her previous efforts to avoid doing so) and setting up Jon as the rational, rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, which is predictable, misogynistic, and just plain frustrating. But I’ll get into that later on.

This episode was not devoid of smaller, character interactions that are at the heart of Game of Thrones. The cast gave some of their best performances, despite the sketchy character choices, and one could not help but be moved by their portrayals.

Varys played his hand quite early and, following Melisandre’s prediction, died in Westeros. The Master of Whispers has long been one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones and it was sad to see him so summarily executed when he had always had the interests of the people at heart. His farewell to Tyrion was moving and the dignity with which he faced his execution was in tune with his character.

Tyrion also had a heartfelt moment with his brother, as he freed Jaime and proved that, despite everything, he still cared about his family. The hug between them made me tear up especially after Tyrion admitted that he would not have survived his childhood without Jaime.

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Sandor’s moment with Arya was also a significant conversation, with the Stark assassin finally realizing that her quest for revenge has thus far not brought her peace nor happiness. For the first time in years, she says a sincere thank you to the man who had, in his own way, kept her safe and alive.

We did finally get Cleganebowl and it was truly epic to watch the two brothers duel to the death in the midst of dragonfire and ruin. Sando unmasked his monstrous brother and struggled to put him down but even a knife to the brains didn’t work on this abomination (how did Qyburn create this zombie?) There was an unexpectedly hilarious moment when Sandor asked why his brother couldn’t just die. There was a terrifying moment when Sandor was about to be killed Oberyn Martell-style. But in the end, the Hound decided to face his fear and to plunge himself and his horrible brother into the inferno.

As glorious and impressive as it was to see King’s Landing reduced to ashes via dragonfire, all this happened far too quickly and too easily. Cersei was set up as the final villain, a greater threat than even a supernatural zombie king with an army of undead and for a while, she seemed to have the upper hand, with the killing of Rhaegal and the destruction of Dany’s fleet. But the Targaryen queen recovered swiftly and while it was satisfying to watch her using Drogon more strategically, it also felt ridiculous for her to decimate all of Cersei’s forces with the strength of just one dragon. So much for the scorpions, all of which conveniently missed Drogon as he soared through the air. So much for Euron Greyjoy’s fleet, just as easily destroyed as Dany’s it seems. And so much for hiring the Golden Company, bringing them in all the way from Essos only for them to fall almost immediately after Dany and Drogon breached the gates. Seeing all of Cersei’s preparation so easily undone was not as satisfying to watch as the Game of Thrones writers believe.

Game of Thrones The Bells 1Where the episode did succeed was in depicting the true horrors of war and the cost of such a definitive victory. The moment Dany chose to ignore the bells of surrender and to simply raze the city to the ground was a chilling development and one that had a brutal impact on all involved. It’s one thing to watch an army of icy undead disintegrating and something else to watch thousands of innocent civilians be burned alive or crushed by falling debris. Once again, director excelled at showing the chaos of battle, from the soldiers running amok, slashing and stabbing at will, to the screams of the women and children as they fought to survive.

It was also effective to show the perspective of Dany’s hapless victims, particularly through Arya’s eyes after she decided to flee the burning city and through Jon’s eyes as he witnessed even his own men give in to their basest instincts. More than the gore and wildfire (from Aerys’ caches) spreading through the crumbling city was the heavy human cost and the terror of those trapped in a war not of their own making. The rivalry of the two mad queens led to this hell and it is impossible now to think that the people will accept Daenerys as their savior when she had forsaken all humanity in her rage and despair.

Game of Thrones The Bells 2Dany’s descent into madness was not well handled at all, despite all the hints the Game of Thrones writers seeded into the narrative. While it isn’t implausible for her to give in to her Targaryen heritage, this seemed to happen too abruptly with Missandei’s death as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. It’s easy to see how isolated and paranoid Dany has become with the loss of those closest to her but instead on spending time with Dany and seeing how everything that has happened has begun to poison her, we spent more time with characters like Tyrion and Varys discussing how she would be unfit for the throne.

With the destruction of the kingdom she originally sought to save, Daenerys has pretty much signed her death warrant. There is no way that she is going to survive the final episode of Game of Thrones and this feels like a betrayal of the past seasons of her journey. She spent years enduring trials and tribulations and trying her best to bring freedom and justice to the world, not always in the best ways, but with the noblest of intentions. While she had a tendency of sending her dragons to burn her enemies, she had been self-aware enough to sometimes check this tendency. And she had always wished to be someone different from her father and brother. But to see her reduced to the monster everyone feared she would be is beyond disappointing, whether or not you were rooting for her to win the throne. Cersei was always a deplorable character but even she was given more moments of sympathy and humanity in this episode than Dany was. As another writer has noted, Game of Thrones seems determined to betray its female characters for shock value and to favor the male leads. It’s disgustingly misogynistic and not worthy of a show so many of us have come to love for its dynamic female characters.

Game of Thrones The Bells 4Daenerys was not the only character to have suffered from the writing. Jaime Lannister’s baffling decision to leave a weeping Brienne (who is probably pregnant with his child, annoyingly) to go back to Cersei was frustrating enough. But I had hoped that his choice would be to put an end to his hateful sister’s life himself as a kind of atonement for all their crimes. But the Game of Thrones writers decided for the last time to romanticize this incestuous relationship instead of simply exposing it for the toxic connection it has always been.

Lena Headey was given a chance to display emotions other than cold smugness and actually had genuine moments of vulnerability as she realized that she had truly lost the game. Her relief and joy at seeing Jaime were only bearable to watch because of Headey’s performance and not because the character deserved any sympathy for all the monstrous things she had done.

Jaime comforted his sister in their final moments, saying that they were the only ones that mattered, effectively undoing years and seasons worth of character development. What happened to him leaving Cersei last season to fight for the living? What happened to his love for Brienne? What was the point of that last fight with Euron? We shall never know. All I know is that the Jaime Lannister I had come to love and respect was brutally murdered on Game of Thrones, and not by the debris from Drogon’s attack.

Game of Thrones The Bells 3The Bells was another technical marvel in this season of Game of Thrones an a truly unprecedented spectacle the likes of which modern television has never seen. The final shot of Arya, surveying the wreckage and riding off (symbolically) on a white horse, was a powerful image and one that beautifully concluded a harrowing episode. But no matter how impressive the imagery and how epic the battle scenes, this episode is still an example of how rushing the last few seasons has made Game of Thrones sacrifice substance for style. And with only one episode left to bring closure to all the storylines, the finale will surely be artistically-executed but severely divisive.