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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: “The Bells”

Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode came close to greatness, which makes the places where it fell short all the more painful.  Let’s dig in.  Obviously, SPOILERS below, so for the love of the old gods and the new, don’t read if you haven’t seen the episode!

“The Bells” was as humongous and epic as the show has ever been; it was a triumph of visual effects, special effects, costuming, set decoration, editing, directing, and more; the culmination of eight seasons of ever-more-impressive production values.  Amidst all the spectacle, this episode was also filled with a number of tremendously powerful, emotional character beats, many of which paid off arcs going all the way back to the very beginning of the show.  It was exciting and gripping and heartbreaking.  I watched white-knuckled from the first second to the last.

This episode also had several enormous flaws, most critically that I simply do not buy Daenerys’ sharp turn into madness.  It’s just not working for me that the show took this character who we’ve been following and rooting for since the series premiere and suddenly turned her into a murderous maniac.  Now, Dany has never been perfect.  She has made mistakes, and she has shown a ruthlessness and viciousness throughout the run of the series.  But while perhaps her singleminded belief that her destiny was to rule Westeros was egotistical or even fanatical, Dany has always seemed genuine in her desire for justice.  That’s why Dany was so successful at amassing so many followers who loved her and were willing to die for her over the years, from Ser Jorah to the Dothraki and the Unsullied.  In the last week, I’ve seen some people mention her execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly as evidence that Dany has always had these mad tendencies.  But I don’t buy it.  Yes, ordering the roasting-by-dragonfire of those Tarlys was cold and even cruel.  But killing the heads of a house that had stood against her is a far cry from the total massacre of a city-full of innocents that we witnessed in this episode.  That Dany, a woman who has always been particularly concerned for the plight of the common people oppressed by uncaring rulers, would so callously butcher all of the civilian inhabitants of King’s Landing is unfathomable to me.

If they were going to try to convince me that this turn for Daenerys was justified, then having her vanish from the entire second half of the episode was not the way to do it.  We see Dany’s angry face as she decides to ignore the bells launch her dragon into city-destroying action, but then we never return to her again.  What a bizarre and disappointing choice!  I feel that for this character-turn to have had any chance of working, then Dany needed to be the most important character in this episode.  We needed to see her wrestle with this choice, and we needed to see its impact on her.  Was she angry?  Joyous?  Was she watching carefully as the people below her perished in fire, or was she blinding herself to that?  Since surely Dany blamed Cersei for Missandei’s death, why didn’t she fly her dragon right up to the Red Keep and roast Cersei first thing?  My assumption was that Dany wanted Cersei to suffer by having to watch her city burn, but I shouldn’t have to guess at something as important as that.  (Also, seeing as how Cersei did come very close to escaping the city, Dany seems even more foolish for not dispatching her immediately.)  I’d predicted previously that they’d dispatch Cersei this week and leave the finale for Dany vs. Jon, and I am disappointed to be proven correct — this is not at all the direction in which I wanted these final episodes to go.

But, wow, what a spectacle this episode was.  Has there ever been television more epic than what Game of Thrones has been able to achieve in its later years?  This episode felt like the climax of everything the show has attempted visually before.  My jaw was on the floor.  We’ve never before seen King’s Landing brought to life (and then death) the way it was in this episode.  As Game of Thrones has grown more and more epic, it’s easy to take for granted just how extraordinary the imagery we saw on-screen in this episode was.    But, truly, this is a magnificent achievement that is not soon to be equaled.  The episode sells the enormous scale of the city in a way we’ve never felt before; which makes its utter annihilation all the more painful.  But this wasn’t just spectacle for spectacle’s sake.  I found this battle to be far more intense and visceral than the much-lauded Battle at Winterfell was two episodes ago in “The Long Night”.  It was as clear in this episode as it was in that one that our heroes were going to win the day (a failing of these latter seasons of Game of Thrones, in comparison to the early years), but whereas I found “The Long Night” to be less engaging/interesting than I’d expected/hoped, I was hugely impressed by the way this episode put the viewer right into the thick of the chaos in King’s Landing.  I appreciated how grounded the episode was in the perspective of the characters on the ground, trapped amidst the chaos.  This was effective at hooking me, the viewer, into the action in a very personal and intense way.

My favorite stuff in the episode was with Arya.  What a fantastic payoff to eight seasons of watching her story and her character grow and progress.  I’d worried that, in recent episodes, they’d transformed Arya into something inhuman.  (Her cold and somewhat robotic interactions with Gendry in the past few episodes left me unsettled.)  And so, it was beautiful to watch Arya, finally, step back from her quest for vengeance.  Her final scene with Sandor Clegane was marvelous, a beautiful pay-off to their bizarre and wonderful friendship.  As we followed Arya through her increasingly frantic attempts to escape the burning city, she felt more human than she’d been in years, and I thought those scenes were fantastically well-executed.  They had me on the edge of my seat.  The small bit of business with the mother and child who briefly helped Arya and who Arya then unsuccessfully attempted to help find safety was very effective.  (That could have easily been schmaltzy or too obvious, but the scenes were just brief enough amidst all the chaos that they landed very powerfully for me.)

Speaking of the Hound: Clegane-bowl arrived at last, and it was a hoot!  Wow, we’ve been waiting SO LONG to see the Clegane brothers finally have it out, and it was glorious fun as they battled to the death amidst the collapsing city.  I loved the Hound’s laugh as he realized at the end how nearly-impossible his zombie brother would be to kill, and it felt that there was really no way their story could end other than their dying together.  (And that the Hound perished in fire at the end also felt poetic.)  (Though maybe it was the fall that killed him?  Heh.)

Now let’s talk about Jamie and Cersei.  I am mixed on how their stories wound up.  Cersei’s death wasn’t at all what I’d expected but that in and of itself is not a complaint.  When we saw Arya riding with the Hound to King’s Landing I’d hoped that she’d have a chance to cross this final name off of her list.  But I also figured that, since Arya had killed the Night King, that she probably wouldn’t get to kill the other big remaining villain on the show.  Game of Thrones has, many times before, presented us with a character who we spend years hating and anticipating the day they’d finally get their comeuppance… only to turn the tables of the narrative and, in the end, have that character’s death be sad rather than a hell-yeah moment.  I’m pleased that they were able to do the same with Cersei.  I like that about her death.  I do feel that she escaped payback for all the hell she’d been responsible over the course of the series, and that is frustrating, but then again, this show has always been about characters not getting what they deserved.

It’s her reunion with Jamie, and everything about Jamie’s death, that doesn’t sit well with me.  Jamie’s development from monstrous to heroic has been one of the show’s greatest and most surprising achievements.  But after so many years of watching his slow, gradual growth from scum-bag to nobility, his last-minute decision to return to Cersei at the end of the previous episode felt (like far too many developments in this final season) to have come far too fast, and out of nowhere.  I’m disappointed in Jamie for choosing Cersei over Brienne — it felt like an abandonment of years of story and character-development for him — and I’m disappointed that his death didn’t feel connected enough to that choice for me.  For several years I’d been expecting that Jamie’s connection to Cersei would eventually put him at odds with Brienne or Jon or another of our heroes.  For his death to come at the hands of one-dimensional prick Euron Greyjoy was far less interesting to me than had, say, Jamie had to fight Brienne or someone like that because he’d chosen to stand with Cersei.  If it had to be Euron who’d killed Jamie, then at least I think it would have been more powerful for Jamie to have fought and been mortally wounded by Euron within sight of Cersei, perhaps protecting her from him.  That this major character died in a little fight on the beach away from the rest of the action felt wildly anticlimactic to me.  (And it was also rather absurd that Jamie could still walk around with Cersei after being run through by Euron not once but twice.  Had the Jamie-Euron fight been staged within Cersei’s presence, the show could have avoided that.)

Other thoughts:

* After watching Dany and Tyrion stumble into another military defeat last week, it was nice to see them succeed this week.  However, I’m not sure why the “scorpion”-equipped ships and city walls, that proved so insurmountable for Dany and Drogon last week, were so easily overcome this week.  Also, after a lot of buildup beginning in the season 7 finale, I was bummed that the Golden Company proved to be such a straw-man threat, easily dispatched in ten seconds this week.  That was a letdown.

* Varys had lasted a lot longer on this show than I’d expected, and it was sad to watch his death this week.  I was somewhat surprised that Jon and Tyrion stood by and allowed that to happen, but I guess Jon wouldn’t really have any attachment to Varys, and Tyrion felt he couldn’t do anything more to convince Daenarys to spare him.  I really liked Varys’ final speech, and Tyrion’s last tender moment with him.  (Did any of Varys’ letters, spreading word of Jon Snow’s true name, actually get sent?  I guess we’ll see next week.)

* On the other side of the coin, I loved seeing the Mountain smash Qyburn’s brains all over the place.

* I was hoping Greyworm would get a more meaty scene this week, in which we’d be able to explore his reaction to Missandei’s murder.  But his moment with Dany was powerful and sad, as was his bloodlust in the battle.  Also: was that the first time we learned Greyworm’s true name?

* There looked to be a LOT of Dothraki in the battle, which was surprising since “The Long Night” seemed to indicate that they were all wiped out.

* It was a nice touch to see some green wildfire explosions as King’s Landing burned to the ground.  It makes sense the Cersei still had some caches of that lying around!

* What was the favor Tyrion asked of Davos?  I’d thought he’d be helping Jamie in some way.  Is this something that will be followed up on next week?

* The Clegane brothers’ fight-to-the-death on a collapsing store staircase, while the world explodes around them, reminded me a lot of the Kurgan-Ramirez fight from the original Highlander!  (See this clip at about 3:09 to see what I mean…)

* I laughed when I saw Jamie tied up again in a tent.  Just like old times.  And then we got one of the most emotional moments of the entire episode: Tyrion’s goodbye scene with his brother.  (It’s even more powerful knowing that Jamie didn’t make it out of the episode alive.)  I love how genuinely surprised Tyrion was that he finally had a chance to pay back his brother, and my heart broke a little when Tyrion spoke about how he never would have gotten through his childhood without Jamie.  While I’m upset that this episode seemed to undo eight seasons of Jamie’s character development, Tyrion’s statement that the life of one not-innocent dwarf seemed to him like a worthy trade for the potential to save the lives of tens of thousands was a beautiful payoff to eight seasons of Tyrion’s development.  I’m not sure I could have ever imagined that the Tyrion of season one would have ever said such a thing.  Beautiful.

Aargh, there is so much I loved about this episode.  I wish I wasn’t so terribly disappointed by the choices they made for Dany and Jamie.

We only have one episode left, and there’s still a LOT of ground to cover.  Can they bring this story to a satisfying conclusion?  Is there time enough left to give proper closure to the huge cast of surviving characters who we’ve been following for so long???  We’ll all find out together in just one week…

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