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Game of Thrones Review: "The Bells" (Episode 8.05)

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Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review   Game of Thrones   each week in a series of letters.

Josh,

Let me take a second here, at the start of our second-to-last Game of Thrones review, to applaud the convention-defying work of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. These brave men, after eight and a half seasons, decided last week to introduce an entirely new character—one we’ve really never seen before—and make her instrumental in the climax of the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Her name is “The Mad Queen,” and though less savvy viewers might find striking similarities between her and a previous character known as Daenerys Targaryen—they look alike, I’ll grant you—in fact, The Mad Queen is really nothing like the impostor that came before. Whereas Daenerys Targaryen freed slaves and championed the common people against the “masters” in various cities in Essos, and then rescued humanity from an extinction threat in Westeros amidst a complete absence of even slight gratitude from the locals, The Mad Queen is someone who murders innocent people by the tens of thousands for no great reason other than misdirected spite.

Well, no, that’s not true—there’s a very good reason, and that reason is to satisfy the resolution of a plot that has someone managed to go totally off the rails and paint itself into a corner…a stunning feat, even if only by the contradictory physics of it all. And let me drop the sarcasm here, Josh, to take us back to last season, and rehash the weird repeated argument between Tyrion and Daenerys that never made any sense: Do you liberate King’s Landing the “right” way, with an army that forces a surrender, or do you use the dragons and inevitably kill an unthinkable number of civilians?

The either-or nature of that question always bugged me, because it makes no damn sense. It treats the dragons as the equivalent of a nuclear bomb, when in fact—stay with me here—the entire series has shown us that dragon fire is highly, highly directed and highly accurate. I mean, earlier in this very episode we saw the dragon used to execute a single individual in the form of poor Lord Varys, and Drogon managed to burn him alive without turning Dragonstone into ash, or even mildly singeing any of the other people standing very close to the doomed man.

Point is, there was never any logical reason for Tyrion’s fear that deploying the dragons would kill innocent people. One targeted night-time raid could have taken out Cersei Lannister high in the Red Keep, probably ending the war overnight. And at the start of the Battle of King’s Landing, we saw exactly how effective one dragon could be, as with great precision it took out an entire fleet of ships and all the scorpions along the walls of King’s Landing, and then the wall itself, while seemingly never killing anyone who wasn’t actively fighting for the enemy. There was a point, after the battle was won and the bells were ringing, when Daenerys had proved the idiocy of Tyrion’s “the dragons mean certain innocent death” refrain. From her spot on the tower, surveying her victory, she could have even flown to the Red Keep, torched Cersei in her perch, and still left the common people unscathed.

But Josh, there was a reason the show has been hitting us over the head with the confounding “dragon or no dragon?” debate for episode after episode—a stupid, senseless question must beget a stupid, senseless resolution. Daenerys, as of last week, had to stop existing, and The Mad Queen had to take her place. In that decisive moment in “The Bells,” flying to the Red Keep, she had to decide, for reasons that are not in accordance at all with the Daenerys we’ve come to know for eight seasons of television, to start slaughtering innocent people arbitrarily.

Thus proving Tyrion’s completely invalid strategic conundrum correct, thus completing the incredibly cheap, incredibly insulting, incredibly disappointing two-episode transformation of a great character into a two-dimensional villain, and thus paving the way for the inevitable ending where someone (probably Arya, maybe Jon) kills her and Jon Snow takes the throne.

Was there a way to make the Mad Queen story arc organic and believable? Yes, probably. It started a long time ago, this theoretical way, and it didn’t involve the shoehorn-and-stuff-down-our-throat method we saw tonight.

Also, let’s see…Jaime is not Azor Ahai, his character arc ends in a kind of meaningless puff of dust, we had CleganeBowl finally, and it was okay, and Cersei’s dead. Also, Tyrion freed Jaime after telling the Unsullied to bugger off, and when news inevitably came to Daenerys that the prisoner was gone and it was Tyrion’s doing, she let him live for…reasons.

In short, Josh, from a storytelling standpoint, I completely hated it. I think it spoils the whole show.

Other than that, I thought the choreography of the battle itself and the directing was pretty strong, and in the moments when I put my incredible disdain for the outrageous and unforgivable violation of the character of Daenerys Targaryen aside, I was fairly riveted. Miguel Sapochnik delivered another epic battle, and I guess I’m going to have to settle for that.

There’s my overwhelmingly negative take, Josh. Did I miss something redeeming along the way? Have I brought the mood down and ruined the Mad Queen party? What did you think?

—Shane

Shane,

There will be people who point out that there was a streak of authoritarian cruelty to Daenerys all along, and they will bring up the crucifixion of the Masters, the burning alive of the Dothraki khals and the execution of honorable Sir Dickon. It will be a thin argument. Enough groundwork had been laid that when the bells rang, Daenerys could have flown for the Red Keep and and burnt it down. Civilians would have died in the process, but it’s reasonable to think she wouldn’t let Cersei’s hostage-taking deny her immediate revenge and total victory. That would have made sense for her character and would have gotten us to the same place in the narrative. Some would see her as a villain. She would believe she was doing what was necessary.

Having her torch the houses and businesses of common people, along with poor men, women and children running through the streets as she zig zags her way towards the Red Keep, however, was simply maddening. And I wish I could say in the moment that I was mad at Daenerys, that I somehow could keep enough of my suspension of disbelief to direct my frustration at something happening on screen. But it was so bad, so out of character, so unnecessary and indefensible that it took me out of the story and made me angry at the writers. All those innocent people getting torched were a metaphor for my massive and thus-far enduring goodwill towards this show. Shane, I know we’ve been critical at times about the speed a crow can fly or the unnecessarily disturbing torture sequences with Ramsay and Theon. But I’ve loved Game of Thrones and had high hopes that it would end strong.

I understand now thematically that whatever combination of George R.R. Martin’s outline, and Benioff and Weiss’ adaptation wanted to hammer home the points that war is terrible, the desire for power is terrible, succumbing to the idea that the ends justify the means is terrible, and those are fine moral stands to take. But there was a way to make Daenerys the villain without making her a cartoon villain. How can she be the hero of even her own twisted story at this point? She’s managed to prove Randyll Tarly right, of all people.

I don’t watch professional wrestling, but I’ve got to believe the people who shape those narratives do more character development before a heel turn than we witnessed here. The woman who locked up her dragons when they burned one single little girl is now torching all the children of King’s Landing because Jon loves her more like an aunt. Captain America is really Hydra. Jesus voted for Trump. I just don’t buy it.

So yes, credit to Emelia Clarke for doing her best to sell it these past couple of episodes, though we really only saw her from a distance once she’d transformed into the Mad Queen. Credit to Miguel Sapochnik for once again bringing to life the horrors of war and keeping us all on edge. We got Clegane Bowl and the anti-climactic death of Cersei. Watching characters die shouldn’t really be satisfying, but the show never had any qualms before delivering us our guilty doses of schadenfreude. But I’ll credit Game of Thrones for growing up a little bit and touching on the hollowness of revenge. Instead of having Arya kill Cersei, it has her choose life and in the process realize that it’s the common people who really need protecting.

Like Varys, I think the writers’ hearts were in the right place if they want to condemn the quest for power that has caused so much pain in this fictional world we’ve come to love. Daenerys has always undoubtably been power-hungry, and that can’t abide without negative consequences. But if the points they want to make are good ones, the ham-fisted way they’re making them threatens to ruin the show’s entire legacy. Maybe I need to calm down a little, but I’m just sad I had to watch a character I’ve come to care about commit mass genocide. It just doesn’t square.

All the questions that had been teased out by prophesy and foreshadowing feel kind of beside the point now. Who is the Prince Who Was Promised? For the people who just saw loved ones burnt to a crisp, who cares? All the efforts of so many characters who’ve lived or died seem kind of meaningless now. Maybe you were hoping I’d talk you off the ledge on this, Shane, but I’m about to jump myself. That was just… bad. How does the show recover from this with one episode to go?

—Josh

Josh,

Well said. I’ve been reading the “actually, this was what Dany was like all along” takes on Twitter and Reddit, and while there may have been some vague signifiers along the way, I just don’t think it was executed in a way that makes any sense. Maybe we’re supposed to believe she had a psychotic break, which, as a friend of mine pointed out earlier this morning, can happen pretty quickly. But even that’s a cop-out, making excuses for an abrupt deviation of character. As you said, the way she brutally slaughtered all the civilians is miles different from the spots of (in her mind) justified cruelty that accompanied her previous war efforts. We can argue all day about the morality of crucifying the masters of Meereen after they did the same to the slaves, but the genocide at King’s Landing was so extreme, and so removed from Dany’s actions by so many orders of magnitude, that to argue it was an organic character evolution is just, to me, absurd.

You raised the perfect comparison point: This is someone who chained her dragons for a very long time when she found out they killed a shepherd’s daughter. Now she’s intentionally targeting women and children in the streets? Come on.

If there’s a metaphor here about the rotting effects of seeking power for power’s sake, that’s fine, but the simple presence of a metaphor doesn’t equal good storytelling. What I saw in “The Bells” was writers running out of time, and hurrying a character to her final destination without regard for all that came before. Dany needed to be the Mad Queen for whatever will happen in next weekend’s finale, but to execute that transformation believably required more than the flimsy hints of the first seven seasons followed by a sudden, disorienting reversal.

Let’s talk about Cersei and Jaime now. We all remember the “Valonqar” prophecy from Maggie the Witch, but what HBO left out from the books was the actual “Valonqar” part, which is that after Cersei gets replaced by someone younger and more beautiful, and after her three children die, it’s her younger brother who will kill her. Now, of course nothing compels the show to follow the book faithfully, and clearly they left that part out for a reason, but I still found Cersei and Jaime’s deaths to be just incredibly underwhelming. We knew she had to die, and her death would probably come in this episode, but…that’s it? And that’s it for Jaime? Crushed by rubble? Dying in each other’s arms is somewhat appropriate, I guess, but we’ve witnessed such a slow, to-this-point-rewarding shift in the character of Jaime Lannister, from the man who pushed Bran out of a window to the humbled, one-handed near-hero who journeyed north on his own in one of the very few examples of pure altruism this show has ever delivered, that I felt it all had to be leading to something transformative. I’m not saying he needed to be the Prince Who Was Promised, but it at least felt like he’d have to change his mind on Cersei and do something incredibly painful for the realm that was tragic and redemptive at once. Instead, he just got crushed by a ceiling. I’ll always want more for Jaime Lannister. I hope we get more, if Martin ever finishes his books.

To answer your question of how the show recovers in its finale episode, I think it’s probably a little late for that. I’ll still be fascinated to see how this story ends—we’ve all invested too much time, as you said Josh, and we’ve all been rewarded enough along the way that there’s no question of abandoning our posts now—but next weekend will be pure denouement, aside from the question of who kills Dany and how. In other words, we’re going to have to live with what we’ve just seen, and that’s basically all there is to it. There’s no way at this point that we’ll leave season eight with anything but a faintly sour taste in our mouths.

Just for fun, here’s a video with GoT actors reacting unfavorably to season 8. It’s cathartic viewing on a day like today.

But we’re in it ‘til the end, Josh, so let me throw it back your way with what’s really the only question left: How does it all end? By my count, the major or major-minor characters that remain in action are Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Davos, Brienne, and Grey Worm…along with a few others like Tormund and Gendry and Bronn and Yara who we’re almost definitely never seeing again. So Josh, tell me how it all ends—what’s going to happen to everyone? What’s our resolution? Is there an Iron Throne to sit anymore, and if so, who will rule the ashes of the seven kingdoms?

—Shane

Shane,

I suppose it’s a credit to the writers that I really don’t know if anyone will kill the Queen of the Ashes at this point. That was such a cynical twist that anything feels possible now. Maybe Tormund and the rest of the Wildlings will decide to abandon their plans to return North and decide Westeros is ripe for pillaging. Gendry just got spurned by Arya, so maybe he’ll turn bitter and hire his hammer out to whatever’s left of the Golden Company.

Assuming, however, that no one else has a psychotic break, here’s my best effort:

I was half-expecting a single word to escape from Arya’s lips as she took in the destruction around her: “Daenerys.” A new list of one. With Jaime’s weirdness these last two episodes, Sandor Clegane is one of the few characters (along with Theon) whose redemptive arc wasn’t tossed aside before his death. He made a real effort to protect Arya from herself and got a rare heartfelt “Thank you” for his troubles. But Arya may have one last job to avenge all the helpless women and children she saw burn. That said, it would be a strange narrative choice to have her kill the Night King and Dany.

Jon would be the other obvious choice to kill the woman he loved, but I don’t know that Dany lets Jon near her after this. He can’t ignore his birthright after the evil he’s just witnessed, though, can he? He’ll have the backing of Sansa, Arya, Tyrion and Samwell, but the Northern army is no match for the Unsullied, the remaining Dothraki and a dragon. Maybe Drogon refuses to torch him since he’s a Targaryen? I’m not sure either Jon and Dany survive what’s to come.

Does Bran still have a part to play or was he only ever bait? Does Tyrion make it past the first scene or meet the same fate as Varys? I guess he and Sansa are my hope for restoring some peace and justice to the realm.

My best hope, of course, is that Tyrion remembers that he’s clever and Daenerys remembers that she’s not a psychopath and Jon realizes that a reluctant king is still a king. And that the show delivers another amazing piece of cinematography that I can appreciate without the distractions of gaps in writing. Because this has been a stunning season visually.

Please don’t die, Tyrion Lannister, though there’s not much for you to live for at the moment. And please, please, please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.

—Josh

Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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