TV Review: Game of Thrones - "The Bells"

Season 8, Episode 5 “The Bells”

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Welcome to the Strange Harbors review of the final season of Game of Thrones. Typically, I tend to avoid posting recaps/reviews of single, individual episodes, but Game of Thrones is a cultural behemoth that deserves a more in-depth look at each installment, especially in its last six episodes. Each recap/review of the final season will be written from my perspective as A Song of Ice and Fire book-reader and a fan of the show. Today, we will be covering the fifth episode of Season 8, titled “The Bells.” Spoilers ahead…

If anything, Game of Thrones was salvageable before its penultimate episode of “The Bells.” While “The Long Night” gave us a surprisingly low-stakes and pat resolution to the Night King and “The Last of the Starks” dipped back into some of the series’ worst tendencies, it could be said that a satisfying conclusion to HBO’s fantasy phenomenon was still in the cards. With the stellar eighth season premiere of “Winterfell” and its even better followup, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss proved that, despite the show’s various missteps, at least some of the Ice and Fire magic was still alive. But now, as King’s Landing burns to cinders, so does the legacy of Game of Thrones. Not only is “The Bells” a thoroughly disappointing hour-plus of television, it is also an exercise in perplexing logic, unearned payoffs, and hollow storytelling. By the end of the episode’s 78-minute runtime, Daenerys has laid waste to King’s Landing, Jaime Lannister is dead, Cersei Lannister is dead, and both of the Cleganes are dead. But in the wake of what is obviously meant to be Game of Thrones’ finest and most monumental hour, I felt nothing - no satisfaction, no catharsis, and no emotion; with “The Bells,” Game of Thrones has definitively crossed the Rubicon into the worst version of itself.

For the last week or so, criticism and dismay for Daenerys’ storyline fall firmly into two camps: one cries foul over the heel-turn of their hero and champion, the Breaker of Chains and the Mother of Dragons, and the other - while welcoming her transition into villainy - bristles at its execution. I, myself, am of the latter group; the concept of the Mad Queen is brilliant and right in the George R. R. Martin wheelhouse of subverting expectations, but Game of Thrones’ clumsy execution has buried any semblance of justification under a misguided loyalty to spectacle and the accelerated rush to the series finale. One could point to Daenerys’ latent bloodlust and cruel streak as foreshadowing, but her actions have always been justified, especially against the tyrants and slavers of Essos, and even with the Tarlys that stubbornly refused to bend the knee last season. Never has Daenerys condoned - let alone willingly participated in - the wholesale slaughter of innocents, and to portray her in such a way without any logical buildup is disingenuous at best, lazy at worst. Even more galling, the episode is unable to even gloss over a compelling reason for Daenerys’ fiery rampage through the streets of King’s Landing. With the sounding of the city’s surrender bells, the Dragon Queen could have had everything she ever wanted without further bloodshed, but unfortunately, the show needed a new villain, so the innocent citizens had to go. In another world, this would have been another great poetic tragedy in a show that revels in the power of poetic tragedy, but in our world, we got “The Bells.”

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“Not only is ‘The Bells’ a thoroughly disappointing hour-plus of television, it is also an exercise in perplexing logic, unearned payoffs, and hollow storytelling.”

While director Miguel Sapochnik once again outdoes himself with a visually arresting and explosive battle for the ages, the sack of King’s Landing itself is a narrative dud that screams of convenience rather than coherence. Last week, when it served “The Last of the Starks” to drum up sympathy and an overwhelming sense of desperation for Daenerys, her dragons were made of paper, her strategic acumen was non-existent, and her enemies’ aim was impeccable; this week, when the show decided to upgrade her to primary antagonist, she’s nigh-invincible with half the dragons she had the episode before, single-handedly decimating Euron’s fleet as well as the Golden Company. At some point, these logical holes transcend nitpicking and enter a whole new dimension of cognitive dissonance, as if the script just threw its hands in the air and mumbled: “Whatever.”

If one can apply an overarching theme to “The Bells,” it would be one of character assassination. When it comes to Jaime, Cersei, and Sandor Clegane, their characters are quickly shuffled off the mortal coil to make room for the Mad Queen, depositing them in a dank and forgotten terminus rather than the fitting conclusions worthy of their decade-long journeys. Regardless of the words spoken by Jaime Lannister in his gut-wrenching farewell to Brienne, “The Last of the Starks” seemed to indicate that he was headed back to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, a logical and climactic decision befitting Game of Thrones’ most complex character; however, instead of fulfilling a character arc dictated by eight seasons of growth and development, Jaime instead chooses to profess his love for Cersei, dying with his twin sister as the Red Keep crumbles around them. And what about Cersei? The Cersei Lannister that stone-facedly withstood Septa Unella’s humiliating walk of shame, the Cersei Lannister that exploded all of her enemies with the flames of wildfire? Gone, reduced to a whimpering and blubbering mess as the walls caved in on her. Between Cersei’s ignominious and anticlimactic death, and Sansa’s assertion that her rape and torture shaped her person in “The Last of the Starks,” perhaps it’s finally time to admit that Game of Thrones has no idea how to write women.

Finally, we have the sorry excuse for a Cleganebowl - an overhyped battle royale that made me realize just how little I cared for Sandor’s revenge on his big brother. With Qyburn’s melon pulverized mid-sentence and Cersei exiting the scene like a clumsy cameraperson accidentally caught in the frame, the final battle between the Cleganes is a sluggish beat-em-up that no one even witnesses, ending with both the brothers careening to their fiery deaths. If two Cleganes bowl, but no one hears them bowl, is it still a Cleganebowl? A fully-realized arc for the Hound would perhaps have him outgrow his need for revenge - an narrative that I truly believed we were witnessing - but have circumstances thrust him into a final confrontation with the Mountain regardless. Instead, what we received was indicative of “The Bells” as a whole: lazy, unsatisfying, and completely unearned. 

The biggest shame of “The Bells,” however, is how its glaring narrative faults and lapses in logic will undoubtedly overshadow its technical prowess. An undeniably gorgeous episode: from the chaos of the dragon’s fire to Arya’s dazed stumbling through King’s Landing, the penultimate hour of Game of Thrones is a visual feast. Unfortunately, visuals are pretty much all the show has left to impress us with, and with only one episode left, I suspect many - including myself - will be watching out of obligation and curiosity rather than excitement.

GRADE: D