I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if we had an entire season in between the battle between the living and the dead in “The Long Night” and siege on King’s Landing that was the main feature of “The Bells.” For what it’s worth, “The Bells” nails character moments, and brings exactly the kind of penultimate episode Game of Thrones spectacle we’ve been trained to expect, but it’s all bittersweet when we think about what could have been.
I feel like a broken record at this point, but again: longer episodes don’t make up for fewer episodes. Every big moment in “The Bells” would have been better with more space, more explanation, more time preceding it. You can only tell so much story in a unit of narrative, and at some point adding pages, or minutes, doesn’t matter. “The Last of the Starks” didn’t work because it tried to use its long length to fit in more story than a unit of narrative can handle. “The Bells” is much tighter, and it’s a much better episode for it, but there’s a surprising amount of filler, mostly in the form of long, repetitive cuts of violence and destruction, with no one character of significance in sight. Season two’s “Blackwater” was 50 minutes long. “The Bells” was 80. In terms of quality content, “The Bells” doesn’t really have any more than a regular sized episode.
For all of the complaining about how our main characters have “plot armor” and never seem to die, “The Bells” certainly tried to make up for lost time. The episode kicked off with the brutal execution of Varys by Daenerys. Varys has never really been a main character, but he’s been a constant, lingering at the edges, behind the scenes and pulling strings. Frankly, I was more gutted seeing him die than Jaime or Cersei, especially since it was really Tyrion’s fault. Varys felt immortal, existing outside of the drama. He played an ambiguous role for a long time, a surreptitious my-loyalties-are-flexible type, but by the end of the series, it’s clear at the core of his actions was the desire to help the realm (in contrast to Littlefinger. Both were opposite sides of the same coin.). With his death died the possibility of peace. And in the moments of his death you can see the discomfort grow in Tyrion and Jon’s faces. Daenerys’ punishment just proved Varys’ point.
But even then, it wasn’t until the battle that Tyrion and Jon really got it. There was nothing better than seeing their faces change from relief as the surrender bells rang to horror when the burning began. Tyrion had been working so hard to avoid destruction, to point where he was willing to die if it meant Jaime could convince Cersei to leave, and for a brief moment, he thinks it worked. And it did, technically. This fact is what makes it so frustrating to watch. We’re not blindsided like Jon Snow, but we’re forced to watch helplessly as the Unsullied rush the Lannister army for no reason, just like him. We’re forced to watch when the Dothraki start murdering indiscriminately, just like him. And we’re forced to watch Drogon, with Daenerys at the helm, burn down civilians and her own men, just like Jon does. It’s a disturbing scene, and having Jon as our eyes makes it all the more upsetting. There’s also this wild aspect of war that’s on display here, just chaos and raw rage, to the point where Jon kills one of his own men to stop him from attacking an innocent woman. “The Bells” highlights the atrocities of war far better than most battles on TV or movie screens.
And with that, the queen of ashes has risen. I have mixed feelings about Daenerys’ final form. There’s something poetic about it, the fact that for all of her harping about peace, her empire has always rested on the backs of the brutality the Dothraki and the Unsullied were known for. Violence has been a part of her journey to the throne. And as a character, there is so much here. So much possibility. And if you look back, there’s plenty of signs that this was coming. So why does it still feel so rushed? Emilia Clarke was just incredible in this episode, and it makes me realize how rarely she’s given a chance to actually flex, to make Daenerys feel real. It’s clear now that Daenerys hasn’t gotten the development that’s she deserved. I’ve always felt cold on her, and I think it’s because we’ve never known her, not in the way we’ve known Jon Snow or Cersei. There’s a certain distance that we’ve never closed. We know why Jon and Cersei are the way they are. We know about their childhoods, and how people around them feel about them. But we simply don’t know anything about Daenerys except some basic personality traits and how her subjects feel about her. Subjects only. Not friends, not family. Yes, we’ve seen her transform from a scared young woman, under the thumb of her brother, into a formidable ruler. But who is she? Even after everything Viserys put her through, she named a dragon after him. Why would she do that? Her progression into a vicious, vengeful queen would have been much more compelling (and would’ve have made her into the kind of antihero Cersei has been on occasion) if we would have ever seen her actually react to the things that have happened to her (Todd Vanderwerff’s Vox piece does great job getting into this). “The Bells” is the first time we’ve seen her react to a wrong for an extended amount of time, not just cry over a body or stonily give out a sentence. In the scene where Tyrion comes to speak with her in her quarters, Daenerys is legitimately chilling. And I mourn the fact that we’ve never seen it before, that we’ve so rarely been able to know her.
Cersei and Jaime’s story came to a close in a way that was a nice idea, if there was any background at all to why it would have happened. I’ve read a lot of people bemoaning the character assassination of Daenerys (not hating on this opinion or anything) but Queen freaking Cersei had nothing at all to do this entire season. She hasn’t really done anything since going “mad queen” herself in “The Winds of Winter.” Lena Headey is spectacular at displaying so much with just a look, so I get why we just had lots of Cersei staring off, but could we have not gotten anything more? Cersei was such a rich, layered, character throughout the series, and it’s a shame she was just played off stage. Jaime too had a much-acclaimed redemption arc that was thrown out in attempt to chase down an unearned romantic death (twins coming into the world together, leave the world together). Although it was a beautiful scene, it felt disconnected from the reality of our plot.
Arya, who was last seen leaving Winterfell with the Hound, had her storyline barrel toward an unexpected direction in “The Bells.” I don’t mind Arya’s plan to kill Cersei being derailed, but on what planet is Arya the type to turn around and leave because she wants to live? I suppose the driving force for her was the suggestion that she would turn into a person like the Hound if she continued her quest for revenge, but this is the same girl who very proudly said “I’m Arya Stark; I’m going to kill Queen Cersei,” less than an hour ago. Visually, Arya struggling to find her way through the onslaught of violence (a friend pointed out that it was a lot like her running around lost in King’s Landing when Ned was executed) was fantastic and I really appreciate following a character through carnage opposed to just seeing the carnage happen, but I wanted more reason. I’ve previously written about how it’s kind of disturbing how Arya is really just a coldblooded killer and the idea that she would be able to get out of this life is interesting, but I wish we had more than two minutes of deliberation after talking to the Hound as the explanation.
Although Arya’s role was a bit muddled, the Hound easily had the most satisfying ending (and actually just a great arc as whole) of any character this episode. It’s a lot easier when you’re not a main character! Everyone’s been hyping Cleganebowl for years now, and it was actually pretty cool, from the Mountain killing Qyburn to the Hound flinging them both to their deaths. Sandor Clegane has been a captivating character (he even got a bottle episode in season six!), and I’m grateful at least one person got an ending that made sense.
Complaints aside, “The Bells” is a strong entry into what’s been an uneven season. Game of Thrones has built up a hell of a reputation for visually arresting battles, and everything about this episode meet expectations (and everything was in the daylight! We could see things! And they were beautiful!). Any issues with “The Bells” really stems from a bigger issue with how the greater structure of the series has made it difficult to tell the best story possible. But it’s true that we’d probably never be happy. One thing I know is that at the end of it all, it seems the idea of coming full circle still stands. Daenerys always wanted to break the wheel and stop the same string of worthless ruling families from having the throne. But here we are and there’s another mad Targaryen in power. The Dothraki are back to pillaging. Jaime and Cersei are back together, like they started. Tyrion is alone, like he’s always felt. Arya is just trying to make it out of King’s Landing alive, just like she was in season one. And a Stark is trying to reveal the truth about someone’s parentage.
The repercussions of the events of “The Bells” are massive; it’s great to see an action episode actually have narrative propulsion outside of simple winners and losers. We can only hope the series finale makes the most of it.
– I can’t say enough about how perfectly creepy and unhinged Emilia Clarke is playing Daenerys. The part of the episode centered around her is so, so good. I also briefly thought she was going to kill Jon instead of Varys, since he’s the original betrayer.
– I really liked the breakdown of Jon and Dany’s relationship. There wasn’t a lot of exposition around it, but it’s so clearly telegraphed they didn’t need to expand on it at all.
– How many people do you think Varys managed to tell about Jon?
– Jaime and Tyrion’s plan was so dumb. Tyrion is so dumb! That plus Jon Snow’s not listening to anyone about Dany (seriously, has he always been this dense?) makes me wish we had some competence around here (ahem, hey Sansa).
– I laughed every time Drogon burned one of the scorpions right as it was aimed at him. See, it’s simple! Why didn’t you burn anything down last episode? Also, it seems like it would’ve been pretty easy for one dragon to take the Red Keep without killing any civilians, just saying.
– Y’all, I’m the worst and don’t like big battles (though this episode was obviously stunning)! I don’t know why we had to watch people writhe around on fire for so long. Like, Dany’s burning the city down, we get it, can we move this along?
– They REALLY should have cut out the scene with Euron and Jaime fighting. I was perfectly happy assuming he died on the ship. Good riddance.
– Like, maybe that horse at the end was Bran. Maybe.
The series finale of Game of Thrones airs Sunday, May 19th at 9/8c on HBO.
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