Game of Thrones Recap: It Tolls for Thee

Game of Thrones

The Bells
Season 8 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Game of Thrones

The Bells
Season 8 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

You can’t say Daenerys didn’t warn us that she was going to break the wheel.

We were never going to be happy with the way this show ended. The very nature of narrative doesn’t allow it. A series like this one — and its universe — can only expand for so long, can only broaden its scope and dig new tunnels under its characters’ psyches until it inevitably needs to contract, especially if the ending the show is hurtling toward is to declare one new monarch, one ruler over an entire continent. It has to go small, whittle things down. Because Game of Thrones threw some of our ideas about narrative out the highest window of the Red Keep, we hoped it would somehow be able to bypass the laws of storytelling physics, to resolve all the loose ends without it feeling spick and span, to blow up our idea of what television means without taking too much with it, to let our favorites die but Wait, no, not that one!

With that said, “The Bells” stands out as massively uneven, brilliant in moments (Lena Headey takes all the cake), but often abysmally fan service-y. (See Euron appearing out of the water onto the exact same slot of beach Jaime is on just so the two can duel over a woman only one of them loves.) It dragged down not one but two queens, with my personal GOT lord and savior Cersei dying under the weight of what she thought might protect her, and Daenerys using the weight of what protects her to send other people to their deaths.

In the days to come the battle among viewers will revolve around one big idea: Daenerys the Mad Queen giving in to her worst impulses and torching an entire city and its people to the ground. How can they drag a good woman down? the Twitterverse will wail. Crowds of angry viewers are going to revolt against the fact that this single woman isn’t keeping their feminist fantasies alive, that the showrunners would dare do something so complex as have a woman with rather questionable DNA, a devout belief in her divine rights, a propensity for crucifixion, a long storied history of being talked out of vicious acts by her advisers, and a savior complex the size of Wun Wun actually do the logical thing and go HAM. If you’re wondering how long this has been building, go back and rewatch Daenerys burn Mirri Maz Dur in season one, watch her burn Pyat Pree in season two, watch her burn Astapor in season three, watch her crucify the Masters in season four, watch her burn the slave owners of Meereen in season five, Vaes Dothrak in season six, the loot train and the Tarlys in season seven.

And after this episode, rewatch how easily she burns Varys alive without a trial, without a conversation, without remorse. What once looked like strength has been a trail of bread crumbs leading to narcissism and madness, instead.

What matters isn’t whether Daenerys lives up to some 21st-century ideal of a female conqueress who slays the patriarchy in a feel-good one-two dragon-claw punch. And good God, who would really want that? It’s just as flat and uninspired an idea as the emo boy who’s a secret prince. (Also, repeat after me: This does not mean that Jon Snow becomes king.) What matters is that Daenerys’s snarly hell-raising is in keeping with the character we’ve known since she ate a horse heart to satisfy her warlord husband. Her propensity for blood was always tempered by the advisers who pleaded with her for mercy, who reminded her of what she might become if she gave in to the desire for fire and blood. Now they’re all dead, and King’s Landing, we can safely assume, is no longer strictly habitable

What’s unclear is whether Daenerys sees her dragon joyride as a step too far in the “let it be fear” direction, even though it was also a tactical blunder the likes of which we haven’t seen (and boy oh boy have we seen some commanders fuck up on this show cough cough Stannis cough). The people won’t exactly be lining the streets with celebratory confetti now. They threw feces at Cersei, dear Dragon Queen — anyone would have been better liked than the woman who casually blew up the Sept and the entire religious community just so she didn’t have to appear in court.

Some of the episode’s best moments capitalized on the helplessness of even Game of Thrones’ toughest commanders, like Jon killing his own soldier to stop a war crime, screaming uselessly into the wind that his men should stand down. In between ludicrous, death-defying moments (Arya eluding fire and ten-ton crumbling parapets at every turn, the Hound taking 17 Mountain blows to the head and popping back up like a dog-in-a-box), the sense that we’d wandered into a moral morass kept rearing its head as grandly as that magical piece of equine machinery on which Arya rides off at episode’s end. Some of that is due to the attention paid to the screams and charred skin of the blacksmiths and tavern owners and baker’s boys of King’s Landing (although these new views of the city were incredibly disorienting and absolutely no streets looked familiar, which was jarring). The little girl holding a carved wooden animal — just like Shireen — was this show’s equivalent of Schindler’s List’s little girl in the red coat. A complete innocent wrapped up in the violent ends that follow lords’ and ladies’ violent delights.

The slippery, changing nature of the battle added to that impact. First, it was set like a typical medieval meeting in the field, as the most Teutonic human ever to walk the planet (a.k.a. the head of the Golden Company, a.k.a. shouldn’t that guy play Prince Philip in The Crown one season?) came out to meet the Northern Army. Then it turned into wild street combat, with soldiers slashing their way down twisty alleys. And once Daenerys “I am not here to be Queen of the Ashes” Stormborn continued to torch the city after its surrender, it became moral mayhem, a rather fitting place for a show so indebted to the question of whether one can be both powerful and merciful.

As the grieving moral compass, Tyrion had some of his best scenes of the season: his hand clutching at Varys in sorrow and pain, his back turned just before Drogon sets Varys alight, his utter bewilderment after the bells begin to ring and Daenerys just keeps grilling. He’s failed at his duties as the Hand of the Queen so many times this season that it’s become de rigueur to bust on his skills. But here Tyrion’s plan went remarkably well. The Northern Army won easily, and the Lannister Army surrendered. Which is why his bereft face, fixated on Daenerys as she soars across the sky, left such a deep impact. In springing Jaime free, he was essentially offering up his own life for “the thousands of children” that would die in a dragon siege. To see Dany cruelly and unnecessarily murder said children in the street made it painfully clear to Tyrion that not only had he wrongly dimed out Varys, but that he — a man with no chance to be king — was willing to die for a people whose own queen would put them to death.

After Arya’s little dance with the Night King, viewers were nominating her for everything, especially the role of Cersei’s killer — after all, she was one of the few remaining names on Arya’s kill list (which, by the way, is now complete). But instead Arya’s role in “The Bells” ended up mimicking her disorientation in the first season, when she spent days alone confusedly wandering the streets of King’s Landing after her father’s arrest. Back in the city for the first time since then, Arya retraces her steps, fleeing the Red Keep after she’s warned away by someone who is willing to die so she doesn’t have to, and then turning through the alleyways with every face around her unfriendly and terrifying. It was satisfying and unexpected for Arya, who had slowly devolved into nothing more than a ruthless assassin, to return to a place of tender humanity with the opposite of her surefootedness in the Battle of Winterfell.

I spent the first three-quarters of the episode wondering why Daenerys didn’t simply fly over to the highest tower in the Red Keep and roast Cersei alive. Once she took out the scorpions and turned her eye back toward the city, the moment seemed right. But for a reason Benioff and Weiss probably can’t explain, Daenerys simply skirts Cersei and sends other towers falling.

While I wish Cersei — by far the most dynamic and interesting woman on the show — had been given more to do than moodily stare out a very high window all season, Lena Headey worked magic with what she was given, teaching a master class in staying completely still, saying nothing, and giving a marvelous performance. After all, Cersei didn’t just lose the throne, she capsized the richest and most powerful family in Westeros and let the entire city burn. Her descent, then, from the highest tower to the depths of Maegor’s Holdfast, worked as a fitting metaphor for just how catastrophically she’s fallen, now left among the bones of long-dead dragons.

And while I admittedly hoped for a more eye-bulging ending — like Jaime’s golden hand crushing her windpipe — the collapse of a castle upon her head worked pretty damn great, too. (Rather potent revenge for a woman who blows up buildings.) Was Cersei and Jaime’s love disgusting and wrong? Hell yes, but honestly, it was also pretty true. Jaime’s arc toward redemption wasn’t cut short by his return to Cersei’s side, it was magnified by his refusal to let her die alone, his belief in the inherent value of her person, even if she’d murdered and screwed and backstabbed her way through life.

Jaime died the way he hoped to, with the woman he loved in his arms. As Lena Headey explained, “They came into the world together and now they leave together.” And in the end, Cersei’s breakdown — “Please don’t let me die. I don’t want to die. Not like this.” — revealed that underneath all of her ugly lay the same fear she’d preyed on in everyone around her.

We want fitting conclusions for all our favorite characters — but nothing too neat. Every moment now should have resonance — but shouldn’t merely copy what’s come before. Game of Thrones should end the same way it did its best work — surprising us. Or perhaps surprising us about the way it’s surprising us. It’s a high standard to live up to. Impossible, probably, after a series that helped break open the idea of what you can do on TV. The most we can hope for is that our characters get the fates they deserve, whether that’s in the hot flames of an enraged dragon or the cold steel of the Iron Throne.

From the Ravens

• Varys burns the scroll he’s writing on when Grey Worm shows up to escort him to his death. But it seems as though that scroll is different from the one on which he was spilling Jon’s beans earlier in the episode. So who is that raven for? Which character doesn’t already know about Jon’s true parentage and would have the might to intervene in some way?

• “Here Grey Worm. I’m sure you’ll want something to remember Missandei by. This slave collar is a lovely memento.”

• Was there a good reason that Daenerys and crew had to go all the way back to Dragonstone after Rhaegal was killed? The entire Lannister Army is guarding King’s Landing. Everyone else managed to hang at the campground with their counselor Davos, but Dany had to fly back to her gusty island fortress and poor Jon had to take a separate boat?

• The greatest missed opportunity of the entire episode was the Jets-and-Sharks-style streetfight that almost broke out when Jon and the Northern Army met the Lannister Army in that tiny cross street. They could have sang and danced and stabbed and sliced and all manner of other plot sins would have been forgiven. Game of Thrones never had the musical episode it deserved (and no, Ed Sheeran doesn’t count).

• Was sheer rage powering Drogon to sudden immortality in the face of all those scorpions? Last episode a scorpion ripped a hole in Rhaegal no problem.

• There is one straight boulevard in all of King’s Landing. Why is that? Did Haussmann show up and only grid out one block?

• Jaime has become an expert at sleeping up against wooden poles. This is, what, his 18th time captured?

• Tyrion asks Davos if he can smuggle something incredibly important. Did you assume it was Jaime and then realize that it was just a dinghy and that it would end up on that same stretch of beach that literally every rogue on this show (Bronn, Theon, Davos) has used to sneak in and out of the city? This beach is King’s Landing’s equivalent to the Death Star’s tiny but fundamental flaw in the thermal-exhaust port.

• Poor Marc Rissmann (the actor who played the Golden Company’s commander Harry Strickland) thought he was slipping into a juicy final season role on the biggest show on television, only to fail to bring elephants and then get stabbed in the gut.

• “All the worst things she’s ever done she’s done for her children.” Happy Mother’s Day!

• Why the hell was Davos, who personally means the world to me, out there fighting? He’s reminded us continually since we met him that he’s “no fighter,” and yet they have him on the front line of a major battle?

• The final scene between Jaime and Tyrion — a reversal of Jaime’s rescue of Tyrion when he was on trial for Joffrey’s murder — was one of the series’ best, and the first in a long while to bring me to tears. To Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s credit, he shed every ounce of Jaime’s pomp and played the scene with sheer heart.

• Sorry I’m not sorry, but Cleganebowl never interested me much. The Hound was far too valuable a character to give away in a family vengeance story that we’ve heard about only in dribs and drabs. And it’s fairly impossible to create any sort of third dimension out of a character who doesn’t speak, and covers his entire Darth Vader head with a mask. Was I happy they tumbled over the edge together and landed in a deadly fiery pit? That’s okay, I guess. Was I pleased that Rory McCann is now gone from the show? Not in the slightest. Did I giggle over the fact that the Mountain ended up wearing an artfully torn shirt that showed off his comically inflated frame? Ohhhhh yeah. Did I appreciate the symmetry with the Mountain gouging out the Hound’s eyes the same way he did to Oberyn? Abso-damn-lutely.

• “Fucking die” is the perfect thing to yell when you’re trying to stab your brother to death, or when a cockroach crawls up your drain.

• I know we’re not supposed to fixate on this in such a moment, but I’ve grown out a pixie cut since the end of last season, so I know it’s possible, and it seems cruel and unusual to send Cersei to her grave looking like she just got her first big-boy toddler cut at the local mall.

• Euron’s dead, I’m grateful, and we should all just pretend that fight scene with Jaime didn’t happen.

• Someone please make me a GIF of Cersei awkwardly tiptoeing down the stairs past the Clegane brothers after the Mountain murders Qyburn.

Game of Thrones Recap: It Tolls for Thee