Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Audience Assumptions: I’m just going to hope you’re familiar with the series by this point.
Episode Five: The Bells – **
Part One: We. Do. Not. Have. Time. For. Random. Woman. And. Child. We’ve. Never. Met.
Fair warning, this review is mostly going to be a stream-of-consciousness rant. It is long and I am tired.
As you may be able to tell, I was not overly fond of this episode. The two stars are for the effects; the story can rot, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not that the episode lacks good moments, it’s that those moments are small, insignificant, and most importantly, irrelevant. The episode fits into the rest of the series like a porcupine in a soda straw, and for what purpose? Not to tell a solid stand-alone story, that’s for damn sure; the skeleton of this episode is held together with twine and chewing gum.
The bottom line is, this episode would be a bit disappointing in any previous season. As the second-to-last episode, it’s a farce.
I think most people have realized as of Episode Three what this season really was. There are probably people who still like the show, and people who are going to watch it to the end regardless. I am kind of one of those people. However, it’s been abundantly apparent for a little while that the season is aiming to subvert rather than fulfill expectations. That means characters dying in unlikely scenarios, plot points progressing at an uneven pace, and sudden, unexpected character deaths or actions that build to nothing, contribute nothing, and are worth nothing. The show is toying with the audience, as it always has, though visibly now instead of from the shadows. It’s trying to pry shock from its audience, and nothing more.
Cersei has the Golden Company and scorpions everywhere, but Drogon destroys all of them.
Cersei breaks and she and Jaime both die in the rubble.
The Hound and the Mountain both fall into the fire.
The bells are rung but Danaerys kills civilians anyway.
You can hear the machinery behind the show calculating how to ruin all of the betting pools for how the character deaths would play out. Unpredictability is all that matters.
I say that knowing full well the series has planted the seeds for some of these moments. However, it’s faffed about in the interim, focusing on minor characters and irrelevant plot points like Stannis Baratheon and Jorah’s leprosy and all of the other things over the last few seasons that have bogged down the core narrative. It was annoying but harmless back in Season Five, because Season Seven cut all of the bullshit down. Yet despite being set up to fulfill all major narrative arcs, Season Eight has continued at its old pace, bringing up new plot points that don’t matter, introducing new goddamn characters, and spending an inordinate amount of time on existing threads the series can no longer afford to cultivate. I love what they’ve done with Brienne in giving her a narrative arc and some nice moments, but if the previous seasons didn’t have time for that, this one sure as hell doesn’t.
Now the show is dumping plot points like Mad Queen Danaerys at my feet, and I’ll keep it, I won’t throw it back, but I still have to acknowledge it’s undercooked.
Because it is. Mad Queen Dany, like so much of the episode, could have worked, given a better lead-in and appropriate buildup. It’s not the plot point itself, it’s the story it appears in. Game of Thrones, as it has played out, is not a story about a woman who works her way to a position of power and becomes tyrannical from it. In the early seasons it could have worked toward that. It didn’t. Instead, it painted Danaerys as a victim of a cruel world who persisted regardless of the obstacles, often using force to stay alive, and slowly using it more frequently as a means of security. You can see this arc developing in a way that could eventually lead Danaerys to burn civilians alive, either out of the paranoia that plagued her father, or apathy wrought from duress and overexertion. I imagine that’s what the showrunners were going for. But as delivered, it’s not there yet. We do not go from Season Seven Danaerys or even early Season Eight Danaerys to Mass Murderer Danaerys in the time allotted. There’s something missing: the crucial step or two between Danaerys, restrained but trigger-happy queen, and Danaerys, BURNER OF ALL THE INNOCENTS.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt the season has cut scenes out. Actually, with so many moments designed almost exclusively to subvert expectations, but other moments left in that seem to rely on nonexistent buildup, I get a strong sense that something weird happened behind-the-scenes that made the production of this season rushed, even with its two year gap after the last season and the foreknowledge of the direction it was going. It’s little things, but they’re more overt in this episode than the others.
Cersei’s pregnancy is never even confirmed, much less concluded in any way, which seems more like a dropped plot thread than something left ambiguous on purpose. That woman and child seem to have been travelling from somewhere, and they have names like they were introduced earlier. Where the hell did that horse come from? It seems like an important thing, maybe even a significant thing that was supposed to be set up earlier, but it’s not Arya’s horse nor anyone else’s. Euron’s ship also gets some dramatic shots, as does his personal squid-themed scorpion, but both are destroyed almost off-screen. And the Golden Company do little more than introduce new outfits before they’re wiped off the map.
I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to posit, completely without basis, that the show’s script changed substantially between the release of the last season and the start of this one. I’m sure I’m missing most of what actually happened, only seeing the aftermath along with the other viewers, but there are some serious Hobbit and Last Airbender vibes in this season that are absent from even the weaker earlier seasons. For all of those who complained about the seventh season, even from a critical perspective, it was still many times more cohesive than this one. Inconsistencies of the scale seen in the eighth season indicate to me a pattern consistent with other big-budget series that underwent known production issues. With the budget apparently intact based on the battles and CGI (though even these have been a little off their usual game at times), my instinct is to look at the storytelling.
One of the most noticeable things about the two major battles so far is that they show coverage of destruction and bodies, but rarely link any of this to the narrative. People fight, but to what purpose? Why is Arya in particular so affected by seeing the civilians burn in King’s Landing? I have no doubt that a character was meant to play a role in the scene where Arya is stumbling around the city, but I don’t think it was Arya. Jon seems like he would be more devastated, yet he disappears after about the halfway point of the episode.
Likewise, the Clegane fight on the steps of the keep is rushed and feels haphazard. The episode spends a good bit of time building up Sandor Clegane encountering his brother at the end of the series, but they fight in a battle entirely unrelated to the rest of the events, and it’s not even in a particularly creative or significant spot, just on some steps. They had the map room and everything, why not fight there?
Then of course, the bells that come out of nowhere. Since when have bells been a key part of King’s Landing? Well, since this episode, I suppose.
All of these moments involve characters on their own or in isolated situations, in CG-heavy environments that could be altered with relative ease for re-shoots or filming days that have to be cut short. I realize that’s circumstantial, but it’s what I have to go on. To me, the greatest indicator of last-minute changes in the story come from the green wildfire that appears very briefly as Danaerys is destroying the city. Where on earth did this come from? I mean, it’s set up in previous seasons; Cersei likes wildfire and has proven herself willing to use it since Season Two. There’s a dark poetry to Cersei stockpiling wildfire that Tyrion uses in Season Two, then using it to blow up her enemies in Season Six, and finally sacrificing civilians and destroying King’s Landing with it in her final hours. Her go-to move in defeat in Season Two was suicide, after all, and she certainly has reason to hate the masses. More than Danaerys, anyway.
So it’s a bit odd that the wildfire never comes up or does anything in the episode, even though it’s clearly there, blowing stuff up in background shots.
At a guess, I would imagine the showrunners had been working in a particular direction for a while with the finale, likely planning on throwing in one or two big twists but otherwise bringing the series to a pretty predictable end. Danaerys and Jon learn that Jon is a Targaryen and start to rule together until Jon dies unexpectedly in battle, the Night King lasts through to the end and attacks King’s Landing, Cersei completely breaks down and tries to burn the city, Jaime assassinates her, and so on. These beats are set up by earlier seasons and cemented in Season Seven. However, Season Seven was widely criticized for being too pandering and simplistic, paying off plot points in obvious ways instead of playing to the early seasons’ reputation for being subversive, intricate, and unpredictable. I think the showrunners choked. That’s the quick and dirty of it, and it’s a bit of a tidy explanation to wave away all of the issues of this season, but that’s what I see. I see the irrelevant storylines that don’t play into the larger plot being groomed to fill space, I see effects with little or no direction, I see characters who don’t know their own motivations, and I see them taking actions solely to create scenes where those characters take those actions. Even the music is limp, lacking its usual character themes and instead playing to familiar beats, unlike all of the previous seasons which incorporated several new themes and worked those in throughout the score.
I don’t know what the earliest drafts of this season looked like, but I have a strong feeling they differed considerably from the end result.
Part Two: Right When They Figured Out the Wingbeats, Too
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the weak storytelling in this episode is that it does a disservice to the aesthetics. This, perhaps more than almost any other episode in the series, is epic in scope, and the special effects have brought their A-game. Drogon looks as good as ever. The animators and sound designer have managed to pull off a presence to this creature that I was skeptical could even be done. Normally, the dragons look a little off when they flap their wings or when we see them from dragonback, but the budget for this entire season and this episode in particular more than meets the requirements to make the dragon cinematic. There are a lot of fire effects as well integrated into the shots, and I have no idea how much the set complicated these shots, but I would adore a look at how this episode was made.
The visuals also show, a bit sadly, the failed potential of the narrative. The cinematography does a lot of heavy lifting in telling the story, with shots of Danaerys’ face communicating what I imagine the show wanted to go for with her character. Shots of destruction and immolated corpses, radiation and ash rising from the earth as characters walk through the carnage, are deeply unsettling in the best possible way. They hearken back to previous seasons where the dragons burning people was an unfortunate side effect of their usefulness, and it pains me because these shots are spectacular. They tell a story all on their own that is powerful and resonant, and that almost makes me want to say that this episode holds its own. Like The Long Night, this episode has a complete narrative tied up in it, one of a leader distraught and unable to control her fury, of a crumbling alliance, of the consequences that come of dealing with monsters. Parts of this story are compelling. Even with its flaws, you could make a compelling argument for why this episode works as a stand alone piece.
It’s just that’s not the story this show has been telling. And the second-to-last episode is not the one in which to introduce a stand alone piece.
The flaw in the aesthetics is nothing to do with the visual effects artists, or the special effects artists, or the sound designer, or the cinematographer or anyone delivering the aesthetics. The dialogue can grate at times, but even that’s not really at fault. It’s the story, plain and simple. The structure of the episode is cracked, and try as they might, the effects can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together. There’s a lot of care put into the destruction of the ships, the burning of the city, the charred corpses, the various iterations of the set. It’s impressive. But when corridors of people being burned doesn’t serve the story, or worse, actively detracts from the story, all of those effects feel like a waste. So much of the effects budget seems to have gone into this episode. Yet I can’t help but feel it should have gone into the episodes with better structure so that the effects would be better appreciated. As is, people are going to gloss over how this episode looks. I’m going to have to do that, too.
I’d like to compare the Battle of King’s Landing with the Loot Train Attack for a minute. Both are visually stunning, both are action-based, and both have been criticized for being style over substance. I disagree where the Loot Train Attack is concerned, and I think a revisitation might sway a few skeptics.
The battle comes almost out of nowhere, with the Lannister army transporting gold after their victory at High Garden. The audience knows Danaerys plans to attack the mainland, but we don’t know any of the details. The Lannisters are vulnerable, spread thin as they are, but they’re far from defenseless. However, it’s not a sudden death or a preparation for attack that kicks off the battle; it’s quieter than that. Jaime and Bronn are chatting with Dickon Tarley, mocking his name as everyone has up to this point, when they suddenly hear rumbling and recognize it as horses. They call defensive lines to form, knowing that they’re stretched thin, and then the Dothraki appear over the horizon — horse-riding warriors whose fighting style is legendary as it is unfamiliar. Bronn tells Jaime to leave or he’ll be killed, which is a fair assessment given Jaime’s poor left-handed fighting skill, but Jaime refuses. Just as he declares among the footmen that he’s going to stay and help them win, Drogon roars and flies into view.
This serves two purposes. First, it’s funny. The audience knows how royally Jaime has underestimated his position, and based on his open-mouthed expression, Jaime seems to have just now realized this as well. The second purpose is to relieve tension for the buildup in a dramatic display of spectacle that more than satisfies audience expectations. The scene could stop here and serve its purpose, cutting away to the inevitable aftermath of such a fight, but of course it doesn’t. Drogon blasts a hole in the infantry, partly as a fear tactic, and partly to give the Dothraki an easy means through the lines. It’s horrifying, of course, partly because Drogon is out of view and framed in menacing ways, the camera focused on the dragon rather than the rider controlling it, and also because we’ve just seen these men nervously holding the lines and joking with Jaime and Bronn.
From then, the battle continues its close tension. We have protagonists on both sides of the conflict and another with investment in both (Tyrion) watching from afar. Danaerys is distant from the action, being on her dragon the whole time, mainly there to strike fear and burn the wagons, occasionally coming around to burn soldiers who stand defiant, all of whom are horrifically reduced to dust. Jaime tries to console and inspire the dying men, but he has no chance; he only dooms them to Dany’s dragonfire when he tries to organize them. Bronn has a means of countering the onslaught via the scorpion, and it takes him a quick minute to reach it. When he does, the playing field is finally level; now the Lannisters have quite literally revealed their secret weapon. It has yet to be proven, and Danaerys is quick to dismiss it when it misses its first few arrows. However, the danger element is still evident to the audience, and only intensifies with Danaerys’ obliviousness. When an arrow finally does hit its mark, Drogon starts to fall, genuinely injured. Danaerys is now struggling against her own hubris as she tries to keep the dragon from falling to its death with her on its back. It manages to land, but is injured, still formidable, but proven to be mortal. It destroys the scorpion, rendering the Lannisters’ last hope to defeat Danaerys obsolete.
Well, second-to-last. Jaime, despite Tyrion’s silent pleas and his own better judgement, sees a slim opportunity to end Danaerys once and for all while she’s distracted trying to remove the arrow from Drogon. He charges her with his spear, naturally doomed to fail, and the reality of his death charge sets in. Bronn stops him, knowing from all the carnage that he’s just wasting his time, and pushes him into the water — the one place the dragonfire can’t get them.
It’s one of the best sequences in the series, pulling on character motivations from all sides and culminating in tense moments more than befitting the stylistic and tonal expectations of the series. I know a lot of people thought Jaime had drowned at the end of the episode, but that’s a minor detail, the more important one being his defeated expression. It would also be unsatisfying for Jaime to drown just because Bronn pushed him trying to save his life. The scene plays on the development all of these characters have built up to that point, including Danaerys, and it continues into the next episode, where Dany burns the survivors who don’t surrender, including Dickon. This is I think what the showrunners were going for in The Bells; Dany has a predisposition for violence and is more than willing to use her dragons to enforce martial law and corporal punishment. She can also lose her temper and control with relatively little provocation, and when she’s wielding a dragon, those traits can lead to some graphic consequences.
So how does that pay off in this episode? Well, we haven’t had any moment where Danaerys goes off and murders people or has her dragons burn villages since the Loot Train Attack aftermath, so the episode opens with her executing Varys that way. Why Varys? Because he very recently started acting treasonous. For reasons, I’m sure. The show tries to establish in the lead-up that her advisors consider Danaerys unstable, but the most unstable thing she’s done recently is snark at Sansa, and before that, rescue Jon from the north. Neither are anywhere on par with Danaerys burning prisoners alive, so given Varys had no qualms about that, his treason is somewhat perplexing. Functionally, it’s just a reminder that Danaerys has her dragons burn living people sometimes.
This actually gives Tyrion good reason to be afraid of what she might do to the soldiers at King’s Landing, given he witnessed the Loot Train Attack and begged Danaerys not to burn her prisoners. He comes up with a desperate bid to keep Danaerys from losing control in the fight tomorrow — when she hears the bells, she has to stop because everyone surrenders. She begrudgingly agrees.
Skipping through the interim where characters say their goodbyes, I will briefly acknowledge that Danaerys is in a distressed state. She has just lost two of her last remaining companions — Missandei and Rhaegal. Both at the hands of Cersei.
The battle calls back heavily to the Loot Train Attack; Cersei is unduly confident in the lead-up, then Drogon appears out of the clouds and everything falls apart. Euron tries to fire at the dragon, but his ship and many others are soon destroyed. He jumps off into the water at the last second and survives, which I’ll grant, considering there’s a precedent and presumably he can swim. However, from here, the parallels to the Loot Train Attack start to weaken the execution of the battle. Rather than building tension through a late-game twist, Cersei’s army of scorpions is inexplicably useless. They killed one of the dragons last time with no difficulty, so what’s going on? I could give plenty of explanations — that they caught Rhaegal off-guard, that Danaerys has learned how to dodge the scorpions, that it was Euron’s skill that killed Rhaegal and none of the other operators has the same drive, whatever — but the point remains that the show doesn’t offer an explanation. It turns the scorpions into the foot soldiers from the Loot Train Attack, with Drogon barreling through them effortlessly.
The Unsullied and Dothraki invade the city, wiping out the Golden Company with similar ease, and the Lannister troops quickly surrender. This would make the battle short and uncomplicated; Danaerys shows up with her dragon, does a bit of damage, and the city is hers.
The only problem here is that the episode is hardly at its halfway point. Obviously, something goes wrong. What, though? What is the thing that sets Danaerys off and makes her continue the fight despite the surrender, turning her easy victory into a senseless slaughter?
Basically nothing. After some tension about whether the bells will ring, someone rings them. Cersei doesn’t personally surrender, though the episode never sets a contingency to distinguish that. All it tells us or Danaerys is that when the bells get rung, King’s Landing has surrendered.
So naturally, Danaerys, infuriated that she won’t get to enact vengeance, opts instead to destroy the town and any townsfolk on her way there. This is the big source of contention for her arc within the episode, and the episode in general: why does Dany burn innocents? Again, I could come up with plenty of explanations. Because the citizens didn’t help her, because she’s a hypocrite, because she’s careless and only trying to get to Cersei. Because she’s “mad.” What the visuals of the episode, and the story as stated, explain is that Danaerys is furious and hardly containing her anger, continues to seethe as the bells are rung, then purposefully ignores them and murders thousands, then slowly destroys parts of the Red Keep as a personal “fuck you” to Cersei.
From this point on, King’s Landing starts to crumble around the other characters and we don’t get any more views of Danaerys as a character. Grey Worm follows her lead and kills one of the Lannister guards who has surrendered. Jon is understandably upset and tries to get everyone to stop. Tyrion is likewise horrified. The Hound confronts the Mountain and they fight to the death. Arya tries to save some civilians, and fails, then the episode ends with her riding off after Danaerys, presumably to kill her.
I’ve described these scenes in roughly the same amount of words, hitting as many significant beats as I could remember. There’s a scene where Danaerys lands Drogon in front of a crowd and he roars, which I think the show means for Dany to use as a gauge for the people’s opinion of her. If they don’t bow, she’ll burn them. However, she never asks them to do anything, and her focus isn’t on the people but the Red Keep, and none of the visuals suggest anything other than Danaerys burning people to get back at Cersei — an action that both of them know holds no weight. Whatever the intent, the scene comes across as sporadic and out of character. Danaerys will do many cruel things. Burning innocent women and children for no reason is not among them.
Beyond this, though, the battle is too simplistic to have much merit of its own. Like The Long Night, there’s little sense of strategy in either the lead-in or the delivery. The visuals make good use of the characters and environment, but the story simply doesn’t. Danaerys deciding to burn the city, Cleganebowl, Arya going after Cersei, Jon’s attempted contribution, Tyrion observing the battle, and especially Jaime’s fight with Euron are all isolated within the episode. These characters rarely interact, and their goals are mutually exclusive the way the show tries to conclude them. As a result, the characters all get limited development in their own arcs, and just feel like pieces scattered haphazardly across a table.
And I can’t help but feel disappointed because I know they can do better. They have, many times before, not only in the Loot Train Attack, but in the Battle of the Wall, the Battle of the Bastards, Hardhome, and the last stand north of the wall in the previous season.
Part Three: Let’s Talk Character
I have never cared deeply about any of the characters in Game of Thrones. Well, okay, a few fun side characters here and there, but rarely anyone of much significance. The reason is that the main characters, while all more complex than the typical players in a Disney fantasy, are all fairly simplistic. Some of them get impactful moments in their arcs, and it’s from these the audience is supposed to extrapolate rich characterization. It’s a common trick.
However, I would be remiss to say that the characters in Game of Thrones lack any personality. It’s not especially interesting, but it’s there, and the show owes it to its audience to take what personality its characters have and do them justice. A careless writer can mishandle a simple character just as they can a complex one. It’s just usually harder.
To that end, I suppose I might be impressed, because turning Danaerys into a blood psychopath with no sufficient lead-in is momentously asinine.
At times like these, I think it’s worth taking a moment to structure my thoughts. This episode bothers me. But it bothers me on a level separate from pure rage or devastation. I’m irritated by the turn the show has taken in this season, and that itself is somewhat odd considering my limited investment in it. And to be honest, I can see where the showrunners are trying to go, and it’s not the worst thing in the world. I understand, I think, how this show is unfolding. It’s not wholly inept, much as my words have wavered back and forth otherwise. There’s good stuff in Game of Thrones. There’s good stuff in this season. And yes, there’s crap too, and often the crap isn’t worth wading through the rest of the series for (I don’t for instance, see myself re-watching the show anytime soon). But it has potential.
Maybe that’s the real problem here; I’m bothered because, like a puzzle put together incorrectly, the pieces are all there, but they’re trying to be something that doesn’t quite work. The show has become a chimera of narratives, pieced together over time in a way that ensures the ending can neither fit with the first season nor the second-to-last season. Maybe.
Anyway, character arcs. I think it’s easiest to see my gripes with this episode when you consider each character’s broad arc as set up over the course of the series. All characters who change over time get an arc defined by their experiences and how those experiences affect their core want and need. Game of Thrones has a lot of characters, but those characters are nice and simple in their arcs. Most only undergo one single arc, and they’re set in the execution of that arc from an early point. Theon, for instance, has one of the more complete and satisfying arcs in the series: he starts as a cocky waif who takes his family for granted until his identity is questioned, leading him to make poor decisions for the sake of vainglory, losing him everything he cares about, until finally he redeems himself by recognizing what he once had and trying to make up for his mistakes. Theon’s journey over the course of the series is one of maturity and redemption.
There are eight characters from Season One still around that seem to be the primary protagonists of the series. These are, in no particular order, Danaerys, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion. Other characters are important, of course, and we could throw Bronn and the Hound in there too, but let’s not kid ourselves; from Moment One, this story has been about the Stark children, the Lannister siblings, and Danaerys. So what are their arcs?
Danaerys’ arc is really more of a cycle; she suffers, she gains power through the hard lessons she learns, she makes mistakes because she overestimates her new power, repeat. This is building to a boil where she will either become content with the power she has, or lose everything once and for all.
Jon’s arc is about him learning to become a leader and bear the responsibility for his own mistakes. His passivity means that his arc is less well-defined and compelling than many of the other characters’.
Sansa’s arc is about her recognizing the harsh nature of the world and adapting to it. Like Theon, her arc is largely complete by the start of this season.
Arya’s arc is about her realizing who she wants to be. This is easiest to see in the earlier seasons, where she’s something of an apprentice and makes a lot of mistakes, but it’s there in the later seasons too, albeit sporadically. The show oscillates between Arya’s arc being complete and Arya still having to work at her emotional depth in order to fulfill her potential.
Who fucking knows what Bran’s arc is at this point. His arc fully ended when he became the Three-Eyed Raven at the end of Season Six, and the show doesn’t seem keen to give him more character depth, so he’s mainly here to fill out the roster and offer terrible advice, it seems.
Cersei’s arc is one of hubris, like Dany’s, but more malicious. Cersei starts the series with power and rarely has to worry about gaining it, intent instead on securing any power she has. Over the course of the series, her sense of control slips away like so many sand grains, wearing her down until she will inevitably destroy herself.
Jaime’s arc is one of the clearer redemption arcs of the series. He starts out a massive prick, reveals inner vulnerabilities, questions his allegiance to Cersei, and abandons her. Throughout the story, Jaime is torn between being with Cersei and doing what he knows is right, so there’s always a lingering question about whether he’ll be able to turn on her entirely, or whether he’ll fail. His arc is complete when he chooses one of the two.
And finally, Tyrion’s story is, like many of the others, one of hubris and humility. Tyrion gains power as an advisor to leaders and figureheads, doing better than most of them, but inevitably overestimating his own abilities and landing himself in hot water. Tyrion’s line of work seems unable to bring him happiness, so his arc ends when his tongue gets the better of him or he quits the Game entirely.
Of these characters, all but Sansa and Bran get significant moments contributing to their character arcs, and Cersei and Jaime’s arcs end in this episode.
Here’s why they end up feeling largely unsatisfying.
First, Dany. As I’ve mentioned, Danaerys’ actions in this episode, particularly her burning civilians, have not been earned. Yes, her arc has gone in this general direction, but without an appropriate interim moment where she loses control of her temper and the dragons, her doing so here has no real justification. It also falls counter to her interests in the previous season and the start of this one, where she works to forge alliances with the citizens and long-term rulers of Westeros. We are then left to conclude that her sudden change in attitude is the result of her stress, which is perhaps warranted given the recent losses of Rhaegal and Missandei. However, the most tragic thing that happens before her blood feud with the city is Jon not wanting to kiss her because she’s his aunt. Intentional or not, that image is a bit reductive. It’s especially annoying because there are multiple alternatives to how her turning point played out that might have made it more effective — Rhaegal could have been killed in King’s Landing after the bells were rung; the civilians could have thrown things at Danaerys, provoking an overreaction; killing civilians could have been careless or accidental as Dany tries to sweep up the Lannister guards; Cersei could have started to burn the city first, killing some of Dany’s men. It’s not a bad moment, it just needed more attentive buildup.
Tyrion and Jon get little to do in the episode but be horrified by the carnage, their man brains clearly more sensible than those of the crazy ladies duking it out over the city. Jon tries to keep his men from continuing the attack of Grey Worm and the evil Unsullied. He stops a soldier from raping a civilian, then disappears for effectively the rest of the episode. I wouldn’t be the first to say this (nor would this be my first time saying it), but Jon is not an especially interesting character — at least not when the series tries to set him as the hero. Jon works best when he’s the butt of jokes, overly serious, and inept, because he’s otherwise a standard Mary Sue-type of character. He’s framed as the sexy brooding self-insert of every teenage edgelord on the planet, given a tragic backstory, casual awesome skills, and admirable morals in a world that has no reason to cultivate them. He is effectively a continuation of Ned’s character, except with the trappings of a glutted video game protagonist — magic sword, wolf companion, secret magic powers, combat prowess, natural leadership talent, personability, quest to find his birth mother, sexy queen girlfriend, automatic authority that he never really earns, his own dragon he didn’t even need to raise? All present and accounted for.
So the episode’s attempt to make Jon look like a good alternative to Dany’s madness, while not unprecedented, is still pretty childish. Yes, he was always set up to be the good guy in the end, but for a series so hell-bent on shaking things up randomly, I’m honestly surprised it can’t even lower itself to taint Jon just a little. Any mistakes he’s made in this season only go wrong on behalf of someone else. Just sit him on the silly chair and be done with it if that’s the direction you’re going, show.
Tyrion, likewise, is a bit hard to nail down. I’m not in the least surprised that he’s made it this far; as the only initially likable Lannister, Tyrion was set to carry the perspective of the show’s human villains for a long while. I don’t know that I have much to say about his arc that I haven’t already; Tyrion is a fun character and pretty much shows the extent of his development in the first few seasons. He’s still enjoyable from the fifth onward, but after he kills Tywin, there’s not much left for him to do. The show has therefore ambled about, playing with his relationship to Jaime (which comes to a decent conclusion in this episode, actually — one of the few subplots that does), and keeping him around as a comic character. I fear his comedy has worn thin over the last few years, but his dramatic moments generally make up for it. At the very least, Tyrion fulfills a different archetype to the other characters, and a bit of variety is sorely needed. Here, of course, he mainly serves to look worried about what Danaerys is going to do, and little else. He gets some nice horrified reactions, I’ll grant, but I’m not sure these add as much to the story as it thinks they do.
Arya’s arc ended with the death of the Night King, and yet again, the show seems unsure of what to make of her character. Arya fulfills the typical trainee role, often one given to a character like Jon in fantasy epics. She starts out unfamiliar with how to use a sword, trains, fails, trains, fails, learning from her failures along the way. Her interactions with Jaqen Hagar in the second season are some of the best parts of that season, and show that Arya, for all of her shortcomings, has the stomach, tenacity, and wit to become not only a master swordsman, but also an assassin. Her discipline shown through the next two seasons as she tries to fully realize this goal builds her character further, slowly changing her into the cold, calculating killer she becomes in the seventh season. I don’t much care for the fifth and sixth seasons returning her to the impudent child that she was in the first season and forcing her to make mistakes that seem out of character, but I can abide with them. These seasons establish her character as one who still has empathy and an independent personality — an odd addition, and not necessary in my opinion, but it could work. The seventh season largely does away with this, setting her up as an honor graduate of the House of Black-and-White as though she didn’t drop out after near-perpetual failures. Sure, I don’t really care if the series retcons the House of Black-and-White happenings. She sticks around as a personal bodyguard of Sansa, a bit creepy but also still a Stark, and of course she delivers the final blow to the Night King.
In this episode, her goal is to kill Cersei. The Hound convinces her not to, on the grounds that he doesn’t want her to become like him. An odd decision, given how many people she’s killed at this point — more than Clegane, and from what we’ve seen, in more gruesome ways too — but sure, I can get behind her moving past petty revenge. Cersei’s going down either way, and Arya now has a duty to keep her siblings safe. The episode ends with her realizing that she needs to kill Danaerys. This is where her arc loses me quite a bit. It’s not necessarily the idea that Arya intends to kill Danaerys, but rather why. She wanders through the city, nearly dying, seeing citizens getting burned alive, and trying to rescue them. I sympathize with her, and the delivery of the scenes work to convey the desperation of the environment. It would be a horrifying sight for anyone. However, Arya is probably the least effective character to use for these scenes. She is an assassin; while she retains a great deal of empathy for certain individuals, and still has a vulnerable side, by this point in the story, it should take a lot more for her to become a weak child stumbling around the ruins of a city. I realize this is a small gripe, and I don’t need her to be invulnerable, but she reverts right back to Season One Arya at the first sign of innocents dying, despite traditionally having a more reserved personality than the other protagonists. We’ve seen her in fewer open combat scenarios than the other characters, but what we have seen indicates a battle-focused perspective rather than a humanitarian one. I can forgive the series’ use of Arya in this episode, but it feels like it doesn’t quite understand where her character is right now based on her growth.
Jaime and Cersei are more difficult to wave away. Technically speaking, Jaime’s arc was finished in the previous season when he decided to return to Cersei’s side. It didn’t have to be, of course; a natural progression for him given his general trend of leaning away from Cersei as the series goes on would be for him to eventually kill her. This would round off his arc with a nice symmetry, given his introduction as the Kingslayer, for doing the same to Aerys Targaryen. Cersei’s penchant for wildfire and steadily deteriorating restraint sets her up nicely as a callback to Aerys, daring Jaime to stab another ruler in the back, this one even more important to him. However, that would be foreshadowed, and therefore predictable, and we can’t have that. Predictability isn’t shocking enough, says this season. Falling rocks it is, then!
As I mentioned a few reviews back, Cersei is not an imposing figure, so I’m not especially surprised that the show opted to have her fail completely and utterly. It’s just that with Cersei unable to act as an obstacle to the protagonists, more pressure is on Danaerys to provide compelling conflict, and she’s clearly not up to the task. Cersei is almost an afterthought, not even brought down by her own callous actions (in this episode, I mean; obviously her killing Rhaegal and Missandei in the previous episode is meant to spur Dany, but the most she does in this episode is look out the window). I won’t pretend that I ever thought much of Cersei as an empathetic character or an especially compelling villain. I can’t deny that she has her moments, though, and throughout the series, we’ve seen her go through a lot. She’s lot everything — her children, her father, her dignity, her lover, her strength, and finally, her mind. Much of this is ultimately due to her own shortcomings; Cersei thinks herself more capable than she is, believing that she can control the men around her through poise and influence, but lacking the patience or open-mindedness to recognize when she needs to course-correct. She never internalizes the leadership skills that Sansa develops, and more importantly, she remains confident despite these failings. Cersei is an imposing woman, certainly, but her solution to problems is usually blunt force, exemplified in the way she keeps the Mountain around as a pet. The story is begging her to dig her own grave. Technically she does that. Then she, along with Jaime, dies in an cave-in.
There’s a difference between shock for the sake of emotional response and shock for the sake of laziness. I’m not sure this series has quite figured it out though, and at this rate, it’s unlikely it ever will.
I say that because I don’t think shock itself is a bad thing in a story, but more and more, this series has proven interest in shock for the sake of shock itself. Alfred Hitchcock’s thoughts on the matter are legendary, but also simple: if you present the audience with, say, a bomb that explodes out of nowhere, they’ll have a few seconds of shock; if, however, you show the audience a bomb the characters remain oblivious to and build to the moment where it goes off, the audience will be in suspense through the whole scene. Predictability and shock should work in tandem. Give the audience enough information that they can build up anticipation for what’s to come, then fulfill their expectations in a creative, unexpected way. It’s hard to do, and even harder to do effectively. But if a story wants to impact its audience, the writing has to put in the legwork.
Finally, as last little treat, I’ll mention Cleganebowl. For those unaware (as I was a few weeks ago), Cleganebowl is the pet name the fans have come up with for the inevitable confrontation between Gregor and Sandor Clegane. And actually, despite the rants following the fourth episode from book fans that the Hound was definitely better in yet-unwritten chapters, I was on board for it. The reason is that the show has been building toward this for eight seasons. The first time the Mountain is introduced, he tries to murder Loras Tyrell in cold blood, only to be stopped by his brother, who’s watching in the stands. This is a good little bit of setup, because by this point, we know that the Hound’s face was burned as the result of his brother’s cruelty. They have beef with one another. What’s more, the Hound is able to hold his own against the Mountain despite being smaller, less intimidating, and, according to his backstory, emotionally vulnerable to him. They’re evenly matched, Sandor with more drive and Gregor with more brute strength. The important part of this exchange, though, is that the Hound doesn’t just face the Mountain out of nowhere; he steps in to protect someone else. The Hound has no reason to care about Loras Tyrell and dislikes the praise his apparently selfless act gets him, but he steps in nonetheless. He knows what Gregor can do to a person, he knows he’s the only one who can cool him down, and he steps in without any promise of reward other than ensuring the Mountain doesn’t murder some foolish pretty boy.
The Hound is not a nice person, but in this scene, we get the first indication that despite everything he’s endured, he has some shred of decency. He’s even willing to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of it. This is what makes him helping Sansa and Arya believable, and why his “death” at the end of the fourth season is so tragic. When he comes back, we root for him to join the protagonists because we know he’s redeemable. As the Mountain becomes more monstrous, the Hound becomes more of a prominent protagonist, both of them built up to serve some vital role in the story. Their brief encounter in the seventh season assures us that the early promise of their fatal confrontation will eventually come about, but crucially, the Hound holds back. He wants revenge, but he has more important things to worry about now.
The actual Cleganebowl in this episode is a forced thing. And this frustrates me because it really didn’t have to be. Sandor setting off on his own from Winterfell is the first problem, but assuming he’s going in order to back up Arya or kill Cersei himself, there’s no reason for him to stay in the North. By this point, he’s developed a sense of duty, insofar as he can, so it’s natural that he would end up in King’s Landing fighting alongside the protagonists. He still wants to get the better of his brother, because that’s been his driving motivation for most of his life, but it wouldn’t be difficult to put him in a situation where he doesn’t seek it out intentionally. He knows that killing Cersei will require that someone dispatch her bodyguard first, and as in Season One, he knows that he’s the only one who even stands a chance in a one-on-one fight. The solution, then, seems alarmingly obvious: have the Mountain threaten Arya. Or anyone, really. Make the fight a defensive move on Sandor’s part. That would fit his character and resolve a cool Cleganebowl battle all at once. He doesn’t even have to be the one to kill the Mountain; just take a leaf out of Avatar‘s handbook and have the Hound win the fight, opt to spare his brother, then have his brother try and kill him while his back is turned, then Arya steps in or something. It’s a bit of a trope, but it’s a trope for a reason.
I don’t honestly know how how they fucked it up so badly, but boy did they. Even after the surprisingly dull battle on the steps where the fact that Gregor is dead really doesn’t matter at all, the show provides one final setup where it could recover a small bit of narrative ground. It’s not much, but as Gregor, proving immensely difficult to kill, is starting to crush Sandor, we can see a torch behind him. If video games have taught me nothing else, it’s that set pieces matter. Especially when they’re isolated and unique like that. A single torch has survived the destruction of the hallway, and Sandor’s in the perfect position to shove Gregor into it. Of course, this would require Sandor getting closer to the fire and using his greatest fear as a weapon — something he’s never done before in the series. If only we had some sort of confirmation that fire definitely kills the undead. Or a reason to use the fire aside from sheer desperation, like if were a sort of poetic justice for the Mountain shoving Sandor into a fire at some point in his life.
But I suppose smashing through a wall and making them both die by falling is also a way to end a character arc. Who’s excited for the finale!