Alright then. Let it be fear.
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Emilia Clarke was not kidding when she told us that our TVs were going to explode during Game of Thrones' eighth and final season. If the intensity of "The Long Night" did not leave you enough mental fatigue, then the penultimate episode, "The Bells", might as well put you in intense psychotherapy. At this point, I am probably the only person left on planet Earth that thinks season eight has not at all been a disappointment, which is why I try (and have completely failed) to tune myself out from the harsh, unforgiving communities of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. who I think are largely susceptible to being prisoners of the moment, and thus, if an episode is not absolute perfection upon the first viewing, they will all roll up into this unbridled rage and unleash their corrosive words on said episode, as well as on anyone and everyone who doesn't share the same viewpoints as them.
Again, I want to try and not sound like an extreme Game of Thrones apologist who thinks D&D have been perfect writers, and that critics and audiences of the world are wrong for hating season eight. I've seen plenty of analytical, very well thought-out articles (like this one from Forbes' Dani Di Placido) where the writer criticizes something that has happened during season eight, but at the same time, I've seen plenty of thoughtless, anger-induced rants that don't really contribute much of anything to the conversation (my personal favorites include this inexcusably shallow criticism of "The Bells" by USA Today's Kelly Lawler that relies entirely on nitpicking, and this incredibly laughable BGR article that dives way way way too deep into something from "The Last of the Starks" that no decent person would give two shits about). There have been plenty of bumps in the road with the direction, writing, action, etc. ever since season one, and season eight has been no exception to this. Seeing the kind of immense controversy that "The Bells" has generated in the short time span since its initial airing is enough to reinforce my own feelings towards this episode: an extremely powerful Game of Thrones episode that does exactly what it was set out to do: divide us and mess up all our emotions, for better or worse.
I will not try to cut off this review early, because there is a lot that needs discussed, and I'm not going to shirk on anything. "The Bells" features a plethora of character moments, many of which turn out to be the final moments for several of the series' long-running main characters. That being said, the vast majority of this review is going to be dedicated to discussing these character moments, although I'll be sure to say a few extra words for the fiery action that goes down, because HOLY CRAP: this is some of the most gorgeous-looking action that Game of Thrones has ever given us. The question for right now is which character's end do I want to talk about first? I suppose it makes the most sense to talk about the demise of Varys, simply because his death comes first and well before the action goes down at King's Landing.
The episode opens with Varys writing a note, and while we can't quite make out everything that's been written, we only need to see two words to get the point: true heir. Varys has continuously stated throughout the series that his true loyalties lie with the Realm; he serves the Realm and will do anything and everything to ensure its well-being. I think it is completely in line with Varys' character that, upon learning Jon's true heritage, he essentially gives up on supporting Daenerys' claim to the Throne. Varys fully trusts that Jon would be able to keep peace in the Realm and in all of Westeros period, despite the fact that Jon explicitly tells him that he not only doesn't want the Throne, he has pledged his loyalty to Daenerys. Unfortunately for Varys, he gets ratted out by Tyrion, and Daenerys has him executed by dragon fire. This is perhaps the best time for me to mention that nearly every main character death that occurs in "The Bells" has been criticized as rushed and/or completely illogical. It is a bit tough to accept that Varys, a character that has been around since season one, is killed in an episode that thinks his death is the least of its concerns. It reminds me a little of Renly Baratheon's poorly executed death back in "The Ghost of Harrenhal" in season two. At the same time though, I feel that Varys' death makes sense, thematic-wise, with his character: the spider who had a seemingly endless web of knowledge and whose true loyalties were never a given. Varys' death mirrors that of Petyr Baelish's in some ways: someone caught them in the act and executed them for it. I do really like one of Varys' final line: "I hope I deserve this." Varys has accepted his death. Now he is left to wonder if all his scheming and spying was worth it in the end. Did his efforts help the right person end up on the Iron Throne at the end of the day? Was it all for naught? Was he a good man that was willing to make evil choices for the sake of the Realm, or was he just another Petyr Baelish who wasn't as evil just because he didn't want to sit on the Iron Throne? There's certainly a lot of ways to interpret it, but that's what leaves at least a little satisfaction with the way Varys goes out.
At this point, it is a foregone conclusion that Daenerys and her forces are going to attack King's Landing. Tyrion, however, believes he can still stop her from taking thousands of innocent lives. In what is a very heartwarming scene, Tyrion frees Jaime from imprisonment, believing that Jaime can sneak into King's Landing and convince Cersei to surrender. You just know that this is a final goodbye for the two Lannister siblings, especially when Tyrion thanks Jaime for being basically the only one to show him any semblance of kindness and respect, when it seemed like everyone else in the world was out to get him. Even though Tywin's death permanently divided the Lannister family, Tyrion and Jaime have always shared a friendly relationship: one that has been about as trustworthy of a relationship as was the relationship between Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. The two were able to rekindle their relationship during their time in Winterfell earlier in the season, and despite everything that they've been through over the course of the show's eight seasons, they end their relationship the same way it began: one based on love and respect.
So then, we now jump into the true heart of this episode, and that means we are jumping right into where "The Bells" went completely off the rails for many people. Daenerys and Drogon begin to lay waste to Cersei's army: burning the Iron Fleet, destroying all the scorpion weapons, and blasting a giant hole through the front gates so that Jon and everyone standing out front can charge in. Turns out the Golden Company proved to be of no help at all during this season: Grey Worm easily takes out Harry Strickland, and you're left to wonder why they even bothered to show up in the first place. I mean, Cersei figured she had to fight with more than just her own bannermen and Euron Greyjoy's fleet, but considering how easily Drogon takes everybody out, it does suggest that literally nothing would have changed had the Golden Compay never made an appearance. Not that it really matters. I don't think there was a feasible way for season eight to make The Golden Company play a significant role, even if the season was given a full ten episodes. So anyway, if the action of "The Long Night" was too murky and incomprehensible for you, Miguel Sapochnik is deserving of your forgiveness, because the cinematography and shot selection for scenes of Drogon breathing fire and Daenerys' army raiding King's Landing are some of the most striking visuals that Game of Thrones has ever given us. Every shot looks scrubbed and completely comprehensible, so I don't wanna hear one damn, "it's too dark" complaint.
I should mention that Jaime, Arya, and The Hound are all able to sneak into King's Landing before the siege begins, and we'll get to discussion of all three in good time. Just about everything in the episode appears to be going well up through when the Lannister soldiers throw down their swords, and the city bells begin to ring: signaling the surrender. If the episode ended right then and there, it would have been incredibly anticlimactic: Daenerys takes the city in the blink of an eye, and while no one would get too upset about the episode's chain of events, everyone would watch the end credits thinking, "That's it?" That's when we get the plot twist, and not just any plot twist: but the plot twist: the one that will forever be remembered by many fans and critics as the twist that marked the death of the series as we know it and the twist that, also for many, marked the annihilation of so many years of character development and motivations. Daenerys does not accept the surrender. She takes back to the skies with Drogon and begins to burn the entire city to the ground, taking many innocent lives in the process. This entices her army to continue their assault on the Lannister soliders, despite the fact that they have already surrendered. Daenerys' army even begins to take part in the butchering of the innocent King's Landing civilians.
For many fans and critics, this twist to turn Daenerys into a Mad Queen was the greatest crime of all. It's not the concept itself of Daenerys going mad that people seem of have a problem with. Heck, I think many people are fully on board with the concept. The issue for many people is that Game of Thrones did not take the time to show Daenerys' descent into madness, or at least do enough to imply that she was going mad. Thus, her decision to scorch King's Landing and kill innocent civilians is seen as incredibly abrupt and completely out of character. To a certain extent, I myself agree that Game of Thrones' accelerated pacing over the past two seasons has hindered the ability to effectively suggest that Daenerys was growing mentally unstable. I think everyone would have loved if there were a couple episodes that had scenes of Daenerys sitting by a fire side, talking about how everything has seemingly fallen apart for her, and how this was not what she envisioned when she first came to Westeros. Here was a thought that came to me recently: one thing I think that would have really boosted season seven is if Daenerys sent people out through Westeros to represent her, to have them speak to the common people and try to convince them to pledge themselves to Daenerys. Some of the common people would respond by rejecting such an offer, stating how they fear Targaryens and don't want to relive the nightmare that was The Mad King. While this wouldn't make or break Daenerys going mad, I think it would have contributed significantly to the cause.
I would argue though, that Daenerys's actions in "The Bells" are not as abrupt as a lot of people are making them out to be, again, going back to that whole "prisoner of the moment" reaction thing I mentioned earlier. There's no doubt that Game of Thrones has done plenty of foreshadowing for Daenerys' assault on King's Landing: her vision of a destroyed Throne Room in the House of the Undying in season two, Maggie the Frog telling a young Cersei that someone younger and more beautiful would cast her down, and Bran having a brief vision of a dragon flying over King's Landing. All of that foreshadowing comes to fruition in this episode.
But Alan! Foreshadowing is not character development! And you're right, it's not. But in my mind, Daenerys' descent into madness began the moment she set foot in Westeros, although there were definitely strong signs during season five, such as publicly executing one of Meereen's slaves and feeding one of the Meereen family leaders to her dragons. Daenerys spent all her time in Essos learning what it took to be a worthy Queen. She promised to end slavery (i.e be the breaker of chains), to eliminate those who hurt and abuse others (burn and crucify slave masters, for example), and how to be receptive to the concerns of those she was serving (all the requests she took from the citizens of Meereen in seasons four and five). For Daenerys, she modeled herself on being kind, merciful, and someone who was capable of performing great works and miracles. Granted, she also showed that she could be ruthless at times, but that's to be expected when she is also the Mother of Dragons. Believing that she was destined to take the Iron Throne, Daenerys sailed to Westeros, convinced that the ideals and strategies she used in Essos would work the same way in Westeros and help propel her to the Throne she so strongly felt she was destined to take.
They didn't work. Daenerys has never had any idea of the kind of cruel and unforgiving country that Westeros is, and so, she was unprepared to deal with what unfolded over the course of season seven and the early parts of season eight. She avoided launching a direct assault on King's Landing, because she figured she could win the Throne without having to resort to, shall we say, unethical means of war, aka, eradicating her enemies and pushing the Westeros civilians back into a life of fear. Her merciful war tactics were rewarded with death and tragic loss: losing the Greyjoy fleet, her allies from Dorne, the support of House Tyrell, and the trust of some of her closest advisors. At the same time, Jon Snow comes along and basically tells her that her quest for the Throne is a waste of time, because an Army of the Dead, something else she has never known about, is coming to kill everyone. After her merciful (not exactly merciful, but you know what I mean) plans to take the Iron Throne failed, she then strikes her enemies with the kind of fear she was always hesitant to give them: the fear of her dragons burning everything to the ground. She annihilates much of the Lannister and Tully army, and executes Randyll and Dickon Tarly when they refuse her last offer for mercy. Tyrion and Varys see it right away: this is not like the Queen they came to love and serve in Essos.
Shortly afterwards, Daenerys sees the Army of the Dead with her own eyes, but she loses one of her dragons in the process: the ultimate shot to the heart for the Mother of Dragons. The war against the Army of the Dead is a war Daenerys never thought she would have to fight, nor is it a war she wants to fight. But she has to, because her possible future as Queen depends on her defeating this ancient enemy. Even with Jon Snow's loyalty on her side, the Northern lords borderline reject Daenerys. An Army of the Dead being on their doorstep doesn't change the fact that, to all of them, Targaryens are untrustworthy. Something I alluded to in my review of "Winterfell" was that Daenerys started to be painted as a villain, and seeing what unfolded in "The Bells", I don't think that was a coincidence. Daenerys gets hit with loss after loss after loss after landing in Westeros. All that build-up, all those promises, all the hope and support she had while travelling and ruling in Essos, it's all ripped apart through endless attrition. Westeros did not embrace Daenerys Targaryen: Westeros hurt her, rejected her, and basically told her that she was never meant to claim the Throne and rule the way she did overseas. Westeros told Daenerys that her life purpose was, and always has been, a lie. After Rhaegal and Missandei are killed, Daenerys can't take it anymore: everything about her Westeros campaign has failed. All she has left is fear. She unleashes that fear, and when she does, Westeros begs for mercy. But it's too late for Westeros now. She tried offering mercy, and Westeros rejected it. To Daenerys, the innocent civilians are no different than Cersei or Euron. They all represent Westeros. How does Daenerys know the commoners are just like those she interacted with so much in Essos? She is done offering second, third, fourth chances. Westeros didn't accept Daenerys for the person she wanted to be, and it broke her. Permanently.
I'll wrap up my thoughts on Daenerys' turn at the very end, cause I still need to get to everything with Jaime, Cersei, Arya, and the Clegane brothers, and this is turning into my longest review ever. So Cleganebowl finally happened: perhaps the only fan "theory" that ended up coming true. It's a gritty and highly satisfying fight sequence. The Hound takes multiple shots at The Mountain, but The Mountain is like a Terminator: can take multiple hits but will still come after you. It's inaccurate to say that D&D have butchered every character arc still going on, because this was exactly the way they needed to bring closure for the Clegane brothers. The Hound knocks his brother and himself through a wall, and the two tumble down to their deaths into a gigantic sea of fire. If you ask me, I thought The Hound won the Cleganebowl and got the perfect revenge on his brother. If it was fire that separated the Clegane brothers and made them hate each other, then it should be fire that ends them both. So what if The Hound took himself out in the process? He had basically nothing else to live for anyway. This was the moment he waited his entire life for, and it ended just the way he wanted: his brother dead. Nothing else matters.
Arya had accompanied the Hound in hopes that she could kill Cersei and finally cross her name off her list, but The Hound easily convinces her that she shouldn't follow a path of revenge like him. Arya then spends the rest of the episode running and avoiding getting killed by dragon fire and falling debris. While it made sense for Arya to go down to King's Landing and try to kill Cersei, the unfortunate thing is that she kind of gets stuck in the crossfires, and ends up serving little to no purpose to the episode other than to run around and avoid getting killed by dragon fire and falling debris. Then again, how could Arya have prepared for Daenerys burning all of King's Landing? Criticisms of plot armor are unsuitable here: at the very least, Arya's presence gives us a horrifying perspective of all the King's Landing citizens, running and hiding while Drogon burns everything to the ground. The alternative choice, Arya getting killed by dragon fire or falling debris, would feel like a total throwaway death and be even worse than having plot armor, mainly because it would be a completely nonsensical way to have her journey come to an end.
Which leads me to the last major event of the episode: another that angered people about as much, if not more, than Daenerys' villain turn. Jaime, after fending off Euron Greyjoy in a fight that many deemed "pointless", finds a distraught Cersei, and the two make their way down to below the Red Keep, where all their escape passages are blocked. The two hold each other in a final embrace, and the Keep collapses on top of them. I can't remember if I stated this in one of my previous reviews, but there was no villain character I hated more in Game of Thrones than Cersei Lannister: the way she was almost always able to get away with scheming, plotting, and betraying others. I should've been irate that she didn't die in some fiery, bloody fashion. The first time I watched through Game of Thrones, her eventual death was one thing I was most wanting to see, but after re-watching the first seven seasons, leading up to season eight's premiere, I wasn't able to watch her with the same bitter hatred as I did the first time around, mostly because I felt I got a better understanding of her motivations, and also because I could now appreciate just how terrific of a job that Lena Headey had done of playing Cersei over the years. The "death by bricks" phrase that people on the Internet have taken up is an incredibly silly and immature way of viewing how Cersei dies, though it has inspired plenty of hilarious memes. When I watched "The Bells" for the first time, I was, admittedly, a bit stumped trying to understand why this was the final moment for Jaime and Cersei Lannister: the two wrapped in a tight embrace, as the world collapses around them. I wholeheartedly agree that D&D could have done a better job of executing the end of Jaime Lannister's story. It's very confusing to think about why Jaime went through such an uplifting redemption arc over several seasons, only to have it end by having him abandon Brienne and go back to die with Cersei, despite the fact that he abandoned Cersei at the end of season seven. But after thinking it over some more, it started to make more sense, though I would agree that season eight being a full ten episodes would have benefited the end of several character arcs even more.
It's incorrect to say that Jaime Lannister's story has been a "bad guy gone good" redemption story, though a lot of it certainly fits into that description. Ever since season one, Jaime has always been a morally complicated character: smug and a bit condescending, but also a man who wouldn't commit any heinous crime without feeling he had a good, legitimate reason for doing so. When that smugness eventually went too far and cost Jaime his sword hand, it forced him to reevaluate everything about himself, and it led to him growing more sympathetic in how he treated his friends and family, and more honorable in how he treated his enemies. Through it all though, there was one constant: his incestuous love for his sister. Even with his newfound honor and sympathy, Jaime stuck with Cersei and never let himself fall out of love with her, because he felt that the two were meant to spend their lives together: they entered the world together, and they should leave the world together. It wasn't until the end of season seven when he finally came to fully see his sister for the hateful, backstabbing woman that she is, and he wasn't going to let even her stop him from fulfilling the promise he made to fight for the living.
After The Night King and the Army of the Dead are defeated and having his promise fulfilled, it seemed as if Jaime would go on to live happily ever after, but anyone with half a brain watching Game of Thrones knows that happily ever after is not allowed. Jaime is all smiles during "The Last of the Starks", and upon hearing that Brienne is a virgin, he decides to sleep with her, figuring that the two have grown close enough over the years that he is the one who can give her that happy moment. But then Jaime hears the news about Cersei killing Rhaegal, and that the remaining forces from the North are marching down to King's Landing. Jaime feels he has to leave and return to Cersei. Not because he suddenly hates Brienne or because he wants to help Cersei prevail. Jaime knows that Cersei and her army won't survive. He returns to her because he knows he is permanently tied to Cersei. His whole life has been about being with her and stopping anyone who prevents them from being together. Jaime did say during season five that he wanted to die in the arms of the woman he loved.
Many people were convinced though, heading into season eight, that Jaime would end up being the one to kill Cersei, most likely by choking her to death and fulfilling the Valonqar Prophecy (something the show has never alluded to, by the way). To believe that Jaime's character arc could only be fulfilled by having him kill Cersei is overlooking one simple thing: his motivation. What would have suddenly convinced Jaime that he should kill his sister, the woman he's loved his entire life and the woman he's done so much for over his lifetime? Would he kill her just because she stabbed Jon and Daenerys, her sworn enemies, in the back? Last I checked, Jaime was fighting alongside Cersei for just about all of season seven. Jaime has seen that his sister is cruel and has committed unforgivable acts like blowing up the Sept of Baelor, but Jaime knows that he too has committed unforgivable acts, even if those acts were a long time ago and well before he started to redeem himself. To say that Jaime essentially gave up and decided that he could not be a better man I think is not diving deep enough into it: Jaime knows he is a better man. He acknowledged how much he has changed to Bran during "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms". No matter how much Jaime has changed and no matter how much he has redeemed himself, he can't break free of the one thing that has been part of him since the day he was born: his love for Cersei. Even if Jaime had decided to stay in the North and live a new life, there would be this empty hole in his heart that could never be filled. Is that the bittersweet ending we want for Jaime? Was his story always about him finding a way to finally break free of his sister? Was his lifelong love for Cersei just a disease that he needed to cure? I think George R.R. Martin had always envisioned that Jaime Lannister's story would end with Cersei Lannister's story. The way that Jaime and Cersei's story comes to an end is what we could call a bittersweet tragedy: Jaime ends his story the way it began, with the woman he loves, but he doesn't die thinking he lived a life of lies and hatred. He dies knowing that he transcended the smugness, the lies, and the hatred, even if it meant that the journey would lead him back to where it all started: with the hateful woman he's loved his entire life.
One episode of Game of Thrones remains, and "The Bells" leaves us with a flurry of questions, the biggest of all being how will this story come to an end? What was all this fighting for in the end? How will the characters that are still alive have their stories come to an end? The actions of Daenerys sparked so much outrage and prompted further questions about what Game of Thrones has been trying to tell us all along. Is Game of Thrones going to be remembered as a series of almost nothing but empty nihilism? Have David Benioff & D.B. Weiss truly strayed away from George R.R. Martin's original vision, or have they been delivering us a heartfelt message all along, and we simply are not looking hard enough at what this series has been all about? Is Game of Thrones a cynical outlook on the human soul, about how darkness and hatred has consumed humanity and defined so much of its history? Or is it an analysis of how humanity always finds a way to emerge from that darkness, because there always will be a better tomorrow?
Daenerys Targaryen's burning of King's Landing in "The Bells" was met with harsh criticism, as angry fans and critics remarked that the decision to kill thousands of innocent people went completely against her character and was completely unearned. Part of Daenerys' character was how she sympathized with the innocent and went out of her way to show them mercy and kindness. How does Daenerys know though, that the innocent people of Westeros are like the innocent people of Essos? How does she know the people of Westeros are innocent at all? Now, would season eight have benefited from more episodes and thus, more time to show Daenerys becoming like her father, the Mad King? Absolutely. Are these harsh criticisms of her villainous turn warranted? Of course they are. My goal here in this review though, is to not simply side along with all the criticism and come here and dismiss this episode as a total disaster, because I hope to offer a viewpoint that perhaps others may not have considered, as I think multiples viewpoints, not just hateful ones, can enhance our overall appreciation of watching Game of Thrones. Of course, my own opinion is no better or worse that someone else's, and if you've already dismissed this review as total nonsense, well, thanks for reading. Many criticisms of season eight are perfectly valid and very well-constructed, while others have been extremely petty and embarrassingly shallow (looking at you, USA Today's Kelly Lawler and BGR's Chris Smith).
I praise "The Bells" not solely because of its technical prowess nor its risky plot twist with a character that has been so beloved since the very beginning of the series. I hold "The Bells" in high regard for what it triggered, even if a lot of what it has triggered has been negative and hateful. The controversy surrounding this episode has stirred up so much commotion and conversation about where this final season is heading and what it means for Game of Thrones overall. Many considered "The Bells" to be a terrible episode that made many wrong decisions. Others praised it for making those same decisions. Either way, it's a type of power that Game of Thrones proved that it's capable of unleashing, something that so few other television shows of late have been able to do. All the pressure now is on the series finale to bring closure to this series and give us one final say on what we've been watching this whole time. If you're optimistic about the finale, super. If you're already convinced the finale will be a disappointment, well, I can't stop you. No matter how Game of Thrones' final episode will be remembered, we should never forget how much we loved the journey we went on along the way. No amount of dragon fire should ever, EVER change that.
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