GAME OF THRONES Review: “The Bells”

Well, that did not go as planned.

People are going to disagree - and they already do - about whether what happens in Season 8 of Game of Thrones is good or bad, but all of it is the result of not just character or narrative but tonal blueprints that were laid since the beginning of the show. It’s everyone’s prerogative to love or hate part or most or all of it; to decide if the show has suitably evolved to keep up with the zeitgeist; and/or to feel that the climaxes and resolutions do or do not sufficiently pay off the lives and choices of the characters we care about most. But “The Bells,” like its four predecessors, brings audiences ever closer to an ending that they have been wanting, and in some ways are understandably not quite prepared for.

If last week’s episode was about making choices - committing to a path and hoping it’s the right one - this answered whether many of them were correct or not. Tyrion’s belief in Daenerys as not just the rightful but right queen resulted first in the death of Varys, whom he reluctantly betrayed, but then the deaths of almost every man, woman and child in King’s Landing, after she vanquished Cersei’s army and decided that rule by fear was the path that she would follow. Jon’s honor, seemingly shortsighted or foolhardy as it sometimes is, prevented him from telling Dani that he loves her, extinguishing her last bit of hope that she could surround herself with the kind of compassion that, it turns out, she needed to keep her from succumbing to the rage, madness, and paranoia of her Targaryen predecessors.

What is interesting to me about “The Bells” is that it seemed to reinforce the idea that the person who was, and is, the most wrong over the course of the past two seasons is Tyrion. He became Dani’s champion, and her hand, but his own sentimentality - his own desperation to resolve things peacefully - proved to be his repeated undoing. Almost certainly, the number of times he failed Dani or made a mistake about some act of strategy or diplomacy exceeds that of a person who should be in charge of much of anything. And his mistaken belief that he could sidestep her destruction of King’s Landing by calling upon its people to ring the bells, ceasing the killing and signaling their surrender, was woefully misguided. But his greater fealty to her leadership - and his belief in the better angels of too many terrible people’s nature - effectively put everyone in the position that they now must deal with, as Dani destroys the capital, kills its people, and even her most ardent followers must decide if that’s the kind of leader they can truly believe in.

But the show is and always has been about power and its ability to corrupt even the noblest minds. Jon’s resistance to ascending the throne is his best quality. We see a glimpse of Cersei’s humanity - driven by absolute panic and terror at something she cannot control - but just one episode ago audiences saw, uh, maybe the hundredth example of her absolute ruthlessness to retain the throne. Should that idea be abandoned in order to honor her character or Daenerys’, or reframed as an empowerment story for women the end of a show focused on and inspired by medieval hierarchies? I don’t think so, but perhaps. But I do think that attempting to filter a show’s choices through the lens of a cultural moment - one at the very least we were not in at the beginning of the series - is not fair to its creators. Moreover, Cersei alone should have taught viewers one of Maya Angelou’s most important truths: “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Such is the same thing for this show, which for better or worse has been remarkably consistent in examining those ideas and themes.

What you end up with is a “final battle” where the stakes are not about who will win but what climate will rule the Seven Kingdoms - a tyrant who will stop at nothing to protect her power, or a woman with enough power to claim the throne but the temperament to wield it judiciously, even compassionately? Dani’s “heel turn” was intense, even extreme, but hardy unprecedented; even when it was justifiable according to her title and to the responsibilities of living up to it, she was often as merciless as should could be kind. In the words of Beatrix Kiddo to Bill in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “Could you do what you did? Of course you could. But, I never thought you would or could do that to me.” Of course she could level a city to ash. But Tyrion hoped she wouldn’t and most foolishly, he hoped he could persuade or manipulate her not to.

So the question then becomes, what did you want to see happen with these characters? Some wanted Cersei to stay atop the throne. Another wanted to see Arya cross Cersei off her list. And so on and so forth. Cersei and Jaime dying together in the bowels of King’s Landing is perhaps more comfort than they deserved given the pain they’ve caused, but fate is seldom meted out with exactly the level of karmic payoff we want. It felt like a really shrewd and skillful choice to make us experience Cersei’s waking realization she was going to lose power - lose everything that she’d worked so hard for - and to feel a sense of empathy towards her loss. The Hound’s confrontation with the Mountain was everything we could have expected and more - a cathartic payoff to seasons of simmering fury. As well as the Hound’s crucial honesty to Arya as the city collapsed around them: is vengeance worth not just your enemy’s life, but your own? He’d already sacrificed his by devoting his existence to getting back there; Arya needn’t sacrifice herself to ensure that someone who was already going to die, well, was dead.

There was definitely a satisfying conclusion to the story of Euron Greyjoy, a cruel, petty, and calculating man who mistook Jaime’s love for his sister as a weakness. And was there anyone who wasn’t ready to watch Qyburn’s head crack open on a rock? Varys’ end also seemed preordained, though Tyrion’s honesty with him, and small physical gesture as two men seldom if ever gifted with true intimacy, offered its own heartbreak. But what happens now - or that’s to say, what’s left to happen - to Dani, Jon, Arya, Tyrion and the rest, I feel, will not satisfy everyone, and as it stands not many, at least if their expectations are for the show to submit or honor our values and our beliefs. The show has never attempted to serve those masters, only its own, and after eight seasons, I’d argue it’s done so beautifully. Whether viewers are thrilled or angry, it’s why they care so much. The first time Game of Thrones showed us what it was, the show killed its ostensible main character. “The Bells” proves that for better or worse, love it or hate it, it’s still the same.

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