Game of Thrones Utterly Fails To Deliver Its Show-Altering Tragedy in “The Bells”, And That’s The Greatest Tragedy of Them All
A staggering technical achievement, once again in service of a storyline that has truly lost its way.
“The Bells,” Game of Thrones’ penultimate, and perhaps most pivotal, episode, is an absolute marvel. It’s a tour-de-force of an episode that confirms the series place in TV history as the first show I can think of that can deliver us huge, epic, exciting set pieces that rival (if not exceed) anything that comes from the big screen. It was visceral and beautiful and mesmerizing, and I will never forget some of the things I watched during the episode.
“The Bells,” Game of Thrones’ penultimate, and perhaps most pivotal, episode, is a storytelling disaster. It’s a frankly stunning betrayal of everything the show used to do so well that obliterates the series’ place in TV history, and its legacy as a long form story overall. It’s shocking in all the worst ways, and the kind of last minute fumble that will go down in pop culture history as one of the great disappointments of our time.
Like so much of the past few seasons of Game of Thrones, “The Bells” contains such stark (LIKE THE MAIN CHARACTERS, YA GET IT???) contrasts in what works and what doesn’t that trying to come to a pure consensus is literally impossible. That’s very much the case with the fandom (which is an absolute mess right now between the lovers and the haters, with absolutely no in between), but it’s also just the case for me personally. Because there was plenty within “The Bells” that I loved, and I can’t deny that I was completely engrossed in everything that was happening during the episode. There are certain shots and reveals and moments that I absolutely, 100% loved. But all in the service of something that, at its core, I could not see as anything but a storytelling failure.
I posted on Twitter immediately after watching “The Bells” that I can’t remember a time where I was more torn over my opinion of a piece of pop culture than with this episode, and that has mostly remained true. However, as the adrenaline and awe I experienced watching the episode faded away, and I was just left reflecting on the bare bones of the narrative at play, my opinion of course began to backslide. Let this be a lesson, future creators of the world: impactful images and impressive production values can only go so far. If the story isn’t there to support it, then it will all just feel so aimless and uninspiring.
But I do REALLY want to give credit here to the production folk, who did some absolutely incredible work in “The Bells.” I, in particular, want to once again shout out to Miguel Sapochnik who, if anything, deserves some type of award for gracefully directing pretty things that are also, at their core, stupid as shit. I hope this man has a long and fruitful post-Game of Thrones career where he is given better material to work with (also props to cinematographer Fabian Wagner, who put together some absolutely stunning compositions here.) And of course not a week goes by where I won’t shout out to my man Ramin Djawadi, still rocking it per usual. Add in a cast doing EVERYTHING in their power to make what they are given work, and you should have the recipe for a compelling, masterful episode of television.
But it’s not. It really, really is not. For as much as I might want to love “The Bells,” the writing here just absolutely betrays all the good things that the episode brings to the table, and not just disappoints: it destroys. This is where this entire show was leading up to, apparently, and it’s frustrating to see Benioff and Weiss (who are once again the credited writers for the episode) fumble the execution so damn badly. But to explain why this happens, I must first take a slight detour, and break down a question that was nagging me through a good portion of “The Bells”, and pretty much the entire time I was digesting the online response to it.
What Exactly Makes A Tragedy?
Sure we can try to define a tragedy with the old platitudes about the definition of comedy or stories of Mel Brooks’ injured finger, but here I’m referring more to the genre of storytelling that Game of Thrones often tries to ape, which has already been used plenty as a defense for “The Bells” by those who liked “The Bells”. “It’s a tragedy!” they would say. “You’re not supposed to like it — it’s dark like real life!” they would scream into their Twitter feed. “What were you expecting???” they would ask disingenuously, probably inserting that gif of Ramsay Bolton that of course I haven’t already seen a dozen times already. Look, I don’t want to knock down other people’s opinion of the episode, and if they loved it, great! I desperately wish I was right there with them. But I could never truly love “The Bells,” and I think the show’s fundamental mishandling of ‘“the tragedy” that drives the hour is probably the largest reason why.
Because, in my mind, I define tragedy as it relates to storytelling pretty simply: it’s a choice. The core of tragedy is our characters making a decision that, from a certain point-of-view, seemed like the right one…until it wasn’t. Doing things they thought would end up benefiting them…and having it blow up in their face. Characters being put in a corner, making a move, and coming out of it in a worst straight than they could have ever imagined possible. And well you might feel comfortable boiling it down to “bad things happen, because life is bad,” I think the distinction between a tragedy that works and one that doesn’t absolutely hinge on whether or not the people central to the tragedy had believable, COMPELLING reasons for doing what they did. To know things got fucked up but, with a twist of fate and a few different decisions, things could have turned out way differently? That’s sad. But to understand WHY things got fucked up, and to relate with the characters who made the mistakes amid all the chaos? The push-and-pull contrast of seeing something as clearly the wrong move, but also understanding that it was heartbreakingly inevitable based on everything we know about the story and its characters? THAT’S fucking tragic.
But I’m no good at explaining concepts, so what I’ll do instead is present examples, because there are plenty of good ones. What first comes to mind to me, oddly, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another genre project about war and the difficulty of governing. You know, but with monkeys. I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a legit masterpiece, and one of the big reasons for that is how well done the tragedy is at the center of the film. Mild spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes incoming, but the gist is this: the temporary peace between apes and humans goes to shit for a whirlwind of reasons, but the entire thing is on the back of one ape, Koba. His actions caused the war between man and ape, and forced Ceaser into a position where peace was no longer an option. And it’s to the film’s credit that the entire time I was dreading the conflict: like “The Bells” it’s a technical achievement and real treat to see the action unfold, but the entire build-up to it was devastating. Seeing it all fall apart for these characters was sad — but because we know WHY it happened, and had Koba’s legit beef with the humans be the cause of it (“human work” speaks volumes, and is proof you don’t have to do a lot to properly define character motivation) made the entire movie, well, tragic.
But let’s bring things back to Game of Thrones, because here’s the crazy thing: this show is usually pretty good at tragedy, even in its recent, more spotty years. I’m not even going to pull into the series’ typically agreed upon “golden years” to make my argument. Jon Snow getting murdered way back at the end of Season 5, slain for his crimes of “betraying” the Night’s Watch? It was all on the back of Jon’s desire to do good, to protect the realm from what he thought was its true enemy. He made the decision to work with the Wildlings because he knew it would help everyone…but the other members of the Night’s Watch, leaning into their bigotry and fear, felt otherwise. And so they killed him, and it was all very sad (and meant GODDAMN NOTHING at the end of the day, but that’s neither here nor there.) The rewards for Jon’s good deeds, built up to after seasons of character development, was death. THAT’s tragic.
On the complete opposite side of things we have one Stannis Baratheon who, in his quest for power, destroyed the one thing that he loved the most: his daughter. He burned her alive, a truly monstrous and evil thing, because he thought it would be the only way to win the war. He was clearly wrong, which meant his monstrous act was for absolutely nothing. But for Stannis, who for years has been defined by his pragmatism and ambitions getting the best of him, it felt like the only real way for him to go out. He sacrificed everything, and got nothing. THAT’S tragic.
And then we have the “other” Mad Queen, Cersei Lannister, who at the end of Season 6 enacted her grand plan to seize control and take revenge on the people — and the city — that wronged her. Following the humiliating treatment she received at the hands of The Sparrows, mixed with her slowly losing the footholds of power from the scheming Tyrells, her firebombing everyone and basically clearing the entire deck for herself made absolute sense. We saw her be broken down, so could understand — if not entirely empathize — why she would strike back the first opportunity she got. But of course her actions caused her son to kill himself — like Stannis, her quest for power (and vengeance) led to her losing the only thing she ever cared about in the world. She might have gotten what she wanted, but she lost everything she had. THAT’S TRAGIC.
Look, I can sit here all day and belt out examples of good tragic storytelling, just from Game of Thrones alone. But I think where the entirety of “The Bells” falls apart is that I can’t fundamentally explain what makes Daeny’s actions in the episode operate in even close to the same wavelength. It’s a heel turn, and it’s dark, sure, but it does not in any way fit my definition of tragic and, in order for it to do, I (and viewers, and the writers, etc.) would have to really twist this story around to make it work. Like take a lot of leaps and make a lot of assumptions and just fill in so many gaps, all in the face of avoiding the ultimate truth: this just doesn’t track. Not that Daeny would do something pretty bad (that’s been built up properly, I think), but that Daeny would do this exact bad thing, at this exact time. Believe it or not, if you have your main character ruthlessly murder thousands of innocent men, women, and children for no conceivable reason whatsoever, you have to fucking earn that shit. “She snapped, idk” does not at all do that.
Which isn’t to say I’m #TeamDaenerys, nor is it to even say I found this to be a completely shocking, out of the blue turn. I think the show has been pretty clear about Dany’s downsides (even if, IMHO, they also way hyped her up as the PERFECT YAS QUEEN PRINCESS back in the early seasons), and I think any fool could have recognized from like Episode 4 that she was about to do something monstrous. But it’s the build-up to her behavior that makes this all so very poor, and which makes everything that unfolds in “The Bells” both frustrating and aimless. As much as I wanted to bask in the visual pleasures and well-choreographed carnage of the episode’s latter half, I just couldn’t get invested. Because the tragedy was so ham-fisted and so poorly done, and the lead up to Dany’s big decision (perhaps THE big decision of the entire season, if not series overall) just didn’t land. This, of course, is not a one episode problem, as much of the stink that wafted off last week’s “The Last of the Starks” continued to stick around here. Frankly, nothing about Dany’s storyline has worked since “The Long Night” — not Missandei’s death, not Vary’s betrayal, not Tyrion’s continued arguments for peace, have at all satisfied. And so, thus, “The Bells” — and, as much as it hurts me to say, perhaps this entire season — does not work either.
It would be one thing if Dany’s storyline was the only thing that was bad in “The Bells” — I mean it is the meat of the episode, so I wouldn’t really be able to wave it away even if I tried. But there’s a lot of other things that happen in “The Bells” that are at best confounding, and at worst absolutely terrible. On the former side we have everything to do with Varys at the start of the episode which is just…huh? Your telling me the Master of Spies would be this damn sloppy in his attempted coup, and that he would just let himself be murdered after all the things he’s done to “protect the realm?” It’s insane that both Varys and Littlefinger, debatably the show’s smartest characters (since Tyrion has long fallen off that list), died in such punk ways. Like the show realized it didn’t really have the space to indulge in the intrigue and machinations that the show once used those characters for and…well, no, I guess that tracks, sadly. In any case, our
But on the outright terrible corner we have all the shit with Jaime and Cersei which…sigh. I guess the series thought it was too cool for school for the redemption arc that it spent LITERAL SEASONS setting up for Jaime, which I guess is fine…if they did the work to make his fall from grace at all compelling, or believable, or not a betrayal of everything we’ve seen from the character thus far. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is doing the brunt of the work here to make this at all conceivable, but it’s still simply not enough. Everything Jaime just puts a horrible taste in my mouth, and that includes that god awful action scene with Euron by the pier. Euron Greyjoy: nobody liked that character, except for the people involved with the show for some reason. Glad he’s fucking dead, but sad he stuck around to muck up this series for so long.
I guess the final moment between Jaime and Cersei is “okay,” in the way that Ted Mosby delivering the french horn to Robin in the series finale of How I Met Your Mother was okay — if we’re just cool reverting back to our Season 1 versions of these characters from like ten years ago it all tracks, but then what exactly was point of all that *checks notes* character development? All that being said, Lena Headey surprisingly broke my heart in her final breakdown in the episode, which is surprising considering how much Cersei Lannister has become a mustache-twirling villain in the last few seasons. I guess some of that “sympathetic villain” energy she had in the show’s glory days can still occasionally shine through…or Lena Headey is just that freaking good of an actress. Little of Column A and a Little of Column B, really. So much about what works with this show now is just me remembering when I liked it more which, hey is at least something to get me through this quickly enveloping mess.
But here’s the thing though: like an overtly supportive suburban mother…I’m not even mad. I’m just disappointed. I’m just kind of bummed, to see the show basically throw its hands in the air and say “it is what it is!”, especially when so many other options were available for them to make things work out. None of what occurred within “The Bells” was doomed to failure conceptually — in fact, so much of what transpires works really on paper, and I can see a compelling story being made from all the pieces here. But this ain’t it, chief. And well I might channel my disappointments and frustrations with the episode into hatred or anger at its current showrunners, really? I feel bad for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They were given a challenging role in having to finish this massive story, and though I’m sure they have plenty of reasons for doing what they did, time and again, they made the wrong move or botched the execution completely. What could have been an immensely powerful closer, is becoming a disappointing, nonsensical mess. Which is the ultimate nature of this episode, I guess: there is a massive tragedy at the center of it, but it’s certainly not the one the creators intended it to be. It’s a tragedy of many errors, and bad decisions, and problematic calls. It’s a tragedy comprised of so many ways in which it could have been avoided but, instead, “The Bells” just leans into its worst possible instincts. It’s a tragedy called Game of Thrones Season 8 and, like so many tragedies before it, it was inevitably going to lead to nothing but disappointment.
I Will Take What Is Mine With Fire and Loose Ends:
- I had a lot of feelings to sift through here, clearly, so a bunch of the stuff I actually did like got lost in the shuffle. But I will say that, as expected, the Hound/Arya stuff works best here. It’s not 100% perfect, and its a victim to the rushed nature of this final season as much as anything, but all the decisions and motivations here are baked deep into what we know of these characters, and their relationship with one another. The scene where The Hound talks Arya down from her path of vengeance is very powerful, and even if it doesn’t track as artfully as I would like, I enjoy these characters enough for it to still land. They were the only thing keeping me tethered to this episode, really, so maybe I put a lot more stock into them than others. But I overall liked it.
- And I overall liked Cleganbowl too — sue me. I thought it was exciting and fun, and appropriate note to send Sandor Clegane out on. Sure, it’s a little frustrating that the show apparently forgot that his arc in the last two seasons was about him giving up all this bullshit to try and be a better man but…look, I have to take what I can get with “The Bells,” okay? At least I didn’t hate it.
- Also the scene was kind of hilarious? From Qyburn dying like a chump (lol trip much??) to Cersei’s noping the fuck out of there, a lot of unexpected laughs amongst the ruins here. And some beautiful shots to boot. I mean, that behind the characters shot with the dragon bursting into the frame? IN-CRED-I-BLE.
- I also found all of Arya’s running through the crowd at King’s Landing immensely powerful, primarily due to the insane directing and cinematography. This was some Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men shit here, and I was completely here for it.
- Maisie Williams big ol’ anime eyes got a lot of work in close-ups
- Those Starks sure do have a bad habit of getting trapped under a crowd of people though, don’t they?
- Speaking of the man Formerly Known As Lord Commander…someone’s made a huge mistake, huh? You can practically hear “The Sounds of Silence” playing in the background, with both him and Tyrion.
- Ugh. Tyrion. My man. Why are you so foolish now? Even after everything last week (and the weeks before that), he STILL FUCKING THOUGHT JAIME COULD CONVINCE CERSEI TO GIVE UP. I get that his whole thing now is trying to prevent bloodshed, and it’s a noble goal. But why is his only path to doing so trying to make his clearly deranged sister “see reason?” Clearly, he backed the wrong horse in the “queen who will kill us all” competition, which I guess is the point? Cool, irony for ironies sake. Gotta love it.
- And even if he did believe reasoning with her was lost, he was still committing treason on his Queen so that Jaime and Cersei could survive? Jaime I get (they’ve always had a good bond, well presented by Dinklage and Waldau), but Cersei?! Remember when he told her to fuck herself constantly between Season 2 and 3? Where did this newfound love for his family come from, after all the times they fucked him over? I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
- Another issue that this episode once again must contend with is that I really don’t give a shit about any of the bastards in King’s Landing, so the dramatic weight of “will everyone there die?” is slightly inert. There’s a reason they had to create that little girl and mother character AND throw Arya into the fray, just so we would have something to latch on to amidst the chaos. Remember when King’s Landing was the most lively, fascinating part of the show? Been a long time since then…
- I actually don’t mind the invention of the little girl character, though: in fact, I thought they could have gone farther, with actual scenes focusing on her and her mother in the lead-up to the battle. But I’m probably in the minority on that: I just think that’s it’s important to focus these huge conflicts on the bystanders who are suffering in it, and wouldn’t mind a little time devoted to the (literal) plebians in order to set up such stakes. But I think it’s only me and Joss Whedon in that camp, unfortunately.
- Good job on the make-up and costuming team on making Daeny look like complete and utter shit and, in the same vein, a LOT like her brother. Eerie, really.
- If Daeny wanted to so take revenge for Missendei’s death (because, you know, that motivation was so well set up), why didn’t she just kill Cersei directly? Why did she puts around murdering thousands of strangers she never even met? Why didn’t she just go and light The Keep aflame, which would also be pretty bad, if not “holy fuck she’s a war criminal now!” bad? There is no goddamn answer, so don’t even try to tell me otherwise.
- The actual final scene of the episode, with the pale horse galloping in and encountering a shell-shocked Arya, is achingly beautiful, and a hell of a note for “The Bells” to go out on. Enough to almost convince me I liked the episode more than I did…almost.
- It’s funny how I haven’t even brought up the real-life consequences of the story choices that Weiss and Benioff made, and that’s because there’s plenty of in-story reasons why this is all so bad that I think it doesn’t even need to be mentioned. But, yes: consider me someone who is flabbergasted that they would take things into this direction in the year 2019. On the one hand, I get it: in a perfect world, we could tell stories like these and not have to worry about how it looks “problematic” and what people can take out of all the PoC’s and women on the show suddenly becoming, like, the main fucking villains. But this is not a perfect fucking world. And Weiss and Benioff should not have pretended it was with the platform that they have. Badly told AND culturally problematic — a perfect fucking storm of bad decisions. Mistakes were made here, clearly, and as much as I might like to continue and be like “maybe the final episode could redeem things!”, I just don’t even know anymore. My enthusiasm is shot. My faith is shot.
- What a fucking bummer.
Originally published at Freshly Popped Culture.