Seeing the fury around The Bells baffles me. Are we watching the same show?
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
As King’s Landing burned, and characters whose lives we’ve been following since season one either fled the carnage or became permanent fixtures in it, the only hotter takes than the one Daenerys unleashed on her would-be subjects were those exploding across the internet.
Some calmly listed inconsistencies. Others wailed about how this episode – or the season thus far – had retroactively ruined the show forever, because they didn’t quite agree with certain things that had happened. Most lay somewhere in between, questioning choices made by writers David Benioff and DB Weiss. Phrases like “character arc” and “fan-service” and “deus ex machina” were bandied about. A surprising number of experts in military history, tactics and dragonry piped up. At the time of writing, a petition to have season eight entirely remade has garnered almost 300,000 signatures. And whispering in the background of all this were those who thought that the episode was quite good, actually. Really good, in fact. These people – GoT aficionados as much as anyone, who were wondering if we were all watching the same show – were baffled as to where all this furious opprobrium was coming from.
The major sticking point for many was Dany’s apparent transmogrification into an unhinged tyrant, as if this was something that happened in the space of five sour-faced minutes. Dany has been burning people alive since Mirri Maz Duur in season one, and has scorched her way through the Tarleys, Varys, the slavers, the loot train and scores of others ever since. Her moral unravelling has been glacial, her innate, entitled Targaryen madness always percolating, its worst impulses tamed and feared by Tyrion, Jorah, Varys and, latterly, Jon. Following the loss of her best friend, her ersatz father, two of her “children”, her squeeze, her rightful claim to her birthright, the adoration of her people and her entire reason to exist, it wasn’t much of a stretch to accept that her brittle grip on reason would snap. Graduating from only burning those who “deserved” it to chargrilling anyone in her way, including allies who would likely soon become foes, was no giant leap. It seemed inevitable. That it occurred in quite possibly the most visceral, visually stunning episode of television ever produced was a welcome boon.
The Bells was the crescendo of so many converging narratives it would always end up as a swirling plughole of viewers’ niggles, some of which had gestated over the course of this season and much of the last. Inarguably, storylines have been rushed, entire middle acts excised for the sake of brevity. It would have been wonderful to have an episode, or even a few more scenes, devoted to Dany’s descent, or to Varys’s plot to poison her (only touched upon briefly in The Bells), or to Jaime and Brienne enjoying a few more evenings of happiness together. Grey Worm’s grief, which culminated in him butchering unarmed soldiers, was truncated to little more than him throwing a collar in a fire and scowling. But all these plot-points had been made, however briefly. Then the writers chose to get on with the larger matters at hand, and have done so far more successfully than the withering reviews of The Bells, or the season in general, would have many believe.
There has been clumsiness. Arya’s leap from god-knows-where to stab the Night King is best filed under “let’s just accept it and move on,” as is Bran’s ineffectual warging as war raged around him. For all its Tolkienesque grandeur, the Battle of Winterfell felt oddly inert, main characters ostensibly fighting for their lives though we never really believed they were in jeopardy. And even in a show about dragons and zombies and Lords of Light and anachronistic coffee cups, Euron Greyjoy popping up on that beach was so daft the collective facepalm was probably audible from space. But this is all nitpickery.
Season eight had the Herculean task of bringing together a bewildering snarl of characters and storylines, then tying them off in a manner that was in keeping with the show’s internal logic. That it has largely managed to do this without the steadying keel of George RR Martin’s detailed blueprint is borderline miraculous, and makes much of the criticism hurled at Benioff and Weiss seem rather unfair.
Perhaps Cleganebowl wasn’t what people hoped for. Perhaps Arya could have killed Cersei. Perhaps Jon should have seen Dany’s actions coming before bringing his men into a situation where their worst – and, sadly, historically believable – impulses were permitted to come to the fore. But Cleganebowl ended the only way it could, and should, have. It was always Jaime’s destiny to die with Cersei, and their final scene was perfect. And Jon is, and has always been, a well-meaning idiot. Oh, and it is actually easy to obliterate a city with a single dragon, but only if you now know how those crossbows work and don’t care one iota about collateral damage. See? It does make sense.
War brings out the monster in everyone. There are no winners, only survivors. The real enemy is human weakness. The Bells hammered these themes – the very themes of Game of Thrones itself – home in spades. It’s never been a show that gives fans what they want, because it’s never given the characters what they want. It does, however, give them what they need. “If you think this has a happy ending,” said Ramsay Bolton in season three, “you haven’t been paying attention.”
Yes, it’s too short, and you do get the sense that square narrative pegs are being pounded into round logical holes. But, so far, season eight has been a fitting end for a show whose denouement, however it came, was guaranteed to disappoint or outrage great swathes of its fanbase. The performances have been terrific, the set-pieces staggering, and the writing – while not up to the standard of earlier seasons – has succeeded in creating shock-and-awe moments right to the last. Whoever is left digging through the rubble for the Iron Throne in the end, it probably won’t be who you wanted, or for the reasons you hoped for. Wasn’t that the point all along?