“The Bells” determinedly burned eight seasons of character development in one impressively-directed hour of idiocy.
This Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 recap for the episode titled “The Bells” contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
I, like most of my romantic partners, am about to complain about length. And this is because it occurred to me while watching “The Bells”, another steroidal Sapochnik installment of Game of Thrones, that most of the show’s current problems could be eradicated or at the very least alleviated if the show wasn’t in such a rush.
The question, I suppose, is what exactly is the show in a rush to do, because if “The Bells” is anything to go by, my current working theory is that it’s in a rush to completely disappoint and alienate its entire fanbase before disappearing into the ether in a puff of black smoke.
Before that, though, it’s apparently important that we cull virtually the entire cast in distressingly out-of-character and deeply underwhelming ways, giving long-time stalwarts pitifully unceremonious swansongs and bending over backward to conclude lingering subplots. It’s the TV equivalent of applying a tourniquet to a spurting wound, only after the victim has already died from blood loss.
As such, “The Bells” opened with Varys, a once-great character, being cooked by Daenerys for plotting to overthrow her. This is after being betrayed by his friend and confidante, Tyrion, widely known as the cleverest man in all the Seven Kingdoms, which would be weird if it was true since everything Varys was saying was so clearly self-evident and yet remained ignored by virtually everyone anyway, including Jon Snow, the show’s erstwhile hero, such as it ever even had one.
I’ve been annoyed by the sidelining of Varys for ages, in part because I strongly suspected that since the show abandoned political intrigue in favor of big-budget battles that his particular brand of masterful meddling was surplus to requirements. Sometimes it’s no fun being right. But I’d have preferred his inevitable demise to not grossly undermine several other important characters too, and yet once the smoke cleared the only person who didn’t look stupid was Varys himself, who looked very dead.
An increasingly unstable Daenerys blamed Jon for this in a roundabout way; if he hadn’t told Sansa about his true parentage she wouldn’t have told Tyrion who wouldn’t have told Varys. Which is fair enough, I suppose. Tyrion, though, evidently a bit sick of being constantly threatened with execution despite being unswervingly loyal to the detriment of both himself and those close to him, decides to free Jaime from captivity and allow him to rescue Cersei so they can both live happily ever after, just so long as he rings the bells in the city to let Dany and her army know that everyone has surrendered.
We have a problem here. Despite having lost two out of three dragons and most of her armies during the Battle of Winterfell, “The Bells” nonetheless sees a full complement of Dothraki horsemen and apparently undepleted ranks of Unsullied ransack the city while she pirouettes around on her one remaining dragon, barbequing the Iron Fleet and the Red Keep and all the fleeing smallfolk without any difficulty whatsoever. All her setbacks were ignored. The apparently dragon-skewering power of ballistas was forgotten about. She took the city, easily, in just the way that she was always expected to.
Of course, she took it using terrible violence, which is another problem. You can’t say the seeds of Dany’s descent into madness weren’t planted, but they weren’t consistently watered, either. Remember when just a couple of episodes ago she abandoned her personal quest for the Iron Throne to donate her hardwon troops to the north, in order to save the world? Remember how even in her worst moments she had a discernible moral compass governing her actions? Well, forget all that. Now she cooks innocent women and children because she’s sad, despite the battle having been clearly and easily won before it even began.
A beloved character going postal isn’t a bad idea, but we’ve only seen the beginning and the end of that arc. Everything in-between was a herky-jerky scrawl from one plot-convenient incident to the next. Nothing about it was consistent, or sensible, or earned. And so the fiery, bloody climax wasn’t consistent, or sensible, or earned either. It was noise and carnage and a sizeable TV budget being hurled against the crumbling walls of King’s Landing, where so much of the show was set back when it was good and interesting.
Miguel Sapochnik is good at creating carnage. “The Bells” was amazingly, sometimes breathtakingly shot; pause the episode at almost any moment and you have a fantastical snapshot of beautiful chaos. Imagine, for a moment, how powerful this might have been had any of it made sense. One of the most stunning sequences was the long-awaited face-off between the Hound and the Mountain, a battle between an actual character and a cartoon supervillain. I had to laugh. It just felt so ridiculous. And that was before the Mountain’s helmet got knocked off, and he revealed his new, zombified visage to be a dead ringer for Varys. Perhaps his death wasn’t so unceremonious after all.
But plenty of deaths in “The Bells” were totally unceremonious, including many hundreds if not thousands of innocents, burned or crushed while fleeing through the narrow streets. This was one of those episodes that should have been split into two but was instead collapsed into one slightly overlong episode, still too short to do its characters justice but that spared so much time for sad sequences of burning peasants that after a while the whole endeavor ceased to mean anything. Even Arya, a master assassin just last week, found herself knocked to and fro in the chaos, unable to do anything of any worth. Her scenes with the Hound weren’t bad, until that one in which she had the opportunity to fulfill her series-long ambition of killing Cersei, but the Hound told her not to bother, so she just didn’t.
At the top of the list of senseless, unceremonious deaths were those of Cersei and Jaime, who were crushed beneath falling rubble. To get to that point, Jaime had to fight Euron to the death; Cersei had to watch her tyrannical, thus far unstoppable reign go up in smoke. Together, in their last moments, they revealed themselves to be human. Cersei became a grieving mother. Jaime became a devoted spouse. Except Cersei is irredeemably evil and Jamie knighted and slept with Brienne, who wept at his departure. What was the point of all that, just for this?
“The Bells” was television of a type we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before; action-packed, grandiose, expansive. But it’s just so unforgivably dumb. And what’s most annoying about its enduring stupidity is how easily it might have been fixed. After eight seasons of developing the cold, existential threat of the Night King and the hot, passionate madness of Cersei, the only reason both adversaries weren’t vanquished in the space of two episodes is that there was a filler hour in-between.
There’s only one episode left. And that’s probably for the best.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.