Every time a new episode of GAME OF THRONES is born, the writers flip a coin. Will it be social media and critical darling? Or will the whole thing come crumbling down? “The Bells” was 80 minutes of watching that coin spin through the sky and make its slow-motion descent to the ground.

The penultimate episode of the biggest show on the planet — both on its self-imposed scale and its public response — will almost never live up to expectations. But they also don’t often fail as resoundingly as “The Bells” did on Sunday night. It had a double-whammy of controversial plot and character choices and extended violent, gory, and plotless scenes. With only one episode to go before GAME OF THRONES becomes nothing but legacy, it’s hard to see a path to recovery from “The Bells.”

Goodbye Right Off the Bat

The most effective part of the episode was in the recap of last week. Daenerys’s steely gaze post-Missandei is overlaid with things that people have said to and about her.

“He has a better claim to the throne.” “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” “The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved.” “Children are not their fathers.” “Be a dragon.” “You have a gentle heart.” “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.” “You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?”

It drives home the immense pressure Daenerys has been shouldering these last eight seasons. The odds are against her, with only her own force of will driving her towards success. But that singular force is not sustainable forever.

Courtesy of HBO

Varys has made his bed as captain of Team Jon and now he has to lie in it. Whether he sent any of his letters revealing Jon’s heritage before he got “dracarysed” remains unknown. Tyrion, though still attached to his flesh and bones, isn’t faring much better. He tries to do his job and tells the depressed Dany about Varys’s betrayal, but it doesn’t reflect well on his capacity to stop making rookie mistakes. Dany takes the betrayal back to its source, Jon himself, apparently convincing herself that the whole world is truly against her. That fear is the only weapon she has.

These opening scenes were just the start of the overarching problems in “The Bells.” Varys’s final downfall felt rushed, emotionless, and too clean. The important scenes run too short while the less important scenes run too long.

The First Mention of the Bells

We are forced to sit through the civilian casualties discussion yet again and, surprise surprise, no one’s opinion has changed. Tyrion still underestimates his sister’s potential for cruelty while Daenerys’s outlook is more in the long-term liberation of people who won’t live to see it. Tyrion, to his credit, can get dumber. He frees Jaime from Daenerys’s captivity so that he can convince Cersei to surrender and sail off into the sunset. And don’t forget to ring those bells!

Everyone readies their stations for battle: Euron sets his scorpions, the Golden Company looks too nervous for the world’s greatest mercenary army, Cersei stands on a balcony as per usual. Nameless Woman and Nameless Daughter try to find safety within the walls of King’s Landing. They don’t make it through the gates, and now their plot device has begun.

Let the Games Begin

The war is on. Daenerys and Drogon either did some serious agility training this week or the scorpion shooter forgot to put his glasses on. The Iron Fleet goes down easy and so does the Golden Company, thanks to a well-placed blast through the city walls. Grey Worm gets a spear through Harry Strickland’s back as if we care about this character at all. Everything and everyone is aflame and it seems like this will be over pretty quickly. So let’s stare at the bells until they start ringing.

Courtesy of HBO

The Lannister men drop their swords in record time and the people of King’s Landing start playing telephone with the phrase “ring the bells” all the way back to the Red Keep. Did we mention that ringing the bells is important?

They do finally ring. Cersei surrenders. Daenerys wins. Game over.

Bells Toll For No One

But the game can’t be over because in Game of Thrones you win or you die. And since Daenerys wins, everyone else has to die. In what I can only assume was supposed to be a big twist, Daenerys starts torching every man, woman, and child of King’s Landing. Her path is not at all a straight line to the Red Keep and Cersei. It is very much a street sweeper but with fire. The problem is it’s not a plot twist because GAME OF THRONES has been not-so-subtlely hinting towards this all season.

With every betrayal, every loss, every insecurity, Daenerys has switched into that Mad Queen side. We saw this twist coming, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. Her beef is with Cersei. She was only cool with killing civilians in the service of taking down Cersei and claiming the throne. There is nothing to support the idea that Daenerys is “crazy,” sadistic, or evil. She is flawed, certainly, but even with her Mad Queen edit, it doesn’t track that she would want to kill all these people on purpose.

the bells
Courtesy of HBO

As the penultimate episode of GoT, there is now only one episode to try to wrap up this new storyline. There is no room to play with this newfound character, to explore the fallout, to have other characters challenge her. Especially given the complete misuse of time in “The Bells” and “The Last of the Starks,” I have no confidence that there will be any attempt in the finale to make sense of it at all. It will almost certainly end with a swift assassination and a dealer’s choice of “good” characters taking the throne. It will feel rushed and unearned and I will be very salty about it.

Is There Such a Thing As a Good Man?

If the message of “The Bells” is that everyone is inherently evil except Jon Snow, then they get it across. Unsullied and the Northmen take the cue to just get their slaughter on, killing random citizens for truly no reason other than apparently just wanting to. It was never an explicit order. In fact, Jon gave them the order to stand down and they blatantly ignored it. Everyone’s just super cool with rape and murder now.

We have to talk about the rape for a minute. I thought this was over. I thought that we had gotten through to the writers that such casual sexual violence is not ok and was the reason that so many people quit the show altogether. Yes, “The Bells” only showed the rape attempt that was thwarted by Jon. But it still wasn’t right for a number of reasons. For one, the attempted rapist was one of the Northmen, who are supposedly our “good guys” here.

Northerners are always portrayed as having strong values. But this anonymous man — meaning that he could be anyone that all men are apparently capable of this — is the type to rape a woman at the drop of a hat. And that the only reason he didn’t succeed is that Jon Snow was there. Well, imagine all the instances happening in that city in which Jon wasn’t there. That is what women see when we watch these scenes. There is always more implied than is shown. It does nothing to further plot, character, or anything else. All it does is ignite real fears.

It’s not necessary and it’s not ok. Do better.

A Showdown No One Wanted

We then wasted a good chunk of time in a fight between Euron and Jaime. The fight fails on an emotional level for many reasons.

  1. We were never invested in Euron. He was always just a fool. We know he’s not actually important to Cersei, and certainly not in the way Jaime is. To try and now put him on the same plane as Jaime feels like the baby brother taking swings at the older brother who’s holding his head an arm’s length away.
  2. Euron positions it as another “King Slayer” moment but, as Jaime points out, we don’t acknowledge Euron as a king. Yara is the queen of the Iron Islands as far as the viewer is concerned, so Euron is not some titan for Jaime to bring down. It’s not another notch in his kingslaying belt, so it has no effect on his character either.
  3. Euron stabs Jaime very early on in the fight and it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m no doctor, but a knife to the kidneys should be enough to at least take you down for a few counts. But it doesn’t seem to affect Jaime for the rest of the episode.

The Buddy Cop Movie That Never Was

So our dynamic duo of killers arrives in the city, only for Arya to have her whole driving story derailed by a simple, “Don’t do it,” from the Hound. It seems wildly out of character for Arya to turn her back on her list, especially given how much she’s proven that she is capable of completing it. She admitted last week that she was willing to die — or at least forever abandon her family — to complete her mission. As happy as I am to see her live, and while there are certainly endless possibilities for her life path, there was no set up for this decision on her part.

the bells
Courtesy of HBO

It is somewhat redeeming, though, that her flight from the city was one of the strongest parts of the episode. The long tracking shots show off the practical effects — which usually take a back seat to the CGI — and Maisie Williams’ impressive terror face. (A special shoutout to the makeup artist who crafted the blood-and-ash look.) It drives home the utter destruction, chaos, and death that Daenerys is causing.

Nameless Woman and Daughter make a few more appearances, though still to no significant end. One or two scenes of this would have been powerful. What we got was more repetition, more needless gore, more waste of precious time.

Put It In The Books

Meanwhile, we can finally put Cleganebowl to rest. The Mountain and the Hound face off in the Red Keep, on a stairway to nowhere. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for and it is… disappointing. That seems to be a theme in “The Bells.” We know the Mountain is in some ways undead, but we don’t really know who he is. Turns out he literally cannot be hurt and looks like Uncle Fester from THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

A fight this one-sided is not interesting to watch. The Hound gets in some good blows, but it is immediately clear that none of them will matter, so the next ten minutes feel fruitless and non-cathartic. The only way to end it is for both of them to plummet into the fire, though we can’t be sure that that will kill the Mountain, either. The whole thing felt like throwing a bone to fans and capitalizing on the concept of Cleganebowl without putting any real care into the action or the treatment of the characters.

the bells
Courtesy of HBO

Because There Weren’t Enough Victims in “The Bells”

With the Red Keep falling and her bodyguard otherwise occupied, Cersei flees to the holdfast alone. The previously unflappable queen is now quite flapped. Lucky for her, Jaime has barely a scratch on him despite the internal bleeding and finds her in the map room. The world falling down around them, they make their way to Tyrion’s secret passage, only for it, too, to be blocked with rubble. Cersei desperately wants to live and yet the brilliant woman who got herself to the throne through tragedy and misery is nowhere to be found.

She doesn’t take matters into her own hands at all. She just cries into Jaime’s shoulder as he whispers sweet nothings into her ear. Sure, “nothing else matters, only [them],” but they’ve also done everything possible to keep it that way. The whole show started with Jaime trying to kill a ten-year-old. Cersei blew up a full house of worship to prove a point. They aren’t the types to take the end of the world lying down. Just as last week undid all of Jaime’s redemption arc, “The Bells” gave Cersei a send-off unbefitting of the hell she wrought throughout the series.

the bells
Courtesy of HBO

All “Bells” and Whistles

A lot of the positive coverage I’ve read of “The Bells” has been about the historical references within the episode’s visuals of war. Things like the bombing of Dresden, the burning of Pompeii by Vesuvius, and September 11 certainly come through in the overall design. But, for me, I don’t care. I don’t come to GAME OF THRONES for real-world history or political musings. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

I want White Walkers and dragons and women wielding power. I shouldn’t have to appreciate the real-world influences to appreciate the episode. If that is your thing, great. If you get a Biblical reference to the pale horse in the very, very long shot of Arya at the end of the episode, then great. I’m happy for you. But that doesn’t negate the surface-level fact that that shot was too long, as were most of the shots during the fall of the city, and that most of the runtime was misused to ruin long-standing character arcs.

Courtesy of HBO

I desperately want to enjoy the end of GAME OF THRONES. I’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and emotion into this show. I’d reckon that this is true for a large portion of viewers. But with the way the last few episodes have declined, culminating in the unending disappointment of “The Bells,” I am hardly even looking forward to next week’s finale. I can’t imagine a scenario in which it will feel satisfying.

I hope I’m wrong.

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