The Mad Queen rears her fire-breathing head in a visually stunning, but narratively baffling penultimate episode.
So much for breaking the wheel, huh?
This final season of Game of Thrones has been paradoxically on brand and frustratingly off-brand at the same time – a show about the grinding gears and political machinations of a medieval fantasy world and a show about idealistic characters trying to stop the cycle of exploitation that keeps these feuding families warring with each other. For characters like Dany (Emilia Clarke), Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and others, their stories have been all about shaking off the world’s expectations of them – Mad Queen, Kingslayer, bastard – to do something more.
With “The Bells”, the second-to-last episode of this bonafide cultural phenomenon, we finally get the culmination of these storylines: we’re all actually captives to our nature, and there’s no point running from destiny… even if tens of thousands of lives will be lost along the way.
After the events of last week, Dany’s appropriately broken – retreating to Dragonstone, not eating, not even *gasp* wearing makeup! That’s more than enough reason for Varys (Conleth Hill) to further his agenda of overthrowing Dany and installing Jon on the throne – “he’ll rule wisely and well,” he tells Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). When has this been the case? He’s been a principled git since day one, the show assigning him a level of charisma and leadership skills he hasn’t earned. Still, his attempt fails, and he’s put to death by dragonfire for his trouble. Yet another deceptive manipulator gone because he tipped his hand, and an anticlimactic end for a character we’ve spent eight seasons getting to know.
But his death is important for Tyrion at least, because he finally starts to see the error of his ways – if Dany has her say, she’ll raze King’s Landing to the ground, civilians be damned. To stave this off, he frees Jaime (who was conveniently, if clunkily, captured offscreen) and appeals to his frustratingly reinvigorated love for Cersei (Lena Headey) to get him to the city so he can signal its surrender.
And thus begins the both visually arresting and narratively baffling siege of King’s Landing, in which the scorpions that worked so effectively against Rhaegal last week suddenly can’t hit the broad side of a barn, and Euron Greyjoy’s (Pilou Asbæk) Iron Fleet gets chumped by half as many dragons as they faced last time. Then, just when the bells ring and victory is assured, Dany decides, in a fit of pique, to go full Trogdor and burninate all the peoples in their thatched-roof cottages.
So much of the show’s final stretch has been about the dangers of women in power.
From there, “The Bells” becomes an apocalyptic event, Miguel Sapotchnik cribbing mightily from everything from Children of Men to, funnily enough, the Kit Harington-starring historical disaster film Pompeii. On a visceral level, the destruction of King’s Landing from above is a technical masterwork, Drogon soaring above the ground as we’re forced to see scores of people burned alive en masse. His power is awesome in the traditional, literal sense, and Arya’s (Maisie Williams) desperate trek out of the city, trying in vain to save people while also keeping herself alive, is a hell of a setpiece. In a vacuum, these scenes are some of the show’s greatest setpieces, watching the world of the show literally crumble around its characters in the most jaw-droppingly unstoppable way.
It’s too bad, then, that these sequences are in service to one of Thrones‘ most off-putting and awful twists: Dany’s complete 180 from Breaker of Chains to Melter of Innocent Faces. Early in the episode, Tyrion appeals to her humanity towards the besieged citizens of King’s Landing by referencing her freeing of the slaves of Meereen. Her only response: the slaves of Meereen freed themselves, thus implicitly justifying their own survival. It’s a chilling moment, but one that feels incredibly unearned. Whether testament to the rushed nature of the show’s last few seasons, or the dissatisfying nature of Benioff and Weiss’ pathological desire to upend expectations, Dany’s recent turn feels like a betrayal. It’d be a ballsy, brave narrative move, were it not so haphazardly handled.
But so much of this last stretch has been about the dangers of women in power, really. Whether it’s Cersei with her bitchy capriciousness, or Dany with her haughty demands and lack of deference, a lot of Game of Thrones has been ‘good men’ wincing in horror at the terrible things women do when handed the keys to power. Not… a great look, to be honest. Then again, this is “Tits and Dragons: The TV Show”, so any pretensions the show has towards a progressive view of women is lip service.
Of course, Dany’s character isn’t the only casualty of Game of Thrones‘ recent desire to keep the metaphorical wheel of destiny rolling along. For instance, Jaime’s final acts are to sneak into King’s Landing, kill Euron in a dissatisfying swordfight, resigning himself to an ignominious death next to the sister/lover who held back his emotional development for so many years, throwing seasons of growth away for one last hug. “Nothing else matters… only us.” Well, I know a certain Knight of the Seven Kingdoms who might think otherwise. (Neener-neener to all the doubters who thought he was secretly coming back to kill Cersei, and his coldness toward Brienne was a front to push her away. Nope, turns out he just sucks.)
To our great dismay, Game of Thrones has finally shown us that it wasn’t interested in its characters breaking the wheel of fate: that wheel grinds on, however clumsily steering us to our grim destinies. It’s ostensibly the stuff of classic Greek tragedy, but Thrones doesn’t have the thematic oomph, not to say sufficient pacing, to pull off that kind of switch. As it stands, Dany’s turn, and Jaime’s fall, feel like cynical ‘gotcha’ moments, ones that the idealistic bluster of previous seasons didn’t appropriately foreshadow. As the show grinds to its inevitable halt next week, one must wonder whether the wheel will finally break this time, or if the Seven Kingdoms are set for another cycle of tedious betrayals and casual misogyny.
- In a perverse way, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss think they’ve appropriately set up the conflicts we seem to be paying off in the show’s final stretch. Take one look at the depressingly literalist “Behind the Scenes” featurettes after each episode and you’ll see: “This week, the good guys are the bad guys,” they’ll say, with a twinkle in their eye, convinced that they’ve really flipped the script on us. At worst, they’re yet another indicator of how rushed and inelegant these changes are – it almost feels as though the show throws these in to retroactively justify and explain the crazy writing decisions they made.
- The sole glimmer of light in this narratively distressing episode, quite frankly, was the long-awaited Clegane Bowl, as the Hound (Rory McCann) and the Mountain/Robert Strong (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) finally had their brother-on-zombie-brother showdown. It was a mighty thing to behold, with staircases literally crumbling around them and the Cleganes finally dying at the fire that forged their childhoods. If we can gain any joy from “The Bells”, that’s probably it.
- From top to bottom, the stupidity of each character on this show in its last season has been baffling, to say the least. Jon’s naivete about not wanting to take the throne, Jaime’s bullheaded decision to seek out Cersei, Cersei just gawking out a window for five episodes while a metaphorical meteor came screaming down on her city, every decision Dany and Tyrion make. The show’s perverse desire to dumb down its characters just to fill out inorganic plot beats is maybe the biggest overall problem with this final season.
- Right now, my money’s on Tyrion to somehow take the throne, and it’ll be the last-earned kingship in the history of the Seven Kingdoms.
- Even if next week is the end of our GoT recaps (and, if Matt Zoller Seitz is right, the last TV show we all watch together), it’s still been great weathering this long winter with you all. I plan to find a suitable replacement for my go-to recap show over at The Spool, and I sincerely hope you stick around!