One Year On: ‘The Bells’
It’s been a year since HBO aired what has arguably become Game of Thrones’ most infamous episode, ‘The Bells’.
Just as it was for ‘The Last of the Starks’, my experience in the week leading up to ‘The Bells’ — at least in relation to the Game of Thrones fandom — was mostly uneventful. It arrived at the end of an incredibly busy week in my personal life, but the build-up to the episode itself was quiet. As I said, I was busy with other things, so I was able to ignore a lot of the reaction to the previous two episodes and steer clear of the anger that was about to boil over more than it had done so already. All I felt was excitement, to be honest, especially in the wake of Emilia Clarke’s appearance on Kimmel Live, during which she’d said that viewers would need the biggest television sets they could find in order to fully experience the battle that was yet to come. The Great War was over, now we had The Last War, and director Miguel Sapochnik had only ever succeeded when it came to delivering spectacle.
The Bells (s08, e05)
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Original broadcast: May 12th, 2019
“Let it be fear, then.”
Across nine groundbreaking years, Game of Thrones often disregarded the sensitivities of its audience to deliver television that left them aghast and miserable in equal measure. Its first protagonist, played by the show’s biggest star, was beheaded in the ninth episode; three fan favourites were slaughtered just before the end of season three; season five saw the story’s heroes suffer a string of dismal defeats; and midway through the final season, the writers decided to kill off a character many had eagerly accepted as the final villain. But, somehow, the reaction to those events seemed to pale in comparison to the widespread upset, misery, and unbridled anger instigated by ‘The Bells’, the penultimate episode of the series. Not only did showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss make a number of controversial choices, but for the main event they pulled our eyelids back and forced us to stare at the relentless horror on screen, and at the worst of ourselves as an audience. The subsequent fallout snapped a splintering fandom in two, and the final season was immediately preserved in television infamy. I’m talking, of course, about Daenerys Targaryen’s decision to reduce King’s Landing to ash and incinerate its innocent civilian population. Let’s attempt to tackle a war crime, shall we?
The point made by ‘The Bells’, and by the final season overall, is that humanity is its own worst enemy. Despite our attempts to make the world a better place or treat others fairly, we undermine the best of ourselves on a constant basis. We donate to charities while committing murder and overseeing mass genocide; we hate the idea of inequality but fail to resist the lure of capitalism; we’re patient, vigilant, and selfless one day but impulsive, complacent and power-hungry the next; we preach fair treatment but find that we’re bigoted and narrow-minded at the best of times; we define the value of others by how much they can give us in return, and we’re prone to hypocrisy and dogma; we spend our lives desperately searching for ways to improve ourselves only to perpetually invent new methods of preventing genuine progress. As William Faulkner once suggested, and as George R. R. Martin once paraphrased, the human heart is in constant conflict with itself. No matter how much we try to sugar-coat that conflict with dreams of harmony and peace, we will forever be unable to overcome it. War is humanity’s ugliest face, and it’s impossible to hide from it at times like this.
A key complaint in the aftermath of this episode was that Daenerys’ decision to raise King’s Landing to the ground was a “heel turn” that happened too quickly for the audience to emotionally process it, but the belief that Dany’s actions in this episode were a sudden change in her nature feels like a misrepresentation of her character. She was never just a benevolent figure who liberated innocents and doled out justice to evil men, and she was never just an impulsive and short-tempered tyrant in waiting who couldn’t resist burning her enemies alive. She was always both — just as likely to burn the city down as she was to dismount Drogon and accept their surrender. Throughout the series she fought to resist her inner tyrant and strove to become a benevolent figure, but the upsetting truth presented by ‘The Bells’ is that she simply lost the fight against herself. The closer she got to the Iron Throne, the further it seemed to pull away from her — and as someone who’d long believed fire and blood to be equivalent to justice, she acted on the instincts she trusted. It’s hard to stomach, but that’s a sign of this episode doing its job. This episode is a lesson in the true cost of war.
Now, I understand that I haven’t fully addressed the situation. After all, Dany had a history of fiery justice, but she was the Breaker of Chains who protected commoners and innocents from tyranny. The conundrum we face as she approaches King’s Landing, however, is that she no longer sees the common people as innocents to be liberated, but as another obstacle obstructing the Iron Throne. Freeing slaves in Essos was simple because, as she says to Tyrion in this episode, they instantly worshipped her and strengthened her cause (“They turned on the masters and liberated the city themselves”). But in Westeros, the people show her no such devotion. With the secret of Jon Snow’s lineage spreading fast, she knows her power will always be brittle. She acknowledges that she has “no love [in Westeros], only fear”. Fear isn’t enough to sustain the longevity of her rule, but it’s all she has at her disposal to snatch the short-term gain. And as King’s Landing surrenders to her might (just as Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen had done before) the common people don’t liberate the city themselves and they don’t call out for their “Mhysa” — instead, they scream for help.
In this moment it dawns on Daenerys that these common people are still those who overthrew her father and chased her out of the country when she was a baby. They are not innocents, they are the enemy — a mass populace waiting to challenge her, kill her, and replace her. And how has she defeated her enemies previously? With indiscriminate fire and blood. Lord Varys, Randyll and Dickon Tarly, the Lannister soldiers, the Dothraki bloodriders, the Sons of the Harpy, the masters in the slave cities, the warlocks of Qarth, Viserys, all the way back to Mirri Maz Duur. Indiscriminate fire and blood has always succeeded. She worked tirelessly to conquer oppressors, to close fighting pits, and to rule with a degree of fairness, but there were always the lingering doubts that her demons would win, and the brutality she suffered on her journey only worsened the situation. Daenerys is the direct perpetrator of the massacre in King’s Landing, yes, but it was indirectly caused by the line of men who brutalised her from childhood and turned her into the wheel she once intended to break. As she rightly pointed out to Jon Snow during their first ever meeting, she was repeatedly sold off, raped, and treated like dirt by men who took everything from her, surviving to this point only because of the faith she had in herself.
She withstood said brutality because of said faith and the constant assurance that she would one day “take back what was stolen” from her. As Tyrion posed during ‘The Last of the Starks’, why wouldn’t she believe in destiny if her magical fire-breathing children (and her magical fire-resistant skin) always defeated those evil men and took her closer to glory? The problem is that common people were in her crosshairs on this occasion. The methods she uses to conquer King’s Landing are no different to ones she’d always relied on — the crucial difference is that she brought a fully grown dragon to a swordfight. She’s not suddenly evil, she’s just dangerously overpowered and ready to unleash hell on a world primed to reject her. There was no way to only attack the Red Keep because containing such catastrophic levels of destruction is impossible. “Targeted airstrikes” are a myth, war isn’t heroic, and both are incapable of being romanticised or sanitised by the medium of television if the directors want to present it honestly. There is no way for the writers to rationalise or justify a genuine act of war to a mass audience. They could have spent weeks properly building up to this and it still would have been rejected. There’s nothing to soften the blow, and nor should there be.
Make no mistake, once the first wave of the battle is over (a first wave that contains moments that could be described as clumsy at best — we’ll get to those) this episode revs up expertly to deliver an absolute bloodbath. The implied cliffhanger in the wake of the Night King’s demise was whether Arya’s individual bravery would be repaid by a communal attempt to install a greater sense of harmony among the people of Westeros. ‘The Last of the Starks’ might have already provided a negative answer, but ‘The Bells’ screams that a positive outcome was never possible and dares to suggest (if only for a split second) that humanity’s victory might have been a mistake. Director Miguel Sapochnik pulls no punches when displaying the indescribable savagery that takes place on the field of war here, and it’s effective to say the least. Parents are raped and killed in front of their children, the children themselves are reduced to scorches on the pavement, frightened families are crushed by collapsing buildings in the terror of inescapable firestorms, and soldiers we once cheered on are carried away in the vicious thralls of combat. It all serves to condemn in the strongest possible terms the very worst of human nature that war brings out of our species. Power has caused all of this.
This episode is full of characters suddenly forced to look inward, and they’re all left shattered by what they see. Jon Snow, who followed Daenerys almost blindly until now, watches as her quest for the crown reveals itself to be a tragic disaster. Ever since his resurrection he’s found himself becoming increasingly exasperated by war, and now he realises his queen won’t bring an end to the bloodshed and violence he’s desperate to escape from — she’ll only create more. Arya, who saved humanity not two weeks ago, has only lived long enough to see her heroic efforts repaid with treachery as war brings about the worst in the people she rescued. She saved these people from the Night King only to have them die in firestorms instead. The Hound realises that no matter how many times he stabs his undead brother (the physical embodiment of his thirst for revenge) it’s something he will never defeat. It will follow him to his grave, which it literally does here. And Cersei, who killed hundreds on her journey to power, only to lose everything she needed in the process, is crushed by the building she spent her life clinging to. This brand of misery is hard to digest because absolutely nobody wins. We don’t even get to feel righteous anger because even the bad guys lose.
But more than any other character, it’s Tyrion who has to do the most soul-searching. As he stands on the sidelines while Daenerys torches the place, we’re once again forced to watch from his perspective, just as we were during ‘The Spoils of War’. His efforts to keep the peace, and to see his family survive while Daenerys takes the throne, have only made the situation worse. He wanted an impossible compromise, and much like the audience he’s now being punished for believing in the cult of personality surrounding Dany. He didn’t brutalise her like other men in her life, but the string of mistakes he made as her chief adviser — weakening her cause and eroding her faith in him — created this awful scenario. Ordinarily, Jorah or Ser Barristan would prevent Dany from acting on her worst impulses, but they’re not here anymore, and the trust she has in Tyrion has evaporated. Her best friend is dead, her longest friend is dead, two of her children are dead, her boyfriend is the biggest threat to her claim, and one of her top advisers has betrayed her. She is alone, and if she wanted to she could blame Tyrion for all of it. Tyrion was in desperate denial, convinced that he could find a happy medium between a rock and a hard place. In the end he was smashed into both.
Right until the moment he finds their corpses underneath the destroyed Red Keep in ‘The Iron Throne’, Tyrion hopes against hope that he can make Cersei and Jaime see the reality of the situation: Daenerys will take King’s Landing with ease, so they need to get out of there. Cersei, however, is incredibly stubborn, desperately clinging in vain to her last morsel of power. The walls have closed in but still she stands, albeit with a quivering lip. But then ehe Golden Company and the Iron Fleet are eviscerated in seconds and her empire literally begins to crumble on top of her. As she stands on the painted map of Westeros, watching the bricks of the Red Keep slowly bury it, the symbolism is on-the-nose, but it’s necessary in order to see what she brought upon herself and her people. She murdered hundreds during her ascension to power, and then she played the game of thrones with someone who had nuclear weapons. You win or you die. It’s only when Jaime arrives after his brutal fight with Euron that she realises this. Jaime is already several stages ahead of her in terms of accepting the situation (having gone through denial, acceptance, and self-flagellation in the previous two episodes) and it’s in his arms that she finally faces the end. The look she gives him, pleading with her arms outstretched while begging for the carnage to stop, might be Lena Headey’s finest moment as a brilliant character who enraptured and enraged us in equal measure across eight seasons. I think it’s an appropriate send-off.
Now, most of what’s been written above comes in the second wave of the battle, which I consider to be everything after the eponymous bells ring out. The first wave of the battle, unfortunately, does contain issues. For instance, Qyburn’s scorpions. Now, they’ve been a curious thing ever since their first appearance on the show: capable of smashing dragon skulls in ‘Stormborn’, but only capable of briefly wounding Drogon in ‘The Spoils of War’. Then, in ‘The Last of the Starks’, they were capable of killing Rhaegal, but their pathetic display in this episode adds more evidence to the argument that they were simply a plot device bending to the writers’ whims. Drogon destroying every single one of them during the battle for King’s Landing could be read as Dany posing an unmatched threat, but the show breaks its own rules to make this point. The writers never seemed to decide whether the scorpions were an effective thorn in the Dragon Queen’s side or hideously impractical to operate (or both), and even after the battle is done we’re still no closer to figuring it out. Qyburn’s reveal that they’ve all been destroyed feels like the show drawing a quick line under a problem it had created for itself.
And before the battle even gets under way, the first segment of the episode, which sees Varys rushing to spread the word about Jon’s lineage and attempting to poison Daenerys before she can ransack King’s Landing, races through a tonne of story in a little over ten minutes. Still, the scene of Varys’ death is a particularly touching one. Tyrion (still believing in Dany, despite everything) knows he’s handed a death sentence to his only friend by revealing his betrayal, but as he grips Varys’ arm the mutual understanding between the two displays a sobering level of perception. They both know it’s not fair, but they also know that the world they’re part of — and the game they’ve played for so long —doesn’t do fairness. And with Dany continuing to silence anybody who shares the knowledge that Jon is the heir to the Iron Throne, Varys never really stood a chance. Would it have been better to watch this dynamic play out for a couple of episodes? Absolutely. But the accelerated misery (much like the speed at which Stannis’ conquest came to an end in season 5) does at least compound the impending doom and display the depths to which Dany has plumbed in such a short space of time.
Simply put, there was no way to correctly prepare the audience to digest something so devastating. The writers could have beaten viewers over the head with it for weeks beforehand, but watching an otherwise “good” or popular character commit a war crime isn’t something likely to be accepted by mass audiences. It doesn’t matter if you spend two episodes or two-hundred episodes explicitly building towards it, it just won’t wash. To quote Reddit user The 13 Kings of Winter: “In modern audiences there is a desire for protagonists to achieve their goals without sacrificing moral purity. Daenerys taking King’s Landing without casualties is a magic middle scenario. It gives her victory while keeping her hands clean. The audience feel good about her without experiencing the moral cost of war and conquest.” Applying this quote to my point, what I mean to say is that ‘The Bells’ lack of a “middle option” — that compromise, that bittersweet softener — is part of what made it so unpalatable. It was a bold choice by the writers to commit so heavily to the idea of Daenerys committing such horrendous atrocities without providing anything to placate or satisfy the audience, or reassure them that she was still a character worth endorsing. But, to be blunt, war doesn’t have pay-offs. There is no satisfaction on the battlefield, just temporary solutions and a host of new problems.
This is a different kind of tragedy to ones we’re used to seeing, even in the age of “subverting audience expectations” and the anti-hero. Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding were both tragic and upsetting — and revolutionary in some ways — but audiences could still digest them because they were still viewed through the traditional lens of good vs. evil, even if evil won on those two occasions. (Hell, I personally know people who boycotted the show after the Red Wedding). Where Daenerys’ actions in King’s Landing are concerned, however, there is no obvious way to feel in response. As I said before, we don’t even get to feel righteously angry with her because up until now we’d only wanted what was best for her. This isn’t an act we can get justice or revenge for later down the line (a la the Red Wedding), it’s just a tragedy. Daenerys is the coin toss Varys references in the episode’s opening stretch. Only, instead of being tossed at her birth and landing on a particular side, the coin is tossed every time she has a crucial decision to make. This episode doesn’t show an evil character committing an atrocity, it shows a potential hero becoming a tragic victim of divine rightism, trauma, and the curse of destiny.
The final leg of Game of Thrones could have been a much cleaner, more elegant process, but by the same token we could have spent weeks knowing Dany’s story was going to end in misery and it still wouldn’t have prepared us for ‘The Bells’. There is no way to make this palatable, no matter how long you spend building up to it, just as there was no way to resolve the White Walker conflict in a way that felt satisfying in the immediate aftermath. Daenerys had always promised to burn cities to the ground, and she’d always displayed a certain joy when annihilating her enemies, but she’d also displayed mercy and the means she had at her disposal to end horrendous practises such as slavery. Watching a character lose sense of themselves after trying so desperately to fight the demons of their heritage is incredibly upsetting, and having Dany’s story end in such a place, against a backdrop of unrelenting horror and misery, only compounds the hideousness of the situation. The subsequent reaction in the fandom (and in critical spheres) was hyperbolic but understandable. We loved Daenerys and we wanted the best for her, so to see her dreams go up in smoke while she torched everything in sight was hard to stomach. I’m just not sure it could have gone any other way.
— I don’t think Jaime’s remark that he “never cared much for the common people” is supposed to be taken so literally. This is a man who spent every episode up until ‘Kissed by Fire’ pretending to be arrogant and aloof in order to protect the crippling vulnerabilities inside. Just watch his first scene with Tywin Lannister in ‘You Win or You Die’ — the whole thing is a performance by Jaime to shield himself from genuine criticism and to prevent displaying his true feelings. It’s no surprise, then, to see him revert to such desperate attempts to pretend he’s psychologically stable here. Tyrion sees straight through him, though, and Jaime’s more sensitive nature returns before the end, sheltering Cersei and his forever unborn baby from the bricks that eventually crush them.
— I suppose we need to talk about Euron Greyjoy. The least subtle character in the show, somehow less subtle than the Sand Snakes, and occasionally so bombastic and silly that some of his scenes felt like they were from a different show. More of a plot device than a character really. Still, he was a better pirate than Salladhor Saan and you could tell that the writers enjoyed putting dialogue together for him. He gets a decent send-off following his brutal fight with Jaime and his last line (“I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister”) is filled with the sort of undeserved arrogance you’d expect from him. We hardly knew ye.
— Maybe the words Varys heard in the flames all those years ago were “I sentence you to die — dracarys”?
— Eh, the Golden Company. They were there. An attempt was made. Much like the scorpions, they were built up to be far more dangerous than they ever ended up being, but I guess Daenerys flattening them is supposed to be an example of how powerful and threatening she is right now. Cersei built her armies up while Dany was off fighting the Night King, only to have ended up wasting her time. Harry Strickland — boy, if we hardly knew Euron then we hardly met you long enough to even remember your face.
— If you thought that too few major/named characters died during ‘The Long Night’, then, well, it was more than made up for here. Lord Varys, Harry Strickland, Euron Greyjoy, Qyburn, The Mountain, The Hound, Cersei Lannister, and Jaime Lannister all meet their end in this episode.