The Last War
The clash at King’s Landing is what we’ve all been waiting for. But unfortunately, the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones leaves a lot to be desired. Despite solid direction and visuals, the storytelling is definitely the weakest part of the episode. The shortened season’s time constraints are really felt here with some characters being quickly disposed of, while others have their arcs rushed. “The Bells” had some great moments but was an altogether frustrating episode, where expectations were subverted to a disappointing effect.
Following up last week’s devastating losses, Daenerys has isolated herself with anger. After failing to poison her, Varys shares his doubts about Dany with Jon, when he arrives at Dragonstone. But Jon remains loyal. He does not want the title and insists that Dany is his Queen no matter what. When Tyrion admits to Dany how the secret of Jon’s heritage was revealed, she is displeased with everyone.
Fully aware of Varys’ devious intentions, Dany promptly makes good on her promise from last season, regarding his betrayal. Tyrion shares a solemn goodbye with Varys before Drogon appears intimidatingly behind Dany from the darkened night and blazes him to a crisp. Before dying, Varys had been seeing writing letters about Jon’s heritage to send across the Realm. Hopefully, at least one of these letters was sent and actually makes a difference going forward. Otherwise, his treachery wouldn’t be as impactful.
Later, Dany and Greyworm share a brief moment brooding over Missandei’s death; they are both emotional and seeking revenge. When Jon enters, Dany admits that since the people don’t love her as they love him, they will have to respect and follow her out of fear. Jon’s hesitant kiss confirms that he, too, only loves her as a Queen, making Dany feel even more alone.
Meanwhile, Tyrion is desperately trying to find a peaceful way to take King’s Landing, without destroying the city and its people. Dany claims that mercy is their biggest strength, giving us a glimmer of hope that she won’t go down the Mad Queen route. Tyrion begs her to stop the assault if the bell is rung (the signal for her enemy’s surrender). Dany warily nods at him, but it’s not a convincing agreement.
Even after all that’s happened, Tyrion continues to have the utmost faith in Dany. From being the biggest skeptic, Tyrion now seems to believe people easily and gives them the benefit of the doubt, like Dany and Cersei. But as Sansa has noticed, Tyrion’s newfound softness is clouding his judgment. Will he be proven wrong again?
After Jaime is captured by Dany’s soldiers, Tyrion secretly goes to free his brother and hatch a plan. Tyrion wants Jaime to ring the bell in King’s Landing (so Dany will cease fire), then escape the city with Cersei and their unborn child. Oddly, Jaime claims that he doesn’t care for the fate of the people of King’s Landing, despite having killed the Mad King specifically to spare the lives of thousands. On top of that, he had just knighted Brienne and finally acted on his growing feelings for her.
Now, all of that is thrown away because Jaime just can’t resist Cersei. Even Tyrion plans on helping Jaime escape with Cersei alive (knowing Dany will kill him for it). That’s in spite of his sister’s hate for him and the fact she sent Bronn to kill them both. The Lannister’s really are loyal to a fault, and Tyrion’s love for Jaime seems to outweigh his dislike for Cersei. We did get a genuinely touching exchange between the two Lannister brothers. Tyrion explains how Jaime is the reason he survived because Jaime didn’t see him as a monster. At least their relationship has been consistent.
The next morning, Jon, Davos, and Greyworm lead Dany’s troops to the gates of King’s Landing where they are greeted by the massive Golden Company army. Although it seemed like Dany’s forces were severely reduced in the last two conflicts, somehow there are still several Unsullied and Dothraki soldiers. They’ve got their work cut out for them, however, as Dany (riding Drogon) swoops in and destroys Euron’s entire fleet. While Rhagael was quickly killed by several shots last episode, Dany somehow evades all the Scorpion arrows and easily burns them down one by one.
It doesn’t stop there since Dany quickly lays waste to the Golden Company before they even have a chance to fight. After all the hype, this army ends up being completely wasted. Moreover, the power dynamics are really inconsistent. Euron was way overpowered last time, killing a dragon with ease. Now? Dany and Drogon easily wreck everything in their way, without a single arrow hitting them. She isn’t challenged one bit. (Side-note: Where is Yara’s fleet during this siege? Not that Dany needed any help)
Meanwhile, Jon, Davos, Greyworm and their men effortlessly enter the city and face the remainder of the opposing army. Much to Tyrion’s delight, the bell is rung, and all the King’s Landing soldier’s drop their weapons and surrender. Dany hears these bells but is still fuming. And instead of accepting surrender and taking the throne, for no reason, she decides to burn King’s Landing and all its people to the ground. Tyrion’s let down once again.
While Jon and Davos try to stop their men from fighting the surrendered army, Greyworm leads Dany’s troops back into battle and the bloodshed ensues. Both civilians and soldiers are being slaughtered all over the place, while Dany scorches everything and everyone in her path, even igniting some leftover wildfire. No one is safe since Dany’s destruction continues into the Red Keep, killing even more people. Jon is understandably horrified and futilely tries to keep the peace. Meanwhile, Cersei watches the city crumble helplessly, before attempting to flee.
Season eight has been trying desperately to make Dany the villain, and it finally follows through with it here. The twist was supposed to be subversive, but it’s execution feels rushed and manufactured. Cersei’s villainy is actually set-up and fleshed out, while Dany’s madness just feels underdeveloped. She has never gone out of her way to kill civilians who’ve surrendered, and this very episode she talked about mercy being a strength. She’s always been harsh, but now she’s just acting nonsensically. The show seems to be trying too hard to be unpredictable that it’s rushing Dany’s characterization.
Ruling with fear is one thing; being a Queen of nothing is a whole other story. The show has foreshadowed Dany’s ruthlessness towards her opposition, but this descent into absolute insanity has been hurried to a contrived extent. It’s not like the opposition resisted, or Rhaegal/Missandei had just died during the battle. She is somehow triggered after achieving what she wants. Dany destroying civilians and a city after they’ve surrendered and she’s secured the throne isn’t so much a presentation of her brutality, as it is a display of unhinged lunacy that was not established well enough. If we had more time to ease into Dany’s progression towards irrational madness her destruction of King’s Landing would have made more sense and played out a lot better.
In the meantime, Arya and the Hound head into the Red Keep in pursuit of their targets. Once they’ve entered the tower, Drogon’s destruction is proving too devastating as the whole building is slowly falling apart. The Hound tells Arya to run off and save herself, knowing that King’s Landing and all its inhabitants are going to be destroyed. This unlikely pairing has a nice farewell, as Arya thanks Sandor, and he nods in acknowledgment.
With only a single focus in mind, the Hound heads to confront his brother, the Mountain. After defeating some guards easily, the two brothers meet face to face. Cersei wants the Mountain to ignore his brother and continue helping her escape. When Qyburn tries to order the Mountain to follow Cersei’s orders, he amusingly gets chucked down the stairs to a quick demise. The confrontation only gets better when Cersei awkwardly slides past the two brothers to escape their battle. Finally, we get the Hound-Mountain showdown we’ve been promised, and it’s one of the better parts of the episode.
The Mountain is an absolute beast in size, and his grotesque zombified face only adds to his intimidation. The Hound does his best, but the Mountain his just too overpowering. Just like Oberyn, The Mountain tries to gouge Sandor’s eyes out, but Sandor is able to stab his brother through the head. This, however, barely affects the Mountain. So in a desperate attempt, the Hound body checks his brother out of the tower and they both fall into the fire together. Their fight was brutal, and Sandor’s plight was nicely intercut with Arya’s struggle to escape King’s Landing. Even though Sandor died too, it was satisfying seeing him finally kill his brother.
Speaking of Arya, her desperate effort to escape King’s Landing was another high point of the episode. Similarly to evading the wights in Winterfell, Arya genuinely seems in peril navigating the collapsing buildings and flames. The chaos and confusion of King’s Landing’s devastation are really well depicted. It’s claustrophobic and disorienting. People are getting trampled, injured or killed all over the place. The impact of Dany’s destruction is strongly felt. Arya just narrowly makes it out alive, while most civilians perish.
When the Red Keep is closed off, Jaime tries to enter from a side route and stumbles upon Euron washed ashore. After Euron taunts Jaime about sleeping with his sister and the two battle it out. Euron gets the upper hand (pun intended) briefly, by painfully stabbing Jaime in the side. But he gets too cocky and allows Jaime to pick up a weapon and kill him. Despite slowly dying, Euron seems pleased with himself for fatally wounding the King Slayer. While being really powerful at sea for the past two seasons, Euron has a pretty quick and unmemorable demise.
The Red Keep
Eventually, Jaime makes his way to an emotional Cersei and the two embrace. It’s disappointing seeing her so delicate, especially when she throws herself in Jaime’s arms as if she didn’t previously send Bronn to kill him. The entire series has had Cersei be incredibly cunning and full of agency. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been given a lot to do this season. Her entire plan was relying on Euron to kill the dragon and hoping that Dany wouldn’t destroy the entire city. I was hoping she’d have had one last fail-safe instead of running away in defeat.
The toxic love-hate relationship between these two culminates in them ending up together after all. Despite all that Cersei has done to him, and his blossoming relationship with Brienne, Jaime still goes back to his sister. It’s frustrating, but we can’t expect everyone to have a redemptive arc or learn their lesson. So I can accept that Jaime is beyond help at this point.
The pair barely escape into the lower levels of King’s Landing but all the exits are blocked. In tears, Cersei pleads that she doesn’t want to die because of her baby – confirming that she was pregnant with Jaime’s child after all (unless she’s lying again). Before they can do much, the walls crumble on top of them. If this really is how Cersei and Jaime get killed, it would be more underwhelming than the Night King’s death.
A great antagonist like Cersei deserved a much better resolution. There is something poetic about Cersei dying in Jaime’s arms, but being crushed by rocks is just anticlimactic. Not only that, but it seemed like Cersei was going to be the main villain of the series. That would’ve been fitting and incredibly satisfying because of all she has done and gone through. Now, her storyline just feels stunted. Hopefully, she somehow survived and gets a better conclusion in the final episode.
Once the destruction has ceased, a knocked out Arya awakens to a completely decimated city covered in ash. Out of the smoke, a white horse approaches her and she rides off into the distance. Perhaps Bran warged into the horse to save Arya. Regardless, Arya standing up among the ruin was a beautifully shot scene to close on. At least her character, for the most part, was done right by this episode. Now we wait and see if Dany replaces Cersei on Arya’s kill list.
The condensed season of Game of Thrones continues to hurt its narrative, as many character arcs and story beats were unsatisfying because of their fast-tracked nature. Dany’s turn towards madness has been forcibly accelerated, making her decimation of King’s Landing and its people feel unearned.
Meanwhile, a great antagonist like Cersei has been wasted this season and (seemingly) killed off in an underwhelming way. The shows’ quickly done away with the Night King and Cersei, just to rush into Dany being the main foil, with none of them getting their due treatment.
While “The Bells” displays wonderful film-making skill with some really solid moments, there were just too many narrative missteps and rushed-characterizations. This episode just further proves the show needed more time to flesh out its story. Here’s hoping that Game of Thrones can stick the landing next week as we await everyone’s reactions to Dany. Can the show still bring closure to so many characters and plot threads in a satisfying way with so little time left?
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