Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 5, The Bells review: the series has been ruined beyond repair

Michael Deacon
Kings Landing falls in a scene from the Game of Thrones episode The Bells - Game of Thrones © 2019 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related program

Warning: contains spoilers

Sorry. But no. I just didn’t buy that.

Any of it.

Firstly, and most annoyingly, Daenerys. Look. We know that her father was “The Mad King”. We know that he turned from benevolent ruler to homicidal despot, and threatened to burn his own people alive. We know that, for the sake of the common good (as well as the Lannisters’ good), Jaime had to assassinate him.

But Daenerys, turning out to be even worse than her father? No. The writers simply haven’t earned the right to do that. They just didn’t do enough groundwork. In the previous seven seasons, they had sporadically shown how ruthless Daenerys could be in her thirst for both power and vengeance. But never did they do enough to make it believable that, in The Bells, she would torch innocent, unarmed families by the thousand, long after their city had surrendered.

We were given no reason why she would reduce an entire capital to a smouldering barbecue of blackened flesh. No reason why she would think Cersei’s beheading of Missandei must be avenged by massacring blameless women and children. No reason why, having obliterated the Iron Fleet, she wouldn’t just fly straight to The Red Keep, kill Cersei, and end the battle there and then, without further loss of life.

No reason, other than “Out of the blue she’s gone totally tonto. Look at her mad eyes! Look at her mad hair! She isn’t even bothering to do her make-up any more!”

I made the contrast with Breaking Bad in my review of The Last of the Starks, and it’s worth making again. We believe Walter White could turn from timorous chemistry teacher to monstrous ganglord, because the writers guided us through that transformation, step by tiny step: they made it incremental, natural, logical.

With Daenerys, however, the writers of Game of Thrones did nothing of the kind. In effect, they just shrugged, and asked us to believe that the great crusading heroine of the seven previous seasons, the golden messiah, the people’s princess, the ultimate Social Justice Warrior, had had a funny turn and gone full Genghis Khan.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark

It was bizarre. And so badly handled. In the end, it wasn’t Varys who betrayed Daenerys. It was the writers. Abruptly, and without clear justification, they’ve taken against their favourite daughter, and plotted to turn us against her, too. They’ve given her terrible dialogue. They’ve shown key characters carping about her behind her back. They’ve shown her aides muttering about her mental state, and her fitness to rule. Somehow, in short, they’ve turned Westeros into an American high school, with everyone bitching bitterly about the new girl, who’s just too pretty for her own damn good. Who does she think she is?

And all the while, to rub it in, the writers have kept prodding various characters to tell us how wonderful Jon Snow is, how popular, how heroic, how humble. Isn’t he great! He doesn’t even want the Iron Throne! So selfless! Unlike that snooty, stuck-up cow who thinks of nothing but herself!

It’s all so blatant, so mechanical, so shamelessly unsubtle. Jon Snow himself was barely involved in this episode’s battle scenes, but note the significance of his only two interventions: first, goggling in horror as the Unsullied and Dothraki began slaughtering soldiers who’d already thrown down their arms; and second, slaying a soldier for attempted rape. Once again, the writers nudge us, and whisper: See! What a hero!

The Hound versus The Mountain Credit: hbo

More and more, Jon Snow’s saintliness is becoming as improbable as Daenerys’s brutality. So chivalrous is he that when, in this episode, Daenerys murmured, “Is that all I am to you? Your queen?”, he let her kiss him – rather than replying, “No, you’re also my aunt. As I believe was clearly established three episodes ago. Please stop trying to snog me.”

I suppose I can just about accept that, despite the warnings from Sansa and Varys, Jon would remain loyal to Daenerys. (Writers: See how big a saint this guy is? He’s always loyal. Even to people who don’t deserve it!) But the really baffling one is Tyrion. Why does he dob in Varys, whose analyses of character and motive have been invariably faultless? What reason have we been shown for his unquestioning devotion to Daenerys, beyond the odd, not terribly convincing hint that he fancies her?

I know I’ve said Daenerys’s mutation into a tyrant is hard to believe, so maybe it’s unfair to knock Tyrion for not believing it, either. But he used to have the smartest, shrewdest, most cynical mind in the show. Now, apparently, we’re meant to believe that he’s become a credulous dreamer, purely because he’s got the hots for his boss.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Credit: HBO

But then, this was an episode when just about everyone seemed to be acting out of character. Arya, at the last minute chickening out of her pursuit of Cersei (a pursuit that’s lasted a good seven seasons). Euron, pointlessly picking a fight to the death with Jaime when instead he could have pinched Jaime’s boat and rowed off to safety in it. We know Euron’s a leering hothead, but surely this time pragmatism would have prevailed. And what a ludicrous fight it was, as well.

Same as The Hound’s with The Mountain. In both cases, each combatant taking it in turns to land what surely should have been a fatal blow – only to wheeze, stagger once again to his feet, and then take another swing. And so on, and so on, and so on, for minutes on end.

Oh, and speaking of Jaime: what was he playing at? Seriously? This is his reaction, to being told his estranged sister’s hired a hitman to kill him: he leaps on the nearest horse and rushes home to be at her side, cooing that nothing matters more than her eternal love? Come on. We know they’re weird. But there are limits.

Even worse than that, though, was the writers’ treatment of Cersei. What a waste. The show’s most interesting villain, played by its best actor (Lena Headey) – and yet, in this final season, they tossed her just a token handful of lines. Even the manner of her death was disappointing. A one-sided walkover of a battle, then crushed by her collapsing castle. She deserved better: a proper villain’s death, going out in a blaze of hideous, cackling glory, defiant to the last, rather than sobbing meekly in her brother’s arms.

I love Game of Thrones. I so didn’t want it to fall apart like this. Ramin Djawadi’s music, as always, was terrific. The visual effects, too. It all looked spectacular. But spectacle and drama, as this episode unwittingly illustrated, are not one and the same.

Cersei and Jaime say goodbye

So here we are, then. One more episode to go. An episode in which someone will have to take Varys’s advice, and bump off Daenerys before she can do any more damage. Will it be Arya? Tyrion? The sainted Jon Snow?  

And, more importantly: will we still care?

This was my big fear, after The Long Night. Gripping though that episode was, it left the remaining three episodes in grave danger of anticlimax. To compensate, the writers needed to come up with something big. Something outrageous. Something shocking.

They did that, all right. But it hasn’t paid off.