Television Review – Harrowing & emotional – Game of Thrones 8.05 “The Bells”

I know everyone else’s review went up days ago, but I need time to process these last few episodes of Game of Thrones; they are, like the story we’ve been invested in for the last 9 years (or longer for some book readers), complex and so packed with story beats that I knew setting my thoughts down too quickly would lead to knee-jerk responses. So, here we are. I’ve been able to rewatch it a few times and finally have a better sense of my feelings on this penultimate episode of the series.

Let’s start with the point that hangs over season 8 for me

I’ve previously started these pieces off with everything I liked and then looked at the aspects that I didn’t, but for The Bells I think it makes sense to change things, as my main issue with the episode has been the one I’ve had all season and that’s how much story is crammed in to it, as was the case with every episode this season, apart from the superb 8.02.

I’ve no idea why the creators of the series turned down HBO’s offer for more money and a longer season. It honestly doesn’t make sense to me to try and pack so much crucial plot in to only six episodes. Yes, they’ve all been at least an hour, but it’s still far less screen time than previously and no matter how much I still love this series, the sense of hurtling at 100 miles an hour to the conclusion is a constant presence, resulting in storylines feeling rushed and not properly bedded in. Perhaps that’s why I love The Knight of the Seven Kingdoms so much; it took time to let the storylines of these characters breathe. Regardless of how this series ends next week, I’ll always feel frustrated that more time wasn’t taken to bring it to a conclusion.

8.02 – An example of how great the series is when in doesn’t rush!

That said, with time to reflect, I don’t feel particularly disappointed about many of the actual plot points in 8.05 and have a feeling that, had we reached this same set of events, following a few more episodes, if not a whole season extra, far less people would be reacting the way that they are. Did I like all the story decisions? Did I want some things to turn out differently? Yes, of course, but I’ve never been under any illusion that Game of Thrones was a fairytale, or a moral tale, or inspiring story of good over evil (whether that’s people, or our own character traits). The reason I was pulled in to this show in a way few others have enticed me, was because it is complex; few characters are good, or bad, with most firmly in the grey, with the books making that even more apparent through the point of view chapters. This has always meant that they make decisions that are sometimes hard to accept, but which have always been fascinating to watch (or read).

It’s for this reason that, with time to reflect, my review will be different now from the one I may have written had I put pen to paper on Monday, when I fully admit, I was emotionally exhausted from watching it. I know opinion is divided, but these are my thoughts.

A visual television masterpiece

It’s easy to become complacent with this series about just how high the production quality is. That’s almost taken for granted now, but shouldn’t be overlooked in thinking about each episode and The Bells is a visual television masterpiece. Most films would struggle to achieve this level of quality and for an episode such as this one, it had to look (and therefore feel) real. The production team have exceeded expectations with the sets here. That’s all a massive set in a Belfast car park, yet I’d have believed it was Croatia! The level of detail of the vast, twisting streets is the series at the height of its production achievements. Combine that with the incredible visual effects work, cinematography and Miguel Sapochnik’s direction and it’s one the most impressive 75 minutes I’ve ever watched in any medium and I applaud everyone involved in its creation.

The soundtrack album can’t come quickly enough!

One of the stand out components of season eight has been the work of composer Ramin Djawadi and this episode was no exception. The haunting pre-battle build up was just as anxiety-inducing as 8.03, yet was totally different. Then there’s the clever ways existing themes were altered, sometimes creating an entirely different mood to their original one. The biggest example of this for me was the delicate use of The Light of the Seven in the final scene between Cersei and Jaime (more on that later). Those opening piano notes that signalled creepiness in the season six finale, here set instead a quiet, tragically sad and hopeless mood, to then be blended in with The Rains of Castamere, the Lannister song of victory blended in to the House’s fall. The album is out after the finale and I’ll certainly be adding it to my collection and booking tickets for the next arena tour.

Daenerys Targaryen – Sadly, I saw this coming……

I’ll start with the biggest source of debate at the moment – the character of Daenerys and her actions in The Bells. Personally, I wasn’t surprised. I hoped it wouldn’t happen that we’d see her descend in to what is defined as Targaryen madness in this world, but I’d been expecting it deep down for quite a while. It’s perhaps why she was never one of very my favourite characters. Yes, we’ve watched her liberate slaves in Essos, but to some extent I always saw this as just another stepping stone for her on the way to her ultimate goal – to take back her family’s throne, using whatever means necessary.

No question the young woman we met in season one drove you to root for her because she was trapped in a world forced on her by those around her, being sold off, raped and having to survive in a terrifying, unfamiliar world, before things began to work out with Drogo. You wanted her to find strength and the stronger she became, especially as her dragons grew, the more satisfying it seemed. Yet, she did do some terrifying things during that rise, but already invested in her, perhaps we tried to overlook them – locking Xaro Xhoan Daxos in that vault with her former handmaiden in Quarth? Crucifying people? Choosing to BBQ people rather than show mercy? Sure the people who felt her wrath were dreadful people, but seeing how little emotion she felt when taking these decisions, always made me a little uncomfortable. And after her recent losses of dragons and then the two people who most loved her and brought out the kindness in her, Jorah and Missandei, it seemed inevitable that someone with that much grief and anger, who also had Westeros’ equivalent of nuclear power at her disposal, would do something terrible.

My biggest complaints? The far too heavy-handed link to Jon Snow not wanting to be with her and her choosing to “burn them all” after the city surrendered, both problems which have been the result of the rushed pace of the final chapter of the story. Had her and Jon’s relationship had longer to grow and form (I never found their romance believable) and had we been able to spend more time seeing her gradual disintegration with each loss, then her unleashing hell on King’s Landing might have felt earned. It didn’t surprise me, but it didn’t satisfy me the way it could have done from a story perspective.

Farewell to my favourite character, Jaime Lannister

I’ve made no secret of the fact Jaime is my favourite character, only enhanced by the incredible performance that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has given since season one and it was with a heavy heart that I watched him die this week. I knew it was coming, I knew he wasn’t destined for a happy ending, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. This is another big point of debate among fans of the show and I admit, my initial reaction to his end was not a good one, but even though I wanted something slightly different, I don’t see his end falling short in terms of his character arc.

I could spend a whole post on Jaime (maybe I will do that next!), but in short, he was for me, the most fascinating and complex character in the series; someone who you couldn’t stand early on for his arrogance and seeming disdain for everyone other than his family, who slowly became a three dimensional man. This is someone who struggled to reconcile the conflicting parts of his character for perhaps his entire adult life; someone who has been lectured by his father that nothing matters more than loyalty to family, to the Lannister name, not even your honour and someone defined by his skill in war. Yes, I’d hoped he’d die in a blaze of honour, leaving Brienne to write up his good deeds in the Kingsguard book (that’s clearly a pile of ashes now anyway), but his final choice doesn’t cancel out his transformation for me.

Made to reassess who he was without his sword hand, he became someone better, mainly thanks to Brienne, perhaps the only person outside his family who loved him and accepted him for who he was (hell, not even Tywin did that!). He became someone who felt compelled to care about others again, something he seemed not to have done since his heroic act years ago branded him the dishonourable Kingslayer. It was wonderful to watch unfold and made me invest in him more than anyone else. He didn’t need to ride North to fight the Night King’s army and the old Jaime wouldn’t have and for me, him making the choice to screw family loyalty and do what was right; to keep a promise made to enemies, was him finding redemption.

It’s also true, I think, to say that he did struggle to decide on who he was going to be at the end. His time in the North gave him a glimpse at a different life, that in a different story he may have taken. I think that’s why he was drawn to Brienne. He did care for her and her belief in his honour made that connection more powerful. He initially chose to stay at Winterfell, so perhaps he was thinking he could move on, having been rejected by Cersei in the finale and were he to do so, it would of course have been with Brienne.

Yet, in the end, his downfall was one of his most endearing characteristics – his unwavering love for his family. Despite knowing who Cersei was, he couldn’t stop loving the person who’s been the closest to him his entire life. In the end, he was willing to die trying to save those he loved and that only makes his end more tragic. It’s also the reason why I never understood how people could think he’d kill her (prophecies not included on the show aside). She’d have had to execute Tyrion in front of him to be able to do that, especially when she was pregnant! The only aspect of this end that I truly didn’t like was that the dreadful Euron managed to so seriously wound him. Was that really necessary? He may not have died in a blaze of honour, but for me, he still died as a man of honour, who was also flawed and very human.

………and I can’t talk about Jaime’s end without turning to his twin…….

The end of Cersei Lannister, one of the greatest characters in any story

First things first, there’s no denying Cersei Lannister is a horrid person. She’s manipulative, deceitful, cruel, but she remains a fantastic character and another truly exciting one to follow on a series, played flawlessly by Lena Headey (how she’s not won an award for this role is madness). Despite the terrible aspects of her character, like Sansa, I couldn’t help but admire her in some twisted way, seeing her rise from under the grip of men who’d always viewed her as nothing (her father, her husband, the old crones in power in the Small Council and even her vile son). Plus, seeing her go from naked and powerless to sipping wine as all those who posed a threat to her went up in flames, was quite something. When you think about it, her and Dany have quite a lot in common (heck, Dany has now technically killed more innocent people)!

It was clear she’d never survive this episode. It was simply a case of how she’d meet her end. I assumed the “Little Brother” prophecy wasn’t part of the series (they deliberately left out the bit in the flashback) and as I’ve already mentioned, I couldn’t see Jaime killing her unless it was truly the only option. I’d considered Tyrion, or Arya, perhaps part of some confrontation in front of the Iron Throne and I’d been looking forward to seeing it!

So, perhaps the most shocking element of The Bells for me was how emotional it was watching her and Jaime die. Setting aside the incest element (we’ve known about that since day one after all), the most genuine aspect of their personalities seemed to be their bond and love of one another. I certainly found their love (as weird as it is to our modern world) more real and believable than say Jon and Dany, or Tyrion and Shae (this isn’t really a couple show!) and the moment they reunited in the exact spot where she’d cast him aside last season (clearly out of hurt and anger in my view) was quite moving. It brought home to me that they truly did belong together, as did their final moments.

Yes, I thought I wanted a big, spectacle death for Cersei, but actually, the quiet, understated end to her life worked very well; stripped of power and position, she was simply someone who was frightened to die and watching the man who’d always loved her unconditionally and who was the only person she’d ever let see her truly vulnerable, do all he could to save her and then simply provide comfort at the end, made me surprisingly upset. I didn’t see the dreadful woman. I just saw someone afraid and as she died I felt compassion for her. I’d never expected that and that’s what’s so damn good about Game of Thrones. It plays with your emotions in ways you don’t ever expect. In fact, my biggest sadness about the loss of Cersei is that she didn’t have enough scenes this season (see, it all comes back to the rushing again).

Arya Stark brings the horror of a warzone to life before our eyes

Maisie Williams has only grown better and better each year and we’ve been treated to a lot of development for Arya this year (more impressive when everything else feels so rushed). She’s gone from the emotionless slitter of Frey throats, to remembering who Arya Stark used to be. It seemed she was determined to kill Cersei and yet, her walking away from that thanks to The Hound seemed fitting. The final scene between those two characters was perfect. Once someone who perhaps scared her, he became her protector and teacher in how to survive. She’d likely be dead without him and she was clearly the only person he truly cared for. Seeing them standing in the space in the Red Keep reminded me of her in the open space of the King’s Landing home in which Syrio Forel, her first teacher and protector, gave her that wooden sword. You saw her change in that moment, looking like a little girl again, as she chose to live, rather than die seeking revenge and having her call The Hound by his first name as she said goodbye was a lovely touch.

That would have been content enough for her in 8.05, but the decision to make Arya so central to the unfolding hell in King’s Landing was a brilliant one. With so much horror raining down, we needed someone who we cared about to take us inside that environment and Arya is one the characters most cared about by audiences (she’s always been one of my favourites on the page and screen). Seeing her fight to survive again and desperately try and save others around her, was incredibly emotional, but hugely satisfying.

The gradual breaking of Tyrion Lannister’s spirit

Oh, poor Tyrion. My heart went out to him this week, as by the end of 8.05 he’d lost so much, yet he’d also started to grow in prominence in the story again. The last few seasons I’ve missed the Tyrion of early years, the one who ran King’s Landing with wits and wit and was so central to events. As characters have come together, he’s become more of a supporting role in the Dany world and it had started to feel like a waste. Yet, season eight has seen him stepping up again and The Bells saw Peter Dinklage reminding us how much we love Tyrion.

As someone who lost his place in the world after killing his father and fleeing Westeros, aligning with Dany had been his only real option for safety and another chance and he grew to believe in her, or so he thought. This week saw him having to question that choice. Perhaps his belief in her had been clouded by his awe of the idea of dragons from his childhood, awe which has started to be replaced by fear and finally, as he watched him firebomb the innocent after The Bells rang out, by horror. You saw something in him break in that moment and it leaves him in a precarious position next week.

His belief in Dany wasn’t his only loss this week either. He also lost his close friend Varys (one of the few he’s ever had), a loss which was of his own making, due to his then belief that Varys was wrong about their queen. The guilt on his face at Varys’s execution was evident and I admired the fact he confessed to him before he died.

Yet, on top of that and probably the hardest loss of them all, he lost the only member of his family that he’d ever loved and who loved him, Jaime. It was poetic to have him free him, just as Jaime had in season four and watching them say farewell to each other made me cry. Whether they survived the looming attack or not, they both knew they’d never see each other again and that came through in such an emotional scene. Their moments together have been some of the loveliest in the series and it really brought home to me that this show is coming to an end. I just hope we don’t experience Tyrion checking that cove next week and finding the boat still there, the passage blocked and realising his brother is dead. This week was hard enough! Don’t put me through that!

Is anyone else irritated by Jon Snow? Is it just me?

Oh Jon. It’s time to step up I’m afraid. Having played a surprisingly small role in the Battle of Winterfell, this week saw Jon Snow placed in his most conflicted position. He says he loves Dany (although again, it hasn’t had the time to really feel real for me), but intimacy with his auntie is not on the agenda, leaving his role this week to be yet again leading men in to battle, when he’d probably rather be up in the north with the wildlings.

We all know he’s a man of honour and seeing his changing emotions as the fight went from a relatively bloodless victory to total carnage was ideal for setting the scene for the finale. I particularly liked the sequence in which he watched his own men murdering innocent people around him, as the Lannister soldier tries to shepherd the citizens of King’s Landing to safety; yet again forcing us to see it’s not always simple who is good and who isn’t. I was also surprised he simply stood by and watched her BBQ Varys with no comment, but surely he can’t stand beside Dany’s choices this week? Time to make some tough decisions Jon Snow.

Cleganebowl…….I found it all a bit OTT……

I know this has been high on many fans’ wish lists, but it’s never been on mine and perhaps that’s partly why I didn’t really like it that much. The fight choreography was excellent and the build-up of tension, as it seemed The Hound’s thirst for revenge may not be satisfied, worked very well too, but it was all a bit over the top for me. Had this been the season four pre-Frankenstein Mountain vs. his brother in a space similar to the one in which he fought the Viper, then I’d have found it much more exciting. The very fact the Mountain was now almost unstoppable made it all a bit ridiculous. It didn’t feel like Game of Throne to me, more like an Arnie movie. That being said, I did like The Hound overcoming his fear of fire enough to willingly launch himself in to it, in order to get his long sought revenge!

The Spider has spun his last web

As has been the case with Tyrion in recent years, we’ve seen less and less of a role for Lord Varys, whose conversations in earlier seasons (especially with Littlefinger and Tyrion) were some of the show’s highlights. I’d therefore been hoping for more of him this year and his turning away from Dany laid the foundations for some final plotting.

Yet, this was again another victim of the short season and the rushing through of storylines. What in earlier seasons would have likely played out over a few episodes, with juicy dialogue, was condensed in to a couple of scenes in 8.04 and the very early part of 8.05. In fact, it was so rushed, that I totally missed the hints in the opening scene that he was perhaps hoping to poison Dany to stop the battle even happening. When it’s pointed out to you and you rewatch, it’s clear that he isn’t just worried for the Queen’s diet! The little girl from the kitchen has come to report that Dany still isn’t eating, to which he says they’ll try again at supper, after letting out a sigh.

It’s the type of subtle plotting that this series did so well early on and which has been given no time in the last two years. It was sad to see Varys go. Again, he’s a character who’s done dreadful things, but who has also done good too and who does seem to care about the best interests of the people over power. Shame he didn’t wait to have that chat with Jon after the incineration of the city. He may have received a different response!

……….

So, all in all, despite my initial frustrations, which are largely fuelled by the lack of screen time this final season has had to make story choices, such as Dany’s, feel earned, I don’t think The Bells deserves the hate it’s getting. Sometimes characters you like do things you don’t like, but does that invalidate everything great about the series as a whole? Not in my view and I still admire the fact that, with only one episode left, I have no idea how they’ll close this story.

……which brings me to….

A final look ahead

It’s hard to believe we’ve reached the end of Game of Thrones. With one episode remaining there are still a number of possibilities for its conclusion and I can’t decide which is the most predictable! Will Jon be forced to kill Dany for the good of the kingdom, becoming the “Queenslayer”? I assume he will be viewed very differently for that choice than Jaime was for making the same one.

Or will it be Arya who adds a queen to her kill list, just not the one she expected? She saw the horror of Dany’s actions up close and if Dany makes a move to harm Jon (I saw how Greyworm was looking at him during the battle this week), or Sansa, to protect her throne, I can’t see Arya not taking action. Or will Dany stay in power, putting us back to the beginning, with a “Mad” Targaryen on the throne, waiting to be overthrown? Heck, there’s even a Stark in the North and a Baratheon around to start yet another rebellion. That would certainly bring the story full circle in a bittersweet way. Honestly, all I really want is for Tyrion, Arya and Brienne (and maybe Sansa depending on my mood) to make it out of this in one piece! All my fingers are crossed!

See you next week!

The finale of Game of Thrones is on Sunday night on HBO in the USA and on Monday from 2 a.m. in the UK via Sky Atlantic. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/qyBPzUe3hNI; the short inside this week’s episode here: https://youtu.be/5W8j6wOvxuo; and the longer behind the scenes of this week’s episode here: https://youtu.be/RQ9QQMXTftY.

(All screenshots are the property of HBO/Game of Thrones)

2 thoughts on “Television Review – Harrowing & emotional – Game of Thrones 8.05 “The Bells””

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