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Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 5 (The Bells) - Review

Game of Thrones, The Bells

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

THERE’S something very strange about watching the final series of Game of Thrones. On the one hand, it’s epic, fast moving and packed with the type of big pay-off moments that most seasons take seven or eight episodes to deliver.

Yet therein lies its problem. While still wildly entertaining and largely unpredictable, there’s also a sense that things are being rushed… that a little more time could have yielded even greater benefits.

Season 8 is by no means the disaster some have accused it of being. But viewed as a whole, it’s a weaker beast than its individual episodes. Penultimate instalment The Bells encapsulated this sentiment to a sometimes frustrating, yet often awe-inspiring degree.

After the Shakespearean subterfuge of the previous episode, The Last of The Starks, The Bells was poised for all-out war; a clash of two female titans and an inevitable culling of some of the show’s biggest stars.

In true Thrones fashion, things didn’t quite pan out the way viewers expected. The lengthy battle many predicted didn’t really materialise. Rather, we bore witness to a massacre.

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) completed her descent into madness in spectacular fashion. Fuelled by both anger and loss, Dany let her sole remaining dragon reign fire upon Westeros, killing innocent men, women and children even after the troops of Cersei (Lena Headey) had surrendered.

It was shocking, emotionally stirring stuff. The appalled looks on the faces of both Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) speaking volumes for how the audience was feeling.

In truth, Daenerys journey to this point has been well mapped, contrary to some fan suggestions. But in its desire to wrap things up quickly, Game of Thrones has failed some of its principal players.

One of the show’s greatest strengths has been character arc. Hence, players such as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have moved from being hated to being sympathised with and, finally, adored. Yet, in the space of a few short minutes, some arcs were shattered.

For Dany, this was particularly cruel. Clarke, for her part, managed to channel the sense of torment her feelings of loss and anger were conjuring in her. But they were fleeting glimpses of what could have been a sensational performance. Had she been allowed more time to wrestle with her demons, to grapple with her emotions and to interplay more with her advisers, then her actions would, perhaps, have felt even more shocking and even more complex.

In The Bells, her switch from tragic heroine to mad, bad queen was too instant – too irredeemable.

For this, co-writers David Benioff and DB Weiss must take a lot of the blame. But so, too, must the money men behind the show, whose decision to restrict this final run (and its myriad plotlines) to six extended episodes must now be called into question.

And just as Dany was failed, so too were Jaime, Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill). The latter, especially, met a quick demise. Where last week’s episode had delivered several classic exchanges between Varys and Tyrion, as they contemplated the potential cost of betraying the increasingly unstable Dany, such exchanges were kept to a minimum here.

Varys was given up early on, and executed by dragon’s fire for daring to suggest Jon Snow would make a better ruler than Dany. Tyrion served as betrayer, failing to heed the warning: “They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.”

Yet, in the space of two more breaths, Varys’ warning had proved prophetic. Tyrion realised his latest ‘mistake’ and yet made another, freeing his brother, Jaime, to try and rescue their sister, Cersai.

And therein lay another writing mistake. Jaime’s sudden U-turn from hero to, well, his former self felt like something of a betrayal too. Jaime’s journey from villain to potential hero had been one of the show’s biggest surprises and many highlights to this point, culminating with his emotional ‘knighting’ of Brienne in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.

Yet once again, in no time at all, Jaime had given up on his journey and opted to side with Cersai. And while the decision made a certain kind of sense, the turnaround proved too fast. It was unsatisfying. Coster-Waldau should have been allowed more time to wrestle with the implications of his decision: to, at the very least, be afforded a moment of pause to decide whether to kill, or be killed with, his sister.

Game of Thrones, The Bells

Speaking of whom, Cersai has been very badly served this series. The show’s one true villain has had many moments to savour over the course of the series, yet here was reduced to a bit part player. It felt as though Benioff and Weiss decided that she could do no more other than smirk and watch her demise. There was little time for scheming and barely any for any sense of defeat.

True, there was a brief sense of sorrow as she and Jaime realised their fate in the depths of Westeros. But it was all too brief.

Hence, this final season of Game of Thrones now runs the risk of being judged on where it failed, rather than where it succeeded. And there were still successes.

Unlike his previous episode, The Long Night, director Miguel Sapochnik ensured that the action was visible and well lit. Hence, his scenes of destruction were violent and devastating.

This was the bloodbath that some of the show’s fans had been baying for. In doing so, it accurately depicted the true chaos of war: the savagery, the brutality, the corrupting of souls. It contained frightening parallels to real-life conflict, depicting man’s inhumanity to man.

Sapochnik deserves credit, too, for allowing small moments to occasionally outshine the big ones. Jon Snow’s disdain and despair for his own troops was palpable, not least when one turned potential rapist in front of him. Surely, he cannot now avoid his own legacy? And must confront Dany?

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) also provided some memorable moments, being allowed to be the eyes and ears of the viewer as she desperately tried to save herself and some of Westeros’ people from death by dragon fire. Her journey actually felt more pronounced in these moments: the brave, fearless warrior of so many episodes now stripped of that bravery and clutching frantically to her life, fearful of what she now has to lose. Will she now be the one to slay Dany? Or will she ride off into her own ‘happy ending’… one afforded to her by The Hound?

Of note, too, was the final battle between The Hound and his brother… the long predicted Cleganebowl. It was entirely ridiculous, to be fair. But it had a poetry to it, too, a madness befitting these two characters. That they would end up killing each other was something I’d long predicted. But there was something strangely touching about seeing The Hound fall to a fiery death.

In terms of spectacle, therefore, The Bells did deliver, right down to those mesmerising shots of Dany’s fire-breathing dragon laying waste to vast swathes of city, to ships and – in a metaphorical sense – to Dany’s own soul.

And there were other small moments, too, none more so than the final scene between Tyrion and Jaime, in which they embraced each other in a tearful exchange. Tyrion, another character under-served by poor script choices in recent weeks, here got another chance to remind us of what a fantastically complex creation he has been. It remains to be seen how Tyrion fares in the final episode. At this stage, all bets are off.

So, to conclude. The Bells was as spectacular as it was frustrating. It entertained and appalled. And it posed many questions, perhaps the biggest of which is ‘for whom will the final bell toll’? Will it be for the characters we have come to love for so long, as they’re afforded a final, rewarding pay-off? Or will it be for the show in general, which could yet stumble in its sprint towards such a quick conclusion?