So: How was everyone’s Mother’s Day?
If you’re like me, you spent Sunday hastily buying a card, procuring an inexpensive-but-not-cheap bouquet and making a few dutifully appreciative phone calls. If you’re like Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, you spent Sunday taking a big, huge, Drogon-sized bowel movement on the biggest mamma of them all: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lady of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, Lady of Dragonstone, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
With “The Bells,” the fifth and penultimate episode of GoT’s final season, Benioff and Weiss have well and truly ruined seven seasons’ worth of careful character-building, not to mention immensely impressive work from Emilia Clarke, in one fiery fell swoop.
Since GoT premiered, the show has positioned Dany (there’s no way I’m typing out her full title again) as the hero that Westeros needs: an intelligent, compassionate, courageous leader who puts her people, not her power, first. A woman who, having spent the majority of her life treated as property, pushed to free those who were similarly commodified. The series sold the hell out of this narrative – especially contrasted against the unceasing cruelty of Cersei – and Clarke matched the emotional depth and complexity that her character’s arc required beat for beat.
But apparently Benioff and Weiss (and, I can only assume, George R.R. Martin) had other, stupider plans for Dany, as the entirety of Season Eight has been about taking what was once a hero who made sense in her world and ours and turning her into just another riff on, Women Be Crazy, Right??? Maybe this abrupt change of tack makes sense in whatever two forthcoming (ha!) GoT novels are still floating around in Martin’s head, but jammed into the course of the past five episodes, it feels beyond rushed. It is cheap, it is ugly and it is unearned.
If Benioff and Weiss wanted Dany to end up becoming as mad as her father, as bloodthirsty and insane as the character we saw in Sunday’s episode – a character who saw her enemy surrender, yet still chose to massacre an entire city filled with innocents – then the writers had ample opportunity to lay the groundwork for that decision over the past seven seasons. But they didn’t, and so the carnage of “The Bells” feels like a slap in the face when the writers were instead aiming for a punch to the gut.
It is not merely a matter of disliking a particular character direction or failing to relate to an overarching narrative theme. It is clear, with Dany’s embrace of power-mad viciousness, that Benioff and Weiss are trying to tell us that hey, man, humans are really messed up, and existence is a hellish wheel that will forever turn toward cruelty. GoT has been built on highlighting the worst of its (re: our) world since its series premiere. Dany’s fire-bombing of King’s Landing fits into Martin’s ultimate, if obvious and Cynical Goth Teen 101, thesis: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We don’t have to agree with that lesson or even appreciate it. But for the series to have any purpose – for it to have any artistic reason for existing and occupying our minds and social-media feeds for the past decade – its message has to have been delivered with consistent creative vigour. Its execution has to live up to the series’ own history of storytelling excellence. And “The Bells” fell as far from that standard as Bran did from his perch way back in the series’ first episode. The mishandling, the damn near dismantling, of Dany as a character is a sloppy, crass and cheap con job that should forever haunt all involved.
Well, everyone except Clarke. Again faced with acting out ridiculously insulting turns of story (must we believe that her turn toward unmitigated vengeance is due to a romantic rejection from Jon Snow?) and uttering even worse dialogue (“Far more people in Westeros love you than love me,” she tells Jon, “I don’t have love here, I have fear”), the performer does her absolute best in trying to convince herself, and us, that this all makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t, but Clarke proves that one of the HBO series’s greatest strengths is its initial casting. (And I do mean “initial,” as any time Pilou Asbaek is on-screen as Euron, I have to wonder how much he is to blame for that rogue’s unbearable presence, or whether the actor has just always been given the direction of: “What if Jack Sparrow ... but on cocaine?”)
Sunday’s episode crammed a whole lot of other foolishness into its 80 minutes, but to deeply dissect every misstep would take me until sunrise. So here’s a brief recap of everything else “The Bells” offered, and treated with as much critical respect by myself as the moments were by Benioff and Weiss:
- Drogon: Not a fan of King’s Landing architecture, turns out.
- RIP to so many characters: Varys (when you get to Backstabber Heaven, say hi to Illyrio, who I also presume is dead but who knows); Qyburn (I was kinda hoping he’d live long enough to invent an even bigger bow and arrow, but oh well); Sandor and Gregor Clegane (in the end, the much-anticipated Cleganebowl was a draw, but worst of all was that we had to realize that the only thing GoT’s makeup crew could think of for Zombie Gregor’s look was, “What if Anakin Skywalker ... but also on cocaine?”); the entirety of King’s Landing, including some mother named Nora (but at least her death will spark a thousand bad “GoT appropriates 9/11 imagery” essays); and the original twincest superstars Cersei and Jaime Lannister (a different, equally furious essay could focus just as much on how Benioff and Weiss failed Jaime as they did Dany).
- I appreciate (for now) that Benioff and Weiss let Arya live to see another day, but the episode didn’t have to spend its entire latter half trying to trick us into thinking she was dead.
- Holy hell, this was the goriest episode to date, which is saying something. I get that Benioff and Weiss (and director Miguel Sapochnik, who at least ensured this episode’s battle was visible, unlike his “The Long Night” episode two weeks’ ago) wanted us to see just how destructive Dany’s actions play out on the ground, but there is a natural point at which eight throat-slashings get that point across without adding in a ninth for kicks.
- Speaking of direction: As dumb as “The Bells” was, there were some impressive images on display, mostly Drogon-related, including his appearance just before incinerating Varys, his fiery path through King’s Landing, and his looping descent upon Euron’s fleet (evasive measures that apparently were foreign to his late brother, Rhaegal).
- I assume there is a reason as to why that white horse appeared out of nowhere to comfort Arya in the episode’s final few minutes, but I couldn’t care less as to what it might be. (Unless the horse is in actuality a shape-shifting Syrio Forel, in which case, all is forgiven.)
There is a lot more to question about “The Bells,” and oh Lord of Light its substance and approach doesn’t bode well for next week’s series finale. But the only thing I’m left wondering at the moment is: Why? As in: Why have Benioff and Weiss so egregiously tossed out so many years of work to produce this rushed hot mess?
Next week’s series finale is titled “A Dream of Spring.” Maybe it will end up Tyrion waking up in bed, Newhart-style. At this point, that would make as much sense as anything.
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