3.5 out of 5 stars

If you were expecting “The Bells” to pick up where we left off, with the commencement of a great battle between Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Cersei (Lena Headey) after Missandei was executed, for reasons it seems Cersei allowed her arch-nemesis to retreat to Dragonstone and consider their next move against her. It doesn’t make sense, strategically, but it does allow for the episode to anchor a few things ahead of their delayed clash.

At Dragonstone

The big moments at Dragonstone included Varys (Conleth Hill) writing a letter about Jon Snow’s true heritage to ensure the secret exists more tangibly in the world, which proves to be a wise move once Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) confesses to Dany that he let “the master of whispers” into his circle of trust after Sansa spilt the beans, knowing he’d do so and erode Dany’s legitimacy. This leads to the execution of Varys by dragon fire (a wise move as he was attempting to poison her), and a touching scene where Tyrion had a quiet moment with the friend he’s condemned to death.

Tyrion’s standing in Dany’s eyes has suffered greatly in recent times, and it did seem likely this latest “mistake” would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And perhaps it was? Tyrion made Dany accept she’d withdraw from battle if the city bell is rung, as it traditionally signals the surrender of the reigning monarch, but this small victory isn’t honoured at the crucial moment…

Another sign of this final six-part season being rushed also occurred, with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) captured after riding south to be with his sister at King’s Landing. But at least it resulted in the episode’s most emotional moment, with Tyrion freeing his brother and arranging for Jaime and even Cersei’s safe passage to Pentos if they can make it out of the city to his rendezvous point beneath the crypt, repaying the years Jaime kept an eye out for him when they were children growing up together. Dinklage was particularly good in this scene, which worked beautifully because we know the agony of Tyrion’s life as a dwarf in such a cruel and unforgiving world, through despite putting a brave face on things for his tormentors. Sadly, these scenes were once the cornerstone of Game of Thrones, but season 8’s swallowed them with spectacle.

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At King’s Landing

The majority of the episode took place in and around King’s Landing, for another spectacular battle that had the added technical difficulty of taking place in broad daylight. For those who squinted at their televisions during “The Long Night” and its miasma of blacks and greys thanks to a combination of uncalibrated screens and streaming artefacts, it was easy to discern what was happening when Dany’s forces arrived outside the capital.

One of the episode’s big surprises was just how effective Dany was with her strategy to seize the Iron Throne. After a couple of episodes spent levelling the playing field (reducing her to one dragon, decimating her Dothraki and Unsullied forces at Winterfell), things went extraordinarily well. That’s until they didn’t. Dany rode Drogon straight at the Iron Fleet and their dragon-slaying scorpions, obliterating Euron Greyjoy’s (Pilou Asbæk) ships in minutes, before turning her attention to the famous Golden Company and easily reducing them to flaming piles of bodies by attacking from behind. And once Dany had spent a short time flying around the city, strafing every last scorpion away on the battlements, it was a surprise to realise victory was in her grasp without her enemies putting up much of a fight. Cersei could only watch in quiet consternation as Drogon obliterated her defences and Jon Snow led the Northmen into the Red Keep; stoicism and faith slowly wilting to a realisation her reign is over and her life’s in danger.

And then, the writers took a decision that’s been foreshadowed for a while, but not very convincingly: Daenerys Targaryen went crazy. The bells rang as a sign of Cersei’s surrender before too much innocent blood needed to be spilt, and yet Dany was suddenly consumed with feelings of vengeance and unleashed her fury on the city she came to liberate from a tyrant.

To Jon and Tyrion’s terror and bewilderment, their beloved Queen went on a killing spree and turned streets into furnaces as men, women, and children were turned to ash. Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) stayed loyal to Dany despite her uncharacteristic change of tact, presumably because they were both united in grief over Missandei’s death, and led the Unsullied and Dothraki into further scenes of dishonourable carnage against surrendered soldiers. Only Jon and Davos (Liam Cunningham) stayed honourable and tried to help people escape, aware Dany’s now become their enemy because of her brutal and callous actions.

The success, or otherwise, of this episode rests on whether or not you find it believable Danerys “the breaker of chains” could do something this horrendous to the people she came to Westeros to rule in benevolence. Has her sense of alienation, the loss of her trusted circle of advisors and closest friends, plus the deaths of her two dragons, really been enough to tip her over the edge into savagery? On paper, perhaps, but in practice, it was difficult to accept.

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Game of Thrones has spent years making audiences see Dany as a progressive figure of change in this savage world, but only recently have their been moments when she’d make poor decisions or do worrying things like burn people alive for being disloyal. Maybe the book version of the character’s more nuanced and her darker side’s more noticeable (I don’t know), or casting someone like Emilia Clarke has made it too easy to see the goodness in Daenerys, or maybe we’ve just enjoyed the prospect of her forming a ‘power couple’ with Jon Snow too much?

Whatever the reasons, seeing “a hero” of the show become a genocidal tyrant was hard to swallow. It didn’t help that Clarke had to convince us of this massive change with facial expressions as she “cracked”, because she’s not up to that challenge as an actress. Or the groundwork wasn’t there for her. It was also telling we never saw Dany again once she started raining fire on King’s Landing and its people. I suspect the writers knew Clarke couldn’t play that moment because it would have felt too incongruous. Was she smiling and screaming with joy as she roasted little kids in the street? When a good person loses their sanity and embraces evil in a bid for supreme power, it doesn’t work unless there’s a solid foundation for that to have grown from. Sadly, Game of Thrones tried to have its cake and eat it when it came to the Messianic Daenerys.

However, there were individual moments in the King’s Landing tragedy that registered and worked. I liked the Hound (Rory McCann) steering Arya (Maisie Williams) away from her mission to assassinate Cersei, aware a stealth attack isn’t required now the world’s gone to hell in a handcart, and it seemed to snap Arya out of her spell as professional killer and back into a more humane girl who instead spent the rest of the episode trying to help ordinary folk escape fiery deaths. And then the Hound finally got his long-awaited fight against his big brother, the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), which took place in a very dramatic location on a Red Keep staircase that’s lost its outer wall and now overlooks a vista of flaming buildings.

The fight between the Clegane brothers was great fun, with the Mountain’s helmet removed to reveal the monstrous truth of his appearance after Qyburn (Anton Lesser) resurrected him. One had to feel for the Hound when he landed some ordinarily life-ending blows in, only for the Mountain to barely register his “fatal” injuries. And in the end, a half-blinded Hound could only claim victory by ending both their anguished lives, pushing his big brother off the staircase and down into the flames. A fitting end for the Hound, to end his life in the fire his sibling gave him a phobia of.

Less enthralling was a fight between Jaime and Euron, who escaped death when the Iron Fleet was left to burn. Both believe they’re the father of Cersei’s unborn baby, with Euron clearly jealous of what Jaime represents in the world. Their duel was entertaining to a point, but only because Euron’s so hateable and a penultimate episode is almost expected to deliver some big character deaths. Euron was left to die with a fatal stomach wound, although he seemed happy in the knowledge he was the man who killed the great Jaime Lannister (not entirely accurately)—who limped away on borrowed time.

If you expected a face-to-face confrontation between Cersei and Dany, that was also denied. Instead, Jaime found his beloved sister and they tried to escape by following Tyrion’s plan, only to find the route blocked by fallen debris. Lena Headey’s been the best actress on the show from the start, so it’s a shame her last episode didn’t give her more opportunities to shine, but her reunion with her brother and the sense of relief to see him was fantastic. It also made me feel some sympathy for Cersei - who was a terrible ruler, but not ‘flambé your own people’ levels of terrible. The fact Cersei met her end worrying about her child and not wanting to die, consoled by the one person who truly loved her, warts and all, as the walls of her kingdom literally came down around them, wasn’t a bad way to go. I was expecting a ceremonial beheading in the finale.

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In Summation:

As the second of this season’s big battle sequences, “The Bells” was another high benchmark for what television can achieve on a visual level. It wasn’t perfect and not every moment looked totally believable (with a few wonky sequences of compositing and obvious greenscreen), but at least everything was there to be gawped at. It delivered the intensity and horror of the situation that unfolded once Dany went rogue and chose to rule “in fear”.

It also contained a handful of good moments centred on popular characters: both of Tyrion’s goodbyes to the only men in the world he could call friends, the delight in the Hound getting a chance to kill his awful brother, and Cersei’s final moments with Jaime staring into his eyes as the Lannister’s reign came to a destructive end.

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Unfortunately, nagging away at everything in the second half of the episode was the unshakeable feeling Game of Thrones’ writers have failed the audience since moving beyond George R.R Martin’s published novels. They didn’t get us to a point where Daenerys slaughtering thousands of people, despite having won the battle decisively, would feel painful but inevitable. She’s been painted as too much of a saint for too long and it just didn’t feel earned. She’s had her vindictive moments, sure, but is she capable of genocide? We should have felt crushed by her heinous act, but subconsciously aware this was in her nature all along, and for it to make sense of her characterisation until this point. The writing didn’t get me there, but it seems likely the novels will have the time and space to make this arc play out better.

So what happens next? At least the finale feels more unpredictable now. I mean, it seems obvious Jon Snow and the Northmen are going to have to try and dethrone Danerys, but it’ll be interesting to see how Dany reflects on what’s happened and how she’s sacrificed her morality to take her birthright. Will all the humanity and goodness have drained away from her character, as she focuses on protecting her position by killing Jon the rightful king? Will Jon have to kill the woman he loves and accept his destiny? Does ending the show with a mild-mannered guy taking over from a psychotic woman play well in 2019? Is there a third way to end the story, with Sansa maybe rising to the fore? Does Bran still have a role to play in all this, by maybe warging into Drogon?

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