Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) has always hated the bells of King’s Landing and for good reason. They tolled tonight and the capital of the Seven Kingdoms blew like ash into literal hell. “The Bells,” written by the show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is an episode that serves as a farewell to several major characters and your feelings about how the penultimate episode of the series are likely to be shaped by how you feel those characters and even the ones who are surviving were served.
The momentous twist of the episode, and likely the break it or make it moment for many, is the fatal decision by Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to unleash all holy hell upon King’s Landing. She is sitting atop Drogon, feeling in many ways broken, isolated, and betrayed by everyone around her. Her life’s greatest desire, the Iron Throne, is right there in front of her, just waiting for her to sit on it in the Red Keep. She breaks and my belief in the episode partially breaks along with it.
“The Bells” is superbly directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who is likely to garner another Emmy nomination if not an outright win for his incredible vision. Every second, from the opening shot of the Iron Fleet sitting in Blackwater Bay to the final shot of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) riding away on a pale mare, made me tremble with goosebumps. I honestly cannot remember the last episode of the television that made me physically shake the way I did here. Ramin Djawadi’s score was brilliant and the sound work in combination elevated the tension to something beautiful.
The first half of the episode was excellent, if also an unfortunate showcase for some of the more blunt dialogue that has overtaken the series as of late. Lord Varys’s attempts at getting Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to take the Iron Throne for himself fall on adamantly deaf ears as one would expect. These, as it turns out, were the last webs the Spider was going to ever spin as he is summarily executed by Daenerys for treason. The mood for the episode is set with this first major character demise and there were several more to come.
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) sets Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) free, knowing full well the dangers of doing so but hoping that somehow the almost inevitable catastrophe of what awaits King’s Landing is subverted. The two share a touching moment and as it turns out, it was the last time the two Lannister siblings would be together. Jaime slays Euron (Pilou Asbsæk) outside the Red Keep and wanders in to find Cersei (Lena Headey) standing atop her beloved painted map. The poetic drama of this being the place where Jaime left Cersei at the end of the previous season is not lost on the audience, nor the metaphor of the Red Keep crumbling down upon Cersei’s map.
Cersei’s confidence in Euron’s ability to kill Dragon and the safeguards above the ramparts of King’s Landing reminded me of Tywin Lannister’s (Charles Dance) reprimand. He didn’t trust her because she was not as clever as she thought she was and that proved to be instrumental in her downfall. While some of her confidence in Euron’s ability to kill a dragon and the sheer quantity of scorpions on the battlements of King’s Landing was to some degree understandable, it perhaps spoke to that fundamental weakness of hers to where she simply saw that she had an even chance to gain an upper hand.
As the imminence of her death literally rained down her, the reality of it all hit Cersei and the desire to not want her child to die in the fire and stones crashing all around her hit home hard. It was too late. The Lannister siblings die together as the Red Keep crashes upon them, a potentially disappointing end for the infamous duo. Redemption arcs, when done realistically, are incredibly potent because they understand that redemption is a messy road to travel. What is perhaps intricately tied to the disappointment of this death is the expectation of a more dramatic death from Cersei and a feeling that Jaime’s narrative this season in hindsight doesn’t make any sense.
Sandor’s (Rory McCann) final lesson to Arya is the importance of mercy and the necessity of living life outside of the confines of revenge. “Look at what it’s done to me!” he urges with a righteous anger and Arya listens. She tries to help others escaping the carnage around her before she, as death, rides off on the back of a pale mare. Sandor on the other hand has the fated duel with his brother the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and Cleganebowl does not disappoint. Both brothers perish together, consumed by fire and ashes.
King’s Landing stands largely destroyed and several of the characters who tied this saga together met their maker this week. I feel with this episode that we absolutely needed more episodes both last and this season. Daenerys’s decision to raze King’s Landing in particular could have benefited significantly from such an expansion in time, with the tragedy feeling earned and germane to the narrative. Instead it felt rushed and even if the overarching theme is keeping with Martin’s dark warnings about power, the show’s treatment of it arguably did not value that nuance the way it ought to have.
Much deeper thoughts to come later and especially after the finale. What are your thoughts, folks?