Ranking the biggest losers of the Last War.
They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.
I should start by saying that this episode, once again directed by battle mage Miguel Sapochnik, was technically immaculate. It had all of the thrilling, visceral chaos of “The Long Night,” with the added bonus of being able to see; it had the audacious staging and tracking shots of “Hardhome;” it had the perfectly calibrated despair of “The Battle of the Bastards;” it had the arty, actor-centric moments of “The Winds of Winter.” Sapochnik has had his name attached to some of the series’ finest moments, and he outdoes himself in “The Bells” — perhaps the most visually staggering episode in all of Game of Thrones, and with all the butchering of innocents, also one of its most upsetting. There is nothing glamorous about war.
Whatever its storytelling problems (and there are legion), no one can deny this hour’s achievement as a mighty flex of filmmaking craft. Not just the battle itself, but so many of the smaller moments: Drogon looming out of the darkness before roasting Varys, a shot more singularly terrifying than anything in “The Long Night”; The shallow-focus close-ups of Tyrion and Dany in their scene at Dragonstone, both of them fraying at the edges; The lighting and color of Cleganebowl, which I could almost describe as “painterly” — really, the use of color and contrast throughout, not to mention Sapochnik’s keen eye for framing his images for maximum impact. You could hang nearly every shot from this episode on a wall.
As we start to wonder how the post-Thrones careers of the deep and exceptional cast will take shape, we can’t forget that Sapochnik (along with brilliant composer Ramin Djawadi — I loved the thumping, almost White Stripes-ian beat right before the battle kicked off, and his twist on “The Rains of Castamere” at the close) is one of the show’s biggest discoveries, and stands tall as this week’s biggest winner.
The losers, unfortunately, are the characters. This episode is already even more divisive than last week’s, which I didn’t especially enjoy. Let’s get to it, by counting down who came off the worst in “The Bells”:
10. Arya: Sometimes I feel like Arya is the only character left on this show who makes any damn sense, and she was — once again — the most interesting and effective thing about a given episode. This is in large credit to Maisie Williams, who has never been less than compelling, but also to how Thrones has succeeded in keeping Arya internally consistent where so many other characters have had to bend to serve the needs of the plot. In “The Bells,” Arya’s arc has brought her at last to King’s Landing to, as she bluntly tells another dummy camp guard, “kill Queen Cersei.” But when the moment is finally nigh, she takes the Hound’s advice and turns back — why, after coming so far? Not just because she’s basically guaranteed to die in the process. Because she looks into his face, uses his Christian name, and realizes that she doesn’t really want to be like him. She realizes she doesn’t want to be a creature purely driven by revenge and hate; she’s seen what that does. Something in her still wants to add to the world, not simply take away from it.
Arya narrowly escapes death at least a dozen times as she tries to flee the city; how many scenes begin with her coming to, and how many end with her being blasted again? Her visage becomes more ghostlike each time we cut to her; where she once navigated castles like King’s Landing and Harrenhall unseen, now she is terrifyingly out in the open. She runs into a frightened man who looks like Gendry, which seems to trigger something in her. When she tries to lead the terrified mother and daughter to safety, she’s tapping into something not just heroic, but altruistic; she’s stepping outside of herself and choosing to care. And she not only fails, but is perhaps indirectly responsible for their almost immediate deaths. What lesson Arya will learn from this is one of the more fascinating questions the finale will have to answer. The final shot of is Arya riding away on a pale horse that she almost can’t believe is real. But to where? And to do what?
9. The Hound: The best you can say is that The Hound went out on his own terms. The fight — which, again, might be the most visually magnificent stretch of the episode — is intercut with Arya, both characters falling and rising again, until their paths finally diverge for good. It’s brutally violent stuff. We finally see Gregor without his helmet: “Yeah, that’s you,” Sandor says to a dude who looks weirdly like a jaundiced Varys. “That’s what you’ve always been.” But his brother is also unkillable, and before long the Hound is laugh-crying at the futility of it all. Bloodied and half-blinded (“NOT AGAIN,” someone at my watch party shouted), Sandor sends himself and his zombie brother through a wall and into the flames, a poetic fate for The Mountain if he wasn’t too inhuman to appreciate it. The long-awaited, much-hyped CLEGANEBOWL ends in a draw, a tragic if inevitable end for one of the series’ most broken characters. I think it was going to feel unsatisfying either way, honestly, but I will surely miss Rory McCann’s performance.
8. Varys: The first to fall, and I was actually surprised, though I really shouldn’t have been. The consummate survivor, Varys has done his best work in the shadows, behind the scenes, playing both sides of every issue. “The greater the risk, the greater the reward,” he tells one of his little birds. But there was no way out of this particular jam. How many ravens bearing the truth about Jon did he get off before Grey Worm came for him? Tyrion can’t even meet his eyes when he fesses up to having betrayed the betrayer. “I hope I deserve this,” Varys responds in his typical detached fashion. “I hope I’m wrong.” But his prophetic words ring in the ears of everyone present — especially Jon’s. Varys once pitched the Dornish on Daenerys with the words “Fire and Blood” as if it was a return to a glorious national heritage. He can’t be shocked things turned out literally.
7. Grey Worm & Davos: These two didn’t have much to do, but both improbably survived again, and that’s why they’re Not-Losers. I thought for sure Grey Worm was going to finally go down when he threw himself back into battle and the editing went slow-mo. He was clearly thinking of Missandei, but he wasn’t punished for losing control of his emotions here, so he must have some part to play in the finale. And Davos, who has no business whatsoever being on the front lines no matter how cool that shot was of him walking with Grey Worm and Jon, similarly disappears from the narrative once things go pear-shaped. Was the favor Tyrion asked of him to leave the dinghy for Jaime? That wasn’t clear, and I don’t expect it to be cleared up next week.
6. Jon: Oh, Jon. What are we going to do with you? He spends most of the episode telling everyone he doesn’t want to be king and still loves Daenerys before things fall apart in spectacular fashion. She’s his queen, he repeats, come what may. But something is irrevocably broken between them, and they both know it. She also knows the entire chain of secret-spillers — Jon to Sansa to Tyrion to Varys — but Jon doesn’t apologize for telling his sisters about his true parentage; he only mopes. Dany even gives him one more chance to love her physically before he breaks away again, despondent. He is more pained at the thought of Sansa telling Tyrion than Dany finding out about it.
He still has a chance to prevent the bloodshed to come by telling her what she really needs to hear: to assure her that she can be loved by the people, to trust the part of herself that broke chains and wanted to make the world better, to help her rule wisely instead of making himself a spectator, but he does none of those things. I’ll talk more about Dany’s end of this later, but the only thing keeping Jon ranked this low is his noble, but futile, effort in the city to to call off his men and stop an outright sack. Through no intention of his own, he is perfectly positioned to end the series on the throne. So in a series where the big hero is a dumb charisma void and the ostensible heroine is craaaaaazy (“Women, right?”) something tells me that won’t happen.