GAME OF THRONES: “The Bells”

5. Tyrion: Tyrion is the Kyrie Irving of this thing; he talks a big, high-minded game (just not in Valyrian), but goes ice cold in the playoffs and refuses to make any adjustments. “The next time you fail me,” Dany seethes, “will be the last time you fail me.” He tries to save not just his brother, but his hated sister, hanging everything on a plan to have Jaime ring the bells of surrender whether Cersei intends it or not. He is proven right about one thing — that the Lannister army would rather give up than die — but that is ultimately spoiled like everything else.

At least Dinklage is remarkable in his final heartbreaking scene with Jaime, the emotional high point of the episode. “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster,” he says, knowing that by sending Jaime to Cersei, repaying him for “The Children,” he’s likely sending him to his death. He expects to be next on the block if Dany finds out he sprung his brother, but in his moral calculus it’s worth it: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives, one not particularly innocent dwarf. Seems like a fair trade.” He is ready to give everything he can to save the city, its people, its history, its architecture, and beg for mercy after. Will he still have to, with the Dinghy Escape Plan buried under the Red Keep? That’s unclear, too. But he is now the last Lannister (of any consequence), the gold mines are dry, his queen is a tyrant, and he is unloved, untrusted, and a failure. Except, perhaps…to Sansa?

“By the way, I’ve been a merman all along”

4. Euron & Qyburn: Losers because they died. That’s pretty much it. Qyburn gets his brains bashed out when the Mountain realizes the only shred of humanity he retains is the shred that hates his brother, and good riddance to the evil not-Maester. Good riddance as well to Euron, who fails to hit Drogon with any of his Even Bigger Crossbows™, loses his fleet, takes undue credit for being “the man who killed Jaime Lannister” (he says, to no one), and never realizes Cersei was lying to him about him being the father of her child. Sorry, my guy. I should probably shout out Anton Lesser, who has leant gravitas to a two-dimensional character for years, and Pilou Asbæk, who often seemed to be the only one on Game of Thrones having any fun.

3. Cersei: Her death was unsurprising. That she died frightened and babbling was also cathartic, in its way, but more like Joffrey’s morally ambiguous end than, say, Littlefinger’s. Cersei was a monster — Cruel and narcissistic, clinging to power for the sake of it; her cunning often undone by short-sightedness and underestimating her enemies. And up until the end, she is in denial: Drogon has taken out her fleet, the Even Bigger Crossbows™ are gone, the Unsullied are inside the city gates. “All we need is one good shot,” she stutters to Qyburn. Her men will fight better than Dany’s sellswords, she maintains, but her men are sellswords too, and “The Bells” make Harry Strickland and his illustrious, elephant-less Golden Company into chumps. (Seriously, what a doofus. What was even the point?) When someone — not Jaime — rings the bell, her careful facade finally crumbles along with the city gates.

But for a moment, it looks like twisted victory may be seized from the jaws of defeat; the wildfire Cersei had planted goes up when Drogon is unleashed, accelerating the destruction of the city she abhors and the small folk she loathes. She loses, but she will at least lose proving that Daenerys is every bit the tyrant she propagandized her to be. There’s no joy in it, however; only shock, and she moves in a haze down the stairs where the Mountain kills Qyburn and Sandor simply…lets her pass. Until Jaime finds her in the map room, she is utterly alone, thinking only of saving her child, which she is for the fourth time unable to do. Same as it ever was. Lena Headey was largely sidelined this season — she deserved much better than staring smugly off balconies for two seasons — but she made those final moments count, generating pangs of empathy, if not sympathy, for the woman who scraped and clawed her way to agency in a world that constantly tried to take it away. At least, the scene made a lot more sense for her than for her brother.

WHAT A GOOBER

2. Daenerys: If you squint, you can see the intention. It almost works. Characters have been ringing alarm bells about Targaryen madness for years, and Dany has never met a problem she couldn’t solve with fire. Mirri Maz Duur. The House of the Undying. Astapor. Meereen. Vaes Dothrak. The Tarlys. It’s as much a part of Dany’s character as her desire to claim the throne, and you could argue she doesn’t get to this point without committing those war crimes first. And there is ample evidence that the books are going this way (read this superb essay on Dany as a tragic Shakespearean character). If Benioff and Weiss are doing Martin’s ending, this is part of it. But while Martin has thousands of pages to transition Dany from idealist to tyrant, the show only has a few hours, and the connective tissue simply isn’t there. It may not be surprising, but it’s not earned either, no matter how much time Varys and Tyrion spend fretting about it.

Not that the writers don’t try. At the beginning of “The Bells” Dany is ragged, a shell of herself. She doesn’t yell about betrayal. She doesn’t get viscerally angry. But she doesn’t mince words, either. To Tyrion: “Sansa trusted you to spread secrets that could destroy your own queen, and you did not let her down.” Even that doesn’t matter now; the die has been cast, and with no one she trusts still living to talk her off the ledge, the choice has already been made. But there’s a difference between going nuclear against your enemies and slaughtering innocents — she once interceded when the Dothraki attacked the Lhazereen, and her entire campaign through Essos was built on freeing slaves to the point of being itself problematic with its white savior imagery.

The choice Dany makes at the moment victory is already assured (with one dragon and a fraction of her original force!) is confusing and rushed, and Emilia Clarke sells the hell out of it, but the truth is that she shouldn’t have had to. She lifts her eyes to the hill and could have gone straight for it, but doesn’t. Why? What prompted this, actually, in that moment? There is no good answer, because this is how the series ends and if the writing to this point simply doesn’t support that, that’s too bad. We’re going to get our apocalyptic “horror of war” climax; we’re going to see characters we care about fall back to their baser instincts; it’s going to be ugly and brutal and make us feel bad, and that’s all by design. There are no true heroes. We get it. The Ramsey Bolton quote about happy endings is ringing in our ears. But where Thrones is faltering, here at the finish, is in the execution, not the intention. It expects us to connect invisible dots that it didn’t put in the effort to properly place. And that’s too bad. A few more episodes, or one more season, or two more books, and we get there.

Ugh

1. Jaime: If the Dany stuff was frustrating, the Jaime stuff was downright insulting. I tried to defend him last week! I said that the writing of his scene with Brienne left his intentions ambiguous; I was so sure that the show wasn’t going to just throw away years of character development and patient redemption. I couldn’t imagine that the same Jaime that knighted Brienne and fought alongside her would run back to King’s Landing because he wasn’t over Cersei. Alas. That’s exactly what happened, and I’m furious.

And again, I’m trying to see the bigger picture here. This could easily be Jaime’s destiny in the novels. But we saw him flip back to her in the span of a single episode after all that effort, and it’s once again a disaster in the execution. I can see him leaving Brienne because he felt like he didn’t deserve her. I can understand him wanting to be there when Cersei died, or being ready to die by her side. You could talk me into Jaime trying to save Cersei’s life because she’s his sister, not because she’s still the thing he loves most in the world. Not like this. Not for him to look her in the face and say “nothing else matters, only us.” This is a guy who got his Kingslayer title by once trying to save the city. It’s nonsensical. The Jaime who lost his hand and pulled himself out of despair wasn’t this myopic. Even Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who deserves an Emmy nomination more than anyone) is having a hard time with it.

I don’t know what else to say about it. It was stupid and upsetting and, despite how I usually feel about bad series endings not necessarily erasing everything you liked about a show, is going to make it really hard to appreciate Jaime scenes if I re-watch it. Good characters grow. Great characters struggle despite their growth. Jaime Lannister was a great character until Benioff and Weiss simply got lazy, and the sprint to the finish took precedence over everything else.

Now it’s all gotta end, somehow, and we’ll probably hate that too. Unless we don’t!

Honorable Mention: George R. R. Martin. Please write, George. Make this all make sense.

Next week: Queen of the ashes.

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