Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones up to and including Season 8 Episode 5 ‘The Bells’ which aired today
It’s very easy to tell the difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones.
Something logical happens, usually terrible, because one or more characters did something in their nature – good. Something illogical happens, usually to advance the plot, because this week character A grabbed the idiot ball – bad.
This and the past season’s Game of Thrones instalments have fairly been criticised for the latter and doing things no one elevated to a position of command would reasonably do. The series’ second to last banger, bringing character arcs to entirely foreseeable (sometimes penultimate) conclusions wreak of the fresh bitter pills that the show have long made famous and which have been distinctly lacking in a saga that, even amidst dragons and all, has always prided itself on a gritty realism.
Robb and Catelyn’s deaths, among so many, resonated because it was what we hoped would not happen but only could by virtue of the characters’ dispositions. This latest episode (mostly) follows through with those we have come to know.
Case in point – Daenerys. Viewers watched in frustration last week as the conqueror failed to foresee and address a threat that could have efficiently been dealt with from her aerial advantage. Wasting no such time this week, the events leading up to and concluding with the storming of the gates, with a bit of planning, were by no means unpredictable and transfixing to watch.
Better still for situating us, as has ever been rarer the case, in the position of those none so concerned with who sits on the Iron Throne as they are the imminent threats to their lives, watching sequences play out via the masses was a welcome reprieve from seeing yet another clash through the eyes of well-trained fighters whose armour and several seasons of battle-training near ensured their survival.
The episode also deserves credit for recognising, as so well achieved with like-situated Battle of the Blackwater, that battles are simply messy things. Much may be lost in communication, everything can be frenetic, a lot goes on outside the central fighting, civilians could typically be affected and medieval-style confrontations are not confined to two swords duelling it out.
Moreover, in battle, and contrary to what has been rendered previously in much television, suffering is not always lengthy and casualties of even long-standing characters can very well be quite sudden, as Qyburn quickly learnt.
Returning to the self-styled Dragon Queen, many viewers will not be happy nor convinced by the short business she makes of King’s Landing. ‘But Daenerys was my favourite,’ or ‘she was supposed to be good,’ or ‘she was about to usher in a new world’ you might hear.
No. Daenerys has never been overly benevolent and only has been so to a blinkered view of her character, as applies to many others to boot. Game of Thrones, from Tyrion to Sansa to Jaime to Jon, however much one or more of their traits might endear you, as Tyrion at least arguably acknowledged this week has always been about rich or powerful people who are happy to sacrifice the needs of the many for the whims of the few.
Just think about Jaime at Riverrun, or Jon at the Battle of the Bastards, or Cersei, well, everywhere.
Daenerys torching the capital, as hard as that might be for some fans to swallow, is entirely consistent with her character. Sure she freed the slaves but she also crucified, yes crucified the slavers. She was happy to let prisoners of war burn both during and after the Battle of the Goldroad. She and Varys both told us exactly what she was going to do, as if the action itself of levelling the Master of Whisperers wasn’t a harbinger.
It’s a welcome counter to how Tyrion and Jon, at least for stretches two of the more switched on characters, so ceaselessly and counter-intuitively sought her rise and approval.
In the first Season she may have insisted that the Dothraki show a greater care with the conquered; this wasn’t the case in Season 7 and it’s unsurprising that there’s no such luck here. A character following through on that which we have come to know, the show forewarning us of this and treating that inevitable as both resonantly tragic and something we are likely to injudiciously reason won’t come to pass is Game of Thrones’ greatest trick and they’ve pulled it yet again.
And this wasn’t just on display for Daenerys. Viewers had hoped that Jaime had rejected Cersei’s destructive predilections but he had simply honoured a promise to ride north and fight against what wasn’t just a threat to the north but everyone, including his family. Jaime’s retort to Brienne wasn’t misdirection; he was himself forewarning us and in such a manner that very few would have wanted to believe it. His death, and the circumstances in which it occurred, may not satisfy those who tied their appeal to the character to his lengthy if still entirely unfulfilled about-turn. His early-series manner making a palpable return this time around, Jaime’s final appearance will nevertheless endear the show to those who regardless (and indeed because) of Jaime’s final and ever-turbulent moral standing found him not unfairly to be the most interesting character in Westeros.
Yes there are moments that arguably didn’t make as much sense; Arya turning around at the last moment while Sandor fulfils the much-anticipated Cleganebowl. Sure it’s a little unfair to attribute the duel to fan service given the creators have been alluding to the showdown long before their were outstripped by the weight of expectation. It’s a fair bit over the top, given even all else that transpires, but it’s still very fun to watch.
The tracking shots, mostly of Arya, are very well done; these and the transitions between her and Cleganathon being more forgiving advents than the ever-frustrating coincidences which litter this episode. How Jaime and Euron then Jaime and Cersei were the only ones who were able to find each other amidst the carnage we’ll never know.
All up an improvement on previous weeks, we’re in the endgame (sorry) and what’s left of the stage is well and truly set.