With its latest emotionally eviscerating (and hideously naff) episode, the show held up a mirror to its audience’s lust for violence – and we’re all implicated
War is hell … Game of Thrones. Photograph: HBO/Helen Sloan
In wrapping up in six, albeit lengthy episodes, Game of Thrones was always setting itself an invidious task. Long-term watchers of the show have been forced not so much to suspend disbelief as to throw it out altogether like a boy from a tower. Cross-country journeys that once took half a series are now being completed in half an episode to speed things up. The writing of George RR Martin is much missed; the ruminative, witty, mordant dialogue has been pared to the bone. Tyrion has been a particular victim of this – his contemporary sensibility sidelined as events reach the brutal end, his humanism an irrelevance, sacrificed for spectacle.
The Bells gives much for those disaffected to feast on. First up, the sheer ease with which Dany, her surviving dragon and her armies conquer King’s Landing. Hadn’t we been led to believe that her forces had been weakened and that Euron’s scorpion super-weapon, which already downed one dragon, would make for a more effective defence shield? Apparently not. As for Dany herself, her descent into dead-eyed vindictiveness has been too steep, in keeping with the general, compressed feel of this series. Was the killing of Missandei really enough to tip her over this particular edge?
Then there was the much anticipated Cleganebowl, which, like much of this episode, felt like it was pandering to the expectations of a generation steeped in the hyperreal visual language of computer games. It felt placed there purely to live up to a promise; Gregor is unmasked, like a wrestler, revealed as apparently undead as he is able to shrug off a knife through the brain as a mere flesh wound. Both tumble into the fiery depths in what presumably must be declared a draw. Varys’ downfall seems uncharacteristic, another victim of dramatic haste; why did he play his hand so early?
Add in the hideously naff, fourth wall-breaking last words of Euron (“I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister”) and there is much to be dissatisfied about in The Bells. However, for those of us who have invested a significant fraction of our lives in this show, have built up a mountain of goodwill towards it, there is no walking away at this stage and for all its faults, The Bells, in its morally pyrrhic victory, was emotionally eviscerating.
This, after all, was the moment longterm fans have been dreaming of for years; to see that smug, crooked half-smile wiped off Cersei’s face. It was still locked on as the episode advanced. Indeed, as Dany and her dragon begin to lay incendiary waste to her first line of defence, you think; this is too easy. Too one-sided. Every previous battle scene has seen a final twist, a fightback against seemingly impossible odds.
Not tonight. You soon realise that the fall of King’s Landing and the doom of Cersei is inevitable. The only question is, how will the fatality occur? In the meanwhile, the carnage made me think of the closing stages of the second world war. The horrors inflicted on Dresden. The Russian army sweeping across Germany. Hiroshima, even. (Initially, the dragons seemed like metaphors for nuclear weapons; then they felt busted down to effective but vulnerable military aircraft; now, even down to one, they are nuclear again in their destructive capacity).
Much as GoT fans might feel robbed of satisfaction by the rushed handling of this final series, they are robbed more pertinently of the satisfaction that Dany’s revenge could be a clean, sane and surgical routing of evil dictatorship; a liberation. We are implicated for having rooted for this. We sense in this episode its mass impact. As Jon and Arya survey the charred ruins, they are reminded, as are we, that war is not just about victory but the unleashing of hell, creating fresh monsters.
In the wake of The Bells, Game of Thrones has left itself a huge mess to clear up in the final episode. From a dramatic perspective, things are not likely to end well, with so little time left. Perhaps it would be best if it did not even try to wrap everything up; in life, nothing is resolved, the world ploughs chaotically on, and such has been the length of this series, and its parallels with human history, that it has felt like life itself. Better maybe if everyone and everything were simply burned to a crisp, as so much was this week. And then it’s done and we can get on with our lives.