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“The Bells” was Game of Thrones’ most polarizing episode. Can the series finale still pull out a win?

Vox staffers debate this controversial episode — and ask what’s ahead for Westeros.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in the final season of Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

By any standard of judgment, “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, was a complete clusterfuck. While there was a lot to praise in terms of the lush cinematography and excellent direction, pacing, and suspense from start to finish, much of what viewers of the show have loved about it for eight long seasons is now in utter shambles.

By that, we don’t mean that the storyline has built to an organic point of narrative collapse or anything; we mean that several characters made eleventh-hour choices that seemed to many fans largely inexplicable, or like a repudiation of their previous arcs. Plot points that could have unfolded with grace and finesse seem to have been shoehorned in for the sake of providing a big dramatic ending, but entirely at the expense of logical character development. All of this has left many fans feeling discombobulated and/or enraged. As of this writing, “The Bells” currently has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes critical score of the series so far, with an approval rating of just 49 percent.

What do we make of all this? Can the show still pull out a win in its final episode? And is “The Bells” really that terrible, or are we all just reeling in shock from the suddenness of its plot developments?

Here at Vox, we’ve had fairly divided responses to the episode and the season so far. So naturally, we figured the best thing to do was round up some of our polarized opinion-havers for some spirited debate. Joining me, culture writer Aja Romano, are The Goods writer Gaby Del Valle and Vox politics writers Zack Beauchamp, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias.

Aja: I want to start off by asking the rest of you which parts of the episode you thought worked the best. I really loved Miguel Sapochnik’s direction, which gave us moments that were simultaneously hushed and taut, full of a sense of both inevitability and real dread. It was fabulously shot as well, and I really loved that they managed to make Cleganebowl, of all things, look absolutely beautiful in the middle of all the carnage.

Matt: I completely agree — given some daylight to work with, Sapochnik created the most haunting and evocative war scenes I’ve ever seen on television.

You had quiet moments, you had loud moments, you had tension, you had eerie moments of calm. Most of all, while I found the Battle of Winterfell to be confusing to watch, the sack of King’s Landing was incredibly clear, even as the show captured the confusion that the characters onscreen were experiencing. Some of the work done with various redshirts and extras in this regard was particularly noteworthy — the confused Lannister forces laying down arms to wordlessly surrender and the horrified realization that the Unsullied were going to kill them anyway was particularly cool.

Beyond that, Lena Headey’s performance as Cersei continues to be a highlight of the show for me. One of the reasons season eight has felt a little weak overall to me is that her story arc has been decentralized somewhat, but in “The Bells,” she was once again front and center, and she was sublime as ever.

Last but by no means least, while I had a lot of problems with the specific way it was depicted, I thought that as a story beat, Daenerys burning the city was absolutely the right call. For years now, her plan has been to use a foreign army and dragons to conquer the Seven Kingdoms in the name of the Targaryen dynasty. And even though she’s often been framed as a heroic protagonist and well-intentioned individual, it’s a plan that’s never really made sense — any more than George W. Bush “liberating” Iraq.

She’s never taken questions of governance seriously, never considered how little sense her “Breaker of Chains” message made in a Westerosi context, and never taken responsibility for her basic failure as the ruler of Meereen. I wish the writers had thought harder about how to motivate her turn on the micro level more clearly, but on the macro level, this was a brilliant call, and it speaks well of the show that they did something that made some fans mad.

Zack: So I’ve been really critical of “The Bells,” particularly the poor psychological setup for Daenerys’s heel turn and the way it handled Cersei and Jaime’s deaths. So it may surprise you to learn that I actually thought it was a net good, albeit deeply flawed, hour-plus of television.

My reasons are fairly similar to Matt’s and (to a lesser degree) our colleague Andrew Prokop’s. On a base level, Game of Thrones is a show about upending the traditional fantasy trope of a noble war against evil. It does so by taking the stock characters from these tropes, be it Jon “humble origins, secret destiny” Snow or Daenerys “usurped righteous monarch” Targaryen, and trying to develop versions of them more rooted in the reality of the medieval Europe that modern Western fantasy is based on.

Much of this season was concerned with a more traditional fantasy take: the battle against the personality-less evil of the Night King. “The Bells” brought us back to what Thrones is about — the inevitable brutality of violent struggles between humans — in a gut-wrenching way. Anyone who is passingly familiar with the reality of pre-modern sacks of cities knows that they were intensely bloody affairs, that the mass destruction and wanton slaughter on display in “The Bells” was more the rule than the exception.

The episode’s fundamental strength came from its unsparing depiction of that reality, from shots of a dead child holding a wooden toy to atrocities committed by otherwise sympathetic characters like Grey Worm. It’s grim stuff, but riveting and necessary for challenging viewers’ naive faith in the power of violence all the same.

So I don’t agree with Aja’s comments at the outset that the episode was a “complete” clusterfuck. I think they nailed the right beats thematically. The problem is that the season was so compressed, so unconcerned with the internal motivations of key characters, that this finale — which they’ve been setting up for practically the entire show — felt much less earned than it should have. That’s really frustrating, but not a reason to throw the entire episode in the trash bin.

Gaby: I actually really enjoyed “The Bells,” which I’d say was the second-best episode this season after “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” More importantly, I think the episode made sense.

The writers have handled Daenerys’s inevitable descent into madness pretty clumsily this season, largely because of how rushed the pacing has been, but it was always meant to happen. Though I’ve been critical of the yaas queen-ification of Dany’s character in the past, it was hard to not feel vindicated when she used her last remaining dragon to burn the Iron Fleet — but I also wasn’t surprised when she unleashed carnage on the rest of King’s Landing.

It didn’t take much for King’s Landing to fall. The battle was won after the Iron Fleet was reduced to ash and the first Lannister dropped his sword, but anyone who expected Dany to accept her enemies’ surrender hasn’t been paying attention. This episode effectively communicated that war is war, no matter who’s fighting it or how just they think their motivations are.

That’s why Arya’s on-the-ground scenes were so effective: They reminded us that the main characters’ political and martial decisions have real stakes for millions of nameless, innocent people. The episode started with Dany sentencing Varys, arguably the only one of her advisers who cared about the well-being of the Westerosi people, to death by dragon fire. It makes sense that she’d force the innocent citizens of King’s Landing to meet the same fate.

Unlike most other people, I also really enjoyed Cersei and Jaime’s death scene. Aside from the deaths of her children, Cersei never faced any real consequences for her actions — and if she had managed to escape with Jaime, she would’ve gotten a chance to start over, to finally get the family she always wanted. Her attempts at self-preservation, and her inability to accept defeat until it’s too late, are what killed her. I also think her death was a perfect foil for Varys’s. Everything he did, even his final act of treason, was for the good of the people. Everything Cersei did was to protect herself and her children.

That said, I agree with Zack’s assessment that the pacing has been off all season, meaning that these otherwise great scenes still managed to fall flat.

Aja: I think the vast majority of fans and critics would agree with all the points being made here about pacing and structure; I think “complete clusterfuck” sums up this episode not just because of the in-universe narrative, but also due to the critical backlash and fandom meltdown it’s caused. I think the main reason there’s been such a sustained cry of disappointment over “The Bells” is that Game of Thrones seems to be a show that had the resources and the budgetary freedom to give us realistic pacing and more natural character progressions. But the writers have clearly prioritized big plot moments and spectacle over those things, so the narrative going into “The Bells” felt truncated and hastily shoved along.

Which brings me to the question: Who, exactly, should we ultimately blame for the destruction of King’s Landing? It seems as though multiple characters could have stopped this. Is it productive to ask whether Dany could have been persuaded away from this course, or was the city doomed the moment Missandei died?

Dylan: I’m surprised to hear you say that you think multiple people could’ve stopped it, Aja. My perhaps overly literal read was that others in Daenerys’s orbit did all they could to prevent a massacre. Varys urged Daenerys to her face to spare the city, and committed treason when it was clear she was still determined to strike. Tyrion engineered the parley in which Missandei was killed, despite Daenerys’s skepticism of even attempting to come to a peaceful resolution. Tyrion then hatched his plot to release Jaime and engineer Cersei’s surrender. Jaime rang the bells.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

There is one other person, though, who I’ll assign some blame to: Jon Snow. I’ve read some internet commentary half-jokingly blaming Jon for the massacre on the grounds that he refused to bang his aunt out of her bloodlust. That’s clearly sexist claptrap; Dany isn’t a militant incel committing mass violence because she can’t get laid. But I think there’s a subtler way in which he made the case for massacre to Dany.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends (including a number of Vox staffers) about which real-world wartime bombing atrocity the sacking of King’s Landing most resembles. Was it like the US firebombing of Dresden, an abhorrent killing of innocents for no real strategic purpose that was nonetheless in service of a just war that dislodged a terrible regime? Was it like Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, an illegal and morally indefensible extension of a war that was already morally indefensible?

I think it was Matt who pointed out that the closest analogue might be Nagasaki. Defenders of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki insist that the bombings saved the lives of US and Japanese soldiers, by eliminating the need for a costly land invasion. But skeptics of the attacks — especially Nagasaki, whose destruction when Japan barely had time to surrender after Hiroshima feels especially indefensible — have long argued that the real purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union, to engage in a massive show of force that would give the US an upper hand in the coming Cold War.

I think that’s what Dany was going for: a demonstration that anyone who threatens her rule will face not just their own destruction but the destruction of their people. The target of that warning, clearly, is Sansa Stark, who as leader of the North and a noted skeptic of Dany poses the most direct threat to Dany’s rule, either by putting herself forward or, more likely, putting Jon forward.

Jon made Sansa an exponentially greater threat to Dany by telling her about his true parentage. If he had kept his mouth shut, and Sansa hadn’t started spreading the idea to Tyrion and Varys that Jon should be king, Dany might have felt more secure in her rule and less inclined to engage in massive war crimes to scare off any challengers.

It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call the massacre Jon’s “fault” — Jon is not a very smart person and clearly wasn’t thinking this far ahead strategically when he decided to share his genealogy to his adoptive siblings. He didn’t intend the massacre, certainly. But it’s a way he might have changed Dany’s strategic logic and spared the city, even if he hadn’t known that was what he was doing.

The irony is that by creating a new challenger in Arya, Dany’s show of force might have backfired and made her control of the throne more tenuous.

Gaby: I don’t think anyone could’ve stopped Daenerys, at least not in the days leading up to the invasion, though I agree with Dylan that Jon’s decision to tell his sisters (or, I guess, his cousins) about his parentage was the final straw for Dany.

No one — or at least no one with the power to stop her from burning King’s Landing to the ground — saw Daenerys for who she truly is until it was too late. Varys did what he could, and he was killed for it. Tyrion did what he could, and I’m sure he’ll suffer the consequences soon enough.

It’s also possible that this all could’ve been avoided if Dany had listened to Sansa and waited a few weeks before attacking King’s Landing the first time around. Her first attempt to take King’s Landing resulted in the death of one of her dragons and the capture and execution of Missandei, whose last words Dany may have (mis)interpreted as permission to burn the city to the ground.

But if I have to put the blame on someone, it’s Olenna Tyrell. At the end of season seven, she told Daenerys to “be a dragon” — some advice that, in hindsight, Dany may have taken a bit too literally.

Matt: Obviously, on one level, Daenerys bears responsibility for her own actions. But we shouldn’t forget Cersei’s role here in establishing the human shield strategy. Nor the passive cynicism of Qyburn (a character I mostly kind of like as a man of science) for just kind of going along with the whole ridiculous last stand plan rather than quietly knifing Cersei and offering his services to the dragon queen.

Recall that at the conclusion of Robert’s Rebellion, Jaime Lannister stabbed the Mad King in the back precisely in order to prevent this kind of disaster scenario. He took a lot of heat for it over the years — “oathbreaker,” “kingslayer,” etc. — but he did the right thing. Nobody in Cersei’s inner circle had the same moral courage, even though it’s hard to believe they took oaths more seriously than he did.

Then there’s Varys, who for all his years of political manipulations and ostensible concern for the good of the realm appears to have put very little thought into lining up behind Dany and then next to no thought into betraying her. Especially if you’re going to play the game of thrones at this level, you need to be judged by what Weber called an “ethic of responsibility,” and even though Varys seems to have meant well, nothing he did actually worked.

But then we get Jon, the guy who Varys for no reason decides would be a good king. Jon is hardly the worst person in Westeros. But nothing he does makes any sense. Bran tells him, without offering any particular evidence, that he’s secretly the legitimate son of the long-dead heir to the Mad King. There are really only two reasonable courses of action to take with this knowledge — make a claim to the throne, or shut up.

Instead, Jon blabs to Dany (why?), who then asks him to shut up, at which point, he has a second chance to consider his options. On the one hand, he could make a claim to the throne. On the other hand, he could choose to uphold his pledge of loyalty to his queen. But he does neither, betraying Daenerys by blabbing to Sansa while neither contesting her claim to the Iron Throne nor trying to insist on a marriage alliance to make the point moot.

Dany’s strategic response to this situation — going Nagasaki on the civilian population of King’s Landing — is horrifying and somewhat eccentric. But Jon’s move was inherently destabilizing and made some kind of subsequent bloodshed essentially inevitable.

I have no idea what Martin and the showrunners have in mind for the finale, but I fear Jon’s being set up as the hero of the story when I see him as more the James Comey of Westeros, whose shaky decision-making is responsible for the bad outcome he deplores.

Aja: It seems like there’s a growing public consensus that Jon, a.k.a. Aegon Targaryen, is the character most well-positioned to foil Dany’s impending reign of terror, but I think the show has subverted this more traditional narrative through the character of Arya. I think our colleague Todd VanDerWerff hit on something important when he noted in his overview of “The Bells” that “So much of Game of Thrones’ final season has been built around just turning the camera on [Maisie] Williams and watching her work, and so many of the results have been great, almost entirely thanks to her.” Not only did Game of Thrones turn Arya, not Jon, into the Prince That Was Promised by having her kill the Night King in episode three, but it seems to be setting her up for another assassination attempt on Dany herself.

I thought the scenes of Arya witnessing the horror of Dany’s attack from the point of view of the average King’s Landing citizen were quite contrived, but they were also very effective in giving her a brand new name atop her recently abandoned kill list. The scenes with Arya on the street also served as a striking parallel to the last time she was in King’s Landing, fleeing through the streets after her father’s execution; and the final image of her riding away on that white horse was indisputably powerful.

Still, I don’t love the idea of seeing our girl being perpetually thrust back into a cycle of violence, especially right after her parting farewell with the Hound (who was thrust back into his own cycle of violence). For all that this series once seemed committed to finding ways to break such cycles through incremental, individual, and collective change, in its final season, it seems to have largely discarded this idea in favor of watching characters give in to old flaws, revert to old behaviors, and, of course, take the path of most destruction.

Given all this, is there a “best” possible outcome at this point? Is there time to establish anything like a hopeful future? Is Arya’s central role paving the way for her and Sansa (and Bran) to build a new form of government over the rubble of what was, or are they toast along with everyone else?

Dylan: In earlier seasons, I would joke that I wanted the show to end with Tyrion inventing the steam engine. Zack has convinced me that the real person to do this would be Qyburn (RIP), or maybe Samwell. But whoever it is, the core problem in Westeros is that the population is in a Malthusian trap, a world with minimal economic growth, where any increase in population means a collapse in living standards, as more people have to share the same resources.

Westerosi life is basically zero-sum. There are only so many farms producing only so much food; if the population increases, agricultural productivity goes down, leaving everyone back where they started. Total output cannot really increase, and the only way to get more for yourself and your people is to fight for it.

So as much as I’d love to see Sansa on the Iron Throne (she deserves it more than anyone), or Arya, or some kind of Arya-Sansa-Tyrion oligarchic government similar to the elite republics of Braavos and Volantis, I don’t see any reason that government should be more stable than any of the previous governments of Westeros. Until the pot of overall resources grows, giving everyone a chance to extract economic gains without resorting to war, the same dynamics will be in play, and war will continue to appeal to pretenders across the known world.

Maybe Yara Greyjoy wants another go at independence for the Iron Islands. Maybe Gendry, spurned by Arya rejecting his proposal, will stake his claim as the true heir to Robert Baratheon. Maybe the Dornish will try to be interesting for once.

But maybe I’m too pessimistic. What’s the best case that Arya could win the whole shebang — and achieve something different by doing so?

Matt: I hope Arya sincerely walks away from the whole thing and goes to have a nice life for herself.

Maybe she moves to Essos, which should probably benefit from all the surviving Dothraki marauders having relocated to Westeros, and settles down to have a nice quiet life. Westeros deserves a better political system, but I don’t see anyone in the whole course of the show as having displayed a genuine capacity to conceptualize a better way of doing things. Jon, Arya, and Sansa all seem like nice people, but none of them are really exceptions to this rule. Under the circumstances, endlessly battling it out to try to get a good person on the Iron Throne is basically pointless. It’s time for Arya to walk away from the game.

Gaby: Maybe a better Westeros is possible. After the Battle of Winterfell, the audience learned that both Storm’s End and Highgarden have been lord-less for at least a few months. Which raises a really interesting question: What have the peasants of those regions been doing? I assume since winter is here, there probably aren’t any fields to work or crops to offer up to their feudal overlords, but it’s possible that things were running just fine without a lord ruling over everything.

What I’m saying is, what if the season ends with a mass peasant uprising? It almost definitely won’t happen, but I think it’d be fun.

Zack: I have a lot of difficulty imagining some kind of happy ending to this story. But like Gaby, I’m going to outline a vision for one anyway in full knowledge that it’s very unlikely to happen.

The only kind of scientific infrastructure Westeros seems to have are the Citadel’s maesters and assorted independent researchers, namely Sam and Tyrion, none of whom seem close to making the breakthroughs that powered the real-world Industrial Revolution. In that sense, Dylan is right that, absent this kind of breakthrough the show hasn’t signaled at all, life in Westeros will likely remain nasty, brutish, and short.

But I think that he’s cutting the politics short shrift here: A better political system could, in theory, reallocate resources in such a way as to make a major technological breakthrough more likely. You could in theory have an ending to the show that lays the groundwork for Westeros to become a much better place for the smallfolk.

The problem is getting there: As Matt says, neither Jon nor Arya seems like monarch material. But I disagree with his view of Sansa, who has throughout this season been the only person interested in important questions of state like “how do we feed people.” The Tyrion of past seasons, before the writers decided to give him an inexplicable stupidity nerf, has acted interested in the details and realities of governance as well.

So here’s my proposal: After Daenerys is toppled, Jon gives up his claim to the throne. Sansa (re)marries Tyrion — there was some hinting toward this when they spoke earlier this season — and Arya serves as their enforcer/Master of Whispers. Davos can be Hand; he’s good at that.

Queen Sansa and King Tyrion manage the reconstruction of King’s Landing and a transition to some kind of quasi-democratic political system that respects the autonomy of the North and other historically independent fiefdoms — the decentralized Iroquois Confederacy seems like a good model for the Seven Kingdoms. They devote significant resources to rebuilding from years of war, including research into infrastructure construction and scientific investment.

Are we going to get that, or anything close? Hell no. But it’s the closest thing to an internally plausible happy ending that I can think of.

Learn more about Game of Thrones’ lasting impact, on the May 17 episode of Today, Explained.