Warning: Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5, “The Bells.”
A lot has been written lately about how Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss don’t really understand some of the characters they inherited from A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin — particularly the show’s smartest and most foresighted characters. The behind-the-scenes schemers and string-pullers who shaped the show have fallen on hard times in recent seasons, as Benioff and Weiss have run out of Martin’s source material, forcing them to take on more of the burden of plotting and scripting the show — and bringing their own blunter tastes and interests to the fore.
And that’s radically shifted the show’s tone. Where Martin loves his devious masterminds and cold calculators, Benioff and Weiss love their cinematic gestures and their windmill-tilting fools. It’s made the final season exciting, full of big action and climactic confrontations, as people who used to be cautious and thoughtful throw themselves into danger without any meaningful plan. But in the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” that dynamic has also left everyone feeling meatheaded and sloppy.
In Benioff and Weiss’ hands, the schemers have all come to bad endings. Tyrion Lannister, once the tactical genius of the Battle of Blackwater and the show’s quippiest character, has been in a two-season slump where he can’t seem to make a single good decision. Littlefinger fell into an obvious trap and got his throat cut. Melisandre gave up her life the second the battle with the Night King was over. Even Bran Stark, hailed as the living memory of humanity, has notably failed to offer up much from that memory that’s useful in shaping the current series of conflicts.
And in the penultimate episode of the series, “The Bells,” supposed master spy and manipulator Varys the Spider, Master of Whisperers, joined the Smart People Acting Dumb Club, and paid the usual heavy price. Informed by Tyrion that Jon Snow has a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, Varys doesn’t bide his time, play his cards close to his chest, or even cautiously feel out Tyrion’s reactions. He immediately tells Tyrion he’s planning to betray Daenerys Targaryen, then runs straight to Jon Snow to announce how eager he is to get started on that betrayal.
This is a mastermind who informs us in “The Bells” that he’s served under more rulers than any living man, a man defined by caution and subtlety — but he spends absolutely no time checking the lay of the land before he starts writing tattletale messages to who knows who, and trying to pull Jon into open rebellion. He’s executed for treason, but more so for proving he’s entirely run out of chill and his usefulness as an adviser has ended.
Game of Thrones is ending, and Benioff and Weiss are racing to the conclusion by condensing plots and simplifying characters. It’s not like there’s time for Varys to hatch some elaborate slow-burn scheme against Daenerys. But it’s still disappointing to see a well-drawn character becoming so abruptly and infernally sloppy, in the service of giving his storyline an expedient, explosive ending. And his death proves yet again that Benioff and Weiss have no interest in subtle movements or smart plays. But they sure do enjoy the show’s clumsiest and broadest players.
Consider what “The Bells” does with some of the show’s biggest remaining characters. First, there’s Euron Greyjoy, who last week was a giant-crossbow god, capable of taking down a dragon in just a few seconds with devastating aim and speed. This week, he barely gets a shot off before his invincible, silent, teleporting fleet is obliterated. Washed up on the shoreline (washed up in more ways than one), he isn’t interested in survival or finding his way to Cersei — he apparently just wants a memorable death, or another notch on his harpoon. The second he sees Jaime Lannister, he starts trying to kill him. Maybe that’s actually motivated by jealousy, given that he knows Jaime is Cersei’s lover. Maybe after being humiliated and bested, he just wants a target that can’t fly away or blast him with fire. Either way, he doesn’t do much to explain himself. Like Varys, he charges wildly in, and he pays the inevitable price.
And then there’s Jaime, who last week looked so much like he was trying to protect his new lover Brienne from his old lover Cersei. He leaves her weeping as he rides off with a half-assed explanation about being “hateful,” which could be read equally as “I’m not worthy of you because I’m still in love with her, so I’m going back to her” and “I’m the only one who can get close enough to kill her, and the only one compromised enough to try.” Turns out he meant “I’m never really going to explain my motives to the audience. Maybe I wanted to save her, maybe I wanted to kill her, maybe I didn’t even know myself, but either way… I’m going to charge in wildly, and pay the inevitable price.”
The Hound, for his part, has been pretty consistent about his nihilism and his desire to make his brother Gregor pay for his crimes. It’s no surprise that he charges wildly in and pays the inevitable price, because it seems like that was his plan all along. The real surprise is that he takes a beat to persuade Arya to be a little less dumb than he’s planning to be. He seems not only ready to die, but to outright expect it — but he wants something better for her. Of everyone who rushes into danger with no apparent plan this episode, he at least has the clearest and most comprehensible motives behind his big, dumb, fatal gesture. Varys doesn’t have a plan, Jaime barely has a plan, Euron’s plan seems to be “Fighting is badass!” But the Hound’s plan is apparently to die, as long as he can take his brother with him. It may not be relatable to most, but as big, dumb gestures go, eliminating one last undead monster from the world seems like a worthy cause.
And then there’s Daenerys, who completes her face-heel turn by abandoning her carefully laid plans and her tactically immaculate victory by deciding to spray King’s Landing with fire. Benioff and Weiss say in this week’s behind-the-scenes featurette that she makes that choice impulsively, when she sees the Red Keep and thinks about everything her family has lost in Westeros. But in an episode full of people charging thoughtlessly into danger, with no idea what they’re doing and only the most vaguely defined intentions, her decision to massacre thousands feels particularly empty.
It’s understandable that with the world burning down around them, Game of Thrones’ remaining characters are running out of options, and in many cases just reverting to type. They’re desperate and being pushed to spontaneous action. They’re lunging after their most immediate goals in the hopes of still having something in their hands when this is all over — a minor battle victory, a shift in someone’s opinion, a moment alone with a loved one before death. No one character’s action in “The Bells” is insupportable or incomprehensible, though Dany’s comes closest, even with all the supposed buildup and motivation.
It’s just that taken as a whole, all these idiot gestures look exactly the same. “The Bells” is full of characters being their dumbest, most ill-considered selves, solely in the pursuit of momentary conflicts and payoffs. Jaime’s death in Cersei’s arms seems like a fitting payoff for all his awful behavior with her in the early going of the series, but it completely ignores all his character development over eight seasons, including his most recent relationship. Euron’s attempt to murder the first person he sees after his ship is destroyed seems in character for an agent of chaos, but it still feels forced and random. Varys couldn’t go about his plan in a dumber way if he tried — it’s almost as though he’s anticipating and hoping for execution, to remind Jon that Dany is capable of killing even those closest to her.
And all the abrupt endings make for good momentary drama — a few big fight scenes; a man saying goodbye to his best friend and betrayer, then going up in flames; a city burning in thrilling spectacle. But they don’t make for lasting or memorable drama. They don’t feel like fitting conclusions to all the careful character buildup and elaborate schemes that preceded them. They feel like a bunch of people in a darkened room, flailing around and smacking each other while looking for the exit. Game of Thrones deserves better, and smarter. And it’s probably not going to get it. With one episode left to go, all that’s likely to be left is the big dumb gestures — Jon Snow and Arya Stark responding to Dany’s massacre in final ways, and everyone else paying the inevitable price.