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Game of Thrones: Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll

A TNR roundtable discusses “The Bells,” the fifth episode in the final season of the HBO fantasy series.


Each Monday, members of The New Republic staff will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones, now in its eight and final season. Join Josephine Livingstone, Alex Shephard, and Ryu Spaeth as they contribute their little drop to the ocean of Game of Thrones content, which this week will feature bloodlust, war crimes, and siblings reunited.

Ryu: Jon Snow has seen a thing or two in his eventful time on earth. Grinding combat in the frozen mud. Enemies both living and dead. The afterlife, even. Yet he seemed genuinely stunned when Dany, blinded by rage, lit up King’s Landing with her dragon, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents and unleashing a bloody free-for-all. The question of whether Dany is fit to rule was definitively answered: She burned it all down, as her father, the Mad King, once threatened to do. As the walls tumbled and the city bled, it seemed as if all sense of order had finally given way, leaving only chaos and flame. Is this how it ends?

Alex: In one sense, this was a perfect ending for the show. The throne room is in ruins, with Daenerys driven mad by the central conflict of her character: Is she a tyrant or a reformer? Having decided that the ends justify the means, she has lost sight of her purpose—breaking the wheel—and become, by her own hand, Queen of the Ashes.

In another sense, it was deeply unsatisfying. The show has made the case that desiring power in the form of the Iron Throne is inherently corrupting. Think of Robert, Cersei, Stannis, and now Dany, all of whom were undone by this same tragic flaw. The difference with Dany is that we were led to believe she was different. Emilia Clarke has done a splendid job of wearing Daenerys’s conflict on her face, but she’s had precious little to work with from the show’s writers. In last night’s episode, they basically implied that she destroyed a city because her boyfriend/nephew didn’t want to make out any more.

There were other inconsistencies. The show has rapidly shifted its moral calculus over the past season or two. It once reveled in Khal Drogo pouring molten gold over Viserys’s head, in Arya poisoning dozens of unsuspecting Freys. Now, without really doing any narrative or character work, we are meant to be repulsed by Dany’s sack of King’s Landing. Last night’s battle was thematically and morally muddled, a reflection of a rushed endgame.

Jo: Sexual rejection is the culprit once again. Dany burns the city because Jon rejects her, no? We see the iron enter her soul, as the saying goes. This seems to have also been the spark for all of the major past wars, including Robert’s Rebellion. The show seems to teach the lesson that the sexual whims and grievances of very powerful people result in a lot of bloodshed and suffering for a vast quantity of ordinary people, whose lives are generally very shit anyway. All for what? Secondary satisfactions, like the peace on Euron’s face when he said, “I’m the man who killed Jamie Lannister.” So, the show’s lesson seems to be about human nature—ego and sex specifically—and total disregard for the lives of other people that those drives engender. Which makes desire the number one driver of all evil. That’s a pretty good moral! Or rather, a neat one.

The other moral is that women are guilty of all the worst things: violence, impetuosity, vanity, overreaction. Those are my twin takeaways.

Ryu: In that sense, Jaime’s dying credo—“nothing else matters, only us”—has some broader relevance beyond the Lannisters’ narcissism. But I wonder if we are in danger of providing themes to a show that sometimes seems unsure of what it is trying to say, and of who its characters are supposed to be. To the end I thought Jaime would redeem himself. But he ultimately cycled back to the same person who is slavishly devoted to a monster.

Alex: I think the show thinks that Jaime has redeemed himself, that we wouldn’t get the emotional gut punch of his death without his (very) brief dalliance with Brienne and the non-incest life. You’re right about Game of Thrones and its lack of themes, though. Over the last two to three seasons, the show has shed almost all of its themes, particularly those revolving around power. It’s now a show about plot and not much else, something that has been very bad for Dany and Jaime’s endgame.

Jo: There’s an argument to be made that Game of Thrones fairly reflects mid-century world history. The dragons and their fiery extermination of innocents do smack rather strongly of the atomic bomb, or napalm. And those “war crimes” moments—a little girl witnessing a rape in her own home, another little girl choosing to die with her mother rather than run with Arya ... wow a lot of little girls on fire, running—feel like straight-up moral exhortation. Jon or Arya will rule because they intervened in crimes that we would, post-World War II, call “crimes against humanity.”

The big map on the stone floor cracked; Game of Thrones has become a show partly about the death of moral-political epochs.

Ryu: In the other great meeting of siblings in last night’s episode, Sandor and Gregor Clegane finally hashed it out and ended up tumbling, together, to a fiery death, echoing the burn marks that Gregor left on his little brother’s face. As George Eliot might say, “In their death they were not divided.” What did we make of that subplot’s resolution?

Alex: We got a lot of Clegane Bowl last night; the show apparently thought it was giving the audience what it wanted. And to be sure, Clegane Bowl has been salivated over by fans for a very, very long time. But I didn’t get much out of the battle between these two giant, deformed siblings. Rory McCann’s the Hound has been one of the show’s great secondary characters, and it felt weird to have him go out in what was essentially Game of Thrones’s version of a Marvel Cinematic Universe fight. And I will miss the Hound and Arya odd couple, which was arguably the show’s best.

Jo: Arya. Arya!!! I actually got weird ASMR body-joy chills when she found that horse. At first, I thought she might have gone to heaven, but she seemed alive. She and the Hound were a lovely pair. Now that he’s dead, has “Hound” been crossed off her list of potential career paths, leaving the path to the throne clear?

Ryu: If Arya were to gain the throne, that would indeed be satisfying. But of the many great themes that died last night, one of them appeared to be the idea that women would inherit this cursed earth. If Jon ends up on the throne, well—three cheers for the rule of men?

Alex: If you think Jon ends up on the throne, you haven’t been paying attention. Think about how tortured Jon was before he watched his girlfriend/aunt massacre a bunch of people. The guilt will be enormous. One of the Game of Thrones spinoffs will probably be Three’s Company: Jon, Tormund, and Ghost Beyond the Wall.

Jo: If anybody’s qualified to rule, it’s probably Ghost.