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As Game of Thrones rushes toward the finish line, time is running out for predictions about how David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ fantasy epic will end. Enter: Before the Storm, a weekly column wherein The Hollywood Reporter‘s Westeros guru Josh Wigler and THR‘s chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg put on their Valyrian foil hats and muse aloud about the next steps of the story.
In “The Bells,” director Miguel Sapochnik and writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss offer up one of the most destructive and divisive episodes in the series’ history — just in time to set the stage for the series finale. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) ignored the calls for surrender and conquered the city with “fire and blood,” just as she once warned back in season two. Is that the end of her rampage, or only the beginning of a violent new era for Westeros?
In this week’s Before the Storm, Wigler and Fienberg survey the damage left behind in the Dragon Queen’s wake, pour one out for the dead, and do their best to look ahead toward the last remaining episode in Game of Thrones history.
Josh Wigler: “The Bells,” Dan. “The Bells!” Daenerys Targaryen came to King’s Landing packing heat, and she didn’t pull her punches in the face of surrender. As a result, several people are dead and gone: both Cersei and Jaime, both Clegane brothers, the entire Golden Company (should have brought those elephants!) and countless innocents. Also deceased: good will for Game of Thrones, judging by many of the reactions to the episode. Did your good will die in the King’s Landing massacre, Dan? Where are you at with everything?
Daniel Fienberg: I’m not sure why we’re bothering to discuss this at all. I hear tell that there’s a petition out there demanding that HBO write and shoot a new final season of Game of Thrones, so is there any point in us talking about a season that’s on the verge of being replaced? I hear the petition has something around 600,000 signatures so I have to assume HBO is getting right on that. Right?
Wigler: If the public can kill the coffee cup, the public can do anything… except kill Game of Thrones by petition. They can’t do that. As they say in Braavos: all shows must live and all shows must die, and so too will the final season of Game of Thrones as it stands, petitions be damned. So, you can’t dodge this bullet any more than the people of King’s Landing not named Arya can dodge dragon fire. What did you make of “The Bells,” Dan?
Fienberg: I’m not going to lie, Josh. I’m just exhausted by Game of Thrones. I’m not as angry as some people seem to be, though I surely understand the rationale, as I’m not a stranger to TV-directed anger. I’m also not anywhere near as positive as the backlash enthusiasts are. I’m just beaten down by the whole thing. The odd thing, though, is that there’s at least some chance that that’s intentional? “The Bells” was unquestionably meant to be another 80-ish minutes of “war is hell” bludgeoning, and I guess it succeeded. Once again, Miguel Sapochnik delivered non-stop action on a scale few movies can match and this time it was mostly in the daytime, so you could see all of the charred bodies, writhing horses and crumbling buildings. By the end, I was like Arya, staggering around disoriented and unable to find anything to emotionally tether myself to. Unlike Arya, I was not offered a metaphorical white horse. I think I’m in the “Yes, Dany breaking bad was a character transition justified by seven seasons of planted detail, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been done in a way that honored the character and her transformation, rather than the show’s narrative needs” camp. And you?
Wigler: We’re in the same Dany camp. I’m a broken record on the final season at this point: Some version of “Game of Thrones needed more episodes in order to justify the huge swings in its final season” has been in my clipboard for various text messaging purposes for a couple of weeks now. For Dany specifically, for the podcast this week, I went back and looked at a lot of her biggest acts of aggression along the way, and certainly, there’s a whole lot of buildup to her burn-everything-that-moves moment. It still feels too fast in this episode, and I really do think it’s because we missed out on more time with the show. I mentioned elsewhere that it feels like we’re seeing a supercut of a longer final season of Game of Thrones, edited down by someone who is only showing us what they deem the critical points. The show is both exhausting and obviously exhausted right now. Still, I can’t sign off on “The Bells” as “worst episode ever” territory, or even agree that it’s a bad episode. It was brilliantly acted. It was brilliantly made. It was excruciating to watch, and I absolutely buy that that was the point. Aspects of the writing were really rough (either those crossbows dramatically devolved practically overnight or we missed the “Dany and Drogon run up the Casterly Rocky Steps” training montage), but there’s still enough that worked here for me. I do feel awful for those who were really invested in Daenerys as a hero, especially those who have children named “Khaleesi.”
Fienberg: The Venn Diagram of people who named their children “Khaleesi” and people who sign online petitions thinking Game of Thrones is going to reshoot its final season because disgruntled fans say so is a perfect circle of 50 very, very bad people. I too have said many times in many ways that we’d had ample illustration that Dany and her approach to power, long before this season, were problems that would not let me approach her ascending the Iron Throne with any happiness. But just because I think that committing genocide in a fit of pique — Dany has a pathological need to be worshipped or at least respected in the way she feels she deserves, which isn’t the same as anything as reductive as “madness” — wasn’t completely out of character, the lack of breathing room this season still made it feel hollow and when you’re watching thousands of people die as part of a hollow, rushed character arc, that’s not great. Do you want to delve into her motivations? Or would you rather move on to the fact that in an episode that was supposed to be about the Iron Throne and could have been about the horror of war and genocide, the actual dramatic centerpiece of the episode was a brawl between a dude and his zombie brother in which there were literally no stakes at all? None. This isn’t even an Alien vs Predator situation. In Hound vs Mountain, the result was functionally irrelevant. How did we come to think the Clegane Bowl was a meaningful thing, Josh? How?
Wigler: I’m good on trying to reason out Dany’s motivations; I don’t have anything more to add beyond “the groundwork was there” and “still, way too fast.” (Except maybe this: I love Ramin Djawadi’s score, but I wonder how Dany’s heel turn would have played if the composer’s themes for the character were a bit less heroic and a bit more sinister over the years. I don’t know! Just the first time I’ve said that thought aloud or seen it anywhere.) As for Sandor and Gregor? You are the Mountain, your views on the Clegane Bowl are Loras Tyrell, and I am the Hound stepping in to stop you from chopping the poor guy in half. I do not love the Clegane Bowl, but I found meaning in it. That was not the case on the first play. At first, it felt like pointless fan service and nothing more. The Mountain’s Uncle Fester face was immediately jarring and it is not something I’m going to get used to, ever. A couple of subsequent viewings left me feeling like the pointlessness of it was the point. I don’t walk away from the Clegane Bowl thinking it was a cool action scene. I walk away from the Clegane Bowl thinking about how it relates to the Hound’s warning to Arya: “Look at me! You want to be like me?” Being like Sandor Clegane apparently buys you a date with a zombie barbarian who plucks your eyes out and withstands a knife to the face because you can’t kill vengeance, it can only kill you, and at a certain point you will get so deep in your hate that all you can do is eyelessly laugh at the whole mess and burn it with fire. It was a gross, bad way to go for the Hound, and it works for me as a gory echo of the greater Daenerys disaster, and as a counterpoint to what the show did with Arya — namely, allow her to realize vengeance is worthless, life is worth living, but living isn’t easy. Any thoughts on the Arya scenes from you? What’s up with the horse?
Fienberg: Your reading is not wrong, but I need something better than “Vengeance is bad” as the takeaway for that scene and its endless buildup. The only way a scene like that can work is if you accept that Sandor has a reason to believe what he’s doing has a purpose and the audience has a reason to invest in one result or the other because, “No matter how much you hate your brother, once he’s a zombie you aren’t going to get any satisfaction from stabbing him in the eye with a knife” does not count as an intellectual destination worth the journey. The show’s genre subversion has worked best when the upending of expectations leaves you feeling like you were kicked in whatever your most sensitive spot happens to be. I didn’t feel kicked in the brain-groin by anything in this episode. It was hollowness on top of hollowness on top of hollowness and “The pursuit of power is hollow” is yet another dead-ended revelation, especially if you want me to care what happens next week. You know the episode of The Simpsons that parodies The Departed in which Ralph explains, “The rat symbolizes obviousness”? Yeah, that’s what the white horse symbolizes. Of course, it’s more emotionally resonant in the heightened world of fantasy and more satisfying when the literal embodiment of hope and purity arrives to rescue the character I care about most. By the way, have you come around to my insistence that dragons are cheating? Because who needed military strategy in this episode when you had an inexhaustible dragon?
Wigler: Dragons are cheating, but I think I still feel more cheated by the crossbows that can shoot around mountains and nail a small-enough flying target multiple times in mid-air. That was absurd. A dragon lighting these crossbows up is less absurd, but feels absurd because the crossbows were so powerful just one week earlier, and it just makes no sense at all! That’s one of the many obvious ways in which you feel the speed and convenience of the season. But hey, at least Euron died, even if he scored some points against Jaime, which… you know, honestly, didn’t seem to matter all that much, really. Jaime had a thousand or so steps to climb from the beach to the secret tunnels beneath the Red Keep, and he managed to clear them just fine and then some. In the end, Jaime and Cersei die together in each other’s arms, beneath the weight of the power structure they held onto for so long. Any eulogy for either of them? Huge characters to lose with one episode still remaining.
Fienberg: My eulogy for Cersei would be, “Damn girl. You deserved better. But that .gif of you excusing yourself from the Clegane Bowl will live forever.” And my eulogy for Jaime would be, “Damn boy. Brienne deserved better.” All those people who thought Jaime was leaving Brienne to go kill Cersei himself were so full of optimism. But nope! He just figured if death was inevitable, he’d rather do it in the arms of his sister-lover. This will be such an awkward conversation for Brienne to have with her child years down the road. “First your Uncle Tyrion taunted me for being a virgin. Then your father deflowered me and left to go get crushed with rocks with your Aunt Cersei. Any questions?” Were you satisfied by those climactic Jaime-Tyrion and Jamie-Cersei scenes?
Wigler: David S. Tarth, long may he reign. Less satisfied with Jaime and Cersei than I am with Jaime and Tyrion. I loved that final beat with Dinklage and Coster-Waldau crying in each other’s arms. You got the sense that Tyrion knows how useless he’s been for the past few seasons, combined with the true agony he’s suffered in his life, and how much Jaime has provided a safe space when the two of them were at their best. The tearful goodbye was really great, and a worthy ending to one of my favorite relationships on the show. I’ll miss that kind of stuff. Fully agreed that Cersei deserved much better than what we got from her in the final season, and fully agreed that she delivered a .gif that will keep on .giffing for years to come. Also, the Maester Qyburn death. A wonderful goodbye. Am I a monster for feeling that way? Are there any other moments you monstrously enjoyed, or even humanly enjoyed, or would otherwise like to comment on before we start looking ahead toward the finale?
Fienberg: Maester Qyburn getting thrown aside like a nefarious rag doll was amply satisfying. Actually, I thought Euron’s death was quite appropriate as well, since he went out still strutting like a peacock and thinking he was more important to the main story than he truly was. I thought most of the performances, especially when people didn’t have to talk, were beyond reproach. My problem as I look to Sunday’s finale is that I no longer even know what I’m supposed to be watching for. Is Dany going to sit down with Dr. Melfi and work through her anger issues? Is Sansa going to magically appear to make it clear that she was right about everything? Is Jon going to be elevated to King by default and is anybody going to point out that he hasn’t changed his expression the entire season? What should I be hoping for, Josh?
Wigler: I’m not sure what you should hope for, other than for your early wish for Arya to wear someone else’s face on the Iron Throne to come true. And I’m left wondering what exactly we’re going to get from the finale. How much will focus on immediate aftermath? How much more wrath does Daenerys have in her heart, and who will that impact? I posted my predictions for who will die in the finale this week, and it ended up being a relatively bloodless view of the future: Daenerys and Jon Snow being the big casualties in my mind. But I can see the scenario where neither of them die, where Game of Thrones vaults further into the future and shows us the world Dany pledged to build, long after her reign. Wouldn’t be the first HBO drama to end with a massive time jump. I can see it happening, but I don’t really want to see it happen. I don’t know what I want out of the finale. Happiness for some of the folks who deserve it? Tormund and Ghost frolicking in the snow? Sansa eating lemon cakes and taking a nap? After such a violent act in “The Bells,” I’m just hoping for a finale in which we can breathe a bit and have some hope for Westeros’ future — and more specifically, I hope to see Arya sailing west of Westeros, if only to lay the groundwork for her inevitable spinoff series. Any final hopes for you? Is there a world in which you’re satisfied by the Game of Thrones finale?
Fienberg: At this point, I’d like for nobody to die in the finale. There’s nobody I need to see punished in that way in this narrative space. Like Dany clearly needs to be punished, but she could be punished by a trial at the Hague in a way that’s more dramatically satisfying than if she’s standing in front of her dragon and the darned thing has a fire-sneeze. To me, Dany’s ultimate punishment should probably be exile. To spend the duration of the series wanting nothing more than to get to Westeros and get to the throne and to have that goal in sight and to have it undermined by your darker nature and to be forced back to the exact same anonymity from whence you came? That would be appropriate. I think Arya riding off into the sunset probably precludes her donning somebody else’s face, plus I think she’s pretty clearly learned and illustrated that her interest was never in “power,” so maybe she should join that theater troupe in Braavos, perhaps with a return appearance by Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant? It’s weird to say, but you know what I want from the finale? Lots of talking. Give me the triumphant return of character-driven conversations. Sexy, I know.
Wigler: I would also like a talky finale. As our talk wraps up, how about the Iron Throne? The big question, at least as far as the marketing and hype machines are concerned. Will it exist? If so, who’s on it? Final time to make a call!
Fienberg: Melt that sucker down! And build of it a giant calf that all might worship! Holy cow!
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