A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for this week’s episode, “The Bells,” coming up.
Two weeks ago, Arya Stark singlehandedly saved the world.
This week, she nearly became one of thousands of innocent, anonymous victims of Dany and Drogon’s rampage through the skies above King’s Landing.
Back in “The Long Night,” she leaped in from nowhere to wipe out the Night King’s army with a single plunge of her blade. She began this week confident in her ability to make it a big bad two-fer, riding with the Hound past Dany’s army so she could check Cersei off her list of targets and bring this war to a swift and relatively bloodless conclusion. Instead, she spent most of the long day depicted in “The Bells” struggling to simply stay on her feet and avoid being crushed by falling rubble, stampeding civilians or stray bursts of flame from the Mad Queen and her last surviving child.
Turning Arya into the audience POV character for the closing stages of Dany’s homicidal onslaught made sense on several levels. First, once her old pal Sandor convinced her of the futility of devoting her life to revenge, Arya was one of the few significant characters on the ground in King’s Landing who was responsible for nothing and no one. Where Jon Snow was busy trying to keep his soldiers in line, Jaime was in the midst of a doomed attempt to save his sister/lover, and the Hound was preparing to kick off the long-hyped (and ultimately underwhelming) Clegane Bowl match-up against his undead brother, Arya just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, by any means necessary. So we could just follow her from castle to slum, burning alley to burning thoroughfare, at times in immersive long takes (or sequences disguised as long takes by conveniently-placed falling rubble). Second, she is, as previously discussed, the woman who averted the apocalypse all by her lonesome only two episodes back, here utterly powerless to do anything in the face of Dany’s onslaught. Third, she’s long been one of the show’s most beloved characters, thanks to a combination of circumstance, Maisie Williams’ performance and a relatively clear and consistent character arc. (We’ll get back to that in a bit.)
Putting this popular, near-superhuman character on the ground with all the King’s Landing redshirts effectively sold the horror that Dany was wreaking on the place. And Arya’s attempted escape from the carnage featured some of the most jaw-dropping shots of what may be the most technically impressive episode of television ever made. It was stunning enough to see Drogon blasting through the castle’s walls from the inside, or wiping out the Iron Fleet in less time than it would take Hot Pie to eat a baked good. But following Arya in the midst of it all, frequently on the verge of dying a very stupid death so soon after safeguarding humanity, gave the spectacle by director Miguel Sapochnik and company just enough of a personal touch to mean something.
And yet it was hard to come out of “The Bells” without feeling as numb and shell-shocked as our favorite Faceless Man while she was stuck on the ground, barely able to move or breathe.
Simply by taking place in the daytime, “The Bells” had several legs up over “The Long Night.” You could see everything that was happening, including the deaths of major characters like Cersei and Jaime. The action was clear, the spectacle even clearer, even as things grew more chaotic and simply filthier for the frantic people running for shelter around Arya. This was peak Sapochnik, no small feat for the show’s best director when it comes to widescreen mayhem. But the visual clarity only made it easier to see how muddled the show has been, from both a narrative and character standpoint, in this home stretch.
Last week, Qyburn’s scorpions easily took out one of Dany’s two remaining dragons. This week, the giant crossbows proved utterly useless against Dany despite her attacking on a sunny day when there were dozens of these things loaded and ready to fire at the first sound of flapping, leathery wings. Euron Greyjoy’s flagship was one of the first boats burned to bits by Drogon, but Euron not only survived but proved relatively unscathed when he washed up on the shore for a pointless fight with Jaime. (The Kingslayer died not from his wounds in this battle, but from the castle falling down on him and Cersei, rendering the whole fight moot except for the members of the GoT team responsible for giving a mid-carder like Euron such an inexplicable push.) A big deal was made of Jaime being shut out of the gates at the last second along with hundreds of refugees, but then he ducks down an alley that no one else has somehow noticed and soon has free run of the Red Keep. The entire damn castle is falling apart, yet the small patch of steps on which Clegane Bowl takes place prove as invulnerable as the Mountain himself. There are seemingly hundreds of Dothraki left to be part of this civilian massacre, even though “The Long Night” suggested all but a handful of them were wiped out in that battle’s opening moments.
The more you can see, the less sense any of it makes. And that extends particularly to Daenerys’ heel turn from Breaker of Chains to Barbecuer of Families.
Dany’s descent into genocidal madness didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Throughout her travels across Essos, her preferred solution to problems was to burn them and all the people associated with them. She’s impetuous, narcissistic and one of the last members of a bloodline with a history of doing things exactly like what she did to King’s Landing. But the manner in which it played out this season felt sloppy in the way these last few seasons have often been. It’s not just about characters like Euron and Bronn and Jaime surviving point-blank dragon-fire attacks, or Varys (RIP) being able to teleport across continents. It’s that Benioff and Weiss have been a lot less diligent at getting the characters — and the Mother of Dragons in particular — to the planned endpoint. They’ve told us where this is going, but they haven’t really shown the work necessary to bring her from “erratic but ultimately well-meaning” to “will roast thousands of innocent civilians alive just because she feels like it.” A version where she ignored the bells and flew Drogon straight through Cersei’s balcony would have felt of a piece with where the story had taken us to this point. What she did instead required at least another half of a regular-length GoT season to feel earned. But the showrunners needed their queen to get mad in a hurry, and so she did.
No TV episode has ever looked more impressive than this one. But the technical genius wasn’t accompanied by the storytelling equivalent. As a result, the 80-plus minutes soon began to feel punishing.
All of which brings us back to Arya on the ground, witnessing firsthand the damage her brother’s chosen queen is doing. Earlier, she had been convinced by Sandor Clegane to put aside revenge and do something else with her life. But she ends the episode dirty, bloody and battered, though still spry enough to ride out of the city on the portentous white horse she finds after the fighting has stopped. She looks like she has a new name on her list, and she seems to be the surviving character best equipped to make the reign of Westeros’ new monarch a very short one.
If ever Game of Thrones had a character built to save the world twice in short order, and excite the fanbase by doing so, it’s Arya Stark. But part of that excitement comes from the fact that her arc has been relatively transparent and forward-moving throughout. (When she seemed to be going off-script last season in the tensions with Sansa, it turned out to be subterfuge so the sisters could take out Littlefinger together.) Lots could still happen in next week’s series finale, but “The Bells” seemed to be setting us up for a climactic showdown between the woman who was in the sky throughout this installment and the one trapped way down below. And it will be hard to root against the one who was on the ground. It’s not only that she’s the far more sympathetic figure at this point, but that it feels like her story has been well and fully told, while Dany’s has turned into a hasty mess at the end.
Previously: Lesser of Two Evils