Spoilers for the entirety of HBO’s Game of Thrones will follow.
Sitting here, listening to Kanye West’s late 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and thinking deeply about Game of Thrones, I can’t help but feel a little sentimental. The show, which made its debut on HBO in the Spring of 2011, premiered during my freshman year at college and has since grown with me for my entire adult life. Seeing this, the second-to-last episode of a show that has now been on the air for nine years, it is hard to consider without the thought of closing the book on a significant chapter of my life. Of course, many shows have ended during the course of this decade that have felt significant in some way. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Justified, The Americans, and The Leftovers all left behind a highly-regarded legacy and a lasting impact on the medium. Perhaps the most logical comparison for Game of Thrones, however, would be Lost, which cut to black for good back in the Spring of 2010, just a year before Thrones made its debut. Lost famously had an incredibly divisive final season and series finale. It was also television’s most widely discussed and dissected phenomenon on the internet up to that point. Now, nearly a decade later, Game of Thrones has since shattered that mark and has become the most popular TV show of the century.
What once started as a niche fantasy series on a premium network based off a book series that author George R. R. Martin wrote multiple decades ago has become a worldwide sensation in unthinkable fashion. Viewership has increased year to year since its beginning, with this final season producing record numbers. With only seven episodes last season and six episodes this season, the show-runners gave themselves a tight window to bring this story to a close. In terms of popularity, this approach has clearly succeeded, with the series now its closing episodes being more popular than ever before. That is no small feat, as most shows that run for as many seasons lose viewers along the way and seem to fizzle out at the end. The fact that Game of Thrones has had the opposite trajectory should be seen as a success. However, longtime lovers of the series have been vocal recently about this late stage iteration of the show feeling different from its early years, with the time crunch playing a critically negative role in that. This was the most disappointing feature of Season 7 and now after this episode we must accept that this will be remembered as the downfall of this series’ resolution as a whole.
While the effects of this condensing of the story’s final episodes can be felt throughout its wide array of characters and plot threads, the most damning victim of this has been Daenerys Targaryen. This episode sought to give her a few acute character moments that would lead to her eventual turn into the literal “Mad Queen,” setting King’s Landing ablaze on Dracarys’ back and seeming eviscerating thousands of innocent lives in horribly violent fashion. Once this transition took place, Daenerys as a character was lost for the remainder of the episode, with our only vision of her being on the back of her dragon laying waste to the city in an extended act of genocide. This transition of her character from being the young and hopeful ruler of Westeros that we have loved to watch deal with obstacles and learn from them into a raging monster capable of mass genocide was undoubtedly botched in these last two seasons and feels wildly unearned in terms of recent character development. However, the idea of this character’s slow descent into madness and fury over the course of all these years is incredibly fascinating to think about. It instantly brought back memories of the Star Wars prequels and their handling of Anakin Skywalkers’s turn to the Darkside. Daenerys has been a central figure on the show since the beginning and has long been a fan favorite, with audiences pulling for her to reach her end goal of achieving the Iron Throne. It was not at all obvious that the writers would be taking her character in this dark direction, but when going back and looking at previous seasons, it is truly spellbinding to look at her character through that lens. Because of that, while the show failed to properly justify the very sudden turn her character has taken during this season, watching the new Mad Queen as it were on screen was admittedly riveting television.
Going off that is this episode’s biggest success: spectacle. This show has always featured some of the most grandiose production the medium of television has ever seen, especially in its later seasons. This episode took that to new heights, presenting the most epic display of cinematic glory I have ever seen on a television screen. Miguel Sapochnik, who has directed many famous episodes for this series, including “The Long Night” from two weeks ago, directed the hell out of this episode and was able to make up for a lot of its writing woes. Many times throughout its 80+ minute runtime, I found myself incredibly captivated by impressive displays of scale, stakes, and emotionally resonant setpieces. Scenes like Arya eluding certain death as the camera tracked her running through the streets of the crumbling city, the duels of The Hound vs The Mountain and Jaime vs Euron, and Jaime’s final moments with both Tyrion and Cersei were all exceptionally powerful in their payoff for the run of the entire series and thrilling in their execution. Stringing together all of these scenes with characters we’ve been emotionally invested in since the first season felt very meaningful and satisfying. The pacing and scope of the episode played like a Summer blockbuster you would pay $15 to see at your local multiplex. All in all, one cannot deny that this episode of which the series had been building up to since its conception was immensely entertaining and beyond that, mostly very satisfying.
“The Bells” likely won’t be looked back upon fondly. It can be seen as the epitome of the writing shortcomings that have hampered the condensed final two seasons of this show. It will also be referenced as Daenerys’ moment in which she now becomes one of the great tragic characters our culture has ever seen. Perhaps most importantly, “The Bells” will live on as the most blatant example of the show’s jaw-dropping spectacle never before seen on television and likely to not be matched any time soon. While achieving all this, it is also being talked about and skewered in ways never before experienced and because of the changing landscape in television, will likely never be experienced in this way again. Game of Thrones has seemingly transcended every imaginable limitation it could have had, being a fantasy series on HBO, being a TV show in a time in which TV ratings are dissipating, and being an adaptation of an incredibly dense and polarizing book series. Perhaps this episode did not provide the delicate character work from George R. R. Martin that proved so fruitful in the show’s early seasons, but to call this remarkably thrilling climax to a story nine years in the making anything short of successful feels both naive and unreasonable.
‘Game of Thrones’ will air its final episode this Sunday 5/19 at 9pm ET