Updated May 13
Game of Thrones, Episode 805: "The Bells"
Original airdate: May 12, 2019 on HBO
Spoiler warning: This page may contain descriptions of events in this and previous episodes. Watch before reading.
For this final season of the HBO hit Game of Thrones, we are collecting reviews and impressions from professional TV writers for each individual episode, continuing with penultimate episode "The Bells," directed by Miguel Sapochnik. Check this site each Sunday night for reviews of the latest episode.
While we won't try to assign an overall score to each episode, we have grouped the reviews into rough categories based on critic enthusiasm, beginning with the most positive. Scores for individual reviews are displayed only in those cases where a reviewer has specifically indicated a score. (Those scores have been converted to a 0-100 scale when necessary to facilitate comparison.) "Recaps" are not included if they merely discus the plot details and fail to assess the episode's quality in any way. Click on any publication name to read the full review.
Extremely positive reviews
The progression from exhilarating hope to tragic denouement was skillfully executed by director Miguel Sapochnik, demonstrating a much better command of large-scale choreography here than we got to see in “The Long Night.”
Sean T. Collins
So ends the most daring episode of Game of Thrones ever. It’s the Red Wedding writ large, a masterpiece that murders all hope of neat closure, and reduces any lingering belief in the redemptive power of violence to ashes in our mouths.
Quite simply, I loved this episode. I loved its stark brutality, its decision to transform Daenerys into the villain she’s been sidestepping since season 1, and the complete inability of the heroes to do anything about it.
Whereas the Battle of Winterfell took a scenario that seemed apocalyptic and, somewhat cheaply, gave it a pat happy ending, the battle of King’s Landing really did torch expectations in the way that Game of Thrones is supposed to.
["Experts" review for people who have read the books] What I will say is that while I didn’t have an intense subjective response to Daenerys’ heel turn, I do think that the writers failed to create the necessary structure for it to play out as they imagined. It works in the context of the episode, setting a harrowing backdrop for the remaining drama ... And although it may place me in the minority, I’m ultimately glad that they chose this path, story-wise. But in the context of a rushed final two seasons, and a Daenerys story arc that was always at odds with the rest of the show due to its isolation and its erratic pacing, it’s hard for me to get a firm grasp on the character’s journey as demonstrated by the show.
Birth. Movies. Death.
All of it is the result of not just character or narrative but tonal blueprints that were laid since the beginning of the show. It’s everyone’s prerogative to love or hate part or most or all of it; to decide if the show has suitably evolved to keep up with the zeitgeist; and/or to feel that the climaxes and resolutions do or do not sufficiently pay off the lives and choices of the characters we care about most. But “The Bells,” like its four predecessors, brings audiences ever closer to an ending that they have been wanting, and in some ways are understandably not quite prepared for.
Den of Geek!
This week is a good endgame that has more on its mind than pleasing fanboys, but the previous weeks let it down, leaving my disillusionment to be not just with Daenerys but with Benioff and Weiss being able to do justice to the breadth of this finale.
Den of Geek! [UK]
Sapochnik does a stellar job in both handling the actors (Dany's heel turn is clearly on her face the entire time) and in orchestrating the action sequences.
Sapochnik certainly knows how to orchestrate a chaotic battle, and on pure impact alone, this was more satisfying than the Battle of Winterfell. It was hard not to feel your stomach knot as the camera glided over the ramparts of the city and the ocean, not knowing exactly how it would play out. The twists and turns of the conflict – the bells that give this episode its title forming a crux point – served to make it visceral and devastating, even as the storytelling never quite stepped up to meet the visual firepower on display.
It feels like someone just randomly fell over and knocked into the big red "Mad Queen" button, turning Dany into an irrational psychopath in the last half of the penultimate episode just because the plot necessitated it for the final showdown. ... I've been trying hard not to score this season's episodes based on whether I agree with the characters' decisions or not, because it's so subjective; and for that reason, I'm ranking this episode fairly high. ... There are parts of "The Bells" that feel like an easy 10, and parts that feel like a 4 or 5, and I felt the same way about "The Long Night" and "The Last of the Starks."
Though “The Long Night” became the vaunted chapter in the run-up to Season 8, “The Bells” is both a more impressive technical achievement and a more affecting, harrowing testament to the nature of war within the “Game of Thrones” world. ... It’s also a rebuttal to the constant refrain from even those outside the show’s fandom, the casual question of “Who will end up on the Iron Throne?” This episode is the first time in a long while that the show has demonstrated a meaningful willingness to engage the consequences of that question. ... It’s just a shame that this feels less like the logical endpoint of all these machinations and instead one emphatic way for making up for lost chances and sidetracks.
Much more than the fight against the White Walkers, this penultimate episode of Game of Thrones had everything it needed to have. And while it wasn’t perfect, it was still perfect for Game of Thrones. ... No, not all of the plot or character decisions or deaths were completely satisfying, but they were as satisfying as Game of Thrones generally gets. The result is the best episode of the season so far, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if next week’s finale is as good.
The New York Times
But just because the outcome wasn’t surprising, that doesn’t mean the result wasn’t spectacular. While the siege that led up to the King’s Landing apocalypse was plagued with some of the same strategic implausibilities and geographical confusion that has been an issue for much of this season, what followed was a terrifically and terrifyingly rendered decimation of a city.
Sometimes, as with “The Long Night,” Game of Thrones’ battle episodes fall short as storytelling. Sometimes, as with “Blackwater,” much of the storytelling is done in quieter moments, away from the fever pitch of the action. In “The Bells,” Game of Thrones accomplishes a rare feat: fusing an epic clash with the purpose it serves for the larger story. As Game of Thrones rushes toward next week’s long-awaited conclusion, it’s grown better at flexing the muscles that come with HBO’s ever-greater investment of resources, and worse at the ground-laying that once defined its style. The grand has long since overtaken the subtle. “The Bells” just serves as one last, best example.
Sapochnik revels in capturing the horror of war, using the enormity and scope of battle as his canvas, and blood, filth and fire as his paintbrush. Credit for the explosive power of “The Bells” is due as much to the show’s visual effects team as the director, and in its chaos we never lost the thread of what the truth of this story is shaping up to be. What we did lose, however, was the rich narrative thread the series has spun for who Dany and Grey Worm and the Northerners, our presumed good guys, are supposed to be in the end.
While it was all very impressive and visceral, most of it didn’t hit me on an emotional level. ... I wish this episode, with its big deaths and foundation-rattling implications, had moved me more. But after season 7, which I considered to be a huge disappointment, I’m shocked at how much I’m enjoying season 8, warts and all.
The question posed by the episode was whether GoT has burned the series down around Daenerys by having her driven demented by the demonic sound of…chiming surrender bells. One problem was that it was hard to gauge where she was at sanity-wise because by that point the Mother of Dragons had been reduced to a swooping, fire-belching plot device.
This is a specific case where, knowing nothing about what the final two novels of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series are to contain, I’d speculate that their failure to materialize before the series hurts the show (and may help the book series’ reputation, too). We’re meaningfully excluded from Daenerys’ thought process after she starts incinerating the people of King’s Landing in a way that a literary take on the same event, were it included in a Martin novel, would seem to preclude. That the final novels have not existed as source material for years has been problematic at times for the show, never more so than at a moment in which Daenerys fell out of the story she was instigating. Daenerys’s decision doesn’t need to be sympathetic, however — just legible to the viewer, which this viewer ultimately found it to be and which others, I suspect, will not
The Washington Post
This inexplicably mad dash to the finish line is forcing characters through wild transitions that would have been allowed to flower more naturally in previous seasons. And some much-hyped encounters between characters couldn’t possibly live up to years of breathless Internet speculation. But “Game of Thrones," and Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels have always been about family. And on that score, the final season, and this episode in particular, are hitting many, many high marks.
So much of “The Bells” depended on Daenerys’s final attack being entirely vindictive and emotional—and far beyond anything she’s attempted before. ... The show could have laid the groundwork for this turn; it didn’t. ... So many of these moments were well done—in general, this episode was beautifully executed and really well acted, with a lot of clean action and intelligent cross-cutting between set pieces. But it felt so hollow to me, the narrative stakes entirely obliterated, once Daenerys made her move.
Consequence of Sound
As a technical piece of filmmaking, as a standalone outing aimed to shock the conscience of its protagonists and earn the sympathies of its audience for the innocents lost amid the smoldering hellfires, “The Bells” is a masterpiece. As the culmination of the arcs of some of the show’s most important characters, it is, if not a complete failure, then certainly a true disappointment.
And if you start to think about ‘why’, the issue is that you can feel the writers’ thumb on the scales. Without that, there isn’t any particular reason, other than ‘Daenerys be crazy’, which I’m sure will be cited as the official rationale, even though season 7 saw her being warned off attacking King’s Landing directly for fear of literally, exactly this happening.
While the battle against the White Walkers was desperately grim, there was a pleasure in finally seeing this monumental overarching story finally come to a head. The genre nature of the survival horror episode was genuinely thrilling and put audiences on the edge of their seats. But this was a rushed massacre put in purely for shock value. Yes, the action is well choreographed and the dramatic tension is entertaining to watch, but the sudden turn in the writing feels lost.
By cramming Dany's actual transition from Good Queen to Mad Targaryen into just a handful of episodes, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have done the entire series and all its fans a disservice.
Did this new, maybe final big Game of Thrones twist work? As with much of this lumpy final season: kind of. Because while I’m willing to buy the broad stokes of Daenerys’s rapid descent into villainy, Game of Thrones loses me when she razes the streets of King’s Landing with dragonfire before she flies off to the Red Keep to take out Cersei Lannister.
There is much to be dissatisfied about in The Bells. However, for those of us who have invested a significant fraction of our lives in this show, have built up a mountain of goodwill towards it, there is no walking away at this stage and for all its faults, The Bells, in its morally pyrrhic victory, was emotionally eviscerating.
As a visual spectacle, and in some ways an execution of atmosphere, “The Bells” is everything that “The Long Night” fell short of becoming. Personal drama bleeds into pounding dread, which becomes an intimate carnage speckled with equally intimate moments of humanity. As a war story, ["The Bells"] is exceptional, terrible in its beauty and unapologetically bold in its design. But as the culmination of eight seasons of so many emotional journeys — the story of Jaime and Cersei, the story of Sandor Clegane, the story of Daenerys Targaryen and her sanity — the episode crumples.
Again Game of Thrones’ visuals were under-served by the accompanying dialogue. This episode was a nadir in this sense, reaching the point where it almost felt like characters literally couldn’t think of words to say to each other at times (and at these most crucial of times!).
We could tell where the writers were pushing [Dany], but when she got to that destination, and made the decision she did, it felt like a choice imposed by the demands of the plot, not the needs of her character. It looked pretty great, though.
I understand now thematically that whatever combination of George R.R. Martin’s outline, and Benioff and Weiss’ adaptation wanted to hammer home the points that war is terrible, the desire for power is terrible, succumbing to the idea that the ends justify the means is terrible, and those are fine moral stands to take. But there was a way to make Daenerys the villain without making her a cartoon villain.
Was there a way to make the Mad Queen story arc organic and believable? Yes, probably. It started a long time ago, this theoretical way, and it didn’t involve the shoehorn-and-stuff-down-our-throat method we saw tonight. ... From a storytelling standpoint, I completely hated it. I think it spoils the whole show. Other than that, I thought the choreography of the battle itself and the directing was pretty strong.
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.
I don’t know about you, but watching people scream in agony over for 90 minutes isn’t what I look for in a Sunday night.
The visuals of Drogon obliterating King's Landing were some of the best moments of the series, but beyond that, most of the stuff that happened bordered on tedious.
It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense. ... What can I say about all the fighting scenes? The people who work on this show are good at this. All the technical folks deserve a pat on the back and an Emmy.
“The Bells” is almost the entire final season of Game of Thrones in a microcosm — some interesting ideas, some cool moments, and some great acting, but if you think about most of what happened for more than a couple of seconds, it starts to fall apart. It’s better in theory than it is in execution, and it’s full of moments that are supposed to pay off years of the series, but fall extremely flat.
“The Bells” stands out as massively uneven, brilliant in moments (Lena Headey takes all the cake), but often abysmally fan service-y. (See Euron appearing out of the water onto the exact same slot of beach Jaime is on just so the two can duel over a woman only one of them loves.)
I had a feeling “The Bells” was going to portray and be a disaster, but the degree to which it did both still left me gobsmacked. This is, in my book, the worst Game of Thrones episode ever—though not in a technical sense. ... The acting was spectacular. The effects were stunning. But that prowess was in service of a story that was extremely obvious in some ways (Dany becoming the Mad Queen, something fans have predicted for ages) and absolutely illogical in others (Dany burning babies alive mere hours after professing that “mercy is our strength”).
There is one more episode to go, and possibly something to play for. But, by the end of this 90 minutes, as the ash settled, it is difficult not to feel one was looking at the charred remains of an era-defining television show’s integrity.
Sometimes it’s good for a character to be enigmatic and leave viewers guessing, but Daenerys is not that character. She’s not some unknowable being. She’s a queen fighting to take the throne. However, her actions have been at cross-purposes so there’s no clear descent into madness or build up to her actions in “The Bells.”
The Globe and Mail
With “The Bells" ... Benioff and Weiss have well and truly ruined seven seasons’ worth of careful character-building, not to mention immensely impressive work from Emilia Clarke, in one fiery fell swoop. ... It is cheap, it is ugly and it is unearned. ... Why have Benioff and Weiss so egregiously tossed out so many years of work to produce this rushed hot mess?
I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated by an episode of Game of Thrones. There was so much that could have worked here, so many emotional pay-offs and beautifully shot scenes – and it was all let down by how little work was put into earning those moments.
Really, the only strand of this multifarious disaster that worked was Cersei’s farewell in the arms of Jaime. Crucially, it was a moment that felt true to those characters.
“She went mad” feels like a lazy, stereotypical, unearned plot device – and one that was truly horrible to watch. At times, the massacre felt like pointless, gratuitous audience torture.
And, sure, there was something wonderful and terrible to behold as [Dany] and her Drogon rained terror down on King’s Landing, but all those pyrotechnics -- and the resulting ash -- couldn’t obscure how mechanical this drama has become as it heads into next week’s finale. I’m tired of blaming the characters for their poor choices. They are enslaved by the writers, who seem to have lost interest in anything but making sure this thing lands safely.
We have reached the point where it has to be asked — What the hell happened to “Game of Thrones?” ... The downfall of Season 8, and the reputation of ‘Thrones,’ as a whole, is solely the result of the series plotting by [Benioff and Weiss]. And these story issues peaked with last night’s episode, “The Bells.” ... It’s not that the heel turn was a surprise, as many predicted this is what would happen with Dany’s story. It’s just the disappointment that the story leading to this development has felt so rushed and unearned. ... And it has to be pointed out that Dany’s story isn’t the only character arc that is getting shortchanged in this abbreviated, and rushed, season.
Despite years of foreshadowing, [Dany’s] final tyrannical turn in this episode feels unearned. Did it really have to happen like that? ... What Thrones seemed to be setting up for years was a conflict between Daenerys’s compassion and her dogged pursuit of the Iron Throne. What decision would she make when winning the crown required the loss of thousands of innocent lives? Yet this episode didn’t give us that dilemma. ... Maybe Dany, who has much of the same foreshadowing in George R.R. Martin’s books, was always destined to become the Mad Queen—it just doesn’t make sense for it to happen without the show demonstrating any internal conflict or nuance.
It would have been hard to believe, had Game of Thrones not trained us from the beginning to always expect the unexpected. The show’s single-minded devotion to replicating that feelings of shock and disbelief as often as possible is one reason the series, with one episode to go, feels like it’s yanking us from one plot twist to the next rather than coasting in for a smooth landing. ... The result, as the show ekes out its last hours on our screens, has been a series of plot turns that somehow feel both overdetermined and underdeveloped, obvious and arbitrary.
Sorry. But no. I just didn’t buy that. Any of it. ... I made the contrast with Breaking Bad in my review of The Last of the Starks, and it’s worth making again. We believe Walter White could turn from timorous chemistry teacher to monstrous ganglord, because the writers guided us through that transformation, step by tiny step: they made it incremental, natural, logical. With Daenerys, however, the writers of Game of Thrones did nothing of the kind. In effect, they just shrugged, and asked us to believe that the great crusading heroine of the seven previous seasons, the golden messiah, the people’s princess, the ultimate Social Justice Warrior, had had a funny turn and gone full Genghis Khan.
It may be true that power corrupts absolutely. And Game of Thrones may have always wanted to argue that even a heroic figure like Daenerys — a woman we’re set up to root for for seven seasons — can be torn apart by her messiah complex. That’s an interesting idea. Daenerys just needed to evolve to that character over the course of many seasons, in the same way that Sansa evolved from innocent to hardened ruler over many seasons or the Hound softened through his relationship with Arya and other relationships throughout the series.
An absolute disaster of an episode that exhibited every bad habit the series' writers have ever had. ... Had this episode taken place just before the finale of Season 4 or 5, it might be forgivable, but with just over an hour left in the series, it's far too late to make a mistake of this magnitude.
Dany's transformation from ruthless but compassionate wheel-breaker to videogame supervillain took place over the course of maybe two episodes. In the absence of enough runway to demonstrate a gradual descent into mental illness, Dany has to simply snap—to experience a break so traumatic that it explains a heel turn into mass slaughter. The justifications for her rampage, however, are so flimsy they feel like excuses—as do the rationales for almost every character's actions in Game of Thrones' penultimate episode.
What do you think?
What did you think of Sunday's episode? Let us know in the comments section below.