The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones aired on Sunday, and Daenerys’ sudden heel turn sparked enough hot takes to immolate thousands of innocent civilians. The episode, “The Bells,” is looking to be a pretty controversial episode of a show that’s seen its share of controversy.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5.**
Rotten Tomatoes is, as always, not a perfect indicator of quality, but it’s a helpful way to get a read on the overall temperature of something. According to the review aggregator, this is the worst-reviewed episode of the season so far, the latest in a steady decline. Why did this second-to-last episode get a similar reception as Daenerys received when she came to Westeros? Here’s what people are saying.
WAS DANY’S “MAD QUEEN” TURN EARNED?
The most controversial part of the episode was Dany’s sudden decision to commit war crimes, unleashing fiery death on civilians. It was a hard moment to watch for fans, as many had spent the past seven seasons rooting for Dany to “break the wheel.” Instead, she became queen of the ashes.
It didn’t quite come out of nowhere, as some defenders of the episode note. Dany has been ruthless in the past, and she became increasingly quick to burn those who wronged her.
But, there’s a big difference between “burning soldiers on the opposite side of a war” and “committing genocide after the other side has already surrendered.”
“It’s one thing to be ruthless, as Daenerys has always been; it’s another to be truly cruel and evil,” writes Riley McAtee for The Ringer. “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.”
There is indeed evidence in the book, as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson writes. Because the point-of-view style of the writing in George R. R. Martin’s books allows readers to get inside the characters’ heads, there’s much more groundwork for her villainous turn than there was in the show. Where the show is rushing this important character development, Martin is laying the groundwork in agonizing slow motion. The upside is, should he ever release another book in the series, Dany’s madness won’t feel as abrupt.
“The HBO series has sometimes learned the wrong lesson from Martin’s skill and focused, in later seasons, on obscuring information in order to elicit shock,” Robinson writes. “So, regrettably, one of the last shocks of the series comes not as another well-earned Martin surprise, but a terrible gut punch to the many fans who had built Daenerys up as a symbol of feminine power and survival against all odds.”
On Twitter, journalist Andrea Grimes wrote a thread pointing out how it wasn’t even clear in the show why, exactly, Dany decided to burn them all. The showrunners’ explanation in the “Inside the Episode” didn’t line up with what was actually, you know, inside the episode.
Those “Inside the Episode” segments continue to not exactly serve David Benioff and D.B. Weiss well. After getting made fun of last week for the “Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet,” line, a new screengrab from an older featurette went viral in the wake of Sunday’s episode.
Uh, just kidding?
REDDIT HAAAATED IT
Benioff and Weiss have become the ultimate villains of Game of Thrones in some fans' eyes, especially the radically pro-spoiler subreddit r/freefolk. After last week’s episode, Redditors managed to Google-bomb Benioff and Weiss, exploiting Google’s search algorithm to make it so that a picture of the two is the top result when you search for “bad writers.”
Freefolk has been ground zero for the leaks that have so far been almost 100 percent correct, so it’s not like anybody was that surprised by the events of “The Bells.” Even so, in the wake of the episode, r/freefolk decided that it was a Lord of the Rings subreddit now, full of posts celebrating LotR and throwing shade at GoT.
ELIZABETH WARREN’S TAKE… DIDN’T HOLD UP
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made some news when the season started when she wrote an editorial for The Cut about Game of Thrones, writing that the word needed fewer Cersei Lannisters and more Daenerys Targaryens.
“Dany believes fiercely in her right to rule, but she despises what ruling means in the world she’s grown up in,” Warren wrote. “She doesn’t want to be a slave owner or a dictator — and she definitely doesn’t want to become her murderous father.”
Whoops. She hasn't tweeted about it, but maybe she's as unhappy about Dany's turn as most other people.
DID CLEGANEBOWL LIVE UP TO THE HYPE?
Cleganebowl, the long-awaited showdown between the Hound and the Mountain, was both a major fan theory and a major meme. So, when the two finally threw down on a crumbling staircase in the Red Keep, fan expectations were high. The visuals were stunning, the fight gnarly, but many critics thought it was the emotions of the moment, rather than the violence, that made Celganebowl hype-worthy.
“Even more so than the fight itself, one of Game of Thrones’ most impressive achievements is making this a plot line that fans care about to begin with,” Polygon’s Austen Goslin writes. “And at the heart of the storyline was the transformation of Sandor Clegane from one of the show’s most frightening characters to one of its most loving.”
“In memorializing the Hound, that hatred [of his brother] shouldn’t be the focus; his conversation with Arya before the fight began should be,” writes The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz. “After years of dragging Arya along with him and teaching her how to become a killer, the Hound begs her not to follow him down his path of vengeance, violence, and hatred.”
Not everyone was hyped, though. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff admired the visuals, but “as it was happening, I realized I had absolutely no emotional investment in what was unfolding, beyond having a vague idea that I was sad the Hound couldn’t escape his own cycles of abuse and trauma.”
“This sort of sums up David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s approach to Game of Thrones’ last couple seasons in a weird way,” he continues. “They’ve finally gotten to a place where they can put some of these huge moments from Martin’s future books onscreen, but they’ve struggled to lay the groundwork for those moments in a way that will make them land, which leaves them feeling stranded."
IT WAS GOOD
So much of the overall response to “The Bells” was negative, that the hottest take might actually be that it was a good episode. Writing for Vulture, Sean T. Collins went a step further, arguing that it is actually Thrones’ best episode.
Collins, who takes less issue with the perceived abruptness of Daenerys' turn than many other critics did, viewed the episode as the brutal, final encapsulation of what the entire series has been about. The brutality of the extremely violent episode underlined the key theme: There are no heroes.
“Every single swerve that upended what the story seemed to be about was building to this moment: A self-styled liberator perpetrating a massacre on a previously unimaginable scale, both as an in-story act of violence and an on-screen work of filmmaking,” he writes. “This is the show, and it always has been. Game of Thrones forces you to look. Long may it burn.”