Game of Thrones

For Whom ‘The Bells’ Toll

Thoughts on the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Yes, again.

Warning: This should go without saying, but SPOILER ALERTS BELOW. If you are not caught up on Game of Thrones, do not read this post. Yet. Read it later!

I swear this isn’t going to turn into a Game of Thrones fan blog. That would be dumb anyway, with the show about to end. But having just watched the penultimate episode, The Bells, it’s top of mind once again, so I wanted to jot down some thoughts. Less about the episode itself, and more about what has become clear at a macro level: the showrunners have vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to wrap up the series.

If you look at the complaints online — and there are a lot of them — they can seemingly all be boiled down to this point. The writers are doing far too much to cut corners in order to wrap things up with a nice bow. But it now seems safe to say that we all would have preferred that they threw out the bow and opted for a bigger box.

This is both easier said than done and easier said in hindsight, of course. The reality is that they had to make a call a few years ago in terms of how to land this massive undertaking. Throughout the years, you’ve heard David Benioff and D.B. Weiss say time and time again that they’d prefer to end things in a timely manner, on their own terms, rather than stay too long. And that makes sense! It’s better to burn out than to fade away, and all that.

And yet, in this case, such a decision was clearly a mistake. A strategic blunder worthy of Tyrion himself.

As is now readily apparent, Game of Thrones should have been at least ten seasons, not eight. The additional 12 to 20 episodes would have given Benioff and Weiss the time they needed to further establish the arcs they’re currently attempting to make pay off. It would have given them the time to write the checks that the actors’ mouths currently can’t cash.

In many ways, Game of Thrones, the show, has always suffered from this issue. The books are just so long and all-encompassing that the fact that they’ve been able to be adapted at all — let alone into one of the biggest shows of all time — is a not-so-minor miracle. Long ago, the show had to break from the ‘one book = one season’ structure. But in my mind, the problems really started once we moved beyond the books themselves.

Think about what Beniof and Weiss have been trying to do for a second: they’re trying to finish a story that is only something like 60% complete (depending on the ultimate length of the final two books). It’s hard enough to adapt a complete series of books — any series of books — but when they’re not even complete, you’re asking people to write an adaptation without having the full picture. This isn’t transcription on the fly. To adapt well, especially something this vast, you need to ingest it all and distill what will work in a cohesive and coherent form for the medium.

Even if Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t have included the vast majority of what Martin will ultimately write, that knowledge of the full story would have undoubtedly helped with the adaptation. This is why I believe the first five to six seasons are so great, and why things start to come off the rails, narratively, after that. Because there are no more rails!

Yes, Benioff and Weiss may have the high-level info they need from Martin in order to know where to take things, but the journey to get there has grown increasingly lacking. And again, it’s because corners are so clearly being cut at this point. The Starbucks cup,¹ while silly, is in many regard a perfect symbol of the sloppy nature of what we’re seeing on screen.

And this most recent episode seemed to be the culmination of our collective disappointment with regard to the above. The descent of Daenerys into madness has been foreshadowed for a while, but the turn happened far, far, far too quickly. Because the things that ultimately led to it — the death of Rhaegal (not to mention Viserion), the betrayal of Cersei, the betrayal of Varys, the betrayal of Tyrion, the betrayal of Jon, the death of Jorah, the death of Missandei, and so on — all happened too quickly.

You could argue that the quick compounding nature of these events is what pushed Dany off the deep end so rapidly — and that’s undoubtedly what Benioff and Weiss would argue — but narratively (from our perspective), this all happened too fast to have much of an impact on us. And they should have!

Said another way: it feels as if all of these big moments lack the gravitas which they clearly deserve. And again, it comes down to timing.

I actually quite liked many things about this most recent episode. I was glad that the writers didn’t pull punches with regard to the destruction of King’s Landing, and the brutal extinguishing of its citizens.² I’ve been mixed about other episodes this season. But they all clearly would have been better served by having more build up and backstory.³

So here we are. One episode left. Will the payoff be the Iron Bank or the Iron Price? Will they stick the King’s Landing? (I’ll stop now.) I sadly have to believe they will not simply because I believe they haven’t done enough in recent seasons leading up to this moment.⁴ And again, it has been less about execution and more about just having enough time. It was a miscalculation made years ago, which is now having trickle down effects which are compounding as we inch closer to the end. And all of this is terribly disappointing to so many of us after (and because of) years of investment.

But hey, maybe they can re-do the last couple of seasons as a series of movies in a few years. Or maybe, just maybe, someone will take another stab once George R.R. Martin actually writes his version of his events.⁵ I may know nothing, but I know he will not cut his narrative short.

¹ Which, of course, wasn’t actually a Starbucks cup.

² I still didn’t love the ending of Cersei. Again, it was too quick and too painless. If you’re not going to take the Jaime mercy kill angle, at least make it clear that she was buried alive or something (though that poor baby — there was actually a baby, right? Right?!). Nor did I love the Arya escape-the-room aspect. Did literally everyone die but her? Or is she dead and riding off?!

³ The exception would seem to be episode two, which many people, myself included, seemed to love because it was the culmination of years of backstory for many of these characters. The showrunners then proceeded to make the episode nearly pointless, in hindsight.

⁴ You know what did stick their own, arguably more ambitious, landing? Avengers: Endgame.

⁵ Fingers firmly crossed.