The second to last episode of Game of Thrones succeeds in hammering home one principle that has guided the show and the books it is based on: there is no such thing as a just war. “The Bells” is a spectacle of carnage and horror visited on innocent people by the side we’ve come to know as “good,” unleashing hell in a moral vacuum as Daenerys burns King’s Landing to the ground. That’s the big picture. It’s where the episode makes thematic sense and where it’s most effective—and crucially, consistent with the show until now.
Zoom in a bit closer to the particulars of how this episode services individual characters’ narratives, though, and it all but comes undone. Cersei, Jaime, Varys, and The Hound meet their fates in ways that might subvert expectations built on years of predictions, theories, and textual analysis of the show, sure. But the shock of their arcs’ resolutions, no matter how movingly directed or acted, leaves little behind after it fades. What was it all for? Did any of it mean anything? There’s one episode left that might answer for it. But even then, it’s too late. This is the end of Game of Thrones—and it’s as ugly, abrupt, and pointless as war.
I know, I know—pointlessnessis the point. OK. But rushed plotting and writing that fails to crack characters’ interiority has kept this season from communicating that effectively. And this episode’s no exception. Why this all happens, what it says about the people involved, what it means in the context of everything we’ve seen until now—all of it is de-emphasized in the name of upending audience expectations with one gut-punch surprise after another. As a result, characters’ seasons-long stories seem to end mid-sentence. Their decisions feel at times inscrutably random. Nothing means anything anymore. It’s too nihilistic, even for the most nihilistic show on TV.