The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones gave us plenty of conclusions to years-long character arcs, but left one much larger question in their stead: What was the point? Like, of any of this.
Let’s be clear. The problem is not that the show concluded with the destruction of King’s Landing by one of its major heroes. Those who’ve been paying attention always knew this would end as a story about how people fail, and not about how heroes win or lose.
But in its clumsy execution of catastrophic proportions, Game of Thrones set fire to its own sense of purpose along with the capital, leaving behind nothing but the taste of ash in our mouths.
No one expected or even wanted a happy ending. We anticipated apocalyptic death, destruction, brutality, shock, horror, despair, and suffering from the end of this show. What we did not expect, though, was the utter hollowness of episode 5’s carnage.
In “The Bells,” Game of Thrones buried the narrative justification for its ruthlessness beneath the rubble, becoming the worst version of itself as a spectacle of meaningless sadism. It’s a nihilism the story’s own author has even previously condemned.
Of course, there’s still one more episode left for the series to stick a landing that’d make the near decade of painful emotional investment we’ve poured into it feel worthwhile. But with each conclusion reached in Season 8 so far, whether it be episode 3’s Great War or episode 5’s Last War, Game of Thrones appears to lose further grasp not only of its plotting, but also of the overarching humanity that justified its cruel worldview.
I keep coming back to Tyrion getting to the crux of why everyone feels so conflicted about this episode during his cousin Orson story seasons ago: “I had to know because it was horrible, that all these beetles would be dying for no reason.” #GameofThrones
— Terri Schwartz (@Terri_Schwartz) May 13, 2019
Back in 2014, shortly after the Red Wedding left many viewers with something akin to PTSD, some critics started accusing the show of being nothing more than masochistic nihilism. But in a Rolling Stone interview, George R. R. Martin unequivocally refuted this characterization of its brutality:
That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it’s moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic… Truth is sometimes hard to hear… Mortality is the inescapable truth of all life .
The difference between nihilism and hard truth is the difference between resigning oneself to a meaningless existence versus finding meaning in the difficulty of mortality.
Devastating twists and premature ends to character arcs have defined what made Game of Thrones captivating. But every time we watched the brutal fall of a hero — whether Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Oberyn, Hodor, or even Shireen — its unforgiving brutality came with the poignant shock of poetic injustice.
Game of Thrones set flame to its own sense of purpose along with the capital, leaving behind nothing but the taste of ash in our mouths.
In contrast, “The Bells” reduced the show’s darkness to an endless deluge of futility and cynicism, inspiring tedious dread instead of anything close to emotional catharsis. With Daenerys, Jaime, and Cersei (not to mention Euron) arcs, Game of Thrones obliterated all hope that the strife we’ve endured throughout this long journey had any purpose.
What was the point of Jaime’s painful growth since Season 2 if, after everything, he just went back to being the same person he was in the very first episode?
Well, some might argue, he represents the harsh reality of redemption’s limitations — how even if you make great strides toward growth, people are still bound by the flaws in their nature. Sure, we can buy that, despite the huge corners cut to reach that trajectory in two episodes.
But what was most egregious about the character assassination of Jaime Lannister in “The Bells” wasn’t his abrupt 180 back into Cersei’s arms. It was his scene with Tyrion, who begged an imprisoned Jaime to ring the bell to save millions of innocent lives in King’s Landing.
The same innocent lives, you’ll remember, that Jaime gave up his honor to save during Robert’s Rebellion, by breaking his oath as a member of the Kingsguard to kill the Mad King and inadvertently become the hated Kingslayer for the most heroic act of his life.
So how does Jaime respond now in Season 8 to Tyrion’s plea to help him save those same innocent lives? “To be honest, I never cared much for them, innocent or otherwise,” he says, with no hint of irony.
Maybe this was meant to show us how far Jaime’s regressed, somehow more morally degraded than even the arrogant Golden Lion he was decades ago. If that’s the case, we were given zero context as to how this happens, since his motivation for going back to Cersei amounted to him staring into a fire while Brienne slept.
Game of Thrones buried the narrative justification for its ruthlessness beneath the rubble, becoming the worst version of itself.
Beyond that, we know for a fact that even the Jaime who loyally stood by Cersei’s side in Season 7 cared enough about saving those innocent lives to risk his own. During the Loot Train Attack, his suicidal charge at Daenerys and her dragon clearly came from a desperation to stop another mad Targaryen from enacting the tragedy he sacrificed so much to prevent.
Did any of this backstory, arguably the cornerstone of Jaime’s entire character, get even a passing reference in the 80-minute runtime of “The Bells”? Nope. Instead, we got an inexplicable fight between him and the plot-device-in-mascara that is Euron. One-armed Jaime bests dragonslayer Euron through sheer dumb luck, as if the loss of Jaime’s fighting prowess hadn’t been pivotal to his story for several seasons.
The empty hole where Jaime’s character development used to be culminates in a callback to the same old shit we’ve seen from the Lannisters countless times before: We’re all that matters. It makes you wonder why we spent eight years caring about their myriad of other inner conflicts if even the characters don’t think their struggles mattered.
Again, you might say that’s the idea: People don’t change. Maybe the collapse of Jaime’s redemption arc shows a hard-to-hear truth about the inescapable cycle of abusive co-dependent relationships. But if that’s the case, romanticizing his love for Cersei in the end did nothing to communicate that effectively.
By diminishing the complex interiority of his character to a single motivation, Jaime’s end robs us of what made Game of Thrones so powerful, grounding the fantasy in believable human struggles. Maybe Jaime didn’t deserve a better end, but it’s contrived nihilism to say that his struggle for goodness, his painful fall, his defining act of heroism, his entire life’s worth of experiences — they would be forgotten not just to history, but apparently by Jaime Lannister himself.
Then there’s Cersei.
No one could ever call Cersei a hero. Yet a huge testament to the show’s storytelling (and Lena Heady’s acting) was that even her most monstrous acts came from deeply human fears. Her character growth evolved in the exact opposite direction of Jaime’s, as she lost more of her humanity along with each child, becoming more dangerous as she had less and less to live for.
But even that intriguing character shift was walked back in Season 8, with a pregnancy that ultimately did nothing to change her behavior or deepen our understanding of her as a person. Cersei gambled her child’s life with reckless abandon all the time, despite everyone insisting that maternal instincts were the bedrock of her moral justifications. The show can barely even commit to the one-dimensional motivations they keep reducing their character to.
For the first time in Season 8, Cersei comes across as a storybook villain — not because she blew up her own city once but because shitty writing forgot to give her even the most basic purpose for her actions and decisions. With an astounding lack of screen time, 90 percent of her role in Season 8 amounted to staring out at King’s Landing from a window with a sly smirk.
So what was the point of Cersei? Why take away all her children, only to give her the hope of another, only to have that change nothing about her behavior — only to kill her?
Like everyone else in Season 8, the complex person we knew as Cersei was replaced by a plot necessity. She exists now because Daenerys needed someone to fight. Or, if we’re being generous, perhaps her character highlights how villainy can sometimes do less harm than the promise of a savior like Daenerys.
Which brings us to the most pointless fallen character of all in “The Bells.”
As many have pointed out, Daenerys’ turn from Breaker of Chains into Queen of Ashes was far from unexpected. But even with several seasons of attempted setup, book foreshadowing, and straight-up prophecy, her moral downfall lacked both logic and meaning. The show gave her reasons for the sudden bout of “madness,” but their believability as a relatable human reaction was laughable.
The failure of Daenerys’ character arc cuts the deepest of all because it had the most potential to say something meaningful about the series’ overall themes. In theory, her fall from hero to villain could’ve spoken to the dangers of savior narratives, how absolute power is not the answer to disempowerment, or how no one person can liberate others from oppression.
Instead, the showrunners decided it was enough to convey the total collapse of a character’s morality through Emilia Clarke’s eyebrow acting. The distance from Daenerys’ experience during her most pivotal moment in the entire series was deliberate, too.
During the Inside the Episode, showrunner D.B. Weiss explained:
“We wanted her to just be death from above, as seen from the perspective of the people who are on the business end of that dragon… There’s a tendency to focus on the heroic figures and not pay attention to the people who maybe suffer from the repercussions of the decisions made by those heroic people. We really wanted to keep our perspective and sympathies on the ground at this moment, because those are the people really paying the price for the decisions she’s making.”
An admirable thought, I suppose. But this actually had the exact opposite effect. By exclusively focusing on nameless extras being burned alive over and over again, “The Bells” dehumanized the citizens of King’s Landing, desensitizing and numbing viewers to the tragic loss of life. More than any other Game of Thrones bloodbath, it felt like glorified brutality for brutality’s sake.
Whether “hero” or “villain,” this was a story about regular people’s capacity for evil.
Worse still, by making Daenerys just “death from above,” “The Bells” once again sacrificed what made this show so unique in the first place. Before, the violence on Game of Thrones purposefully avoided the black-and-white moral battleground typical of the fantasy genre. Whether “hero” or “villain,” this was a story about regular people’s capacity for evil — how human flaws, rather than a giant evil eye in Mordor, can cause extreme brutality.
Game of Thrones forced you to identify with villainy rather than allow you the false comfort of believing only bad people do bad things. As with Cersei, acts of unforgivable violence were contextualized by sympathetic motivations like trauma and a love for one’s children. As a result, we saw how the most inhuman atrocities of war could come from the most well-intentioned human places.
Robert’s Rebellion, which caused thousands to die, began as a clash of unrequited and forbidden love. Daenerys’ descent into villainy originated as a fight for a better world. The message is that our capacity for unthinkable evil is just as human as our capacity for love, empathy, and kindness.
But when showing that mattered most — when the hero we’ve been rooting for for over eight years become the story’s central bad guy — they decided to make her little more than a fire-breathing drone.
The biggest threat to humanity wasn’t monsters, but other people.
By refusing to let us inside the mind of the person enacting the violence, Game of Thrones sacrificed the personal stakes that previously made its gratuitous violence consequential and its villains meaningful.
Season 8’s lazy and frankly boring nihilism first become apparent in episode 3, “The Long Night.”
After the Night King was unceremoniously removed as the primary threat in a single episode, we all scrambled to recalibrate our understanding of the story’s purpose. OK, so this wasn’t about how fighting a larger existential threat must bring humanity together. So what was the point?
Well, as Tyrion suggested in Episode 4, eradicating the magical threat made it clear that the biggest threat to humanity wasn’t monsters, but other people. But instead exploring the human side of evil, the battle between Daenerys and Cersei made the overall purpose of their journeys go up in smoke.
What’s unbearable about Game of Thrones‘ turn toward nilihism isn’t the lack of happy or even satisfying conclusion. It’s that this newfound cynicism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the story the show has been telling for eight years, the deeply human characters it made us care about, and the promise of a bittersweet ending that finds meaning in a difficult existence.
Instead all we’re left with is this futile exercise on meaninglessness of existence. And one more grueling hour of wallowing in it.
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