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Let’s talk about “The Bells” – what went wrong, what was excellent, and what we may be able to fix with one simple switch to a scene that means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of the show…
It feels like the full breadth of humanity is up in arms over the penultimate episode of the Game Of Thrones series, The Bells. While I do not consider myself part of the masses who despise it’s very existence, I do appreciate some of their concerns. For the record, I liked the episode and everything it tried to accomplish on a craft and thematic level. I felt viscerally, and that’s what good television is supposed to do, right? Make one feel. But I think I have an idea how to make everyone happy – and that is to adjust one small scene between Euron Greyjoy and Jaime Lannister.
SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES: THE BELLS FOLLOW
I’m not here to write a better show. I’m not here to criticize the Double D’s for the painstaking work they put into The Bells. But I am here as a fully engaged, actively adoring fan of Game Of Thrones, who happens to hear other fans, and loves the art of storytelling. I possess nowhere near the level of expertise of Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, but I do know what makes me engaged with a story and that is the idea of arcs and choices.
The issue we, as an audience, have here is that Benioff and Weiss gave us something to feel, but not in the way that most of the audience expected. Dany’s now infamous heel turn, Arya running through the streets of Kings Landing, the triumphant Cleganebowl, Jon trying to fend off the Northmen from innocents, Cersei having the world collapse on her, and Jaime trying to be with the woman he desires. These are all characters we know and love. Throughout the past eight seasons, they have been well written, fully fleshed out and now is the time to start concluding their arcs.
Now if I were to make an argument of how the story of The Bells went wrong, it would find it’s root in some of these character’s arcs, choices, and sheer coincidence.
Everyone wants to talk about Dany’s descent to evil, or how Cersei didn’t receive the bad news end of her well due comeuppance, but those are all a matter of taste. Either you buy into Daenerys turning into a villain or you don’t. You either buy into Cersei getting crushed under the weight of her own ambition and blind faith, or you don’t. Those are artistic choices that can be elevated by story choices.
But there still exists that last little niggling issue of coincidence. Coincidence is actually far from little when it comes to light. In fact, it’s a really big deal because an audience can always sniff out coincidence the second it happens given how rarely it occurs in real life. That doesn’t mean coincidences can’t happen in story, or that they aren’t real.
But reality is not an excuse for storytelling.
The author or showrunner has complete control over their respective worlds, and there is no reason they cannot affect the plot in any way necessary to avoid coincidences where the emotional math doesn’t add up for the reader/viewer. Enter stage left EURON GREYJOY vs. JAIME LANNISTER.
THE MAIN PROBLEM
When I watched The Bells for the second time, I see a failed opportunity of criminal proportions when it comes to The Kingslayer and the Iron King. Their subsequent conversation and fight are the epitome of coincidence. Euron just happens to show up at the exact right time, in the exact right spot where Jaime Lannister is walking to see Cersei? They fight because…reasons?
The emotional math doesn’t add up.
What choice is there for these characters? What are their emotional stakes? Do they even care about each other? Does it move the plot forward? How does this fight satisfy ANYTHING in their respective arcs? The simple answer is: it doesn’t.
Sure, Jaime gets stabbed twice and bleeds – but it neither hampers his travels through Kings Landing, nor does it effect how he interacts with Cersei when he finally reaches her. Euron may or may not die off camera, believing he’s the man who finally killed Jaime Lannister. (By the way, I am a big fan of this line because it speaks to how shallow Euron really is). But, the real tragic part of this fight is that if it didn’t happen, nothing changes.
D & D could literally erase this existence of this fight off the earth and the episode still reaches the same conclusion. The city burns, Cersei and Jaime die together after his trek into the city and the impending conflict between Stark and Targaryen is just as inevitable. As a writer, when this happens, you know it’s really bad when what is written is neither emotionally affecting, nor is it able to effectively alter the plot in any significant forward fashion.
I contend that if this scene is changed, the ripple effects are enormous and completely change the tone and tenor of the entire episode. So let’s do that shall we?
LET’S FIX “THE BELLS“
In this exercise, all the of conclusions are the SAME. The episode ends the same, all the choices made by characters are mostly the same, the city burns the same, but we will adjust the terrible fight sequence, and I think the result is much better.
Let’s begin with Jaime. Most of the fandom are upset about his redemption arc and how it was abruptly abandoned by the final two episodes. I disagree with their conclusions, but I can see why they are upset. This ire is amplified by Jaime’s line to Tyrion “well, I’ve never really cared for the innocents anyway.” Admittedly, this is not a great line from Jaime. Of course he cared, that’s why he stabbed King Aerys in the back! Of course he cared, that’s why he jumped one handed into a Bear pit for Brienne. Of course he cared, that’s why he wore that moniker of “Kingslayer” for his whole life. He is the noble knight that Brienne knew, and he is the man who sacrificed his honor and looked longingly at his empty page in the book of good deeds by the Kings Guard. Jaime has done terrible things in his life (see: pushing an innocent child out a window) but that’s the point of a redemptive arc, right? To start in one place and end in another.
For the purposes of our tale now, Jaime’s story still begins the same way — leaving Brienne because he realizes he is the “hateful” person he sees himself to be. He is captured, has a conversation with Tyrion about the bells, is let loose by Tyrion, and he makes his way into the city. He gets shut out at the gates, and he has to find a way around. Instead of cutting away to something else, we follow Jaime along his travels into the city. Tension rises because we see him struggle because of his hand, and also because we know he could die in the conflict to come like any other innocent. We see him interact with people by pushing the weak forcefully out of the way with the sole purpose of getting to his sister. Maybe he’s right – maybe he doesn’t care about the innocents?
We cut to Dany and the Stark alliance about to fight The Golden Company and Dany does her thing. She blows them all to bits and we witness the scene from below as a dragon flies over a Scorpion only to have it burned to a crisp and debris falling — perhaps killing an onlooker. We pan back revealing that it’s Jaime’s perspective, and his mouth is open (think: Spielberg reaction shot here) as he looks on at the terror of the dragons. We get the sense that he remembers back to the Loot Train battle and what it was like when he was almost on the business end of that flame.
The camera pans around Jaime’s face to reveal a blurred Red Keep in the background. Suddenly Jaime turns and we see the back of his head while the distant Red Keep comes into focus. It’s Jaime’s goal, and we realize that he is not forgetting his choice to be with his sister. Jaime starts running because he knows it’s only a matter of time before Drogon goes to the Red Keep with ill intent.
The camera lifts up revealing how LONG of a journey Jaime has, the maze of Kings Landing, where the bells are, and we see the dragon fly by again, destroying some more Scorpions.
Our whole chessboard is revealed with the geography of the main pieces we’ll be paying attention to for the next hour.
From there we can continue onto the shot of Cersei and everything that happens in the original script: she looks out, sees the dragons (where we just were with Jaime — see the geography of it all?), Qyburn tells her the battle is essentially lost and the final shot in the scene is her viewing not only the destruction of her kingdom, but of her fleet in Blackwater Bay as well. But wait, what about Euron?
We’ve already seen Euron get shot at by Dany in her first strike on the fleet. Whether or not you believe Euron survived a full Dracarys is up to you. I’m willing to put my suspension of disbelief aside because if Davos can survive exploding wildfire in season 2 at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, then Euron can survive this.
After Cersei, we cut to Euron who comes up out of the water, obviously struggling to stay afloat and maybe he’s badly burned. He finds his bearings and notices a ship that is burned as well (see the symbolism?) but the Scorpion is still in tact. Smiling, he painstakingly starts swimming to the ship, and the camera rises up again to show where we are, where the dragons are, and the men pouring into the exploded gates just created by Drogon.
From there, everything happens the same, the Dothraki come riding in, Jon and Greyworm are easily chopping down men and the battle is clearly won. Part of this action, however, takes place in front of Jaime during his journey to the Red Keep.
Perhaps Jaime sees a little girl about to get run over by a Dothraki horseman and he goes to save her but it’s too late. She gets run over like how some of the Stark men were run over during the Battle of the Bastards (see the callback?). He sees her corpse, takes a beat to consider what happened to this innocent girl but continues on to Cersei. We see a small reluctance that is quickly extinguished. Cersei is the goal. She is his reason.
We pull back and see the heroic figures of Jon and Greyworm streak across the screen. They walk right out of frame as quickly as they came in it. It’s like we’re just part of the crowd witnessing a conquering king walking to his goal. His men follow him, but suddenly they all stop. This is where everything continues to happen the same way – the Lannister men throw down their swords, Dany lands on the wall just waiting with tension and we hear the cries of “RING THE BELLS!” in the quiet soundscape of what feels like a haunted Kings Landing.
So instead of fighting Euron, we discover that Jaime is running near the bells – and he witnesses more Dothraki still killing innocent people. He hears the calls for the bells, but realizes, no one is there to ring them because they’ve either been killed by the invading army, or the people that are there are hiding in the door openings or alleyways. No one wants to risk their lives against the Dothraki and come out of their hiding. He sees another girl with a little white horse toy (one that we will see later on with Arya), and like her, he, too, is scared. But he can’t look away with from this terrified little girl with the horse.
AND THIS IS THE CHANGE.
This is when Jaime is faced with an obstacle and has two valid options. Or, as it’s better known – a choice.
The obstacle is his himself – does he continue on to Cersei, or does he risk death, and ring the bells to save the innocent people he once saved before? Will he let another innocent little girl die? Thereby proving his sentiment to Tyrion about not caring the previous night, totally false and subverts our expectations?
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Sure enough Jaime makes a choice. A choice that changes how likely he will be able to get to his original goal – Cersei.
A choice that shows having peace, saving the people, and saving Kings Landing is more important to him than his sister. Just like the choice he made when action was more important than his oath to the Mad King. It’s emotionally affecting for him, and as a result, it’s emotionally affecting for us as an audience.
In a continuation of his arc Jaime chooses the bells, perhaps getting cut down by a Dothraki rider which gives us some tension over Jaime’s ability to fulfill his arc he began back in season 1.
After a brief skirmish Jaime kills the rider, and with a combination of his blood and the blood of the Dothraki, and the other innocent people on his hands (see the symbolism?) he struggles to the top of the bell tower, and tries to ring them. But because of the slick blood (see it?!) he can’t do it. His golden hand falls off (see it?!) and he puts all of his might into saving his people. Finally he gets it, and the bells ring aloud. The day is saved. He looks out to the battlements, the dragons, the men, and falls to a knee. He’s gassed.
BUT the main point here is that the plot is affected wholeheartedly because of Jaime’s choice. He saved everyone. The Last War is over.
Maybe he sits down against the wall, clutching his bloody abdomen while looking at Kings Landing. It feels mortal. He is mortal. The Golden Lion is hurt badly but he’s accepted it.
He’ll miss Cersei and he’s happy because he can take solace in the fact that she won’t die a horrible death. Maybe she’ll be imprisoned, maybe she’ll be exiled. But she’s strong, stronger than he ever was. She will be ok. She doesn’t need him right now. Either way, he just doesn’t have the strength to keep going anymore because he’s done everything humanly possible to save her and the kingdom.
So as the battle ends, and we see that slowly dawning look of death on Jaime’s face to the angelic chime of the bells, the audience believes his look because the emotional math adds up. The man we once hated, a man who pushed Bran out the window effectively starting the War Of The Five Kings, has become a man we love, and will eventually weep for during his final moments as he effectively ENDS The Last War. Cut to Jaime’s POV, and we see the last thing he’ll ever see, The Red Keep, saved, to the sound of the final deep breaths of his life.
But wait, the camera pulls back and the shot widens. It’s revealed that the POV of the Red Keep is not Jaime’s. The struggling deep breaths are not Jaime’s. In fact, the POV and breath belong to Daenerys Targaryen on her dragon.
Cut to a closeup of Dany’s face and we see her struggling the way she did in the original script.
She’s looking at the Keep, using a mirroring shot we just had with Jaime – but the feeling is much different. This is the look of rage, hatred, and vengeance. She feels the madness coming.
But she looks down at Jon, and even though he rebuffed her, she knows that he is loved by Westeros, and she knows she still loves him. He didn’t really betray her. He did what he thought was best. She knows that if she has any chance to be loved like him, but more importantly, BY HIM, she needs to stop. She takes a deep breath, and we see a calm come over her face.
She’s won the battle.
The throne – the goal since she was sold by her brother and enslaved by the Dothraki – is finally hers.
Drogon spreads his wings and together he and Dany take off for the Red Keep, ready to accept surrender from Cersei.
Like Jaime, Dany’s choice of peace effectively changes the plot again – peace is here, she proves to Jon, to Westeros, but mainly to herself that she is not just the woman who murdered Varys or the Tarlys, she is not a mad Targaryen and the coin flip can go screw itself.
Daenerys Stormborn can be the Queen she chooses to be, the one who is going to Break The Wheel.
But a few flaps into flight, Drogon is struck by a scorpion bolt. He’s not badly injured and he can still fly – perhaps the hit was in the tail with a glancing shot, or maybe it’s stuck in there. Dany is shocked, enraged, and looks back to see where it came from.
Cut to the half burned ship we saw earlier. The shot tracks to the right, and we see a closeup of the same smiling burned face from Euron FRAKKING Greyjoy sitting on a Scorpion. He’s the one who did it.
He’s where he’s always done his best damage – on the water. And he’s proud.
From Euron’s perspective we see Drogon flying toward him as he loads up another shot. He’s only got one shot left and he knows it. He takes aim, quietly says with a smirk, “I’m the man who killed two dragons” and takes another shot. But as she’s proven she can do now, Dany knows how to avoid the clumsy arrows and does so with ease.
Euron sees the near miss and now knows — this is his end.
The dragon is coming closer and he’s got nothing for defense. His confidence, and that need to experience life, has finally caught up to him. His face turns from a smile to sudden acceptance of his fate. He closes his eyes and we can feel his thoughts as we watch. “At least I’m on the water, on a ship, where I belong.”
Maybe Euron gives us a final, “what is dead may never die” as a sort of out loud prayer, and the flame comes to meet him. Those powerful flames cover the shot, and then relent. We just see an empty charred chair where Euron once sat. He’s been eviscerated to nothing.
This is necessary because it gives Euron something important to do by hurting the dragon, and it exemplifies the irony that Cersei placed her faith in Euron to save the kingdom. Thanks to her, now Euron has brought the kingdom’s destruction and eventually leads to her death.
It shows how stupid the decision was, how careless Euron is, and how careless Cersei was for placing ANY faith in him at all.
Dany, satisfied with killing that bastard, whips around. But instead of the calm she once had looking at the Red Keep, now we go back to the rage.
No look at JON is going to fix this.
I AM THE QUEEN. THEY HAD SURRENDERED. MY CHILD WAS JUST SHOT. I WAS GOING TO LET THEM LIVE.
I WAS GOING TO BREAK THE WHEEL…
She’s alone. Everyone’s gone, and she almost lost another child. She’s the one who’s gotten herself here. No one else. She brought Kings Landing to their knees. Those bells are ringing because of her. Now she’s going to put an end to all of it, by herself.
A Targaryen all alone in the world is a terrible thing…
Instead of us having to SURMISE why she went mad, or WHY she made a valid choice, we see it. There’s an inciting incident. And, like Jaime, we SEE the choice she made.
Dany’s obstacle, like Jaime’s, is herself. She chose to be benevolent, fighting back her urges to kill because of what happened to her throughout her entire life. She chose peace. But once Euron injures Drogon, Dany realizes that nothing will ever change.
These people – the people who took her from her home as a baby, the people who killed her father and her brother, the people who tried to kill her, the people who were living in HER city, were never going to love her. She could have the throne, but she would be stuck listening to men her whole life. Men telling her how she SHOULD rule.
JON SNOW telling her how she SHOULD rule.
Not that usurper. He may Be Targaryen in blood, but he’s really a Stark. A Stark will never harm another Targaryen in any way ever again.
You can see the conversation with Olenna Tyrell playing in her head, “Peace never lasts my dear…I’ve known a great many clever men and I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them. The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
FINE…LET IT BE FEAR…
At this point, the original story takes over and Daenerys cuts her way through the city.
And as The Dragon (see what I did there?) tears through her city, Jaime is abruptly scared back to life as hears the booms and realizes the bells haven’t worked. (foreshadowing the same shot with Arya later on in the script.)
His goal, his life, his ARC have built to this very moment, and it didn’t work.
Because he sees Daenerys, a Queen who is far more powerful than he, Cersei, Jon Snow, Tyrion or anyone else in the long history of Westeros has ever been, OR COULD EVER BE, he knows he is going to do die. Worst yet, he KNOWS now that Cersei is going to die the horrible death he almost prevented.
In a way only a person of sheer drive could, Ser Jaime musters up the strength to stand, and wearily make his way back to his original plan –the purpose that drove him there in the first place — Cersei.
Perhaps he gives a fleeting thought to Brienne, but he brushes it aside:
He gave her all he could. He made her a knight, became a trusted confidant, and she was beyond him. He didn’t deserve her. Which is why he left her in the first place. He deserved that hateful woman in the Red Keep both he and Daenerys have their respective sights fixed upon.
He may have helped start this entire confrontation back in his first days of Winterfell because of Cersei, but he sure as hell will be with Cersei at the end of it all – in his true home of Kings Landing. But more importantly, in her arms where he always thought he should die.
You see, even though one can be a good man, make all the right choices, and find a fundamental change in themselves, they still have to live with their past choices before the change.
Any good story is about change. Whether it’s change in a person, a thing, or an idea. But the change doesn’t always have to be positive or negative. The story lay in the idea of success or failure in that change – and how someone or something reacts to it. Sometimes being who you want to be, or who you’ve fought to be, isn’t really who you are. Sometimes you cannot fight the bubbling fate of DNA.
Sometimes you have to pay for what you’ve done.
The beautiful part to all of this is that it sets up symmetry between Jaime and Daenerys. The two people in this story who faced choices, made the right choices throughout their life despite their history, but can’t stop their DNA. They can’t stop who they are.
It provides the tragedy for the anti-hero in Jaime, but gives us valid reasoning behind Dany’s dramatic fall.
The rest of the episode continues as it originally happened, with only a slight change to Cersei and Jaime at the end. Instead of Jaime holding Cersei as they both die, he says all of his lines, but dies at her feet as she holds him in her lap. Cersei is left alone. Terrified, weak, and, oh, so alone.
When you play the game of thrones, you either win, or you die.
And the weight of her world, everything she thought was her foundation and strength, falls upon her and the man she indirectly killed. It’s a fitting end for a woman who was once the most powerful person in all of the seven kingdoms.
Just by changing the Euron and Jaime fight, we have purpose for Euron, choices and arcs fulfilled by both Dany and Jaime, and a solitary and haunting death for Cersei. It reveals who these characters are, what the have become, and it changes what the rest of the story looks like for us as viewers. It changes their characterizations, and fulfills the character development set forth 8 seasons ago.
Do you think this fix would change your feeling on The Bells on the whole?
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