Contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5 “The Bells”
All is not well in Westeros.
On the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen and her last living dragon Drogon flamed down King’s Landing and killed thousands of people, even after the city surrendered to her. Dany’s arguably sudden descent into madness and rise as the Mad Queen and the Queen of the Ashes she swore she’d never become left many viewers with tears in their eyes, pain in their hearts, and a sour taste in their mouths.
Unfortunately, the tragedies of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5 extend beyond its shocking narrative. The episode, which aired on HBO on May 12, has set a sad new record on Rotten Tomatoes.
Entitled “The Bells,” the second-to-last installment of Game of Thrones‘ final season is now the lowest-rated episode in the series’ history.
As of this writing, 83 critics have lodged reviews for the episode, 42 of which are “rotten” with scores of 60 percent or lower. “The Bells” currently sits at a grim 49 percent approval rating — several percentage points lower than the previous worst-rated episode, the season 5 installment “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
On the whole, the concluding chapter of Game of Thrones is averaging considerably poorer ratings than seasons past. The inaugural season holds a 91 percent rating, with eight of its 10 episodes pulling in perfect 100-percent approval scores from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Seasons 2 and 3 sit at 96 percent each, while season 4 outdid its predecessors and managed a 97 percent score. The following season experienced a small dip, likely due to its outlying stinker “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” but still came in at a solid 93 percent. Season 6 fared even better, with 94 percent of reviewers giving the episodes “fresh” ratings. And the scores for season 7’s episodes averaged out at 93 percent.
Thrones season 8 isn’t performing nearly as well. The season started off strong, with the premiere episode “Winterfell” earning a promising Rotten Tomatoes rating of 92 percent, and continued on a decent path with episode 2 “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which averaged 88 percent positive reviews. Even the divisive Battle of Winterfell episode “The Long Night” wound up earning “fresh” distinction on Rotten Tomatoes with a 75 percent approval rating. From there, the season took a hard nosedive down to Rotten Town. Episode 4 of season 8, “The Last of the Starks,” holds a 57 percent score and a consensus that reads, “‘The Last of the Starks’ strains to set the board for Game of Thrones‘ conclusion, but serves up enough political intrigue and touching character interactions to satisfy.”
Reviews for “The Bells” were far more brutal. The critical consensus calls the episode overstuffed and poorly written: “Death, destruction, and the deterioration of Daenerys’ sanity make ‘The Bells’ an episode for the ages; but too much plot in too little time muddles the story and may leave some viewers feeling its conclusions are unearned.” As this one-sentence summary shows, critics were torn over the episode, though more people outright hated it than found it enjoyable. And the criticisms seem to all come back to the same thing: Daenerys snapping and destroying King’s Landing, a metamorphosis that many felt was rushed, unearned, and underdeveloped despite being foreshadowed throughout past seasons.
“A favourite for many viewers, Dany voluntarily burned millions of innocent civilians, including women and children, to death — seemingly for no political or personal reason at all. Who knew that the most shocking character death in the entire series wouldn’t be a literal death at all?” wrote Anna Leszkiewicz of New Statesman. “‘She went mad’ feels like a lazy, stereotypical, unearned plot device — and one that was truly horrible to watch. At times, the massacre felt like pointless, gratuitous audience torture … It feels like Game of Thrones is throwing a major character under the bus for the sake of an easy ending.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Maureen Ryan had a physical reaction to the latest episode, writing in her coverage, “I shouted that at the TV screen Sunday night, but I wasn’t talking to Daenerys. I was shouting at the writers and architects of Game of Thrones, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. But they did it. They not only gave Daenerys the least-earned character turn in the show’s history — maybe in television history — they rubbed our faces in this colossal mistake for what felt like an eternity. To say the show befouled the bed in its penultimate episode, ‘The Bells,’ is putting it mildly.”
“We watched eight seasons of a woman at least attempting to use or think about power differently. Until she didn’t. Because … reasons,” Ryan continued. “At its best, its characters have given us moving and wonderfully complex moments, but ‘The Bells’ was Game of Thrones at its worst, and it did untold damage to the show as a whole. It’s going to be hard to think of the show without feeling nauseated by what it did — especially to its women — in the home stretch.”
Akhil Arora of Gadgets360 had similar thoughts: “Despite having some of the most well-acted moments and epic scenes in its roster, Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 ultimately felt hollow. This used to be a show where major points of a character’s arc were laid atop on seasons of foundation. But in its most pressing hour, Benioff and Weiss have largely thrown all that out of the window in service of shock and moving onto the next story beat.”
The Daily Beast‘s Melissa Leon wrote that “the penultimate episode of the HBO epic failed to service its main characters.” She also argued that “characters’ seasons-long stories seem to end mid-sentence” on “The Bells,” and that its message of nothing holding any meaning is simply “too nihilistic, even for the most nihilistic show on TV.” Like other critics, Leon had some strong opinions on Dany earning her new title as the Mad Queen: “The Mother of Dragons becoming a ‘Mad Queen’ may work on paper with what the show has foreshadowed for seasons — all this talk of Targaryens’ hereditary madness, and her own streak of cruelty with her enemies — but her split-second decision to systematically murder half a city of innocent people does not.”
It was Glen Weldon at NPR who said the words most Thrones fans were thinking: “Dany got a raw deal. Narratively speaking, Game of Thrones did the Mother of Dragons dirty, there’s no two ways around it.”
Sadly, there’s only one more episode left of Game of Thrones before it’s done for good. The series might need some Melisandre-grade magic to redeem itself from the backlash “The Bells” received, but for our part, we’re still holding out hope that Thrones will make some bold moves with its finale episode and go out with a bang.