“Game of Thrones” backlash hit a new level of outrage following the series’ penultimate episode, “The Bells.” Daenerys’ transformation into the Mad Queen has divided fans like no other twist in the show’s eight-season history. Other final season decisions, from Cersei’s uneventful death to Brienne losing her virginity to Jaime, also have been met with similar rage. While backlash can yield important critical perspectives (read IndieWire’s essay on “Thrones'” disrespectful treatment of women), the conversation around “Thrones” has gotten so drowned out by fans upset with the storytelling that barley anyone is giving attention to the one person who deserves overwhelming praise for “The Bells”: Director Miguel Sapochnik.
“The Bells” marked Sapochnik’s final episode of “Thrones” and capped off a six-episode directorial run that stands as some of the best filmmaking television or movies has seen this decade. Sapochnik got his start in film with his 2010 debut “Repo Men,” starring Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, but abysmal reviews (21% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a big financial loss for Universal forced him into director’s jail. The filmmaker rebounded with a shift to television, first directing episodes of “House,” “Fringe,” “Banshee,” and more before making his “Thrones” debut with the fifth season episode “The Gift.” Sapochnik has since emerged as one of the best directors working today.
In episodes such as “The Bells,” “Hardhome,” Battle of the Bastards,” and “The Long Night,” Sapochnik has proven himself to be one of the all-time great directors of war and action. Many critics rightfully compared the grounded perspective of “Bastards” to that of Steven Spielberg and “Saving Private Ryan,” but Sapochnik and cinematographer Fabian Wagner’s fluid long takes also bring to mind the work of Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki. The way the camera moves in “Bastards” and “The Bells” brings the viewer into an immersive, 360 degree space so that no matter what the camera is looking at the viewer remains aware that events are continuously unfolding all around them. The sensation is an overwhelming one and it effectively sells the chaos the characters are experiencing in the moment.
For Sapochnik, “The Bells” was a fitting end for his time behind the camera on “Thrones.” The large scale destruction of King’s Landing was made all the more visceral by his directorial trademarks: Handheld camera movements, kinetic long takes, grounded camera placement. Just as he did with Jon Snow in the episodes “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” Sapochnik’s direction placed the viewer alongside Arya Stark to experience the horror of a city burning down in real time. Sapochnik’s relentless takes, often unbroken or edited together to appear so, felt appropriately relentless. By not cutting, he makes the destruction feel expansive and inescapable. For as much as Dany’s decision to go full Mad Queen left viewers with a sick taste in their mouth, so to do did Sapochnik’s direction for all the right reasons.
Sapochnik has also shown a remarkable ability to keep his action scenes focused on character. Note how the scenes in “The Bells” where Arya is frantically running through the streets of King’s Landing as it burns down are filmed using tracking shots that face the character and not track her from behind (the same approach was used for Jon Snow in “Bastards.”) If the length of the one take is used to create an immersive space for the viewer to experience the scene’s chaos, then Sapochnik’s camera placement is used to keep the focus on the psychological effects the chaos is having on the character. As a result, Sapochnik is able to create action scenes that are at once experiential and observational.
While Sapochnik’s time on “Thrones” has been defined by his action-heavy episodes, he’s also delivered two of the best non-battle sequences in the show’s history: The opening sequence in the sixth season finale, “The Winds of Winter,” in which Cersei blows up the sept in King’s Landing, and Arya’s library encounter with the undead during “The Long Night.” The latter, a quietly chilling descent into full-blown horror movie territory, was the standout sequence in an episode where combat scenes were supposed to be the MVP.
Showing his commitment to spacial awareness, Sapochnik directed the moment by allowing Maisie Williams and the actors to roleplay the moment on set without any cameras rolling. The aim was to let Williams map out Arya’s steps herself so that her own impulses, not premeditated directorial choices, would make up how the character narrowly avoids being caught and killed. The actress’ movements were mapped onto a blueprint of the space, and from there Sapochnik was able to figure where to put and how to move the camera to capture what was now a charted real-time reaction.
Sapochnik’s direction of “The Bells” was even more impressive when your realize how he was playing with and inverting the same shots he crafted for “Battle of the Bastards.” The camera in “Bastards” pans up to reveal the Boltons’ army, indicating it as the threatening force that must be defeated. In “The Bells,” the same pan is used to depict Daenerys’ army, teasing how this once-heroic force is now the invading threat. Sapochnik even mirrors the iconic shot of Jon running into battle in “Bastards,” only in “The Bells” it’s used to frame Golden Company leader Harry Strickland. The shot of Harry running isn’t there to heroize the character, but to visually mark the shift of Daenerys and her army becoming the battle’s villains.
After helming six of the best-directed “Thrones” episodes ever (one of which, “Battle of the Bastards,” won him the Emmy for direction), it’s no surprise Sapochnik is finally gearing up to return to the big screen a decade after he struck out hard with “Repo Men.” The filmmaker is currently in production on Universal’s “Bios,” a science-fiction drama starring Tom Hanks as the last man on earth. Universal has already set an October 2, 2020 release date for the film, ensuring Sapochnik’s profile will only continue to rise in his post-“Thrones” career. Complain about the HBO series all you want, but don’t overlook the genius of what has been Sapochnik’s legendary run.