Season 8, Episode 5: ‘The Bells’
I guess the coin landed on “burn them all.”
Throughout the run of “Game of Thrones,” the seasons’ penultimate episodes were often the ones that packed in the most action and spectacular moments. So it was on Sunday, when the Last War unfolded broadly in the way many people expected, with the Dragon Queen turning heel and laying waste to King’s Landing.
It was a thrilling, horrifying and ultimately frustrating episode, which feels weird to say because it was often amazing to behold and reflected some of the show’s most central themes. But it hinged on a turn that rang hollow — specifically the heel turn mentioned above.
We talked at length last week about how the show has methodically broken down Daenerys in order to push her to the brink of madness — or some behavioral approximation thereof — culminating with Missandei’s beheading. On Sunday the last straw seemed to be Jon’s spilling his Targaryen secret and then essentially telling her, “I do love you but, ew, I can’t …”
“Let it be fear then,” she replied stoically.
But honestly, by then it was already a done deal. She’d sequestered herself in Dragonstone, her hair heartbreakingly disheveled in Missandei’s absence, and her overall look veering into Mad Queen Chic.
But just because the outcome wasn’t surprising, that doesn’t mean the result wasn’t spectacular. While the siege that led up to the King’s Landing apocalypse was plagued with some of the same strategic implausibilities and geographical confusion that has been an issue for much of this season, what followed was a terrifically and terrifyingly rendered decimation of a city.
And the symbolic moment of the coin toss we kept hearing about, as Dany sat atop a conquered city and pondered her ultimate destiny, was no less tense for that destiny’s having been little in doubt.
Of course the thing is, it actually should have been in doubt.
The reason it wasn’t was because the show had so clearly telegraphed her turn for the past few weeks, if not longer. Dany got snubbed at Winterfell and saw her supportive boyfriend turn into a throne rival and then reject her, as her most trusted confidantes died in front of her while her quote-unquote Hand continued to give the worst advice in the Seven Kingdoms. (The surest sign that Dany would not heed the titular surrender bells came when she told Tyrion that she would — I can’t remember the last time the former cleverest man in the world was right about anything.)
We all saw her face after Missandei’s execution — the would-be wheel-breaker had been pushed into a corner. And in fairness to the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and writers, there have been plenty of indications throughout the show’s run that she wouldn’t respond well.
From the beginning, Daenerys has been merciless with enemies like the witch Mirri Maz Duur, the Essos slave masters, the Lannister army and the Tarlys. Back in Qarth she promised to “lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.” (Done and done.) As I wrote before this season began, messianic streaks as profound as hers can, like Targaryens, go either way.
The problem is we’ve seen far more evidence that she has deep sympathy for the downtrodden, seemingly born of she herself being treated like chattel in the early phases of this story. It was the main driver of the viewer sympathy that just got upended on Sunday.
“Game of Thrones” has been broadly about the futility of the cycles of revenge and violence, ultimately functioning as a critique of political structures based on raw power and entitlement. (Which perhaps describes most political structures; leave your broadsides in the comments if you must.)
There is an interesting point to be made about how if you’re taking over the usual chair via the usual means, you’re just propping up the same old system with your own ambition. You may think you’re breaking a wheel, but all you’re really doing is changing the tire.
In that swollen moment as the bells rang and everyone watched to see what the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains would do, I thought she would fly straight for Cersei, her understandable flaming rage at the woman who has legitimately wronged her in multiple ways leading to the sort of tragic unintended consequences that can result from messianic leaders following impulsive instincts.
But what we got was Dany deciding to methodically mass murder the exact same kinds of people she lifted up to forge her savior reputation. (Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Scorcher of Innocents doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
Did she actually go mad? Did Drogon decide to take matters into his own wings after Rhaegal’s death last week? Whatever the ultimate explanation, it didn’t really work, narratively, even if the visual expression of the idea that it is the commoners whose blood pays for the nobility’s power struggles was horrifically dazzling.
The episode was beautiful at times, hard to watch at others. The director Miguel Sapochnik effectively mixed brutal images of wide-scale Drogon destruction and intimate tragedy — the incinerated bodies, holding one another — with more kinetic, claustrophobic moments of terror. The long tracking shot following Arya through the horror of the King’s Landing streets turned her into our avatar on the ground, cast about in the chaos.
Once the burning started, the Dragon Queen got eager ground support from a bloodthirsty Grey Worm. (All the stabbing in the world won’t bring her back, Torgo.) The slaughter was effectively nauseating, as the army we’ve been rooting for chopped off heads and hands without mercy.
Meanwhile, the Dothraki are just perpetually up for a good pillage, it seems. That won’t exactly redeem the show’s reputation for lazy exoticism — widely re-litigated after the Battle of Winterfell — but remember these are the guys who kill people for fun at weddings. (Although, so does nearly everyone else on this show, I guess.)
Over all, it made for one of the show’s most gruesome episodes. For those irked by the relatively scanty death toll so far this season, well, on Sunday your cup runneth over.
Varys was the eunuch in the coal mine, offering an early glimpse of the corner Daenerys had turned — less the fact that she dracarys’d him, her default response to open defiance, than the casual way she got on with it. This was a person for whom human life had ceased to matter as much as it should.
Euron discovered that what is dead may never die, unless you put a sword in its guts and twist. Qyburn met the fate of all who play God, and he was dispatched by Mountainstein with its signature smash-and-toss finishing move. And the Hound discovered that what is actually dead may really, really never die, unless you shove it into the hellmaw of a burning city. (Even now I’m not positive a charcoaly Mountain torso isn’t scooting around King’s Landing like half a Terminator.)
Then there were the toxic Lannister twins, whose grand fall was symbolized by the fact that they kick-started this whole story by fornicating in a northern tower and ended by dying a southern crypt. It’s a testament to the dramatic talents of Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau that an incest reunion that took a somewhat galling amount of forced plot mechanics to enact still tugged at my heart strings.
Cersei and Jaime were destined to die together, of course, whether he killed her or she killed him or they killed each other. The outcome was less interpersonally violent than most of us probably expected, which is perhaps oddly fitting for what, in the end, was the most enduring romance of this story. I just wish we’d gotten here more gracefully.
If there’s anyone who’s been more narratively jerked around than Daenerys this season, it’s Jaime. We talked a few weeks ago about how his villainy was always overblown, and his trajectory since that tower liaison has been mostly about how people can get past the world’s definition of them by doing the hard work of trying to be good. (And if you have a warrior maiden around to help, so much the better.)
Jaime tended to do the decent thing when he was apart from Cersei, and didn’t when he wasn’t. But Cersei’s double-cross of Team Living last season, which convinced him to head north and make amends, was finally one betrayal too many.
Until it wasn’t. (Sorry, warrior maiden.) Last week he decided he was still bad and needed to head home. In the end he died with his pregnant sister-lover — we finally got that confirmed — and I guess we’re supposed to believe that that’s what he wanted all along. As the Hallmark card says: Love conquers all, even when it’s icky. So congratulations you crazy kids — I wish it all made more sense.
As for Cersei, well she can perhaps take solace from the poetic symmetry of dying on Mother’s Day after her father, Tywin, died on Father’s Day at the end of Season 4.
Cersei spent almost all of this season standing stonily on balconies and still managed to haunt the rest of the story with her presence. Even in this limited form, Headey’s performance remained one of my very favorite things about “Game of Thrones.”
Like much else about this show, even in this occasionally disappointing season, I will miss having it in my life.
A Few Thoughts While We Clear the Dust
• As I suggested, I’ve been frustrated by both Tyrion and Jaime this season. But put them together and … well I’m not made of stone. “You are the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster,” Tyrion told Jaime during what they and we knew would be the final meeting of the Brothers Lannister. “You were all I had.” What? I’m not crying, you’re crying …
• So the Cleganebowl happened. Was it everything you hoped it would be? I was moved by the Hound’s emotion throughout the fight, which scanned as a sort of final realization about the fruitlessness of revenge, one of this show’s big themes, as we discussed earlier. (I was even more affected by his last admonitions to Arya before they parted.) And the final plunge into the flames was thrilling. But it all would have meant more if it hadn’t so transparently existed because it was what the fans wanted. Revenge is all I care about, and look what it’s done to me, Sandor (Sandor!) told Arya. The thing is, he didn’t really seem to care about revenge until around Season 7.
• So did Varys actually get a letter out of Dragonstone, perhaps via his latest little bird? Or was he burning the only one he wrote right before he was taken? It wasn’t clear. If not, then he would seem to have died for nothing, which contradicts Melisandre’s suggestion last season that he had a role to play.
• What an investment the Golden Company turned out to be. Those elephants should remember (sorry) to count their blessings at being left behind.
• Probably crazy theory: Is there a chance Dany was torching King’s Landing as an elaborate effort to kill Jon, her rival for the Iron Throne? Look, I said it was probably crazy …
• Jon, after fiery dragon cataclysm and untold carnage: “We need to fall back!” Oh, now you need to fall back. Always on top of things, that guy.
• I guess those crack Scorpion marksmen from last week were furloughed? Did they even get more than a couple shots off this time?
• You know who I’m guessing really didn’t like this episode? All those parents who named their daughters Khaleesi.
• That final scene could have been Arya escaping for greener, or at least less ashy, pastures, her heart cleansed of her revenge lust by the close-up confrontation with so much murder. But I doubt we’ve seen the last of her. When Melisandre reminded Arya of her destiny to close green eyes forever as well as the others, we were led to believe those would belong to Cersei. But guess who else has green eyes.
• What did you think? Did Dany breaking mad work for you? Which loss hurt the most? What do you want to see next week? Please share your thoughts in the comments.