After last week’s disappointing episode, “The Last of the Starks,” Game of Thrones continues to clumsily bound toward its endgame in its violent and (thankfully) dialogue-light penultimate episode, “The Bells.”
Many fans and critics, me included, tempered their hopes of a strong finish for the series after last Sunday’s sloppy writing and treatment of characters like Sansa and Brienne, to say nothing of StarbucksGate, so this episode had to do double duty of both reassuring viewers and setting the stage for a promising series finale.
So, does it stick the King’s Landing? Kinda.
[Spoilers ahead for Season 8, Episode 5 of Game of Thrones]
The episode opens with Varys scrambling to write a letter revealing Westeros’s worst-kept secret: Jon’s Targaryen heritage. While Tyrion remains loyal to Daenerys, albeit with growing reservations about her plan to overthrow Cersei, Varys is very firmly #TeamJon in spite of Jon not wanting the Iron Throne. It’s unknown whether Varys succeeds in sending a raven with the message, but a tearful interaction with one of his sparrows portends a grim fate for our favorite eunuch.
It’s not long before Tyrion reveals Varys’s treason to Dany, who has Varys escorted outside for a quick fireside chat (by which I mean a sentencing to death via dragon). Before a truly terrifying Drogon emerges from behind Dany to Dracarys Varys (lol), he and Tyrion exchange surprisingly emotional final words. Jon seems uncharacteristically nonplussed during this whole ordeal, even after Dany claims Sansa is just as responsible for Varys’s death as her (which, ha!, okay, Dany), but it’s clear that at least some seeds of doubt about her impending reign have been planted in Jon’s mind.
Meanwhile, Arya and the Hound have opted to take action over talking politics and are on their way to kill Cersei themselves like the badasses they are — and, thanks to a last-minute assist from Tyrion, Jaime isn’t far behind them. He’d been captured by Dany’s guards after his farewell with Brienne, which I’ve tried to wipe from my memory to no avail, but Tyrion frees him because he is a good brother—and, oh, because also he doesn’t want Dany to murder thousands of innocent people maybe?
Tyrion thanks Jaime for being the only family member who never looked at him as a monster, another sweet Tyrion moment that made me teary. It’s also a nice callback to Jaime freeing Tyrion at the end of season four, proving a Lannister truly does always pay his debts.
In King’s Landing, Cersei’s army prepares for war, and the queen herself looks out at her city like I got this—what could possibly go wrong? But she has clearly underestimated the power of a woman and dragon scorned, as Dany rides in on Drogon to wipe out the Iron Fleet and dragon-killing spear machines with relative ease. Not even Qyburn’s updates about the desecration of Cersei’s army seem to rattle Cersei, though. “Our men will fight harder than sellswords ever could. They will defend their queen to the last man,” she says.
On the ground, the people of King’s Landing scream for the queen to ring the bells as dragon-induced panic washes over them. Finally, to the great relief of Tyrion, Jon, and everyone else, the bells indeed toll, but Dany, staring at the Red Keep, goes full Targaryen and starts torching the innocents anyway. Thus, the Mad Queen, daughter of the Mad King, is born.
The Mad Queen is born
Emilia Clarke does all the work in selling Dany’s choice not to protect the civilians, and thank the gods she can act, because the writing leading up to this moment did her no favors. On one hand, Dany’s decision felt inevitable because of the heavy-handed exposition fed to us via Sansa and Arya, but when it actually happens, it feels extremely out of left field.
Sure, Missandei’s death and Cersei’s refusal to a truce were impetuses for her rage, but writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss don’t really give us much else and therefore don’t fully earn the character’s abrupt pivot. Like most things this season, it came across as messy and rushed, disappointingly undoing much of the great work spent on fleshing out her character over seven seasons.
The perspective never returns to Dany after this scene and instead focuses on the points of view of people on the ground. It’s an interesting choice that increases sympathy for the victims and highlights the brutality of war, but it’s another thing working against the believability of Dany’s decision. Maybe if we’d seen more of Clarke’s facial expressions throughout the attack, we could have better understood her state of mind. But alas.
As Drogon continues to burn everything in his path, the short-lived relief of everyone on the ground turns to confusion and fear. Grey Worm seems to be the only one unconcerned with having to continue to fight, understably a little eager to enact revenge on behalf of Missandei. While the city literally starts to crash down around Jon, Arya, and Tyrion, you can see their metaphorical worlds start to crumble as well. Tyrion stares in horror at the damage Dany (and, by extension, he as her hand) has done, while the Starks do everything they can to protect the innocent people of King’s Landing.
Away from the fray, on his quest to save or maybe kill Cersei, Jaime has a run-in with Euron, who miraculously survived Drogon’s attack on the Iron Fleet. It’s a fun and unexpected battle, with Euron seemingly besting Jaime after stabbing him in both his sides, but the Kingslayer somehow survives, kills Euron, and shuffles off to find his sister. The power of love, I guess?
And then, FINALLY, the face-off we’ve been waiting years to see arrives: That’s right — Cleganebowl is now canon, baby! For those not in the know, Cleganebowl is the name fans gave to the theory that the brothers Clegane, aka the Mountain and the Hound, would battle each other in a final climactic fight—and not only is it no longer a theory, but it does not disappoint in being the most cinematic and exciting battle of the episode.
After the Hound encounters him on a stairway with Cersei and Qyburn, the Mountain decides that killing his brother is more important than protecting the queen. He kills Qyburn as if Qyburn were an ant (I’ll admit I laughed) while Cersei slowly makes her way down the staircase and past the brothers, a hilarious moment that I expect to get memed to pieces. I had a feeling that if we were going to get Cleganebowl at all, it’d happen in this episode, but I didn’t expect it to be set on a stairway against a burning, war-ravaged King’s Landing. Sure, the whole thing is incredibly fan servicey, but it’s beautifully shot, and the writers and VFX team clearly had fun revealing the FrankenMountain’s bloated baby corpse face.
Sandor takes the phrase “an eye for an eye” very literally by stabbing Gregor in the eye, buying him enough time to break free and tackle his brother off the stairway, careening them both toward fiery deaths below. Sandor, who has been terrified of fire ever since Gregor held his face in it when he was a child, was basically fated to die in a blaze, but having him choose to go out this way made his death a meaningful part of his character’s growth instead of being played solely for symbolism’s sake.
A fiery aftermath
As Arya runs around the streets of what used to be King’s Landing, evading dragonfire, Dothraki, and collapsing towers and causing every viewer to hyperventilate for ten straight minutes, she tries to protect the innocent civilians and lead them to safety. Unfortunately they are not as agile or smart as her, so they die in the attacks, leaving Arya alone, save for a bloodied white horse she quickly tames and rides off on. She lives to fight another day and might just make it out of this show alive, so all hope is not yet lost!
Sadly(?), the same cannot be said for Jaime and Cersei. After the two reunite in Maegor’s Holdfast, Jaime (who, by the way, is still walkin’ and talkin’ with two giant stab wounds—don’t worry about it) leads Cersei underground, hoping to safely get them to the dinghy Tyrion arranged for them to escape on, but debris blocks the exit. Desperate, Jaime tries digging through the rubble as Cersei breaks down, tearfully exclaiming she doesn’t want to die. But it quickly becomes evident that they’re doomed to an unceremonious fate, and they hold each other as the Red Keep collapses on top of them.
Because I was convinced Cersei would get an epic death, slain at the hands of Arya, Jaime, or Arya-as-Jaime, the quieter, more anticlimactic way she actually goes out felt a bit disappointing in the moment. In hindsight, though, it’s a sort-of fitting end to the sibling lovebirds’ story: Cersei crushed under the fallout of her own power trip and Jaime sacrificing himself out of a love he was prepared to murder a child in order to protect. Real talk, though: He survived a sword to the kidneys—twice—so who’s to say he can’t still emerge from the rubble.
I'd be remiss not to also mention the score by composer Ramin Djawadi, which does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in this scene, as it has been doing throughout the episode's mostly dialogueless last half. Here, Djawadi experiments with slightly different versions of Cersei's theme and “Rains of Castamere” to remind us of Cersei's long and difficult journey to the Iron Throne and to signal the end of her story arc, in arguably a more beautiful way than what's actually written.
As for effectively setting up next week’s series finale, “The Bells” mostly succeeds. There’s a new Mad Queen to dethrone, there are friends to mourn, and there’s still a big ol’ Westeros in need of protection, but I can’t help but wonder what the emotional stakes are anymore. Based on how the show began, the most obvious driving emotional force should be the remaining Starks and their relationships with one another, but we’ve hardly gotten any scenes that have included the four of them after they reunited, and even the reunions were short-lived letdowns.
Arya now seems to have moved on from her kill list and isn’t interested in playing wife with Gendry, so although she’s my favorite character, I’m not sure what to hope for her. After last week’s tone-deaf writing for Sansa, I’m not confident the writers can pull off a compelling ending to her arc anymore either. And as for Dany and Jon, not enough work went into making their relationship feel convincing or exciting, so if Jon has to be the one to kill her, it’ll lack the emotional resonance it should have.
I suspect next week’s final opening credits will replace the Lannister golden lion sigil with the three-headed Targaryen sigil above the Iron Throne, but by episodes end, I’m guessing it’ll represent Jon Snow, aka Aegon Targaryen, instead of Dany. It feels too easy and obvious, and, as we’re all very aware, Jon himself doesn’t even want it, so I’m hoping the writers surprise us.
Honestly, though, I can’t imagine that any character taking the throne would feel like a satisfying conclusion at this point. D&D have proven that, without source material to work from, writing a well-paced and complex story isn’t exactly their strong suit, so while the show ending is a bittersweet reality, I’m also ready to say goodbye.
Looking to get ready for the season finale? Check out our guide to how to stream Game of Thrones online, as well as everything you need to know before watching Season 8.