Game of Thrones Recap: “The Bells” is Shockingly Brutal
The threat that Game of Thrones‘ writers, specifically co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, had been hinting at all season was finally paid off. Daenerys Targaryen revealed that she is not fit to rule the Seven Kingdoms. (Or, to look at it another way, she proved she is absolutely fit to rule the Seven Kingdoms, as despotically and ruthlessly as so many previous inhabitants of that uncomfortable looking chair have.) Despite a character arc that has seen her go from slave to savior, freeing tens of thousands of people along the way, Dany broke bad. Really, really bad.
In last night’s penultimate episode, which began with an execution and ended with mass slaughter, the Mother of Dragon—singular—unleashed her pent-up fury and Drogon’s somehow still astonishing firepower on the helpless women and children of King’s Landing. A late shot of a mother and child, fused together by fire at the moment of their death, was eerily reminiscent of the two bodies found embracing the moment they were covered by molten rock and mounds of ash in the ancient city of Pompeii. Dany’s rage was on par with Mount Vesuvius’s historic eruption. Arya had attempted to save the young girl and her mother, but Dany had murdered them both in a fugue of madness and grief. It was, as Tyrion had once predicted, all fire and blood.
We began with Varys following through on the promise he’d made to Tyrion in “The Last of the Starks.” He was penning a letter spelling out Jon’s true parentage—after an ill-advised conversation with the man himself—suggesting that Jon, not Dany, rule the seven kingdoms. It wasn’t entirely clear who he was sending this letter to (we’ll likely find out in the finale), but soon the mysterious recipient didn’t much matter. Tyrion watched from one of Dragonstone’s perches as Varys and Jon talked down on the beach. It was all Tyrion needed to see. Still a believer in Dany’s inherent goodness, he told her that Varys had betrayed her. But then again, so had he, Dany reminds him, for telling Varys about Jon’s parentage. And then Jon also betrayed her for telling Sansa. Dany hadn’t eaten since Missandei was executed, and by the looks of her, she hadn’t slept or done much of anything else but cry. It was the episode’s first hint that the decision had been made—Dany was going “mad.” Like her father before her, she saw only plotters and plots surrounding her. Missandei’s death meant one less truly trustworthy person in the world for her. Varys fate was sealed.
Before Tyrion could leave Dany’s chambers, she informed him that his brother Jaime was caught by her army trying to sneak into King’s Landing. He was now in chains. “If you fail me again, it will be the last time,” Dany told him. Honestly, has Tyrion done anything but fail Dany at this point?
To the beach, then, for a nighttime execution of Varys. There was a poignant moment between Varys and Tyrion, the latter admitting he’d sold the former out, the former accepting this revelation with equipoise and telling him he hopes he’s wrong about Dany. “Goodbye, old friend,” Varys says, and you’d have to be made of Valryian steel not to feel a growing, multifaceted sadness. One, Varys is a great character, and executing him, while about as by-the-book as you can get in terms of Westerosi law and order, still seemed to be a useless loss of a sharp mind. Two, it was proof Dany was beyond negotiating or mercy. And three, it seemed to be the answer to something Varys had said to Jon: “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin, and the world holds its breath.” This was actually a direct call back to season two when Cersei quoted the same line to Tyrion as they struggled with her son Joffrey’s unchecked lunacy. Drogon emerged from behind Dany, surprising Varys, myself, and my friend watching the episode with me. How does a massive dragon hide unseen in the shadows? Who knows! Varys met his maker. Goodbye, old friend.
Next, we’re off on a mission with Tyrion to free his brother. He’s now openly and actively courting execution himself, but few things have been quite as reliable on Game of Thrones as the bond between Tyrion and Jaime. Besides, Tyrion owed him—Jaime freed him from chains and certain death, giving Tyrion not only a chance at a second life but a window of opportunity to shoot his father with a crossbow while the old man was squatting on the toilet. Tyrion lied his way past the Unsullied guards and implored Jaime to convince Cersei to surrender, ring the bells and open the gates, thus avoiding the slaughter he sees coming. He further instructed Jaime to use a small boat he’ll have waiting for him on the tiny beach outside the Red Keep. Jaime’s not initially convinced. He thinks Cersei could still win this war, but the force of Tyrion’s personality, his absolute conviction that the Iron Fleet, the Lannister Army, and the Golden Company are essentially already dead, convinces his brother to do as he says.
And then comes their embrace. Did you cry? A little? It was one of the most touching moments in the series, an immensely satisfying expression of love and gratitude, and, this being Game of Thrones, deep, unappeasable sorrow. Tyrion thanks Jaime for, well, everything. For being the only who looked after him as a child. For being the reason he even survived childhood. And for not looking at him like he was a monster, the way everyone else did. What more can we say here about this moment without you crying about it (yes, you)? It gave us all an opportunity to feel our own gratitude for these actors, Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who have been excellent in these roles for nearly a decade. While you could argue that the satisfactions of this episode were literally engulfed in flames by the choice to turn Dany into a full-blown monster, here, at least, was a scene that rang true, made all the more impactful because it was so clearly the last time these two brothers would ever see each other again. God this was a nice moment. It wouldn’t last.
By the time the Last War began it was clear something was amiss. How did Dany and Drogon become suddenly so expert at dodging scorpion projectiles and choosing the most effective approach to destroy every scorpion gun deployed the Iron Fleet or the Lannister army? How come everyone on Cersei’s side seemed so monstrously ill-prepared for Dany’s dragon attack? The Iron Fleet was reduced to smoking flotsam within seconds. The Golden Company seemed to never consider the possibility a flying dragon might not come directly at them, because, you know, it can fly. I’m embarrassed about spending time writing that Harry Strickland might prove to be a tactical genius and the key to the Last War. Harry Strickland would lose at Risk to someone playing Clue.
So yes, Dany had Drogon fly over King’s Landing from what essentially looked like the back door and Drogon blew the gates to smithereens from behind. The vaunted Harry Strickland was shocked, despite the fact that he had to have known Dany had one dragon left, right? Most of his army was reduced to molten armor. Harry lost his horse. He started running for the smashed and smoking gates, making a face I won’t besmirch your morning by describing with words. Let’s just saw Harry looked like he probably needed to change his pants. Grey Worm took him out with a spear.
Jon, Grey Worm, and Davos then lead their troops into King’s Landing proper. Dany and Drogon had, by now, reached some kind of fury based, human/reptilian mind-meld that made them 100% unstoppable. Every single scorpion gun is destroyed, with nary a scratch on Drogon. The remaining Lannister troops eventually laid down their arms. Incredibly, just as Tyrion had hoped, the bells of surrender rang out. Dany had won. All that had to happen now is for her to take the throne, that brutalist piece of furniture that has been her sole desire since the series began. If she really wanted to torch Cersei herself, so be it. Yet what happens next was as dispiriting as it was unnecessary. Dany fulfills the prophecy that seems to doom half of all Targaryens. Her coin has come down on the side of crazy. She sets the whole city on fire, murdering innocent people, incinerating screaming women and children. Why? Because she’s crazy, is what we’re supposed to believe. After all this, after everything she’s been through, Dany is butchering babies in the street. I have many feelings about this and none of them are good.
While Dany was raining fire down on innocent people from above, there were more personal scenes of bloodshed to be “enjoyed.” The risible Euron, who overstayed his welcome a few minutes after he first showed up, washes up on the shore of the Red Keep, conveniently right where Jaime is. The two fight. Even in the midst of a battle to the death, Euron is pathologically annoying. He manages to stab Jaime several times, and for a second, it seems like Euron might win? But no, not really—Benioff and Weiss are not that sadistic. Eventually, Jaime gets the better of him, driving his sword deep into Euron’s guts. Yet the ear sore from the Iron Islands dies as he lived, cackling about his greatness, loved by no one.
Meanwhile, at the Red Keep, kickoff for Cleganbowl has just begun. Grab your snacks and prepare to vomit them back up, because we’ve got a gorefest coming up. The Hound arrives on a long, elegant-but-crumbling staircase and catches the Mountain escorting Cersei out of the Red Keep. Reunion! The Mountain disregards Qyburn’s order by squashing his head and throwing him away like so much creepy, necky trash (have you ever noticed how Qyburn’s take on a Maester’s robe gave ample real estate to his bare neck and upper chest? Well too late now, he’s dead!).
Cleganbowl is just as disgusting and depressing as you knew it would be. I did enjoy how it was staged sort of like a striptease for the Mountain, who exposes more and more of his zombie body. The fight becomes absurd fairly quickly, not just because the Mountain is so big, but because a sword stuck right through the middle of him has literally no effect. You make more of a reaction when you’re shocked by static electricity than the Mountain does having a gigantic broadsword slowly swiveled through his large intestines. Eventually, he lifts the Hound up and starts doing that eye gouge/skull crush move he used on Oberyn Martell. Every single person watching the show cried out “No!” at this point because, a) we’ve already seen this move!, and b) the Mountain can’t win this fight, even if there’s absolutely no reason the Mountain should lose this fight.
The Hound manages to free up a hidden dagger and shoves it right through the Mountain’s eye. Finally some sort of reaction. The Mountain seems momentarily confused by this pointy thing inside his brain and the fact that his eye is now a handle. The Hound has maybe half an eye left himself. It’s enough. True to Cleganbowl’s title, the Hound tackles the Mountain through the crumbling walls of the Keep and the two go flying out, tumbling over each other in a plummeting, despairing arc of brotherly hate. The Hound killed the Mountain, but dying in the process makes Cleganbowl something of a draw.
Jaime finds Cersei in their beloved Map Room. They embrace. It’s shocking—truly—that even after everything we’ve seen Cersei do, I still felt for her, and still loved this moment between the two of them. Credit to Lena Headey, who has been phenomenal for 8 seasons. The two are trying to make their escape to Tyrion’s promised rowboat through a secret passage in the Red Keep, but, alas, it’s not meant to be. The destruction Dany and Drogon have wrought on every structure in town has left a pile of rubble where the passageway should be.
Thus comes one of the series most beautifully shot moments. Cersei and Jaime, trapped below the Red Keep, with nothing left to do, nowhere else to go. After all these years of being an Ice Queen, a murderer, a despot, Cersei Lannister is just a terrified woman who doesn’t want to die, who wants to have her baby and see him or her grow. “Just look at me,” Jamie says, calming her. He holds her close. “Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters. Only us.” They embrace as the Red Keep comes crashing down upon them. It was moving. Miraculously, I felt bad for Cersei and mad at Dany—I’m confused and angry about this. But also, wow, Lena Headey.
And so we come to the end of the episode. Arya came upon Harry’s blood-soaked white horse. If you want to get Biblical, then you can look to Revelations 6:8: “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.” Consider that Arya did not fulfill her mission to kill Cersei and instead chose to spend her time trying to save people, and you might wonder if she’s passed through the phase that would make her a pale rider named Death and into something else, possibly Jesus-based. You might recall that Dany received a white horse as a gift from Khal Drogo in season one, which eventually died in season two when they were riding through the desert. Dany was distraught over her pale mare’s death, and now, here Arya is, riding a similar pale horse, covered in the blood of innocents. If Arya’s no longer in the vengeance business, maybe this final shot foreshadowed her new role as savior. Yet, it seems a little more plausible that Arya will have crossed Cersei’s name off her list and added another.
Arya versus Dany and Drogon? Now that seems like a fair fight.
Featured image: Season 8, episode 4 (debut 5/5/19): Emilia Clarke. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO