Spoiler alert! The following contains details from “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 5, “The Bells.” Read our recap of Season 8, Episode 4 here.
What is left for “Game of Thrones”?
Nothing, really. For viewers who have stuck around for eight seasons of the HBO fantasy series, all that’s left after the penultimate episode is ash and a bad taste. When Daenerys Targaryen lived up to her terrible family’s reputation and burned King’s Landing to the ground, she incinerated the last hope for “Thrones” along with it.
Where to begin with “The Bells,” an absolute disaster of an episode that exhibited every bad habit the series’ writers have ever had? They threw out their own rule book (suddenly the scorpions don’t work and Drogon can burn everything?) to pursue gross spectacle.
Character and substance were left by the wayside so that the plot could go where the writers wanted. The pace was rushed in the beginning, painfully lagging by the end. The script created plot devices and conflicts out of thin air (no really, when were the bells ever so important?), relished in violence and let a main character survive beyond any reasonable odds. (How many buildings have to fall on Arya before she stays down?) “Bells” is somehow both fan service and indulgence in all the tropes that fans hate.
Had this episode taken place just before the finale of Season 4 or 5, it might be forgivable, but with just over an hour left in the series, it’s far too late to make a mistake of this magnitude. There’s no time to switch gears, because Mad Queen Dany (and, apparently Arya’s inexplicable survival and possible revenge) is what “Thrones” will always have been about. This disappointment is what we’ve all been waiting for.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and few TV shows have gotten quite as big as “Thrones.” Even fewer have failed so spectacularly for so many viewers.
Theoretically, the series has one last hour to redeem itself. And maybe some fans hold out hope that the finale can wrap things up in a way that makes emotional and logical sense. But betting on “Thrones” to fix itself is really just doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Just like Cersei, Tyrion and the rest, we should know better by now.
One last little bird
The latest member of the “suddenly I’m very dumb” club is Varys, whose campaign to supplant Dany with Jon goes comically wrong in the blink of an eye. We barely have time to register that he has a little bird spy again and is writing letters about Jon’s true parentage before he is found out.
Dany has figured out that Jon told Sansa who told Tyrion who told Varys about Jon’s parentage, and is angry at both Jon and Tyrion. (How did she find out? How much time has even passed since Missandei’s death? Who knows or cares, apparently?!)
Dany burns Varys alive for his betrayal, and it’s rather underwhelming. Varys survived so many monarchs, only to be finally killed because he was, what, writing too loudly? It was a poor end for one of the series’ best characters.
I have a bad feeling about this
Dany and Grey Worm share a brief moment mourning over Missandei’s slave collar (though why she would bring that to Westeros is baffling), before Jon arrives for an “I told you so” from his aunt. Dany complains that she doesn’t have love from the people of the Seven Kingdoms, only fear, and even though Jon says he loves her, he recoils from her kiss. (Finally Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington’s lack of chemistry is useful).
Tyrion begs for the lives of the people of King’s Landing, and gets Dany to agree to spare them if they surrender by ringing the city bells. His obsession with saving commoners doesn’t make much sense, but I suppose someone needed to foreshadow Dany’s reign of terror. Dany also mentions that Jaime was captured trying to sneak into the city, and tells Tyrion if he fails her again, it will be the last time.
Instead of, say, following the orders of the queen he’s so intent on supporting, Tyrion frees Jaime in the hope that he’ll convince Cersei to flee the city. The brothers hug before leaving each other for good.
Unlike Jaime, Arya and the Hound manage to sneak into the city easily, perhaps the last time she has to declare herself Arya Stark to get past a guard.
What kind of fire burns stone?
The morning of the battle dawns and everyone’s holding their breath and their positions: Jon and the allied troops outside the front gates staring down the Golden Company, while Euron and the Iron Fleet are in the Blackwater with their scorpions pointed at the sky. Cersei’s troops look menacing and more impressive than the raggedy band of northerners and surviving Unsullied and Dothraki that Dany has assembled.
At this point the episode spends copious time showing us all the innocent civilians Dany is about to murder, including a mother and daughter who are given enough screen time for us to know that they will be this episode’s symbolic sufferers.
And then Dany and Drogon fly down.
After being ineffectual at the Battle of Winterfell and against the Iron Fleet, Drogon has suddenly become a weapon of mass destruction that no scorpion crossbow can hit. Like every other plot device on “Thrones” the past few seasons, the dragons were useless, until they were needed.
Drogon lights up the Iron Fleet with ease, before moving to the King’s Landing battlements, eventually burning the Golden Company from behind before Dany’s army charges.
As Dany’s forces attack, Cersei watched from the Red Keep, but loses her trademark sneer. Qyburn informs her that all the scorpions have been destroyed (truly how does he know that?), the Iron Fleet is burning and the Golden Company has been slaughtered. Cersei claims that the Red Keep has never fallen, but her confidence is failing.
At this point the battle is basically won. Jon, Davos and Grey Worm’s battalion comes across a group of Lannister soldiers who lay down their weapons. The soldiers and the civilians all start shouting for someone to ring the bells in surrender, and after a comical amount of buildup they ring, much to Jon and Tyrion’s relief.
But that doesn’t last long. Dany looks at the Red Keep in the distance, and then lets loose fire and blood.
Not the mad queen we need, but the one we deserve
In an alternate timeline, George R.R. Martin would have finished writing “A Song of Ice and Fire” before it was ever adapted to series. His seventh and final book would have been hundreds of pages that offered copious explanation for its hero’s descent into madness and cruelty. And that long, complex and thoughtful book would be adapted into far more than six episodes of television.
The problem with Dany going full Mad Queen isn’t that she used to be a hero or that the show never foreshadowed it. There have been seeds, all the way back to Season 1 when she burned Mirri Maz Duur alive as vengeance for Khal Drogo’s death. She has long been vain, ruthless and completely convinced of her own brilliance.
But the show spent far more time making Dany a hero, if a rather boring one. Making her Mad Queen Dany now is rushed, unearned and emotionless.
In the moment, it’s also not clear what made her snap. Missandei? Rhaegal? Not getting her way? Being bored because she won the battle too quickly? Why did she destroy the whole city instead of going straight to Cersei? Where does she expect to live after destroying the castle her ancestors built?
More pressingly, what does Dany’s turn even say about the show, thematically? That we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of our families? Dany’s “madness” or whatever we want to call it is nothing like Aerys, who heard voices and acted out of fear and paranoia. Viserys was cruel but also petty and weak. Rhaegar wasn’t mad or vicious at all. Hewas short-sighted but noble. Dany is just lamely sadistic.
Have you ever seen a city sacked?
As Dany burns down King’s Landing, the allied forces unleash their inner monsters, too. In a far more flagrant breach of character than Dany’s rushed madness, Grey Worm, the most restrained man in Essos or Westeros, kills unarmed men in a rage. The allied forces begin to sack the city.
Jon tries and fails to pull his soldiers back. Davos, too, tries to save the civilians, but Drogon’s fire starts bringing down all the buildings, and the city is increasingly a pile of ash and bodies.
Jaime, meanwhile, is trying desperately to get inside the Red Keep, and runs into Euron, who somehow made it to shore. Instead of trying to save himself, Euron challenges Jaime to a duel. Jaime kills him, but not before Euron stabs Jaime twice, wounds that really should have been fatal.
The Hound and Arya make it into the castle, but the structure is starting to crumble. The Hound pleads with Arya to save herself, and not be as consumed by vengeance and rage as he is. For once, she listens, and gives him the gift of calling him Sandor before they part.
The Hound finds his brother with Cersei, Qyburn and Cersei’s remaining guard as they’re trying to escape. Gregor kills Qyburn before dueling with the Hound, while Cersei slips away.
The Hound and the Mountain fight, and the former is wildly outmatched by his big brother. Their duel is intercut with Arya trying to escape the city as buildings crumble. The Hound eventually kills the Mountain by pulling him out a window into a burning abyss, while Arya is rescued from being trampled by the woman we saw earlier.
Things fall apart
Jaime finds Cersei as she’s alone and crying. They embrace and he takes her through the secret passage a young Arya once got lost in and Varys and Illyrio (remember him?) once schemed in.
But the tunnel has caved in, and they’re stuck. Cersei breaks down, screaming that she doesn’t want to die. Jaime reaffirms his love and holds her as they’re crushed by the crumbling castle.
Outside, Arya is barely standing. Stones fall on her a handful of times but she somehow survives, eventually finding a group of people, including the woman who helped her earlier. Arya tries to help them, but just as they’re running away from the rubble, Drogon flies overhead and lights up the street. Arya, somehow, is the only person left standing, while the woman and her daughter are burned down to their skeletons.
Arya is helped out of the city by deus ex white horse, who is conveniently hanging out on the street where she ended up. It’s clear that, although she swore off vengeance a few minutes ago to the Hound, Arya is going to make Dany pay for what she did to the city. And that, apparently, is how “Thrones” is going to end.