Game of Thrones Recap: S8E5 - "The Bells"

Well, that was laughable. I try to avoid such sweeping declarations, but intellectually confounding or narratively unsatisfying don’t quite capture the forced climax and nonsensical storytelling at play in this week’s episode. I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum so if you enjoyed this week’s episode, don’t worry we’re still going to have fun, but it’s important to be clear about what didn’t work for so many and explore why. Two locations this week, so let’s get into it!

Dragonstone

This week opens with Ned Stark Varys penning a note, revealing that Jon Snow is the true heir of the Targaryen bloodline, when one of his little birds comes in to reveal her poisoning attempts have been unsuccessful thus far as Daenerys, fearing a traitor, refuses to eat. Foiled on Option A, the Spider of Westeros throws caution to the wind and approaches Jon in the open with treason and his plans to supplant his Queen in favor of her nephew, who flatly rebuffs him as he has done all season.

Tyrion, who watched the entire exchange from the parapet, immediately goes to snitch to Dany, who initially suspects Jon as the traitor. She rightly surmises that the spymaster only learned from her Hand, who must have been told by Sansa, who in turn learned from Jon, so it appears doubtful she’s letting anyone off the hook. For the moment however she deals with Varys’s betrayal, and he is forced to burn his Maury DNA test results before the Unsullied take him away. In a moving farewell between longtime friends, feeling honor bound to let Varys know it was him, Tyrion and the Master of Mess share a final embrace. Varys admits he sincerely hopes to be wrong about Daenerys for his friend’s sake as much as the realm’s. With a stealthy Drogon waiting in the shadows for Momma Dee to say the word, his sentence is pronounced as Jon looks on, noticeably disturbed as the husk of Varys burns in the background.

From that fire, we transition to Daenerys sitting in the hearth next to the Painted Table as she presents Missandei’s sole possession brought across the Narrow Sea to Grey Worm, her slave collar. A real No-Limit Soldier, he throws that mess into the open flame because, WHAT KIND OF GIFT IS THAT?!?!?!? Why would he want the mark of her enslavement to remember her by? Let that burn just like the racist Westorosi, but we’re coming to that. And that was her only possession? So you didn’t give your girl nary a dress? I see you Dany. Besides, Grey Worm already has all of her hair products in his room, so he’s good.

Their grieving is interrupted by Jon, who she consents to see in private, and both parties are clearly conflicted between the affection they feel for each other and their call to duty. Dany admits she has never felt the love of the Seven Kingdoms that Jon or even Sansa engender, only the fear to keep them in line. Jon professes his love for her, but when Auntie tries to get a little freaky, Jon has to tell her he got on board with Alyssa Milano’s sex strike and is withholding the Valyrian Steel. Stung by his rejection, Daenerys declares “alright then, let it be fear.”

Tyrion again pleads with Dany not to raze the city of King’s Landing, claiming the people will ring the bells in surrender if they know the fight is lost. It struck me last episode how unusual it was that the show seemed to be telegraphing that it was a foregone conclusion that Daenerys’s army would win, even as it took pains to show us how much more even the odds were now, and that continued this week. The conversations were never about how they would win, or if they even still could, but begging her not to run up the score too much when she inevitably did. It was an odd choice barring one hell of an unforeseen swerve in their fortunes, but we’ll get to that when we hit the capital. In any event Dany acquiesces to Tyrion’s wishes if the city bends the knee, but gives him a final warning that Jaime was captured trying to get back to Cersei, and that his next mistake will be his last. The fact that Tyrion is still alive at this point speaks wonders for Daenerys’s patience (and his plot armor) but put a pin in that idea.

King’s Landing

Joining the armies of the North and the Vale with what remains of the Unsullied and Dothraki, Jon and Tyrion arrive on the outskirts of King’s Landing where the troops are setting camp for the battle. Also making their way downtown are Arya Stark and the Hound, who pass through the lines to enter the city on a mission to kill Cersei (and Clegane’s brother the Mountain) and end the war before it even starts. Tyrion, who we saw earlier calling in a favor from Davos, meets with his brother Jaime and repays his debt from season four by freeing the Kingslayer from captivity and near certain death. He again drives home the notion that Cersei will undoubtedly lose the war and die in the aftermath unless Jaime can convince her to flee King’s Landing (in a ship Davos has set for them) and sail to Essos to start a new life with their unborn child. It’s another evocative scene, as the acting in the show remains unparalleled, drawing on years of history between the brothers, who know they’ll likely both be dead soon, but are damned to try and fight for their family and their own idea of chivalry.

Day breaks, and we’re treated to flawless cinematography and orchestral arrangements dripping in tension as the Iron Fleet and Lannister armies are joined by the Golden Company, preparing to defend the city. The peril of the common folk is made plain and they have no choice but to hide indoors and barricade themselves from the carnage as tightly as possible, which also serves to provide the context and spatial familiarity with the battlefield that was lacking in the Battle of Winterfell. Their best laid plans however are of no concern to a dragon as Daenerys knew what to expect this time and easily out maneuvers the Scorpions from Euron’s naval assault and those covering the walls, blasting through the main gate of King’s Landing and rendering the greatest sellsword army in the world entirely irrelevant. They really should have brought Cersei’s elephants.

Taking that as their cue, Dany’s army — fronted by a surprising number of surviving Dothraki — lay waste to Cersei’s defenders. It wasn’t as much a battle as a rout, with the ease of victory leading to the question of why she didn’t just do this as soon as she touched down in Westeros in season seven. Cersei, overlooking the city, is in full denial and tries to maintain the facade of being in control as Qyburn appraises her of the situation, repeating platitudes she knows are empty as her eyes can’t help but expose her fear. We get a great scene of Jon and Grey Worm (with Davos for some reason) side-by-side handing out the fade to anyone who steps up until the two armies have a stare down in a corridor of the city and the Lannister troops see no choice but to throw down their swords in defeat. The bells ring, and Daenerys has finally won the crown she has believed to be her birthright for her entire life. And then the episode goes off the rails.

Staring around at her new kingdom, Dany eyes the Red Keep, face quivering with rage instead of relief or joy, and she decides to fly off and burn stretches of the city and the smallfolk at random for funsies. Blame whoever decided to play “Sicko Mode” I guess because the beat flipped and she went off. Taking the cue from his Queen, Grey Worm restarts the attack, as it has now gone from a siege to a sacking. He looks back at Jon, who is trying to hold his forces back, in disgust and presses on with anyone who is here for violence. On the ground, the leader of the Unsullied is a broken man out for retribution and seeking to drown his pain in the blood of his enemies. It’s an understandable turn for a soldier, but what made Daenerys flip? Even Cersei, who burned the Sept of Baelor and everyone in it, was left looking at the scene more shook than she has ever been.

As I said in last week’s review, I don’t have a problem with Dany burning King’s Landing to the last ember if that’s what she had to do. It’s the how and why that was so perplexing, not the what. If she decided to come out of the gate bucking shots for payback and rage, I would have been with it. Instead she decided to be surgical and measured with her strikes, only taking out the Scorpions, and after breaching the city walls left the fighting to her troops. So why then, once the bells were rung and the city bent the knee to her, did she then decide to start roasting the citizens? That was the time to fly straight up to Cersei’s wine porch and burn the whole thing down if it was about her fury and loss. THAT’S revenge! Killing the smallfolk that Cersei doesn’t care about serves no purpose to either Dany’s ascent to the throne or a quest for vengeance and is wholly incongruent to who she has been shown to be.

Yes, the notion that Daenerys can be desensitized to violence and her knack for solving her problems with fire and blood is part of her character, but there’s a hop, skip, and a jump from that to wanton destruction of those who are not her enemies. If that descent is the story you want to tell, I’m on board, but tell that story! The arc could have been more believable if the series had shown eruptions of actual random cruelty instead of men baselessly whispering about it behind her back. Never has her wrath been shown to be directed at the truly innocent rather than those who she perceived to have wronged her, solely for the sake of sadism and fear. I could believe she’d willingly burn King’s Landing and accept incidental murder of the townsfolk if it meant pushing Cersei and her army off the throne. It is a complete paradigm shift to suggest she would instigate that wholesale slaughter for no other reason than a manufactured derangement. The unnatural progression and suddenness of her frenzy led to an immediate disconnect and incredulity that renders impotent what should have been a reveal full of that earned pathos. Failing to recontextualize the past seven seasons of her arc, viewers were instead thrust into a narrative that had been spoken into existence but never sufficiently shown.

Beyond that, her behavior in the episode flies in the face of her all-consuming motivation in taking the throne. Even if you accept that she would burn civilians for the sin of not loving her and embracing her as a savior, why would she wait until the very moment she had attained everything she’d ever dreamed of? For Daenerys, who we’ve seen be single-focused to the point of myopia and perhaps callousness, to suddenly veer wildly into ignoring the throne for the sake of indiscriminate violence just didn’t track. She didn’t fly straight to the Red Keep and claim her crown, nor did she seem concerned with killing Cersei, the pretender who was sitting on her place, blocking her destiny, and the woman who had her friend and advisor Missandei beheaded. So again, what was the point of it all? For all Dany knew, Cersei did sail to Pentos with a child no less driven to return to King's Landing and regain a throne after it's sacking than the Mother of Dragons had been for her entire life. But rather than a meditation of the cyclical nature of violence, or the corruption of power, the lesson seems to be don’t give a dragon to a pyromaniac.

In the streets of King’s Landing, Tyrion and Jon both got put into the Mr. Krabs blur and are confused as to why no one told them Dany might do something like this (Narrator: They all did). Jon in particular traded brooding on a cliff for brooding in the middle of a battlefield and killing anyone with the nerve to interrupt his smoldering in the distance. Meanwhile Jaime is forced to take the long way around and ends up in a disappointing and hilariously petty fight with Euron Greyjoy underneath the collapsing castle. There is some great cinematography here as the chaos above via Drogon falls down around the two tired men. Jaime is mortally wounded by Pirate Pacey, but still ends up killing the Crow’s Eye (with no Dragonbinder) who dies smiling, declaring himself the man who killed Jaime Lannister. Wrong!

Seeing the castle literally falling down around them, the Hound tells Arya to give up her need for revenge while she still can, before it consumes her wholly as it has him. It’s another affecting scene drawing on years of earned interactions, as the Hound has been the next best thing Arya has had for a father since she had to watch Ned lose his head in King’s Landing. The emotions swirl, as you remember this is the first time she’s been in the city since that day, probably the first time she’s been inside the Red Keep since Syrio sent her away to protect her, and now Clegane is doing the same. She thanks him, using his given name of Sandor, and for these two hardened warriors who have been sustained by hate and vengeance it’s the closest either of them can come to admitting they love each other. Arya reclaims her life, and the Hound goes to finally end his own suffering, but hopefully not before taking his brother out first.

Making their way to Maegor's Holdfast to try and survive the destruction, Cersei and Qyburn are escorted by the Queensguard when the roof caves in. While the Queen and her Hand are saved by the Mountain, three of her sworn swords are killed and the castle exposed. Meeting them at the foot of the stairs is the Hound, who easily dispatches the other three survivors and we’re finally ready for Cleaganebowl! Qyburn tries to reason with the Mountain, not realizing everyone has been waiting to see this for years, and gets yeeted into the fallen debris skull first, killing him. Seeing this, Cersei picks up her skirt and saunters right on out of the way of the blood feud because her name is Bennett and she CLEARLY ain’t in it.

In one of the most beautiful shots of the series, the Hound starts to summit the steps towards the brother that scarred and traumatized him, only having eyes for him as the world ends around them and Drogon flies overhead, lighting the skies ablaze. The burned man and his decaying inhuman tormenter hack at each other, each blow echoing back into eternity as for both of them this fight started a generation ago. Cersei, now completely alone, her ambitions falling around her as the very painted map of Westeros she commissioned to mark her new empire cracks and withers in the face of true power, her joy turning to ashes in her mouth, has retreated fully into despair, but who else is there in her lowest moment than her brother and lover Jaime? Shame on me for thinking last week that the writers were giving weight to his character arc and just hiding their hand, he went right back to exactly who he said he was as a simp for Cersei who can’t get right.

The Hound and Mountain continue their conflict as Sandor runs his brother through the gut with his sword, and Ser Gregor doesn’t even flinch. You should have gone for the head! Qyburn did his zombification job a little too well, a fact he’d likely lament if he weren’t already dead. The scene expertly cuts back to Arya, now trying to make her way all the way back out of the dying city, interlacing the pounding she’s taking on the streets dodging the carnage, with the blows the Hound is receiving from his brother as though they were one body. There are a few too many near-death fake outs for us to believe Arya is truly in danger, the way we might have if the POV character were, say, Ser Davos (who comes from Flea Bottom), but the connection between her and Sandor makes it worthwhile. As the Mountain presses his little brother against the wall strangling him, there’s a moment it feels like we might get another of his face smashing fatalities a la Prince Oberyn (RIP to a real one!), but the Hound pulls a page out of Lyanna Mormont (gone too soon) and stabs him in the eye. This still doesn’t kill him, because what is dead may never die, but Sandor Clegane masters his fear and rushes his brother, taking them both through the walls of the Red Keep and plunging into the raging fires of the burning castle where they both meet their end.

Finally having enough, as Dany’s path of destruction has now ignited the wildfire caches under the city left by her father, Jon puts away his sword and leads his troops out of the city. Arya meanwhile is forced to leap into action, trying to save as many people as she can, even if that’s only a mother and her daughter. Between the Dothraki, and nearly being burned alive by Drogon however, it takes a miracle for her to save herself.

Underneath the castle, Cersei and Jaime’s Pentoshi adventure is cut short as the falling rubble has sealed their only escape. Realizing she doesn’t want to die in a prison of her own making, her last facades fall apart and she crumbles in her brother’s arms under the weight of her folly. Both knowing these are their last moments, he comforts her, preparing to die as he’s always wanted, in the arms of the woman he loves. There would be no satisfying death for the longest running antagonist of the series, and many were disappointed as we had already seen Cersei “stripped of all her finery” as she took her walk of atonement through the streets of King’s Landing. With no cathartic payoff, or larger consequence to her oft-mentioned pregnancy, the lack of gratification is endemic of the problems many have with the writing this season, and one of the most deliciously evil, yet human characters of television history deserved a send off befitting of her stature.

As the path is now clear for Daenerys to take her throne covered in ash (not Snow) fulfilling the vision of her future from The House of the Undying in Qarth, Arya awakes to see the charred bodies of the innocent she was trying to save in a scene right out of Pompeii. She also finds a single, pale horse which she rides out of the city dripping in symbolism and riding out the end of the episode, closing with The Rains of Castamere.

On the whole, I will say that the episode was wonderfully directed and beautifully shot. For my disappointment with the Battle of Winterfell, Miguel Sapochnik’s work on the Siege of King’s Landing excelled on a visual level. The shots of Drogon destroying the Scorpions and later laying waste to the city gave great respect to the depth and dimensionality of the terror and awe of dragons and their ability to dispense death from above at any moment. The chaos of both that flight from destruction, and the mores of human depravity as Daenerys’s army abandoned any pretense of rectitude and gave into their hedonism was laid bare, and as always, was accompanied by a masterful score. The acting also needs to be singled out, as each character sold with absolute conviction the moments they were stepping into. It’s truly a shame that so much genuinely wonderful work was overridden by slipshod writing and character decisions born out of an artificially imposed deadline and a strained sprint to the finish line.

Either way, we’re here. Get ready for the series finale next week! Look forward to capping it off with you then.