TV Review: Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 ‘The Bells’
***WARNING!!! BELOW THERE BE****
Episode Plot: Varys betrays Dany with deadly consequences. Jamie attempts to sneak into King’s Landing. Dany attacks King’s Landing in full force. The Hound confronts the Mountain. Arya attempts to save survivors. Jamie and Cersei are reunited.
Review: The Targaryen House words are “Fire and Blood” and boy did we get our share of that and then some in this episode. Strap in because this one is going to be long.
When someone experiences loss, real soul crushing loss, often that person will retreat from the world. Dany in this instance is no different. After the beheading of her best friend Missandei, the death of Ser Jorah at Winterfell, and the violent death of her second dragon Rhaeghal, Dany retreats to Dragonstone and refuses to eat or drink anything, feasting instead on bitterness, rage, and despair.
After the events of last week’s episode Varys has already begun plans to unseat Dany. He even has his “little birds” (i.e. children) trying to glean anything from what might be going on with Dany. Could he have been trying to poison her? He’s clearly writing some letters regarding Jon’s true identity but to whom is the real question. An even better question is if any of those letters were actually sent out. Varys then takes direct treasonous action and confronts Jon Snow and quite literally offers him the Iron Throne. Jon of course rejects this. He’s pledged himself to his Queen and by now we know that when Jon Snow gives his word he keeps it, for better or for worse.
From afar Tyrion watches this exchange and he clearly knows what Varys is about. Like Jon Snow, Tyrion is dedicated to his Queen and informs Dany thusly. Dany at first assumes it was Jon Snow. In her mind Jon told Sansa, who told Tyrion, who told Varys. In her mental state (such as it is) she’s beginning to think that everyone around her is a betrayer. Peeps that’s called paranoia. Her father had it and it’s clear she does as well.
Subsequently, Greyworm seizes Lord Varys and takes him to the beach for execution. Varys seems resigned to his fate. Tyrion at least has the courage to tell Varys it was him. That was a nice tender moment between friends. I always felt that Varys was Tyrion’s equal in terms of intellect. For Tyrion to watch one of his few confidants fall is just heartbreaking. It’s even more heartbreaking because as manipulative and scheming as Varys can be, I honestly believe him when he says he always wanted the right ruler on the Iron Throne. It is the realm that matters to Varys. The realm and it’s people, not power or the Iron Throne. It’s something that almost everyone who seeks to sit on that damn iron chair seems to forget. Varys dies with the courage of his convictions hoping that he’s wrong about Dany. And what a great shot of Drogon materializing out of the dark above Dany just before he burns Varys alive. Even Dany’s pronouncement of “Dracarys” comes off cold and indifferent.
Just after Varys execution a key scene plays out between Jon and Dany. She admits to Jon that she’s engendered no love in Westeros only fear. Jon again expresses her love for her but he just can’t pursue the romantic aspect again. He can’t give Dany what she needs. This is an amazing scene. You can see the look on her face. Dany’s imploring Jon to be with her, in some way to save her from the worst elements of her nature. But Jon for whatever reason is incapable of doing so. If he had been, perhaps things wouldn’t have played out like they did later in the episode. “Let it be fear,” Dany says and make no mistake, by the end of this episode she inspires more than enough fear.
Subsequently a final war council is held. It is there that Tyrion entreats Dany to end the attack if she hears the bells ringing which Dany seemingly agrees to. It’s ironic here that Dany says the upcoming battle will be mercy, mercy to the generations that come after. Spoken like a true tyrant. Many have wondered how Tyrion, always seemingly the smartest man in the room could be so blind when it comes to Dany. How could he not see the destruction that threatens to consume King’s Landing My thought on that is threefold. One is that all his life, Tyrion has been looking for something or someone to believe in. He clings to Dany like a drowning man to a rope. Secondly, never underestimate the power of self-delusion when it come to those closest to you. And lastly, I honestly believe that Tyrion thought his bell play was going to be enough. That when Dany saw people lay down their weapons and surrender it would be enough to prevent a bloodbath. Unfortunately he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite his devotion, Dany can’t help but dangle one final temptation in front of Tyrion, stating that his brother has been captured and that the next time Tyrion fails her it will be the last. It’s almost a challenge in this instance and a demonstration of Dany pushing away one of her few confidants. There’s no way she could honestly believe that he wouldn’t attempt to free his brother. And of course that’s exactly what Tyrion does, employing Davos to smuggle a ship for Jamie and Cersei. This scene of farewell between Jamie and Tyrion was one of the most heart-wrenching in the entire series. It echoes the scene from season four when Jamie helped Tyrion escape. Tyrion illicits a promise from Jamie to ring the bells and open the gates. He’s willing to sacrifice himself if it means saving tens of thousands of the small-folk in King’s Landing. Anyone who claims that Games of Thrones has bad writing, I suggest you watch this scene. When Tyrion tells Jamie that the only reason he made it through his childhood was because of Jamie, that he was the only one who didn’t treat him like a monster–man that tore my heart out.
We then transition into the meat and potatoes of this episode, the actual attack on King’s Landing. There’s an excellent setup of tension as we cut between Euron readying his scorpions, Cersei looking smugly down below the city, Jon and Greyworm at the head of Dany’s forces, and Arya and the Hound just barely getting inside the city gates. The anxiety just builds and builds and Ramin Dijawadi’s score exacerbates it.
And then all Hell breaks loose.
The last time Dany and her forces were caught with their pants down. Not this time. She knows exactly where Euron’s fleet is going to be and she uses the sun as a shield for Drogon as she descends upon the fleet. And talk about a wrecking ball. Not only does Drogon take out the fleet, he takes out the scorpions on the city walls and then decimates the Golden Company from behind blowing out one of the gates and letting in her forces. The Golden Company comes off kind of useless here but then again when you’re dealing with a giant fire breathing dragon there’s not much you can do.
Amidst the devastation Cersei states that the Lannister men will defend the city, that they will fight better than any sell-sword. She clearly is delusional and underestimates what her people truly think about her. The Lannister men throw down their arms and surrender. All that remains is for the bells to ring. There were some truly great shots here as Jon and Tyrion are looking at the bells almost willing them to ring. I myself was doing the same thing, I even said out loud, “Come on ring! Ring damn it!” And when they finally did I let out a huge sigh of relief. Relief that was unfortunately short lived.
Because there atop a battlement, sits Daenerys Targaryen First of her name, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, of the blood of Old Valyria. The blood of the dragon. This was the moment where Dany had a choice. The battle was won. Cersei’s forces had surrendered. There was no need for further violence. And yet she chooses violence. All the rage, all the anger, all the hate builds to a breaking point and she unleashes it on the city and the common folk. Dany turns King’s Landing into Dresden 1945.
Now it’s here that people are having a problem with this action. Why do this? She’d won. Why unleash this devastation? I think there’s a few reasons why this makes sense as horrifying as it is. One is that the seeds of Dany’s madness have been sown since season one. She was indifferent to her brother’s brutal death, she took satisfaction in the death of Mirri Maz Duur, the witch woman who “healed” Khal Drogo, she threatened to burn Qarth to the ground, she crucified hundreds of members of high society in Meereen, she burned a dozen Khals alive–her propensity for violence and madness was always there, waiting to be unleashed. And look at the loss she experienced. Khal Drogo, Ser Jorah, Missandei, Varys, thousands of Unsullied and Dothraki, the betrayal (in her mind) of Jon and Tyrion, and the deaths of two of her dragons. She’s become isolated and alone, those closest to her either betrayers or dead. And in her mind the people of King’s Landing are in league with Cersei because they didn’t rise up against Cersei and embrace their rightful Queen. It doesn’t matter that the logic is false as Tyrion points out, that’s how Dany sees it.
Furthermore I want to get a little personal for a second. I have an emotional disorder and clearly Dany’s emotionally disturbed at this point. When you are wrapped up in that amount of hate, and rage, and guilt, and fear, and anxiety, and bitterness, and desperation, there’s a cold, hard truth we don’t like to admit.
When you’ve reached that stage logic doesn’t matter.
Reason doesn’t matter.
Facts don’t matter.
All you have are those emotions and in its in those moments that we make the worst decisions. Trust me I’ve been there. Dany is no different. So while Dany’s actions are horrifying I can’t say they are surprising.
What I liked about the destruction (if one can say that there’s anything to like about the deaths of thousands of innocents) it’s that the director Miguel Sapochnik keeps the focus on the common folk. We see the suffering from their perspective, not Dany’s or Jon’s. It’s in your face and it’s a reminder that when the high lords and ladies play their game of thrones, it is the little people that suffer the most.
It’s in this moment of destruction that we are also drawn to the faces of Jon and Tyrion. You can see the moments when they finally realize they’ve backed the wrong horse. This is especially devastating for Tyrion as he can see that the thousands of deaths are now at this feet. He thought he could save the city like he did at the Battle of Black Water. He was wrong. This is also a time where Jon gets to see the sack of a city for the first time. He’s been in battles before but he’s never seen where men’s worst impulses get the best of them. I appreciated the fact that he stopped a fellow soldier from raping a woman. In that moment you see Ned Stark in him. Too bad he couldn’t save all the innocents.
Amid the ruckus Jamie desperately tries to find his way into the Red Keep. Unfortunately Euron halts his way. A fight ensues that leaves Jamie grievously wounded but he ultimately kills Euron. Have to say I was really expecting Yara to somehow kill Euron. He’s been a character I’ve loved to hate for a few seasons now. I feel like he could have been a little more developed and less rock and roll but for better or worse it’s what we got and he
rests parties now in the Hall of the Drowned God. What is dead may never die.
In case you’d forgotten about the Hound and Arya, the episode cuts back to them in a final pivotal moment between the characters. This scene was somewhat bittersweet. These two have been to the wars together and spent a lot of time in each other’s company. Their relationship is probably one of the best of the series. It’s here that the Hound stops himself. He realizes what he’s become, a man obsessed so much by hate and revenge that he doesn’t want Arya to go down that same path. Some may argue it didn’t make sense that Arya just suddenly stops her mission to kill Cersei but I disagree. The Hound kind of reclaims his humanity in this moment and Arya recognizes this by addressing him as Sandor NOT The Hound. She sees him as a person not as this monster that everyone else has seen him as.
So let’s talk about Clegane Bowl! I have to admit I was worried that somehow we would be cheated out of this moment, that either The Mountain or The Hound would be killed by the chunks of debris flying around them. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. This battle was all kinds of epic and to have it occur on the stairwell with fire and destruction around the two of them was apropos. I also appreciated the fact that the Mountain took his helmet off so we got to see the real monster. For awhile it was in doubt as to whether the Hound would get the upper hand as all of his attacks registered little effect. This is a battle that’s been building since the two fought in the Hand’s Tournament in season one and it lived up to the billing. How appropriate that the two die at each other’s hands with the Hound tackling his brother and the two plummeting to their deaths and ultimately consumed by fire. Chef’s kiss times one thousand. LOVED IT.
One of the great things about the showrrunners when it comes to battles is that they are able to have a clear point of view, such as the Battle of the Bastards when it was from the perspective of Jon. The same holds true here except the point of view this time is from Arya. We get to watch her see the destruction cascading around her as she desperately tries to save some of the common folk. It was truly harrowing to watch. Arya witnesses the carnage first hand and more importantly WHO is causing that carnage.
Much has been made about how Jamie and Cersei would go out. The Valonqar Prophency from the books gets the most play which states: “When your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.” Valonqar means “younger sibling” and to a degree the prophecy was correct. Jamie has his hands wrapped around Cersei’s throat. Yet it is not in rage but in tenderness. He had hoped to escape with his sister but unfortunately all the exits are blocked. It is in this moment, when their fates are sealed that he directs Cersei to look at him, to focus on him. In that moment they are the only two people in the world. And despite all the terrible things they’ve done, as messed up as their relationship has been from the word “go”–in that moment I felt real empathy for the two of them. It’s not a heroic ending for the two of them but it’s appropriate that the two go out together in each other’s arms. Tragic and beautiful at the same time.
The episode ends with Arya alive, bruised, covered in ash, and shell shocked, but alive. In a beautiful shot we see her approach and mount a white horse and rides out of the burnt city. When I saw that moment all I could think of was this line from The Book of Revelation in the Bible: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” I think Arya is Death and she’s bringing Hell to Dany next week. In fact my prediction is that she may kill Jon, take his face, and then kill Dany. However, it shakes out I can’t see Dany making it out alive next week.
Hot damn what an episode! Game of Thrones always seems to find a way to make their penultimate episodes spectacular and “The Bells” was no different. While it may not have been as powerful as the Battle of Black Water, the Red Wedding, or the Battle of the Bastards, I thought this episode delivered in a big way and was extremely satisfying. And nice touch playing “The Rains of Castamere” in the end credits.
And as for next week? Well one more fork in the road, one more turn of the page, one last song, and we reach the end. I don’t expect it to be a happy end but hopefully it’s fulfilling for most of the audience. Until next week guys!
Season 8 Episode 5 “The Bells” rates: 10/10 Severed Ned Heads