Davos (Liam Cunningham), Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) get ready to see some bleak stuff.
Photo: HBO

The final battle between Daenerys and Cersei. Other long-awaited confrontations. Major character deaths. Justice. Heartbreak. Much more than the fight against the White Walkers, this penultimate episode of Game of Thrones had everything it needed to have. And while it wasn’t perfect, it was still perfect for Game of Thrones.

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That’s a counterintuitive way to say that based on what the show has become over the past few years—as it transformed into its own unique identity once it left the training wheels of George R.R. Martin’s novels behind—last night’s next-to-final episode felt right. Like, yes, this is the way the show is supposed to go down. No, not all of the plot or character decisions or deaths were completely satisfying, but they were as satisfying as Game of Thrones generally gets. The result is the best episode of the season so far, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if next week’s finale is as good.

So much happens in “The Bells,” but when it begins it’s all about Daenerys, who is…not in a good place. She’s suffered loss after loss, and I don’t just mean her many defeats on the battlefield. Jorah died protecting her, then Cersei killed her dragon Rhaegal and her friend/counselor Missandei. She lost the romantic affection of Jon Snow, but also her rightful claim to the Iron Throne. You wouldn’t need to have the blood of the Targaryens in you for all this to start driving you crazy.

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But it gets worse for poor Dany. It turns out she’s also surrounded by traitors, including Jon, for revealing the truth of his identity to Sansa. Dany knows that the Lady of Winterfell told Tyrion, who told Varys, who is now actively conspiring against his queen, and trying to talk Jon into claiming the throne for himself. Tyrion is forced to tell Daenerys of Varys’ activities, which earns the eunuch an execution. Both Jon and Tyrion stand, albeit uncomfortably, by their queen as she orders her dragon to roast Varys alive. Varys’ final words are perfect: “I hope I deserve this. I hope I’m wrong.”

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is not in a good place right now.
Image: HBO

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Varys is not wrong. Daenerys is angry and alone, desperate for revenge and to seize the throne she believes she’s owed. When she tells Jon that she inspires no love in Westeros, only fear, Jon replies, “I love you.” But after Daenerys tries to kiss her nephew, Jon can’t help but break it off and back away. Dany has a rueful smile when she says, “Let it be fear.” That’s ominous, but Daenerys gets, uh, ominous-er. When she tells her small council that “mercy” is the strength that sets her forces apart from Cersei’s, she specifies it’s mercy for “future generations” who won’t have to suffer future tyrants—the poor, present-day smallfolk who are going to get killed in the crossfire of the upcoming battle will not be nearly so lucky.

Tyrion, who has spent so much of the last two seasons trying to convince Daenerys not to kill everyone in King’s Landing, has one last, desperate hail mary play: If the city bells ring after the first assault, it will mean that the city has surrendered and the attack can stop. The queen only begrudgingly agrees, but with no real conviction. Tyrion decided to commit some treason of his own, and free his brother Jaime (who had been captured on the road to King’s Landing by Dany’s armies). Tyrion tells his brother about the secret passage from the cove into the Keep, and begs him to find their sister Cersei, convince her to ring the bells, and then the two of them can run, hopefully to find a quiet life together outside of Westeros.

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Tyrion has a really good line here: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives…one not particularly innocent dwarf…it seems like a fair trade.” But it’s the acting between Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau that makes this scene so affecting. Despite all the random Lannister family reunions over the last two seasons, none of them have really had any emotional weight; here, though, Tyrion, knowing one or both of them is likely about to die, tearfully thanks Jaime for being the only person who didn’t treat him like a monster when they were kids. If all the sadness and gratitude Dinklage puts into it doesn’t put a tear in your eye, or the emotional hug between the brothers, you may be a White Walker.

Tyrion could also be better.
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

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At daybreak, the war begins. Interestingly, “The Bells” chooses to start from Cersei’s forces’ point of view: There’s Euron and his fleet in Blackwater Bay; the Golden Company mercenaries guarding the main gate to the city; all the men manning the scorpions; and there are archers and soldiers, all running to get ready…and then they wait. It’s a great choice to spend the time looking through their eye because it makes it far more terrifying when Dany comes screaming out of the heavens with Drogon and starts killing all of them.

Here’s something I expect people to have a problem with: Despite the fact that the giant crossbow scorpions tore a dragon apart like it was fresh bread just last week, Daenerys and Drogon literally destroy every single one of Euron’s ships and all the giant scorpions on every single parapet surrounding King’s Landing without any problem whatsoever. They don’t even have help! All of Cersei’s careful preparations which have been plenty deadly in season eight? Useless, because Dany managed to grab the Invincibility Star from Super Mario Bros. for the scene.

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And here’s why I’m fine with it: Because while watching Daenerys and Drogon have a careful, protracted battle to take out the scorpions one-by-one might be “realistic” in terms of battle, it would also be boring. Jettisoning verisimilitude to keep things moving briskly is simply part of what Game of Thrones has become over the last few years (for better or worse), and there’s absolutely no point in fighting it now. Besides, without that dedication to keep things moving at top speed we might not have seen Drogon open the front gate, by which I mean explode the front gate, raining flaming rubble onto the backs of the Golden Company, whose survivors are hacked down by the onrush of Unsullied, Dothraki, and Northmen.

Honestly, the whole battle is a one-sided affair. Once there’s no fleet or danger to the dragon, it’s a rout, and many of the Lannister soldiers surrender. Daenerys’ forces win handily, but until someone rings those bells, Dany won’t call off the attack. It takes a very long time—there are a lot of shots of Cersei looking out her tower, hearing occasional peasants begging her to surrender—but eventually the bells peal. King’s Landing has fallen. Cersei is defeated. Daenerys has her throne.

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Unfortunately, Daenerys doesn’t care.

Davos and Jon look at something, I dunno. Probably something Dany set on fire.
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

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She’s too locked into what’s she’s lost, too focused on what she hates. With the Red Keep looming before her, Cersei inside, Daenerys gives into her passion and her rage, and starts destroying King’s Landing anyway—the town, the castle, the people, all of it. An equally angry and bitter Gray Worm starts attacking the Lannister soldiers who had already surrendered. And then everything descends into horrific chaos.

It’s the smallfolk who are the collective star of the rest of the episode, as it spends most of its time following the commoners who came to King’s Landing hoping for safety, and found they’d only trapped themselves. Men, women, and children are burned alive by dragonfire, or crushed by buildings toppled by it. Crowds run blindly, trampling each other. Dany’s soldiers take her destruction as a sign they can go wild, and Jon is horrified to watch the men he led start murdering innocents, looting, or worse. Sometimes a few folks find a place they think they’re safe, and then die there anyway. It’s all exactly as horrible as it’s supposed to be, especially when you remember that Daenerys came to Westeros with the intent of protecting these people.

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While Daenerys starts to bring down the Red Keep, the Hound and Arya manage to get in. In a facsimile of a tender scene, the Hound manages to convince Arya to go, mostly because the crumbling castle makes Cersei’s death a certainty one way or another. Arya’s revenge is/will be achieved, and she can try to live for something else—something more than the Hound managed to. Arya departs, and Sandor eventually finds his brother Gregor descending a stairwell, guarding the queen. Once the two brothers lock eyes, though, the Mountain has a new priority. He crushes Qyburn for trying to stop him from fighting the Hound, while the pointedly silent Cersei is allowed to sneak past them.

Personally, I think “Cleganebowl” lived up to the hype. It was plenty brutal, and we got to see how messed up the Mountain was underneath his mask and armor. (Answer: plenty messed up.) Since the Mountain was some kind of zombie, Sandor got to inflict many, many wounds on his horrible brother with no effect. The part where the Hound simply stabbed the Mountain repeatedly, while trying to keep his eyes from being crushed, was great—as was the reveal that even when the Mountain gets a dagger shoved in his eye, he’s more confused than hurt. So the Hound takes out his undead brother in the most thematically appropriate way possible. After Gregor stuck Sandor’s face into a fire, scarring him all those years ago, now Sandor tackles Gregor, knocking them both off the ledge of the tower, and the two fall over a hundred feet into the raging fires below.

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Cersei (Lena Headey), in blissful ignorance of the shitstorm that’s about to come down.
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Unfortunately, Cersei’s fate wasn’t quite so satisfying. After leaving the Hound and the Mountain, she finds Jaime, who came up from the tunnels—after a fight with Euron, who very conveniently washed up at that exact place at that exact time. (Jaime got stabbed a few times, but ultimately killed Euron, who was a narcissistic prick til the end). But when the twins get down to the tunnels, Daenerys’ reign of destruction has sealed off their escape, and they both know what’s coming next. Lena Headey does a good job showing Cersei finally come to grips with reality, but after all these seasons watching her trials and losses and mental deterioration, it felt like Cersei’s final moments should have been bigger—not with a grander or more exciting death, but something more emotionally powerful as she realized that her destruction was of her own doing. Still, it’s kind of nice that she and Jaime get to die holding one another, as the ceiling of the keep collapses in upon them.

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After leaving Sandor, Arya spends the rest of her time trying to escape King’s Landing, which is no small feat, especially with everything on fire and/or falling apart and also Daenerys still raining down hell. If you thought it was weird that the show would have Arya come to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, only for the Hound to easily talk her out of it minutes before they found the queen, well, you’re right. But Arya really came to King’s Landing so we could watch a character we care about try to escape the apocalyptic nightmare that is the fall of King’s Landing (as pointed out in “Inside the Thrones”) instead of just the smallfolk.

It’s a lot of scrambling, a lot of dust, and a lot of nameless smallfolk characters getting killed all around her. It goes on for so long that it’s genuinely stressful…and then it goes on for a bit longer than that. But the weirdest part is that it, and the episode, ends when she wakes up after the destruction has ended to find a very pretty (and very clean) white horse just standing there in the middle of the rubble, and she rides off on it. This seems extremely weird, but we’ll have to wait until next week to see if it’s an ominous sign for Arya or just a bit of really hokey storytelling.

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Given that next week is the series finale, I’m hoping the weird clean horse is just a weird clean horse, because there’s so much else left to get to! The old queen is dead, and the new queen just murdered tens of thousands of innocent people and may be the most hated woman in Westeros. Her advisor Tyrion just committed treason against her by setting his brother Jaime free. Her lover, because of his superior claim to the throne, is now the biggest threat to her reign. And after what she did to the innocent people of King’s Landing, I can’t imagine what she wouldn’t do to the people that crossed her, like Tyrion, or Jon, or Sansa, or Bran, or Samwell, or…anyone, really.

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Daenerys was supposed to be the queen that was going to “break the wheel,” and end the cycle of oppression that constantly crushed the commoners no matter who was battling up top for supremacy. Last night, Daenerys proved without a doubt that the wheel had broken her instead, and she has become part of the problem she had wanted to fix. Now she might have become as paranoid and compassionless as her father was. Maybe more so.

Daenerys played the game of thrones, and won, while all those who’ve played it against her have died. Even though the game is over, nothing’s better, and nothing’s been fixed. So what else can people do in next week’s season finale, other than to begin a brand-new round?

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Actor Marc Rissmann as the leader of the Golden Company mercenaries, who I want to call... Bertie? Bertie.
Photo: HBO

Assorted Musings:

  • Special credit to the “Previously On,” which did a terrific job of giving viewers a crash–course in the history of Targaryen insanity/cruelty and all the things that have pushed Daenerys to the breaking point. It was so good it should have been in the episode, but I understand voice montages don’t really fit there.
  • Let’s see, major character deaths: Varys, Qyburn, the Hound, the Mountain, Cersei, and Jaime. Am I missing anybody?
  • Before Varys died, he was 100 percent sending letters telling people about Jon’s real parents. I wonder if he sent them somewhere special, or just as a general raven-based email blast?
  • That shot of Drogon’s head appearing out of the shadows behind Dany just before blasting Varys was goofy but highly effective.
  • Uh, Jaime, you didn’t think to take your golden hand off before trying to slip past enemy lines? You truly are the dumbest Lannister.
  • Man, who else got crazy excited when the bursts of green flames started erupting in tiny blazes across King’s Landing? If you don’t recall, that’s wildfire—the stuff Cersei used to blow up Baelor’s Sept with the High Sparrow and Margaery and the rest in it back in season six. I’m assuming the reason it kept popping up is because Daenerys’ father, the “mad king” Aerys, scattered it through King’s Landing with the plan of destroying it in some sort of nuclear option. In fact, Aerys was about to use it to blow up the city when Jaime betrayed his oath and killed his king, saving tens of thousands of lives.
  • Clearly the wildfire is still strewn about the city, and there’s absolutely no way Game of Thrones would have made sure we saw all those green flames if it was only a brief nod to the past. I’m betting Aerys’ self-destruct sequence comes back in the final episode, but who uses it, and why? Does a disgusted Daenerys also feel like getting rid of the city she conquered and destroyed? Will someone use it to try to take out Daenerys and Drogon? Hoo boy.

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