2:21 am EST, May 13, 2019

‘Game of Thrones’ 8×05 review: Let it be fear

Daenerys embraced the Targaryen legacy of fire and blood with catastrophic consequences on Game of Thrones 8×05, “The Bells.”

We thought we’d seen destruction on Game of Thrones. We thought we’d seen carnage and chaos and violence. Blackwater and Daznak’s Pit, Hardhome and the Battle of the Bastards. The Battle of Winterfell.

We thought we’d seen all of the agony and bloodshed that Game of Thrones could wring from its dark imagination.

We were super wrong.

What happened in ‘Game of Thrones’ 8×05?

On Dragonstone, Varys prepares to inform the realm that Jon Snow is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. He urges Jon to take up his own cause, to no avail. Tyrion informs Dany, who has isolated herself in her rooms, that Varys has betrayed her. Dany extends this betrayal to Jon, Sansa, and Tyrion, but has only Varys executed for treason.

Dany gives Grey Worm a cuff belonging to Missandei, which he burns. Dany and Jon discuss Dany’s position, and she laments that she is not loved in Westeros. Jon breaks off a kiss, and Dany resolves to act with fear instead of love.

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Tyrion argues desperately for the lives of the people of King’s Landing. Dany concedes to end her attack if the people begin to ring the city bells, proof that they have abandoned Cersei. Tyrion learns that Jaime has been apprehended by the Unsullied, bluffs his way into the tent, and offers a plan: Jaime will convince Cersei to surrender, and the two Lannisters will flee east on a dinghy provided by Davos.

Jaime eventually agrees, and says he will have the bells rung. Tyrion hopes for mercy from Dany, and the two brothers share an emotional parting.

As Dany’s forces array outside King’s Landing, Arya and Sandor Clegane stroll into the city. Arya wants to kill Cersei; we all know what Clegane wants. The city gates are closed just as the pair push through, leaving Jaime searching for another way to his sister’s side.

Cersei watches the eve of battle from her window, content as a cat with a bowl of cream.

On the water, Euron’s forces prepare their ballistas, but Dany arrives on Drogon from the wrong direction. With Drogon’s fire, she quickly dispatches most of the Iron Fleet, and takes on the bristling walls of King’s Landing with equal alacrity. Jon, the Unsullied, and the Dothraki surge against the unprotected Golden Company, cutting them to pieces. Harry Strickland is killed by Grey Worm as Dany’s forces take the gate and enter the city.

Warily, Cersei watches Drogon circling the edge of King’s Landing. Qyburn arrives to tell her that things are not going well at all, and she brushes him away, her facade beginning to crack.

Dany lands on the rooftops as Lannister soldiers face off with her forces, surrounded by civilians. The Lannisters finally surrender, and calls of “Ring the bells!” echo through the city. On Drogon’s back, Dany looks ashen, sad, and triumphant; outside, Tyrion watches as the bells begin to ring.

Cersei watches her doom fly toward her, the dragon’s shadow livid over King’s Landing.

And it all might have ended there. Not without horror and loss, but with most of the souls involved still intact.

Game of Thrones 8×05 does not end there.

Dany attacks the city, as Grey Worm and the Dothraki cut through the surrendered Lannisters. Jon watches in horror, crying for order as soldier and civilian are slaughtered without discrimination. There’s no need to itemize the carnage; it is fire and blood of the kind Westeros has not seen in more than a hundred years, unleashed on the terrified, helpless, and innocent.

It is an act of tremendous, galling evil.

Meanwhile, Jaime’s path to Cersei is blocked by Euron, who demands they fight to the death. Euron mortally wounds Jaime, Jaime kills Euron and proceeds inside the castle.

In her window, Cersei begins to cry.

Arya and Sandor Clegane reach the collapsing Red Keep, but Clegane convinces Arya to turn back instead of pursuing endless vengeance. She thanks him and flees back into the city, while he confronts Cersei’s entourage, and his brother Gregor. Qyburn is finally killed, and Cersei delicately escapes while the two brothers Clegane begin their final fight. Sandor is grievously wounded, the Mountain unmoved by literally any attack, but the fight ends when Sandor shoves them together out of the crumbling Keep, into the fire far below.

Cersei and Jaime tearfully reunite atop the map of Westeros, fleeing toward the beach and their escape. Outside, Arya is caught in the horrific chaos, nearly crushed by rubble, trampled by crowds, and burned by dragon fire. She urges an enclave of survivors to flee the city, but is unable to save a mother and her young daughter who helped her when Dany returns with more strafing fire.

In the collapsing dungeons of the Red Keep, Cersei and Jaime find their path to freedom blocked by rubble. Cersei weeps, and Jaime tells her that nothing else matters but them; embracing, the lovers are crushed as the Keep collapses.

Arya awakens in the blasted landscape of the city. She finds a riderless white horse, soothes and mounts it, and rides away from the first, awful legacy of Daenerys’ reign.

Takeaways

It’s frustrating to think of the alternate paths to this penultimate episode of Game of Thrones.

I can imagine many; paths where stories were planted, tended, and fully grown before being harvested in this bloody display. Paths where characters slowly turned, doubting themselves and questioning their own changes before committing to extremity. Paths where Game of Thrones‘s unquestionable talent for spectacle harmonized with its emotional orchestration.

As a visual spectacle, and in some ways an execution of atmosphere, “The Bells” is everything that “The Long Night” fell short of becoming. Personal drama bleeds into pounding dread, which becomes an intimate carnage speckled with equally intimate moments of humanity. As a war story, Game of Thrones 8×05 is exceptional, terrible in its beauty and unapologetically bold in its design.

But as the culmination of eight seasons of so many emotional journeys — the story of Jaime and Cersei, the story of Sandor Clegane, the story of Daenerys Targaryen and her sanity — the episode crumples. “The Bells” feels almost divorced from much of the work that came before it, or as though the audience is expected to write in crucial information that has been either forgotten or ignored.

Suddenly, Dany is animated by madness, her protective instincts perverted to serve an agenda of death. Suddenly, all portents of Cersei’s death have vanished, Jaime the adoring and zealous lover bound to save his lady. Suddenly, Sandor Clegane enjoys enough clarity to spare Arya from a life wasted in hatred, but cannot extend that sight to his own reality.

Jon Snow, of course, remains constant. It’s certainly not wrong for Jon to stand for justice and restraint, a fair-minded if fearful beacon poised between duty and conscience. Like Eddard Stark before him, Jon is defined by the preservation of his loyalties. But it does irk to watch as Game of Thrones sacrifices Dany’s suitability for the Iron Throne on the alter of this man who would not be king.

I don’t mean to say that the triangulation of Dany, Jon, and the Iron Throne is not a complex problem. But while Dany has spent many seasons warned vaguely against the teeth of Targaryen power, it has rarely been something with which she herself has deeply struggled.

To see her then, effectively writing herself off the board in a torrent of terrible flame, is frustrating. If she must (as she almost certainly will) be robbed of both the throne she wanted, and the sanity and kindness by which she might have earned it, it seems fair that Dany might at least have properly lived the journey.

Instead, she is as much of Game of Thrones 8×05 is; incandescently, essentially present, with little of the past and virtually no future to anchor her in something just a bit closer to real.

Highlights

As usual, it is in its small character moments that Game of Thrones 8×05 shines, sometimes in spite of itself.

Tyrion’s dialogues with Varys and Jaime are each brilliantly weighted, balanced between the familiar and a looming finality. Sandor Clegane’s final words to Arya, though they have frustratingly little impact on his own fate, are a lovely coda to a relationship often played more for humor than heart.

The same is true for Cersei and Jaime’s final moments; Lena Headey seems to grow younger through the episode as the terror of her enemy overtakes her. It’s hard to imagine that it would be possible to feel pangs of sympathy for Cersei after her many (and recent) atrocities, but there is a fine, bittersweet tragedy in Cersei abandoning war and death for life and love, far too late to make any real difference.

Emilia Clarke also deserves tremendous praise for her work in “The Bells.” If Dany’s turn toward madness is barely supported by the text of the series, it is almost justified by the raw relentlessness Clarke handles so easily. Even at her lowest, alone among the carved creatures of Dragonstone, Dany is less adrift than she is merely waiting for the tide to come in. I’m eager, if quite terrified, to see what her final act brings next week.

Lowlights

Alas, the long-awaited “Cleganebowl” lands with a thud, as Game of Thrones 8×05 confuses the fight for the ultimate battle. The tussle between the Mountain and the Hound is just a match of physicality, unjustified by any pressing inspiration beyond a shallow showdown. Sandor Clegane fights his brother because… he wants to, and it would look really cool!

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Though Clegane has changed in other ways throughout his time on Game of Thrones, this very occasional touchpoint has apparently not been remotely altered by those experiences. There is no meaning behind his death in this arena, and it feels like a hollow conclusion to a defining powerhouse of the series.

Euron’s weird, almost Freudian fight with Jaime is even worse. Sure, Euron Greyjoy has always walked on the wild side, but a random fight to the death seems perversely cavalier even for him. If Game of Thrones intended to create a catharsis from a clash between Cersei’s two lovers, it failed; it plays instead like a drawn-out closing bow from a character who almost certainly never wielded the impact intended for him.

Status updates

Deaths: A high count indeed, this week. Varys was killed by Drogon (after a hideous pause between order and flame.) Sandor Clegane and Gregor Clegane died in CleganeBowl as was foretold by the bros. Jaime and Cersei were crushed to death in each others’ arms, dying as they came into the world. Euron was killed by Jaime. Lots of innocent people were killed mostly by Dany. Oh, and also Harry Strickland died, but like, whatever.

Battles: The Sack of King’s Landing by Daenerys Targaryen

Sex and romance: Jaime was like, “Brienne who?” and went back to his main squeeze. Jon has apparently lost his taste for aunt.

Best quotes

Varys: I hope I deserve this. Truly, I do. I hope I’m wrong. Goodbye, old friend.

Arya: I’m Arya Stark, I’m going to kill Queen Cersei.

Tyrion: Tens of thousands of innocent lives. One not particularly innocent dwarf. Seems like a fair trade.

Sandor Clegane: I’ve been after it all my life. It’s all I care about — and look at me. Look at me! Do you want to be like me? You come with me, you die here.
Arya: Sandor. Thank you.

Sandor Clegane: Fucking die!

Next week…

The end.

Game of Thrones 8×06 airs Sunday, May 19 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.

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