SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season.
If you thought the swords on Game of Thrones were being fundamentally sheathed after the long and dark battle of Winterfell a few weeks ago, tonight’s expanded second-to-last “The Bells” episode of the HBO blockbuster burned down the house, or at least the armada of the Iron Fleet and most of King’s Landing.
Harking to the best of World War II films, the long near-silence of the carnage to come is broken about halfway through tonight’s 82-minute episode when, like a Spitfire mixed with a flying fortress over the English Channel, a fully armored Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her remaining dragon Drogan come screaming through the clouds like angels of death to obliterate the pirate fleet of Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) latest lover and main line of offense, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), and almost everything else that gets in the way of the revenge-fueled Mother of Dragons.
The path of destruction would see most of Daenerys’ followers and advisors turn against her by the end of the episode, and the horrible Cersei and her brother-lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) fatally felled by a collapsing ceiling.
Reminiscent of the great clash and scope of Season 7’s “The Spoils of War” and explosive in its own way both on and off the battlefield, suffice it to say that the beautifully shot swarming of King’s Landing and pitiful death of the Lannister siblings may stand as the pivotal and most recalled episode of Game of Thrones ever – no matter how things shake down next week.
Melding Daenerys’ fatal and anticipated crazed rage on the metropolis, the attack of the forces of Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) on civilians and Cersei’s near collapse in every way imaginable,”The Bells” was a true battle royale literally and figuratively.
Despite a scene or two that were a little too close to Monty Python’s Black Knight, and the hidden bromance in the hurried hand-to-hand combat between Jamie (Cersei’s brother and father of her children) and Euron, there were few missteps tonight, though without a doubt some fans will be disappointed at the near banality of the Lannister siblings’ deaths.
On the other side of complex sibling relationships, the prolonged battle amid the collapsing castle between The Hound (Rory McCann) and his brother the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who has been Cersei’s hulking personal secret service over the seasons, will certainly stand as the true heart of the series executive produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
Penned by the Benioff and Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik (who helmed April 28’s Night King-killing “The Long Night,” the fifth episode of GoT’s final season) picked up in the armed stand-off aftermath of the beheading of Daenerys’ confidante Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) on the orders of the fighting-to-survive Cersei.
Which, to put it as gently as possible in the brutal and incestuous small-screen adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s writings, is not a good place to be. Especially with Daenerys’ already potentially treasonous aide Varys (Conleth Hill) jotting down secrets of succession and declarations of the “greater the risk, the greater the reward” by his spying kitchen staff.
“She shouldn’t be alone,” says Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to the obviously duplicitous Varys as the former King of the North comes ashore to bring more soldiers down south to support his Queen, lover (and now we know aunt). The Mother of Dragons had been in mourning amid her final thrust to take back the throne of the Seven Kingdoms for her family and herself.
“All I’ve ever wanted, the right ruler on the Iron Throne,” the once spymaster Varys tells Snow when asked “what do you want?”
In acknowledgement of the once assumed bastard of Ned Stark’s now true claim to the monarchy, Snow states his loyalty to Targaryen and asserts “I don’t want it” of becoming king himself. “She is my Queen,” the warrior prince spits out, shutting down the conspiratorial conversation.
Of course, this being GoT, Daenerys’ first response to word of Jon’s true bloodline as the son of her brother is to assume that her beloved Snow has “betrayed me” when confronted by her semi-disgraced hand Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) that there are plotters in the midst. Told by Queen Cersei’s hated brother that it is Varys whose betrayal he is referring to, she bristles. Soon afterwards, the Breaker of Chains has Varys killed by the fire wrath of her remaining dragon.
That’s when the episode truly lights up action-wise, with another fireside argument between Snow and Daenerys over their respective right to sit on the Iron Throne.
“I don’t have love here, I only have fear,” says Daenerys of the south, and specifically King’s Landing. “I love you, you will always be my Queen,” replies Snow, but rebuffs a kiss and the promise of intimacy from the daughter of the Mad King. That cold cheek, and cold shoulder, fuels Daenerys’ desire to raze King’s Landing an destroy Cersei. “Next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me,” she threatens Tyrion as his pleas to spare the city fall on vengeful ears, and the youngest Lannister learns his multi-faced brother Jaime tried to sneak through her army’s lines to get to the Queen and sister he loves and perhaps still deceptively serves.
As the vast army of the Unsullied moves into place to cut down everything and everyone in sight at the gates of King’s Landing and within, the soon-to-die Cersei prepares her defense expectantly at everyone else’s expense. At the same time, Night King slayer Arya Stark (Maisse Williams) and The Hound fairly effortlessly show up promising to kill the ruthless monarch.
Over the same hours, Tyrion’s search for a détente to spare the innocent populous finds Dinklage’s character perhaps foolishly providing an escape to his captured brother, who will prove useless to the task. Tyrion gently swaggers to advocating Snow to “call off your men” – which the latter ignores and walks away. As a melee begins in King’s Landing, Jaime emerges in the crowd struggling to get to Cersei, who is looking out from the Red Keep with her troops and armada in position.
It is chaos and the manic destruction that Daenerys unleashed sickens Snow – setting up a singular solution to their romantic and monarchical dilemmas.
Uniquely positioned to become a bona fide cultural event that transcends television, Game of Thrones is now in the make-it-or-break-it payoff zone with “The Bells,” as the body count hews close to the narrative bone. That zone, as fans of so many beloved dramas know, is where things can really go south in the finale, or linger over the years as the brilliant sudden cut to black of the end of The Sopranos did.
As the bid to stop the Night King and his Army of the Dead from taking all of Westeros has consumed GoT though most of its Emmy-winning run, the unrelenting quest for the throne has moved into first place now for the series’ final three episodes.
It’s a shift that lingers like a bad odor from the Earth in the best way as we watch to see which way the wind is going to blow. Breathing in the stench of a massacre, shellshocked Arya’s decisive gallop away from the burnt husk of King’s Landing later in the episode represents a last minute plot shift away from almost all Williams’ character has sought for most of the series.
Hardcore fans and purists hate stuff like that but inexplicable decisions is what people do in real life all the time without apparent rhyme and reason.
In that context, as the final episode looms next week with much unfinished business, Arya’s exit could represent a greater move for the series itself, jagging left where we all expected it go right.
Though their writing can be as sharp and as nuanced as any David Chase script, Benioff and Weiss have the weight of the additional challenge of having long since eclipsed George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books as primary source material. Yes, the author and former TV writer has provided insight from his delayed The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring books but the show has been making it up, so to speak, the past couple of seasons. If some feel GoT has gone too slow in one way or way too fast in another, remember what the EPs are balancing between fans of the books, the millions of fans of the show and getting to the ending they’ve planned.
A plan that may have been undermined as it has managed to become public of late, even more than usual.
In what has clearly become one of the defining aspects of the final season week after week, Sunday’s near record length “The Bells” episode was leaked, at least in part, across the span of the Internet in forums and more.
So, with that unfortunately likely to occur next Sunday , time to put your final bets in – who will end up on the Iron Throne in next week’s Benioff and Weiss directed series finale? Barely a presence in tonight’s GoT, I still say it’s Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark. What’s your bet?