Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones up to Season 8 Episode 5.
"King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin."
We've heard this before. The Targaryen legacy is built on uncertainty and extremes, which has been the basis of Daenerys' character arc since Season 1. Even the recap at the start of the "The Bells" wants to tell you that. As the camera lingers on Daenerys' face, a cavalcade of observations about her father, her family, and her legacy pour out in narration. In the first five minutes, the idea of the coin is mentioned twice more. Will she fall to greatness or madness? Did she learn anything about what it takes to rule?
The decision to have Daenerys fall on the side of madness reads as abrupt and, most of all, convenient.
Was it justified for Daenerys' mind to snap and then have her torch King's Landing? It does theoretically make sense that she would fall to madness since we've seen her go overboard before. However, does it feel satisfactory after watching her develop as a ruler for eight seasons? Can we call this an acceptable conclusion to a narrative thread about ambiguity and long discussions around morality?
Watching her be conflicted about her choices and power for a few seasons, only to have it all erased in the later seasons never felt right, so the decision to have her fall on the side of madness just reads as abrupt and, most of all, convenient.
The same goes for just about everything else in Game of Thrones' penultimate episode. We're no longer watching characters we've been following for eight years continue down logical character arcs toward suitable conclusions. We're watching a network set a show on fire just to get to the end.
The first person to go this episode is Varys, who was planning to poison Daenerys but was betrayed by Tyrion. Don't feel bad if this wasn't apparent to you since it wasn't explicitly stated and could only be inferred if you read between the lines of his conversation with his little bird, Martha.
Either way, Varys, who stuck to his convictions until the end, has to go. With that, all logic goes with him.
All the disparate groups continue to King's Landing. The Hound and Arya ride into the encampment off to kill Cersei. Tyrion frees Jamie, who's been captured by Daenerys' troops, and tells him to try and talk Cersei out of the battle. Daenerys and Jon also have a moment, but it consists of Jon watching as Daenerys reaches out desperately for human contact. Jon remains loyal, another person whose actions make no sense.
Speaking of Cersei, she's here too, but she doesn't do much of anything.
Speaking of Cersei, she's here too. The other mad queen of today's battle stands atop a bell tower as her armies face down the Targaryen/Stark militia, but she doesn't do much of anything. Daenerys comes riding in on Drogon and takes just about everybody out. Euron and the Iron Fleet are downed, the Golden Company is burned up, all the scorpions (those gigantic crossbows that took down Rhaegal) are destroyed in a matter of minutes. The Dothraki bust their way through the city gates and the ragtag Stark troops follow in shortly after. A staredown between Targaryen and Lannister commences inside as the two queens decide their next moves.
We've been led to believe up to this point that Cersei is broken. All her children are dead. She destroyed the Sept of Baelor and everybody inside. We can assume she became a tyrant, although we don't see any consequences to anything she does, so it's hard to tell. In a moment of clarity (maybe?) the bells start ringing, signaling her surrender. However, we can't be sure because again, anything that signals to the audience that Cersei is having an inner dialogue is gone.
It's not enough. Daenerys is furious for reasons that aren't exactly clear — is she bitter that Cersei copped out of the battle after everything she did or does she not like the sound of bells? Either way, Daenerys is done. She starts destroying King's Landing, burning up peasants, destroying buildings, and causing chaos in her wake. Her armies follow suit and start slaughtering people in the streets.
Things fall apart fast. Jamie runs into Euron on a beach and the two fight over Cersei. Euron eventually dies, but that only highlights how he was an unnecessary addition in the final seasons. Reducing his motivations to just Cersei and having any conflict he had with the rest of the Greyjoys mean nothing and get swept off camera drags the whole sequence down.
Even the long-awaited Cleganebowl doesn't feel good. This was a popular theory, a final showdown between two brothers, but it's existence here takes away from the main narrative.
Even the long-awaited Cleganebowl doesn't feel good.
It's not exactly bad. The fight is raw and personal and the Hound only manages to take the Mountain out by throwing him out of the Red Keep and into the flames below, which is a satisfying loop considering the two's history. It shouldn't be a primary setpiece of an episode that should've devoted more time to Cersei, who I will remind you, was the key antagonist going in. It's here though, and it's mostly uncreative fan-service.
Cersei and Jamie reunite as the Red Keep collapses and run into the trophy room in the hopes of escaping, only to get buried under rubble. Cersei dies as she lived: trapped in a castle with her brother. It's fitting in a lot of ways, whether you're talking about her resistance to change or how it's a mirror of the Sept of Baelor explosion. It still seems anti-climatic despite this, probably because Cersei was mostly absent this season, even though she was the final human obstacle for the Iron Throne. We don't get a clear picture of what she was like as a ruler and it's reduced to motivations surrounding her unborn child. Cersei has always been a mother first, but it's a basic understanding of her character and it makes her death seem less important.
It's a weak end for Jamie too, who spent eight seasons on a road towards redemption, only to have it squandered in just a few moments.
The only character who gets out of the episode mostly unscathed (metaphorically, not literally) is Arya. After leaving the Hound, she tries to escape the city, but it's impossible. People are running in different directions trying to get away from the destruction, getting knocked down and trampled, swept away in crowds, and Arya gets caught in all three. She attempts to rescue a woman and her daughter in a long and tense sequence that has her dodging Dothraki horses, falling rubble, and fireballs, but is unable to do so.
Arya has spent multiple seasons getting to know the God of Death and even though she's said "not today" to him many times, he's finally here.
As she stands up from the debris, covered in blood and soot and surrounded by charred bodies she sees — wait for it — a pale, white horse. It's an obvious analogy; Arya has spent multiple seasons chasing and getting to know the God of Death and even though she's said "not today" to him many times, he's finally here. She's able to get out of the city by riding him out. It's her acceptance of death as a concept, but also of the shadow that's loomed over her since her father was beheaded in Season 1. It's cheesy as hell, but it works.
Despite some well-formed setpieces, great cinematography, and a couple of earned character moments, "The Bells" feels like an expected letdown. After four episodes (and about three seasons) filled with questionable character decisions, an exhausting harried pace, and misplaced narrative priorities by the show-runners, this episode feels like a culmination of all the criticisms lobbied at the show.
Just look at our two queens. Daenerys enters Game of Thrones with baggage and on the backs of multiple prophecies, which come back to haunt her. The aforementioned "coin" proclamation, while a part of her foundation as a character, was simplified and held on a pedestal above any other traits. It's possible Daenerys was always fated to fall to the side of madness, but in Game of Thrones, it was at the cost of eight seasons of character development. Remember the scenes where she questioned everything about what it took to rule, showing the audience the two dueling sides of power? That's all gone.
Cersei, similarly, had her character simplified to almost nothing. Cersei has always been one of the series' most complex and tragic characters, shoved to the side by the men in her life despite her ambition and intellect. For multiple seasons she manipulated those around her in witty but messy ways, often times doing horrible things for good reasons, only to have everything taken away. In Season 8 she all but disappeared, once again pushed aside by men (this time the show-runners) to give others more screentime. Cersei was a lion who would do anything to survive, so her unceremonious death feels empty.
The road to the finale feels like a death knell. Hours upon hours of investment by the audience are being set on fire. Characters are acting against their natures to get us to those final moments. Few of the reveals feel earned or even make sense. Daenerys and Cersei deserved better, but so did just about every other character. At this point, we should just give HBO what it wants. Just end it.
Questions we want answered
- What does Jon do now?
- Did Melissandre's prophecy for Arya mean anything? Will she kill Daenerys?
- There's no way the series ends with Daenerys taking the Iron Throne...
Who died in this episode?
- Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane
- Sandor "The Hound" Clegane
- Jamie Lannister
- Thousands of peasants who didn't deserve it
- The concept of character development
- So, how's Winterfell doing?
- Aaron Rodgers, who I've been told is a football player, has a cameo in the Golden Company. The character is dead I'm sure.
Trailer for the finale
Updated May 13, 2019: A previous version of this article said Tyrion betrayed Varys because Varys wasn't keen on having Daenerys as queen, but apparently it was because Varys was trying to poison Daenerys, which wasn't clear at all.
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.