And just like that, we’re only one super-sized episode away from the final episode of Game of Thrones ever.
Last week’s episode, “The Last of The Starks,” was all about choosing sides. Sansa chose Jon over Daenerys; Arya chose her duty over marriage to Gendry; Jaime chose to have hot sex with Brienne, and then changed his mind and returned to Cersei; Daenerys chose Starbucks coffee over whatever it is they drink in the North; Cersei chose to burn it all down by murdering Missandei; Varys chose the realm, which is to say Jon Snow, and Tyrion isn’t really sure what to do about it. And to make matters even more fraught, Team Targaryen is down yet another dragon.
As it turns out, however, one dragon can do a whole lot of damage. In the lead-up to this final season, it looked as if the biggest existential threat to Westeros, and the world, was the Night King and his minions. And that was understandably terrifying — how do you stop death itself?
But as it turns out, the story George R.R. Martin set out to tell is a far more complex and troubling one. Sure, the dead are scary, but just think of the horrors humans have wrought in our long, bloody history.
This episode, titled "The Bells," tied up some long-standing loose ends: We finally got Cleganebowl! (And, unfortunately, more eye-gouging.) Jaime and Cersei proved that their love is the truest, bestest one of all! And most importantly, we finally got our answer to what was falling from the sky in Daenerys’ vision in the House of the Undying back in Season 2. It was ash. From her own dragon, burning King’s Landing on her orders.
The Battle of Winterfell is nothing compared to the Battle of King’s Landing, which unfolds over the majority of this penultimate episode. Both were directed by Miguel Sapochnik, and share a real sense of chaos (although, thanks to the blessed King's Landing sun, we could actually see this time). There are bodies everywhere, charred, slain, or running for their lives. And Daenerys is the cause. After getting Cersei’s forces to surrender by fire-storming the Iron Fleet and the remaining scorpion crossbows, the Breaker of Chains decides to celebrate Mother’s Day by encouraging her last remaining child to completely annihilate the city, and everyone in it.
But before we get into the fiery nightmare, let’s rewind a bit to the beginning of the episode, which kicked off with the death (also by fire) of a personal fave. RIP Varys, king of spies! In all fairness, this one we kind of saw coming. After all, Melisandre did predict that the Spider would also have to meet his maker in Westeros. “I will return, dear Spider, one last time,” she told him last season. “I have to die in this strange country, just like you.”
She came back, and therefore, his time had come. But also, Varys should know better than to write letters declaring a usurper as the rightful king. Ned Stark learned that lesson the hard way, and now, so has he. After Tyrion outs his treason to Daenerys, she sentences Varys to death by dragon, her first taste of vengeance in an episode seemingly designed to make us hate her.
When the episode kicks off, she’s been locked in her rooms for days, refusing food and company, a classic woman-on-the-verge-battling-hysteria movie. The news of Varys’ betrayal, and the role Tyrion had in fueling it, combined with her grief over Missandei’s death, appears to push her over the brink. As Varys told Jon, “They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin.” Her coin has just landed, and it’s a mirror image of her father’s. Sansa better watch out, I get the feeling Daenerys is coming for her next.
Her conversation with Jon, who who once again declares his fealty to her (even if he declined her sexual advances) cements her new identity. This woman wants to rule Westeros with fear, a true irony given that is exactly what Cersei has been doing for years.
And speaking of Lannisters, this episode gave us some of their best ever moments. Tyrion frees beautiful, dumb Jaime, captured by Daenerys’ forces on his way back to King’s Landing, and the two exchange a true, heartfelt brother moment. Tyrion has always been clear about his love for his older brother, but that connection has always been masked by humor. There’s nothing funny about their hug, and his plea that Jaime get Cersei and escape to Pentos for a better life, knowing that this will probably cost him his life. Daenerys will not brook another disappointment from him.
After a strange and anti-climactic encounter with Euron who, I guess, gets to claim that he killed Jaime Lannister after leaving him wounded, we get the moving, lovely Jaime/Cersei reunion that we deserve. Those two are end game, the one beautiful love story in Westeros, even if they are related. Their death together in the bowels of the crumbling castle is one of the show’s best and most powerful emotional moments ever.
Arya and The Hound’s narrative arcs are equally satisfying. The first, initially hell-bent on killing Cersei all by herself, is talked out of it by her curmudgeonly mentor, once it becomes clear that Daenerys won’t stop until the entire city is razed to the ground. It’s nice to see the old Arya briefly shine through. There’s still a young woman who wants to live inside the hardened killer. And the fact that she calls him “Sandor,” his real name, seems to indicate that she’s finally erased him — and Cersei — from her list. Instead of serving the god of Death, Arya now seems to be actively fighting him off. Her quest to help save the citizens of King’s Landing feels far more in line with the girl we first met back in Season 1, who wanted to be a knight of the realm. And by the very end of the episode, she’s even got a white horse to carry her to her green-eye killing destiny.
Meanwhile, the Hound finally got his redemptive moment. An epic altercation with his Darth Vader-like brother, ends with him gleefully charging at him, sending them both through a wall and into the fiery depths below. A relationship forged in fire, ends full-circle.
The weakest character development, as usual, comes down to Jon and Daenerys. The former is understandably dismayed at the carnage taking place around him. But rather than keep him lingering in guilt and self-doubt — he did, after all, help bring this about by supporting Daenerys — the show seems unwilling to make Jon even a little bit of a bad guy. (Case in point: the fact that he is shown saving a woman from rape. The showrunners want him to be a hero.) In a show that always seems to have questioned who gets to tell a story, and how historical narratives are eventually remembered, it’s disappointing that Jon’s part in this is never in question.
And then there’s Daenerys. The show has been building up her Mad Queen narrative for a while now, but has really leaned into it in the past episode and a half. And still, I’m unconvinced. Everything we’ve been led to believe about her goes out the window the second her friend — and subordinate — is killed? The only real clue that Daenerys has gone to the dark side is her sooty, suddenly frizzy hair. There’s ample material to justify her transition — this is a woman who has repeatedly been led to believe that she is special, only to arrive in the place she believes is her rightful home and met with scorn. It’s understandable that she would act rashly as a response. But the show doesn’t actually set that up. Instead, it presents us with mounting evidence that she’s suddenly inherited her father and brother’s mental illness, with no prior symptoms.
Daenerys ends this episode with basically no one but her dragon — and maybe Greyworm — in her corner. And as we look to the finale, I predict a final showdown between her and Sansa. That attack wasn’t just revenge. It was a warning shot. Submit, or burn.