“Game of Thrones” is a revenge story. The penultimate episode of the series makes that clear. Vengeance kicked off Robert Baratheon’s war, a conflict born out of a man revising a tale of unrequited love to make himself the hero, and the other man, Rhaegar Targaryen, into a kidnapper and rapist.
Robert killed Rhaegar, but childbirth killed the woman he fought for — the woman who loved and secretly married Rhaegar. Robert became king and married a woman he didn’t love, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Cersei loves her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and had three children by him. But vengeance killed Myrcella and Tommen, while political machinations killed Joffrey.
(Again: Spoilers ahead! We're serious on this one. Continue reading at your own peril.)
A long way of saying we should have known “The Bells” was going to be a bloody, terrible affair given every klaxon of warning the series has jingled and clanged throughout its run. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote this episode, revealed at last their plans to remake Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) from a savior into the instrument of her father’s vengeance, the stormborn infant revealed as a Mad Queen. “The Bells” shares its title with Edgar Allen Poe’s poem that is in part about descending into insanity. That cannot be an accident.
Even so, for anyone who has been rooting for Dany lo these many seasons, this late game transformation into a murderous despot is aggravating and just so . . . common. We loved the grace, strength and mercy of Khaleesi, breaker of chains and protector of the innocent. But the deranged woman we saw on Sunday? That bitch crazy.
So it goes in Benioff’s and Weiss’ Westeros, a land where before one embarks on a journey of revenge, one plans on tens of thousands of pyres along with digging some graves. The alternate title for “The Bells” could have been, “Byeeeeee!”
Around 15 minutes into the episode, we bid a sad farewell to Varys (Conleth Hill), but not before he writes a letter to an unknown party revealing the story of Jon’s true parentage. Beside that letter are at least two more tiny scrolls, rolled up and ready to go. This is before Jon Snow (Kit Harington) lands on Dragonstone and learn that Daenerys has isolated herself. Never a good sign.
Jon says she shouldn’t be alone. Varys takes the opening to let Jon know that he knows he’s the secret Targaryen and has a stronger claim to the throne. Jon insists he doesn’t want the throne, that Daenerys is his queen. Varys reminds him that he has served many rulers, and begs Jon to believe him when he says Jon would rule the people wisely and well.
And that, basically, is the last word from the Master of Whisperers. Not long after this, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) goes to Dany to tell her she's been betrayed. Dany, who looks a wreck (without Missandei there to take care of her hair, girl’s tresses are rough), cuts him off: It’s Jon Snow. Tyrion counters with no, it's Varys. But, his queen says, Jon told Sansa, who told Tyrion, who told Varys, and now the world knows. It looks like the end of the road for Tyrion but remember, Melisandre the Red Priestess (Carice van Houten) told Varys some time ago he was marked for death.
The eunuch is writing another letter when he hears it coming, and as the march of boots grows louder, he lights the unfinished scroll on fire and puts it in a covered dish. Then he takes off his rings. Grey Worm and two Unsullied enter and and lead him off.
Death waits on a beach, with Dany, Jon, Tyrion and a few soldiers. Tyrion tell Varys he’s sorry, that he was the one who tipped off Dany. Varys replied that he hopes he deserves his death. Tyrion briefly places a gloved hand on Varys in a tender mournful moment. Dany declares the death sentence, and Drogon’s enormous visage comes out of the dark. The dragon pauses for a moment after Daenerys says the magic word, and from Varys' perspective, we share his last vision: flames. (Byeeeee.)
Afterward in Dany’s quarters she and Grey Worm mourn Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), with Dany holding the collar Missandei once wore, the only possession she brought with her across the Narrow Sea. Dany hands it to Grey Worm, who tosses it into the fire. Then Jon enters the room, and Grey Worm exits. Dany, looking pained, tells Jon that she has no love in this land, only fear. But Jon counters that he loves her, saying forcefully, “You will always be my queen."
“Is that all I am to you? Your queen?” she replies. Then she kisses him, but there’s no pleasure in it. She pulls away, then shakes her head slightly.
“All right then,” she says, “Let it be fear.”
In the Dragonstone throne room, Tyrion pleads with Dany to be merciful to the people of King’s Landing, to wait for the citizens to turn on Cersei, throw open the gates and allow Dany’s armies in. Dany explains that her strength is her mercy, and what she does now will ensure the protection of future generations. But Tyrion begs her to wait to hear the bells ring, the sign of surrender. She sends Tyrion to join Jon and chillingly tells her Hand that the next time he fails her will be his last time, but not before she tells Tyrion that Jaime was captured by their forces trying to get back into King's Landing. In response Tyrion goes to Ser Davos and reminds him that he’s the greatest smuggler alive, and asks for a favor.
On the front Arya and the Hound ride up to Jon's forces. She announces herself and declares she's there to kill Cersei, then keeps on riding.
Meanwhile Tyrion speaks to an Unsullied and pulls his Hand of the Queen card to visit Jaime in his captor’s tent. After a bit of banter about Jaime’s dumbassery, Tyrion begs Jaime to abandon Cersei, stressing that the city is going to fall. He reminds Jaime that Cersei has an innocent life to protect and urges Jaime to persuade Cersei to surrender, and help her escape using the tunnels under the keep, heading to the beach and off to Pentos.
Then he lets Jaime go, sending him off with these moving parting words: “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have survived my childhood. You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.” They embrace, and Tyrion weeps in his brother’s arms.
Not long after comes the tense panic before the war as people lock themselves into their houses or head to the Red Keep when word spreads of the Northern forces, the Unsullied and the Dothraki gathering outside the city walls.
Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) press through the crowd and make it into the main gates before they’re sealed. Jaime Lannister does not. Instead he heads to the smugglers’ route.
Before he can get there, however, Dany arrives on Drogon.
A number of viewers have opined that given the fact that Rhaegal’s death was as avoidable as it was senseless, maybe Daenerys is bad at dragon driving. “The Bells” proves she’s learned from past mistakes: She flying high above the clouds as Euron (Pilou Asbæk) and his Iron Fleet scan the skies, Scorpions armed and ready. By time they spot dragon and rider diving, it’s too late. Drogon and Dany cut through the fleet as easily as they blasted her enemies out of Slaver’s Bay, and just like it was back then, it’s a glorious sight. Euron jumps over the side at the last moment, saving himself. Then Dany turns Drogon on the troops on the city walls, pouring fire over them with little resistance.
On the other side of the city lie the gates, where the Golden Company faces off with Jon’s men along with the Unsullied and the Dothraki. The sellswords hold the ranks until they hear the booming explosions behind them, and Drogon blasts an opening, roasting the heralded soldiers with little fuss.
All the while Cersei watches with Qyburn in denial. Qyburn pleads with her to abandon the keep, but can’t get her to face the reality that her forces have been turned into barbecue.
She insists her own soldiers will keep fighting. But once the Unsullied and Dothraki pour into the city and encounter Cersei’s forces, all it takes for them to throw down their swords is to see Drogon land on a tall building and roar.
Then the calls go up from men and women in the city to ring the bells. Dany hears the innocent voices sail on the breeze, pleading for salvation. At last, the bells ring out.
It does not have the intended effect on Dany, who hears their peals and turns her dragon on the city anyway. That was her best friend’s final wish, after all.
The second to last episode of every season “Game of Thrones” season usually rates among the most shocking chapters of the entire season, and obviously Benioff and Weiss decided that this one would need to top them all. And it did. The bulk of its hour and 18 minute run was consumed by the rage of wildfire that made “Blackwater” a stunner and the crush and trample of panicked humans trapped between blade and fire, reminiscent of “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards.” Those two episodes, along with “The Bells,” were directed by Miguel Sapochnik. And within this one, we said goodbye to a number of characters — some in a predictable fashion, others poetically, and Qyburn with casual pitilessness.
People familiar with Sapochnik’s work could only expect that Dany was not going to follow Tyrion’s counsel and pleading to accept the city’s surrender and the gratitude of its thankful-to-be-alive citizens. Not with this guy in the director’s chair.
Sapochnik revels in capturing the horror of war, using the enormity and scope of battle as his canvas, and blood, filth and fire as his paintbrush. Credit for the explosive power of “The Bells” is due as much to the show’s visual effects team as the director, and in its chaos we never lost the thread of what the truth of this story is shaping up to be. What we did lose, however, was the rich narrative thread the series has spun for who Dany and Grey Worm and the Northerners, our presumed good guys, are supposed to be in the end.
A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing. At first it was hard to believe what we were witnessing, that Dany and Drogon were roasting men, women and children by accident. But they are not collateral damage. Neither is Grey Worm’s kick-off to his own frenzy, which begins by throwing his weapon into the chest of a surrendered soldier. From there the place falls into barbarity as heroes convert into butchers.
Caught in the middle of it all is naïve Jon, who realizes as his queen immolates everything in her path that he’s put his belief in a cause that is terrible and wrong. The look on Harington’s face as Jon watches his soldiers become overtaken by blood lust is classic Jon Snow, slack and dumb with disbelief. Northern men kill women and children as the Dothraki horsemen run them down. Jon has to stop one of his own men from raping a woman, and when Jon pulls his man off her, the soldier turns on his own commander. Jon puts him down. When he realizes Dany isn’t distinguishing friend from foe, Jon calls the retreat.
Nothing in “Game of Thrones” ever goes as characters plan. Jaime thinks he can save Cersei, but when he gets to the smuggler’s entrance, he finds Euron waiting there with a knife. Their confrontation is worthy of a drawn-out fist fight from a John Carpenter film, until Euron stabs Jaime deeply in his side. But the things Jaime does for love include crawling to his sword, which he summons the strength to pick up and use to run Euron through.
Meanwhile, before the flaming anarchy kicks in Arya enters King’s Landing with Sandor Clegane to finally cross Cersei off of her kill list. But in the heart of the Red Keep, Sandor turns Arya back and assures her that if she stays in the keep, which is crumbling around them, she’ll die. Amazingly she listens and thanks him as he heads to his fate: Cleganebowl.
The Hound meets Cersei, Qyburn and The Mountain as they're descending the stairs to escape. He gets rid of the soldiers protecting the queen and simply says to Gregor, “Hello big brother.”
With that the undead giant knows exactly what time it is. Cersei orders Gregor to stay at her side, but he ignores her. Qyburn commands him, and in response The Mountain grabs his creator by the face and throws him down the stairs with enough force to open the mad scientist’s skull like an egg. (The moment when Cersei quietly runs down the stairs and leaves them is almost comical.)
And it’s on. The Hound runs at the Mountain and gets a few licks in but discovers what we all know, which is that the senior Clegane has become an unkillable lich. Watching the ceiling cave in and the walls crumble around them adds to the tension of the uneven melee, in which The Hound stabs the Mountain multiple times, even through the head, and he keeps on coming.
Meanwhile, Arya discovers that abandoning the Cersei assassination plan doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll live to fight another day. Our ride-along with her fraught escape consists of the most anxiety-inducing scenes of the entire episode: she barely gets past streets before they’re enveloped in flame. Falling rocks knock her out at least once, but she rises and gets her wits about her enough to get out of the way of a collapsing tower. In one horrible scene the perspective cuts between the Mountain pounding the Hound into the dirt, and Arya getting trampled by fleeing townspeople.
But while the Hound is pushing his undead sibling out of the tower and into a sea of flames — bye now — an anonymous woman and child that Sapochnik focuses on from the beginning of the episode help Arya to her feet . She attempts to return the favor and save them later but it’s not enough. Eventually the Dothraki rides down the mother, and as Arya tries to save the child, Drogon bathes the street in flames. For a moment, it looks like Arya gets caught in the blast.
For Cersei and Jaime, death is inescapable. He finds her, and they run through the tunnels under the city to the escape route Tyrion told him about. But it has collapsed. In their last moments, Cersei panics. “I want our baby to live. Not like this. Not like this,” she says. Jaime tells her to look into his eyes as the place caves in around them.
“Nothing else matters,” he says. “Only us.” He holds her as King’s Landing crushes them. Goodbye, Kingslayer and Brotherf**ker.
Amidst the dread, Sapochnik takes a few moments to convey a sense of elegiac sorrow, slowing down to tail a stunned Tyrion slowly walking through ruined streets to survey the carnage he long feared. And against the odds, Arya snaps back to consciousness, covered in ash and blood, and takes in the rubble and murder.
“Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath,” Varys tells Tyrion as the episode begins. As it ends, Arya is gasping for hers — not because of a Lannister, but because of a Targaryen’s fury.
For Arya, killing Cersei has been her North star for most of the series. As it ends, it turns out she’s had her sights on the wrong queen. For as much as we could count on the immovability of Cersei’s hatred and greed for power, and feared the wrath of Daenerys Targaryen, we were not counting on the anger of Grey Worm and the Unsullied.
We were not counting on Drogon’s unleashed rage, and we certainly weren’t counting on the violence of the Northern forces, men who quickly gave in to blood lust once the dragon queen signaled there would be no mercy or quarter. Where other "Game of Thrones" battle episodes left viewers with a sense of awe, spectacle and ended in some version of triumph, “The Bells” ensure we do not forget that in order to seize a throne, lost of people who aren’t concerned about who’s sitting on it die unjustly and in agony.
Occasionally, however, a small agent of justice can right the scales. Fittingly of an episode filled with allusions, "The Bells" ends with Arya gaping at the destruction surrounding her, including that the mother and child she tried to help are reduced to a charred husk, the girl’s horse toy barely an outline in coal.
Then in the middle of the street, and impossible sight: a horse. She stumbles over, rights herself and calms it. The director of photography shoots her in shadow, with ash snowing down and the steed bathed in a cold light, dirty and bloodied but whole. She climbs into the saddle.
The final shot is of Arya galloping full bore down the ruined street atop that pale horse, very much like the one we'd imagine death rides.