There will be no complaining about “not enough deaths!” after Sunday’s penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones,” like there was after the “Battle of Winterfell.” There will be complaining, certainly — it’s kind of the main business of watching GoT this final season, and “The Bells” offered plenty to complain about — but if seeing characters we’ve spent eight years with meet their end is what you were after, this episode left you satisfied. (It will also keep our resident Death Counter Shelly Tan incredibly busy as she tries to tally up all those poor King’s Landing commoners who got burnt to a crisp by Drogon.)
The episode started with (most of) us rooting for Daenerys to capture King’s Landing and it somehow ended with us feeling sympathy for Cersei and seeing Daenerys do things that not even Cersei would have dreamed of. You could say it was a good twist, or you could say it was just more baffling decision-making. In any case, we’ve got one Sunday night left.
Daenerys goes full Mad Queen
The actions of Daenerys weren’t completely shocking, because the hints had been piling up fast over the past few episodes. Now, should a few hints over the past couple of episodes outweigh the dominant narrative arc of arguably the show’s central heroic character that was built up over the past eight seasons? That’s a question that only George R. R. Martin can answer. But he wasn’t up for answering it, so that means David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got to weigh in and decide that yes, Daenerys becoming a soulless killing machine is the way to go. You can decide for yourself whether that’s #Canon or #NotCanon.
The beheading of Missandei seemed to make something snap in Daenerys last week, and her increasing imbalance was certainly being noticed by Varys. The episode opens in Dragonstone, where Team Daenerys is preparing its assault on King’s Landing, as Varys writes a letter (recipient unknown) trying to get word out about Jon Snow’s lineage and that he is the true heir to the Iron Throne.
When Jon arrives, Varys greets him and once again tries to convince Jon that he should be king, because he’s a good man and the Targaryens have a history of insanity in their family. “Every time a Targaryen is born the gods flip a coin,” Varys says, the famous old saying that we all remember because it was in the “Previously on Game of Thrones” reel a few minutes earlier. “I still don’t know how her coin has landed, but I’m quite certain about yours,” Varys says, but Jon is still having none of it, his stubbornness emerging as his main trait once again.
Daenerys has been holed up for two days with no communication and no food. She’s gaunt and looks somewhat defeated when Tyrion visits her, and she knows she’s been betrayed. By Varys, yes, but really by a whole bunch of people — by Tyrion because he told Varys about Jon’s parents; by Sansa, who told Tyrion; and by Jon himself, who told his (not really) Stark siblings even after Daenerys begged him not to. Tyrion apologizes, saying his intentions were good, that he and Varys just wanted a better world, but we know what’s coming next.
That’s confirmed when Varys is collected from his chambers by Grey Worm and marched outside in the middle of the night. As Varys faces Daenerys and Jon, a distraught Tyrion approaches and admits he was the one who ratted him out. “I hope I deserve this. I truly do,” Varys says. Tyrion is predictably upset at witnessing his old friend’s final moments. Daenerys passes down the death sentence and, with the most weary “Dracarys” Daenerys can muster, Drogon torches the Master of Whispers. RIP, Varys. You only wanted what was best for the realm, so it’s probably for the best that you didn’t see what came next. As Varys becomes a pile of charred remains, Jon gives Dany a look that’s something along the lines of “Man, I hope that guy wasn’t right about her.”
When Jon goes to visit Daenerys soon after, she chastises him, saying this is exactly what she warned would happen if Jon told Sansa the secret about his origins. “She killed Varys as much as I did,” she says, which would probably not hold up in court, but I’m not a legal scholar. Her insecurities are on full display, as she admits that more people in Westeros love Jon than her, and fear is all she has here. Jon spits out one of his six lines that he is capable of saying at this point (“You will always be my queen”) and his aunt tries to make out with him, but he’s really not into it anymore, which only seems to push Daenerys further down the crazy path.
While staging their final battle preparation, Tyrion lobbies Daenerys to show mercy when possible, that the people who live in King’s Landing are innocent, just like the ones she freed in Mereen, merely hostages in a tyrant’s grip. Cersei’s followers will surrender if they know the battle is lost, and the ringing of the bells will be the sign to call off the attack. She seems unconvinced and she leaves Tyrion with some news about his other sibling: Jaime was captured trying to get past their lines, attempting to get back to Cersei one final time. “Next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me,” she tells Tyrion, which she seems to have said every episode this season.
Come daybreak, both sides are ready for battle. But in another, more accurate way, Drogon and the Daenerys army are extremely ready for battle and Cersei’s forces are hopeless. Qyburn’s Scorpion, a.k.a. the Big Bow and Arrow that worked so well in taking down Rhaegal, misses the mark when Drogon swoops in, and he quickly torches Euron Greyjoy’s entire Iron Fleet and all its dragon-downing devices with ease, destroying Cersei’s aquatic force.
Her land forces don’t fare much better. One of the funniest subplots of the season was the heavy-handed introduction of the Golden Company, these 20,000 mercenary soldiers (but no elephants, alas) led by one of the most iconic “Game of Thrones” characters in existence, Harry Strickland. His main contribution was standing outside the gates of the city waiting for battle only to have Drogon torch the city from inside the gates, leaving Harry to get a Grey Worm spear to the chest. RIP, Harry Strickland. Sorry you died as the man with the least interesting name in the Seven Kingdoms.
Almost as soon as Jon, Grey Worm and their soldiers enter the city, the battle is over. Cersei’s forces are overwhelmed and soon enough they throw down their swords and the bells of surrender start to ring through the city. Jon is relieved; Cersei, who has been getting a bird’s-eye view of the destruction from her spot in the Red Keep starts crying, knowing that it’s over for her. Tyrion is briefly happy, but that’s before Dany takes off on Drogon and flies toward Cersei — Drogon casting a shadow over King’s Landing like the one from Bran’s vision — and starts lighting up the entire city, surrender or no surrender.
Did the chiming of the bells set something off in her, or was this just the plan all along? She did just tell Jon that fear is the only way she thought she could rule in Westeros. Tyrion was pleading with her not to destroy the entirety of King’s Landing specifically because it was clear she wanted to lay waste to everyone and everything in the city. So whether the bells triggered her is up for debate, but a complete and clinical destruction of King’s Landing — we’re talking expanding the radius of fire-breathing mayhem through concentric circles — is what follows. This also inspires Dany’s remaining forces to disregard any battlefield decorum, starting with Grey Worm, who puts a spear through an enemy combatant who had laid down his weapon and goes on a vengeance-fueled killing spree after that.
Jon Snow is obviously appalled at this behavior, watching as innocent women and children are killed en masse by Daenerys as she commands Drogon, and his own soldiers. The killing continues unabated until the city lies in dust. Whether it was madness or merely strategy, Daenerys is now a conqueror with the blood of thousands on her hands.
The Lannisters stay together
Family is destiny seems to be one of the themes emerging in these chaotic final few episodes. Tyrion remains fully committed to his brother, freeing Jaime after he was captured by Dany’s forces on the outskirts of King’s Landing before the battle. Tyrion hopes that he can persuade Jaime to tell Cersei to surrender before it’s too late for them all, but Jaime is unwilling to accept the plainly obvious fact that the battle will be short, decisive and not in his sister’s favor. Tyrion’s backup plan is to help his siblings escape, making sure a dinghy will be waiting for them outside the secret exit of the Red Keep, where Jaime and Cersei can sail away to Pentos to raise their incest baby.
Jaime and Tyrion share a heartfelt goodbye. “If it weren’t for you, I never would have survived my childhood,” Tyrion tells his brother. “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.” There are tears, there’s a hug, and that’s the last time they will see each other.
Jaime’s return to Cersei was sidetracked after he couldn’t get through the main King’s Landing gate, but somehow he did manage to run into Euron Greyjoy down by the cliffs. I’m not sure why the two of them needed to fight to the death, especially under the circumstances, but I’ll just chalk it up to Euron being a major jerk. “If you kill another king before you die, they’ll sing about you forever,” Euron taunts the Kingslayer, but it doesn’t quite work because Jaime’s like, “What king?” Euron brags about sleeping with Cersei and the battle is on, and even while fighting for his life Jaime is surely thinking, there is no way this idiot is putting himself on the same level as the Mad King Aegon Targaryen, please.
They go toe to toe, and after Euron stabs Jaime in the side twice, Jaime drives a sword right through Euron’s gut. That does Euron in, but his celebratory last words are, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister!” Good for you? RIP, Euron. You represented so much about what was wrong with these last two seasons.
Watching Drogon destroy King’s Landing put Cersei through the wringer of emotions. She started the battle confident, moved to denial when she claimed that “one good shot” by Euron would take down Drogon (leaving poor Qyburn to tell her that there were no more shots left to shoot), reached acceptance when she finally let Qyburn and the Mountain lead her underground to avoid the crumbling infrastructure, and then landed on abject fear when she was left on her own after the Mountain killed Qyburn (more on that below) and scurried to what she hoped was safe ground.
That fear would be balanced somewhat by relief in her last moments when she sees her brother, badly injured, return to her. Their attempted escape route is rendered impassable by a pile of rocks that has blocked the exit, leaving them in a hopeless situation in the depths of the collapsing Red Keep. Our final moments with Cersei show her to be scared and vulnerable in a way we never saw her before. Is this another example of nonsensical out-of-character behavior in these final episodes, or just someone with the coldest exterior finally letting her guard down right before she dies? I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter. It’s still somewhat shocking for Cersei Lannister, who delivered so many very memorable sharp one-liners throughout the series, to have her final line be “I don’t like this.”
“Nothing else matters, only us,” Jaime tells his sister before everything caves in and they die in each other’s arms. There will be plenty of people upset about Jaime’s regression and return to Cersei after years of going the other way, but that’s actually one of the more believable developments of these past few episodes. Their love was one of the purest on the show.
This battle of the Clegane brothers — Sandor “The Hound” vs. Gregor “The Mountain” — had been hyped for so long and was dutifully squeezed into right before the finale. Would it have been better if it happened earlier and was given a chance to be one of the main plot points of an episode? Maybe. Does it not really matter because the Mountain is just some emotionless killing machine and it was obvious that they would both die when the battle came to pass? Most likely.
The Hound and Arya were able to make it into King’s Landing, both looking to add one more (final?) kill to their tallies. As the situation deteriorated and it became clear that Drogon was torching the entire city and everything was crumbling, the Hound was able to persuade Arya to look out for herself and take off, leaving him free to find his brother and finally get revenge for Gregor burning and disfiguring his face when they were children.
The Hound catches his brother as he, Qyburn and Cersei are escaping to lower ground to find safety from the crumbling destruction brought on by Drogon. Cersei wants the Mountain to ignore the Hound and protect her, but the Mountain has other ideas. And when Qyburn says, “Obey your Queen!” he gets tossed to his death by the Mountain, which is truly no way to treat the man who brought you back to life and gave you superhuman/undead/zombie abilities. RIP, Qyburn. Your rise to disbarred Maester to Hand of the Queen is an inspiration to many in D.C.
Speaking of those undead abilities, they include surviving a spear through the chest and a dagger through the eye, both of which the Hound inflicted on his big brother, and both of which had no effect whatsoever. Meanwhile, every blow to the head that connected to the Hound did damage, as did the Mountain’s signature move, the truly disgusting eyeball gouge that made Oberyn Martell a regular on every “most gruesome TV deaths” list from the past few years.
Upon realizing that traditional methods aren’t going to work, the Hound takes it upon himself to kill his brother in the most symbolic manner imaginable — a suicide leap into a raging fire, allowing the Hound to conquer his greatest fear and vanquish his greatest foe in one fell swoop. RIP, Hound. Hopefully you got off a few final curses before being burnt to a crisp.
Arya somehow survives
Arya rode into King’s Landing with the Hound on a mission to kill Cersei, but she abandoned that mission on advice of her old friend once they both realized how dangerous it was inside the city limits. The problem was that she realized this way too late and was left to dodge fire, rubble and stampedes in an attempt to stay alive in the city under siege.
But stay alive she did, albeit much worse for the wear, caked in dust and blood. But emerging from the devastation she finds a white horse in good health and is able to ride out of the city. Hey, it makes as much sense as her sneaking past a few hundred White Walkers and ambushing the Night King. (Remember that guy? Why am I weirdly nostalgic for the Night King? That can’t be good.)
Questions for the final episode
How will Jon react to Daenerys killing so many innocent people?
Will Sansa confront Daenerys about her actions, or Jon’s parents?
Will Tyrion remain loyal to Daenerys in the wake of her actions?
Have we really seen the last of the great warrior, Harry Strickland?