The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8, Episode 5 review: ‘The Bells’ toll for thee, Daenerys

This week we take a look at a Season 2 vision that foreshadowed Daenerys's descent into madness. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Note: I’m reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, while my colleague David Malitz, who hasn’t read the books, will be writing straight recaps. His write-up of Episode 5, “The Bells” will appear at The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of the May 12 episode of “Game of Thrones” in detail. You can find my recaps of every prior episode of the show here. Can’t get enough “Game of Thrones”? Come on over to my Washington Post chat on Monday at 1 p.m.

“If it weren’t for you, I never would have survived my childhood," Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) tells his brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), in the calm before the inferno in “The Bells.” “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.”

It’s a touching scene between these two survivors of the dysfunctional Lannister family, and it’s shot beautifully, Tyrion standing above the brother who loomed over his childhood in so many ways. As “Game of Thrones” rushes to its hasty conclusions, there are plenty of things to quibble over. The show is revealing just how many of George R.R. Martin’s plot threads were the most scarlet of red herrings. This inexplicably mad dash to the finish line is forcing characters through wild transitions that would have been allowed to flower more naturally in previous seasons. And some much-hyped encounters between characters couldn’t possibly live up to years of breathless Internet speculation. But “Game of Thrones," and Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels have always been about family. And on that score, the final season, and this episode in particular, are hitting many, many high marks.

Our climactic showdown is ostensibly between Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), two women who have been stripped of their families and devastated by the loss of their children.

Alyssa Rosenberg: What would a feminist ending for ‘Game of Thrones’ actually look like?

Daenerys grew up an orphan thanks to Jaime’s slaying of her father, and Robert Baratheon’s (Mark Addy) rebellion led to the deaths of her other relatives, forcing her and her brother, Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who abused Daenerys, into exile. Cersei, by contrast, grew up with a father and a mother. But her mother’s death while giving birth to Tyrion gave Cersei her first great resentment. And Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) was a reminder that a father’s presence isn’t always a blessing: His rigid standards for his children twisted them rather than mold them into the paragons he expected them to be.

Over the course of the series, their losses hardened them in parallel. Daenerys lost first her faith in her brother, and then her brother himself; she lost her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa, who deserves more credit for how good he was on the show), to an infected wound, and their son, to an act of blood magic; and after gaining three dragons in Drogo’s funeral pyre and coming to regard them as her children, Daenerys lost two of them in battle, which rendered her ruthless, if not reckless. Like Daenerys, Cersei has climbed as her children died — Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) to poison and Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) to suicide — and her father was murdered, leaving the Iron Throne clear for her.

Is this a suggestion that childless women are uniquely ruthless? That “Game of Thrones” thinks that the loss of family ties unmoors women? Or is it a commentary on a society that only allows women to rise under highly unusual circumstances? That’s probably a debate best considered on slightly more sleep than a recapper’s schedule allows, but it’s a worthwhile one, and a conversation that will be part of sussing out the show’s legacy.

We honor those who are dead after the Battle at King's Landing in Episode 5. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

For now, what’s important is that “The Bells” gave us a striking illustration that what counts isn’t necessarily precise degrees of personal ruthlessness. Instead, what matters most in the final clash between Daenerys and Cersei is which of them has the means of carrying out their ruthlessness to its full expression.

At times, it seemed like a mistake that “Game of Thrones” wasn’t spending more time introducing us to the Golden Company and its mercenary leader, Harry Strickland (Marc Rissman). What looked like a miscalculation turned out to be the point, though. Faced with a full-grown dragon ridden by a rampaging queen, the Golden Company was a nonentity, its golden captain cut down trying to flee a rout. Cersei calculated that Daenerys wouldn’t want to massacre an entire city; she forgot to factor in that a force like a dragon is in danger of becoming its own rationale. Dragons are magic and monsters in equal measure.

Daenerys technically wins the clashes between the two queens. After all, unless “Game of Thrones” pulls another foolish bait-and-switch like the one that kept Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) alive past all endurance — the character had long since passed any point of enjoyment — Cersei and Jaime are very much dead. But in keeping with its focus on family, “The Bells” made the point both visually and emotionally that Daenerys is left as queen of the ashes.

After all, Cersei may have died, but she left life as she always intended to: with the twin who came into the world with her and who couldn’t imagine a place for himself in it without her. Jaime’s decision to leave Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and return to Cersei may have been one of the casualties of this final season’s pacing, but there’s no denying Headey and Coster-Waldau’s acting in their final scenes together. Cersei dies, but she dies loved and protected.

Daenerys claims the Iron Throne, but at a high cost — and not just to her moral standing. When she mounts Drogon and flies to King’s Landing, it’s knowing that Varys (Conleth Hill) was actively plotting to betray her and that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is willing to serve her only as vassal, not lover. When we assess “Game of Thrones” in the long run, I suspect Jon’s turn is going to play even more poorly than Daenerys’s evolution into the Mad Queen. The show’s decisions not to actually give us the scene where Jon tells Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya he is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne nor to build in time to chart his falling out of love with Daenerys both seem like major mistakes. For all I’ve been skeptical about Emilia Clarke’s acting, though, she is convincingly lost in these scenes as she talks herself into settling for fear instead of love.

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8, Episode 4 review: ‘The Last of the Starks’ tangles up Westeros’s past and future

In other bits of family business, I’ll leave it to viewers who spent years excited about Cleganebowl to decide whether Sandor Clegane’s (Rory McCann) dispatching of his undead brother, Gregor (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), lived up to the hype.

For me, the most interesting moment in the clash between the brothers came early in their fight, when Sandor finally sees the face “Game of Thrones” teased season after season. It’s an ugly mug, uglier than the scars that have weathered well on the man once called the Hound. But we, like Sandor, didn’t need to see it to confirm what we already knew: “That’s you," Sandor remarks, almost approvingly, seeing his brother’s moral ugliness and thoughtlessness made manifest. "That’s what you’ve always been.” For Tyrion, what mattered was the brother who could see past his supposed monstrousness. For Sandor, satisfaction meant knowing the world could finally see the side of the Mountain that Sandor was so intimately, and painfully, acquainted with.

And even more powerful than Sandor’s dive into the flames was the moment when another parallel broke: that between him and Arya. There’s a joke that the two are the best buddy comedy on “Game of Thrones” and that a terrific spinoff would be the two of them riding around Westeros murdering people. So perhaps the biggest surprise of “The Bells” was the fact that Sandor urged Arya to diverge from his path — and that Arya was not so far gone that she couldn’t heed his advice.

Sandor insisted that a Stark sibling look him in the face once before, demanding that Sansa see in his scars the world as Sandor believed it really was. This time, when he commands Arya to really see him, it turns out to be because he believes the world can be something different, at least for her. It seems, briefly, as though Arya might be able to follow Sandor’s advice. She turns away from the Red Keep and from her list. She tries to make up for having shoved her way past a woman and her daughter by later trying to help the pair escape Drogon’s fire. Alas, like so many other innocents in the capital, they fall to the flames.

Indeed, “The Bells” focuses not on the strategic genius that helps Daenerys defeat a previously impregnable city, but on her victims. Again and again, the camera seeks out the people who are burned by fire, cut down by Dothraki, or massacred by the Unsullied. And nowhere does it track this damage more closely and consistently than in Arya’s dust-coated, blood-streaked face. The future Sandor imagined for Arya lasts just as long as it takes for her to find another lost creature in the streets of King’s Landing and ride it out of town. “Game of Thrones” could not be any less subtle about the fact that the green eyes Arya is going to close belong not to Cersei, but to Daenerys.

Arya isn’t the only person whose moral corruption must be added to the tally of Daenerys’s casualties this week. Back in the third season of the show, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) told Daenerys that the Unsullied slave soldiers she intended to buy would never commit the kinds of atrocities she found so repulsive when she was living among the Dothraki. But when Cersei’s soldiers lay down their arms and turn to watch Drogon burn the city, it’s Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) who strikes first, killing a man who had clearly surrendered, thus letting lose a torrent of bloodshed. The Dothraki, Unsullied and Northmen may all have been different before Daenerys brought them together, but what unites them now is their joint participation in an unconscionable war crime. Daenerys may have dreamed of breaking the wheel of history and tyranny; instead, she’s built it taller than ever, lit it on fire and used it to crush those smaller than her.

“All right, then," Daenerys told Jon upon discovering that he would not be her lover. “Let it be fear.” She’s forgotten how dangerous she was when she was desperate. And from Drogon’s back, Daenerys may not have been able to see how many dangerous orphans she created, or to understand the risk they might some day pose to her.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: What would a feminist ending for ‘Game of Thrones’ actually look like?

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8, Episode 4 review: ‘The Last of the Starks’ tangles up Westeros’s past and future

Molly Roberts: Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Game of Thrones’ stumble