Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 Review: The Bells

The climax of Game of Thrones is every bit as bloody as we feared and leaves us with mixed thoughts about its execution.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones
Photo: HBO

This is an episode we’re going to be discussing and processing for a long, long time. Certainly longer still than what’s taken to write this review, but here we are with an ending that I am fairly convinced is a bitterly true one for the series… but also an unearned one for the final season.

Much of the debate to come will be about whether Daenerys Targaryen should’ve become the fabled “Mad Queen,” and if this is indeed the ending George R.R. Martin imagined for his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series when he revealed the characters’ fates to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss some years back. While I’m fairly certain the details are off, I can’t help but recall what a certain bastard of Winterfell (no, not that one) once said, “If you wanted a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” In my mind, this is the most purely George R.R. Martin-esque episode of seasons 7 or 8. But even as I type that, I am going to grapple with whether the showrunners earned reaching the moment where Daenerys turned the city built by her ancestors to ash, and a hero’s journey revealed itself to be a tragic villain’s descent.

This journey into night begins bleakly with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Taken in a vacuum, the early moments of the episode play with actual proper political intrigue of the medieval variety. Lord Varys believes that his queen is a threat and is working to undermine her. We do not know if he actually is able to share any of his messages of doom and gloom that reveal Jon Snow is a Targaryen—I suspect he did—but he’s apparently resigned to the fact his fate is already sealed. He revealed too much of his plans last week to Tyrion Lannister who remained a loyal Queen’s Man, even if his longtime friend had not. These machinations, not unlike a Cromwell currying favor from one queen to the next in a mercurial Tudor court, become the last acts of a desperate man. Varys hastening his betrayal rings true, as does Tyrion confessing the Spider’s treacheries to the Mother of Dragons.

Honestly, we have known Daenerys is headed to the realm of infamy ever since Missandei howled “Dracarys” from the battlements of King’s Landing last week, yet I suppose I remained as hopeful as Tyrion, the eternal romantic optimist. He might’ve feigned debauched detachment in the early seasons, but he is also the man who fought to save King’s Landing for a King and Queen Mother who wanted him dead. He also couldn’t stop himself confronting his father after Jaime and Varys set him free from a black cell in season 4. That same hidden idealism is what causes him to now betray one-half of the men who saved his life on that terrible night, and Daenerys is well within her rights and prudency to execute the traitor. That said, the long drawn out close-up of Drogon’s kiss from Varys’ perspective—as opposed to that of unnamed slavers given the same fiery fate in season 5—suggest we are now asked to consider more than Daenerys’ vantage when a dragon roars.

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It’s also a fitting end for Varys. How many kings or queens had he betrayed up to this point? Counting spouses, the number is erring toward the double digits. He might’ve been receptive to the Dragon Queen once upon a time, but even under an alleged altruistic sheen he remained as fair weather as Littlefinger. How perfect that like Lord Baelish, his end was on a veritable executioner’s block.

In case there were any doubts though about the queen’s mental health, Dany’s final scene with Jon Snow before the slaughter that masqueraded as a battle confirms what we’ve always known: Jon Snow is never going to be down to marry or even just fool around with his aunt. At this point, he’s betrayed her to Sansa, and they both know it (which might be a danger for the Lady of Winterfell next week), but she is ready to forgive him as a lover if not a subject… and he still can’t commit. If you needed one final confirmation that he is only a Targaryen in name, it is the fact he ain’t down with the incest. Yet the scene ends with Daenerys saying, “Alright then, let it be fear.”

As has been made abundantly clear in a very slap-and-dash manner throughout season 8, Daenerys has lost her bearing in Westeros just as she’s lost all of her friends. As loathe as I am to reference a meme, one making the internet rounds in the last week did a better job of illustrating Daenerys’ isolation than much of season 8’s writing. It was two images from season 3, one of her inner-circle and one of her dragons. Faded in black and white were all those who are dead. Jorah, Missandei, Ser Barristan Selmy, Viserion, and Rhaegal are gone. Only Grey Worm and Drogon remain, and neither are exactly happier than the Breaker of Chains.

So what did she buy with their lives? A shattered army of followers and a continent filled with potential subjects who despise or fear her. Her isolation is total, and yet the episode can only make the case via Jon Snow’s cold and wordless shoulder. Better use could use of the show’s time could’ve been spent with her mourning her Dothraki dead or visiting the faded faces of those who loved her on Essos and are now dying beneath Westeros’ unforgiving wintry snow.

In the prelude to the war though, the episode sets up one final fate. Tyrion is a dead man the moment he frees Jaime Lannister, and still I loved the scene. Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have wonderful chemistry and one of the highlights of season 8 has been reminding us of that oft-forgotten fact. It is easy to lose track of this due to the whiplash of them smiling and drinking last week, and Jaime now being a prisoner of war about an hour later in the narrative. Now Tyrion returns a favor to the Lannister brother who risked his own life to free him in season 4. The Imp’s betrayal was far less costly than Jaime’s; as Tyrion back in the day, ever one to not let his notions of right and wrong pass, went to confront his father and wound up putting two bolts into him—and killing the woman he loved as a macabre bonus.

By contrast, a free Jaime proves ultimately ineffectual by the end of tonight’s episode, but the fact remains Tyrion betrayed Dany after she warned him that he could never fail her again. He then immediately let the Kingslayer go in an implicit test she set-up for him. Tyrion’s fate is sealed even before we know how the dust has settled across the ruined capital.

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Which does of course, bring us to the big battle—and the last major battle of Game of Thrones. The knowledge that Miguel Sapochnik directed this hour always foreshadowed for the most astute fans that “The Bells” would be the true climax of the series, and I’m of two minds about how its bloody fate was smeared in the glow of dragonfire. But there is absolutely no doubt that it was a gorgeous work of direction. Set during the light of day, I doubt there will be any complaints about the darkness of this episode, at least visually, and there is nothing short of a mutual awe and horror at the sight of a fire-breathing creature of myth flying above a city. Even before the fireworks begin, the visual of Cersei watching this wraith of doom approach her is purely astonishing. And when the actual dream viewers have had for years—Daenerys taking King’s Landing in fire and blood—comes to pass, it is told with visceral brutality that rightfully crushes all preconceived notions of justice and heroism.

The actual tactics of the early portion of the spectacle (before it becomes a massacre) is also more rewarding and satisfying than either of the last two week’s episodes, but therein lies one of several problems with season 8. In just the episode before this, a handful of scorpions were enough to kill Rhagael in an ambush that strained all credulity and common sense. Now this week, the same Daenerys who could not figure out how to strafe around the medieval sailboats with scorpions on only one side of their bows is now comfortable enough with her dragon riding to evade their spears with ease and slaughter both the Iron Fleet and all of the manned walls around King’s Landing in quick succession.

In a nutshell, this beautiful sequence makes me dislike last week’s episode even more than my initially mixed reaction, because this week actually makes plausible sense. The difference, which fans will either be able to reconcile for themselves—or not—is the difference between Benioff and Weiss’ hackneyed plotting and George R.R. Martin’s endgame.

Cersei Lannister is vain and foolish enough to think she has a chance against a dragon. Ignoring how awful the writing was to kill Rhaegal so as to make it seem like Cersei has a fighting chance, this is the delusions of a fool who believed she was every bit as cunning as her father when she became the first secular monarch in centuries to cede power to the church by arming an especially fanatical wing of septons. She managed to pull a miraculous win out of the clutches of defeat by blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor, but that act of self-inflicted terrorism is the kind of Hail Mary pass that doesn’t matter in the face of an enemy with greater technological firepower. She’s Harren the Black, who was convinced his high walls and impenetrable fortress—Harrenhal—would protect him from Aegon the Conqueror’s dragons. Aegon promised him if he did not surrender on that fateful day that all inside would burn before dawn. Harren and his hall were roasted alive inside their “safe” stones.

Or for a gruesome, real world example, the Empire of Japan did not surrender to the United States in 1945 after Hiroshima vanished in a nightmare plume. So the U.S. did the same thing to Nagasaki. Cersei was conceited enough in her own god complex to not see the writing on the wall that Tyrion so plainly laid out for Jaime in one of the night’s best scenes, “The city will fall tomorrow.”

And so it did. The scorpions more believably fell beneath Drogon’s wrath than whatever last week was, and King’s Landing’s defenses went the way of all who dared stand against Aegon the Conqueror, be it in the field or behind their walls. And it is a briefly giddy moment when the Golden Company, led by Harry Strickland, still pretend like they’re kind of a big deal due to one perfunctory introduction scene in the season 8 premiere. Their faux-flexing was deliciously wiped out when Drogon blew up the gate they were prepared to defend, and broke their lines even before Jon Snow and Grey Worm had to give a single command to take the city. Grey Worm’s vengeful murder of Strickland was just the tip of the iceberg.

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So it is that this battle went the way all those with dragons do, and expectations were thwarted. Cersei, who was anticipating a contentious grudge match to the end, is the victim of our schadenfreude as Qyburn reports that the scorpions have fallen and the Iron Fleet burns. She then expects her army to fight to the last man, but instead they see the dragon overhead and the Unsullied in their face, and they throw down their swords. Even Tyrion’s best laid plans of Jaime somehow saving Cersei proves irrelevant. Storybook logic is again subverted, and Jaime helplessly wanderes the long way around the Red Keep, unable to get to his sister until long after surrender turns out to be irrelevant.

And thus we come to it. Daenerys’ decision to make good on her father’s dying wish: burn them all.

Daenerys hearing the bell

If I am being honest, I conceptually believe this is a great ending to the series. But as with all grisly things, the devil is in the details. She sits there on the back of Drogon, having won her battle while barely breaking a sweat. Against all odds, the bells of surrender ring, and Tyrion for one very brief moment felt justified in all of his bad decisions of cautioning Dany not to take King’s Landing when she first arrived. But the Dragon Queen came to Westeros a would-be liberator and has become nothing more than another self-aggrandizing conqueror. And Cersei poisoned the well of her being anything else but that. After killing most of Dany’s allies who at least welcomed the Dragon Queen as a monarch if not a savior, Cersei then personally taunted the Khaleesi by executing Missandei in front of her, implicitly taunting her self-righteousness. Cersei visibly mocked the “Breaker of Chains” by murdering Dany’s BFF while in chains. The question, thus, is whether that’s enough to be the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Daenerys has always been potentially headed down this dark road. Benioff and Weiss remind viewers as such by returning to one of George R.R. Martin’s most oft-quoted lines about her family at the beginning of “The Bells:” every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin. Readers, more so than viewers, were always asked to evaluate and second guess Dany’s actions. In the early seasons especially, she showed a sadistic streak, taking pleasure in the agonizing execution of her brother and the giddiness of telling anyone who would listen to her in Qarth that “when my dragons are grown we will burn cities to the ground… I will take what is mine in fire and blood, I will take it.” Jorah Mormont attempted to temper these notions whenever she spoke of burning the Starks and Lannisters together, or when he suggested there are evil people on all sides of every war ever fought. She then did more or less burn Astapor, slavers though they may be, to the ground in season 3.

All of these warning signs have always been there. The question though is that as Dany earned wisdom by taking other slaver cities with a minimal body count, what could drive her to be every bit as ruthless as Aegon Targaryen was when he spared no one who didn’t bend the knee while forging the Seven Kingdoms? And therein lies the problem for me. This is a fittingly bleak end to the “game of thrones.” Daenerys’ entitlement can be bent until it’s every bit as destructive as Cersei’s vanity or Joffrey’s cruelty, or Robert’s boorishness. They’re all different shades of selfishness and self-justification for their actions, and Dany is every bit a spinner of “THE WHEEL” as her ancestors were when they earned their House words of “Fire and Blood.”

I like this ending. But in retrospect, season 8 has utterly failed at properly setting it up. Last week I worried that we needed two episodes for the bridge between the Battle of Winterfell and the slaughter we just witnessed, now I suspect that would not have been enough either. The early clues of Daenerys’ mental instability in the first five seasons has gone largely ignored for the last three. Season 7 especially undercut the early queasy worry any forward-thinking reader/viewer had during the early installments. Back in season 2, I was very concerned that the Dany we rooted for to escape irritating wizards of Qarth would soon be burning Starks just as readily as she was blue-lipped morons. The Red Keep she saw in visions was one in total ruins—who could devastate it like that but dragons? Sure enough, the snow she saw falling was actually ash she left in her wake.

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But Season 7 had Tyrion convince her not to take King’s Landing by force. Ever since then, the show set for itself the obstacle of convincing us she’d change her mind… particularly after Cersei had already surrendered. The truth is that this is a terrific ending to the overarching series that has been undercut its immediate run-up, leading to a now anti-climactic execution. If I evaluate it as an ending to Dany’s arc for the last two seasons (the years she’s been in Westeros), it is unsatisfying. But as a conclusion to a series about the danger of belief in heroes, saviors, or other romantic fantasies, it is brutally effective.

Daenerys becoming her ancestors is a painfully apt outcome, and what that looks like is every bit as gruesome as the stories of Aegon the Conqueror. So she destroys Aegon’s city by indulging in his taste for fire, and we are witness to more than 35 minutes of carnage as soldier, man, woman, and child are obliterated to ash along the streets and inside the Red Keep. It is telling that after the moment Daenerys makes her choice, we no longer get a single close-up of the Dragon Queen. She is but an imperious, godlike presence raining hellfire down on the streets below.

This cuts to the true core of what Game of Thrones has always been about: the disillusionment of man’s cruelty while in the pursuit of power. For eight seasons and thousands of pages, we followed a woman who seemed modeled after Alexander but who in fact turned out to be a butcher. She will likely be remembered in history as Daenerys the Terrible. We know there is more to her than that, but the sweep of history reduces people to their best or worst days, and on her worst day she was a mass murderer. The victory so many of us wanted—Daenerys taking over King’s Landing—becomes the worst horror in the series’ run. As Bobby Baratheon warned, war isn’t something pretty; it’s a butchery, and when we finally got what we wanted with Dany at last taking what she convinced us was her birthright, it is a moment of pure disgust. Divine right leads to hellish delights.

Similarly, Grey Worm gets his vengeance on the ground. I was so happy for him when he burned Missandei’s collar in Dany’s fire. She gave it to him before the battle because it was the only real possession Missandei kept in the crossing of the Narrow Sea, but Grey Worm throw throws it away, choosing not to remember her as a slave. He instead remembers her as proud and tall, shouting “Dracarys” in the face of death. Ergo he makes good on that by slaughtering unarmed men with their backs turned in the city Missandei cursed.

Returning again to a common theme throughout the show—such as sellswords working for the Starks cutting off Jaime’s hand and trying to rape Brienne of Tarth, or the Lannister soliders who broke bread with Arya being good blokes—there are good and bad people on every side of a war. And as is often the case when cities are taken by force following a successful siege, bloodlust gives away to needless bloodletting, looting, and sexual brutality. Grey Worm only has a taste for the blood part of the equation, but as he and Dany lead the sacking of a city, Jon Snow’s own Northern men attempt to rape and pillage, as do the remaining Dothraki who view this as their earned spoils. Jon kills one of his own men for attempting a rape, but one imagines there are many more the King in the North wasn’t present to prevent.

There is a bitter irony that Dany’s dragonfire is so all-consuming that the pockets of remaining wildfire hidden throughout the city likewise go off, spreading their own smaller insatiable green flames. These were the wildfire reserves that Dany’s father, Aerys II, wanted to ignite when his city was being pillaged and raped by Lannister men. He wanted to burn them all down, and Jaime put a sword to his throat to stop it. Now Jaime’s act of unrecognized heroism is muted 20-plus years later when Aerys II’s daughter lights a fire so massive that the wildfire Aerys clung to seems miniscule by comparison.

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Cersei in Game of Thrones Season 8

Unfortunately, Jaime is off during this on his own very unsatisfying arc’s conclusion. Last week, I’d wrongly assumed he was planning to kill Cersei and was doing the generic bit of bad writing where he lets Brienne down gently on his decision to do so in order to prevent her joining him. As it turns out, he really did run back to Cersei. This I struggle with being Martin’s choice more so than I do Daenerys’ bloodthirst. Would Jaime really throw away his entire character arc? If so, like Dany’s heel turn, it wasn’t written in a satisfying fashion, especially since last week’s episode (which more and more I’m coming to disdain in retrospect) set-up that collapse of character in a single, rushed, and poorly conceived scene.

Be that as it may, the irony is if I remove the failures of last week, I see the cleverness in his and Cersei’s final fate. Not the Euron Greyjoy stuff, because this fight sucked like everything else involving Euron and should’ve never seen the light of day. But ignoring what is easily the worst scene of the night where Kraken boy wasted valuable screen time dying when he should’ve just gone down with his ship—and barring the one hilarious moment of Cersei realizing that standing around for Clegane Bowl is a fool’s errand and quietly escorting herself out the door—the Lannister twins’ fate is well served by anti-climax. We all wanted to see Jaime kill Cersei. Or Tyrion. Or Arya. Seven hells, just let the dragon eat her! But when it feels like the world is ending, it suddenly becomes pointless. Benioff and Weiss spell it out in a speech by the Hound, but it was already clear when she saw Dany burning a path of fire down her city’s streets that Cersei is doomed. Suddenly it becomes irrelevant who kills her.

I know that many will take umbrage over the fact that Cersei’s death was by design a disappointment, but to me it is one of the episode’s strongest elements. Other than the Mountain and the Hound, which plays out like a Metal band’s album cover, nothing in this series happens like it does in the storybooks. Neither Robb or Catelyn, or even Arya, avenge Ned Stark’s death. Joffrey is poisoned at his own wedding by unknown forces and dies a pathetic child in his grieving mother’s arms. Arya and Jon likewise fail to avenge the Red Wedding by getting its chief mastermind. Rather Tywin Lannister is murdered by his son while taking a crap on the privy, not even being allowed to pull his pants up before the God of Death collects its due.

I wanted Jaime to kill Cersei. Instead he attempts to save her and winds up being as feckless at that as he was at getting inside the Red Keep in time. He and Cersei die like their oldest son, meek and pitiful as they hold each other in front of a deadend. Noticeably, he has his hands around her neck. Is this the prophecy Maggy the Frog foretold, which suggested Cersei would die with the “valanqor” killing her with his hands around her throat? Technically no since Maggy specifically said the little brother (and Jaime is younger than Cersei, if by a few minutes) would strangle her to death. But the valnaqor prophecy was never actually stated the show. The flashback to Maggy only predicted the death of her three children and a younger queen casting her down, all of which came true. It’s clear now that Benioff and Weiss left out that bit of prophecy on purpose, but how this will differ then from Martin’s ending, and how much this angers fans, will be discussed until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

Nonetheless, I appreciated Cersei and Jaime’s meager death. While we got fan service with Littlefinger and Ramsay’s demises, history is littered with its villains committing suicide in bunkers or dying of natural causes. Cersei and Jaime died, and with the world falling apart, does it really matter who gets the credit?

The Hound is right before committing to the most fan service-y moment in Game of Thrones history. With a dragon burning the Red Keep to the ground, our previous grievances of who gets to kill who seems awfully petty. Mind you Sandor Clegane goes on to embrace his own pettiness, but he knows doing so is a nihilistic choice. Given we’ve already seen one beloved character give in to nihilism, it was almost therapeutic that Arya Stark did not follow Sandor up those stairs. Although what was waiting up there was the most epic showdown match since the Red Viper fought the Mountain in another bit of thwarted expectation. Still, it’s nice to know five years later that Oberyn Martell definitely killed Ser Gregor Clegane in their duel, because this Franken-monstrosity proves more unkillable than a zombie.

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A sword through the guts won’t do it, nor a slash across the throat. The Hound even manages to skewer Ser Gregor through the bloody eye and across the brain, but this magic-fueled zombie just keeps on coming. The Hound and audiences alike at least have confirmation he’s the better fighter, but this is cold comfort when his Undead brother managed to gouge out one of his eyes. But that’s just dandy, since the Hound still had one good peeper to watch him and his brother fall into the flames. To me this is a lot sillier than Jaime and Cersei’s ending. There is even something faintly reminiscent of Rocky III’s epilogue where Balboa and Apollo are preserved by posterity to ever be locked in their eternal duel. But given how pessimistic this whole series is becoming, let’s all take a moment and savor Clegane Bowl and that gratuitously metal sendoff.

The Hound in Game of Thrones

Take fan service where you can too, because the actual end of the episode returns to despair. Arya, the master assassin, survives because of blind luck and carefully calibrated plot armor (not that I’m complaining). She is our POV of a city on fire and of being on the receiving end of indiscriminate firebombing. It’s hellacious and drags us into the muck of needless warfare better than any image on the show save perhaps the mountains of body Jon Snow climbed out of during the Battle of the Bastards.

Some will complain the misery of Arya being caked in the ashes of the dead is too vividly evocative of our own real horrors, but hasn’t that always been the point? History and lore, legend and fantasy, clean up the fallout of war and the futility of mass death. If Daenerys improbably survives next week’s episode, she could build a new world in which she’s written about as a savior and conqueror… like her ancestor. On the ground though, it is the numbing horror we’ve seen in our own lifetimes and throughout millennia: humans killing humans because they think they are justified.

This in retrospect has always been George R.R. Martin’s ending, albeit it isn’t the one I hoped for. Yet I standby it was told in an exhilarating, exciting, and depressing hour-plus of television. The sense of sadness that Daenerys isn’t who we thought she’d be, and our hope for a superhero leaving us blindsided by the fatiguing spectacle of habitual murder is the point of this climax.

… But I don’t think season 8 or even season 7 fully earned the right to go here. It is now plain to see that the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage is always intended to play a role in destroying Daenerys’ sense of perspective, but the way it was rushed into a handful of late night rendezvouses with Jon, and then an awful battle sequence last week leading to the deaths of Rhaegal and Missandei, is mediocre storytelling.

This week is a good endgame that has more on its mind than pleasing fanboys, but the previous weeks let it down, leaving my disillusionment to be not just with Daenerys but with Benioff and Weiss being able to do justice to the breadth of this finale. We’re at the gloomy mountaintop, but we’ve sustained too many injuries to fully enjoy it for what it is.

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For now, I’m going to err on the episode working in a vacuum and rate it as positive if middling, but just as this week has come to make last week’s loathsome in hindsight, next week’s final hour will provide the final details to really evaluate this ending. I already know the hot takes are being written about “worse than Lost,” but with a little distance, Dany’s series-long fall might overcome the failures of season 8. Or the finale will leave it buried in the ash and snow.

Come what may, the Dragon Queen’s reign is about to be very short.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.


3.5 out of 5