The most violent – and most frustrating – episode ever. Why are the creators destroying the world they once carefully depicted?
Spoiler alert: this recap is published after Game of Thrones airs on HBO in the US on Sunday night and on Foxtel in Australia on Monday. Do not read unless you have watched episode five of season eight, which airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 2am and 9pm, and is repeated in Australia on Showcase on Monday at 7.30pm AEST.
‘They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath’
I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated by an episode of Game of Thrones.
There was so much that could have worked here, so many emotional pay-offs and beautifully shot scenes – and it was all let down by how little work was put into earning those moments.
In part I’d argue that this is not entirely the fault of this series. Indeed, I have enjoyed many of the individual episodes while hoping that they would somehow coalesce into a coherent whole. Instead, the seeds of destruction were sown in series seven, a meandering mess in which too much time was spent circling various plot points. This in turn created a pacing issue that has ensured that now, with the end in sight, everything feels breathless and rushed.
That was certainly the case with The Bells, which was largely (though not entirely) a triumph of spectacle over depth. Dany embraced her dark side, took note of the Targaryen motto ‘Fire and blood’ and razed King’s Landing to the ground even as the bells for surrender rang out. As a series of images it was undeniably powerful, without ever ringing entirely true.
There are many things about Dany’s transformation into the Queen of Ashes that I can buy: that she’s lost and out of her depth in Westeros, that she’s grieving and desperate and alone without the counsel of those she trusted most, that the razing of one city could be seen as a small price to pay to end the tyranny she so abhors.
The problem is that the writing has given us none of this. Instead, a series of men (Tyrion, Varys, even Jon) have pontificated about whether or not Dany is as mad as her father while the Dragon Queen herself remains silent. It’s as though coming to Westeros has stripped Dany of both agency and character development, just at the time she (and we) needed it most.
Would it have killed the writers, David Benioff and DB Weiss, to give us one scene where the girl raised on the stories of her noble older brother and mad father, who saw in the shape of her younger brother Viserys how ambition could curdle and who has faced down slave owners and raised dragons from a funeral pyre, actually considered what her raw grief and desire for destruction might give birth to?Advertisement
I don’t object to the idea that Dany – who has always had something of a messianic streak – could be more tyrant than saviour. But if that is your endpoint you have to sell it more than one small scene in which the future destroyer of a city offers her loyal general the one thing the love of his life owned, only for him to throw it in the fire.
‘Look at me … do you want to be like me?’
Game of Thrones has always prided itself on the brutal reality of its war scenes and, whatever the issues with this episode – and increasingly it felt as though Benioff and Weiss were doing little more than gleefully destroying the world they once carefully depicted – there’s no denying it worked as a visceral display.
From the early incineration of Varys to the final haunting shot of a dust-covered and bleeding Arya riding out through the charred remnants of what was once the finest city in Westeros, this episode was steeped in blood, guts and gore and determined to remind us that all the ice zombies in the world are nothing next to man’s inhumanity to man.
Yet while that was a powerful point (I particularly loved that the Golden Company turned out to be an irrelevance) there were still problems. A long time ago, Jorah told Dany that the Unsullied were incapable of behaving like the brutal men she so despised. Yet Grey Worm broke the fragile truce between the city watch, murdering a man who had surrendered, and by the end Jon’s Northern army, the Dothraki and the Unsullied were all complicit in the murder and rape that accompanied the sacking of King’s Landing.
Again, it is possible that this is part of a wider point the show’s creators are trying to make – how there is no such thing as a noble cause, how war brutalises all and how a ‘liberating’ army might commit the very atrocities it claims to hate. The trouble is it doesn’t feel as though the recent writing has earned so devastating a moment.
‘Nothing else matters, only us’
Just when I was about to despair entirely, we were treated to a scene of true power as Jaime and Cersei reconciled even as the Red Keep fell around them.
Again, the writing that got them to this point hasn’t been without issue – the decision to have Jaime and Brienne sleep together last week smacks of the worst kind of fan service, in addition to suggesting that Benioff and Weiss have no concept of the notion that men and women might be friends – but the final scene between the Lannister twins was a small masterpiece, tightly scripted and beautifully acted.
And while I might not agree with the idea that Jaime would throw his hard-earned redemption away for a woman who ordered his death, his statement that “nothing else matters, only us” rang bitterly true as did Cersei’s desperate plea to her brother to save both her and their unborn child.
It also reiterated one of the major themes of this final series: the importance of families, those you make yourself and those you are born with.
Thus Jon’s greatest strength has come from the Stark pack, even if he is seemingly doomed to become the last Targaryen, while Tyrion’s greatest weakness is the love he still bears for his – a love that means he can never walk away no matter how much he should.
Meanwhile, Arya was saved by the father/daughter bond she forged with The Hound, a bond that meant not only could he offer her a way out but that, crucially, she would listen, while Dany was undone by the destruction of her own makeshift family, the deaths of Jorah and Missandei leaving her finally, fatally unmoored.
I never tire of watching Jon Snow’s patented ‘War is hell and why am I caught up in it?’ face of great astonishment.
• Those who have yearned for Cleganebowl got their wish. I’m not one of them, but I did like Sandor’s ‘just die’ line as well as his sardonic aside about “That’s you, that’s what you’ve always been.”
• Interesting choice to double down on the ‘incest equals true love’ subplot. Not only were Jaime and Cersei positioned as the show’s great romance but it was also suggested that if only Jon had overcome his Northern queasiness and ignored the whole ‘she’s my aunt’ thing then Dany wouldn’t have had to immolate an entire city. Women eh? One minute you’re denying them a kiss, the next they’re instigating the end of the world.
• Nice to have confirmation that some of the Dothraki survived their Charge of the Light Brigade moment.
• In case anyone doubted it, The Bells gave us the proof: even one dragon is too much of an advantage if you’re prepared to wield it without remorse.
• I hope the military tacticians were pleased that the whole ‘Scorpions can’t turn around’ issue was addressed. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that makes last week’s ambush anything more than another piece of plot manipulation.
• I would quite like it if next week’s episode simply consisted of the Iron Bank of Braavos turning up to collect their debt. There must be a killing to be made in fire insurance claims.
• If anything sums up the later seasons of Game of Thrones it’s the failure to develop Euron properly. Not even his gleefully delivered final line could redeem him.
• I loved Arya’s failure to save the little girl – it was a small moment but a clever one.
• Unless they pull something very special out of the bag next week, the failure to show the scene between Arya, Sansa, Jon and Bran when they discussed Jon’s true parentage feels a huge misstep.
• We said goodbye to many old friends this week, from Qyburn and Sandor to (almost certainly) Jaime and Cersei. However it’s Varys the Spider I’ll miss most of all. Sadly underused in these last seasons, Conleth Hill’s delivery meant that even his briefest scenes were a delight.
Arguably the most violent episode of Game of Thrones yet saw the execution of Varys, the burning of an entire city to the ground including the brutal deaths of several thousand innocent citizens, the destruction of the Iron Fleet, the Golden Company and what remained of Cersei’s army, Qyburn’s casual dispatch by the Mountain who subsequently plunged to his doom with Sandor, the gory death of Euron and the probable ends of Jaime and Cersei, reunited once more at the end of the world.
Random Brit of the week
You might think that the penultimate episode of a long-running series wouldn’t be the time to introduce new characters but hello to Laura Elphinstone aka Line of Duty’s corner-cutting DI Brandyce, who popped up to give a human face to the devastation around.
So what do you think? Did you buy Dany’s transformation from breaker of chains to mad queen? How many times can Jon refuse the Iron Throne before they crown him anyway? And with one episode left, how do you think it will end? As always, all speculation and no spoilers welcome below …