Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 5 – The Bells

“Men decide where power resides, whether they want to or not.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Dracarys indeed. Lots of it. If Missandei’s final word was an instruction, this week saw it obeyed to the letter, and gave Game of Thrones fans the spectacle they’d always wanted from the final battle for King’s Landing.

Well, I say “battle”, but that usually means two forces fighting each other. Here, despite the Iron Fleet and the Mega-Crossbows fortifying the capital, Cersei’s forces found themselves thoroughly outmatched and tried to give up. Good luck with that, Dany wasn’t having any of it. Dragonfire poured down on the terrified population, with no means to resist. This wasn’t a battle – it was a holocaust.

So after years of padding around the subject, showrunners Benioff and Weiss have finally tackled the idea head on. “When a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin,” as Varys reminded us here. Where Dany is concerned, that coin seems to have been spinning without landing for years. Now it’s finally clinked down on the table, and the face left showing is the one with a pyroclastic lunatic emblazoned on it.

With hindsight, Dany’s had these destructive urges all along; the difference is that, up till now, she’s always had trusted advisors not afraid to tell her she was going too far. Now, on the brink of the victory she’s chased for years, they’re all gone. Jorah Mormont was the last of them, and you can see now why he had to die at the Battle of Winterfell. If he’d still been here, I’m betting events would have turned out very differently.

Sure, she still had Tyrion and Varys. But compared to Jorah, they’re Johnny-come-latelies, and she’s never afforded them the same privilege he had to speak his mind. Tyrion, in particular, seems to have undergone some serious character degeneration this year; firstly he naively trusted Cersei to turn up and help fight the Night King; now he’s placed his trust in an increasingly obvious megalomaniac, refusing to see the truth despite quite clearly being afraid of her.

Sansa spotted it; she also hammered home the point when she commented, “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive”. Peter Dinklage has been as magnetic as ever, and Tyrion has had the usual plethora of quotable lines, but there’s no disguising that it’s not consistent with the shrewd, cynical character of earlier seasons. The Tyrion we first met would never have trusted Cersei, and would have seen through Dany’s platitudes from the beginning. It’s a rare misstep for this show, but I’m not buying that he’d have become so naively trusting; it’s a character arc that doesn’t convince.

Dany’s though is perfectly believable. She’s gone from idealist to tyrant, all the while thinking that she was the good guy. The sad end of Varys here was, in retrospect, the final nail in the coffin of her idealistic compassion. He’d tried telling her, as Jorah used to, that she was in the wrong. When she didn’t listen, Varys being Varys, he tried to replace her with Jon. The result, when she found out, was her final descent into megalomania.

It was a well-played scene. Emilia Clarke has been served with some excellent material as Dany’s arc took her from saviour to psycho; here looking gaunt and distracted, she was almost dismissive of the longstanding spymaster as she had him burned alive with almost an air of boredom. Conleth Hill, for his part, wore the air of a man who knew he was doomed from the ep’s very beginning. But he went to his fiery grave doing what he’d always done – looking out for the population of Westeros, the ones who found themselves suffering the most in the petty squabbles of their rulers. As an aside, I’d say we could really use someone like Varys in the UK Parliament right about now.

Benioff and Weiss, together with Miguel Sapochnik, back on directing duties this week, made the wise choice to present the events mostly from the perspective of those ordinary people. It’s something the show’s rarely done before, and it was all the better for it. We viewers have been gripped by the machinations of the powerful; but in the end, when kings fight, it’s the ordinary people who do the dying. It must be bloody terrifying.

This ep caught that well, as the population packed and ran from a terrifying death from above. Significantly, once Dany had refused to accept surrender and started her airborne rampage of fire, we never saw her again this week. All we saw was what the people of King’s Landing saw – a terrifying monster sweeping overhead, unleashing a holocaust of fire at random.

Of course, to do this, the writers had to put characters we sympathised with right in the heart of the mayhem; and so that was the role Arya found herself occupying this week. If anything, her arc has ended in the most optimistic way of any of the characters, courtesy of the Hound and his timely advice. She’s turned away from the path of violence and vengeance, because as Sandor Clegane showed her, he’s the endpoint of that path. If you didn’t shed a tear at their final parting, when she actually thanked him by name, you have no heart. Rory McCann and Maisie Williams were simply sensational this week.

Of course Arya’s not exactly one of the ‘ordinary people’ of Westeros, so the writers cleverly gave her a friend in the melee, an unnamed woman just trying to protect her daughter. Despite having almost no lines, British actor Laura Elphinstone made quite an impression in the part; almost enough to make me forget that she’d been so prominently featured in the other must-see TV show recently in Britain, as Line of Duty’s DI Brandyce. Her final end, as a charred, blackened corpse clutching the similarly incinerated corpse of her daughter, was shockingly, deliberately reminiscent of two historical events – the volcanic inferno of Pompeii, and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima. If Miguel Sapochnik was trying to make that parallel, then well done.

But while the ep’s focus on the ordinary people of King’s Landing acting as Cersei’s human shields was brilliantly done, of course we fans all wanted to see how it would all work out for the characters we’ve been following for the past eight years. Your mileage may vary as to how satisfying you found these, but there was no denying they were spectacular.

Most spectacular – if predictable – was the final showdown between the Hound and the Mountain. I mean, let’s face it, we all saw that one coming, along with the inevitable end that, while the Hound would triumph, both would end up dead. But it was probably the most satisfying fight of the ep, as the still-pyrophobic Sandor found himself struggling with his hated undead giant of a brother on the collapsing stairs of a burning, crumbling tower in the Red Keep. It was even more spectacular than its obvious inspiration – the similar fight to the death between Sean Connery and Clancy Brown in 1986 classic Highlander.

But still, while the Mountain casually flung his Frankensteinian creatior Qyburn to a nasty death, he didn’t even pay attention when the uninterested Cersei walked right past him. And of course it was Cersei we really wanted to see meet justice. Lena Headey was as imnpressive as ever, and there was something of the feel of Downfall’s portrayal of Adolf Hitler in her performance this week. Refusing to accept defeat, she retreated further and further into unreality and denial even as her city burned around her. You half expected her to be issuing orders to General Steiner to hold the line against the Red Army.

And like Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler, she still wasn’t entirely unsympathetic. Her plaintive cries to Jaime that she didn’t want their baby to die actually made me feel sorry for her. Well, a bit. For a moment. Monster she may be, but unlike the Night King, Cersei has been a real, believable human being all the way through. We’ve followed her understandable path to this inevitable end, and it felt real all the way.

And of course, predictably again, her end was inextricably bound up with Jaime’s. The ep followed his problem-strewn journey to his inevitable doom throughout; he never once flagged in seeking it, even when shut outside the city gates. The sight of his golden hand waving vainly above the struggling masses came across like nothing so much as a comment on the gap between the rich and the poor; nobody even paid attention to it, and gold or not, he was bound up in the same Armageddon as the ordinary people he’d thought himself so above.

Mind you, his and Cersei’s final end was perhaps a bit too low key, and left me wondering if they’re really dead yet at all. Trapped in the Red Keep’s collapsing cellar, their only escape route blocked by rubble, the last we saw of the “hateful” pair was them being obscured by collapsing masonry.  We didn’t actually see any of it hitting them, or any bodies. So perhaps they’re not dead yet, and their real final end will come next week. Indeed, if not I will consider this a surprisingly restrained death scene, especially for a show so renowned for its gratuitous violence. Speaking of which…

Sex and violence

Even this show couldn’t manage to squeeze any sex in between the wholesale carnage of the week, but violence? Of that there was oodles, unsurprisingly. Given Dany’s mostly dragon-related strategy, most of the violence onscreen was burn-related, and none of it nice. Men died screaming, in flames:

Fell off things, in flames:

Failed to run away from a fast-flying Reptile of Doom – in flames, of course:

But Game of Thrones is nothing if not inventive with its violence, so it wasn’t all burning. Euron’s final end (predictably, again, at the hand of Jaime) involved much spewing of thick blood gobbets, a natural result of the inconvenience of having a sword thrust through your guts:

Being Euron, of course, he went out the way he lived – chewing the scenery:

And the nastiest violence was reserved for that final, brutal fight between the Hound and the Mountain. Given their history, how could it have been any other way? So we finally, after several years of Darth Vader-style helmet concealment, saw the face of the undead monster that Qyburn had made of Gregor Clegane; it wasn’t pretty:

But being undead made him rather hard to kill, as Sandor found out while stabbing him here, there and everywhere to no particular avail:

And the nastiest moment was suffered by the Hound himself, when his less-than-loving brother decided he didn’t really need eyes any more so set out to remove them. With his thumbs.

Choice dialogue of the week

The show’s usual scatological humour was noticeably absent in such a death-drenched episode, but that’s not to say there wasn’t some memorable dialogue. It’s just that, in keeping with the sombre tone, it was all very serious and portentous.

Varys, to Tyrion, sanguinely accepting his imminent demise: “I hope I deserved it. I truly do. I hope I’m wrong.” He wasn’t, of course.

Tyrion, aware that his attempts to save the population might well result in his own incineration: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives. One not particularly innocent dwarf. Seems like a fair trade.”

Cersei, retreating into fantasyland even while the city burned around her: “The Red Keep has never fallen. It won’t fall today.”

The Hound, actually saving Arya’s life with his words: “You think you’ve wanted revenge a long time? I’ve been after it all my life. It’s all I care about. You want to be like me?”

And the Hound again, as terse as usual at the start of a rather fraught family reunion: “Hello big brother.”

So. One more ep to go, and surprisingly (to me), it’s all still to play for. I’d expected this ep to be the deciding, spectacular final battle, with the final one dealing in all the minutiae and loose ends years of conflict always leave. But no – Cersei may be dead (or possibly just stuck under some rubble in a cellar), but we’re no closer to knowing who will win the right to sit on the Iron Throne. Assuming, that is, that it still even exists after the holocaust Dany visited on the city.

And yes – Dany. She’s now plainly, undeniably, a kill-crazy loon. Look at the faces when Grey Worm starts in massacring the soldiers who’ve just surrendered; his is grimly defiant, Jon’s is aghast. Plainly this was her plan all along. Equally plainly, she didn’t tell Jon – her ally, her lover, and most importantly of all, the man with a greater claim to the Throne than her. Was she hoping to kill him too? Is she that far removed from what she was?

Whatever happens next week, this was, for all its flaws, a storming penultimate episode. It delivered on the carnage front in spades, fulfilling fans’ expectations for a spectacular conclusion to the War of the Five Kings (aka the War of the Roses with the serial number filed off). True, most of the main characters’ endings were predictable (and most of them I’d guessed several years ago), but that didn’t make them any less satisfying.

With the capital city in ruins at the hands of its erstwhile would-be saviour, we’ve one more ep to find out who’ll be left alive, who’ll betray who, and whether there’ll be any ordinary people in Westeros left to rule at that point. If Benioff and Weiss can provide an ending as satisfying as this (mostly) was, then bring it on…

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