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‘Game of Thrones’ Review: The Series’ Penultimate Episode Is an Unforgiving Symphony of Wanton Destruction

After weeks of uncertainty, one Iron Throne contender authored an incredibly violent explanation for why none of this really mattered anyway.

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells.”]

Even though there’s only one remaining episode of “Game of Thrones,” there was always going to be a question of how much would be left unanswered when the show cut to black for the last time. Through that lens, it’s hard not to see the series’ penultimate installment, called “The Bells” as anything but an answer to anyone who would want to see this thread of A Song of Ice and Fire lore to continue. “More of this? You’re sure you want more of this?” Though “Game of Thrones” has never shied away from brutality, much of what remains as the show limps to its final week is charred ruins, a literal scorched-earth sendoff for a handful of seminal series characters.

The episode’s first farewell, delivered solemnly on a cliff outside Dragonstone, is delivered both to and from Varys (Conleth Hill), who like Petyr Baelish before him, ended up on the wrong side of one too many power grabs. There’s a feeble, obligatory nature to Daenerys’ invocation of her trademark “Dracarys,” tinged with the melancholy acknowledgment that punishing a usurper will bring her no closer to reviving Missandei. Emilia Clarke is the latest cast member forced to embrace the emptiness of the task at hand, helping the series speed toward an exceedingly nihilistic endgame that, even if it wasn’t fated to arrive before, now seems incredibly inevitable.

Even with the power of an incredible beast at her disposal, there is something reduced about Daenerys in these waning moments of “Game of Thrones.” That’s a descriptor that can apply to any number of pivotal characters this season, female or otherwise, as each of these individuals finds themselves subservient to a larger message that now emerges crystal clear: In order for there to be a clear victor in this eight-season fight, no one’s scheming was ever going to matter if the person riding a dragon was properly motivated. The only avenue to finality was lined with scores of soldiers’ skeletons and hunks of burning wood floating in Blackwater Bay.

With one last banishment of regret or misgivings, Daenerys ignores the tolling bell from inside King’s Landing, the signal to relent. Instead, she unleashes a torrent of dragonfire from the sky, effectively turning the seat of power in the Seven Kingdoms to a rubble-strewn museum exhibit to her own vengeance. Jon (Kit Harington), Arya (Maisie Williams), and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) are left to watch from below as all their individual hopes for a post-wight world are reduced to literal ashes all around them.

Though “The Long Night” became the vaunted chapter in the run-up to Season 8, “The Bells” is both a more impressive technical achievement and a more affecting, harrowing testament to the nature of war within the “Game of Thrones” world. Here, Miguel Sapochnik, who directed both episodes, reaches into the show’s toolbox for some visual comparisons to situate this aerial assault on King’s Landing in a greater context of fighting. The Golden Company leader, framed just like Jon Snow in “Battle of the Bastards” but deciding to flee than mount a defense. Arya frantically running through the halls of the Red Keep with flames erupting overhead, just as Bronn did the same in last season’s Loot Train ambush.

It’s a subtle change, the extra push-in on Dany’s and Tyrion’s faces in their opening conversation, that signals that the queenly rage simmering just beneath the surface is that much closer to wreaking havoc on her enemies. Sensing a resisting lover, having burned potential enemies to preserve a damaging secret, and seeing the last physical memory of her best friend withering in the flames, this was not going to be someone who met surrender with mercy.

Lena Headey, "Game of Thrones"

Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

Whether it’s the innocent townspeople melted from above or more culpable fellows like Qyburn closer to power, these deaths are all in service of showing how vengeance becomes the engine for a machine of destruction that devours all in its path. It’s also a rebuttal to the constant refrain from even those outside the show’s fandom, the casual question of “Who will end up on the Iron Throne?” This episode is the first time in a long while that the show has demonstrated a meaningful willingness to engage the consequences of that question. Power in this realm is not something drawn from a hat or bestowed at will. After hearing characters for weeks talk about the efficacy of different rulers in the abstract, here is a bloody retort.

It’s just a shame that this feels less like the logical endpoint of all these machinations and instead one emphatic way for making up for lost chances and sidetracks. Maybe the point is chaos. Maybe the only way that “Game of Thrones” was going to end was with an endless parade of seared flesh, faces turned into mincemeat, and hands severed at the wrist. Maybe these past two seasons have de-emphasized logical choices by its main human characters because winning this war means being divorced from the price of victory. This is what it was all leading to, and the lengths to which David Benioff and D.B. Weiss drive that point home here is the closest the pair has come demonstrating a coherent thesis all season.

Yet once again, the methods of getting there are delivered via the fast-forward button. Like Arya’s carefully placed stab of a dragonglass dagger, Drogon becomes a single tool to sway a massive conflict. It’s either his sudden adeptness at avoiding incoming projectiles that Rhaegal never had or the white-hot fury of the woman riding him, but all that was needed to change the concept of a dragon from powerful bystander to literal game-changer was a simple on-off switch. Dragons have always been spoken of in hushed tones as a power imbalance. This showed, in no uncertain terms, why.

Given that lack of preparation, outside of some mass-produced Scorpions, Cersei’s subsequent downfall then becomes not one of a valiant competitor, but the all-too-apparent one of overconfidence. (That hubris is one seemingly shared by anyone who thinks that Euron needed or deserved any sendoff, even one in which his last on-screen words were ultimately proven wrong.) After weeks of wondering who’d be the one to survive their last encounters, both the Lannister and Clegane siblings go out together. In the case of Jaime and Cersei, it’s some level of poetic simplicity, brother and sister leaving the world the same way they entered it. For The Hound and The Mountain, the effective draw of them authoring each other’s destruction is one way that, despite this otherwise very definitive statement about Daenerys’ corrosive power, “Game of Thrones” is still trying to angle its endgame to having it both ways.  

Let the speculation begin on what will arise from the aftermath of this full-scale punctuation on The Last War. But what “The Bells” has done is create a new order where merely wanting to stay alive is the only remaining act of heroism. The hope of a shining new kingdom for whoever grabs the reins of power is decisively over. Judging by who was conspicuously absent from this episode (it’s probably no coincidence that Sansa is invoked right before Daenerys is sent over the edge), the show’s last episode will give one more family a chance to assert their claim to the throne. Even so, if it’s all to rule over an empire of dirt, what has it all been for?

Grade: B

The “Game of Thrones” finale airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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