I have said many things about Game of Thrones.
This is the one thing I never thought I would say.
It goes against every fibre of my being.
Bear witness to this moment.
*Draws a deep breath*
FOR F***’S SAKE JON SNOW, YOU SHOULD HAVE JUST HAD THE GODDAMNED SEX WITH YOUR GODDAMNED AUNTIE.
Seriously, dude, tens of thousands of people had to BURN because Jon Snow couldn’t get his Jon Thomas to rise to the occasion? Because he couldn’t lie back and think of Westeros?
You even SAID “She shouldn’t be alone” and then you TURNED HER DOWN when she NEEDED SOME LOVIN’ because of your PRINCIPLES and seven hells just DO THE INCEST and MAYBE WE WOULDN’T BE IN THIS MESS.
There’s one episode to go, Jon, and quite frankly - I’m starting to think you make some dumb decisions.
And also, while I’m at it, WHAT THE F*** JAIME LANNISTER?!
I backed you last week. I said you left Brienne because your self-esteem had crashed and you had to go kill Cersei, or at least stop her path of destruction. I SUPPORTED YOU when others were saying you were TRASH because you ROOTED & SCOOTED. I had your back, Kingslayer, and you repay me with the most mystifying change of mind since Bran became the Three-Eyed Raven.
I mean SURE, it kind of fulfils the Valonqar prophecy in that he is Cersei’s younger brother by several minutes, and he did wrap his hands around her throat as the life was squeezed out of them both by falling rocks. And SURE, it was bleakly poetic that these two moral vacuums should find each other again in time for the world to literally cave in on them.
But all that self-betterment Jaime did! All those self-help books and personal improvement courses and mantras on cassette! Awaken the Giant Within? Only if by “giant” you mean “Gormless Incest Addict with Neutered Testicles”.
I’m so disappointed in you, Jaime. You had a chance to let Cersei suffer for her crimes, turn a new leaf, and do good with Ser Brienne for the rest of your days. Instead you let yourself slip back into that freaky weird folie à deux with your sister.
Congratulations. You’re basically Fred & Rose Westeros.
These all-too-familial relationships - one concluded, one further complicated - brought me to mind of another power couple, also distantly related.
American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour as “a day that will live in infamy”, and for certain, Daenerys Targaryen created one of those in this episode.
But he’s even more famous for his 1933 inaugural speech in which he declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. In this episode, Dany turned her own fear of being alone into fear itself, expelling her pain outwards in a blaze of annihilation.
Was the Targaryen coin flipped by madness, by genetic inheritance?
Perhaps more insight can be gained from FDR’s rather more clever wife (and cousin!), Eleanor, who had lots of wise words about personal development, including:
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
I’ve been blaming Jon for not giving Daenerys a right royal seeing to as the reason behind her flip into the most vicious roaster since Don Rickles. But that’s not entirely fair.
Queen Daenerys had been f***ed over. And she chose to f*** back.
That’s on her.
Jaime saw another way to live, free from his sister’s grip. He chose to grip her back.
That’s on him.
In terms of characters acting, well, out of character - those were stories we wrote in our own heads, narratives we created. Ultimately we want redemption arcs, we want people we like to turn to the light, we want there to be satisfying paybacks and victories.
We want a lot of things in life we don't get.
There is much to discuss, Throners, so let’s fire up the… oh, yikes, too soon.
S8E5: “The Bells”
The drama was present from the first frame of the episode, but the real fury was unleashed in the second half, so let’s establish where all of our key players were before hell literally broke loose.
Varys can be seen penning letters revealing the truth about Jon Snow’s heritage. I felt a little flash of something when I saw the name “Eddard Stark” glint in the candlelight. How long ago that feels. Back then, Varys’ motivations confused me. He was a spymaster and chief conspirer; when he visited Ned Stark in the Black Cells, I could never quite believe him when he said he served the realm. Now, he seems to be the only true champion of the people’s interests.
A servant girl updates him on Daenerys’ physical state - she won’t see anyone, she’s not eating, probably not bathing, eyebags for days, a real hot mess. Varys tells her they will try again tomorrow, and reminds her that the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Does that point to him attempting to quietly assassinate her on Dragonstone, before she can carry out her assault on King’s Landing?
Jon Snow arrives to report on the progress on the Northern forces, but Varys isn’t wasting time with troop movements. He springs the idea of ruling on Jon, who realises his secret has got out. Varys is confident Jon’s coin has flipped on the side of “good guy”, but Jon isn’t having it. “She is my Queen,” he says, shutting down discussion. Jon keeps saying he doesn’t want the Throne, but my sad beloved is already wearing a very heavy invisible crown.
Tyrion goes in to see Dany in the tabletop gaming room, where she appears to be calculating a version of Cards Against Humanity in her head.
She knows someone has betrayed her, but Tyrion is surprised when she says it was Jon. He counters with Varys, but she says he’s at the back end of a human centipede of whispers that began with the former King in the North.
Tyrion says it was right for he and Varys to know that information to protect Dany. However, Dany says they’ve just played into Sansa’s hands - she trusted Tyrion wouldn’t keep his trap shut and Dany will pay the price for it. Tyrion knows he’s screwed up, but uses the phrase “Our intentions were good”. We all know what road good intentions pave.
Grey Worm and two Unsullied guards come for Varys that night, as he writes more letters by candlelight. He burns the most recent one, but one wonders whether he got any out. And who would he send them to? There are big power gaps all around the seven kingdoms.
I liked the touch of Varys taking off his two rings, leaving them behind in a bowl. I have no idea of the rings’ significance - as far as my memory goes, they’ve never been a particular focus of his character. But as a gesture of “the end is nigh, no point letting these be wasted”, it was well-placed.
Tyrion confesses to Varys it was he who outed him to Dany. Varys is not upset; he rolled his dice and got snake eyes. After so many successful outings at the craps table that is Westerosi politics, he had to bust out eventually.
“I hope I’m wrong. I hope I deserve this,” he tells Tyrion with a tone of voice that suggests he doesn’t think he’s wrong at all. Tyrion looks genuinely miserable as he gives his friend and long-time intellectual sparring partner a pat goodbye.
“Power resides where men believe it resides,” was perhaps Varys’ most famous rejoinder - indeed, he said it to Jon Snow earlier that day.
Dany believes the power lies with her, and with Drogon looming out of the blackness, it seems this time she is right. “Dracarys,” she orders coldly, and the Spider is no more.
Vale Varys, technically not a Lord, but worthy of the title nonetheless.
There’s a moment where Jon Snow looks at his Queen, and for the first time, a flash of fear runs across his beautiful face. Oh Jon, I would never make you scared. I mean, as long as you don’t count the now eight years of constant stalking and inappropriate references to what I would do to you should I get you alone.
"Hmm, maybe the Mother of Kittens is a better option."
Dany gives Grey Worm Missandei’s slave collar, the only possession she kept with her when Team Targaryen crossed the Narrow Sea. But Grey Worm tosses it on the fire. He doesn’t want a reminder of his loss; Missandei was his “weakness”, remember? Now she’s gone, he needs to resume peak humano-droid-killer-bot status.
Jon Snow rocks up, and there’s an interesting moment in the subtitles where “Grey Worm” is not translated from Valyrian, but rather spelled out as “Torgo Nudho”. It doesn’t feel like a coffee-cup-esque mistake, so is it reinforcing his return to a more Essosian state?
Torgo Nudho leaves Dany alone with Jon Snow, who once again vehemently denies he wants anything to do with the Iron Throne. Dany says his sister Sansa killed Varys just as much as she did by breaking her oath to Jon; and now the Lady of Winterfell knows what happens to people who try to act on the truth about Dany.
Dany’s eyes are in raw blinkless crazy mode as she declares there is no love for her in Westeros, only fear. “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go and eat Grey Worm” - which is frankly inappropriate so soon after Missandei’s death and also physically impossible.
“I love you. You’ll always be my Queen,” declares Jon, slightly avoiding eye contact. Dany rises from her chair, and asks if that’s all she is to him, his Queen. She goes in for another snog, but Jon once again pulls away.
“All right then,” she says. “Let it be fear.”
Frustratingly, the camera cuts away from the conversation we should have seen, which was Jon telling Dany he’s just a bit weirded out because she’s his aunt and everything, and while he very much WANTS to ride the dragon again, he needs some time to work around the ethical quandaries in his head, having grown up in the non-incestuous North and all that. And then Dany might have said, oh, OK, well it’s super normie for us Targaryens, so I’m ready to bust your nuts as soon as you realise I’m a cool aunt, like, a punk rock aunt, not some fuddy duddy who used to make you cookies as a kid or whatever, and also, I’m feeling particularly isolated right now, and you’re in a prime position to help a gal out, with all due consent of course, I’m not a monster.
In the Dragonstone throne room, Tyrion begs Dany on behalf of the thousands of innocent residents of King’s Landing who will die if she burns the city. He compares them to the slaves of Meereen, but Dany says they rose up against their tyrant overlords, so is it her fault that the people of King’s Landing are too dopey to do the same? Tyrion’s like, bitch please, they’re scared and Dany’s like I know you are, but what am I.
Dany then launches into a worryingly Bond villain-esque speech about how Cersei thinks her mercy is weakness, but it’s actually strength, because Dany is showing sympathy for future generations by wiping out the possibility of future tyrants.
And to be fair, you can’t be held hostage by a tyrant if you don’t actually exist. That’s just basic maths.
As Dany tells Grey Worm to sail the Unsullied to King’s Landing to join the Northern forces for battle, Tyrion panics. He pleads with his Queen to call off the attack should the people turn on Cersei, ring the bells and open the gates. “Give them that chance,” he begs. Dany considers, and eventually nods her consent.
As he leaves, Dany surprises Tyrion with the news that Jaime has been caught trying to cross Targaryen lines to get back to Cersei. “The next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me,” she warns him. Tyrion is in divided loyalty territory now.
The next morning, Tyrion and Jon take a tender back to their forces’ encampment at the base of the cliffs outside the capital. There they are, two little men in a boat, neither able to find their Queen’s sweet spot.
Ser Davos tells them on landing that the rearguard will arrive by daybreak. Tyrion says the Queen wants to attack now, but Jon shows some backbone and declares daybreak at the earliest.
Tyrion asks Ser Davos Seaworth for a favour, something that will call on his smuggling skills. The Onion Knight knows he’s not going to like whatever it is.
That night, Tyrion goes to see Jaime, and there’s a brief moment of levity as he tries to speak Valyrian to the Unsullied soldiers guarding his brother. “We speak the common tongue,” one eventually says with perfect deadpan timing. Clearly the Unsullied are also trained in the speaking style of comedian Steven Wright along with the baby-killing and nads-removing.
Jaime and Tyrion’s final scene together was heartbreakingly good, full of the idiosyncrasies that made us love both of these characters. Tyrion is clever, Jaime is arrogant, both of them love with full hearts - even if it’s somewhat misplaced (particularly in Jaime’s case). In the end, Tyrion accepts that Jaime has resolved to be with Cersei, whether it’s in life or death. He pleads with his brother to make it life, and will help him escape as long as he convinces Cersei to leave with him by boat and sail away to a new life.
"You can sail, you can sail, with the Orinoco flow..."
It’s another insurance policy for Tyrion - he feels he can trust Jaime to order the Lannister troops to stand down, and to ring the bells and save a bloodbath. “Your Queen will execute you for this,” Jaime responds, but Tyrion thinks the life of tens of thousands of innocents is a fair trade for one not-so-innocent dwarf. He may be small, but in this moment Tyrion towers over everyone else in the land.
The pair embrace for what they seem to know will be the final time, with Tyrion breaking down in tears. He credits Jaime with being his only friend, for helping him survive a childhood his father and sister would rather he didn’t. The impending loss of that brotherly connection is more than Tyrion can bear. We talk a lot about Daenerys’ increasing isolation, but Tyrion is also losing friends faster than James Charles post Tati Westbrook call-out.
Unless you also spend your internet time in the black hole of beauty YouTube.
The morning in King’s Landing opens with a shot of the bell tower, the one Tyrion hopes will sound out the news of Dany’s victory in time to save the city a fate worse than death. The last time we saw a bell on Game of Thrones, it was the one from the Sept of Baelor, exploding out onto the street in a cloud of wildfire, crushing several peasants below. One can’t help wonder whether this bell will ring for liberation, or also be unexpectedly complicit in disaster.
We’ve already seen some short establishing shots of the city getting ready for invasion, with smallfolk flooding into the gates, including a mother and her daughter, holding onto a white horse toy for security.
The Hound and Arya, who rode confidently past the Lannister forces to get into King’s Landing, now join the human tide flowing towards the Red Keep, the ultimate stronghold. A newly escaped Jaime is there too, covering his face and hand in an effort to stave off further unwanted questions. But it turns out this time, nobody will care.
The cinematography in this episode is superlative, and not just in the battle sequences we are about to witness; but here, capturing the movement of soldiers into defensive positions, as well as the mad panic of civilians unprepared for what’s about to happen. The last time the city was sacked properly (Stannis having failed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay) was when Tywin Lannister marched his army in during the fall of Dany’s father, Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King. That was nearly a generation ago, so for many people they will be new to the sheer terror of a city-wide freak out, making it all the more intense.
Plus this time there’s a dragon - which makes all that closing of wooden shutters and doors somewhat pathetic.
The Golden Company march out to form the first line of defence at the northern gate, Harry Strickland sitting confidently atop a white horse out front, not even bothering with a helmet. They face the northern forces, the Stark rearguard forming in place, as Tyrion, Jon and Davos keep watch.
Tyrion reminds Jon that the sound of bells means a surrender, and to call off his men. Jon nods. Ever the reluctant conqueror, he would wish to avoid as much bloodspill as possible.
At the Red Keep, The Hound and Arya just make it inside before the gates close, pushing aside that mother and daughter the show has chosen to be our point of view inside the civilian population. They escape to the side before the crowd surges in against the doors, bringing to mind horrible images from the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.
Jaime tries revealing his hand, but luck is not on his side, and no Lannister soldiers recognise him. He flees the crowd to find a back way into the Red Keep.
Out on the Bay, the Iron Fleet watches the sky, Scorpions at the ready. It’s quiet.
A little too quiet.
Something stirs in the clouds high above. Euron tries to shield his eyes from the sun, but this time conditions are batting for Dany. Both she and Drogon have learned from the mistakes that saw Rhaegal taken out, and they are not inclined to repeat them.
Taking her cues from early airborne dogfighters, Dany dive bombs with the sun at her back, making it difficult for the Iron Fleet to get clear shots with their ballistas. Euron orders them to reload, turn and fire again, but it’s no use, the dragon is too close, and Dany is able to dodge. Drogon lets loose the first of what will be many streams of terror breath, then repeats and repeats.
From the aerial shot, there looked like dozens of Iron Fleet ships in the Bay; despite the Iron Islands famous lack of trees. Drogon burns them all.
Dany’s usual triumphant burning music underscores the scene, but in a different key; it is discordant, darker, building a more menacing tone as she heads towards the Lannister defences on the seaside of the Red Keep. Dany keeps Drogon close to the water, long enough for the Scorpions to be pointed low; she then breaks upwards as they fire. The Lannisters don’t have enough time to reload. Drogon burns them all.
All is quiet on the northern front; the Golden Company and Stark/Unsullied/Dothraki forces staring out at each other, waiting for some sort of sign.
Dany told Grey Worm to wait for her signal to attack; he would know when it was time. He steps forward; sensing it isn’t long now.
And something changes in the air.
The Golden Company soldiers feel it, and start to look around. Fear creeps over Harry Strickland’s face.
The gates blow out behind them, shattering stone all over the fancy mercenary army. Strickland’s horse is blown out from under him, landing twisted on the ground.
Grey Worm and the Unsullied charge forward; knowing the nightmarish inferno is probably the sign they were waiting for. Harry Strickland manages to get up as his soldiers burn, but turns to run back towards the blaze as a horde of Dothraki screamers bears down upon him. But it’s Grey Worm who ultimately dispatches Strickland with a spear through the back. Vale, Harry Strickland, you had about three lines in your minor appearances so late in the game.
Sidebar: seeing so many Dothraki was something of a shock, was it not? I thought they had all been taken out in the first charge against the White Walkers during the Battle of Winterfell. Nevertheless, there’s enough here to make a terrifying push into the streets of King’s Landing, their arakhs sweeping Great Grass Sea-style justice through the capital.
The Stark men follow suit, while Dany and Drogon burn the remaining Golden Company members outside the gate, and take out all the Scorpions stationed on the battlements, as well as most of the battlements themselves. We can see Tyrion picking a trail through mounds of bodies.
Watching over all of this from the top of the Red Keep is Cersei, resplendent in red velvet and golden armour. She’s a picture of ill-placed confidence, determined this is not her day to die.
Cersei: We just need one good shot.
Qyburn: Ummm, so yeah, about that. The Scorpions have all been burned.
Cersei: Well, Euron took down Rhaegal, he can do that again.
Qyburn: Hooo boy, so the thing is, the Iron Fleet is f***ed. And like, the Golden Company is mega-f***ed.
Cersei: Pffft, they were just dodgy sellswords and I wasn’t even gonna pay them anyway. Glad they’re dead. Now our fine fighting Lannister boys can get the job done!
Grey Worm leads Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth and a phalanx of troops towards the Lannister army, and soon the two sides are facing off against each other across an intersection in front of the bell tower.
The leadership group move to the front, and the two sides stare each other down. It’s a callback to season one, to that moment Jaime confronted Ned about Catelyn capturing Tyrion outside Littlefinger’s brothel, when the wolves and lions brawled in the streets. Here they are again, Starks and Lannisters, but this time it’s on a macro scale.
Dany lands Drogon atop a turret on the northern wall of the city, the dragon seemingly inexhaustible despite pumping more napalm into the atmosphere than Richard Nixon.
For a moment, there is silence, the score ceases. The Lannister men throw down their swords; a surrender.
Tyrion can see the bell tower in front of him, and Dany on Drogon up to his right on the city walls.
“Ring the bells!” comes the distant cry, as someone, somewhere, tries to get through to the ropes of the bells and bring the invasion to a relatively peaceful conclusion.
The bells start to ring.
Cersei closes her eyes.
Dany’s eyes burn with tears, rage, fear and resolve.
This is the moment.
Eight seasons of build up have led us to this one moment, this one decision for Daenarys Stormborn, of House Targaryen, First of Her Name, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
She stood by as her brother was crowned with gold for insolence.
She burned Mirri Maz Duur for effectively killing Khal Drogo.
She locked Xaro Xhoan Doxos in his own vault for arranging to steal her dragons.
She burned the slave masters of Astapor to free and recruit the Unsullied.
She crucified the slave masters of Meereen as punishment for their own crucifixion of slaves.
She burned the Masters’ fleet in the Bay of Dragons for failing to bend the knee.
She burned the Dothraki leaders at Vaes Dothrak for being weak and insulting her status.
She burned the Lannister forces in the Loot Train Battle after her allies from Dorne, Highgarden and the Iron Islands were betrayed.
She burned Randall and Dickon Tarly for failing to bend the knee.
She burned Varys for betraying her trust.
Yes, most of those she punished had blood on their hands as well. But while our girl Daenerys has always had high ideals, her execution of them is as grey as the beard on beautiful Ser Davos Seaworth’s face.
In her final march to the Iron Throne, she has lost two of her dragons, her close advisers Ser Jorah and Missandei of Narth, and half of her hard-won armies. She has lived her life with the one truth - that she was the true heir to the Seven Kingdoms. Now she has discovered that the one person she found love with turns out to have a better claim that her - not only by blood, but by the acclamation and love of the people.
Perhaps her fear of failing made her remember that her ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror, did not have a claim to Westeros when he arrived 300 years earlier.
He took it - by fire and blood.
As she pulled Drogon into the sky once more, heading for the Red Keep, I cried out “No, Dany, no! Stop it right now!”
But while Game of Thrones may have had supernatural elements, it was never about superheroes.
Missandei’s last words were “Dracarys”, and that rings in Dany’s ears louder than any bells.
Daenerys Stormborn has made many good choices, many decent choices, and they still happened. But the closer she got to the Iron Throne, the more tenuous her grip on why she wanted it became. Now it is simply about possession, and destruction. She is breaking the wheel; but the people of King’s Landing are the spokes that will go in the process.
From this moment, we never see Daenerys Targaryen’s face again. She is removed from us as a human; we see only the fire made flesh, and the consequences of her terrible choice.
Sidebar: It would have been nice for Bran "Three-Eyed Raven" Stark to give somebody, anybody, a heads-up about that vision he had over a dragon flying over King's Landing. Around season 4 or 5 the shot of a dragon shadow over the capital flashed through one of his visions; we finally saw how it happened in this episode. Damnit, Bran, what's the use of you if you can't give Jon or Arya or even Dany herself a clue? But then, he wouldn't have felt scared by that shot as we did. Bran doesn't feel anything, least of all fear.
Cersei still can, though. She stares out as Drogon approaches the Red Keep, and the truth begins to sink in.
The people begin running again in the streets as the monster lets loose on the civilian population and their homes.
Tyrion is horrified. His victory is turning into a massacre.
The dragon’s movement breaks the spell over the soldiers below, and Grey Worm makes the same choice as his queen - he flips his spear up and kills the Lannister captain.
A frenzy of bloodlust ensues, with the northmen and Unsullied running wild with pent-up fear, anger, and revenge.
Jon Snow experiences the turmoil in a dreamlike state of shock. His breathing slows, his eyes bulge, he tries to turn his men back but can’t. Grey Worm doesn’t care - if he dies today, fine, it’s just a question of how many Lannisters he can take with him as he goes.
Bodies are destroyed, carved up, shattered. At one point a bloke has both hands cut off.
Ser Davos, ever kind-hearted, tries to help civilians escape, but it’s mayhem in the streets.
Jon’s own men begin slaughtering women and children; mothers and daughters.
Jon himself is forced to kill one of his own men who doesn’t take kindly to being pulled off a woman he plans to rape.
This is the reality of ground fighting; you may be on the “good” side, but you are not exempt from the terrors men do when they have no need to think of consequences.
But Jon is processing consequences - he has the brutal realisation that he leads a conquering invasion force, that the Lannister soldiers still standing and helping civilians where possible are trying to protect their home, just as Jon and the gang stood to defend Winterfell against the White Walkers, the great evil.
Jon has always seen himself as a man of honour, Ned Stark’s son. Now he is grappling with his new identity - is this what it means to be a Targaryen?
Jaime Lannister finds his way to the secret entrance to the Red Keep, and finds the dinghy there, as promised.
But he also finds Euron MacGregor, who managed to survive being blown off his vessel only to swim to this exact point of the shore at this exact time. It’s a little too convenient, but we’ll overlook that for the dramatic effect.
As far as he’s concerned, Euron’s f***ed the queen, which makes him a king (his status as King of the Iron Islands being somewhat in flux given his niece Yara has apparently taken them back). Jaime only wants to get to Cersei, but Euron wants to fight the man who f***ed the queen first, saying they’ll talk about Jaime forever if he kills ANOTHER king.
The two have a brutal hand-to-hand fight to the death, with Jaime taking multiple stab wounds before managing to get the sword he picked up somewhere in the city through Euron’s gut. The Kingslayer (x2) manages to stumble off to climb his way into the Red Keep, while Euron dies ecstatic that he killed the Kingslayer. Vale Euron, you crazy bastard.
"What do you mean, nobody ever really liked me as a character?"
With Drogon blasting down the Red Keep’s towers one at a time, and almost the entire city burning below her, Cersei can no longer ignore reality.
She cries as Qyburn tells her it isn’t safe anymore and they should head to Maegor’s Holdfast. She puts her hand in his, literally handing over her authority to him as to what happens next.
Down below, the Hound and Arya have made it to an old Season Seven favourite - Cersei’s GIANT WAR ROOM FLOOR MAP! How great to see it one last time.
Arya has been intent on finishing her list and killing Cersei this whole time, but with the keep under attack, the Hound decides it’s time to lay down the law. He tells her Cersei is dead, no matter what happens, and Arya should go home. He even grabs her and makes her look at him, to see what life is for someone wholly motivated by revenge. You want to be like me? In that moment, Arya is not the stone-cold assassin, but a little girl again.
For almost two seasons, the Hound was her twisted father figure, and it’s fitting in this moment he gives her the greatest gift of all - a mission other than death. He puts his giant hand around the back of her head, easily encasing her skull. “You come with me… and you die today,” he declares, then pats her on the shoulder and walks off.
What do we say to the God of Death? Not today. It’s been a ruling mantra for Arya since her dancing lessons with Syrio Forel, another father figure who made her leave to avoid death.
“Sandor,” she says, using the Hound’s real name for the first time. “Thank you.”
It’s a bittersweet parting, as we know what’s about to happen.
~~~ CLEGANE BOWL ~~~
The Hound greets his brother, the Queen and Qyburn on the stairs, and easily dispatches the rest of Cersei’s Queen’s Guard.
“Hello, big brother,” he deadpans, as Cersei demands the Zombie Mountain stay by her side. Ser Gregor’s red eyes turn on her, and why Qyburn steps in to insist he protect her, he squishes the Hand’s head with one hand, and tosses him down the staircase where he splatters all over the stone work (lucky the keep is about to fall to pieces, that would be hell to scrub out). Vale Qyburn, you creepy bastard.
Cersei does a polite “Well, you two obviously have a thing here, so I’m just going to, yep, I’ll just get out of your way, bye then” move out of the way, allowing the brothers to face up against each other for the first time since the dragon pits. With all the annoying diplomacy of that occasion not here to stop their baser instincts, the pair begin their ultimate annihilation of each other.
Sandor knocks Gregor’s helmet off, revealing his Darth Vader-esque “face”. “That’s what you’ve always been,” the Hound growls, continuing his attack. The writers are no doubt reminding us that while the Zombie Mountain is a terrifying flesh machine with no soul or ability to feel pain, there is a remnant of Gregor still inside, a remnant still motivated to finish what he started when he thrust his younger brother’s head on the fire all those years ago.
Their fight scene lives up to the Clegane Bowl hype, and exceptionally well-choreographed and shot. The Hound delivers blow after blow upon the Mountain, and his plaintive cry of “F***ing die!” will go down as one of the best lines of the season. We all felt you in that moment, Sandor.
Zombie Mountain goes for his finishing move, the one he pulled on Oberyn Martell pre-zombification - the double eye crusher. The Hound screams in pain, but manages to grab his dagger feel his brother’s face, and stab him through the head.
He can barely see, but enough to know the Mountain is just calmly pulling the dagger out of his face, ready to recommence his assault once more. It’s in this moment the Hound knows there is only one option left. After a lifetime of being deathly afraid of fire, he pushes himself forward, and crash tackles his brother through the weakening wall behind them, and the two plummet out and down, into the flames, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty going over the Reichenbach Falls in the style of a WWE Hell in The Cell match.
Cersei finds her way to the GIANT WAR ROOM FLOOR MAP, just in time for it to poetically, ironically and spectacularly crack right through the continent.
It’s then, with everyone left to her lost, that she sees Jaime, stumbling out of the dust.
They embrace, and no words need to be said between these hopelessly co-dependent twincestors. That is, until Cersei realises she literally has Jaime’s blood on her hands. “You’re hurt,” she says. “It doesn’t matter,” replies her brother.
Jaime leads her all the way down to the caverns under the keep, where the skulls of dragons past are kept. They were once the conquering forces, particularly Balerion the Dread, Aegon Targaryen’s own dragon.
The city built on the site of their conquest is now being destroyed by their descendants.
Jaime leads Cersei to the tunnel out of the cavern, only to find it blocked by debris. He tries to find another way out, but they are stuck. They can’t go forward and they can’t go back.
It’s at this point of realising she has no way out that Cersei breaks down. “I want our baby to live,” she repeats, over and over. “I don’t want to die, not like this, not like this.”
There’s an old tale that Jaime Lannister came into the world holding onto his sister’s foot. If Cersei led them both towards life, it’s Jaime now who leads Cersei towards death.
“All that matters is us," he tells her.
Cersei is calmed, and lets Jaime comfort her, as the world falls in on them.
With apologies to Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson, I present a final song for the Twins Lannister:
It’s a fiery afternoon
In King’s Landing
The big city
Geez, it’s been forty years
Cersei, you were so fine
Beautiful, beautiful girl from the south
I kissed your ass whenever you kissed my mouth
I had Brienne, but she wasn’t for me
You gave me kids, all three
Cersei, Cersei, Cersei, I can’t let you go
All my life, you’re haunting me, I loved you so
Cersei, Cersei, Cersei, I can’t let you go
You’re so crazy
Yeah, well it hurt me real bad when you left
But now, I’m too scared of death
To be pissed with you
I’ve had a bun in my tum for so long
I tried to fake it, said it was Euron’s
Outside the Keep
The dragon roars and flames
There goes my Throne
Jaime, Jaime, Jaime I can’t let you go
Help me leave this shithole or else it’ll blow
Jaime, Jaime, Jaime Edgar Allen Poe
Was not as crazy
As us two, baby
Cersei Cersei Cersei, look at me and know
All that matters now is how we leave this show
Jaime Jaime Jaime, here come tumbling bricks
Hate mail’s pending
With this ending
When it comes to Cersei and Jaime’s end, we do have to address Cersei’s elephant-NOT-in-the-room: why didn't she suffer more?
Would it have been great to see Cersei stabbed by Arya? Maybe - but then Arya scolded the Freys for killing Talisa, a woman with a babe in her belly, before she murdered them all. Could she have brought herself to do the same thing to Cersei? Isn’t it better for Arya’s future that she reconsider her life of 100% pure vengeance as per the Hound’s entreaty?
So who else was there to do it? Would it have been satisfying to have Euron kill her? For Qyburn or The Mountain to turn on her? For the mob to tear her to pieces in the street? Where would the emotional satisfaction be in that?
And what of Daenarys? She’s ultimately responsible for Cersei’s death with her assault on the Red Keep. Conceivably, a stand off between the two could have been great television. But we know how it would have ended - with Cersei being burned alive. We’ve already seen Varys die that way this episode, so wouldn’t that have been slightly anti-climactic?
Cersei has ALWAYS skated close to the edge of oblivion and somehow got away: Robert Baratheon died before Ned Stark could tell him her children were all Jaime’s; King’s Landing survived the Battle of Blackwater Bay just when she was about to poison herself and Tommen; her father tried to marry her off to Loras Tyrell but she snaked out of it thanks to his death; the Faith Militant threw her in jail but her walk of shame punishment only gave her more justification for their murder; she lied to Jon, Dany and Tyrion about sending her army north to fight the White Walkers to bolster her own position in the south.
With this conclusion, Cersei doesn’t escape punishment, but she gets to face it in the arms of the only adult she’s ever loved, the only family she has left. I felt sorry for her in the same way I felt sorry for Joffrey when he died, despite four seasons of relishing in my hate for the little prick.
These characters were terrible, they did dreadful things, they had golden looks but rotten cores. But to those that would say Jaime’s redemption arc crashed out, perhaps consider instead the good he was able to do before this moment, thanks to his experience in captivity, and with Brienne, and fighting against Dany, then with Dany against death itself. He showed himself to be a man of honour; but still a man with a fatal flaw. If there is a figure worthy of Shakespearean tragedy in all this, surely it is Jaime Lannister.
The final moments of the Hound’s struggle against the Mountain are juxstaposed with Arya making her way through the crumbling city.
There are some incredible tracking shots of Arya scrambling through passages, courtyards and side streets trying to find some way out. Eventually she is knocked down, but the mother and daughter with the white horse toy help her back up, only for Arya to be immediately swept away from them again by the torrential sweep of terrified citizens.
As for Jon Snow, my beloved, still in the centre of the fighting, still in shock, sees caches of wildfire going up all around the city. These were no doubt leftovers Cersei had the pyromancers hang on to after she blew up the Sept of Baelor, you know, just in case. Although perhaps not - you’d think if Cersei knew she still had wildfire she would have tried to better weaponise it to fight dragons.
It’s also a horrible callback to Mad King Aerys wanting to blow up King’s Landing with wildfire back when Dany was being born. Turns out he was just twenty-something years too early.
Jon sees Davos, and understands what’s happening. The Queen he loved, the Queen he bent the knee to, the Queen he insisted others would come to know and love, has gone rogue. He always knew it was a possibility; he said as much to Varys at the beginning of the episode - "It is her choice." But now he sees the full cost of Dany making a terrible decision - and orders his troops to fall back, and get out of the city, lest they be sitting ducks for her barbeque.
Arya wakes, covered in ash and shoot, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the September 11 terror attacks in New York. She coughs up half of Fleabottom realising the bell tower is about to fall on her. She manages to escape its plummet to earth, finding herself in an as-yet-untouched house, facing the same mother and daughter with the white horse.
Arya insists they leave in order to survive. It’s entirely possible she was right to do so, as the house could have been flambed at any moment. But by taking the mother and daughter into the street, she unfortunately guaranteed their doom. In the mad rush, the mother is run over by Dothraki horses, the bloodriders cutting down anyone they see, their tradition for generations before Dany told them to behave better.
Arya tries to help her up, the girl’s cries of “Mama! Mama! Mama!” hard to hear. But Drogon is bearing down on them all, and she can’t move fast enough. “Take her, take her!” she begs, and Arya tries to get the girl away from the direct path of danger. But the girl snaps back, screams at Arya and runs back to her mother - as any scared child would. Arya dives behind a wall just in time to avoid the blow from Dragon that roasts the mother and daughter alive.
When she wakes, Arya is the only survivor. The hero of Winterfell, the girl who slayed the Night King - beaten and bloodied by the collapse of a city under dragonfire.
She sees the mother and daughter’s bodies, entwined in death, the white horse toy still in the girl’s small hand. Arya, not known for her emotions, cannot stop tears sliding down her ashen face. For the first time in a long time, she had put other people's safety over her own single-minded pursuit of her own murder-y goals. And when she failed them, she couldn't just be an expressionless killer. The Hound gave her back some of her humanity.
And then, amidst the smoking and burning ruins, she hears a sound, and turns to find the white horse writ large. Like a miracle, the horse appears in the middle of the street, riderless, saddle-less, with blood on its body and burns on its legs.
Arya approaches the horse gently, and soothes the anxious beast. She mounts the horse and takes off, a lone figure, galloping out of the city, on her way to who knows what.
White horses have all sorts of mythic properties, connected to both life and death in many cultures. Perhaps the most famous quote about them for our purpose comes from the Book of Revelations: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
Death is the theme that has followed Arya Stark through eight seasons of Game of Thrones, and while she’s promised the Hound she won’t lead a life like his, there’s still a good chance of her saddling up for a vengeance ride at least one more time.
What might Jon say to Dany if he sees his little sister (actually cousin) so badly beaten up from the sack of the city? And what might Dany say to the God of Death, if it comes in the form of a tiny assassin on horseback?
So with apologies to Daryl Braithwaite, Arya gets a song as well:
She survived, way up high
Where Cleganes trade blows
But in the ash, falling thick and fast
With all the innocents she goes
And this whole situation will get her aggravated
She’ll watch the whole world fall apart
She will see the beautiful horse
That manifests her heart
Can’t you hear her?
The girl has a name
Stark of Winterfell, and from there she came
That's the way it's gonna be, little Arya
You’ll go riding on white horses, yeah yeah
Choose whom you want to die, little Arya
But if Jon falls, go pick him up, pick him up
She will go, and you just know
She will get really steely-eyed
And even then, she won’t give in
To Dany’s journey to the dark side
I hear all the people of the north
In one girl’s gutteral cry
You’ll see her try every way she knows how
To make the bad one fly
Can’t you see her?
She’s not on the ground
She’s atop a steed, it’s all quite profound
That's the way it's gonna be, little Arya
You’ll bring death on those white horses, yeah
You will make ‘em cry, little Arya
But if Jon falls please pick him up, pick him up
That's the way it's gonna be, little Arya
Keep on riding those white horses, yeah yeah
Your bro should be the guy, little Arya
Jon may be dumb but pick him up, pick him up
Yay! Best Moments
In terms of emotional punch, Jaime and Tyrion’s final scene was so touching I nearly cried.
In terms of spectacle, Dany torching all of King’s Landing was ferocious, terrifying and incredibly well produced.
Zing! Best Lines
Arya telling a confused Lannister soldier that "I'm Arya Stark. I'm going to kill Queen Cersei" was badass, but just pipped by another Tyrion/Jaime classic exchange:
Tyrion: How did they find you?
Jaime: shows golden hand
Tyrion: Did you ever consider taking it off?
Jaime: Cersei once said I was the stupidest Lannister.
The gore factor this episode rocketed up on the Battle of Winterfell, which to be fair was a lot darker. Here the blood glistened wet and red in the sunlight, as swords cut through torsos, heads were speared, and did I mention the dude who had both hands cut off? Crazy.
Once again, I’ve been sensing there’s a lot of anger about this episode. Yes, there are issues of pacing, and disappointment that character development we have grown to cherish felt abandoned. There’s a valid argument to be made that this season could have done with a few more episodes to build tension (although I would counter that had that been the case, we’d all be reading backlash takes on how slow the action was moving).
But this is the story the way the writers and producers have chosen to tell it, and they are still doing shocking things to upturn our expectations. All of the heroes we built inside our minds were just that - our own creations, not theirs.
I also get the sense some will be angry that the victory of women against their oppressors and tyrants in earlier seasons may have been undermined by the fall of Cersei and Dany into super villain territory. But why do men get a monopoly on power corrupting? To suggest women aren’t capable of making terrible choices as much as any man undercuts the very plea that we be considered on the same intellectual playing field, and susceptible to the same human vices. Women aren’t the problem; untethered power is.
Dany did much that was right in her career as a conqueror. As mentioned, many of her brutal decisions were justified or at least understandable for this kind of world. But tyrants are sometimes good guys first.
Daenerys has committed an unthinkable war crime, and it remains to be seen if she will escape any retribution - or if Arya or Jon or anyone else will deliver justice to her.
There is one episode left.
May we have good fortune in the wars to come.
Goodness me, kittens. I could be completely wrong on all of this. There has probably been a million recaps and reviews and critical think pieces released already that make better arguments than me. I don't even know how funny this recap is, and god knows if I don't bring the funny, what's the use of me?!
It's very late as I finally get this posted, so I want to say a special thank you to all readers for your patience, and a particular thank you to all of my Patreon subscribers for still paying me. This week's Patreon champions are: Anna, Bernadette M, Eoin N, Jan D, Anthony B, Chris L, Patrick C, MTE, Tony L, Jarrah G, Kostas S, Michael C, Sean J-W, Robert L, Jake F, Eric L, Dominic H, Kynan N, Michelle B, and Katie B.
I'm slightly stunned that there is only one more episode of Game of Thrones ever. What am I going to do without you all!?!? The time is upon me to work out some other recap options - but first, let us dance with dragons one final time. Valar Morghulis!