Season 8, Episode 5: ‘The Bells’
I guess the coin landed on “burn them all.”
Throughout the run of “Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 Recap,” the seasons’ penultimate episodes were often the ones that packed in the most action and spectacular moments. So it was on Sunday, when the Last War unfolded broadly in the way many people expected, with the Dragon Queen turning heel and laying waste to King’s Landing.
It was a thrilling, horrifying and ultimately frustrating episode, which feels weird to say because it was often amazing to behold and reflected some of the show’s most central themes. But it hinged on a turn that rang hollow — specifically the heel turn mentioned above.
We talked at length last week about how the show has methodically broken down Daenerys in order to push her to the brink of madness — or some behavioral approximation thereof — culminating with Missandei’s beheading. On Sunday the last straw seemed to be Jon’s spilling his Targaryen secret and then essentially telling her, “I do love you but, ew, I can’t …”
“Let it be fear then,” she replied stoically.
But honestly, by then it was already a done deal. She’d sequestered herself in Dragonstone, her hair heartbreakingly disheveled in Missandei’s absence, and her overall look veering into Mad Queen Chic.
But just because the outcome wasn’t surprising, that doesn’t mean the result wasn’t spectacular. While the siege that led up to the King’s Landing apocalypse was plagued with some of the same strategic implausibilities and geographical confusion that has been an issue for much of this season, what followed was a terrifically and terrifyingly rendered decimation of a city.
And the symbolic moment of the coin toss we kept hearing about, as Dany sat atop a conquered city and pondered her ultimate destiny, was no less tense for that destiny’s having been little in doubt.
Of course the thing is, it actually should have been in doubt.
The reason it wasn’t was because the show had so clearly telegraphed her turn for the past few weeks, if not longer. Dany got snubbed at Winterfell and saw her supportive boyfriend turn into a throne rival and then reject her, as her most trusted confidantes died in front of her while her quote-unquote Hand continued to give the worst advice in the Seven Kingdoms. (The surest sign that Dany would not heed the titular surrender bells came when she told Tyrion that she would — I can’t remember the last time the former cleverest man in the world was right about anything.)
We all saw her face after Missandei’s execution — the would-be wheel-breaker had been pushed into a corner. And in fairness to the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and writers, there have been plenty of indications throughout the show’s run that she wouldn’t respond well.
From the beginning, Daenerys has been merciless with enemies like the witch Mirri Maz Duur, the Essos slave masters, the Lannister army and the Tarlys. Back in Qarth she promised to “lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.” (Done and done.) As I wrote before this season began, messianic streaks as profound as hers can, like Targaryens, go either way.
The problem is we’ve seen far more evidence that she has deep sympathy for the downtrodden, seemingly born of she herself being treated like chattel in the early phases of this story. It was the main driver of the viewer sympathy that just got upended on Sunday.
“Game of Thrones” has been broadly about the futility of the cycles of revenge and violence, ultimately functioning as a critique of political structures based on raw power and entitlement. (Which perhaps describes most political structures; leave your broadsides in the comments if you must.)
There is an interesting point to be made about how if you’re taking over the usual chair via the usual means, you’re just propping up the same old system with your own ambition. You may think you’re breaking a wheel, but all you’re really doing is changing the tire.
In that swollen moment as the bells rang and everyone watched to see what the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains would do, I thought she would fly straight for Cersei, her understandable flaming rage at the woman who has legitimately wronged her in multiple ways leading to the sort of tragic unintended consequences that can result from messianic leaders following impulsive instincts.
But what we got was Dany deciding to methodically mass murder the exact same kinds of people she lifted up to forge her savior reputation. (Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Scorcher of Innocents doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
Did she actually go mad? Did Drogon decide to take matters into his own wings after Rhaegal’s death last week? Whatever the ultimate explanation, it didn’t really work, narratively, even if the visual expression of the idea that it is the commoners whose blood pays for the nobility’s power struggles was horrifically dazzling.
The episode was beautiful at times, hard to watch at others. The director Miguel Sapochnik effectively mixed brutal images of wide-scale Drogon destruction and intimate tragedy — the incinerated bodies, holding one another — with more kinetic, claustrophobic moments of terror. The long tracking shot following Arya through the horror of the King’s Landing streets turned her into our avatar on the ground, cast about in the chaos.
Once the burning started, the Dragon Queen got eager ground support from a bloodthirsty Grey Worm. (All the stabbing in the world won’t bring her back, Torgo.) The slaughter was effectively nauseating, as the army we’ve been rooting for chopped off heads and hands without mercy.
Meanwhile, the Dothraki are just perpetually up for a good pillage, it seems. That won’t exactly redeem the show’s reputation for lazy exoticism — widely re-litigated after the Battle of Winterfell — but remember these are the guys who kill people for fun at weddings. (Although, so does nearly everyone else on this show, I guess.)