“A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you’ll know the debt is paid.”
When Tyrion Lannister said this to his sister Cersei years ago, he couldn’t have known how right he was. Game of Thrones‘ penultimate episode — “The Bells” — is an astonishing work of alchemy, transmuting joy into ash before our very eyes. After nearly half an hour of prologue in which not so much as a raised voice is to be heard, it lets loose an absolute deluge of fantasy-battle wish fulfillment. But like Ser Gregor Clegane, its grip only tightens and tightens, until the thrill of seeing “good” triumph over “evil” is shattered and pulped. In the end, only blood and rubble remain.
As written by series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik, it takes a series of momentous events and delivers each of them as part of a prolonged, collective whisper. The betrayal and execution of Lord Varys, the end of the romance between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, the farewell between Tyrion and his freed-captive brother Jaime — these hushed scenes play out largely in closeups against a backdrop of glowing firelight, as if late-night secrets are being shared. Even when Varys is burned alive for plotting to put Jon on the Iron Throne in her place, the chosen executioner — Drogon, the last dragon — emerges from the darkness in silence.
What a contrast to the sunlit carnage to come. It begins at sea, as Euron Greyjoy and his navy prepare to shoot one more flying nuclear dinosaur out of the sky. The cockiness, however, is unfounded. This time, Dany and her beast are fully prepared. A few daring, lightning-fast strikes later and the entire Iron Fleet is brought down.
It happens again at the walls of King’s Landing. With the mercenary Golden Company amassed in front of the city gates, Jon, Davos Seaworth, Grey Worm and the entire motley horde of Northmen, Unsullied, Dothraki, knights of the Vale, etc. prepare to charge. Then the walls burst from within, sparing them the trouble. Watching Dany effortlessly lay waste to Cersei Lannister’s best-laid plans — and best-trained troops — is a visceral thrill. So is seeing the aforementioned horde sweep into King’s Landing all these years after Ned Stark’s execution all but demanded this level of retaliation. Before long, the Queen of Dragons is soaring in circles around the city, destroying its walls brick by brick. The hardcore Lannister loyalists lay down their swords rather than fight. The bells that doubles as a white flag — Tyrion’s last great hope to avoid the destruction of city — ring out. The battle has ended. The people have surrendered.
And Daenerys burns them all anyway.
If the dark horror humanity faced at Winterfell two weeks ago is the Battle of Ice, the horror in King’s Landing this week is the Battle of Fire. Consumed with the hatred instilled in her by a lifetime of paranoia, betrayal and abuse, Daenerys breaks like any ordinary soldier might. The difference is that she’s riding a living weapon of mass destruction. Grey Worm, another one-time innocent trained to be a killing machine since childhood and ravenous for revenge following the murder of his beloved Missandei, leads the charge on the ground. Despite Jon’s attempts to stem the tide, a full-fledged sack of the city ensues.
It’s the kind of thing readers of George R.R. Martin’s source material are all too familiar with, but which the show has hardly touched. Now it lets loose, with absolutely ferocious visual power; between the fire and the dazzling sunlight, there will be no complaints about the effects being too dark to see this time around. The sequences that follow display a complete lack of compunction about depicting the true horror of war. This means more than watching soldiers get mutilated, or even civilians, including children, burn to a crisp. It means watching characters we loved, cared about and most importantly counted on for years succumb to the madness and murder within themselves. It’s an ugly feeling, as well it should be. War criminals of all kinds have people who love and care about them back home, too.
As the city burns and its towers fall, individual storylines come to their awful conclusions as well. Sandor “The Hound” Clegane catches up with his brother, known as “The Mountain,” at long last. This leads to one of the episode’s few moments of (very, very black) humor: The undead knight effortlessly kills Qyburn, the man who brought him back to life, when he tries to interfere. (Meanwhile, Cersei just sorta scoots past his little brother.) The duel that follows has been dubbed “Cleganebowl” by the fandom over the years — that’s how much people wanted to see the brothers settle the score.
But while gorgeously shot against the afternoon sun through a haze of ash, the fight is messy and sad. Realizing he can’t kill his brother — unless you burn him to a crisp or smash him to a pulp, he’s even more indestructible than the Night King’s walking dead — the Hound screams and launches himself at his foe. They tumble through the crumbling wall, falling to the unseen ground hundreds of feet below, tearing at each other all the while. The Hound’s lifelong quest for vengeance leads him to death by fire in his brother’s arms. It’s no way for a person to die.
Cersei and Jaime’s reunion is similarly short-lived and ill-fated. As the walls collapse around them, they reunite in the chamber where the Queen had the map of Westeros painted on the floor — fitting, since their love set the destruction of the Seven Kingdoms in motion. Jaime fights through the wounds he incurred in a pointless, wasteful duel with Euron. An asshole to the end, the pirate survived the torching of his flagship only to pick a lethal fight with the Kingslayer, smiling at his own legendary status the whole time. He leads his sister into the bowels of the Red Keep, where they find their escape route blocked.
“I don’t want to die,” repeats Cersei, sobbing, finally awake to the tragedy she’s taking part in. Earlier in the episode she smiled as the forces arrayed for battle; it was the grin of a woman finally watching the world take shape according to her whim rather than being forced to change herself. That’s over now.
“Look at me,” Jaime says, unknowingly repeating the words of Sandor Clegane when he told Arya to flee rather than die with him. “Nothing else matters. Only us.” The castle collapses on them seconds later.
Fittingly, given her increasingly central role not just in the plot but in the metaphorical struggle of life against death, Arya is our lone survivor. Children of Men–style long takes follow her as she flees through the stampeding crowds, attempts to save a mother and child whom she and the Hound brushed aside earlier in the hour, and fails miserably. She awakes as ash rains down from the sky like snow. She sees the charred bodies of the mother and child holding each other in death, a toy horse still gripped in the little girl’s black hand. Then she finds a real horse — behold, a pale horse — waiting for her. She approaches it as the sun shines down. She quiets it. She rides off.
So ends the most daring episode of Game of Thrones ever. It’s the Red Wedding writ large, a masterpiece that murders all hope of neat closure, and reduces any lingering belief in the redemptive power of violence to ashes in our mouths.
Previously: Love Is a Battlefield