Book-Reader’s Recap—Game of Thrones Episode 805, “The Bells”

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

This post is intended for those who have read the books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, not because we’re going to be discussing spoilers from the books — that’s not a thing anymore — but because we may make comparison’s between what we get onscreen and George R.R. Martin’s original vision. If you’d like the perspective of someone who has never read the books, check out our Unsullied recap. Thanks!


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I think the success of this episode all comes down to whether you believe the bit with the bells. Do I? Let’s walk through it and find out.

We begin with Varys, who’s writing notes informing people that Jon Snow is the true ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. He promised to hop on the betrayal train last week, and here he is. It reminds me of Stannis writing and sending similar notes, also on Dragonstone, back in season 2.

We see that he does still have Little Birds in his employ — a little girl comes in and tells him that Daenerys isn’t eating, so apparently this is a spy he has in the kitchens. It’s good to have this info, although I wish we’d gotten a bit more of Varys at work over the past couple seasons.

Anyway, Varys continues Operation Get Jon Snow on the Iron Throne when he chats with the King in the North on one of Dragonstone’s many beaches. “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin, and the world holds its breath,” he reminds us.

Jon, naturally, isn’t interested in the throne, although I imagine he’s feeling pretty foolish about telling Sansa and Arya his secret right about now. Look how quickly it traveled! Daenerys isn’t wrong when she talks to Tyrion and Jon about it later on. Sansa told Tyrion and Tyrion told Varys and now Varys is trying is undermine her rule; it’s pretty much exactly what Dany feared would happen when she begged him to keep it a secret last week.

Daenerys takes particular issue with Tyrion telling Varys without coming to see her first. The makeup, hair and lighting people go out of their way to make Daenerys look particularly tired and haggard in this scene. God, I want someone to give her a hug…for now.

I’m going to try and understand how this leads to her snapping later in the episode. Daenerys is bereft of advisors and convincing herself that the people closest to her are turning against her, and she’s right in at least one case. Worse, this means that the throne is slipping through her fingers. She’d hardly be the first ruler to succumb to the perils of paranoia, but this still feels like it’s coming on too suddenly.

They come for Varys in the night. Who knows if he got any of his notes off before Dany sent for his head? Also, does anybody know what the deal is with him taking his rings off?

Varys’ execution happens near the water. Daenerys has combed out her hair for the occasion. Tyrion lets Varys know that “it was me” before the hammer falls. No one here, including Varys, seems to think Varys has any chance of surviving. I guess Varys was counting on Tyrion not to rat him out.

There’s a grim inevitability to this scene, as there is to much of the episode. Daenerys pronounces the sentence in an even-keeled voice. “Dracarys,” she says. The Spider burns.

We cut from Varys’ funeral pyre to Daenerys sitting near a fire in Dragonstone, holding Missandei’s choker — or is it her slave collar? In any case, Missandei brought it with her across the Narrow Sea, perhaps as a reminder of the chains she would never again wear.

Grey Worm is with Daenerys. This is the closest thing episode gives us to a moment of vulnerability for her. She hands the choker to Grey Worm and he tosses it in the fire. It’s hard to say what the moment means. Is that a way of honoring Missandei? A way of trying to forget her so they can do what they’re going to do? Once again, I just wished they hugged.

The episode now gives us what apparently it feels is the key to understanding Daenerys’ heel turn. She points out that Jon is more beloved than her in Westeros, which is true. “I don’t have love here,” she says. “I only have fear.” I like the way her face is framed by the fire.

Jon assures Dany that he loves her, and that she’ll always be his queen. But she wants more than a ruler-supplicant relationship. As she did last week, she tries to reignite the passion they were supposed to have — there’s a really nice shot of the two of them kissing with the fire burning in the background — but he can’t get past the incest, so it’s a no go. “Alright then,” she says. “Let it be fear.”

Okay, so this is an issue because it seems to imply that Dany goes crazy because a dude doesn’t love her. I know it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the last impression we get before she snaps. And really, even taking the greater context into consideration, Jon being the straw that breaks the camel’s back is a bit of a hard sell because these two have never had amazing romantic chemistry.

Anyway, next up is the planning. Dany is on the Dragonstone throne. It is dark. It’s clear that Dany means to attack the city, not letting Cersei use her sense of mercy against her. She’s playing the long game where that’s concerned: “Mercy is our strength. Our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant.”

So it looks like Dany has switched mindsets. I get that. But I still don’t feel like she’s gotten to the place she need to get to do what she does. I know that’s hard to get across onscreen, although Emilia Clarke is doing her damndest.

Daenerys also tells Tyrion that her armies captured Jaime, who was trying to sneak into King’s Landing. So that’s another person she gave a second chance to who disappointed her. “The next time you fail me, will be the last time you fail me,” she tells Tyrion.

Inside the Episode

At King’s Landing, Cersei has opened the city gates and tons of people are pouring in and NO DON’T GO IN THERE YOU FOOLS. We even see the little girl and mother whom Arya will later fail to save from Dany’s wrath. This episode definitely doesn’t hold back on the brutality; I’m just not sure if it’s earned.

I also love the mournful string arrangement of “Truth” that plays here.

Dany’s camp is set up near the city. At night, Arya and the Hound arrive and teach us the value of honesty. “I’m Arya Stark,” she tells a Northern soldier. “I’m going to kill Queen Cersei.” As the Hound points out, if Cersei dies, there doesn’t need to be a battle, so there’s no need for those soldiers to fight and die in it. The two of them don’t meet much resistance. Cute scene. Arya and the Hound are on tonight, at least.

Tyrion has a harder time getting into the tent where Jaime is being held prisoner. After a bit of “Tyrion can’t speak High Valyrian” comedy, Tyrion blusters his way past the Unsullied guards and gets inside. Jaime is tied to a post, reminding me of when Edmure was similarly tied up at Riverrun.

And then we have our final Tyrion-Jaime scene. Dany’s forces were able to identify him on account of his golden hand. You know, a while back, I thought that Jaime losing his hand would be a great way to symbolize his breaking free of Cersei’s influence. Now it makes sense that he kept it.

Somehow, SOMEHOW, Tyrion and Jaime are still theorizing that Cersei might be convinced to give up the throne, and oh my god, what show have you been watching, guys? Cersei doesn’t budge. At least Jaime flips the old “Cersei loves her children” thing on its head. “All the worst things she’s ever done she’s done for her children.” Good lord, thank you.

Tyrion is also incredibly convinced that Daenerys will win this battle. He’s right, of course, but I’m not 100% sure why; Jaime is correct that Cersei has scored some blows against Dany lately.

Anyway, Tyrion’s other plan is for Jaime and Cersei to escape and “start a new life.” With Davos’ help, he’s placed a dinghy on the beach near the secret entrance to the Red Keep, the one Arya tumbled out of back in season 1, and the one he used to meet with Jaime in season 7. They can take the dinghy elsewhere, perhaps across the Narrow Sea. Tyrion figures that maybe if he makes it possible for Daenerys to take the throne without having to kill tons of people, she’ll show mercy to him for letting Jaime free, although he also admits there’s a good possibility she might execute him. And that’s BEFORE the bells. Now it’s a certainty.

The plan is a stretch, but the scene pretty much works because it pins its hopes on the bond between Jaime and Tyrion, and on the acting talents of Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in selling that bond. I don’t know if I believe that Tyrion thinks Cersei can be convinced of anything, but I do believe these brothers love each and would help each other.

In fact, maybe I’ve been selling all three Lannister siblings short lately. Cersei has had chances to kill both of her brothers. Here at the end of the show, the families are coming together, the Starks forming a united front against Daenerys and the Lannisters finding they have more affection for each other than they thought. That’s something to watch for on rewatch, I think.

It’s the morning of. The Iron Fleet is in the harbor. The Golden Company is at the gates. (In a nice bone for the book-readers, the shields of the Golden Company members are adorned with a pike topped with gilded skulls, of the kind outside the captain-general’s tent in A Dance with Dragons.) The forces of the North (and maybe the Vale, I didn’t see any of them) and the remaining Dothraki and Unsullied stand against them. Scorpions are loaded. They are imposing. People scurry hither and thither throughout King’s Landing, on the walls and in the streets. Arya, the Hound, and Jaime have all flowed in with the stream of smallfolk from outside the walls. Cersei looks on from high in the Red Keep.

This is the kind of montage the show has done really well this season, by the way. Sapochnik is excellent at building tension. I also love the persistent soft drumbeat under the soundtrack.

Arya and the Hound are able to get inside the Red Keep itself, but they close the doors before Jaime can make it. He scurries elsewhere. The sight of terrified people pounding on the doors is pretty effective. The ironic thing here is that Cersei has probably convinced these people that Daenerys is a crazy queen to be feared, and Dany is about to prove them right. I wish they would have highlighted that more; maybe it could have helped us understand why Dany is willing to kill the smallfolk who have rejected her help?

Bobbing at sea on the Silence, Euron looks upward. We haven’t seen Dany yet and…there she is, diving out of the sun to make it harder for the Ironborn to see her. She starts wrecking the fleet but proper, dodging the scorpion bolts Euron sends her way, and exploding the Silence. It’s satisfying, although it underlines what a bad idea it was to show Euron taking down Rhaegal so easily last week. In that episode, the scorpions were pinpoint accurate. Now they’re missing all over the place before she moves in to blast them to smithereens, although I suppose Dany does know what they can do now. She makes some nifty evasive maneuvers.

Even with that caveat, there is still the most enjoyable part of the battle. It’s still possible to kind of root for Daenerys here. The best moment is when, during a press of silence, Daenerys explodes the front wall of King’s Landing, which falls all over the Golden Company! I know they didn’t get much to do but that was great.

Also of note: Harry Strickland’s white horse is knocked to the ground. Remember that, because symbolism.

With the gates open, Dany’s armies rush in. There’s a fun long take of Harry Strickland being chased down by Dothraki. Grey Worm spears him in the back. Let the carnage begin!

And it is carnage. With Drogon on her side, we see how little chance the Lannisters ever actually had. Cersei won some victories, but they were always contingent on Daenerys not just nuking the city like she nuked the Lannister forces on the Goldroad. This is a massacre and depicted as such. As with the Loot Train Attack, the focus is on the people on the ground, whether we’re seeing them burnt up or ridden down or snuffed out like ants.

Tyrion walks through the carnage outside the walls, which recalls him walking through the aftermath of the battlefield on the Goldroad. In the Red Keep, Qyburn encourages Cersei to take cover, but she is crazily defiant. “The Red Keep has never fallen,” she says. “It won’t fall today.” You were alive during Robert’s Rebellion, Cersei. Get with it. I’m pretty sure this whole episode is the sack of King’s Landing come again.

On the ground, Dany’s ground troops are dominating. They march to the end of a street (one the production actually made for this purpose, FYI), and are confronted with a horde of Lannister soldiers. But like I said, these guys have no chance. One brave coward throws down his sword and the rest soon follow. In the distance, we hear the city bells toll — we’ve been told multiple times by this point that if the bells tolls, it means surrender. Dany has agreed to halt the attack should that happen. Disaster is avoided?

And now we come to the moment. We see Dany’s face. It’s covered in ash. She sees the Red Keep in the distance, and has a hundred thousand-yard staredown with Cersei. Her fact contorts in rage. The bloodlust is on her. In the Inside the Episode feature, one of the showrunners talks about how Dany sees the Red Keep and is reminded of everything taken from her family. That makes sense, and it’s yet another example of families drawing together in the final stretch, even if only one of the family members is alive. I can’t say I really felt any of that when watching the episode, though.

In the end, the best argument for this turn is Emilia Clarke’s wonderful facial acting. As played, this moment is raw and terrible and sad. That’s mostly due to Clarke, for better or worse.

Daenerys takes off on Drogon, flies low, and burns random smallfolk to a crisp. Daenerys chooses death. And here’s what I’ll say about it: I still don’t quite buy the turn, but it fills me with sad wonder, and the episode from here on out definitely has an ugly spellbinding power I can’t ignore.

Bells or no bells, it’s clear that to Daenerys, this battle is not over. Taking a cue from his queen, Grey Worm chucks a spear at a Lannister soldier, and from then on, it’s pandemonium. Jon Snow barely has a moment to consider how his relationship with his aunt just got even weirder before his own men are rushing forward to kill the Lannister soldiers who, let’s remember, just surrendered. “There’s a beast in every man,” Jorah Mormont once told Dany, “and it stirs when you put a sword in his hands.” This is that come to life.

What follows is a brutal, uncompromising, bloody, despairing vision of humanity at its worst. Lannister soldiers writhe on the ground, burning. Fleeing citizens are incinerated. Tyrion is open-mouthed in horror. Cersei realizes what she’s unleashed, her eyes dancing with panic.

Around now is when we start seeing the perspectives of townsfolk. We see their faces as they die, whether its by burning or stabbing. Children stare at the carnage in the streets. Morality and the chain of command break down. Jon has to kill one of his own men to stop him from raping a citizen.

It’s rendered in grisly, meticulous detail, but there’s something distasteful about it. If you don’t buy Daenerys’ turn, nothing after feels fully earned, which is doubly troubling because so much of what comes after is so horrific. I don’t fully buy it, so as spectacular as the filmmaking is (and to me it’s definitely a more pulse-pounding watch than the somewhat muddy-looking Battle of Winterfell), there’s an undertone of shame, like we’re watching something we shouldn’t be.

Dany has reached the Red Keep now, and is blowing away the tall towers. They fall like they’re made of paper. Finally, Cersei is convinced to go…somewhere. I mean, she can’t possibly find safety but props to Qyburn, I suppose, for being loyal even unto the apocalypse. In the city, the wildfire bombs Aerys hid under the city years ago start to go off, adding green flames to the orange.

Below, Jaime has made it to Secret Passage Cove, where it just so happens Euron has washed ashore after jumping overboard as Dany blew up the Silence. Sure, we’ll go with that. He realizes that they’re doomed, and seems to pick a fight with Jaime purely for the hell of it, telling him he slept with Cersei.

The fight is intimate and nasty, with punches and throat kicks and even a body slam. And of course Jaime smacks Euron with his golden hand. But in the end, Euron manages to stab Jaime not once but twice in his side with a dagger. He’s not coming back from that.

But he can at least take Euron out before he goes. Jaime manages to crawl to his sword, pin Euron against a rock, and run him through. “Another king for you,” Euron says. Always full of quips, this guy. His last words, said with a grin, are “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.”

And so ends an interesting campy side character. I think I need a little more time before I deliver a final word on Euron.

We rejoin Arya and the Hound in the Red Keep map room. In the best scene of the episode, the Hound tells Arya to get lost. He’s wanted revenge against his brother his whole life; Arya has wanted revenge against Cersei for a few years. “You want to be like me?” he asks. She doesn’t, because she still has things to live for. Unlike Dany, Arya chooses life. It’s simple, but dammit, it works, because we know the relationship between these two characters. She thanks him, for everything and nothing in particular, and I well up a bit.

We’ll see where she goes in a minute. For now, we join Cersei and her retinue as she scrambles down some stairs. The walls collapse around them in a spectacular special effect, exposing the sky outside, and the Hound emerges from further down the stairwell. “Your Grace,” he says, which is pretty funny. He takes out a few of Cersei’s guards with ease before turning his sights on the man himself. “Hello, big brother.” Get hype, etc.

But before Cleganebowl commences, the Mountain dashes Qyburn’s head against a the busted wall as punishment for trying to give him an order. It’s another weirdly light, kinda fun moment in an episode that is very not those things. Cersei, abandoned by her retinue, just walks on by. Also funny!

The fight itself is a bloody good time, although the Mountain’s makeup looks a little SyFy Channel Original Feature, especially when his armor comes off to expose his bare chest. There’s a reason they kept that helmet on him pretty much whenever he was on screen for the last few seasons.

There are other SyFy features. The Hound runs the Mountain through and the Mountain barely feels it, and later the Mountain lifts the Hound up and gives him a half-Oberyn. It’s a strange fight, really, because the Hound is a complex character played by a talented actor and the Mountain is a monster zombie played by a professional strongman. It’s part camp and part Shakespearean drama.

It falls entirely to Rory McCann to hold up the emotional weight on this fight. Happily, he’s up to it. McCann completely sells the Hound’s fury, laughing and whimpering and screaming in a way that makes the Hound at once fearful and pitiable. He even gets a laugh with a well-placed “Fucking die!” The fight ends with dramatic splendor as the Hound tackles the Mountain off the crumbling walls of the Red Keep into the inferno below. A fratricide for the ages.

Cersei, meanwhile, emerges into the Map Room. Jaime arrives, having managed to live long enough to see his queen again. It’s a weirdly touching reunion. I don’t think Cersei EVER imagined she would lose this badly, and despite the horrible things both of them have done, I can’t help but feel wistful as they embrace. Don’t get me wrong: she still needs to die, and she will, but seeing Cersei at the end of her rope is still affecting. Lena Headey, as expected, smashes it. I don’t know if Cersei has it in her to care for Jaime over a lifetime, but I believe she cares here.

Down below, Arya has made it to the streets of King’s Landing, and becomes our new eyes and ears. She gets a nice long one-shot as she weaves in and out of scenes of decay and distress, of people cradling their limbless dying loved ones in their arms, of debris falling round her head, of crowds rushing furiously to find safety.

After cutting away for a second, we pick up with Arya lying on the ground covered in soot, not moving. She wakes up, thank goodness. My heart was in my throat when it looked like she might be dead, but I think they went to this well a couple too many times, not letting us know whether Arya made it. It goes without saying that Maisie Williams sells the horror of the situation.

Below the Red Keep, Jaime and Cersei are trying to flee, making their way through the room with the dragon skulls. The way is blocked, and the ceiling is crumbling.

Then, finally, FINALLY, all that talk of Cersei caring about her children bears fruit. “I want our baby to live,” she says. “Don’t let me die.” Well, it took her 300-year-old castle tumbling down around her to make Tyrion right, but at least it happened.

But of course it’s too late. Jaime does all he can, which is to comfort Cersei in her final moments. “Nothing else matters,” he says. “Only us.” They embrace, “The Rains of Castamere” blooms onto the soundtrack, the Red Keep falls down, and they die.

I thought that was an excellent ending for those two, by the way. I’m sure we’ll be analyzing all this to hell and back, but one of the weirdest criticisms I’ve read is that Cersei’s death didn’t measure up to expectations. What did you want her to do, jump on Drogon and fight Dany hand to hand?

The episode ends with Arya, who has survive the sack and the destruction. Ash rains down around her. Flames burn low. But not all hope is lost. Somehow, Harry Strickland’s white horse — the one we saw go down when the battle started — is alive. It survived, like her. She approaches it, touches it, calms it, mounts it, and rides for we know not where. It’s a lyrical ending to a challenging, difficult, messy, wildly ambitious episode.

dark. Next. Build your own Small Council!

There was a lot about “The Bells” that was excellent. The performances and the special effects were as good as they’ve ever been. There were some clever twists, and some very good interpersonal scenes. But at first blush, I’ve got to call it a failure, because Daenerys’ turn simply didn’t work for me, and that turn is the lynchpin of the episode. This episode needs digesting.

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