Unsullied Recap—Game of Thrones, Episode 805—“The Bells”

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

Spoiler note: “A girl says nothing. A girl keeps her mouth closed. No one hears.” — Girls, boys, and everyone alike, Jaqen H’ghar has spoken, so please remember: Spoilers don’t make friends. Feel free to take book discussions over to our book-reader’s recap here at WIC, but keep all spoilers to yourself. Thank you!

We begin the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones with Varys signing his own death warrant. Or he may as well be, as he writes missives (with spectacular penmanship) informing unknown recipients of Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne. Considering his conversation with Tyrion last week regarding this matter, and the fact that, in season 7, Daenerys threatened him with death if he should ever betray her, things aren’t looking good for Varys. He seems to be aware of the consequences, as he told Tyrion that he would defend the realm “no matter the personal cost.”

That sense of selflessness for the sake of the common people will forever make me wish Varys had just taken the throne himself. More’s the pity.

As he writes, one of his “little birds,” a kitchen girl named Martha, enters with a progress report: Daenerys isn’t eating, and Martha fears that the soldiers are watching her. Varys reassures her that their mission is worth the risk, and then heads off to meet that mission — namely, Jon Snow — as he docks on the shores of Dragonstone.

Varys attempts to peer-pressure Jon into taking a job he doesn’t want. And he continues to be my hero when he pulls out this old Targaryen-centric adage (if I had a dollar for every time I cited it, I could pay off my student loans):

"They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath. […] I still don’t know how [Daenerys’] coin has landed, but I’m quite certain about yours."

Jon, as usual, isn’t having it. He doesn’t want the throne, and he’s dead-set on supporting Daenerys’ plan to lay fiery siege to King’s Landing. He’s either blindly devoted to Daenerys, or he doesn’t want the kingship so badly that he’s deluded himself into believing that there’s nothing morally questionable about setting an entire city on fire. Who’s to say?

Within the castle walls, Tyrion approaches Daenerys, whose usually glam aesthetics have been replaced by unkempt hair and some killer under-eye shadows. I’m digging the unhinged vibe. Tyrion, however, is a bit more wary, even as he tattles on Varys for quitting the Targaryen campaign.

Daenerys assumes that her betrayer is Jon, and holds fast to her convictions even after Tyrion lays out the details.

"He knows the truth about Jon. […] Because you told him. You learned from Sansa, and she learned from Jon, though I begged him not to tell her. As I said… he betrayed me."

That’s a matter of perspective. Jon told his family the truth, not wanting to keep secrets or breed distrust among them. He had a choice — abide by Daenerys’ demand, or stay true to his family. Jon’s had a rocky go of it with his heretofore assumed siblings since his return to Winterfell, but he could no longer live a lie with them. Telling Sansa and Arya of his parentage wasn’t about his claim to the throne, but rather about who he truly is.

The issue is that Daenerys has come to a point in her paranoia where she believes that her allies are against her, and that she’ll forever be fighting to fulfill and protect her birthright. She believes that birthright to be the Iron Throne, and that others want it just as much as she does; she cannot imagine not wanting it, and therefore she can’t believe that Jon doesn’t.

"TYRION: “I’m glad Sansa told me. I am your Hand. I need to be aware of any threats you’re facing. […] Your Master of Whisperers needs to be aware, too.”DAENERYS: “You spoke to him first. Without coming to me. Without asking my permission.”TYRION: “It was a mistake.”DAENERYS: “Why do you think Sansa told you? What do you think she hoped to gain?”TYRION: “She trusts me.”DAENERYS: “Yes, she trusts you. She trusted you to spread secrets that could destroy your own queen. And you did not let her down.”"

As expected, Daenerys and Sansa’s mutual animosity is coming to a head. They don’t meet onscreen this week, so likely we’ll see the culmination of this in the finale.

In the meantime, Daenerys’ paranoia has indeed reached its plateau. She does not even trust her own advisors not to conspire against her behind her back. In Varys’ case, that is valid; but then again, it might not have been necessary at all if Daenerys had been willing to practice patience and heed his advice. We’ll never know, though, as she chooses to follow through on last season’s warning and executes Varys for treason.

Jon and Tyrion stand by and watch as, on Dragonstone’s scenic beachfront, a man is burned alive. Those two really drank that Targaryen Kool-Aid, huh? But then, at this point, there’s really no talking Daenerys out of anything.

Tyrion and Varys have a short-lived but nevertheless poignant farewell. The former admits that he told Daenerys of the betrayal, and Varys says, “I hope I deserve this. Truly I do. I hope I’m wrong.” Even when faced with death, he wishes the best for the Seven Kingdoms. He won’t be alive to see it, but he wants the realm to be safe and prosperous, and ruled justly.

“Goodbye, old friend,” he says to Tyrion, who grasps his arm for just a moment. It serves to remind the viewers of the bond forged between these two characters, of all they’ve endured together, whether they were on the same side or not.

Afterwards, Daenerys and Grey Worm share a quiet scene in remembrance of Missandei. The only physical reminder they have of her is her slave’s collar, which Grey Worm throws into the fireplace. It’s an act which signifies Missandei’s freedom, and symbolizes the further freedom they might have shared if they’d both survived the war.

Grey Worm is dismissed when Jon enters. What follows is a supremely uncomfortable scene with plenty to unpack.

"DAENERYS: “What did I say would happen if you told your sister?”JON: “I don’t want it, and that’s what I told him.”DAENERYS: “She betrayed your trust. She killed Varys as much as I did. This is a victory for her. Now she knows what happens when people hear the truth about you.”"

That’s some major projection. Sansa won’t consider Varys’ death a victory, as he’d done nothing to harm her family; he wasn’t the Starks’ enemy. Defending their family from threats or otherwise avenging their loved ones’ deaths has been the Starks’ M.O. throughout. Varys’ execution probably won’t provide any vindication for Sansa, as she already believed that Daenerys was unfit to rule. Like Varys, Sansa wants what’s best for the realm, for her people, and she doesn’t believe it’s Daenerys, especially when there’s another option.

Daenerys goes on to eerily emulate her late brother Viserys when he watched in horror as the Dothraki celebrated her in season 1. She tells Jon, “Far more people in Westeros love you than love me. I don’t have love here. I only have fear.”

"JON: “I love you. And you will always be my queen.”DAENERYS: “Is that all I am to you? Your queen?”"

They kiss, and neither of them appears particularly enthusiastic about it. Jon is hesitant at best. So I’m left with not only this cringe-y tingle down my spine, but also a handful of questions: Does Jon mean what he says, or are his words only meant to pacify Daenerys? He says he loves her, but he can’t physically act the part when she wants him to. Is it the unspoken incest factor that gives him pause, or is it that fear Daenerys mentioned? What is it that she wants from Jon now that he’s told the secret she’d begged him not to? Does she plan on punishing Jon for his “betrayal,” as it were?

When they break apart, Daenerys says, “All right, then. Let it be fear.” This is both reminiscent of Cersei’s “I choose violence,” and a possible confirmation that Jon is indeed afraid of her. Hence the uncomfortable air to the scene.

Later, in the throne room at Dragonstone, Tyrion tries again to dissuade Daenerys from acting too rashly. It’s reiterated that if she burns the city, she kills more than just her enemies, but thousands of innocents as well. Tyrion pleads with her to give the people a chance to surrender: “Please, if you hear them ringing the bells, call off the attack.” Daenerys appears to agree to this stipulation, but it’s not all well and good, as she then informs Tyrion that Jaime was apprehended on his way to King’s Landing. She warns Tyrion that the next time he fails her will be his last, yet it’s not enough to keep Tyrion from meeting with his brother.

After some fumbling with languages, Tyrion manages to convince the Unsullied to allow him a private audience with Jaime. There is much back-and-forth about what they can and should do, as Jaime only wishes to reach Cersei, and Tyrion tries to convince him that she’s a lost cause unless Jaime can persuade her to either surrender or flee. Tyrion tells him to take Cersei down to where the dragon’s skulls are kept in the Red Keep, where there is an exit that will lead them to the surrounding beach and a waiting dinghy (likely provided by Davos, whose assistance Tyrion sought earlier). They can make it to Pentos, to “start a new life” together with their unborn child.

If Jaime makes it to King’s Landing in time, he can signal the city’s surrender before the battle can begin. In this way, Tyrion could keep his vow to Daenerys to help her win the throne without rampant bloodshed, as well as keep his family safe. He hopes that, if Daenerys can take the throne “without wading through a river of blood,” she’ll show him mercy for helping his siblings to escape.

With their plan hatched and Jaime’s shackles unlocked, the brothers share their goodbyes.

"TYRION: “If it weren’t for you, I never would have survived my childhood.”JAIME: “You would have.”TYRION: “You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.”"

They embrace, and end their journey together on this tender moment. Jaime and Tyrion’s love for each other has only ever faced its obstacles because of their respective and conflicting relationships with Cersei, but now it’s made plain that Tyrion wants them both alive and safe. His plan to get them out of Westeros manages to mend those strained ties with his brother at last.

We head to King’s Landing next as the city prepares for the invasion and battle to follow. There’s a feeling of urgency and trepidation as Lannister soldiers direct the common people towards the Red Keep, while other citizens lock themselves in their homes.

Arya and the Hound make their way through the streets, faces of stoicism in a sea of fear. They’re heading for the castle not for safety, but to enact their revenge upon their targets — the Hound’s being his brother, the Mountain; and Arya’s being Cersei, the last remaining victim on her list. Jaime is also on his way to Cersei, walking through a a retinue of soldiers marching the opposite direction. There’s some kind of symbolism in that, as Jaime’s knighthood has always been more about keeping close to Cersei than it was about actually being a soldier.

Arya and the Hound manage to get past the gate before it’s closed, as the grounds within have reached capacity. Jaime, however, is forced to find another way inside.

Outside the gates, Daenerys’ forces wait for their signal. Tyrion reminds us of the city’s code of surrender when he tells Jon and Davos, “If you hear the bells ring, they’ve surrendered. Call off your men.”

Cersei watches from her tower overlooking the capital, much as she did when she orchestrated the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and her enemies in season 6.

The Iron Fleet, commanded by Euron Greyjoy, waits in the bay, but their post is quickly rendered ineffective when Daenerys swoops in on Drogon, decimating the ships with a few well-placed bursts of flame. This time, Qyburn’s ballista fails to hit its mark, and is destroyed along with everything and everyone else.

Outside the gates to King’s Landing, things are momentarily quieter, more peaceful, as the opposing armies face off, still waiting. The mood changes in an instant, as soon as Daenerys and Drogon appear, blowing a hole right through the Golden Company’s first line of defense. The Unsullied and Dothraki charge, wreaking further havoc as Daenerys continues to burn anyone standing in her way. The scene is all, fittingly enough, “fire and blood.”

Tyrion walks through the aftermath, among piles of charred, smoldering, and still-burning bodies. Cersei continues to watch from her tower as Qyburn informs her that the scorpions have been obliterated, the Golden Company has fallen, and the gates have been breached. Cersei’s defenses are losing quickly, but she remains resolute in her assertion that “[T]he Red Keep has never fallen. It won’t fall today.”

Grey Worm, Jon, and Davos lead their forces through the city. They stop when they meet the Lannister soldiers, both parties coming to a standstill as they wait for the other to make the first move, to surrender or continue the fight. The camera cuts to Tyrion watching the Red Keep from afar, to Jaime as he makes his way towards it, to Cersei ensconced inside. Daenerys flies Drogon overhead, inspiring the fear she’d decided upon as the inhabitants of the city continue to scramble for safety.

It’s the appearance of Drogon, and the knowledge that he won’t be so easily killed without the ballista or scorpions, that compels the Lannister soldiers to drop their swords, effectively surrendering. There is a call to “Ring the bells!”, which is echoed through the city.

Daenerys overlooks King’s Landing from atop Drogon’s back, perched upon an edifice that’s yet to be demolished by flame, awaiting Cersei’s decision. But, in the end, that choice is made irrelevant. Even as the bells ring, Daenerys takes flight once more, this time to burn the surrendering city.

Tyrion watches on in horror, as his words to Daenerys at the beginning of the episode perhaps come back to haunt him: “We wanted what you want. A better world, for all of us.” Now that Daenerys has embraced a sense of madness, he sees that there is no better world to be had.

This is a turn of events that’s been developing over the years, carefully enough that it comes as a plot twist, but simultaneously clear in hindsight, or to anyone digging a little deeper as the seasons wore on. As surprising as it may be, it makes sense when we reflect upon Daenerys’ journey. The audience is even reminded of Daenerys’ potential for madness, and her struggle to overcome it, in the episode’s “previously on.” For anyone who skips the intro, or is otherwise not privy to these scenes, this week we were treated to a shot of Daenerys from last episode, as her expression twists upon seeing Missandei’s death. Accompanying the shot are voiceovers from years past:

"VARYS: “[Jon] has the better claim to the throne.”CERSEI: “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.”BARRISTAN SELMY: “The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved.”TYRION: “Children are not their fathers.”OLENNA TYRELL: “Be a dragon.”JORAH: “You have a gentle heart.”MAESTER AEMON: “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.”VISERYS: “You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?”"

All of these quotes embody Daenerys’ arc — her conquests, her struggle to obtain control without succumbing to Targaryen follies, and her good intentions that were ultimately superseded by her power-hungry ambition.

The battle continues. Grey Worm, still raw from his grief over Missandei, lobs a spear into the nearest Lannister soldier, and the Unsullied charge. As Jon watches the mayhem erupt around him, finally something seems to click for him. He realizes the same thing Tyrion does: that this attack, made unwarranted by the city’s surrender, doesn’t speak to a new, more benevolent rule should Daenerys take the throne.

None of this should come as too much of a shock to Jon, though. He’s fought wars before; he knows firsthand of the death and destruction, so why does any of this surprise him? Or is just the realization that he was wrong that shakes him so? I suppose we’ll hear his take next week, as there’s no time for any deep introspection right now.

Jon tries to command his men to fall back, a choice Grey Worm catches and is clearly dissatisfied with. He may very well report this back to Daenerys, who could see it as another betrayal and use it against Jon later.

Daenerys and Drogon continue to indiscriminately burn the city. We see a shot that should be familiar to us from Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying in season 2, as well as Bran’s memory overload when he became the Three-Eyed Raven: a dragon’s shadow, soaring above the rooftops of King’s Landing. Now that these events have come to pass, the vision is supplemented by the reality of the situation: burning bodies, cowering citizens, crying children, all vying for an escape. Jon watches it all in something of a daze, shaken back to action only when he’s attacked, or when he saves a civilian woman from being raped by a Northman.

This is another shock to Jon’s core, that one of his men would attempt such a horrific thing. It harkens back to the theme that there’s evil in everyone, and it’s encouraged by war, and excused by the chaos that such violence incites. War raises so many moral quandaries, but this is a battle that could have been avoided. The city had given in to Daenerys’ attack, and still the fight, the death, the horror, rages on.

On the banks of the bay from which Jaime and Cersei are meant to flee, Jaime instead meets Euron, who provokes him into their own fight for no other reason than that Euron is the worst kind of bro. Euron delivers a seemingly fatal blow, and I’m thinking there’s no way Jaime dies because of this guy, of all people. And he doesn’t disappoint, using a burst of strength to drive his sword into Euron’s gut. As Jaime staggers off, Euron dies the way he lives — smug and self-important, and taking one last dig at Jaime when he says to himself, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.”

Arya and the Hound arrive in the map room, to discover that the Red Keep is crumbling all around them.

"THE HOUND: “Go home, girl. The fire will get her, or one of the Dothraki. Or maybe that dragon will eat her. It doesn’t matter. She’s dead. And you’ll be dead too if you don’t get out of here.”ARYA: “I’m going to kill her.”THE HOUND: “You think you wanted revenge a long time? I’ve been after it all my life. It’s all I care about. And look at me — look at me! You wanna be like me? You come with me, you die here.”ARYA: “Sandor… Thank you.”"

This is a pivotal exchange for these characters as individuals, and their relationship with one another. So much of Arya’s story has revolved around avenging her family, and her angry, violent streak was one the Hound used to encourage. She watched him be merciless on their travels together, and began to learn how to detach herself emotionally even before she trained at the House of Black and White.

Now, the Hound acknowledges that he doesn’t want Arya to end up like him. He’s been driven by self-loathing and the desire to kill his brother for so long that he has nothing left, but Arya does. She has more than her kill list, and Cersei’s more than likely dead whether Arya delivers the final blow or not. She doesn’t have to be the one doling out justice; the often inevitable violence doing so entails does not have to be Arya’s responsibility.

But she’s not yet ready to die, because there’s so much she has to live for — her family, Gendry, herself. She can make a change now, to truly be Arya Stark again, and the Hound’s final act of guidance to her is to make her see that.

The Hound, for his part, accepts that there is no going back for him. He meets the Mountain, Cersei, and Qyburn on a staircase as they make their way to Maegor’s Holdfast to wait out the battle. Cersei and Qyburn both attempt to maintain control over Ser Gregor, who is prepared to fight his brother, therefore disengaging from his intended purpose when he was reanimated: to protect Cersei. But there is evidently still enough of his own humanity left within him to exercise free will when he sees fit, and his story has always been tied up with the Hound’s.

When Qyburn tries to stop him, the Mountain thrusts him down the steps, killing him on impact. And so Qyburn dies like so many Frankensteinian characters, by the hand of his own ill-advised creation.

Alone now but free to excuse herself from this one-on-one battle unscathed, Cersei does so with no further fanfare. And so Cleganebowl commences, with the Hound knocking his brother’s helmet off so that we finally see what the zombified Mountain looks like. I am horrified with the results, and could have lived quite happily without ever knowing.

Easy as it was for the Hound to air out his brother’s dirty laundry like that, he Mountain proves to be far less easy to kill.

Arya makes her way through the streets on her own, encountering other fleeing, injured, and dead citizens. Walls are crumbling around them. Arya is nearly trampled to death, a scene which is cut together with the Hound as his brother rains blows down upon him as well. Helped along by an unnamed woman, Arya manages to survive and keep running. But the Hound does not. The Mountain pulls his signature eye-popping, skull-crushing move (RIP Oberyn Martell), but the Hound gets his sword through his brother’s eye, too. It’s a lot of gross eye horror, as if the showrunners know one of my worst nightmares and have a personal vendetta against me.

The Cleganes go out together, tumbling over the disintegrating walls of the Red Keep. In the end, the Hound is defeated by the combined efforts of his greatest fears: his brother, and fire. There’s a sense of poetic justice to this end for them both, all I’m saying is that once the eyes came out, I couldn’t stand to look too closely as it all happened.

Waste continues to be laid upon streets of King’s Landing. Jon and Davos share a look, one of recognition that they need to end this battle if they want to get out alive. Jon shouts for his men to “fall back!” and “get out of the city!” as dragonfire bursts in the sky, and the wildfire stores buried around the capital detonate.

Cersei and Jaime reunite in the map room, all tears and blood and palpable emotion. They make their way to the castle’s underbelly, only to find Jaime’s planned exit blocked by an avalanche of stones. Finally, Cersei loses hope for her survival, but still she pleads with Jaime to do what he’s always done — save her, and keep them together: “I want our baby to live. Don’t let me die, Jaime, please don’t let me die.”

Resigned to their death as the underground caves in upon them, Jaime holds her and says what has essentially defined the pair’s relationship through the years:

"“Nothing else matters. Only us.”"

Jaime and Cersei’s deaths are less about their individual character arcs, and more about their codependent relationship. Much of their journeys came back to this fact, that they did everything for each other. There was hardly ever any sense of right and wrong between them, just the ever-present pull that kept them coming back to one another, no matter what. They could never truly sever ties, and so they end the same way they began: together, and with nothing between them anymore.

Arya dominates much of the remainder of the episode, narrowly escaping death more times than I care to count and exacerbating my heartburn in the process. She’s covered in ash and blood and some sure to be wicked facial scars. She comes upon a small crowd of people, and urges them to “keep moving,” or else they’ll die. She’s given up her vengeful mission and instead picks up the role of leadership, to continue to try to save humanity the same way she did when she killed the Night King.

We end this tumultuous 94-minute ride with Arya, standing alone in the ruins of the city. It’s all flame and ruined buildings, and the charred bodies of the mother and daughter she tried to save, and the remains of the girl’s little wooden horse.

An actual white horse is the only other living creature around, its body burned but still intact. This scene is alive with symbolism — the white horse represents a return to Arya’s innocence, to her selflessly heroic nature and the person she was before the thirst for vengeance overtook her. It’s not quite the same innocence as before, as the horse’s wounds signify Arya’s traumas and the violence in her past, but the point stands that she is still alive, and she has the opportunity to return to that heroic side of herself. To cement this transition, Arya rides the horse out and away from the decimation that is King’s Landing.

One last episode to go. What’s in store for the survivors next week? How will Daenerys attempt to punish the Starks for their perceived treasons? Will Sansa, Bran, and Sam be summoned south to stand trial for speaking out about Jon’s claim to the throne? Now that he’s seen the damage Daenerys is willing to cause, will Jon vie for rulership for the sake of the people? How many know the truth about him now? What’s to become of Tyrion now that his family is dead, and his faith in Daenerys is very likely lost? Indeed, what’s to become of them all, now that Daenerys has embraced Targaryen madness and potentially gained the Iron Throne, all in one fell swoop?


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