In “The Bells,” Game of Thrones once more demonstrates its prowess at depicting scenes of combat and violence, as well as creating moments of powerful emotion. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is mourning her losses at Dragonstone as she awaits the arrival of her army. Her feelings of isolation are magnified by conspiracy and betrayal. Daenerys’ advisors seek to moderate her destructive impulses as they prepare for a war that could kill tens of thousands of innocent people in King’s Landing. After killing Rhaegal and Missandei, it seems that Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has finally awakened the dragon.
After learning that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) has decided that Jon would make a better ruler than the Dragon Queen. He attempts to send ravens in order to gain support for his coup, but his spy network is being watched. Despite the danger, he continues his efforts to keep Daenerys Targaryen from sitting on the Iron Throne. As one of his little spies recites back to him, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”
In an act that seems desperate, Varys approaches Jon Snow (Kit Harington) regarding his concerns about the Queen. Repeating the maxim about the Targaryen tendency for either madness or greatness, Varys tells Jon, “They say every time a Targaryen is born the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.” Varys warns, “We both know what she’s about to do.” Jon makes it clear he has no interest in ruling, telling Varys, “She is my Queen.”
Varys’ scheme is revealed to Daenerys not by Jon, but by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Daenerys feels betrayed by all, including Jon and Tyrion, “You learned from Sansa, and she learned from Jon, though I begged him not to tell her.” When Tyrion claims Sansa told him Jon’s secret because she trusts him, Daenerys counters, “She trusted you to spread secrets that could destroy your own Queen. And you did not let her down.”
Varys’ transgression leads to his arrest. As they stand on the cliffs of Dragonstone, Tyrion admits his betrayal to Varys, the man who once helped save his life. Varys tells Tyrion, “I hope I deserved it. Truly I do. I hope I’m wrong. Goodbye, old friend.” When Drogon’s head appears in the dark behind Daenerys, it becomes apparent that Varys is to be executed by dragon fire. When she calls out “Dracarys,” her tone reveals she takes no joy in his execution, but that betrayal has left her weary.
Daenerys and Greyworm (Jacob Anderson) are mourning Missandei. Daenerys has the one possession that Missandei brought with her across the Narrow Sea. Greyworm throws it in the fire and they watch it burn. Perhaps they are remembering Missandei’s last pronouncement, “Dracarys”—to let their enemies burn.
Jon tries to reassure Daenerys, but she’s not comforted by his assurances that he doesn’t want to be King. Daenerys points out, “Far more people in Westeros love you than love me. I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” When she kisses him, he eventually pulls away, reinforcing her feelings of isolation and betrayal. If only Jon could just get over the fact they’re related, but instead he leaves her feeling further rejected. She tells Jon, “All right then. Let it be fear.”
Tyrion wants Daenerys to see the people in King’s Landing as hostages. She tells Tyrion, “Mercy is our strength—our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant.” Tryion claims that Cersei’s followers will abandon her if they believe the war is lost, and will ring the bells to signal surrender. He begs, “Please. If you hear them ringing the bells, call off the attack.” Despite the tension between them, Daenerys agrees to his request, signaling so to Greyworm. Before Tyrion leaves, she tells him that his brother was caught trying to get back to Cersei and warns, “Next time you fail will be the last time you fail.”
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) arrive at the allied encampment outside of King’s Landing, where she tells the Northen guard, “I’m Arya Stark. I’m here to kill Queen Cersei.” As they continue on to King’s Landing, we begin to have hope that the destruction of King’s Landing can be avoided. Arya is the hero of Winterfell, after all. But that would be too easy.
Despite his poor attempt to speak Dothraki, Tyrion sends the Dothraki guard away so he can see his brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Tyrion asks Jaime to convince Cersei to change her course of action in order to save the innocent people who will be killed in King’s Landing otherwise. Jaime tells his brother, “To be honest, I’ve never much cared for them, innocent of otherwise.” Tyrion implores his brother to at least save Cersei and her unborn child, and then to ring the bells to indicate surrender of the city. Jaime points out the Daenerys will execute Tyrion for freeing him. Tyrion tells his brother, “Tens of thousands of innocent lives, one not particularly innocent dwarf. Seems like a fair trade.” Tyrion says farewell to his brother: “If it weren’t for you, I never would have survived my childhood … you were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.” They hug emotionally and we find ourselves joining in on their tears.
The next day, Arya and Sandor Clegane, as well as Jaime Lannister, make it into King’s Landing. When people begin to panic, Arya and Clegane make into the Red Keep before they shut the gate, but Jaime has less luck and must try to find another way in.
Euron Greyjoy’s fleet protects King’s Landing from Blackwater Bay, while the Golden Company is positioned outside the gate. The allied army of Northmen, Dothraki, and the Unsullied face the gate of King’s landing. Tyrion tells Jon if he hears the bells ringing to call off his men.
As Euron Greyjoy looks to the sky, he sees Daenerys coming towards him on Drogon. Euron commands his men to shoot, but Daenerys is much better prepared than she was when Rhaegal was killed. Drogon is able to maneuver around the bolts shot from the scorpions. Euron is forced to jump into the sea as his ship is destroyed. Daenerys burns the Iron fleet, then heads towards King’s Landing. The scorpions built along the city walls, which seemed so formidable in “The Last of the Starks,” are easily destroyed by dragon fire. Seems those scorpions aren’t as maneuverable as a dragon on the offense.
The Golden Company looks to the skies as they hear distant sounds. In a shocking moment, the gate behind the golden company is suddenly ablaze as Drogon demolishes the gate from the inside of the city. This seems to destroy much of the Golden Company, and Greyworm finishes off its commander. Daenerys’ army enters the city, easily killing the Lannister soldiers they encounter.
Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser) tells Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) that the scorpions have all been destroyed, the iron fleet is burning, and the gate has been breached. She maintains her delusion that she can hold out against the attack: “The Red Keep’s never fallen. It won’t fall today.”
Jon, Greyworm, and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) make their way to the front of their army where they stand off against Lannister soldiers. Drogon lands on the city wall, loudly growling. The Lannister soldiers throw down their swords.
From the Red Keep, Cersei stares at Daenerys in the distance. Tyrion stares at the bell tower, willing it to sound. Finally the bells ring out. Jon sighs in relief while Cersei closes her eyes in displeasure. Tyrion’s hope at hearing the bells quickly dissipates as he watches the Dragon Queen. Her face twists from anticipation to discontent to rage as she realizes surrender doesn’t provide the redress she seeks. If not love, then fear.
Daenerys is enraged. She flies across King’s Landing, burning soldiers and citizens alike. The Dragon Queen isn’t the only one feeling vengeful. When Greyworm sees Daenerys burning the city, he heaves his spear into one of the surrendering Lannister soldiers. Jon tries to stop the fighting, but can’t. Davos makes an effort to get the common people to safety, as does one of the Lannister soldiers. Daenerys’ army kills civilians as well as soldiers. Jon has to kill one of his own soldiers attempting to rape a woman. There are few heroes as King’s Landing descends into chaos.
Jaime has made his way out of the city to the cove that leads into the Red Keep cellars, where he sees the skiff Tyrion promised him. Coincidentally, Euron Greyjoy has washed up on the same shore. Euron, who can sometimes be a cartoonish villain, is eager to fight Jaime Lannister. Drogon attacks the Red Keep as Euron and Jaime fight below in the cove. Euron stabs Jaime in the ribs. When Kingslayer reaches for a sword, Euron stabs him again, but the Kingslayer has his sword and impales Euron. Jaime takes his sword and leaves Euron to die. Grinning madly, Euron says to himself, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.” Euron’s swaggering villainy has always been oddly out of place on Game of Thrones, which may help to explain the strangeness of this scene.
Arya and Sandor Clegane have made it to the map room in the Red Keep. As they hear Drogon attacking the Keep, Clegane tells Arya to leave.
Sandor Clegane: “Go home, girl. Fire will get her. Or one of the Dotharki. Or maybe that dragon will eat her. Doesn’t matter. She’s dead. And you’ll be dead too if you don’t get out of here.”
Ayra: “I’m going to kill her.”
Sandor Clegane: “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 want to be like me? You come with me, you die here.”
Arya considers, and lets Clegane go on without her. She calls out to him one last time to thank him before he leaves. This unexpected and moving moment brings closure to their story.
Qyburn has convinced Cersei the Red Keep is no longer safe. As they head down the stairs, Sandor Clegane appears. Sandor tells Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) “Hello, big brother.” Sandor Clegane quickly kills the other soldiers, and when Cersei demands Gregor stay with her, his eyes say otherwise. When Qyburn tries to intervene, Gregor kills his reanimator. Gregor Clegane seems equally eager to fight his brother. Cersei continues past Sandor, since he has no interest in her. As their fight begins, Gregor’s helmet comes off, revealing his monstrous form. Sandor tells his brother, “Yeah, that’s you. That’s what you’ve always been.” Sandor is having a hard time killing Gregor, who is technically already dead. He puts his sword right through his brother, with no effect.
As the Clegane brothers fight, Arya is trying to make her way out of the city. It’s chaos, with dead and dying everywhere. Arya tries to run with the crowd but falls. While Sandor is being battered by his brother, Arya is being trampled by the crowd. Someone finally helps her up. It’s the woman and daughter who earlier failed to get into the Red Keep when Arya and Sandor Clegane passed them by. Arya is separated from the woman as the crowd rushes to escape the dragon fire.
As Gregor strangles him, Sandor takes out his knife and stabs his brother again and again. When Gregor attempts to gouge out his eyes, Sandor manages to stab him in the head. When that doesn’t kill Gregor, Sandor charges his brother, throwing them both through the wall of the Red Keep and into the fire burning below. Sandor, destined to die by fire, sealed his own fate by taking the brother who burned him as a child into the flames.
The city is ablaze from dragon fire, which is lighting up hidden caches of wildfire. Jon calls to his men to leave the city: “Fall back!”
Cersei has made her way to the map room, where Jaime finds her. In this poignant scene, Cersei cries as Jaime holds her. The walls continue to crumble around them. They eventually make their way down to the dragon cellar, but every way out has been blocked by the collapsing structure. Cersei cries out to Jaime, “I want our baby to live,” then begs, “Don’t let me die, Jaime. Please don’t let me die.” Jaime holds her, reminding Cersei, “Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters but us.” The Red Keep collapses on them. Cersei and Jaime are both surprisingly sympathetic in their last moments. It becomes clear the Jaime was always going to find his way back to Cersei. It feels right for these twin lovers to be together at the end.
Arya regains consciousness under a film of dust, her head covered in blood. She tries to find her way out of the city. The bell tower above her falls and when she escapes, she discovers a group of people cowering inside a building, including the woman who saved her earlier. She tells the woman that if she stays there she will die, compelling the woman and her daughter to follow. Despite Arya’s efforts, the woman and her daughter are both killed in dragon fire.
Ashes are falling in the Red Keep like snow, as once prophesized. Arya is still alive, but barely. She finds the charred remains of the woman and her child. Arya is surprised to see a white horse, stained with blood, standing on the street. Slowly walking towards the horse, she manages to grab its reins. Finally, Arya rides out of the burnt city filled with the bodies of the dead.
The Bells Review
“The Bells” is a pyrotechnic spectacle, both terrible and amazing to behold—terrible in terms of the wrath Daenerys visits upon King’s Landing, and amazing to watch due to the expertise of the Game of Thrones special and visual effects crews. The incredible effects speak for themselves, from the fiery dragon attacks to the detailed backdrop and the hundreds of extras in grisly prosthetics in between. Game of Thrones uses these incredible visuals not just to wow us in action scenes, but to place the viewer firmly in the moment. The outstanding visual work made it feel like a real city was being destroyed, filled with people whose lives mattered. Not easy to do in a project of this scope.
We get the perspective of an enemy soldier as we follow the commander of the Golden Company. We watch him stand with his men in front of King’s Landing, then see his shock and fear as Drogon crashes through the gate, and finally witness his death at Greyworm’s hands. After Daenerys turns on the city, we follow Arya Stark as she runs through the streets of King’s Landing. She doesn’t have the point of view of a soldier fighting their way through the city, but that of a civilian trying to avoid the firebombing by Daenerys. Having Arya as a known representative of the confused masses trying to escape the city’s destruction made the scenes feel more authentic. The connection Arya made with a stranger and her daughter translated the deaths of tens of thousands of abstract people into characters the audience could relate to as we became invested in their fate. The commander of the Golden Company also briefly gave the audience the perspective of an enemy soldier surprised by the attack.
The actors also gave impressive performances, several of which were their final scenes in Game of Thrones. Lena Headey portrayed Cersei’s vulnerability, while Nikolaj Coster-Waldau showed Jaime’s protective and loving side, making these “hateful” characters relatable. Coster-Waldau’s final scene with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion) was also incredibly affecting. Prior to Sandor Clegane’s final fight, Rory McCann gave viewers one of the most emotional scenes in “The Bells” as Clegane convinces Arya (Maisie Williams) to turn back from her vengeance and they part ways.
With a fast-paced narrative and inconsistent storytelling, the actors made an effort to fill in the gaps through outstanding performances. Conleth Hill brought gravias to Lord Varys’ final scenes, even with what felt like an abbreviated telling of his final attempt to sway power in Westeros. The skilled acting of Dinklage and Coster-Waldau helps to suspend moments of disbelief as Tyrion frees Jaime. With virtually no dialogue, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys), Dinklage (Tyrion), and Jacob Anderson (Greyworm) are left to convey the underlying narrative that turned a surrender into a massacre. Clarke did her best to bridge the gaping chasm left by the writers in terms of Daenerys turning from a savior of the oppressed to a murderous villain. Through her physical expressions, Clarke conveyed incredible pain as Daenerys wrestled with her fury. Dinklage portrays the doubts Tyrion has about Daenerys as he watches her reaction to the ringing bells. Anderson creates a physical performance that projects Greyworm’s anger and loss onto the screen. His glaring look at Jon Snow reveals Greyworm would take his pain out on all of Westeros if he could.
With Lord Varys, Euron Greyjoy, Sandor and Gregor Clegane, Qyburn, and Jaime and Cersei Lannister dead, not to mention thousands of unnamed civilians who perished in King’s Landing, the list of those involved in the Game of Thrones power struggle shrinks. With her destruction of King’s Landing, it doesn’t seem like Daenerys Targaryen has the moral authority to govern Westeros, even if she has the firepower. The series finale of Game of Thrones is bound to bring some kind of surprise as Daenerys deals with the aftermath of what she has done. It may not be the telling that fans are hoping for, but nonetheless, it will beautifully done.