Game of Thrones is at its best when bad choices have consequences and effect logically follows cause. The Red Wedding was the result of a string of terrible decisions that ended with devastating tragedy, making for one of the show’s most impactful events; compare that with Cersei’s destruction of the Sept of Baelor (and an entire city block) with zero repercussions over the show’s last couple of seasons, which made Game of Thrones’ world feel smaller and less realistic in the end.
In a short-lived callback to this show’s better seasons, Varys paid the price for his uncharacteristic carelessness in Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells.” Like almost every other character on this season of Game of Thrones, the Master of Whispers made bad decision after bad decision in the last couple of episodes. His scheming was remarkably un-Varys-like; “Hey, I’m thinking about doing some treason. Would you like to hear about it?” When Varys burned toward the start of this episode, it felt like just one more choice for Dany that really was no choice at all. But in retrospect, it stings more than most of the deaths this season because of what we learned by the episode’s conclusion: Varys was right.
Daenerys Targaryen has lived up to the worst parts of her family legacy, burning King’s Landing to the ground, street by street, roasting tens of thousands of innocent people, apparently after the battle was all but won. The show and books foreshadowed this possibility countless times, so it isn’t exactly out of nowhere. But by cramming Dany’s actual transition from Good Queen to Mad Targaryen into just a handful of episodes, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have done the entire series and all its fans a disservice. Even though we knew this was a possibility, it was easy to root for Dany as she clawed her way up from nothing, overcoming abuse, rape, poverty, and countless other hardships to become the champion of the smallfolk, the freer of slaves–the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains.
The fact that all it took for Dany to break bad was the death of a few friends, the loss of two dragons, and some accidental competition from Jon Snow makes all our years rooting for Khaleesi feel a little bit gross in retrospect. Her madness was not buried as deep as we had wanted to believe; this bloodthirsty rampage was just a hair trigger away. But that doesn’t feel like a deliberate choice made for the betterment of the narrative; instead, it’s clearly the result of a series of shortcuts necessitated by these last two seasons’ shortened lengths. Dany’s transformation into the Mad Queen starts to feel better-earned if you imagine it taking gradual shape over a couple of full-length seasons (or books).
As it is, her actions in this episode don’t really make sense. Why torch every street and pointlessly murder thousands of innocent people when she could fly straight to the Red Keep and melt Cersei, the woman who’s actually wronged her? Even her father, the infamous Mad King Aerys, didn’t go crazy overnight–his insanity was the end result of years of escalating paranoia and violence. Yeah, we know, every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin–but nobody ever said they flip a switch, and that’s what we got this season on Game of Thrones.
Technically speaking, “The Bells” was a masterpiece of cinematic fantasy television. The Fall of King’s Landing might be the best battle of the entire series–the polar opposite of Episode 3’s poorly conceived, sloppily edited, largely nonsensical Battle of Winterfell (the fact that both episodes were written by Benioff and Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik has to make you wonder how exactly “The Long Night” went so bad). Dany finally visited fire and blood upon her enemies–and the innocent, as well–and regardless of how unearned it was, it looked absolutely incredible. The brutality and terror of Dany’s attack was immediate and shocking in every shot, whether from Jon’s perspective as he tried helplessly to intervene, or Arya’s as she simply tried to survive (and help a few others get out along the way).
And could anyone have possibly envisioned a better Cleganebowl? The Clegane brothers, Hound and Mountain, clashed in mortal combat (and it looked a lot like Mortal Kombat) with a dragon spewing fire from the sky in the background, high above King’s Landing, the Red Keep coming down around their heads. Game of Thrones Season 8 has not been the cathartic flood of pay-offs for series-long arcs, foreshadowing, and predictions that many longtime fans deeply wanted, but the fight between Sandor and Gregor actually lived up to the hype. It was perfect, and much-needed, considering where several other character arcs wound up in the end.
Jaime going back to Cersei is, to put it mildly, a disappointment. Many fans are likely wondering what the point of his arc was, if it wasn’t overcoming his worst instincts and becoming a better person. Everything Jaime has done, all the things he’s been through, were for nothing? He experienced maybe the most significant growth of any character in the series just so he could backslide completely and go skulking back to Cersei to die with her in the end?
That seemed to be one of the main themes driving Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode ever, and thus, driving the series as a whole: Even the best of us can’t escape the worst parts of our instincts, our families, and ourselves. Tyrion made the same mistake–trusting his sister, against all odds–over and over, and it cost everything. The Hound went down with his brother–an ending I won’t complain about–but thematically, one that could have been avoided. And, of course, there was Daenerys, who actually had a choice–a real choice!–and elected, in that moment, seemingly with the flip of a coin, to tread the darkest path imaginable.
Even with everything that’s happened, it’s not clear how Game of Thrones’ final episode will wrap things up. Arya is the one island of hope in the fiery sea of nihilism and cynicism about human nature that Game of Thrones has become. She fought her darkest instincts, and chose life over revenge. If she drives a knife through Daenerys’s heart in the end, it won’t be because of a personal grudge, or to make way for Jon to seize power. It will be for the greater good, and an ending like that may be the best conclusion we can hope for at this point.