Game of Thrones: 8.05 The Bells
Warning - do not read this review unless you have seen the episode as we delve into the madness and majesty of this latest episode...
We all had some form of expectation of where Game of Thrones was heading in its final season. The build up to the war with the dead and then the removal of Cersei from the Iron Throne. Whether there was going to be an Iron Throne by the time the series wrapped up was another matter - but one thing was certain; all the scheming and fighting over land and titles was for nothing because the real threat was the Night King.
How wrong we all were. And yet how right too. The Long Night gave us the climatic war with the dead long promised and it didn't disappoint. We lost some heroes, we saw the devastation the dead caused over the living and then, in the episode's dramatic final moments, Arya became the hero we all thought she could be. And so our thoughts turned to King's Landing and despite all the grief Daenerys suffered last episode with the loss of Rhaegal and Missandei, the stage was set for the final showdown with Cersei. Could Daenerys's forces win? Could Cersei loose the Iron Throne? They could and she did. Half way through The Bells, the heroes of the story were victorious and Cersei was defeated.
And then the madness came. This was an episode that subverted our expectations in the most traumatic way possible, The hints that Daenerys could be a monster have been there all along; could she move past her Targaryen heritage? Could she be kinder and wiser than her brother Viserys, better than her father the Mad King? Through literal trials of fire and hardship, Daenerys Targaryen rose to become the queen Westeros needed and heroes like Tyrion and Jon flocked to her cause. After bringing freedom to Slaver's Bay, uniting people like never before and using her forces to help defeat the Night King, Daenerys rose more triumphant than ever. And her fall was even harder.
She began the episode a haunted woman, consumed by grief, terrified of betrayal at every step. As a viewer, it was hard not to feel sympathy for her but concern too. Tyrion and Jon couldn't ally her fears and Varys, realising too late the monster she was, suffered for his betrayal by dragon fire. Suddenly we were back in the days of season two Dragonstone, where Stannis's betrayers would be burned alive as penance. I genuinely felt sorry for Varys as she said his goodbyes to his long, dear friend Tyrion. His death was a tragic and noble one, ending the lives of one of the show's greatest characters.
But then we had hope. We cheered as Daenerys made quick work of Euron's Iron Fleet as the battle began. Learning from the loss of Viserion, she navigated the skies, avoiding Qyburn's deadly contraptions and burned the enemy into the sea. We cheered again as she burst through the gates in a blaze of golden fire, crushing the fabled Golden Company and allowing Jon, Grey Worm and Davos to lead the good guys into King's Landing and crush the Lannister defence. Director Miguel Sapochnik delivered another grand spectacle, Ramin Djawadi gave us a stunning, thundering score. This was magnificent.
And then the bells rang. Tyrion was the real hero of this episode, saving the city yet again. Freeing Jamie and convincing his queen and Jon to hold the line if King's Landing surrendered and the bells were rang, he succeeded in his mission. The Lannister forces laid down their weapons. The line was held. Cersei was defeated and the people of the city, almost a million of them packed into the streets were safe. This was the moment we had all been waiting for.
Game of Thrones has never been about happy endings and yet even we were fooled into thinking that we might get one. But what happened next was undeniably cruel and devastatingly brilliant. It will probably be the show's greatest marmite episode, the moment Daenerys succumbed to her madness. I'm sure like many you were screaming at her not to do it, pleading for her to stand down. But it wasn't to be. Emilia Clarke was phenomenal, her face distorted by fury and grief. The dragon queen had lost everything and in a moment of pure, tragic irony, she became what she had most feared, the mad queen burning the city to the ground. Daenerys rising up and unleashing dragonfire on King's Landing is surely one of television most devastating twists.
What followed was jaw dropping and horrible to watch. We had heard all about the sacking of King's Landing and we duped into thinking these warriors, particularly the Dothraki who we had seen pillage, rape and burn before, would not repeat history. The people of the city were raped and beaten and it was horrific. Masses of people - terrified soldiers and residents alike - were burned alive as Drogon unleashed hell upon the streets. Fans had wanted villains all along and they got it in the most unexpected way possible. This wasn't Daenerys defeated her enemy or even exacting revenge; this was her massacring thousands. Even Cersei with her Wildfire - exacting revenge in season six's The Winds of Winter - never went as dark as this. This was truly unimaginable.
As for Cersei, there were actually moments where you felt sorry for her. She deserved her ending, but all she wanted was to keep her child alive. She would exact bloody vengeance on a whim, but Daenerys's actions were on another scale. The destruction of the Red Keep was another stunning spectacle; seeing the keep literally collapse around Qyburn, Cersei and the Mountain as they made their escape was pure cinematic spectacle. And it almost felt right to see Cersei and Jamie reunited - poor Brienne aside - his end was always going to be at his sister's side - and the sight of them in the collapsing crypt, unable to escape was certainly a fitting final shot.
One moment fans had long hoped for was the infamously named 'Cleganebowl' and the showdown between Sandor and Gregor on the steps of the collapsing keep was brutal, thrilling stuff. Sandor receiving the same eye-squishing treatment as the Viper was darkly twisted and Gregor's reveal, the Frankenstein monster of Qyburn's design was gruesome. The climax of their battle, plunging into the flames off the collapsing Red Keep was another moment of cinematic majesty.
Game of Thrones - particularly under Sapochnik's direction - has been known to be as visceral and brutal in its violence as it is in its grandiose storytelling. We saw this through the eyes of Arya who - again subverting audiences' expectations by not killing Cersei - was forced to make her way through the panicked city as Daenerys's forces slaughtered with impunity and Drogon burned the streets to rubble. There were several fake-out moments where it looked as if she was going to die. Emerging at the end, bloody and covered in ash, discovering the mother and child she had tried to protect fused in ash - reminiscent of the devastation from Pompei - was heart-breaking.
With one episode of Game of Thrones left, the entire show has been turned on its head. Cersei and the Night King might be defeated but the biggest monster - Daenerys Stormborn. If there's one big criticism here is that it felt a little rushed - an additional episode this season perhaps to build on that darkness would been preferable. At the same time, to suggest the signs weren't there for us have not been paying attention to her journey all along.
In its final episide, the show seems to have returned to its roots, with a full on rebellion against a mad Targaryen a likely climax. I'm thrilled and nervous to see how this all ends. I suspect however, that Arya Stark, riding through the ashes of King's Landing on her white horse, may actually still have a queen to cross off her list after all.
Of course, as this season has proved, anything can happen...