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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week we’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add the review to the page when finished. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

Well, this all seems...horrible.
It’s not that Tyrion’s plan worked, exactly. Jaime didn’t make it to Cersei in time, didn’t give the order to ring the bells and surrender the city. But his hopes nevertheless came to fruition; the soldiers of King’s Landing surrendered, throwing down their swords, the bells rang out, and all was won. Or so it seemed. Immediately thereafter, Daenerys Targaryen ignored the sound of supplication and laid waste to the city, burning innocents by the thousands, bringing half the buildings crumbling to the ground, all while Grey Worm led a bloodthirsty slaughter of the populace, far beyond the soldiers forced to abruptly pick their swords back up and defend themselves. It was cruel, capricious, and wholly avoidable. Varys, sad to say, was right.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” goes the famous paraphrasing of John Donne’s sermon. “It tolls for thee.” The bitter truth of this aphorism—that the loss of any life is a loss for all—gets a brutal workout in the aptly named “The Bells,” arguably the best representation of George R.R. Martin’s deconstruction of fantasy tropes we’ve seen in several seasons. The bells of King’s Landing, it turns out, don’t toll for the loss of Cersei’s authority. They toll for the loss of everyone in the city, quite literally. This story began as a way to invert the cliched stereotypes of the hero’s journey, to twist the traditional narrative of swords and sorcery in a radical way and rethink how such epics are delivered. This episode brings that philosophy home. There are no good wars; any battle that begins with hearty cheering should end with somber melancholy; it doesn’t matter who the good guys and bad guys are in the face of death; nobody wants to die; the chaos of war makes villains and victims of us all.

The simplest rejoinder to all of Daenerys’ justifications is that this bloodshed could have been avoided. She was given a moment to choose, and she chose blind vengeance, the kind that eliminates any benevolence she hoped to bring to the seven kingdoms by burning it right out of the minds of anyone who saw her astride Drogon, mowing down men, women, and children with abandon. It gives the lie to her name for this fight, “The Last War.” There will be another, of course—maybe it will be led by the child who watched as her mother’s throat was cut in the streets by the so-called liberators of King’s Landing. Violence begets violence, and the only people still remaining will do the very thing that the living were fighting to preserve during the battle against the Night King: They’ll remember, and keep the memory of this bloodbath alive.

Photo: HBO

The progression from exhilarating hope to tragic denouement was skillfully executed by director Miguel Sapochnik, demonstrating a much better command of large-scale choreography here than we got to see in “The Long Night.” Honestly, the pivot from “fuck yeah!” (Daenerys laying waste to the Iron Fleet, then blasting the front gate of the city open from the inside, demolishing the lion’s share of the Golden Company in the process) to “Oh, dear god, no” (Dany and Grey Worm laying waste to everything after) was as solid a rug pull as could be hoped for. The build-up to Daenerys’ heel-turn this season hasn’t been as effective as it should have been given the way its foundation was laid during the mess in Meereen in previous seasons, and it was a bit simplistic to see her pin her sole hopes for optimism on the idea that Jon Snow still wanted to get it on with her (really? “Fear it is, then” because your nephew doesn’t have sex with you any more?), but Emilia Clarke sells the desperation. The younger Targaryen feels as though she’s lost any intimacy that tethered her to compassion and humanity, and so all that remains is the imperious need to rule that has driven her all these years, now bereft of the warmth that previously tempered her. When she hands Grey Worm Missandei’s old collar and he tosses it into the fire, Dany’s last thread of empathy burns as well, snuffed out even before Jon rejects her and ends her last-ditch plea for affection.

Varys would hate to have been proven right, but probably not as much as Tyrion hates himself right about now. After the Master Of Whisperers starts composing his written testimony about Jon being the rightful heir to the throne, Tyrion turns on his old friend and offers him up to Dany. It’s unsettling to see the presumable queen’s first assumption be that someone has betrayed her, but it’s even more telling that her first guess as to the betrayer’s identity is Jon. Varys even leans on Jon to assume the Iron Throne, which means he very well knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer, if he’s openly advocating others commit treason as well. But Tyrion can’t let Varys die thinking it was anything but their conversation, admitting to the spymaster that he turned him in. The moment when Tyrion firmly grabs his friend’s arm just before Dany utters the cue for Drogon to burn the eunuch alive is affecting, because it conveys both how much Tyrion cares for his friend, and also how much this is costing him. He’s pinning everything on his new queen, in hopes she’ll do exactly the opposite of what she does. (“I hope I deserve this, I truly do,” Varys even offers.) Whoops. The best of intentions, and all that.

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Instead, Tyrion’s last genuine connection turns out to be his final conversation with his brother. Peter Dinklage and Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau have always had good chemistry, and Tyrion springing his brother free in what turns out to be a futile hope of preventing bloodshed and saving his sibling’s life is affecting in a way that Dany and Jon’s exchange lacks. “Cersei once called me the stupidest Lannister,” Jaime admits, and his world-weary resignation pairs well with Tyrion’s frantic hope for keeping his older brother alive. Commanding Jaime to try and escape with Cersei through the underground tunnels in order to escape to Pentos and start a new life—while ringing the bells of surrender on their way out, of course—gives the two one final chance to embrace. Tyrion’s tears contain the symbolic weight of his whole life; he wouldn’t be here if not for Jaime, as he admits, and his last hope is to give the man who risked everything to help him survive the same chance. Tyrion knows it’s a death sentence from Daenerys to betray her in this way, but he no longer cares.

And Jamie’s arc takes him from the heart of our heroes’ campaign to the arms of Cersei Lannister, with a brief stop along the way to put an end to Euron Greyjoy. The gleefully sadistic killer pushes Jaime into a fight, telling him that he slept with Cersei, and after a protracted struggle, even sinks his blade into Jaime’s side. But it turns out that a metal hand can be valuable in battle, after all, and Jaime uses it to help sink his own sword into Euron’s stomach. The irony of the manic Greyjoy’s final thoughts—“I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister”—isn’t just that no one is around to bear witness. It’s that Jaime doesn’t die by his hand, but rather the crumbling bricks of the Red Keep.

Photo: HBO

Those final minutes with Cersei and Jaime are strong, mostly for how they upend the expected revelry of seeing one of the show’s true villains get her comeuppance. Stripped of all bravado, Cersei breaks, and shows the very scared, vulnerable woman who has kept her emotions at bay. “I don’t want to die,” she whimpers, “Not like this.” It’s all the more moving for coming from a character who built her identity on steely resolve and contempt for such hoary conceits as fear. The staging of their reunion is superb: Cersei standing on the map she created of Westeros, reeling as the citadel comes falling down around her, while the one man who actually still cares for her helps her sink beneath the surface of the city for a few moments of closeness before death. The odds were never good she was going to survive, but in being buried under the rubble of her failed ambition, she achieves a kind of pathetic grace in her downfall.

But enough pathos. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: CLEGANEBOWL! It’s the match the show has been teasing almost from the beginning, and overall, it didn’t disappoint. The Mountain versus the Hound played out entertainingly, with the elder Clegane still outmatching his younger brother pound for pound and blow for blow. Being turned into a walking zombie of sorts didn’t just amplify his strength; it essentially obviated the need to parry blows, as even Sandor sinking his sword deep into his undead brother didn’t seem to slow him down in the slightest. There’s a tense, horrifying moment when it looks like we’re going to get a replay of the Viper’s fate, as the Mountain starts to push his thumbs into Sandor’s eyes, and I cringed, awaiting the head crunch. But Sandor shoves his knife through his brother’s head, and when that doesn’t stop him, he sacrifices himself to kill his sibling, knocking them from the tower and plunging into the blazing fire below. R.I.P., Sandor Clegane and your malevolent brother.

Photo: HBO

Better still, all that time spent with Arya and Sandor Clegane pays off in an unexpected manner, as the Hound warns the youngest Stark off her single-minded devotion to her kill list. Rather than heading up to kill Cersei, he brings Arya up short with a pointed question: “Do you want to be like me?” In that moment, he reminds her of everything she still has that he doesn’t: Family. Friends. A purpose beyond murderous retribution. He brings her back to a moment akin to her disavowal of the House Of Black And White (“A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.”), pushing her to realize she still has reason to live. It’s in keeping with her character: Arya has always been the one to learn lessons where others might stubbornly plunge ahead (and she paid a serious price when she didn’t), employing boldness and caution in equal measure. Clegane gives her one last gift: Cersei is going to die regardless. No reason Arya should die with her.

Besides, Arya had one more, vital role to serve this episode. She becomes the audience stand-in to bear witness to the horrors of war. For those of us who haven’t read A Song Of Ice And Fire, this nonetheless feels like the most vivid display of the philosophy Martin has been playing with since the start. Death, in the early seasons, was always harsh and brutal and often unfair. For the first time in a long time, it was again. Everywhere she turns, Arya sees scared families, dying in awful ways. The woman who helps her survive, pulling her to her feet, dies screaming, holding her daughter as Dany burns them alive. A more evocative demonstration of the cost of the North’s fealty couldn’t be imagined.

Jon, watching the chaos unfold, is in shock. A Stark in spirit if not blood, he comes to the aid of a woman before she’s raped by a fellow soldier, but mostly, he’s struck dumb by the needless violence playing out around him, eventually able to do little more than exhort everyone to fall back and flee the city. Arya, conversely, springs into action on a smaller scale, as she always has. She tries to save people, even if it’s just those who helped her. As the show nicely mirrors the beats of Sandor and Arya’s struggles, cutting between them as if one body, the difference comes in Arya’s moment of aid: the woman’s hand reaching out to pull her up. Arya Stark is saved by a random woman who then dies horribly at the hand of the woman to whom her brother has pledged allegiance.

As she rides a horse out of the city, Game Of Thrones only has one episode remaining, but the hopes of the future ride away with Arya as well. Daenerys has become the person it was believed she wouldn’t be, and both Jon and Arya observe the terrible results of that transformation. By the end, Arya, half-blind and coughing up the dust of the city’s remains (and the remains of the bodies all around her), gets a front row seat to the carnage wrought by Daenerys Targaryen. Riding her dragon and leveling fire at friend and foe alike, regardless of intent, the Mother of Dragons comes across for all the world like a vengeful deity, a god of death reigning down fire upon the world. And what does Arya Stark say to the god of death?

Stray observations

  • R.I.P. Qyburn. The most loyal confidante of Cersei Lannister receives the ignoble death of being thrown headfirst into rubble by a grouchy Mountain, annoyed at being told to obey his queen.
  • It’s a gorgeous shot of Tyron entering the city, the camera registering a static image from behind him as he stands in the blown-out rubble of the city wall, watching the devastation unfold.
  • Again, Sapochnik’s direction was so much more assured and elegant here. His depiction of the spatial geography of King’s Landing was excellent, ably showing the massive distance between where Jon, Davos, and Grey Worm confronted the surrendering soldiers and the Red Keep far in the distance. Touches like that help to convey the scale and layout of the conflict in a more emotionally satisfying manner.
  • I quite liked Jaime being denied entrance to the Keep as Arya and Sandor passed through just ahead. Forcing him to go all the way around, essentially missing everything and receiving a mortal blow by coincidence from the unexpected appearance of Euron, helped keep a sense of frustrated expectations to the goings-on—sometimes, things just don’t go your way.
  • Dany’s words to Tyrion turn out to be far too prophetic: “It doesn’t matter now.”
  • What do you think the favor was that Tyrion asked for from Davos? My first guess was the orchestration of men sneaking into the city to ring the bells, but I’m far from confident about that.
  • I’m very pleased to report that I have very little clue what’s going to happen in next week’s series finale. I have some guesses about what could happen, but this episode was a refreshing tonic to the sometimes conservative mode of traditional heroics Benioff and Weiss have been dishing up this season.

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Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.