“Do you want to be like me?” asks a man who will be dead in minutes, burned alive in his brother’s arms. His expression, forever twisted by the melted-wax burn scars that cover half his face, is tender, almost fatherly. It might be the calmest we’ve ever seen Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, and his protege Arya hears what he’s telling her even through the haze of her own need for revenge. “Sandor,” she calls after him as he marches toward his doom. “Thank you.” If only that had been enough to pry Ned Stark’s youngest daughter out of war’s red grasp. Steel, like words, can never be taken back.
“The Bells” is the most upsetting fantasy battle ever filmed, a street-level scramble through the burning wreckage of King’s Landing with more time for the pain and panic of Westeros’s common people than any episode before it. Director Miguel Sapochnik of “Hardhome” and “The Long Night” fame lingers longer on children screaming for their parents and charred bodies curled together in the falling ash than he does on thunderous charges or fated duels. In a modern media landscape where most blockbuster film portrays the destruction of entire cities without so much as a single civilian paying for it, “The Bells” has eyes for little else. In one scene Arya tries and fails to stop a little girl from running out into the street to die with her mortally wounded mother in a cataract of dragon fire.
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The War Comes Home
As the eunuch spymaster Varys, actor Conleth Hill has given a performance by turns effete and earthy, unctuous and blunt, complex and devastatingly simple. His death at the hands of one of the contenders for the crown he helped raise up is a quiet, miserable thing. The hiss of the ocean over the rocks. The great black dragon emerging from the shadows behind Daenerys. He dies not because he picked the wrong queen to back, but because the game is rigged, its outcome predetermined by its very nature. With perhaps the purest intentions of any power broker on the show he unwittingly spent his life choosing who would kill him.
That the episode begins with its focus on the character most closely associated with the common people of Westeros is grimly fitting. Where previous episodes this season have worked with negative space to highlight the increasing isolation of the series’ surviving characters, “The Bells” leans hard into the panicky crush of crowds. Fleeing commoners pack the streets of King’s Landing so tightly that the slow and infirm are trampled underfoot. Waves of bodies break against unyielding stone. Drogon’s fiery breath leaves carbonized corpses heaped atop each other in contorted tangles. It’s as though the crowds that flocked to Daenerys in earlier seasons and who lifted her with joyful cries of “Mother! Mother!” are now being reforged into the physical foundation of her new capital.
It may be Daenerys’s final mental and emotional unaveling that touches off the sack of King’s Landing — the second in living memory, and orders of magnitude worse than the one Tywin Lannister infamously oversaw — but the queen herself is present only as shadow and flame for the episode’s second half. Maybe that’s all she’s ever been, at least since she tied the midwife Mirri Maz Duur to a stake and burned her alive at the end of the show’s first season almost a decade ago. The truth has always been there in the trail of dead children, crucified slavers, and burning bodies she’s left in her wake. It was there at the end of season seven when the Night King’s army breached the wall and marched into the Seven Kingdoms in a shot eerily reminiscent of so many triumphant scenes of Dany’s dragons soaring over her legions.
It’s the children hiding from Dothraki screamers, the Northmen killing and raping women in the streets, the soaring spires and vaulted halls of the Red Keep collapsing in towers of flame and dust. There’s no greater good here, no matter what Daenerys claims about freeing future generations from Cersei’s tyranny. She wanted to burn it, to see the flames spread and her father the Mad King’s caches of wildfire pop like putrid emerald blisters. That the people of the city rose up to ring the bells in surrender as Dany had bitterly claimed they’d never do was meaningless in the face of her sadistic desire to see the world — the world that beat her, raped her, killed her unborn baby — go up in flames. That a woman haunted by the specter of her murdered child would go on to burn children alive is horror enough, but the trapped and broken Cersei’s pitiful cries of “I don’t want our baby to die” in the moments before the Red Keep collapses atop her and her twin twists the knife unbearably.
Nothing Else Matters
Throughout the episode Cersei and Daenerys are positioned almost identically, both dressed in muted crimson, both looking out over King’s Landing from above, both unable or unwilling to accept the reality of the war around them. Both women have been badly and repeatedly traumatized by a world in which they now hold ultimate power. Their refusal to pursue or accept peace is the endgame of their lifelong attempts to self-medicate with power, the city that burns between them a helpless vessel for their grossly outsize emotional dysfunction. They’re broken beyond help, ruined by what they’ve been forced to endure and by the power they clawed their way into trying to escape it.
Daenerys’s fantasy of invincibility consumes King’s Landing, burning Cersei’s nearly identical dreams down to bare bone. Her soldiers desert her. Ser Gregor smashes her advisor Qyburn like a spoiled grape. Her castle, the single most tangible symbol of her unassailability, collapses around her until finally there’s nothing left but she and Jaime limping through the cavernous tunnels under the Red Keep. Lena Headey’s frantic desperation is agonizing, her final moments with Jaime a blessed regression into the safety of their childhood love affair. Jaime was born holding onto Cersei’s leg. He dies holding her in his arms, the undeniable emotional power of their love for one another keeping them safe from a terrifying world for one last second.
You can’t win a war. You can’t leave violence behind once you’ve held it, done it, sought out meaning through it. You can’t build a better world with fire and blood. The revenge Arya forsakes chases her into the streets of King’s Landing like a living thing, tearing buildings apart and boiling innocent people alive all around her. The childhood trauma the Hound confronts in the person of his towering brother is unkillable, shrugging off countless wounds as they fight over a childhood grievance on a staircase shattered at both ends and leading from nowhere to nowhere. That’s the whole story, I think — the pain of growing up and what we do to ourselves when we can’t get away from it.