Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 review: Marches towards the finale like a lame duck

Game of Thrones has always been prone to a dramatic penultimate episode – Ned Stark losing his head, Blackwater bay under siege, the Red Wedding, so on – and the final season is no exception. Here, after episodes that have flirted with the Targaryen lunacy stirring in Daenerys, she goes full Mad Queen, burning down half of King’s Landing, along with eight seasons of character development and any chance of redemption.

With Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed the battles of both bastards and Winterfell, back on directing duties, it was clear that “The Bells” was always going to be a punch drunk action movie brawl. He has a talent for making violence seem, well, violent, from the muddy crush that swallowed Ramsay Bolton to the fiery gloom of “The Long Night”. It is fitting perhaps that his talents here are deployed towards the wrong end: to focus in on the civilian horror of a lazily justified holocaust. There is little joy found in the ring of steel on steel, just shot after shot of the immolated residents of King’s Landing, mainly women and children, at varying stages of the barbecuing process.

The episode begins in tellingly out-of-tune form, with Varys seen scrawling some treasonous missive, moments before Tyrion rats him out to Queen Daenerys. Varys is an important character – he has been crucial since the show’s first season, not to mention playing an even more pivotal role in the books – so to open this episode with him blithely treasoning his way to an early death is telling. It tells us that the episode is willing to get rid of key characters without much send-off (which it does). It tells us that the 71 episodes of character development are going to mean next to nothing (which they don’t). It tells us that Daenerys has gone from murmurs of madness to fully loving the smell of dragonfire in the morning (which she does).

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But even the misjudged shunting of Varys off stage left could hardly prepare for the carnage that ensues when Daenerys turns her attention to King’s Landing. Season eight has felt rushed from the off, but it has also done a lot of work trying to balance out the forces of Dany and Cersei so that we might buy that as a head-to-head contest, decimating the Dothraki and Unsullied and bumping her down to a single dragon. No matter, it turns out, because Drogon has aced some off-screen arrow-dodging training, and in one fell swoop (literally) destroys the Iron Fleet, and blasts his way into King’s Landing.

With Jon Snow (tedious Jon is now the de facto hero of this drama, the real winner from this episode) staring down a surrendering Lannister army and the bells of the city ringing out their concession, the camera turns its attention to Daenerys. Last chance saloon: will she be a merciful conqueror or, in her rage against Cersei, endanger the lives of the city’s residents? In what will long be regarded as a shark jumping moment (though I think, at this point, the shark has been long jumped) she chooses a third option, to commit war crimes on a scale unprecedented even by Cersei’s wee moment of domestic terrorism in season six (there’s no Geneva in Westeros, apparently). She shows little interest in the Red Keep and its sceptred inhabitant, instead she mows down women and children with belches of dragonfire. If this is character development, count me out.

Really, the only strand of this multifarious disaster that worked was Cersei’s farewell in the arms of Jaime. Crucially, it was a moment that felt true to those characters; true to our understanding of Cersei as equal parts tyrant and mother. “I want our baby to live,” she whispers to Jaime, as he holds her in the collapsing crypt, and it’s hard not to be touched by the sudden vulnerability of Westeros’s second maddest queen. Lena Headey has just about managed to keep Cersei’s legacy from being totally desecrated by this season; possibly because she only had about 20 lines of dialogue before she was squashed by falling masonry. Other departing characters go out with more of a whimper: Euron brags pointlessly about how he’s killed Jaime (untrue), Qyburn gets his neck snapped in about 0.3 seconds of screentime, and even #Cleganebowl feels like it doesn’t quite do justice to The Hound’s emotional journey.

When the show first introduced Daenerys Targaryen, she was a teenager emotionally and physically abused by her brother. Slowly the show allowed her to come into her own, test her strengths, have successes and failures. And she does have flaws – a monomaniacal obsession with the divine right of monarchs springs to mind – that might, with better crafting, have led her to be a satisfying final boss for this saga of the Seven Kingdoms. But David Benioff and DB Weiss, the show’s creators and writers, are not George RR Martin. They cannot handle slow burn (no pun intended). At the start of this final season, Daenerys was committed to the existential battle against the risen dead; now she is burning thousands alive as revenge for a single murdered advisor. What is the logic here? That bad Targaryen blood will out in the end? That all power corrupts? That Benioff and Weiss had contractual obligations to tie up the show in six neat episodes that could never be met?

Whatever the thinking, the result is clear: Game of Thrones marches towards its final episode a lame duck. After living versus dead and Dany versus Cersei, we end with Starks versus Targaryens. But just as with Dany sitting on the Iron Throne in a King’s Landing that has scarcely the infrastructure to support the half dozen remaining citizens, the damage has already been done.

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