By James Hibberd
May 12, 2019 at 10:55 PM EDT

This was the most consequential episode in Game of Thrones history. The penultimate episode of the series was an extremely tense visual stunner that had an enormous impact on most of the major characters. Several fan favorites are dead. Daenerys went Full Targaryen. Tyrion committed treason. The loyalty of Dany’s remaining supporters — including Jon Snow — is now in question. The Cleganebowl happened. And Arya decided to choose life over vengeance.

In a way, the episode — titled “The Bells” — felt like a response to the criticisms of the Battle of Winterfell even though it was filmed at roughly the same time. “Episode 3 was too dark.” Oh, you think so? How’s this for some battle clarity? “The first battle was overhyped.” Okay, here’s a second battle that was kept totally secret. “Not enough major characters died in the first battle.” Well, buckle up buddy. (Both episodes, by the way, were directed by “Battle of the Bastards” helmer Miguel Sapochnik).

I have a lot of thoughts about this one, especially about Dany’s “Mad Queen” turn and Arya’s big decision.

Dragonstone: The episode opens on Varys, which isn’t a good sign for him.

On the beach, Varys intercepts Jon Snow as he arrives. Varys urges him to take the crown for himself and Jon, of course, refuses. “Every time a Targaryen is born the gods toss a coin,” Varys says. “I still don’t know how her coin has landed, but I’m quite certain about yours.”

In the castle, Daenerys looks unlike we’ve ever seen her before. The grieving Mother of Dragon’s hair and makeup team apparently went down with the rest of her fleet last week. She’s visited by Tyrion who informs her that somebody has betrayed her. “Jon Snow,” she says. In a way, Dany is correct. If it wasn’t for Jon Snow going against her wishes, Tyrion wouldn’t have found out about his parentage and then Varys wouldn’t have started maneuvering to betray her.

Daenerys sees this as Sansa’s treachery. So many fans blasted Sansa last week for not keeping Jon’s secret. But notice what Dany is saying. Couldn’t this have been a clever Littlefinger-like plot rather than a moment of weakness confiding in a friend? Watching that scene, it was tough to tell. Perhaps it was a bit of both? Sansa was throwing a bomb into Dany’s inner circle and had to know it would explode.

For Tyrion, this is a tough situation. Tyrion likes Varys, who once saved his life. But Tyrion is also a survivalist. He’s already on thin ice with Dany and if he doesn’t tell his queen about Varys’ treachery, then when she finds out he’s dead too. Tyrion has made a lot of blunders the last couple seasons, but ratting out Varys isn’t one of them.

Later, Grey Worm gets Varys from his room. The Spider taking off his rings really got me. He’s brought to the beach. This is where Melisandre once sacrificed heretics to the Lord of Light so many seasons ago. Now a different burning is about to take place, but the night is still dark and now it’s full of even worse terrors. “I hope I’m wrong,” Varys tells Tyrion. “Truly I do.” But you can see it in his face — Varys is certain he’s right. Tyrion gives him a kind touch, the last he’ll ever feel, and Varys looks surprised.

Dany executes Varys with a blast from Drogon, who emerges out of the darkness behind her like a beautiful demon. The mode of execution is rather fitting as castrated Varys’ genitals were tossed into a magical fire when he was a kid, inspiring his lifetime dislike and distrust of sorcery. Now the rest of him is consumed a magic-induced fire as well.

Why, exactly, was Varys executed? It’s not made perfectly clear. But Varys has been writing letters, possible trying to out Jon Snow as the true heir to various lords. His conversation with his young spy who worked in the kitchen suggested he might have been plotting to poison the queen, who had been refusing to eat. Plus his conversations with Tyrion and Jon treasonous as well.

Later, Tyrion tries to convince Dany, one last time, to show restraint and not attack the city. We’re supposed to be entirely on his side, morally speaking. But the residents of King’s Landing are Cersei’s responsibility and she can only hold them up as human shields while deliberately provoking a dragon-riding Targaryen to attack for so long before she shares some blame too.

Tyrion also brings up Meereen, which is an important reminder of Mad Queen foreshadowing. Remember Dany’s first instinct when Meereen was under bombardment by the slave cities in season 6? “I will crucify the masters,” Dany declared. “I will set their fleets afire. I will kill every last one of their soldiers and return their cities to the dirt. That’s my plan.” Tyrion talked her out of it. At the time we thought, Well, Dany probably didn’t really mean it. But she did. She’s said other things like this too along the way. In season 2, Dany likewise promised, “We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.” And in season 6, she asked the Dothraki to pledge to “kill my enemies in their iron suits and tear down their stone houses.” Time and again, we dismissed such talk as bluster. It wasn’t.

And once again, Tyrion gets Dany to hold back, or seems to. Tyrion says he’ll sneak into the city and try to convince his sister to surrender one final time. If successful, he’ll ring the city’s bells signaling for Dany to stop the attack.

Dany then reveals to Tyrion that Jaime Lannister was caught trying to sneak behind enemy lines. She warns Tyrion — just as she warned Varys last season — that she will execute him if he betrays her.

So what’s Tyrion going to do? Again, like Varys, he goes for broke. He visits his imprisoned brother and decides to release him, just as Jaime freed Tyrion in season 4. Tyrion rightly realizes Cersei is far more likely to listen to Jaime. The two have a very touching and emotional goodbye. “Tens of thousands of innocent lives, one not particularly innocent dwarf, seems like a fair trade,” Tyrion says. “If it weren’t for you I never would have survived my childhood. You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster.” Tyrion also reveals a secret passage out of the Red Keep for the two to escape.

We’re teased here with a happy ending for the Lannister twins: Sailing off to start a new life together somewhere far away, just as Grey Worm and Missandei dreamed about. Tyrion knows he’s never going to see his brother alive again, one way or the other.

And Tyrion now seems dead either way. If he marched into the Red Keep to have a chat with Cersei, she’d either kill him or he would have perished in the attack. But by sending Jaime in his place, Tyrion is committing treason. His best option would have been to do nothing — stay at Dragonstone and keep Jaime locked up for his own safety and sit back and let Dany be Dany. But doing nothing and risking nothing is also the selfish move that Cersei would have done.

King’s Landing: At first, Daenerys’ attacking King’s Landing is super gratifying. She wipes out the Iron Fleet, figuring out what fans pointed out last week that, ohhh, you can circle behind the ships to blast the scorpions. Euron escapes to safety. She also takes out the scorpions on the castle walls (it would be wiser for Dany to attack at night, but after the Battle of Winterfell we’re happy for the daylight action).

For Daenerys, the battle for King’s Landing is now pretty simple. Once she gets all the scorpions, the city is hers. So now what?

Red Keep: Qyburn gives Cersei the bad news. Cersei is in denial as always. “The Red Keep has never fallen, it will not fall today.”

So much of the lead up to the big turn is directed with such gorgeous precision and suspense. Ramin Djawadi nail-biting score ratchets the tension to another level.

We get a standoff. Jon Snow, Grey Worm, and Davos with the Unsullied confront the remaining Golden Company troops. Dany on Drogon perched on the city ramparts. Cersei staring out from the Red Keep. Cries from the people to ring the bells.

Will Cersei ring the bells? No. She won’t. But somebody does anyway. She looks fine about this, perhaps even relieved that the decision was taken out of her hands. The Lannister troops throw down their swords to surrender.

So this is over now right? A happy ending? Everybody can live?

But Dany has other ideas. She’s high on destruction. She doesn’t want peace. She’s staring at the Red Keep and looks furious. She could stop all this but … well…she just doesn’t want to.

Dany flies into King’s Landing and blasts away. Buildings, civilians, everyone. The Mad Queen has arrived. Her house words are “Fire and Blood” and she’s delivering both.

Tyrion watches this and realizes: He was wrong about Dany.

Jon Snow watches her and realizes: He was wrong about Dany too.

We watch Daenerys and … wait, were we wrong as well?

Did we already think Dany was capable of this? Or were we in denial about her murderous ways? Did we really think somebody who crucified 163 people because she assumed they were all responsible for killing slaves was a good person? Or do we feel this is an unfair trick; that writers of GoT are pushing a Mad Queen narrative against Dany’s character?

Remember that scene in season 2 in the House of the Undying? Dany had a vision of walking through the Red Keep. The ceiling was broken open and there was this white stuff falling into the throne room. We assumed that was snow and that winter had come to the South. In this episode, at long last, Dany really is in King’s Landing and the Red Keep really is being destroyed. But there’s no snow. We see that white stuff was actually ash, the ash that’s now raining across the city. Dany’s the queen of the ashes. So this turn was foreshadowed from the show’s very early days.

There were plenty of moments in previous seasons to support Daenerys going Mad Queen. Has the show been a bit tricky in playing her murderous moments as heroic and only recently seemed to want us to really question them? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t say GoT has been suddenly pushing the idea that Dany is bad so much as doing what a good drama does in its final act — putting its protagonist to the ultimate test of character. And in doing so, the thing that GoT is actually pushing is a debate about Dany’s morality, bringing that question into the foreground of the show after letting it sit quietly in the background for so long.

We think Daenerys is a good person because she’s happily made so many benevolent choices to try and make the world a better place. Those choices tended to be made when Daenerys was feeling calm and secure. When you have two armies and three dragons it’s easy to decide you’re going to banish slavery because you can. But the show has also pretty consistently shown that when Daenerys gets really-really angry she rather nimbly leaps to “kill them all in the most painful way possible” as the best solution regardless of whether it’s fully justified or not. And she’s never been angrier than she is now.

Since season 7, Dany’s lost two dragons, her two most trusted friends and advisors (Ser Jorah and Missandei), and has gone from ruling a land where she was worshipped to a continent where — as she puts it — nobody loves her. Dany didn’t seem like she needed that big of a push to nuke a city, and the final season has given her a really hard shove. What she does here is a lot like Aegon I Targaryen’s burning of Harrenhal to conquer Westeros in the first place.

And yet…and yet…it’s definitely shocking that Dany opts to just start nuking civilians when it’s so clear she didn’t have to. That is rightly shocking. Characters hopefully sometimes do shocking things otherwise they’re utterly predictable and dull. The debate is whether this is an earned “character surprises you” moment or — as one fan grieved on Twitter — “character assassination.”

I suspect the key is Dany’s quote earlier about ruling by fear. She doesn’t just want to win, she wants to teach Westeros a lesson after all her struggle. No more traitors, no more lords refusing the bend the knee, no more perceived disrespect — all that’s over. If you mess with Dany, this is what happens and now everybody will fall in line. Of course, maybe this wasn’t about any kind of logic all. Varys warned about Targaryen predisposition to madness. Perhaps we’re meant to believe Dany just finally snapped.

If I’m pushed to criticize, then I’d say that I wished season 8 had more episodes to play Dany’s arc out a bit longer, but I also know the production gave the final season everything they had given the level of production required to pull off its battle sequences.

One thing is certain: All those parents out there who named their kid “Daenerys” are going to super annoyed.

The Hound and Arya: The Hound talks Arya into not entering the Red Keep with him. “If you come with me, you’ll die,” he says. “Cersei’s dead anyway. Do you need to die with her?” Cersei has been on Arya’s list of names for so long. But Arya decides she’s had enough of death and changes her mind.

I’m disappointed not to get an Arya/Cersei scene because that would have been amazing. I can’t help but imagine a scene where Arya sneaks in and confronts Cersei and then changes her mind.

But Arya killing Cersei like so many have predicted would have been a terrible ending for Cersei, reducing her death to punishment for her season 1 sins and making irrelevant everything that Cersei has done since then. The “right” death for Cersei, narratively speaking, is that she dies due to having made one terrible leadership decision after another — which is exactly what happens and Cersei is literally crushed by the collapsing weight of the building that symbolizes her power (not entirely unlike the way she blew up her enemies at the end of season 6).

And besides, I love this turn for Arya and it really matters that her choice is made in the same episode as Dany torching the city. Because I’ve had some of the same concerns about Arya’s homicidal streak as I’ve had about Dany. Arya, too, has engaged in increasingly indiscriminate killing — wiping out that hall full of Freys because they’re part of that group, regardless of each individual’s guilt or innocence. And just like with Dany, we’ve cheered Arya’s murderousness and not questioned it because she’s another young hero who’s gone through hell. But killing people has seemed to have less and less meaning to Arya. And as that happens, life has less and less meaning too.

So Arya chooses to let go of her vengeance — the opposite of Dany. Instead, Arya devotes the rest of the episode to trying to help others, journeying ash-covered through the streets of King’s Landing, a sequence with a notable 9/11 feel. Arya also calls The Hound “Sandor” for the first time, offering him back a bit of his humanity too before the end.

The Hound, however, feels like he doesn’t have anything to live for. He’s been waiting to fight his brother ever since Gregor held his little brother’s face into the fire when they were kids.

The Hound finds The Mountain. I like that there’s little hesitation. As soon as The Mountain sees him, the giant silently knows and agrees that this is totally happening. Qyburn foolishly tries to stop The Mountain and gets killed. Cersei, in the only moment of levity in this episode, positively slithers past The Hound to get out of the way. Cersei looks like she’s at least 40 percent convinced The Hound is going to kill her and really hoping to just skate on by.

They fight and it’s beautiful. The scene looks like some kind of Renaissance painting come to life. We get to see The Mountain’s Anakin Skywalker face. There’s a moment where we think The Mountain is going to repeat his eye gouging trick but The Hound escapes. The Hound stabs The Mountain in the eye with a dagger, and that doesn’t stop him. The Hound realizes the only way to kill his brother is to sacrifice himself too — into the fire. Sandor faces his two greatest fears, his brother and the flames, and pulls them both over the edge. Peace for The Hound at last.

After the CleganeBowl, we get The Dane Bowl — Jaime vs. Euron (both played by Danish actors). Everybody predicted CleganeBowl, but nobody predicted this fight and it makes so much sense for both characters.

The fight tests Jaime’s left-handed sword fight training and Euron has a blast. Is it weird that I sort of admire Euron Greyjoy? Despite so many terrible qualities, Euron finds so much reckless joy in everything he does and there’s something appealing about that. He’s so thrilled to be in this fight that he cannot really lose.

Euron mortally wounds Jaime with several devastating stabs to the gut. Jaime is still able to finish him off.

“I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister,” Euron marvels with a smile on his face. He’s the only character on the show who’s ever been so thrilled to perish.

Jaime finds Cersei who is in full panic mode as reality sets in. I can’t help but wonder what Tywin Lannister would have done differently if he was still in charge. It’s tough to imagine Tywin ever surrendering to a Targaryen queen, yet I also can’t picture him letting King’s Landing get destroyed.

Jaime takes his sister down into the cellars where Tyrion told him there was a secret exit. For a moment, we think they’re going to escape. They find the passage blocked. The giant dragon skull seems to mock Cersei — a living dragon is destroying the city above and here is a dead one down below, with Cersei about to join it.

“I don’t want to die, I don’t want our child to die,” Cersei says, her icy composure breaking down completely for the first time in the show. (So, yup, still pregnant — Happy Mother’s Day everyone!).

Jaime realizes the end is near: “Just look at me, there’s only the two of us, we’re the only ones who matter.” Jaime soothes her by echoing her own words from years ago.

They’re staring at each other as the ceiling collapses, killing them both (yes, they’re really dead). They went out of the world as they came into it — together. As I’ve pointed out before in these recaps, Jaime and Cersei — for all that’s twisted about their relationship — otherwise have had the longest and most traditional romance on the show. Many thought that Jaime was going to return to kill Cersei. But Jaime has always loved her even if we do not. He’s the friend in the toxic relationship who won’t listen to reason. And while Jaime fought with the Starks and found some romance with Brienne, nothing happened in Winterfell that would make Jaime suddenly hate Cersei, so why would he risk his life just to kill her? The best way to ensure Cersei’s death — if that’s what Jaime wanted — would have been to stay with Brienne.

Returning to Cersei in her hour of need was one of those things…we do…for love…

What the show has done here is pay off the long-foreshadowed Mad King moment. Years ago the last Targaryen king wanted to destroy King’s Landing while it was under attack from Tywin Lannister along with Ned Stark, and then Jaime Lannister killed him. We’ve been reminded of this so many times that proper storytelling insists Game of Thrones had to somehow revisit that conflict and those decisions. What the showrunners have done is avoid simply repeating the past or opting for the most obvious paths. All the elements have come back together: An invasion, a Targaryen, The Kingslayer, Tywin’s other children, a Stark and the city at risk of being destroyed by fire. Yet the elements have been remixed to play out in an entirely new and largely unexpected way.

EW will have four big interviews about tonight’s episode. There’s one up right now with Conleth Hill, who plays Varys, and he gives a very candid perspective (“Nothing could console me…”) about what it was like to find out his storyline was ending and has some thoughts about the show’s treatment of his character.

You can also read Lena Headey’s insight about Cersei’s final moments, in which she says it may be “the first time that Cersei has been at peace.”

We also have an interview with The Hound actor Rory McCann about the CleganeBowl — this is an actor who, like his character, “isn’t much of a talker.” So I was pretty thrilled to get this much insight, and there’s a rather touching bit in there from Maisie Williams as well.

Oh, and here’s HBO’s trailer for the series finale. Also here are 7 times GoT foreshadowed Dany’s Mad Queen turn.

Here’s this week’s podcast on iTunes, Radio.com, Spotify, Stitcher, or stream it below. Darren Franich and I probably disagreed more than we ever had on an epiosde in this one.

Trivia question for HBO Store swag: Which King of Westeros hired Varys? Tweet your answer to @EW with the hashtags #sweepstakes and #EWGOTRECAP

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin’s novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire."
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