'Game of Thrones' Recap: The Last War Was a Brutal Lead-Up to the Final Episode Ever

game of thrones
This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 through the first five episodes. Visit Beyond the Wall, our official Game of Thrones hub page for recaps, theories, spoilers, explainers, and the best episodes of all time.

King's Landing, you were a beautiful place, a city that had a lot of problems, but still one that could rally together when you really needed to. Remember after the War of the Five Kings when Robert Baratheon used to hold so many feasts and festivals that the crown went into debt? Then there was that dark time when Stannis tried to invade, but the Lannisters protected the common folk. Then, once the Lannisters seemed to be going a little power crazy, a whole religion showed up and raised up the paupers while knocking down the aristocracy. Things were looking up! Then, Cersei blew up the religious figures (bad look), but protected the people from the Dragon Queen and her army of what was left of the Unsullied and Dothraki (xenophobic look). It's been a tough couple of months for the residents of King's Landing, and now... boom.

As predicted, this week's Game of Thrones was a battle of the wills between the two non-canonical Sarah Connors. Not as predicted, Daenerys full-on snapped and doesn’t have a lot of time to justify her decisions about taking out most of King's Landing after the bells of surrender had rung. The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, "The Bells," has too much to do and too little time for people to stop and explain how they're feeling. As a result, everything is big. Drogon’s big. The deaths of the peasants are violent and sudden, and there's a lot of throat slashing happening among the armed forces. There’s almost no resistance put up by King’s Landing -- hence, surrender -- and the show's budget allows for a ton of dragon action while still needing to confine Cleganebowl to a single, dramatically lit staircase. The good news about there only being one episode left in Game of Thrones is that we're finally getting a conclusion here and there, and we're pretty sure this week has a clear winner: All hail Daenerys Targaryen Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt Breaker of Chains, Lady of Dragonstone, the Mad Queen.

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House Clegane (or... does this happen in the books?)

There were many notable endings this week, but let’s start with the one that is most likely to be a show-specific creation: the Clegane brothers, Sandor and Gregor, going head-to-head in the long-awaited Cleganebowl. As the series has wound down, it has become apparent that certain show-only elements have risen to greater importance than some of the prophecies or theories derived from the book. On Game of Thrones, Arya left the Hound for dead and then he showed up later as a gravedigger trying to start a new life under the name Ian McShane. In the books, there has been mention of this gravedigger, but hasn't been confirmed to be the Hound, Sandor Clegane. Likewise in the books, the reanimated Mountain has been renamed Ser Robert Strong (even though everyone is pretty sure it is a zombie Mountain, like in the series). 

Sandor's suggestion in the dragon pit last season -- that his brother Gregor always knew how it ended for him -- does throw back to their character origins. One popular fan theory is that the Lord of Light always favored Sandor, and Gregor didn’t actually hold his younger brother's face in the fire for playing with one of Gregor's toys, as the story goes, but Sandor looked into the flames and saw Gregor's death (which, if it aligns with the show, is tumbling into fire as a zombie once-man: pretty gruesome). Now that both characters are gone, with Sandor tackling his gross-looking brother to their mutual deaths after their violent back-and-forth on the crumbling stairs of the Red Keep, we may never know for sure which version of that story really happened. But Sandor’s suggestion that Gregor knew what was coming would be super important on a Game of Thrones that had time to bring story arcs to methodical conclusions.

As it is, the Clegane fight isn’t horrible; it’s just as rushed as a lot of things have been at the end of this season. Considering we have only one more episode left, and two episodes ago we were fighting the Night King up North (remember that???), this was the last place this little bit of story could fit. Did where it end up in the plot rob it of some of its strength? Absolutely -- we had bigger problems and bigger deaths this week.

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House Lannister (or, doomed decisions)

The Lannister Twins were always doomed to a fate of dying together, and it seems fitting that they’d end it with Jaime uttering, "Nothing else matters. Only us." Throughout much of the series, the book’s prophecy by a seer named Maggie the Frog hung over the narrative the show was attempting to build for Jaime and Cersei. In the books, a "valonqar" (Valyrian for "little brother") was supposed to wrap his hand around Cersei’s throat to kill her. When the show adapted Maggie the Frog and young Cersei for a rare flashback, they left out the valonqar part and focused on Cersei having three children with gold crowns and gold shrouds. Cersei's three kids were already dead headed into tonight's episode, so the prophecy-minded audience was fairly sure that the doomed Lannister child wasn’t going to be born. That being said, just how the show was going to deal with the death of Jaime and Cersei -- Was Jaime really going to kill Cersei? Would it be the determined Arya with her own prophecy? -- was a mystery.

It feels right for the both of them to be cornered again and again, wiggling their way out by blowing up all their rivals or by being set free from a prison camp (this is the second time Jaime's needed freeing from a neck shackle), but ultimately finding their way back to each other. Although we spent the first half of this season wishing Jaime Lannister a happier ending, we kind of always had to loop back to this. The question is, was this actually development for the Lannister twins or a foregone conclusion?

Throughout the episode, it’s clear that Jaime is on an arc that he understands: He will get back to Cersei, likely to die with her. Even when Euron successfully lands a fatal blow while Jaime takes the back way into the Red Keep, it doesn’t matter to him, so long as he can achieve his final goal of being with his sister-lover. He had another option up North, a good one in Brienne, but he just couldn’t.

Cersei’s arc this season is a bit muddier. Her final moments of wishing she could live simply because she doesn’t want her baby to die tracks, but I’m not sure when the Cersei from last season that was willing to let Jaime ride away and get killed by the living dead with everyone else becomes the Cersei of the final scene, crying and repeating "I don't want to die." It might be in the tower of the Red Keep when she keeps insisting she’s fine until Qyburn tells her how dire the stakes actually are and the surrender bells are ringing. She tears up, but what are the tears about? That she'll die when Dany's army captures her? That she didn't see Jaime? That she overplayed her hand as Queen? Cersei was one of Game of Thrones' great characters and she was destined to die if she didn’t win it all.

Tyrion, the last remaining Lannister sibling, is sadly doomed. The parade of Tyrion's bad decisions continues this week, and he overestimates how much Daenerys even listens to him anymore, or trusts him. The first time he gave Dany the warning about the bells of King's Landing representing surrender and Daenerys begrudgingly agrees, it was pretty obvious that a mass-killing was on the table. Which is why he decides to free Jaime after he's spotted trying to sneak away due to the obvious giveaway of his fake hand, probably to balance the scales from when Jaime freed Tyrion after his trial in King’s Landing. But also, it's a move that condemns him to death. Jaime points out that Dany would execute Tyrion for letting the one-handed Lannister go, but Tyrion frames it as a possible way to save tens of thousands of lives. Does he really believe that, though? Tyrion has always been smarter than anyone else, but in the end, he was always mostly just another Lannister. Missandei is dead because he thought surrender was a real possibility to Cersei. He thought she would be the one that had to be talked down from cruelty. The whole time, the person he had control over was the one teetering on the brink of madness, and his love for his kin made him develop a blind spot.

What position does Tyrion have to hold next week to survive the series? He’' betrayed a queen that is out for Lannister blood and won't have the satisfaction of getting any. Maybe he can just run away and hide out in Casterly Rock, but it's most likely that Tyrion is a goner come the finale.

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House Greyjoy (or, a life well lived)

Euron is dead, which is too bad! He seemed to go out having accomplished a lot of his goals, especially compared to a bunch of other Game of Thrones characters. Without the element of surprise, it turns out ballistas/scorpions/giant crossbows are just as logically useless as the fandom pointed out last week. Pivoting as fast as he can doesn't save Silence, Euron's ship, or the rest of the Iron Fleet, which is the first casualty by dragon and its angry queen in the sacking of King's Landing. That’s bad but…

...as Euron pointed out to Jaime, he's basically king of the realm. He got to "fuck the Queen," he's King of the Iron Islands (by title only since Yara took them back, but still), he took out a dragon, which would be enough for the history books, but then he gets to be the person that killed Jaime Lannister. For a character that showed up pretty late in Game of Thrones, mostly to push his older brother off a bridge (remember that????), Euron made a good run for the throne. In fact, we might look back on him as one of the better players of the game. And, yeah, he captured Yara and held her captive for a long time, and he killed Rhaegal (who is basically Dany's child), but in a "war crimes versus results" comparison, Euron does a lot better than your Tywins and Stannises. He didn't burn any little girls alive.

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House Targaryen (or, rushing to conclusions)

The most helpful thing in understanding Dany's arc this episode is remembering any of the quotes from the run of the show about how crazy Targaryens are. Tonight, we jumped right into a series of Dany laying down the law in very cold ways (with the exception of Jon not returning her kiss, which might be the most understandable), starting with issuing a dracarys on Varys for switching to the side of AeJon, and making some troubling threats to people who are supposed to be her closest allies, Tyrion and Jon. Dany has always dreamed of sitting on the Iron Throne, seeing herself as a liberator. Once the Night King was dead, it was hard to have her keep that as her "thing" -- like, it's noble and it tracks, logically, but something about it felt off.

There was some hope until the bell ringing moment, at which point Dany’s transformation into the Mad Queen is pretty much complete. With a lot of her character motivation bulk-loaded into last week’s episode, the turn of Daenerys Targaryen reads as very sudden. Instead of being some sort of further ploy by a Lannister (Queen or otherwise) to get her to decide to burn them all, the entire switch has to be communicated on Emilia Clarke's face as she hears the bells ring on the back of Drogon. Clarke is good, but she's only had two episodes to settle into this version of Daenerys, one who is teetering on the edge of her sanity coin.

By the end of the episode, Daenerys Targaryen is the de-facto Queen of the Realm, though she got there by razing King’s Landing, Lannisters and innocents alike. Her actions had to be brutal, at least in her mind, but in the arc of this season alone, it reads as something thrown in to make sure we’re torn about the future of the realm headed into the final episode. Was it worth turning Dany on a dime to get to this conclusion? We'll have to find out next week, but we do not have a lot of time to explore just why Dany thought burning her way to the Red Keep was a good idea. It looked cool?

There is one hanging question, which is: Are we sure when Tyrion asked Davos to smuggle something, it was Jaime related? Or is there a further Tyrion betrayal that hasn't been unveiled and is being saved for a final episode moment?


Aegon Targaryen (or, why can’t Jon just kiss his aunt?)

You had to know that Varys was out this week when the opening scene showed him comforting one of his child spies about how a greater risk turns a greater reward. If that wasn't a big warning, then him immediately committing verbal treason again to Jon Snow was even worse. Varys was usually able to just infer what he wants, but here he didn’t have the plot time to go beyond plainly telling Jon Snow that he should be on the Throne. Does he just think that Jon is too dumb to understand subtly? Luckily, the actual Varys execution scene managed to use the minimum amount of words, from him taking off his rings, to Tyrion admitting he sold Varys out, right up to the goodbye between Tyrion and Varys, where we were reminded that Varys saved Tyrion's life to bring him to Daenerys. 

Varys was one of the original players of the Game of Thrones and, as he mentioned tonight, the person who had known the most Kings and Queens of the Realm. Dany did warn Varys exactly what would happen to him if he betrayed her, but back when that threat was made in Season 7, Daenerys was a much more sympathetic character, coming to Westeros to free the people from "the wheel." Now that our perspective of Dany has shifted, was Varys right? Could she have been stopped?
Jon/Aegon tries several times during the episode to talk reason to Daenerys or hold back Grey Worm once the massacre starts. The one time he does't put in his full effort is when he's by the fireplace by Dany as she's asking for his loyalty, not just as his queen. Just kiss your aunt for the good of the realm, buddy. If Jon Snow had returned the incestuous kiss, then Dany might not have chosen "fear" over the only bit of love that was offered her by Jon Snow.

Then we get Game of Thrones' first battle scene where Jon does all the right things -- or at least attempts to. The Golden Company is basically no threat, neutralized by the one and only Drogon, so he marches Davos, Grey Worm, and their armies into King's Landing. Jon holds the line until the bells, then pulls his men out once he realizes Dany's going to kill everyone she can. Jon's story suffers like Arya's for having to sacrifice any forward character motion to the crowd. Once the siege of King’s Landing turns, Jon does his best to keep things under control (helpfully stopping a Northern soldier from raping a woman), but ultimately fails as the Unsullied, Dothraki, and Dany absolutely decimate the city.

Things are lining up for Jon to have to seize the throne for the good of the Realm, no matter how many times he says he doesn't want it. He didn’t have the forces before (just commanding Northern men, not commanding the Unsullied and the Dothraki), but no one is going to trust the Mad Queen now. Jon is being set up to be the new Jaime Lannister (a Queenslayer), or the new King. He just doesn’t want to be either: the eternal problem of being Jon Snow.

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House Stark (or, where to put the plight of mirror Shireen?)

Arya's arc this episode makes sense as a way to anchor point-of-view, but doesn't add anything to last week's lingering questions of what Arya's ultimate motivations are, other than killing Cersei, which she doesn't get to do. Last week, she seemed ride-or-die Stark until she heard Jon's true identity. Then, the next time we saw her, she was riding with the Hound away from Winterfell and claiming she'd never be coming back. Surely, we thought, she said goodbye to some Starks? Or had a plan that wasn’t killing Cersei that Bran and Sansa hatched to maybe get Jon on the throne?

We don't know for sure yet if either of those things happened, but the episode was structured to have the Arya and the Hound be redemption parallels for each other, then Arya hard pivots to a point-of-view character on the crumbling streets of King's Landing so we can see the massacre and roasting of some one-off peasant Red Shirts. 

If anyone was confused about what Arya was up to at the end of last week's episode, there's no more luck this week. After running through the city and trying to save a little girl and her mother who showed her kindness, she sees them roasted, including the little girl's wooden horse doll. It does NOT pay to be a little girl with a wooden quadruped carving on this show. The allusions to Shireen also suggest that Davos could have seen this and we'd have the same reaction as watching tiny Arya go through it.

It seems like Arya needed some set-up to do something in the finale that demands she not return to Winterfell. Since the Hound talked her off Cersei, merely to save her own life, does Arya want to kill Dany now, especially after seeing the terror she wrought on King's Landing? And how have we spent all season without her using her face swap technology??? If you were to tell me back in Season 4 that a not unlikely conclusion for the whole series was Arya kills Daenerys wearing Jon's face... well, you would have known what kind of show Game of Thrones really was while I'd be the idiot thinking I was watching a medieval fantasy character drama.

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Dave Gonzales is a contributor to Thrillist.