Heading into the eighth season of Game of Thrones, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were faced with an impossible task. There was no way—given the scope of their inherited narrative, the procrastinatory tendencies of George R.R. Martin, and the impossibly high expectations of an international fanbase—that they could end their show in a way that felt both true to the story and satisfying to the viewers who’ve hung in for the eight-year journey.
With the series’ tightest narratives having died with Oberyn in season four, Benioff and Weiss have been painting with increasingly broad brushstrokes, turning their attention away from character-level dramas and toward overarching themes of family, fate, and belonging. These themes came to a head in the current season’s fifth episode, which was really about poetic endings more than anything else. In pitting Jaime against Euron Greyjoy, who basically functions as a shallow plot device, Benioff and Weiss folded years of painstaking character development into a simple duel for Cersei’s love; after besting Euron, Jaime hobbles over to Cersei so they can die in each other’s arms. There was a brutal kind of justice for Grey Worm too, as he tore into the armies that captured and killed his love, Missandei. And perhaps most poetically of all, Daenerys became the very thing she swore to destroy, taking up the paranoid mantle of her father, the Mad King, and laying siege to a city that had already surrendered.
But these sorts of developments have felt rushed and underwritten to the point of incoherence—does it really make sense for Cersei and Jaime to devolve into these caricatures of doomed lovers at the last possible second? And though there were more than a few hints of Dany’s tyrannical behavior in the past (Redditors have been predicting a “Queen of the Ashes” outcome for years), it feels somehow wrong that she would go from proclaiming “mercy is our strength” to massacring innocents in the streets within the same episode.
But there was a moment of genuine clarity and payoff in the relationship between the brothers Clegane. When the Hound finally makes his way to the Red Keep, after dissuading Arya from pursuing her own revenge and crossing another name off her list, his motives are clear: he intends to die, and he intends to take his brother down with him.
When we first encounter him in season one, Sandor Clegane (aka the Hound) has already been both physically and psychologically disfigured by the cruelty of his older brother, Gregor Clegane (aka the Mountain). As a child, Gregor found his little brother playing with one of his toys and pressed his face into burning coals—it left Sandor a bitter, “Broken Man,” forced into becoming a cold-hearted killer without a capacity for love. And though his travels with Arya helped him locate a sense of humanity, he never really overcame the lasting trauma inflicted by his brother.
So when the Hound and the Mountain finally square off on the stairs of a decimated Red Keep, there’s a lifetime of tension in every move, every glance. After a few exchanged blows, and a few more casual stabs through the heart and brain, it becomes clear that the Mountain can’t be killed via conventional bodily disfigurement. What does him in, ironically, is fire: the Hound launching into a tackle that takes both brothers off the edge of the broken castle and into the sea of flames below.
Director Miguel Sapochnik has already proven himself to be one of the series’ strongest talents, and delivers some of his best work yet in “The Bells.” The confrontation between the Hound and the Mountain is literally framed with dragon fire, bathed in the warm hues that were so sorely missing from the Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night,”the Sapochnik-directed third episode of Season 8. The crumbling precipice feels like a reflection of existential tension. After a lifetime spent living in fear of fire as a proxy for his brother, the Hound finally charges straight into it.
Mercifully, the Hound is never quite redeemed. Benioff and Weiss stop short of giving him some heartfelt reconciliation with Arya, or a final confession of wrongdoing. That he remains bitter and broken until the very end feels in line with the show as it was originally conceived, where bad guys don’t repent, and good guys are essentially suckers. In a season that’s delivered disappointment after disappointment, where so much has been fumbled in execution, the Clegane duel was a rare moment—a character arc ended skillfully, with a fiery swan dive into the heart of what made millions of fans helplessly drawn to Game of Thrones in the first place.