clock menu more-arrow no yes

Game of Thrones’ long-awaited Cleganebowl, explained

Fans have been “hype” for Sandor and Gregor Clegane’s epic final showdown for years. Should they have been?

Nice thought, Gregor, but your timing sucks!
HBO

For years, many Game of Thrones fans have been clamoring to see Sandor Clegane, a.k.a. the Hound, and his brother Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. the Mountain, battle it out in an epic matchup dubbed the “Cleganebowl.” The two are reputedly the best fighters in all of Westeros, and ever since the sadistic Mountain gave his sibling some nasty facial scarring in their childhood, the Hound has thirsted for revenge.

Season eight’s fifth episode, “The Bells,” finally gave fans the long-anticipated standoff, as the Hound sought out the Mountain while King’s Landing fell. And the resulting fight was indeed epic — while somehow also fitting neatly within the episode’s larger themes of the horrors of war, fire, and social and cultural collapse.

Want to know who — if anyone — won? Read on! But, of course, spoilers follow.

The idea for a final showdown between the Hound and the Mountain is built into Game of Thrones’ narrative — and in the end, the Hound got his due

The Mountain and the Hound have always been at odds. Even as a child, Gregor Clegane was a sadistic individual. Littlefinger tells Sansa in season one’s fourth episode, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” that when they were children, the Mountain held a terrified Hound’s face to a burning hearthfire, leaving him with permanent facial scarring and a fear of fire.

We also learned in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, on which Game of Thrones is based, that Gregor probably didn’t limit his violence just to his little brother Sandor; the first novel, A Game of Thrones, implies that he not only tortured Sandor but may have also killed their sister and father in order to more quickly obtain his title to the family lands. Sandor fled their family home the day Gregor came into his inheritance, and has spent most of his life since waiting for the perfect moment to finally exact revenge.

Where the Hound and the Mountain were once both fierce fighters, however, they were both feebler versions of themselves heading into episode five. The Hound still wasn’t at 100 percent after a battle that left him nearly dead four seasons ago. And the Mountain was, uh, some sort of zombie. Plus, despite what the Hound has always said — as recently as season seven, he told his zombified brother that “you know who’s coming for you,” i.e., him — it was uncertain whether he even still wanted revenge.

But following his moment’s hesitation in the Battle of Winterfell, the Hound’s purpose seemed clear as he rode with Arya Stark down to King’s Landing — she to pursue her revenge against Cersei, and he to finally confront the Mountain. And after a touching final moment between the Hound and Arya during which he persuaded her to leave for her own safety, the Hound managed to get the face-off against the Mountain he’d always wanted.

Rory McCann’s last stand as the Hound.
HBO

The result? A beautifully filmed sequence in which the two brothers fought amid collapsing towers and turrets, both evenly matched. After delivering what would normally have been the final blows several times over, Sandor realized that the zombie version of his brother was unkillable by any means other than fire — which just so happens to be the thing Sandor fears most.

So the Hound did the most Hound-like thing possible: He grabbed danger by the fistful and hurled himself and the Mountain off the castle edge into dragon-lit flames far below, taking out his sibling once and for all, and dying himself in what was arguably the “best,” most heroic death of Game of Thrones so far. RIP, Sandor Clegane: May many chickens await you in the afterlife.

Thus, the Cleganebowl was complete, and while there were no clear victors, in a way, everyone won.

Cleganebowl has always been about two things: vengeance and memes

Get HYPE!
SG8970/Reddit

Over the years, the Cleganebowl has become one of the Game of Thrones fandom’s longest-running memes, with fans frequently yelling “get hype!” as they awaited what they hoped would be a truly knock-down, drag-out battle between two formidable opponents. (Think something like the raging combat between Hound and Ser Brienne in the season four finale, “The Children.”)

According to the venerable Know Your Meme, the idea for the Cleganebowl first appeared in a 4chan thread in 2013, just before Game of Thrones’ third season debuted. An anonymous fan speculated that the season might involve the Hound and the Mountain facing off in a trial by combat, in which each brother would show off his mighty fighting skills in a battle to end all battles.

Initially, the proposed fight was part of a whole theory that the Hound was the “little brother” who was prophesied to kill Cersei. Over the years, however, that theory began to seem less and less likely, and the idea of the Cleganebowl expanded to be about any potential fight between the Mountain and the Hound. A Cleganebowl subreddit was even created in 2014 and has been a trusty source of memes and discussion devoted to the fight ever since.

A huge part of the fun of the Cleganebowl, beyond the quirky humor of treating a medieval fantasy event like a modern-day sporting match, has been simply anticipating it. This fan video released just hours before “The Bells” aired is a fitting example:

It also involves a lot of chickens, because the Hound really loves chicken.

The Hound is one of Game of Thrones’ most popular characters, and the popularity of the Cleganebowl comes from both the fandom’s love for him (and for actor Rory McCann) and the desire to see him finally have his revenge on the Mountain for what sounds like a childhood full of abuse.

But it’s unique in that most plot threads on Game of Thrones — like who should ultimately sit on the Iron Throne — are hugely divisive, while the Cleganebowl meme points to one of the few things most fans can agree on, which is that it’d be awesome to watch an intense fight between two Westerosi titans.

The Cleganebowl doesn’t really fit who the Hound is these days — but it was still a triumphant end for his character on the show

The Hound protecting his smol daughter til the end. Our hearts.
HBO

Over eight seasons of Game of Thrones, the Hound has had a slow but meaningful redemption arc, as he’s transitioned from being a violent thug for kings to a hardened loner who’s lost his taste for fighting and then to a man who’s slowly reinvented himself through community work and fighting with Jon Snow in the North — making an effort to create mostly positive change after a lifetime of wreaking mostly destruction.

Where the Hound was once the epitome of alpha male masculinity, he’s gradually softened over time: He developed a fondness for the Stark sisters, Arya in particular, and has steadily processed closely held guilt over his earlier violence and selfish actions. The Battle of Winterfell actually saw him cower for a moment, overwhelmed by his lifelong fear of fire and the reality of just how vast the army of the dead actually was. He is no longer the Hound we met in season one, nor should he be.

On Twitter, book editor Angelina Meehan recently posted a long reflective thread on the Hound’s character arc, and though it’s drawn primarily from his role in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, it holds true for his character trajectory on the show as well. Meehan argues that his character is a study in how damaging toxic masculinity can be for men like the Hound who are immersed in it and forced to wield it; it ultimately leaves him devastated, weakened, and frankly pathetic, before he steadily builds himself up again as an entirely different kind of man. “The Hound is Dead,” she writes, referencing a metaphor from the books in which the Hound tries to disguise himself as a different man, “is clearly a metaphor for the violent side of his personality being relinquished. [T]hat is over.”

Except that on the show, it clearly wasn’t over.

For Sandor Clegane — a man who gradually rejected the idea of ultraviolence as a way of life — to choose to trek back to King’s Landing purely to seek revenge on his zombified brother at long last might arguably be a step backward in his narrative trajectory. Sure, it offers some potential catharsis, and it definitely ticks an item off the Game of Thrones fan-service bucket list. But is it true to the character?

In the end, that might not even have mattered. The Hound who fought the Mountain in “The Bells” was the character fans first fell in love with, and that’s who they wanted to see go out with a bang — or, in this case, a plunge. And those fans got their wish.

They also got to see the Mountain without his head thingy! Look how gross he is!

It’s slightly less “ew” than that time Darth Vader took off his helmet!
HBO

So, sure: This was a Cleganebowl started on questionable grounds, with the brothers both deciding that the moment when the city was literally collapsing was the perfect time to fight each other to the death. But if you’re going to sloppily shoehorn in a fan-service-y battle that many fans have been wanting for years, there are far worse ways this particular matchup could have turned out.