When details about the eighth season of Game of Thrones trickled out, there were sorrows and joys to be had. Offering the snow and sunshine together in one bitterly bright day, HBO teased that we’d have to wait almost two years for the final season, but at least each episode would be at or near feature length. Well, as it turns out, that was only true for the final four episodes, and even then it’s become something of a double-edged sword. Thus enters the fourth episode of the year, “The Last of the Starks,” which clocked in at 79 minutes but still doesn’t feel quite epic enough to carry the weight of all the narrative heavy-lifting that is being attempted.
Easily containing enough material for two or three episodes, it will now forever be a mystery to me why it wasn’t exactly that many installments given the truncated nature of season 8. “The Last of the Starks” is so compressed that moments which should breathe (like the blossoming life and death of Jaime and Brienne’s romance), and dawning epiphanies that needed to be gradually accepted (such as Daenerys’ ambition and pride are driving her mad), were conveyed in unsatisfying shorthand and the type of cliché that Game of Thrones and its literary source material are so good at avoiding. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like in what is clearly the place-setting episode before the climax. As a beloved character on another zeitgeist-y property would say, “We’re in the endgame now.” And of the two or three hours of story squished into less than 80 minutes here, the first one is heartbreakingly great.
When “The Last of the Starks” begins, we’re actually afforded time doing something no one ever tends to in these fantasy big battle stories: mourn the dead. Two weeks ago, I said that the second episode of season 8 felt like a preemptive wake for the living because we didn’t know if there’d be enough characters or time left afterward. As it turns out, there was a fair share of each, but that still didn’t take away from the misery of seeing thousands upon thousands of nameless Dothraki, Unsullied, and Northmen piled on their pyres. Jon Snow is, in essence, giving them all a Night’s Watch funeral.
Among the dead, each character had someone they could personally and privately grieve; none more so than Daenerys and Sansa. It seems impossible now for the two to not have conflict in the remaining climactic episodes, which is a shame given they have so much in common after the lives they’ve lived—and the deaths they’re here leaving behind. For Dany that came in the form of Ser Jorah Mormont, the Knight She Twice Sent Away, and yet always returned. Now that he’s crossed over, Friend Zone jokes have lost their luster, and in his absence there is a visibly gaping hole in Daenerys’ soul. It is left up to viewers in a very Lost in Translation way to determine what Dany’s final words are to Jorah, my guess is the word “love” was somewhere in there (also like Lost in Translation). She banished him twice, but her greatest successes were always with him by her side. It was his return last season to Dragonstone that brought the first genuine smile to her face since arriving in Westeros—finally a friend who isn’t actually a stranger in this strange land that she calls home.
He’s dead now, and it’s becoming apparent that neither Tyrion or Jon will be able to fill his place as a tempering hand on the Khaleesi’s shoulder. That will prove paramount later in the episode, but in this moment he is hardly the only loss. Jon Snow bids farewell to the little girl who was the only Northern lord to aid him and Sansa in a time of need, and Arya likewise honors the cycloptic rogue that saved her life. But it is Sansa who has likely the most tender farewell. Theon Greyjoy, as it turned out, found one person before he died who understood him. Mayhaps he was also the only person who also fully understands Sansa since he was the one to see her transition from the “little bird” to the traumatized but resourceful woman she is today.
When Sansa gave Theon what he always wanted in life—acceptance as one of the Starks—it hurt. Theon was allowed the family he always wanted, and he probably would’ve died for the right to be given that direwolf pendant by Ned Stark’s daughter. Instead he only receives it in death. It is so fitting one wonders why Jon wouldn’t allow him to be buried in the crypts of Winterfell (save for that he still knows Theon was kind of the worst), but the Warden of the North has different plans. Rather he commemorates all who died in the Battle for the Dawn as “the shields that guarded the realms of men.” We will never see their like again. And sure enough, before the episode is over, the goodwill and generosity their union generated is all but extinguished.
Before that, however, we have our first Winterfell feast since the very first episode of Game of Thrones. If “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was the wake, this was the funeral service. A mostly somber affair, it also makes for a striking contrast against the usual frivolity that accompanies the aftermath of major battles in Lord of the Rings or even non-Endgame Marvel shenanigans. But there are no dancing hobbits here or weddings to be found. Even the ostensible hero, Arya Stark, is missing. Instead everyone forces life and lightness against a renewed, if less sinister, dark by making solemn words and pledges. Perhaps then Sandor Clegane is the wisest to just roll his eyes and keep drinking.
One such moment occurs when Daenerys Targaryen shrewdly makes Gendry a rightful Baratheon and heir to Storm’s End. There’s a certain amusement that occurs when Dany even asks if anyone knows whether there is currently a lord of Storm’s End. I surely do not, and given the musical chairs the War of the Two Queens has had on the South, it is likely by rights empty. So the Stag rises again and is all too happy to bend the knee to the Dragon in this moment. Daenerys has made a lifelong friend out of the son of her brother’s murderer. That irony does not escape Tyrion and will juxtapose harshly with the choices she’ll make next.
Those ill decisions begin when she sees Jon Snow given more credit than she by the Free Folk who are only too happy to call the bastard who came back from the dead to now fly a dragon their king. Jon Snow, knowing Daenerys’ vanities, likely should have shouted out some credit then and there to the aunt he calls queen, but instead in classic Stark fashion he lets it fester into a most uncomfortable political wound. He begins to notice its stench when she visits him later that night. In the quiet of a bedroom, Dany attempts to seduce the man she now knows is her nephew, and strangely neither of them are that bothered by the fact. What does come between them, however, is his technical better claim on the Iron Throne.
While a fair bit of the nocturnal drama this week in bedrooms and outside of unmanned midnight gates edges too close to soap opera for my tastes, there is something so perfect about both Jon’s heritage and also his stubborn honor ruining his relationship with Daenerys. She essentially asks him to not only promise he’d abdicate the throne (which he does then and there) but likewise swear the only two other people who know his birthright to secrecy and tell no others… he then admits to Dany that he will still share this information with Sansa and Arya, even though they both know Sansa loathes the Dragon Queen. There is something so frustratingly, and authentically, Stark about this. Again, Rhaegar Targaryen might be his father but Ned Stark is his daddy, and just as he refused to tell Cersei what she wanted to hear in season 7, he tells Dany he’s committing political suicide.
So while Jon is in slow-motion Seppuku of his romantic life (and also his desire to live peacefully in the North), Sansa and Arya are undergoing their own struggles. Sansa, for her part, is looking less and less wise in her hatred of Dany. While by the end of the episode, the eldest Stark daughter might be proven right, at this given moment she looks mostly pernicious in hating the one force that gave the North enough of a fighting chance that Arya could kill the Night King.
But Arya puts it better: She respects that Jon bent the knee when he thought he had to, but now she has little reason to trust Daenerys. And to be fair, when Sansa openly challenges Dany’s battle strategy, she also has a point. Dany is in such a hurry to get out of the North and claim her perceived birthright that she is rushing her depleted armies into a needlessly exhausting and tenuous position. As Arya says, “We are the last of the Starks.” They don’t really need to trust anyone else in the world other than the four people under that Godswood tree.
This is one of the many reasons Arya gave Gendry a literal kissoff earlier in the episode. After being made an official lord, Gendry reveals that despite spending months if not years on the road with Arya, he never really knew her that well at all since he now jumps at the chance to ask her to be his lady and wife. Arya, the hero of Winterfell who skipped her own party, and Arya, the Stark who refuses to be at all official functions, is not looking to be a lady. She repeats an audience favorite from the early days—“that’s not me”—and confirms the truth that even if he hadn’t proposed marriage, she wasn’t keeping Gendry around for anything more than maybe another booty call. She takes what she wants, and what she wants is the Starks to be safe and for herself to find adventure. I am not shocked to hear she doesn’t plan to come back to Winterfell again by the end of the episode (though we’ll see if that actually is the case). If she survives the wars to come, her destiny will be off on her next great journey.
It never was going to be by the side of a man who has every right to be thrilled that his future is now by a castle’s hearth instead of its forger. In the here and now though, she gives better credence to Sansa’s suspicions than Sansa herself can articulate… and still Jon tells them. There is a definite humor in glassy-eyed Bran, something of a cross between Charles Xavier and that stoner kid you knew in college, saying “It’s your choice.” Even though he makes Sansa and Arya swear they’ll never reveal he’s really a Targaryen, we know like Ned telling Cersei that he’s aware of the truth of her children’s parentage, Jon Snow has just doomed himself in some way or another.
It’s also an interesting comparison that as Ned was a fool to think Cersei wouldn’t act on the information he confided in her that Jon also believed Sansa would keep her vow. She certainly wrestles with it, and if this were several episodes, we could’ve even had an incisive moment where a dramatic event compels her to break her promise to Jon. But as this episode is in too much of a rush to organically build things, a few minutes later she is blurting out the truth of Jon Snow’s birth to Tyrion. This in some ways ties into what was Sansa’s best moment of the night. Sitting across from the Hound, I was thrilled to see that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss remembered that Sansa had a tender relationship with Sandor Clegane before Arya did. The two sharing a devious smirk over her admitting that she fed her rapist husband to hounds is all kind of darkly beautiful.
The Hound notes she can now look him in his ugly, scarred eye, and that she is no longer a scared little bird. Aye, she is not. While he regrets that she did not accept his offer of protection outside of King’s Landing on the night Tyrion set the Blackwater aflame, she claims to feel otherwise. Part of her of course must, but her naiveté has been supplanted by her satisfaction that she has become the most cunning Stark due to her hardships with Littlefinger and Ramsay… and Cersei too. Even before the Hound’s offer, she was tutored by Cersei’s courtly menace as a hostage. And like Cersei using Ned’s foolishness to her advantage, Sansa reluctantly does the same when she tells Tyrion his beloved Dragon Queen is dating her nephew with the better claim.
I’m of mixed minds on this. On the one hand, Sansa broke her promise to Jon and finally shows the ambition we’ve all known was there but she’s kept in check. Does she really want to send Jon Snow to King’s Landing to be king? She at least posits the idea to Tyrion, yet the show I think would have us believe that she truly suspects Dany will be a tyrant. And while that might turn out to be the case, this is finally one Sansa choice that I cannot really defend. She made a selfish move, and I suspect it will come back to haunt her, if even if its via Jon’s ghost.
Before we transition into that though, the Winterfell half of the episode featured one other major, momentous development. Brienne and Jaime, the two most perfect knights on Game of Thrones, actually consummated their five-season courtship. I never actually thought they would find this happiness given where I always have expected Jaime’s fate to lay, which this episode ultimately does nothing to dispel. But in a more perfect world, like the brief one teased during a unified alliance against the White Walkers, they should be happy. Their opposites make a whole, and not just because of Jaime’s conventional attractiveness and Brienne’s supposed lack of it (really, it’s just a bad haircut). The truth is his multitude of flaws and imperfections are an absolute complement to her unshakeable idealism and earnestness.
Even more so than Ned Stark, Ser Brienne of Tarth is the most honorable person, man or woman, who’s ever appeared on Game of Thrones. Always picking the harder, righteous path, it was her steadfastness even in the face of Vargo Hoat’s evil that won a self-loathing Jaime to the light and made him as much a true knight by season 8 as she became when he knighted her. So to see them actually enjoy a drinking game with Tyrion during the earlier feast was worth more than a thousand lords and ladies kneeling before a hobbit. Even Tyrion joins in with a delightful callback to season 1’s gaiety.
Aye, how unexpected and infectiously fun was it seeing the Imp emerge from Tyrion’s weary disposition? With wine on his breath and a smile on his face, this is likely the happiest we’ve ever seen Tyrion since he was accused of Joffrey’s murder four seasons back. Allowed to be a know-it-all smartass, however, brought back unusual facets in Tyrion’s persona. Having long buried his poking-and-prodding cruelty, it was somewhat out of left field that he’d knowingly make Brienne uncomfortable by bringing up her virginity. He presumably did this to perhaps push her closer to his brother Jaime, but it was a strange reminder that back in the day, and apparently still with enough wine, Tyrion can be a full-fledged asshole.
At least it leads to Brienne and Jaime finally sharing an intimacy that fans have longed for ever since he confided in a blur of bathtub suds and fevered wounds his sorrows and inadequacies. Now he has a full chance at redemption and the life he forfeited to Cersei decades ago. This is why he and Brienne have the giddiest (and most appropriately demure) love scene in Game of Thrones history.
… So of course it’s doomed to not last. By the end of the episode, Jaime and Brienne receive news that feels like it should’ve come weeks or months later: Cersei has miraculously bloodied Daenerys’ nose and practically taunted the Mother of Dragons to burn King’s Landing to the ground. With information in hand that his twin sister, lover, and lifelong torment is almost certain to die in a matter of days, Jaime throws away his happiness by stealing off in the night and attempting to leave Brienne to her slumber.
Their actual goodbye—because of course Brienne notices Jaime’s departure—is frankly a disappointing scene of awkward, soapy writing. I am convinced that Jaime is not going back to love Cersei, but to kill her. He heard from Sansa that Daenerys is sure to be on the warpath for King’s Landing, and his decision, even if he hasn’t admitted to himself, is to be there for Cersei when she dies… and maybe do it himself if she threatens to go out nastily. As we’ll get to in a minute, Cersei has almost the entire population of King’s Landing inside the Red Keep’s walls. When the chips are down and all hope is lost, I suspect Cersei will try to take everyone with her and replicate the Mad King’s plan of blowing up King’s Landing (or at least the Red Keep) in a green plume of smoke and disintegrated flesh.
Jaime will be the one to stop it again, which is fine, but to have him not even articulate some hint of this is simply the showrunners attempting to mask the surprise by having Jaime be needlessly cruel to Brienne. He claims Cersei is the love he deserves and wants. The former is probably true but the latter needlessly reduces Brienne to be the clichéd woman who weeps because her man has seemingly left her for another woman. It is pointlessly reductive to Brienne and feels unnaturally shoehorned into the same episode their romance was consummated.
This is actually a lot of the trouble with the second half of the episode. What could’ve been the climax of the night, or the beginning of a new one, instead is bizarre action sequence in which Euron Greyjoy, the biggest douche nozzle in all of the Seven Kingdoms and probably Essos too, “ambushes” Dany’s fleet and kills poor Rhaegal. I understand why it had to be Cersei’s much more efficiently used and upgraded scorpions that unexpectedly killed a dragon instead of the Night King last week, but Rhaegal deserved better than to be haphazardly killed off by the Westerosi version of a pop punk drummer in guyliner.
It was a horrible fate for one of the most majestic creatures in television history, but it did at least feel like a gut-punch when we saw blood spew from the green dragon’s mouth before he vanished beneath the waves. Exactly how Euron was able to get this jump on Daenerys is as inexplicable as his precision, but its effect is unmistakable: It led to the further destruction of Dany’s already diminished Unsullied forces and the capture of Missandei who was perhaps unwisely sent out on a separate row boat.
The sequence is narratively sound; I just really hate Euron, guys. Truly. And not in the way the writers intend. In any sense, it forces Daenerys into an uncomfortable box. She has just seen another one of her children murdered—one of her last children. All that remains is her favorite, Drogon, but the two who never left her side like that willful beast are now both gone, the latter stolen by Billie Joe Dragonstone over here. The consequences are severe. When Viserion died, she had Jon Snow to comfort her. When she discovered the Northmen distrusted her, she had Jorah Mormont to steady her and keep her true. Now she finds herself increasingly isolated and alienated.
While she was greeted as a liberator all across Slaver’s Bay during the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, and even earned the eventual love of the notoriously misogynistic Dothraki, she finds herself friendless in Westeros. Worse her actual friends are dying on her. Jorah is the most prominent, but the culture and people of her first marriage, the Dothraki, were almost entirely eradicated during the Battle of Winterfell last week. Granted, it was partially due to lousy tactical writing by the showrunners, but the Dothraki were likely doomed no matter how it was written given they are a people who fight across open plains, and no matter what that is a terrible way to battle hordes of zombies. The point is she is losing those who love her and is increasingly finding only disdain and fear from all these strange faces around her.
With her calming influences dead or on the King’s Road, all Varys and Tyrion can do is plead that she not take Cersei’s bait. For they’ve somehow learned that Cersei has placed all the smallfolk of King’s Landing inside the Red Keep. If Dany acts on her first impulse after the murder of Rhaegal—to burn the Red Keep to ash—she would kill around a million innocents just to slaughter Cersei. Varys and Tyrion’s combined begging convinces Dany to at least offer a token of an olive branch, which is the equivalent of the United States giving Saddam Huessein 24 hours to abandon power before the Iraq War began, but it is at least a concession toward non-bloodshed by the Dragon Queen. What is however apparent is that Dany is at the edge of her rope before she goes total Fire and Blood on King’s Landing.
I am entirely fine with this development, but I do wish the show slow-walked us to it. Other than some awkward looks at Sansa in the first two episodes of the season, the series has only begun pushing hard on Dany going down the path of the Mad King… this week. While she has always been a Taragryen, and thus more than a few people have been burned alive as a result, she’s usually tended to lean closer toward Aegon Targaryen, the William-esque Conqueror, than she has Mad Aerys II, the Caligula stand-in. But one brief and inorganic moment of her staring around Winterfell during the feast, lonely and paranoid, and now this scene is all we have to go on that Dany is forced to make a heel turn next week.
Admittedly, it’s always been a possibility, and one that I have resisted. Dany is clearly inspired by Henry VII, who ended the War of the Roses in conquest, but it is fitting of George R.R. Martin’s plotting that the most obvious version of restoration doesn’t come to pass and the Lawrence of Arabia styled leader we followed in Essos now becomes a tyrant in Westeros. My only issue is that it should have taken more than a few scenes in one episode for that heel turn to be explicit. It feels awkward after that one scene for Varys and Tyrion to begin scheming to replace Dany with Jon Snow.
But here we are with Tyrion and Varys doing that in the very next scene. This sequence also isn’t helped because I have deep reservations about Varys believing someone like Jon Snow would be a good king. Tyrion is romantic enough to have such notions that “because he doesn’t want it” he should be king, but I, Claudius, Jon ain’t. Jon is so visibly Ned’s son, right down to him constantly making disastrous choices in front of everyone (including Varys when he admitted to Cersei he’d already bent the knee to Dany in season 7) that there is no way the Spider should think he would do well in the south. As Sansa told Tyrion, men in her family fare poorly down there, and Jon is no different. But here they are starting to hedge their bets, promising next week’s climax to be a complete bloodbath of confusion and betrayals.
And we are definitely at the climax given how the final scene of the night ends. Outside the front gate of King’s Landing, Tyrion does his damndest to avoid the slaughter that is to come. He begs Qyburn, the parasite who claims he’s Cersei’s Hand, to help him avoid bloodshed, to avoid more senseless killing, and Qyburn all but shrugs. He then finds his inner-Achilles and walks past Qyburn to the very front door of his enemy’s capital, basically offering himself as a target on a silver platter. And it is Peter Dinklage’s finest moment in several seasons.
The perfect world he, you, and I gleamed in the second episode is gone. It is so true to human nature than in times of disaster and calamity we can see the worst and also the best of humanity. If the Army of the Dead was akin to a natural disaster, seeing the Starks, Targaryens, Unsullied, Dothraki, and even Jaime freaking Lannister join forces was the closest we’ll ever be to our better angels. It was a Tolkien-like fantasy. But fantasies must end, and human nature is for life to go on—that includes choices derived of self-interest and prejudice, and petty grievances too.
Now just one week after the Dragon and Wolf stood shoulder to shoulder, Tyrion and Varys are contemplating whether their queen needs to be betrayed and the Imp is staring up at his sister, looking to spark some common decency out of her greed and vanity. If she can but accept her reign is over, he could convince Daenerys to let her board a ship and leave Westeros in exile. It’s hardly an amazing fate, but it’s better than dying along with the apparently quite real unborn baby. But Napoleon refused to stay on Elba, just as Cersei now refuses to relinquish her power.
She shatters any hope for a peaceful or more hopeful world when she answers her little brother by not only rejecting Daenerys’ peace terms but by then also beheading Daenerys’ captured confidante and BFF, Missandei, in front of the Dragon Queen. Poor, poor Missandei, a woman forced into slavery at childhood now killed while once again trapped in chains. Her rage at these cruel people in this lily white land is entirely understandable when she screams Dracarys to Dany across the field. “Fire.” The same word that set her free all those years ago. But she may have doomed her queen with it today.
Just as Peter Dinklage is having a tremendous moment in Tyrion’s utter defeat, Emilia Clarke might have her best moment in Game of Thrones history as her justified fury cracks into s wordless rage with flecks of madness dancing with it in her eyes. There are no words, and given the overall rushed nature of the episode, it is entirely left to Clarke to visibly sell the moment the levees broke.
Daenerys’ destiny is confirmed, and there will be blood.
The endgame is here and next week, the worst case scenario Tyrion attempted to avoid will come true. If I was asked to predict right now (never mind my original predictions) what comes next, it is that by this time next week, Cersei, Dany, Jaime, and maybe even Jon too, plus a a lot of innocent people along the way, will be dead. The thirst for the Iron Throne will destroy them all, and with any luck the blasted seat will burn too.
I have confidence the endgame will be presented better than this, because everything—well other than Euron freaking Greyjoy—has been intrinsically great. Yet I’ll never understand why it was all squeezed into this ungainly 79 minutes instead of allowed to breathe and grow multiple episodes. I wish we were given time to come to the same conclusion of Varys and Tyrion instead of told to think that, and that Brienne and Jaime’s romance had enough springtime bloom to make the plucking of their Cherry Blossom evermore poignant.
But it began with earned heartache and ended with an even more visceral kind. Missandei’s death is the tip of the iceberg. It is human nature to use human hostages as shields, or to seek power as a motivation unto itself. More than any magical force of nature, that has been the driving sweep of Game of Thrones, and next week it should sweep everything we love away in a red gush.
**Oh, and Ghost deserved a lot better than that.