Westeros finds itself divided on who should lead it, in a frustrating feature-length episode that walks back vital character development.
If you’ve survived eight seasons of backstabbing, intrigue and fantasy zombies on Game of Thrones, chances are you’ve gone through some pretty life-changing stuff – stuff which might help you grow and change into someone different, if not better. For Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), everything he’s seen led to him pledging allegiance to Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and finally recognizing the evils of his sister/lover Cersei (Lena Headey). Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) effectively had her own show in Essos for most of the show’s runtime, learning the hard sacrifices and moral judgments she had to make to be a great leader people would want to follow. Frustratingly, “The Last of the Starks” walks back these important bits of character development to make hollow points about how we’re always meant to be what we’ve become, no matter how much we try to change it.
The first half of the show’s eighty-minute runtime starts off well enough, as the victorious Winterfell armies bury/burn their dead and celebrate with wine, sex, and in Gendry’s (Joe Dempsie) case, a nice cozy lordship, courtesy of Daenerys. (Which, it so happens, also appeases a Baratheon bastard with a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne.) Of course, that’s not all she’s worried about: knowing that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is actually Aegon Targaryen, her nephew and potential Iron Throne claimant, she feels threatened by the people’s love for him. Apart from that, though, the victory feast is a welcome bit of levity for such a grim show – after all, they just defeated the Army of the Dead and saved all of humanity. If there’s a better occasion to get completely lit, I’d like to hear it.
Some small but important stuff happens here: Jaime finally makes his move on Brienne, after an adorable drinking game courtesy of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) reveals that she’s a virgin. (As for Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), who’s been thirsting after her from day one, he’s a little heartbroken, but immediately gets over it with the help of some willing Winterfell ladies.) Gendry professes his love for Arya (Maisie Williams) and asks for her hand, which she refuses: “I’m not a lady,” she tells him, with a perverse sense of affection.
The question of allegiance pervades all of “The Last of the Starks”, and its most interesting moments lie in everyone’s reactions to the Jon/Dany question. The secret of Jon’s true parentage doesn’t stay secret for long, despite Dany’s protestations: Jon, with the help of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) tells Arya and Sansa, who then tells Tyrion, who tells Varys (Conleth Hill). They then spend much of the episode sitting with this news, also understanding that, if they know by now, the rest of the kingdom will learn soon enough.
This leads to a number of long convos between the two characters (crackling scenes we haven’t gotten for a while) about the direction of the Seven Kingdoms. Tyrion has hitched his dragon to Dany, his experiences with Dany convincing him that she’ll make a great queen. Varys, however, sees the more objective truth of things: the people love Jon, he’s a kind, smart leader, and the lords will rally behind a man more than a woman (“I don’t think a cock is a true qualification,” Tyrion and every woman watching the show fully understands). Would Dany rule wisely, or does her bloodlust portent a grim queenhood to come? Jon might make the better ruler in their eyes, but he doesn’t want to rule.
The Jon/Dany conflict cuts to the heart of Game of Thrones‘ biggest problems in its final few seasons – in its zeal to set up these foregone conclusions, they’ve had to roll back significant character development to do so. Jon’s a good man, but the first six seasons of the show taught us that Dany is a good woman as well. These recent spates of bloodshed and capriciousness evince a queen much more cruel-hearted than we’ve come to believe, one who didn’t learn the lessons she learned in Qarth and Meereen about the need to rule with more than dragons and an iron fist. To ascend Jon to the Iron Throne (which is all but inevitable at this point), they have to turn Dany into a villain and are taking some of the most artificial steps possible to get there.
She’s not the only character who gets some much-lamented backtracking this episode: Jaime, the man who’s maybe come the furthest all show, finds comfort in the arms of Brienne, only to leave her to return to Cersei out of a sense of self-hatred. “She’s hateful, and so am I,” he says to her, riding off leaving Brienne in tears over a man – the least Brienne-like thing her character could do. Those scenes do both of them a disservice, turning Jaime into a backpedaling wuss and Brienne into a weeping widow, despite her entire character being defined by her subversions of traditonal womanhood. She was just knighted, for the Lord of Light’s sake; give her more dignity than this.
All of Game of Thrones’ “The Last of the Starks”, of course, is to set the stage for the “Last War” of the show – the showdown between our heroes and the heartless Cersei for control of the Iron Throne. While everyone else has been fighting off ice zombies, she and Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) have been preparing, outfitting his ships and the Red Keep with those giant dragon-killing crossbows from last season – one of which brutally kills Rhaegal thanks to a sneak attack from the Iron Fleet at Dragonstone. When Dany et al. finally pull up to King’s Landing, all Tyrion can do is walk up to the gates of the Red Keep and entreaty Cersei to give up the Throne – a move which fails, costing the captured Missandei her life and ending the episode with Dany driven even further (and more artificially) to Mad Queen status.
As the show moves through its few remaining hours, the season has felt alternatively rushed and overly concerned with running in circles. The actors feel so intimately acquainted with their characters that they live in their skin, which makes some of the character twists and turns so incredibly aggravating. One hopes they do something more interesting than “Jaime’s ultimately a piece of shit who ruined the one woman who never played by Westeros’ rules,” or “Dany turned out to be a power-hungry despot after all,” but so far it’s not looking likely. As Tyrion gravely tells Varys, “Maybe Cersei will win and kill us all. That will solve all our problems.” While we know Cersei is going down in dragon-flames next episode (and not a moment too soon), one can’t help but wonder if that would at least stop our heroes from losing so much narrative ground themselves.
- Sansa’s reaction to The Hound telling her that Ramsey’s marriage and assault wouldn’t have happened if she’d left with him is a lot to unpack: “Without Littlefinger, Ramsey and the rest, I would have stayed a Little Bird all my life.” While I’m all for people finding strength in their trauma, that line teeters dangerously close to “getting raped builds character.” Which, yuck.
- Way to kill off the only black woman on the show, writers. I sincerely don’t think you thought this one through. Between Missandei, Brienne, and Sansa, Benioff and Weiss particularly failed the women of Game of Thrones this week.
- I guess this is also goodbye to Tormund, Sam, Gilly, and Ghost as well? It’s a rather unceremonious exit, considering Jon and Sam’s close relationship since the beginning of the series. “You’re the best friend I ever had,” says Jon, who’s barely seen him in several seasons. I get there are too many characters to really do their goodbyes justice, but that one (and poor Ghostie, who’s just sent off with Tormund to live north of the Wall) really stung.
- So I guess the long-gestating thread of Bronn (Jerome Flynn) killing Tyrion and Jaime just led to a fun, but insubstantial roundtable where they give him Highgarden in exchange for not killing them, then he peaces out for the rest of the conflict? Geez, at least kill some of these characters in an interesting way instead of shoving them to the side.
- At least you could see what was going on this week.