It’s been a divisive season of Game of Thrones, so far. Viewers who loved the emotional character beats of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” hated the frenzied (and obscured) action of last week’s “The Long Night” and vice versa. But thankfully I imagine we’re all probably on the same page regarding last night’s episode, “The Last of the Starks” — and that page is simmering anger. Because that was a long, frustrating episode that seemed designed to grind everything you enjoy about the show straight into the dirt. Sure, there were fleeting moments of satisfaction to be found: Arya riding south with the Hound, Arya being rational about how badly the North needed Dany’s help, Arya shooting Gendry down because she’s never been a proper lady. OK, basically anything involving Arya worked splendidly. But aside from that? This is a show that is barreling straight toward its conclusion, by any means necessary. It doesn’t have time for nuance, or following believable character motivations, or clearing the set of stray coffee cups. And if that means it gives you what you think you want whilst simultaneously ruining it? So be it.
Sure — story-wise, last night’s episode was fairly simple. There’s time for reflection and mourning as Winterfell recovers from the events of the battle and lays its dead to rest on massive funeral pyres. The survivors then turn to celebration, before looking ahead to the fight that awaits them in King’s Landing. Dany gives Jon an ultimatum regarding their relationship, demanding that he keep his parentage a secret if he wants to stay with her. But Jon goes ahead and shares the truth of his birth with Sansa and Arya, swearing them to secrecy, and Sansa, who is still no fan of Dany, tells Tyrion anyway. The remaining forces, decimated by the clash with the Night King, head south to lay siege to the capital and oust Cersei. Jon leads the brunt of their army by land, while Dany takes a smaller group to Dragonstone by sea — where she encounters Euron and his fleet. His boats are loaded with the giant dragon spear-guns, which he uses to KILL RHAEGAL (!!!), and also sink Dany’s ships. The survivors wash up on shore to discover Missandei has been captured, so Dany takes her small force of Unsullied the rest of the way to King’s Landing to, uh, negotiate? The Hands of the Queens (Tyrion and Qyburn) meet in front of the city walls to demand surrender, while Cersei holds Missandei hostage on top of the battlements. Tyrion’s entreaty to Cersei fails, and the Mountain chops off Missandei’s head (much to Grey Worm’s dismay). Next week, the battle is on.
But in this episode it’s not so much what happens but how it happens, and why, that rankles. So let’s break down some of the various dynamics, and why they don’t work at all, shall we?
Dany’s Right To Rule: The show is really trying to make us question Daenerys — both her methods, and maybe also her sanity. And the problem is, it’s pulling her character in too many directions for any of the possible objections to stick. Her ultimatum to Jon may seem harsh, but let’s face it — she was kinda right. She’s seen how people are drawn to him, and sure enough, the second he told his family, they (or at least Sansa) told others. The secret is spreading, and it likely will undermine her own authority. The fact that she saw that reality, and Jon didn’t, is another reason why she is a far more clever ruler.
Does she react emotionally? Does she not want to share power? Sure. But so has every other leader on this show. Sansa may not trust her, but she’s biased — she wants safety and independence for her family and the North, because she has personally been used as a tool in everyone else’s power grabs. Sansa is also very clever, but I haven’t been given a reason to think she’d view anyone Jon bent the knee to favorably, so her distrust of Dany is mostly meaningless. And as for Dany’s own advisors, Tyrion and Varys spent multiple scenes discussing Dany in ways that border on outright treason. Tyrion, for whatever reason, will back Dany no matter what — though he concedes that if she would just marry Jon, it would be the easiest way to unite the kingdom. Varys, who has always said he was loyal first to the realm and the interests of the people, thinks her bullheaded desire to attack King’s Landing head-on will harm too many innocents. But the problem is, their conversations amount to nothing more than a tired sexist trope: Dany is more qualified for the position (she’s already a Queen!), but gee, Jon sure is popular even though he doesn’t want the job.
But if the objections to Dany’s leadership are muddled, so are her own motivations. In the same episode, she talks about herself as the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms AND a person whose purpose in life is to free the world from tyrants. But her family lost the throne fair and square, so it being “rightfully” hers is dubious (as is Jon’s own claim via his Targaryen blood). And while Cersei is undoubtedly a tyrant, Varys is right that Dany’s eagerness to depose her risks destroying the very people she supposedly should be saving. There is no question that Dany wants the Iron Throne, and frankly, there shouldn’t be any question that she’d make a good queen. The problem is that, in rushing toward the show’s conclusion, Dany must rush as well. If she seems crazy or unreasonable — which, to be fair, refusing to let her army rest after fighting an ARMY OF THE UNDEAD absolutely seems crazy and unreasonable — then it’s because the show doesn’t have time for her to be strategic. And that’s bad writing, rather than an actual character flaw.
Jon’s Right To Rule: Look, I feel like this is moot because Jon doesn’t want to rule, never has, already gave up his own shot at being a King and is steadfast in his desire to support his Queen. Except, you know, when it comes to doing the one thing she asked him. The problem is, just like Ned before him, Jon always puts more faith in his family than his own happiness. It’s almost funny that, in confessing to his sisters that he’s not their real brother, he acts more like Ned Stark than ever — only instead of keeping a secret on behalf of his family, he shares that secret with his family. He can never do the smart thing over the honorable thing, and that’s why, just like Ned, Jon will always be a good man… but probably should never be King.
Besides, I’m pretty sure he’s going to die before all is said and done. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
Brienne, Tormund, and Jaime: Oh, were you shipping Brienne and Jaime? Well, good news! They totally banged. Only it was gross and awkward, and had less to do with their emotions than with a drinking game gone wrong. I honestly don’t know why Jaime even approached her. Pity, maybe, or a vague sense of responsibility? But not love. There are no professions of affection to be found here. And in the end, whatever responsibility he may feel toward Brienne is still overshadowed by his responsibility to help bring down Cersei — to in some way right the wrongs he committed in helping her secure her power — so he leaves Brienne sobbing in the courtyard at Winterfell and rides south. Even if you wanted them to hook up, I doubt anyone wanted it to happen like THAT.
As for Tormund, he realizes Jaime is going to beat him to the punch with Brienne and actually cries about it! He’s heartbroken! And then… he flirts with the first woman who shows interest. He’s held a torch for her for so long, and just like that, it’s forgotten. And he’s taking his wildlings farther north so he won’t even be around to help Brienne pick up the pieces of her own broken heart.
Arya and Gendry: Dany, in another shrewd bit of Queenery, makes Gendry the recognized son of Robert Baratheon and names him Lord of Storm’s End. She both publicly forgives the last of the Baratheons, while also securing herself a future supporter for when she takes the throne. And Gendry turns around and proposes to Arya. Which is cute, but also super wrong. He wants to make her Lady of Storm’s End, but she’s never wanted to be a Lady to begin with, so she kisses him… and then firmly shuts him down. Unlike Brienne and Jaime, this was a believable evolution of their relationship, and if it isn’t completely satisfying then at least it happened across multiple episodes rather than being dropped, start to finish, and a single one.
Sansa and Tyrion: Did everyone catch how Tyrion basically tried to sell Sansa on Jon and Dany’s relationship by being like, “Well, if Jon is in the capital with her, then you’ll be the real power in the North”? As if at this point it isn’t abundantly clear that Sansa deserves to be more than just the de facto Warden, and also she’s not doing all of this as some weird power flex. Sansa then tells Tyrion the truth about Jon, probably to sow the seeds of discontent. Cersei may be awful, but what if Dany isn’t the only alternative? Which is a nice move, but c’mon Sansa — you can’t even pretend you’re going to keep that secret for, like, A DAY?
Cersei: She’s straight-up going to let Euron believe her baby is his, which seems to be working fine because time has lost all meaning on this show. Though I am curious if Euron will at least ask her how Tyrion could already know about it, since Tyrion tries to get her to surrender for the good of herself and her child in front of everyone. Also, I know we’re supposed to hate Cersei — and sure, she’s filling the Red Keep with innocents to form a very real body shield around herself — but you have to admit, her plans worked. She lied about heading North and took the time to strengthen her own defenses while Dany and Jon exhausted their resources, so now the two queens are meeting on far more even footing. Though if Dany had failed, Cersei would be facing an army of ice zombies at her walls rather than a pissed-off Targaryen queen, so it was still a pretty bad gamble.
Though can we take a moment to acknowledge the fact that, of ALL the people Dany could have sent to demand Cersei’s surrender, she sent Tyrion — who is mostly lucky Cersei didn’t have her archers turn him into a pin cushion? I can’t tell if he really thought he could convince her, but if he did, it’s another knock against his strategy. Even I could tell there was no way she’d give up, and certainly not to him.
Missandei: I lost track — was “Dracarys” her only line this episode?
Ghost: Jon sent Ghost north with Tormund, rather than taking him south for the next fight. Sure, it was for his own good, but again, it’s not what happened — it’s how. And the “how” here involved Jon NOT saying goodbye to that very good, very big boy of his. Instead, he says goodbye to Sam, hugging him and agreeing they are best friends, RIGHT IN FRONT OF GHOST.
Dude. DUDE. That direwolf has saved your butt countless times, and you can’t even give him a pat on the head? You, sir, are dead to me. And I’m betting, in the next two episodes, you’re dead to this show, too. That was your unforgivable sin.
At this point I’m looking forward to whatever ruckus Arya and the Hound get up to on their little team-up, and while watching Dany square off against Cersei seems promising, that’s what I thought when Jon was ready to face down the Night King — before Arya beat him to the punch. At this point, all that’s certain is that nothing seems to be going quite the way you’d expect. Not even the stuff you were expecting.
Header Image Source: HBO