Game of Thrones’ ‘The Last of the Starks’: With a Daenerys-Cersei Showdown Looming, Has the HBO Series Lost Its Way?
At this point, we are all Ghost: disappointed, a little worse for wear, and wondering what the hell everyone is thinking.
“See? You’re not the only one who’s clever,” Daenerys mutters to Tyrion at the start of an episode that shows how a baffling majority of Game of Thrones’ heroes, and at points even the show’s creative brain trust, are anything but.
The world-shifting events of “The Last of the Starks”—the death of Daenerys’ dragon Rhaegal, the departures of beloved characters, the revelation of Jon’s parentage to his sisters, and the manipulation of that information—feel strangely limp in execution. That’s a consequence perhaps of the show’s whiplash-inducing pivot right back to the war over a chair, so soon after a conflict with much higher stakes and seven seasons of build-up fizzled out so anticlimactically with the Battle of Winterfell.
Nothing about where this episode ends is unfamiliar—we’ve watched Daenerys, seemingly the underdog, glare down powerful enemies and threaten to burn it all down so many times before. Watching her do it to Cersei might have packed an extra punch as the showdown the series has plotted for years. Instead, the scene’s dynamics seemed plucked from any number of near-identical interactions; little that’s come before seemed to weigh on it or affect either woman’s behavior.
The Cersei and Dany of this scene are essentially unchanged from the Cersei and Dany who met in the Dragonpit too many hours of screen time ago for such a lull in characterization. All that’s changed is one thing, and it has nothing to do with their personalities. It’s left to Varys to spell it out in one line several minutes earlier: In terms of military power, “the balance has grown distressingly even.” Sure, there’s one instance of bloodshed: one of the show’s more underdeveloped characters, Missandei, loses her head so that Cersei (and the show) can prove already-familiar points—the Lannister queen is a villain and Daenerys is angry. Little changes beyond that.
Politicking, scheming, and backstabbing was once what this show did best, with every interaction dense with potential for surprising implications down the road. Now, with only two hours and some-odd minutes left in the series, character logic has begun to unravel, with egregious mistakes and head-scratching denouements being made left and right with little consequence or justification beyond the plot prescribing weird lapses in judgment.
Nuance died in Westeros when the show ran out of George R.R. Martin’s source material to guide its path to the end. And sometimes that was fine. Episodes like “The Long Night” proved the show hasn’t lost its knack for hair-raising spectacle, and still boasts some of the strongest, most magnetic performances on TV.
Still, Game of Thrones once trained viewers to expect a path far less simplistic (and, so far, unsatisfying) than the one now seemingly laid out in front of us. There’s still time for a game-changing bombshell that might come close to feeling of a piece with a show built on the subversion of expectations. But at this point in its herky-jerky march to the end—speeding past certain milestones, dragging its feet across others—we are all Ghost: staring at our heroes in confusion, a little worse for wear, wondering what the hell everyone is thinking.
‘That’s Not Me’: A Memoir By Arya Stark
If there is one emotional throughline of the episode, it’s in characters like Arya and Jaime making decisions about what kind of people they will be in this new, post-White Walker world.
In Arya’s case, it’s not a tough question. Giddy from the high of being promoted to lord of Robert Baratheon’s ancestral home (Storm’s End), a lovestruck Gendry proposes to the Night King slayer—a sweet proposition he phrases in the worst way possible in light of, you know, everything about Arya. He asks her to be his “lady” and live her life at Storm’s End, like this isn’t the girl he first met in muddied boys’ clothing with a sword and a murderous vendetta. She lets him down easy: “That’s not me,” she says, echoing what she once told her dad about his own plans to marry her off, and recalling her last face-to-face with her direwolf Nymeria.
Instead, she hitches a ride south to King’s Landing with the Hound (a road trip I’d be eager to see, which is why I’m positive we’ll see none of it), since both have unfinished business there. The Hound is aiming for a death match with The Mountain. Arya, meanwhile, might mean to kill Cersei. Considering how expertly she rid us of the Night King and 100,000 undead soldiers, the show will have to come up with a foolproof reason for why Arya can’t just slip into the Red Keep and slit the Lannister queen’s throat—right?
The Lannisters Are Going to Hell for Hurting Brienne’s Feelings
The firelit feast at which Dany anoints Gendry a new lord is its own microcosm of tensions, if only because it’s difficult not to expect some wild, bloody betrayal to spoil a Game of Thrones celebration like this. Nothing that disastrous unfolds—apart from the jarring sight of a Starbucks cup left in front of Daenerys; seriously, who let this happen?—though Tyrion does commit a cardinal sin: he hurts Brienne’s feelings.
Tormund, Jaime, Tyrion, and Brienne play what amounts to a Game of Thrones trivia drinking game, quizzing each other on their backstories and preferences, in the warmest of the episode’s many small moments of connection at Winterfell. (Moments like this one in the first half of this episode recall what made “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” so fulfilling; it’s the second half that loses its way.) Tyrion gets too personal with Brienne, pressing her on her virginity and sending her away from the table in disgust.
Jaime follows her into her room and, in what at first seems like just icing on the cake of their most erotic moment so far (when he knighted Brienne), they finally do what we’ve all been rooting for since Season 3: they make out. While the rest of the North’s forces scatter and Daenerys brings the fight to King’s Landing, Jaime stays behind. It’s a short-lived, peaceful glimpse of the life he could have, if only he’d quit Cersei: nights spent with the woman who brings out the best in him and who deserves the world.
One of late-season Game of Thrones’ weaknesses is how little we now hear and see of what goes on inside characters’ heads; they make decisions in one moment then reverse those decisions in the next, or they get caught in some unstoppable stream of plot in which they stop acting like people at all. With the show’s increasingly wobbly pacing, that means whiplash-inducing plots like Jaime committing to Brienne, Jaime hearing that Cersei has provoked all-out war, and Jaime then leaving Brienne brokenhearted, rejecting his own seasons-long redemption arc—all in the span of maybe 15 minutes. Imagine the emotional impact if we’d lived with that hope then had it dashed over several episodes.
About Brienne… The sight of the strongest, most principled warrior woman on the show reduced to tears over a man might strike some as regressive. But the particulars of this scene struck me a different way. Begging a loved one not to relapse into self-destructive behavior, trying and failing to convince them that they deserve better, that they can be loved, and that there’s a life for them beyond what they knew—and failing at it—does not make Brienne weak. It just makes her (and Jaime) human. (I’ll also say it’s not remotely unrealistic for an amazing, accomplished woman like Brienne to be let down by some dude she thought the world of!)
Brienne sobbing as Jaime rides off is a raw, crushing moment. But there’s enough history between these two, in my eyes, for Brienne to be seen as more than just a lover spurned. (That title goes to Tormund, actually.) The show can feel these days like it’s pulling its punches, but this was a bit of that brutal realism it was once known for.
Anyway, if a certain castles-and-riches-obsessed knight (hi, Bronn) assassinates either of the Lannister men after their crimes against Brienne, I can no longer say they didn’t have it coming.
The Worst-Kept Secret in Westeros Gets Out
The people of the North seem to have no idea that Jon Snow spent the Battle of Winterfell swirling blindly on the back of a dragon, then yelling uselessly into the maw of a fire-breathing zombie. Instead, everyone back-pats him, shotguns mugs of ale with him, and treats him like the hero the show always has, however questionable his actual victories. It’s quite literally enough to drive a woman mad.
Dany is a ruler used to being treated like a savior, though she hasn’t received a fraction of that worship post-Night King. In a move she calculates will make her seem more likable and score her an ally in a Westeros stronghold, she gives Gendry Storm’s End—and looks disappointed when no one rushes to warm up to her. David Nutter, this episode’s director, does a stomach-churning(ly great) job of emphasizing Dany’s isolation at the Winterfell feast. She looks small and alone in the background as old friends clink cups all around her. We slip for a moment into her dazed perspective as she sees that, even now, Jon Snow is still these people’s chosen leader.
Emilia Clarke sells Dany’s desperation perfectly when she later corners him and commands him never to tell anyone about his Targaryen lineage. She knows the North would rather see him on the throne (in practice, he’s effectively undone his reputation as a great leader over the past two seasons, but no one here is living in reality anymore) and that this secret would enable them, despite however much Jon says he doesn’t want it, to install him as king after Cersei’s out of the way. All he has to do not to ruin her life is keep quiet.
But Jon, like Ned before him, keeps secrets about as well as he devises battle strategies—that is, he’s awful at it. Bound by a sense of obligation to his family, he lets Sansa and Arya in on the secret after they pinky-swear not to tell. Within minutes, Sansa tells. Why wouldn’t she? She’s one of many who mistrust Daenerys’s quest for more power—and she knows that by telling Tyrion, Varys will know soon, too. That works to her advantage. She really is the savviest person in Westeros.
Is Tyrion OK?
The show has sidelined Tyrion and Varys for so long that it’s nice to see these two former master manipulators sharing a meaty scene again. It’d have been better if both of them seemed in their right minds.
Varys has always served his notion of “the realm”—the common folk of Westeros, with backgrounds like his own, who deserve a ruler who puts their interests first. Tyrion, however, is acting...oddly. He brushes off Varys’s concern about Dany’s “state of mind,” along with the suggestion that because Jon Snow doesn’t want the throne, he’s the best choice of ruler. It’s either him or the queen the show is painting as increasingly unbalanced, unhappy, inflexible, and desperate—we’re supposed to make the leap to potentially “mad” from there—yet he chooses his queen.
The show’s tiresome insistence on painting women in power as depraved, lonely maniacs aside, Tyrion works overtime to blind himself to the obvious here, in ways that make sense and in others that don’t. He floats the idea of Jon and Dany marrying and ruling together. When faced with the sticky little matter of incest, he hand-waves Varys’s concern away and insists Dany will make “the right choice,” so long as her advisers are by her side. Varys isn’t buying it, though, and seemingly jumps ship. What he’s plotting will be a welcome twist, I hope, and set up a compelling Jon vs. Dany last leg of the show.
Tyrion, on the other hand, is losing his edge. He may or may not be in love with Daenerys, but even if he were, it barely excuses how adamant he is about seeing her rule. It also doesn’t justify his gonzo appeal to Cersei for mercy, as if he doesn’t know better. He’s this episode’s best example of people acting wildly out of character. Who is this and where is the real Tyrion?
I Can’t Believe Euron Greyjoy Is Still on This Show
If you bet at the start of this season that Euron Greyjoy would accomplish what a thousands-year-old supernatural force couldn’t and take down Rhaegal the dragon, congrats! You’re the only winner here.
Euron’s sneak-attack on Dany’s army as they sail from White Harbor back to Dragonstone comes straight out of nowhere—who told? Was it Varys? Bronn?—yet registers with little in the way of shock or emotion. A wrinkle of the nose, maybe. A mild sense of confusion over why this obnoxious, oily latecomer to the game is getting so much screen time, definitely. But no one is afraid of Euron Greyjoy. He’s nowhere close to a compelling villain. Why is he still here? (More, how could Daenerys not spot those ships from so high up?)
The show has gone from regarding him the way Cersei does, as a necessary inconvenience, to installing him as a major player, however unconvincing the execution. He’s more plot device than human, to the point that I’m skeptical the show will even let him deduce the obvious: if Cersei is really pregnant with his child, how would Tyrion already know about it?
She’s not, of course. Cersei guzzling down wine in the Season 8 premiere cast doubt on whether she’s still pregnant with Jaime’s child, or if she ever was. (There’s that whole matter of Maggy the Witch’s prophecy, though who knows whether the show’s thrown all its prophecies out the window right now.) Giving her Euron Greyjoy’s sweat-baby would be a step too far. Cersei’s plotting something, anything, I hope, to make the wars over the Iron Throne interesting again.