Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.
The first two episodes of season eight gave us so many feel-good moments, it almost felt like a different show. Characters reunited and fought for a common cause. In last week’s “The Long Night,” their unity succeeded, and they defeated the white walkers. Yes, there were some painful deaths, but it felt like the triumphant cap to characters fighting together and, what’s more, winning the fight. Good people worked together, and good prevailed.
“The Last Of The Starks” is not one of those episodes. Now that the existential threat is behind them, characters fall back into their war campaigns and the scheming, plotting, and subterfuge that comes with it. The equilibrium that comes with happiness can’t last, and here we see the beginning of the fallout of the relationships between many of the show’s characters. Some are minor: Gendry learns that just because Arya had sex with him doesn’t mean she wants to marry him. Others have bigger implications. Brienne and Jaime share a brief, shining moment of happiness before his past pulls him back to King’s Landing, despite Brienne’s entreaty to stay with him. Sansa isn’t going to keep Jon’s secret if she sees a better path forward than bending the knee to Daenerys. This is the obvious and foreseeable consequence of Jon’s “I cannot tell a lie” ethos, one Daenerys correctly predicted. But Jon is always going to tell the truth, and Daenerys is always going to be inflexible in her resolve. These characters are who they are, and no amount of sex, death, or victory on the battle field will change that.
And so the table is set for the last war, which is gearing up to be the last great test of what these characters will do as they reckon with their true natures. While some characters saw their arcs realized in the Battle of Winterfell, others still have things to prove and debts to settle. The Hound and Arya ride out together for a buddy road trip sequel, as The Hound still has to kill his brother (CleganeBowl is looking more likely), and we’re reminded of Arya’s unfinished business: her kill list, with Cersei at the top. Jaime might have thought redemption could be won in fighting alongside the Starks at Winterfell, but as he looks at Brienne he realizes he still has a lot to atone for if he’s to be worthy of her. And Sansa is the call coming from inside the house, now seeing a way forward that puts Jon on the Iron Throne instead of Daenerys.
It’s a transitional episode that feels perfunctory, a cursory going through the motions of wrapping up the Battle of Winterfell and lining up some somewhat boring logistics to get into the Last War. And perhaps after last week’s breathless episode this quieter one feels subdued in comparison. But “The Last Of The Starks” is grounded in some classic Game Of Thrones political intrigue. Yes, the war begins between Daenerys and Cersei, but the real interest is in what’s happening at Camp Daenerys. Sansa is already fomenting rebellion against the dragon queen, and the secret is out about Jon’s parentage. A soap-opera like pan over to Varys puts us right back where we were in the early seasons, with the advisors behind the royalty watching closely and pulling strings. Add in some signature Cersei cruelty and it feels very familiar.
Speaking of Cersei’s cruelty, “The Last Of The Starks” also has some throwback poor writing with its women. Sansa has been one of my favorite characters this season, because she’s grown up and grown into a fearsome and clever player. So when she brushes aside The Hound’s observation that she would have avoided her terrible times with Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton if she had escaped with him from King’s Landing with a “those men are what made me strong” line, I can’t help but feel disappointed in the male writers’ understanding of Sansa, which suddenly doesn’t feel as good as I’d thought. Similarly, I’d like to take Jaime’s suggestion that Brienne drink more before she has sex for the first time as a Tyrion-esque proposal to get a little drunk for the sake of getting a little drunk, but it marred an otherwise great moment of these two characters coming together. And Missandei, the only woman of color on the show, is brutally killed. Like the characters they bring to life, the writers of Game Of Thrones have come a long way… but they’re still who they’ve always been. (It also felt out of character for Tyrion to call out Brienne’s virginity the way he did. He’s shown himself to be a much kinder person than that, which adds to the weird meanness of the scene, like the writers couldn’t think of a way to get Brienne and Jaime in bed other than point out that she’s a virgin and get it going from there.)
It feels like the writers killed Missandei to make this war personal for Daenerys. Is this a fridging in the Game Of Thrones world? Daenerys has been single-minded in her determination to retake the Iron Throne, reclaiming her family’s power and avenging them at the same time. And while she’s heard stories of Cersei’s cruelty, she’s never experienced it first-hand. I still don’t think that beheading Missandei was necessary, and the way the writers made it happen feels forced. Missandei is the only one captured when Euron shoots down Daenerys’ fleet? Really? And the one person captured just happens to be Daenerys’ BFF? But unrealistic writing aside, I understand how it helps set the stage for the final two episodes. Missandei’s death, combined with another dead dragon (R.I.P. Rhaegal), ups the ante for Daenerys. Emilia Clark does a nice bit of facial contortion when Cersei kills Missandei, and the thought I had was that we’ve never seen Daenerys truly mad before. I know I’m wrong about that—we definitely have seen her mad—but the point is that Daenerys’ objective isn’t just the abstract idea of sitting in the Iron Throne. It’s about beating Cersei, and a vengeance that’s much more personal than it was before.
Though the first battle was technically the one at sea where Euron somehow maneuvered those giant crossbow weapons into the sky to hit Rhaegal three times, it feels like the war begins with Missandei. As it stands: Daenerys is down to one dragon, her once-mighty armies are depleted, and she’s lost two long-term advisors in Ser Jorah and Missandei. Varys ponders what it would look like if Jon Snow were on the Iron Throne while Tyrion tries not to listen, but he’s already heard it from Sansa. Cersei doesn’t have the allies Daenerys has, but she has the coin to pay for the Golden Company, she has Euron Greyjoy’s fleet, and she has a weapon that could kill Daenerys’ last dragon. As the writers take pains to show that each of the characters who are still alive after eight seasons are intractably who they are—Jon is Jon, Daenerys is Daenerys, Arya is Arya, etc.—how will Cersei’s short-sighted cruelty play out in the Last War? What does Cersei being Cersei look like in this last, great battle?
- Myles McNutt is out of the country and unable to watch the show this week. He’ll be back next week.
- Pod goes off with two women in the background of Winterfell’s celebration. He’s still got it.
- Jon’s honorableness only extends to humans, apparently. Ghost survives the Battle of Winterfell only to be sent north with the wildlings? Here’s hoping Tormund appreciates the magnificent Ghost more than Jon did.
- Speaking of Ghost, I’m back on Nymeria watch. I’m hopeful the show giving Ghost some screen time is for the purpose of reminding viewers that there’s another direwolf out there, one who’s leading a pack of wolves and who belonged to Arya, and who is probably somewhere around where Arya and The Hound are about to travel through.
- Anyone else shipping Sansa and Tyrion? I sort of thought last episode their beautiful moment in the crypt was setting up a relationship between them, and Sansa looking askance at him during the Winterfell celebration party was partly because Sansa hates Daenerys but also because Sansa is into Tyrion, so those feelings would be complicated. Their marriage would cement the alliance between Daenerys and the North, but it sure doesn’t seem like Sansa is interested in recognizing Daenerys as queen.
- For more on the episode, tune in tomorrow for “Winter Is Here,” The A.V. Club’s video and podcast covering the show, with Katie Rife and, this week, TV Editor Erik Adams. (I’ll be back next week, but as I’m filling in for the experts review tonight, I’m sleeping in past the early morning call time.) You can find all of the episodes here, or subscribe to the audio version here or wherever else you get your podcasts.
- Varys is serving as advisor to Daenerys in the show, but in the books he’s sided with Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys’ nephew who is not Jon Snow, but the son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell. He was a baby when Sandor Clegane killed his whole family, but Varys secretly replaced him with a different baby (and you’ll remember The Viper tries and fails to avenge his family when he fights The Mountain, who killed Elia and her children). He’s revealed to be alive in A Dance With Dragons, and this Aegon does want the Iron Throne for himself. I wonder if some of the new plot points of Varys desiring to put someone who’s not Daenerys on the Iron Throne is the streamlined version of Varys supporting that other Aegon Targaryen in the books.
- If anyone else is on the Blood Raven watch, “The Last Of The Starks” provided more fodder. Tyrion says Bran is the last true-born Stark son. Bran doesn’t say anything, and Tyrion interprets his silence to mean Bran doesn’t want to be lord of Winterfell. But maybe he’s silent because he’s not Bran, but the Blood Raven. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this Reddit thread explains the theory, and how it fits with the current timeline.) I don’t think the show is going to do anything with the Blood Raven at this point—we’re way too close to the end to introduce a new plot point—but I’d bet that there’s going to be something supernatural and magical that still has to play out, and it could have something to do with Bran’s abilities and creepy Three-Eyed Raven identity.