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Game of Thrones Season Eight Episode 4: “The Last of the Starks” Is a Weightless Mess

With The Night King fallen and Winterfell in mourning, “The Last of the Starks” was an opportunity for Game of Thrones to gather its breath, a chance to recenter itself before heading south for the ‘last war’ Dany ominously hints towards. And yet, “The Last of the Starks” refuses to pause even for a moment, the bodies still burning outside the city gates while Game of Thrones relentlessly marches forward – though for a 78-minute episode full of dramatic moments, “The Last of the Starks” is remarkably hollow. On some level, it is impressive to see a show push headstrong into a half dozen terrible storytelling choices at the same time – but it doesn’t make “The Last of the Starks” any more enjoyable to watch, coalescing a handful of mind boggling elements into one of the most disappointing, thoroughly meaningless episodes of the entire series.

It’s strange to see Game of Thrones, once a beacon of subverting genre tropes, embrace the worst stereotypes and bad habits of medieval fantasy.

It’s all downhill from the opening scene, a somber farewell to Winterfell’s fallen that is forgotten the second things move to the post-victory feast, where any deeper lesson about the Night King’s defeat is lost in a sea of drunken cheers and horny side glances. With Cersei and her armies waiting at King’s Landing, it’s natural the fight against the Night King would feel like a hollow victory for whoever lives; but how lazily the so-called “Great War” becomes a forgotten bullet point almost immediately is a bit surprising, in how quickly it is disregarded for the petty dramas of the south to take prominence.

Game of Thrones The Last of the Starks

Tormund’s heartbreak aside, most of the first fifteen minutes of “The Last of the Starks” feel like a cathartic reprise of “A Night of the Seven Kingdoms” – thematically, that’s a natural way to open the episode, and save for how little everyone actually reflects on their victory, it’s a rather enjoyable sequence, to see our mud and blood-caked heroes be jolly, if only for one night. But as soon as the party calms down and everyone’s nightmares are forgotten, Game of Thrones quickly begins to strangely undermine itself with a series of poor, regressive narrative decisions that all feel like they were made by Jon Snow or Bran: either obsessed with its own legacy and intimidated by its own shadow, it’s easy to see how the show’s fallen back on so many of its old, bad habits.

Take Jaime and Brienne, for example; Game of Thrones just can’t help but indulge some of its worst habits in yet another controversial development for the king slaying sister (and knight) fucker. Forever a dog, Jaime thinks fucking Brienne will make him forget about how awful his sister is, until he hears Cersei’s name, and he goes running back to King’s Landing alone to kill her. Not only was this a wildly predictable moment, but it undercuts both characters when it makes odd decisions like focusing on Brienne’s virginity as an indirect catalyst for their big romantic moment. It’s mind-numbingly dull, a terrible resolution for one of the show’s most richly layered relationships – and a simplification that, while it may be pleasing to fans of the characters, leaves what’s left of their dynamic feeling hollow and empty by the time Jaime makes his predictable turn to return to Westeros, to feed his Cersei addiction one last  time.

(not to mention it is another in Jaime’s “biggest piece of shit in Westeros” catalog, right next to raping his sister over their father’s dead body, and throwing a child off a tower to protect his incestual secret. Not a great look for a character with a supposed redemptive arc.)

Game of Thrones The Last of the Starks

Jaime may make no qualms about embracing his inner piece of shit, but it runs contrary to the journey he’s had all series – or, at the very least, reinforces that he’s never going to change his ways, which begs the question of why make him a major character in the first place. Jaime’s not showing growth by heading back to King’s Landing to kill his sister/girlfriend; he’s just retracing his steps of the past to kill another leader, which is something so many other characters in Winterfell are beginning to do, immediately following the most expensive battle fought on television – so you tell me how much the Night King’s last stand really meant to anything.

If anything, the unification of the North has left Dany feeling like she’s on the outside looking in; and it’s here where Game of Thrones continues to betray one of its core characters, thoroughly reducing her to three bullet points of characterization: jealous of Jon, horny for Jon, and horny for a throne she can’t seem to prove she deserves, be it with her political machinations or bloodline claim. Game of Thrones seems content to paint Dany into a corner, and reduce her to nothing but a series of anxious glances and “let’s do incest, please” eyes that kind of undersell the long (if repetitive) arc she’s had through the series. She’s fought so hard, come so far, and she still can’t get any respect on this side of the sea – a realization that feels like Game of Thrones oddly revels in, a strange abandonment of the show’s first seven years of existence, where breaking tradition was once the norm.

Now, characters are falling back into much more traditional roles; particularly the women, who are back to being fuck dolls, be it Dany, Brienne – or even Gilly, whose character is reduced to “Sam knocked me up real good!” when her and Sam say their farewells, and head home to Horn Hill. It’s not expected that Game of Thrones give every single minor character a meaningful ending, but Gilly being but a footnote to Sam’s story is indicative of the direction the show’s going to take at every time: not only has Game of Thrones reduced its characters to one or two traits, it has also kneecapped its stories and themes for the sake of simplicity, falling back on old, misogynistic habits (like Sansa tells the Hound that getting raped and sold to different husbands was actually a good thing, because it made her tougher) in a strange abdication of the show’s core philosophies of complicated conflicts and unsatisfying, if fascinating, developments.

Game of Thrones The Last of the Starks

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Varys are in the shadows, making their best cases for Jon and Dany to be rulers of Westeros; and boy, does this scene reveal some of the massive holes at the core of these late Game of Thrones seasons. Neither character is really able to drum up a good argument for why either of them should be the protector of the realms, and it quickly transforms an engaging Tyrion/Varys reunion into one of the more laughably empty political scenes of the series, like if two social media managers for 2020 campaigns were thrown in the room and told to yell SEO keywords at each other (“great leader!” “inspires many!” “Only dudes are electable!”. Dany’s sudden obsession with genealogy buries any vague notion of her ability to “inspire” people to come together, and Jon’s utter reluctance to lead anything leads him to make dumb, emotional decisions in big moments, without doing the necessary leg work to ensure that, oh I don’t know, his people don’t rebel and fucking murder him.

What’s frustrating is just how empty the posturing between these two are; they can offer platitudes about what Jon and Dany represent as leaders all they want, but none of it means anything when their words ring hollow and false. Dany allowed her two armies to be cannon fodder for the Night King, and for fuck’s sake, Jon sends Ghost away with the heartbroken Tormund without so much as a pat or a thank you – how can we cheer for that man to sit on the Iron Throne?

Although annoying (Gendry proposes to Arya?), empty (Dany thinks naming one lord will keep everyone on her side?), and disappointing (Brienne/Jaime?), at least the last night we spend in Winterfell was mostly coherent, offering the visual logic of moving between characters during its busy, well-directed dinner scene. Once characters start saying farewell, however, Game of Thrones straps on rocket shoes, and clumsily sprints to the finish line; as we leave the insanely dumb war room of Winterfell (let the troops heal? HELL NO!) and head towards King’s Landing, “The Last of the Starks” continues to struggle to make its timeline coherent.

Game of Thrones The Last of the Starks

More importantly, once Qyburn’s “spiders 2.0” start flying through the air, the empty political posturing of Varys and Tyrion are thrown to the wayside as Cersei reminds everyone why she’s remained in King’s Landing for the entirety of the series. After surrounding the capital with thousands of innocent civilians (whom she’s running some dope ass propaganda campaigns on, by the way), Cersei reveals a military secret she’s been holding onto for ages: she apparently knows Dany makes terrible decisions with her dragons, neither armoring them after last season’s crossbow debut, or using her ability to fly through the air to check around blind corners and such before plowing forward with reckless abandon.

Rhaegal’s death is as shocking as it is unceremonious; the entire scene clearly exists for that singular moment; “The Last of the Starks” is not concerned with displaying the inability of Dany’s navy to defend anything, and it is certainly not interested in expending its budget on what is a rather revealing moment in the battle for the seven kingdoms. Rather than build something meaningful out of that scene, Game of Thrones just puts Rhaegal down, lets Dany scream once, a bullet point to fuel Dany’s vengeance, rather than a tragic moment that brings nuance to the existing internal and external conflicts of the show, or even one that forces Dany and Jon to reconsider the “destiny” Dany is obsessively harping on.

But we never see any of those moments; Dany’s dragon dies, we have one scene of political fretting in front of the war table, and then BOOM, we’re at the gates of King’s Landing, where Cersei and Dany have an empty moment of posturing, featuring an emotional plea by Tyrion, one even he must’ve known wasn’t going to work (I mean, this guy is trying to negotiate with Qyburn, another sign of Tyrion’s increased worthlessness as a political advisor). With Euron by her side, Cersei smugly orders the execution of Missandei, ensuring that the future of Westeros will remain as white as it always has (after all, the Dothraki are dead, the Unsullied reduced to a shell of their former selves, a by-product of fighting in three different wars for Dany in less than three season’s time).

Game of Thrones The Last of the Starks

Forget how quickly we suddenly cut to this strange showdown with terrible CGI backgrounds; this scene is utterly meaningless, failing to advance the conflict between Dany and Cersei in any way, shape, or form – Dany’s just lost another child to Cersei, so the death of Missandei is an empty attempt to “raise the stakes” once again on the fight for the Iron Throne. There’s just no dramatic propulsion to be found in their staring and Tyrion’s weak overtures; we all know where this scene is heading from the moment it begins, and there isn’t a single frame of “The Last of the Starks” that tries to suggest otherwise at any point, never offering up even the tiniest wrinkle from which to draw some dramatic momentum from.

It’s strange to see Game of Thrones, once a beacon of subverting genre tropes, embrace the worst stereotypes of medieval fantasy. With so much attention paid to superficial plot points, Game of Thrones has sacrificed character and nuance in its final season, in turn giving its bombastic action scenes the weight of a Transformers fight scene: there are certainly a lot of moving parts and loud noises, but it comes at the cost of coherency, 78 minutes of loud white noise (and I mean that in the absolute whitest sense of the word) that reflect none of the maturity and nuance that once defined the series. Treating the final season of your fantasy epic as a series of bullet points will do that, however: that creative void haunts “The Last of the Starks,” poorly setting the stage for the show’s big ending.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • When did Sansa become the only person in Westeros (not named Cersei) to understand politics and battle strategies?
  • While I hate the Jaime/Brienne development, I have no problem with her reaction to Jaime leaving. It’s perhaps the only honest moment of the whole episode: after opening herself emotionally and physically to another human, the most loyal woman in Westeros experiences a deep, deep betrayal. It’s tough to watch, and I applaud Gwendoline Christie for the pathos she gives that moment.
  • Totally normal: the guys who are developing Confederate have killed off two minority-led armies, and the only minority female character the show’s had since… well, ever in the last two episodes. Strange how they’ve all been killed as motivation for Dany, isn’t it?
  • Bronn gets the promise of Highgarden after making a memorable entrance (while Tyrion tries to coax Jaime into describing Brienne’s vagina, oddly enough); if there’s one consistent character on the show, it’s the cutthroat, who is determined to build a noble house off his many murderous adventures.
  • How the fuck does this show, and Jon, disrespect Ghost so hard? is it so hard to animate a dog that they can’t have one moment of human connection between Ghost and Jon (or Ghost and Tormund, or Ghost and any other human being in Westeros).
  • I couldn’t help but yell “Sam’s got the semen!” in his final scene, to the chagrin of everyone else in the room.
  • Arya telling Jon “you are our brother – not a half-brother or a bastard” is one of the worst written lines in the show’s history.
  • Apparently Westeros has a Starbucks. (side note: is there no more telling sign of the show’s creative and technical exhaustion, that a bad scene is further hindered by an inability to capture a coffee cup sitting in the middle of the fucking frame!!!)
  • The Hound heads back to King’s Landing to kill his brother; in the episode’s one touching moment, he smiles when Arya informs him she’s tagging along, and will probably let him bleed out again if he’s injured. Are they in King’s Landing before the end of the episode? who the fuck knows!
  • Oh yes, Jon – Sansa, from the schools of Cersei and Littlefinger, can totally be trusted with confidential information that undercuts Dany, the person in power she so undeniably hates. Jon, you dumbass.
  • I love how Davos struggles to understand the Lord of Light: “he comes down here once, and then fucks off” he says, clearly confounded by the behaviors and choices of the gods, when they enter the realms of men.
  • “It’s information now.” At last, a bit of pragmatism!
  • It takes this episode more than 20 minutes to reveal the fate of Dany’s dragons, a reveal that loses any emotional weight it might have when Rhaegal is unceremoniously whacked later on. She had a three-dragon lead, goddamnit!
  • Bran’s life is really hard, you guys.
  • Between Jon’s relentless naivety, and Dany’s sudden obsession with her lineage, Game of Thrones is not making a great case for these two characters to be the driving dramatic force of the series’ final episodes. It also doesn’t help the chemistry between them is wooden (at best), forcing two performers whose limited talents can’t convey the depth the scripts so sorely lack.

Game of Thrones: Season Eight, Episode 4: “The Last of the Starks”
Directed by David Nutter
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Featured music by Ramin Djawadi
Original air date: May 5, 2019

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