One Year On: ‘The Last of the Starks’
With the Army of the Dead defeated, Game of Thrones took a bold turn in its very final stages. A year ago today, ‘The Last of the Starks’ aired on HBO.
As far as my experiences with ‘The Last of the Starks’ go, there is no great personal anecdote. It wasn’t a season premiere that I’d waited eighteen months to see (which was the case for ‘Winterfell’), I wasn’t away from home and forced to watch it in a converted shed (‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’), and I didn’t accidentally sleep through the simulcast (‘The Long Night’). Nope, for ‘The Last of the Starks’, I was simply at home, awake on time for the showing, and able to watch the episode as planned. The only aspect of my personal life worth reporting is that I’d actually stepped away from the fandom before it aired. The reaction to ‘The Long Night’ had been so polarised and hyperbolic that it had started to spoil the experience of watching Game of Thrones for the final time. I needed a breather from constantly being exposed to other peoples’ reactions, so I unsubscribed from subreddits, unfollowed certain Twitter accounts, and stopped reading published recaps online. I didn’t go totally dark, but I made a conscious effort to spend time away from social media between each episode.
And it’s just as well, because the show’s audience was about to split in a way I don’t think it’s ever recovered from. Looking back, ‘The Long Night’ turned out to be the last time I watched Game of Thrones with a sense of community and genuine anticipation, because an emerging discontent within some sections of the fanbase was about to boil over. I hadn’t felt immediately satisfied by the fate of the Night King, but I hadn’t anticipated just how angry some people were when the show’s destination was made clear. ‘The Last of the Starks’ was review-bombed on IMDb before it went out live, and it subsequently became the worst-rated episode by critics in the show’s history (at least until the following week). Waking up on the morning after its broadcast vindicated my decision to stay away from coverage of the final season as much as I possibly could. This was the final leg of an international event, into which millions of people had invested so much of themselves. No opinion was likely to be measured or reasonable.
The Last of the Starks (s08, e04)
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Original brodcast: 5th May, 2019
To be completely blunt, much like I was when covering ‘Winterfell’, I think ‘The Last of the Starks’ is a flawed episode. Not fatally, but flawed all the same. In fact, it sits alongside ‘Winterfell’ among my least favourite Game of Thrones episodes, and is perhaps my least favourite of the final season. I still enjoy it for what it is, and it’s a welcome return to the political scheming and analysis of power that made the early seasons so engrossing, but it’s hard to ignore its problems, much as I find them to be forgivable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss hadn’t always made a deliberate point of slowing down in the aftermath of the show’s previous battles (‘The Watchers on the Wall’ was followed by Tywin Lannister’s death; ‘Hardhome’ was followed by Shireen’s death; ‘Battle of the Bastards’ was followed by Cersei blowing up the Sept of Baelor) but on this occasion I think it would have been necessary. There were a dozen reasons (many of which we’ll never know) behind the decision to shorten season 8 so significantly, but up until ‘The Last of the Starks’ I honestly hadn’t been interested in knowing what they were. This episode’s near-breakneck pace is problematic, however, and arguably contributes to the loss of control felt by certain sections of the audience at this stage of the final stretch. It was hard to ignore curiosities regarding the condensed season now.
The episode opens on the sort of patient, reflective sequence that would have ordinarily defined it were it part of a longer season. At a mass funeral for those who fell during the Great War, Daenerys mourns over Jorah while Sansa beautifully completes Theon’s story by applying a Stark pin to his clothes. Jon Snow officiates and, in the process, states the symbolic significance of Arya’s heroics: “It is our duty and our honour to keep them alive in memory for those who come after us.” The legacy of this battle, he hopes, will be a newfound sense of harmony amongst the peoples of Westeros — an end to the conflicts that have caused so much bloodshed and pain, not just in his own family but across the entire continent. The war to end all wars, so to speak. Instead, the funeral scene is merely a prologue to events that prove him wrong in tragic circumstances. There is a greater sense of harmony present during the great feast as wildlings drink with Northmen and Lannisters drink with Starks, but the pureness of the raw humanity on display is rapidly peeled back to reveal the latent greed, anxiety, and lack of direction underneath.
The ebb and flow of the feast is captivating in its own right, defined by a sense of forced celebration, almost, as those left behind try to gather themselves in any way they can. Drinking, singing, talking, anything to feel human again. The living fought Death and won, yes, but the sense of elation is subdued. They’ve not just lost friends and family in this fight, they’ve also lost the common goal that brought them together. In typical fantasy stories, the climax of ‘The Long Night’ would ordinarily be the end of the story, but in Game of Thrones the camera kept rolling. As Frodo Baggins once asked, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life?” Once the common goal is defeated, there is no longer a common goal. Those who fought on the same side just twenty-four hours earlier are now having to carve out individual paths again. Their lives, and the story, have carried on. The implied cliffhanger of ‘The Long Night’, after Arya killed the Night King and saved humankind, was a question. Would humankind would repay her bravery with permanent change and a dedication to fellowship and community? As the feast dies down and each of the characters retreats to their quarters, ‘The Last of the Starks’ provides a swift, decisive, and (controversially) nihilistic answer: “No.”
It’s a conversation between Tyrion and Davos that changes the mood, as the celebrations (subdued as they were) fade completely and reveal complete emptiness underneath. “We play [the Lord of Light’s] game for him, we fight his war and win, and then he fucks off. No signs, no blessings. Who knows what he wants?” In short, the Lord of Light has abandoned the humans without a guide. Tyrion says the answer to Davos’ question is an unhappy one, and that while the living may have defeated the dead, they still have themselves to contend with. It’s a prophetic remark that defines the rest of the season. Arya’s actions in the previous episode are revealed to have only half-completed her journey to recovery — she’s still driven by a vengeful compulsion, and thus accompanies the Hound to King’s Landing, who’s on a revenge mission of his own. Later on, it tragically dawns on Jaime that he might not deserve happiness with Brienne with after all — he leaves her in the middle of the night, convinced that his miserable fate is attached to Cersei’s. Without the dead to focus their attention, those who survived are suddenly realising their worst impulses, and they’re afraid of what they’ve found.
In Winterfell’s great hall, however, there is one person the common people do cling to in the absence of a guide: Jon Snow. It’s in this moment that the end begins. Tormund leads the drunken tributes in comically vociferous fashion, loudly declaring that only a “mad man or a king” would ride a dragon — blissfully unaware of the secret Jon holds. It’s nothing Jon isn’t used to now (especially from Tormund, who worships the ground he walks on), but tragedy brews over his shoulder as Daenerys struggles to watch people devote themselves to him. The sense of camaraderie that slowly but surely permeates the feast over the course of the night doesn’t reach her, as she sits alone, with only a silent, concerned Varys for company. Her longest friend is dead, her top adviser is drinking with his buddies, Missandei and Grey Worm have excused themselves, and her new lover (who now has a better claim to the throne) is receiving the adulation she needs to support her claim. Upon realising all of this for herself, Dany has two options: drop her claim and accept Jon as king, or silence his claim while speeding up her own campaign. Tragically, she chooses the latter.
It’s with ‘The Last of the Starks’ that season 8 begins to reveal its core message: that war and power have inflicted permanent damage and trauma upon an entire generation who are now unable to recover or resist their worst impulses. The problem with its presentation of this message is that it races through the aftermath of a series-long storyline when patience might have been preferable. No, the Night King wasn’t the plot’s endgame, but a reflective episode, with the characters given space to linger in the previous night’s events, might have been preferable. Instead, the plot paces ahead after a single (admittedly extended) scene of drinking and feasting that occasionally pays lip service to the humongous events of the previous episode. Think about the way we still felt the intense shock of Ned Stark’s death deep into the show, or how servants were still literally mopping up Robb Stark’s blood a week after the Red Wedding, or how we’ll spend a significant amount of time in a nuclear winter following the events of ‘The Bells’. ‘The Long Night’s relatively incidental influence on the protagonists’ lives is part of the point the final season tries to make, yes (that humans are their own worst enemy), but it still deserved serious reflection. It was still a big plot point. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ took its sweet time while preparing us for what the characters were due to face; it would have been suitable for ‘The Last of the Starks’ to patiently ruminate on what they had overcome before showing their failure to learn from it.
Part of this sudden urgency is admittedly caused by Dany’s reluctance to reflect and her eagerness to press on with her campaign ahead of time. Despite Jon’s pleas that he’s not interested in the throne, she’s concerned that if more days pass, more people might discover his birthright and dismiss her claim before it gets off the ground. And, honestly, she’s correct — nobody in Westeros loves her, and Jon’s naive if he thinks people will accept her as queen if he’s supposed to rule instead. Couple this realisation with the increasing tension between the pair as Jon suddenly realises he’s freaked out by kissing his aunt, and you can understand Dany’s hurry. With that said, her impatience reflects poorly on her when considering that her own forces are severely depleted. Plus, the Northern soldiers have barely had time to rest themselves and Rhaegal is struggling to heal from his wounds. Much like the episode itself, she glances at the damage caused by the Long Night and decides to move on in spite of it. When Varys reminds Dany that the Greyjoy fleet and Golden Company have improved Cersei’s odds, she becomes increasingly anxious to leave, chastising Sansa for recommending patience: “Now that the time has come to reciprocate, you want to postpone?”
As the characters head south, the weakest moment of the season then rears its head. Don’t get me wrong, Euron’s fleet striking Rhaegal down is an intriguing turn, but the scene’s construction suspends my disbelief to breaking point. Dany is high above Dragonstone but somehow can’t see a group of ships armed to the teeth with ginormous crossbows? Yeah… I understand the writers’ intentions to shock the audience, but the perception of Game of Thrones’ most famous moments being shocking is somewhat false. Ned Stark’s beheading was unexpected in principle, sure, but the incident itself was the final beat of a protracted sequence that clearly communicated his death as an inevitability; the deaths of Robb, Cat, and Talisa crept towards the audience as the band performed ‘The Rains of Castamere’ at the Red Wedding; the Sept of Baelor’s demolition was an explosive release after almost fifteen minutes of torturous suspense. Our reactions to each of these scenes were so visceral because the dramatic irony and tension were off the charts, not because they happened out of nowhere. That’s not say David Benioff & D.B. Weiss don’t understand this, I think they were just shooting for something different with Rhaegal’s death that didn’t quite pay off. Sandwiching the incident between half a dozen other episode-defining moments probably didn’t help either.
Once the characters arrive at Dragonstone, however, ‘The Last of the Starks’ reveals itself to be an episode of dismal final nails. Dany rationalises the potential of committing war crimes and spinning them against Cersei, and begins to fall into the trap believing the Iron Throne is her “destiny”; Varys makes the mistake of setting treasonous wheels in motion when Tyrion is still caught midway between denial, fear, and loyalty for his queen; Jon makes the mistake of believing that revealing his birthright to his family won’t turn them against Dany even further; Sansa makes the mistake of telling Tyrion, who then pours more fuel on Varys’ treasonous fires. It’s Cersei, though, who brings about not only her own doom, but the doom of every character heading towards the capital. She’s beyond sanity, yes, and she’s intent on spreading anti-Targaryen propaganda, but provoking a woman with nuclear weapons by killing her best friend? Yikes. Of course, all this is said in hindsight, because Cersei currently believes the deaths of a few peasants to be necessary collateral if she can be seen to defeat the fearsome Dragon Queen and consolidate power. But in an episode of final nails, her decision to behead Missandei simply to rile Dany is the heaviest and most devastating.
Of all the characters to clearly understand the force driving these characters to their respective fates, and to deliver the episode’s thesis statement, it’s Bronn. In a scene that’s gradually become one of my favourites of the final season, the sellsword states in plain English to Jaime and Tyrion how feudal power works: “Who were your ancestors, the ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cutthroats. That’s how all the great houses started, isn’t it? With a hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a few hundred people, they make you a lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you king.” In other words, great dynasties all start the same way: with an urge to conquer and dominate leading to deaths by the score. In other words, there is no way for either Dany or Cersei to win the coming battle in King’s Landing without mass bloodshed — something that Tyrion knows but refuses to let himself believe. It’s hard to imagine anything other than tragic results from this point. ‘The Last of the Starks’ hastily races through what should have been a cooling off period, but the conclusion it reaches at least feels true to the warnings Game of Thrones had always attempted to give us.
— I think it’s quite telling that Daenerys is already scheming. She names Gendry as Lord of Storm’s End and legitimises him, but it’s not for his benefit. The newly named Baratheon giddily runs off to propose to Arya (who, true to form, turns him down) but Dany’s words in the aftermath of her decision to mark the celebration by handing him an official title is revealed to be a power play, an attempt to secure allies rather than do something out of the good of her heart.
— Tyrion talks to Bran yet again. He finds Bran fascinating because he’s beyond the “cripples, bastards, broken things” he usually feels sympathy for. Bran’s an outcast, an opposite, something different and otherworldly now. As he says to Tyrion, he doesn’t “want”. The fact that he doesn’t “want” and that he mostly lives in the past is what alerts Tyrion to his potential.
— A few people were irritated that we cut away from the scene in which Jon reveals to his family that he’s a secret Targaryen, but I didn’t mind not hearing that whole story again. Bran saw the truth in the season 6 finale, spoke the truth in the season 7 finale, Sam told Jon in the season 8 premiere, and then Jon told Dany in the episode after that. This would have been the fifth time we’d heard that Jon’s real name was Aegon Targaryen. I think we can presume how Sansa and Arya would have reacted. We don’t need to see it again.
— I don’t like Jaime and Brienne’s sex scene at all. It feels like an uncomfortable plot turn, especially off the back of Tyrion’s remark that Brienne is a virgin. The whole thing feels like a step too far for their story. I understand the writers probably wanted to bait Braime shippers before pulling the rug from underneath them but, like, come on. Let the knighting scene be their “sex scene”, not this awkwardly staged, clumsy, drunken, stumbling thing. It’s not terrible, and I quite like where they take their story after this point (with Jaime believing himself to be too broken by Cersei to truly heal), but the sex scene felt unnecessary at the time and it still does.