GAME OF THRONES: “The Last of the Starks”

The series’ final set-up episode makes some questionable moves.

I’m here to free the world from tyrants. That is my destiny, and I will serve it no matter the cost.

–Daenerys

Last week I hurled a trebuchet of criticisms at “The Long Night,” primarily for unsatisfying character beats and muddy visuals. But in the intervening days, I’ve come around to many of the choices it made — for example, while Arya isn’t necessarily destined to kill “the Night King” in the books (mostly because he’s not exactly in them), that decision was well-seeded throughout the show’s run. And while re-watching prior to “The Last of the Starks,” I fiddled with my TV settings and got it looking…marginally better? I still think the producers assuming everyone would watch the episode as it was meant to be seen was misguided at best, and I still chalk some of its issues up to chaotic editing rather than just its cinematography, but I was nevertheless feeling warmer towards it when last night’s episode debuted.

And that’s good, because “The Last of the Starks” was — or will be, I desperately hope — the season’s nadir. It was a return to the super-compressed continent-hopping of Seasons 6 & 7 as well as to characters making goofy decisions for the sake of the plot; there’s a friggin’ Starbucks cup in the middle of a shot; and — for some — brings to the surface latent fears of Benioff & Weiss not properly landing this narrative dragon. I still think that if they’re still going to hit the broad strokes of Martin’s conclusion it’s going to be fine, and I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy what’s coming, but you can hear on the wind the sounds of expectations being quietly managed.

It starts well! The memorial outside the gates of Winterfell is moving; Jon gives a nice speech about those who set aside their differences to fight and die together so others might live: “They were the shields that guarded the realms of men.” A tearful Sansa places a Stark pin on Theon’s jacket. Dany, her winter wear trimmed with Targaryen crimson (who is her stylist, the commoners whisper to each other), says goodbye to Jorah. The burning of the bodies is now more symbolic than to prevent zombification, though considering how much of the show’s history is about cycles, you can never be too sure.

When you’re ready to order your Azor A-Chai latte

In the Great Hall the wine flows, and the melancholy transforms into carousing. After some teasing from the Hound, Gendry gets up to go look for Arya (don’t get clingy, Gendry!), only to be stopped by Dany. She puts on her assistant principal voice to remind him and the entire class that his father led a rebellion against her father, but that’s okay, because she’s going to legitimize him as the new lord of Storm’s End! “A fitting reward for a hero,” Tyrion notes, “and he’ll be forever loyal to you.” “You’re not the only one who’s clever,” Dany smiles. This was the ideal outcome for Gendry, who spent his formative years in Flea Bottom and the Street of Steel, was leech-molested by Melisandre, spent two and a half seasons off-screen rowing, ran a marathon, and never seemed in serious jeopardy during the battle. That many viewers guessed it was on the table doesn’t make it less satisfying.

The new official Baratheon floats out of the hall on a cloud and finds the “Hero of Winterfell” celebrating in her own way — i.e., archery practice. Arya congratulates him, genuinely happy. He is unstoppable. This is his moment. He gets on one knee: “I don’t know how to be a lord of anything; all I know is that you’re beautiful, and I love you, and none of it will be worth anything if you’re not with me.” She kisses him. Yes! And then… “Any lady would be lucky to have you,” she starts, which is never what you want to hear. “But I’m not a lady.” Way back in season one, Ned Stark sat with his daughter and told her what her life would have to be as a lady of Westeros: a noble husband, a castle, children. “That’s not me,” Arya told him then, and it’s what she tells Gendry now. Sad trombone for Gendry, blocked at the rim, but props to Arya (and the writers, by proxy) for staying true to herself.

The pairing off doesn’t end there. After the heartwarming catharsis of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the survivors are now drunkenly stumbling forward, too shocked at being alive to seriously grapple with what to do next. Tyrion looks around the room and sees how fragile these alliances are: “We may have defeated them,” he says ruefully to Davos, “but we still have us to contend with.” The Onion Knight has an even darker take: They played the Lord of Light’s game, destroyed evil incarnate, “and then he f–ks off.” If the gods don’t care what happens now, they’ll just be right back where they were before it all started.

And then there’s Jaime and Brienne. The Lannister brothers get her drinking, via the spin on “I Never” that Tyrion once played with Bronn and Shae, until Tyrion takes it too far by calling out Brienne’s virginity, a bizarre moment for a character whose empathy has grown by leaps and bounds (as, ironically, his tactical abilities diminish), and seems to only serve so she can be upset and Jaime can follow her. Tormund, who is finally rebuffed, is about to self-immolate on the spot: “After all that” — by which he means what, googly eyes? Milk drinking? — “that f–ker comes north and takes her from me?” He’ll have to settle for a serving girl, and gracefully stand aside for the only other man who respects her as much as he does.

And again, don’t call it “fan service” if the track has been patiently laid for years. “I’ve never slept with a knight before,” Jaime tells Brienne, after pulling the timeworn Is it hot in here? move. What goes unmentioned, and will matter a great deal more, is that he had only ever slept with his sister. Is this a great payoff after entire seasons of sacrifice and growing admiration? Absolutely. Will writers Benioff and Weiss seemingly undercut all of it before episode’s end? Looks like it! More on that later.

“I heard your, uh, your cable was out?”

This is all ancillary to the episode’s big idea, which returns once again to Jon’s claim to the throne, and everyone’s inability to keep that a secret. The scene with he and Dany is legitimately terrific; Jon breaks off from their makeout sesh to brood, again. And she knows why. She’s felt it ever since he told her the truth in the crypts, and she felt it at the celebratory feast — the isolation, the loneliness, of being a stranger in a strange land. And it’s starting to make her paranoid. “I saw how they looked at you,” she tells him, referring to Tormund’s big toast where he praised Jon’s strength (and his resurrection, which apparently everyone knows about now and thinks is NBD?). The wildling called him a king, perhaps not quite realizing what he was saying. But Jon doesn’t want that, he tells his aunt now. He doesn’t want the throne; he doesn’t even want to co-rule; he’s content to be First Husband in a city he’s going to hate.

Like Gendry, he kneels to make his point; like Arya, that’s not what Dany needs. She begs — rare for her, she notes — Jon not to tell his sisters. The truth will destroy them, and her dream. But Jon thinks it’ll be fine: “You are my Queen. Nothing will change that. And they are my family. We can live together.” At that, her look darkens. “We can,” she says through gritted teeth. “I just told you how.” Ned’s father kept the secret of Jon’s parentage safe for the rest of his life, but Jon can’t keep it for two days, and, apparently, Sansa can’t keep it for an hour.

Before we get to that, however, two other interactions fall on the sketchier side of the spectrum. First, Sansa and the Hound: Like many viewers, I wasn’t thrilled about returning to the subject of Ramsey Bolton to illustrate Sansa’s growth from the “little bird” Clegane protected in the capitol to the woman of steel she is now. She’s grown confident and comfortable as the leader of the North, but is all too aware of the threat Daenerys poses to what she’s achieved almost entirely on her own. And while she’s echoing Bran’s wisdom in how she is the sum of all of her experiences, something about the conversation here rang hollow because we haven’t forgotten how intensely problematic that storyline was when it aired, and still is. She didn’t have to go through that to grow into leadership — the writers inflicted that trauma on her, and the justification for it is as feeble now as it was then.

Speaking of feeble justification, here’s Bronn! The “hired to kill the Lannister boys” subplot ends as quickly as it began, as the rogue simply waltzes into the castle to hold Jaime and Tyrion at crossbow-point. And he’s bizarrely angry about this whole thing, as if it was the only way for director David Nutter to wring some tension out of the scene, and even then it doesn’t quite work. Bronn doesn’t really want to kill them, of course, so he lets them make him a better offer than Cersei’s of Riverrun: Highgarden. The Tyrells are wiped out, and he’d have all the wine he can drink. Bronn is fine with this. “I’ll find you when the war is done,” he warns them. “Don’t die.” That was weird!

The last time we’ll see all the Stark kids together?

I would have loved to see Sansa and Arya’s reaction to hearing the most critical piece of information in the entire world of Game of Thrones. We don’t get Tyrion’s, either. But all that matters now is what it means, and what the characters now in the loop — a group that almost immediately includes Varys, at which point it’s Game Over — are going to do about it. But it all comes back to that moment in the godswood, when Bran gives Jon the choice to tell his sisters, and after making them swear the most excellent promise they can make, Jon… tells Bran to tell them. (I laughed!) The women already didn’t trust Daenerys, despite how they couldn’t have defeated the Night King without her, but now they have a new reason to resist, and Jon’s a big dummy for not realizing that. And Varys wants this guy to rule? Why? His ace battle planning? His…charisma? “People are drawn to him,” Varys says when they sail south. “Maybe Cersei will win and kill us all,” replies Tyrion. “That would solve our problems.”

But for now, Tyrion is holding firm to his Dragon Queen. “You seem determined to dislike her,” he admonishes Sansa, which is unfair, because Sansa has proved to be far more perceptive than he is. “You’re afraid of her,” she counters. Tyrion stammers at this. “Every good ruler needs to inspire a bit of fear,” which he knows is an oversimplification — fear in their enemies, sure, but not in their allies. But he can see the writing on the wall, as much as he continues to defend her to Varys later on Dragonstone, after everything has fallen apart again. The former Master of Whispers rehashes the show’s general thesis: “The best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule.”

To Tyrion, that’s treason — not that that hasn’t stopped him before. Of course he’s thought about it, he admits. He’s worried. But he also still believes Dany will make the right choice “with the help of her loyal advisors” — who have been wrong over and over again. She’s been following their plans! Varys, who changes horses like underwear, serves only “the realm.” The interests of the common folk. The subjugated. And how he’ll do that, exactly, is left unspoken, because it doesn’t have to be.

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