The fourth episode of Game of Thrones’ final season appears to be the most controversial episode of season eight so far; perusing the internet post-watch on Sunday (and the following days), it was difficult to NOT notice the displeasure with the episode that many fans are voicing. However, after sifting through all of the negativity and doing my re-watch, I’m standing by my initial take: that this episode does, in fact, stand behind the writing of the earlier seasons. For my defense of 8.04, entitled “The Last of the Starks,” continue reading below.
(A word of caution: SPOILERS ahead!)
There are two main points of controversy among fans that are relevant to the plot in “The Last of the Starks,” seemingly dividing viewers based on whether or not the decisions of the writers make sense within the story as a whole. Specifically, the controversies in the episode have to do with the storylines of Jaime and Daenerys, and how they do (or do not) fit into their character arcs as a whole.
I’ll start by discussing my take on Jaime’s storyline. The beginning of the episode was my fangirl dream come true: after seasons of romantic tension, Jaime and Brienne finally sleep together. The moment is absolutely perfect because it’s very true to the relationship they’ve had over the course of the series in the sense that they’ve never really been able to communicate their emotions to one another (with more than their eyes). In this instance, both are drunk (mostly thanks to Tyrion, because of course), thus allowing them to let their respective guards down a bit; for instance, Jaime basically admits his jealousy of Tormund…though he does seem to keep trying to find excuses to take layers of clothing off (though, considering the fact that he’s fumbling around with one hand and all…well played, sir). Brienne, meanwhile, is able to own the situation, taking charge with a sort of confidence that we haven’t seen from her before. Combine that with the fact that the scene isn’t terribly graphic (it literally cuts away as they’re kissing), and we’re left with something incredibly beautiful and nuanced – which has literally been the definition of their relationship since it began.
However, within the course of a single episode, Thrones somehow also managed to rip out my little fangirl heart and break it into a million pieces. While Jaime initially plans to stay at Winterfell with Brienne (and seems sincere about doing so), things change when he finds out that Euron’s fleet ambushed Daenerys and Co. on their way to Dragonstone, killing Rhaegal and capturing Missandei for Cersei. With this information, he decides to head south in the middle of the night without telling Brienne – but she wakes up after hearing him leave the room, leading to a heart-shattering scene in Winterfell’s courtyard where she pleads with him to stay. Quite harshly, Jaime reminds her of the terrible things he’s done for Cersei, implying that no matter how much good he tries to do, the past can never be erased. “She’s hateful,” he says of Cersei, “and so am I.” He leaves at that, as a heartbroken Brienne sobs in the courtyard…and all my dreams for them are trampled on the ground by those elephants that Cersei wants so badly (seriously, of all the times that Thrones has managed to break the hearts of fans, this moment has definitely hurt me the worst…though with only two episodes left, whether or not that holds remains to be seen).
On the surface, this scene appears to completely go against Jaime’s redemptive character arc; after all, what has his entire storyline over the course of the series been for if he’s just going to return to Cersei’s side? Because of this, it’s completely obvious to me that things aren’t exactly as they seem, and that Jaime isn’t returning to King’s Landing to get back together with Cersei; he’s going to kill her. This theory not only stems from the valonqar prophecy, but also from the context clues provided earlier in the episode. For one thing, the scene where Bronn confronts Jaime and Tyrion with the crossbow is very telling; from that encounter alone, Jaime knows that Cersei wants both Lannister brothers dead, and he knows that Bronn isn’t messing around about killing them if Daenerys loses the war. When you combine this knowledge with the news that one of Daenerys’ top advisors (Missandei) has been captured and that Rhaegal has been killed (leaving only one dragon left when she once had three), the answer is pretty clear: Jaime knows that Cersei is winning, and he can’t allow for that to happen. He understands exactly what Cersei is and what the country is facing if she is left in charge, and I don’t think he’d be able to live with himself if he didn’t make the attempt to stop her.
And think of the situation this way: how can Jaime ever have a happy life with Brienne if Cersei wins? For one thing, he knows that Cersei will be sure to exact revenge on him for leaving her; after all, Bronn would certainly make the attempt to kill him if Daenerys loses, and Jaime knows his sister well enough to understand that there would be more attempts to follow if Bronn were to somehow fail. What a happy life that would be. But for Jaime, I think that the situation goes even deeper than that because no matter how hard he tries to redeem himself for his past sins, he still seems to struggle with forgiveness and the idea that he’s no better than Cersei. If you look closely at his eyes during the courtyard scene as he describes to Brienne the horrible things he’s done for his sister, there’s something major worth noting: whereas he seems somewhat proud of himself for killing his cousin when he speaks with Catelyn in “A Man Without Honor” (2.07) and he seems unashamed for being willing to kill everyone to get back to Cersei when he negotiates with Edmure over Riverrun in “No One” (6.08), it’s clear to me that he’s disgusted with himself in this scene with Brienne, and he’s ashamed of all the things he’s done for Cersei over the years. It’s as if deep down, he thinks Brienne deserves better than him; after all, she’s the epitome of honor in his eyes, so it makes sense that he’d think he’ll never be good enough for her no matter how hard he tries to believe otherwise. By leaving Brienne behind in Winterfell to kill Cersei, he would ultimately be going to kill the monster he sees within himself, his arc of redemption coming full circle.
As a result, I feel that Jaime’s decision to leave was more than likely an act of self-sacrifice rather than an act of selfishness. He knows that he may be the only one who can get close enough to Cersei to try to reason with her…and if that fails, he knows he will have the chance to kill her. However, he doesn’t expect to make it out alive…which, it would seem, is why he’s so harsh with Brienne. It’s his burden to bear, and he can’t have Brienne follow him because he knows she will if she’s given the chance, and he won’t let her die, too. After all, we’re talking about a person who lost a hand and later jumped one-handed into a bear pit all to protect Brienne, so how would Jaime doing something unexpected and unconventional to protect her now be any different? Convincing her that he doesn’t love her is the only way he thinks he can keep her safe because by letting her go, she won’t follow him to a certain death, giving her a chance at life with someone more “worthy.” While it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it any easier to watch Brienne cry, it does fit within Jaime’s character arc if him leaving her comes from a place of love. But, of course, we’ll have to see how the last two episodes play out to know for sure (though the language director David Nutter uses in his recent interview on the episode with IGN seems to support this theory, so its accuracy looks promising).
From there, the second controversial topic in “The Last of the Starks” that is being discussed among fans seems to be much more heated, and that is the portrayal of Daenerys within the episode. A lot of fans believe that Daenerys’ seeming descent into “madness” is both anti-feminist and comes completely out of left-field, attributing it to bad writing. However, I completely disagree with this viewpoint, because I believe that the writers have been preparing us for this moment since the first episode of the series.
For starters, Daenerys grew up with Viserys as her only family, and he constantly preached about his right to the throne. Thus, she has always lived with the idea that Robert Baratheon was a usurper and that the throne belonged to the next Targaryen in line – which, after Viserys’ death, would be her. Viserys was also the epitome of the insanity that comes with years and years of trying to keep the bloodline “pure” through incest, and Daenerys often witnessed (and was a victim of) his wrath first-hand. When combined with her knowledge of their father’s reign as the Mad King, she tried to take precautions to ensure that she wouldn’t spiral as they both did by surrounding herself with advisors she trusted to help check her worst impulses, should they ever arise.
While I think that this worked for a time, it was destined to fail at some point for one simple reason: despite the fact that Daenerys has a good heart and the best of intentions, her main flaw as a character is her inflexibility – or, more specifically, her inability to see situations from multiple perspectives. From season two on, we begin to see this trait becoming more and more prominent in her; for instance, she is enraged when the Spice King of Qaarth will not give her ships to use to sail to Westeros, but she does not take the time to consider that from his perspective, there isn’t a reason for him to invest in her yet. This inability to see the other side of things continues throughout her liberation of Slaver’s Bay and to her rule in Meereen. While it is right of her to bring slaves to freedom, the way in which she does so turns a blind eye to the current politics surrounding Slaver’s Bay, as she never takes the time to figure out how to manipulate those in charge; rather, she simply has the masters killed, which leads to discourse and struggle. This showcases that Daenerys’ mindset as a conqueror is very firm, and while she may be doing something that she believes is good (and, in this case, that ultimately is good), she doesn’t have the capability to see the negative consequences when her actions are not carefully taken.
Fast-forward to Daenerys’ time in Westeros and her current position in “The Last of the Starks,” and things start to fall more and more into place. When Jon insists that he’s loyal to her and that he really, really doesn’t want the Iron Throne, she refuses to see his side of things, saying, “What happens when they demand you press your claim and take what is mine?” In other words, ruling together isn’t even an option in her mind. Furthermore, she tells him that the only way that they can co-exist is if Jon never tells another soul that he’s the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna – even his own family. Even though he literally doesn’t want the damn throne. Even though he’s been treated as a bastard for his entire life, and he’s just found out that he has been high born all along. This inflexibility isn’t anything new to Daenerys’ character; it’s something we’ve been shown all along.
Another instance of Daenerys’ inflexibility as a ruler can be seen in the council meeting at Winterfell. She’s unhappy when Tyrion and Jon advise a siege against King’s Landing instead of going in guns (or, in this case, dragons) a-blazin’, but she agrees to it because she knows that it’s better to do the least amount of damage possible (as I said before, I do think she has a good heart and good intentions). However, when Sansa suggests that their seriously depleted troops take some time to rest and heal before heading south (half of their fighters are gone…and the remaining ones were almost, you know, completely annihilated by the undead like two days prior), Daenerys takes this as an insult. In her mind, it’s preposterous to wait, and they need to head for King’s Landing now. This is just another example of her inability to see the multiple sides to a situation; after all, the wisest decision would be to march on King’s Landing when their army is strongest, but she refuses to listen to this logic (actually, she doesn’t see it as being logical at all).
Of course, it’s important for me to note that as “The Last of the Starks” plays out, I do not think Daenerys is going mad; rather, I think grief has overtaken her, and the only thing she can do now is to fight back. Very quickly after losing Jorah, who was more or less by her side since her wedding to Khal Drogo in the pilot, Rhaegal is killed by Euron (leaving Drogon as her only remaining child), and Missandei is captured and beheaded in front of her eyes under Cersei’s orders. On top of that, Daenerys has been slowly coming to terms with the fact that the Northerners may never have the respect for her that they hold for Jon, which only adds to her stress because she’s already concerned about his claim to the throne. Thus, I do not think her reaction to the end of the episode is anything less than warranted after all that she’s been through.
However, given her inability to be flexible and the fact that she seems to be demanding respect from the citizens of Westeros based on her name and her dragons rather than by earning it over a longer period of time (because one victory in the North is, unfortunately, not enough in Westeros; for example, Jon first began interacting with the Free Folk in season two, and he hadn’t earned their respect until the end of season five), it’s not surprising that more and more people are starting to question whether or not she’d make a good ruler. As a result, I think Sansa’s decision to break her promise to Jon and to tell Tyrion about his true parentage is completely justified; after all, she’s seen the firsthand effects of an inflexible ruler who is out of touch with their subjects with both Joffrey and Cersei…and she knows that it can’t happen again if the North is ever going to be safe.
Furthermore, while I think Varys is completely incorrect about Jon having the better claim because he is male (it’s actually because the rules of succession dictate that Rhaegar’s children would have claim to the throne before his younger siblings would), he mentions something to Tyrion that brings light to the situation at hand: “A Targaryen father and a Stark mother. Jon’s the one man alive who might actually be able to keep the North in the Seven Kingdoms.” For a long time now, I’ve argued that Jon is, in fact, the “song of ice and fire,” and Varys’ statement reinforces that idea. On top of that, Jon represents a sort of neutrality that neither Cersei nor Daenerys have. In modern politics, Cersei would probably represent the far right, and Daenerys would probably represent the far left – and going too far one way or another always ends in quarrel. The real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle – and in this case, Jon represents just that. And while I am doubtful that he will actually end up on the Iron Throne in the end, I’ve always believed that the decisions on how to govern Westeros would be made by him in the end.
As a result, I stand behind the writing decisions in this episode, as I think that they were perfectly in line with the character arcs we have been presented with since day one. To me, it doesn’t skew as anti-feminist or as writing coming out of left-wing, but it actually falls in line with the story we are being told. And when combined with the fact that George R.R. Martin’s books aren’t even finished yet, I don’t think that we can really judge the writing choices that the series has made at this point. Martin has even stated that the show’s end will be very close to his own (with the exception of the storylines of some of the secondary characters) – and based on the reaction to this week’s episode, it’s looking like not everyone will be satisfied with the conclusion.
I guess it all boils down to something Ramsay says to Theon in “The Climb” (3.06): “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Check back sometime next week for another review following episode five…and in the meantime, please enjoy some of my other highlights and questions from “The Last of the Starks” below.
“The Last of the Starks” Highlights and Notable Moments
- When Sansa pinned the Stark sigil to Theon’s body for his burial, it gave me ALL THE FEELS!
- It’s very satisfying to see Daenerys legitimize Gendry as a Baratheon and make him the lord of Storm’s End. Though if she doesn’t end up on the Iron Throne, I hope he retains the name, title, and position, because all three are certainly well-deserved!
- After all of this time watching Bran in his role as the Three-Eyed Raven, it seems that we’ve finally touched on one subject that he’s mildly enthusiastic about discussing: wheelchairs.
- Does Tyrion’s drinking game ever actually end well? The last time we saw him play this was in season one with Shae and Bronn, and we all know how things ended up there.
- Speaking of the drinking game, it absolutely cracked me up that Podrick was the one to drink following Tyrion’s “virgin” statement to Brienne. It’s like he knew that he had to be inebriated just to deal with the aftermath of that!
- Drunk Tormund is very funny. I want to be friends with drunk Tormund.
- I really enjoyed the scene between Sansa and Sandor/The Hound in this episode, as it showcases how much she’s matured over time. Their relationship was always fascinating to me when she was a prisoner in King’s Landing, and seeing her be able to look him directly in the eye and hold his hand is very touching, as it shows that she is finally able to understand and sympathize with him after everything she’s been through. I also liked how she seems to have taken ownership over what has happened to her over the years when she tells him, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life.” To me, this is not a glorification of rape or abuse; rather, I felt that it shows that Sansa has accepted her past and has chosen to not view herself as a victim.
- Gendry asking Arya to marry him after they’ve slept together once is hilarious…but Arya’s “no” response is even more hilarious. After all, she’s never wanted to be a lady, reminding him, “That’s not me.” Come on, dude – what did you expect?
- I was very pleased to see Sansa giving Arya all the credit for killing the Night King. Yes to sister support!
- I found it hilarious that Tyrion was seriously asking Jaime for details about his relationship with Brienne, which Jaime found to be seriously inappropriate.
- Props to Jerome Flynn in this episode, who manages to take a scene where Bronn is threatening the Lannister brothers with a crossbow and still make it funny. An example of Thrones’ casting at its finest!
- With Sandor/The Hound heading back to King’s Landing, it looks like #CleganeBowl is finally on its way. Get hype, everybody!
- It’s so exciting to see that Sam and Gilly are expecting a baby; at least one couple in this episode is happily in love!
- I’m very sad that Jon didn’t give Ghost any goodbye pets; he is missing an ear post-battle, after all! Plus, they might never see each other again! What the hell, Jon?
- When Tyrion suggests marrying Jon and Daenerys to solve the problem of the claim to the throne, Varys simply states, “She’s his aunt.” I’m just happy to finally hear someone say this who isn’t me!
- When Varys is among those swimming to shore post-Euron’s attack, I couldn’t help but crack up, because it reminded me of the old theory that he is a sea creature.
Questions Following “The Last of the Starks”
- Who exactly is the new prince of Dorne?
- Does Arya plan on crossing Cersei’s name off her list? From the looks of it, Jaime might have some competition when it comes to killing his sister…
- At the end of the series, will Jon actually end up going back beyond the Wall to join Tormund, Ghost, and the Free Folk? He expresses that he wishes he could join them, and I feel like it would be a very fitting end for Jon. Plus, that goodbye with Ghost cannot have been his actual goodbye with Ghost (seriously…NO PETS?!?).
- When making the plan for a group to sail to Dragonstone with Daenerys and her dragons, how in the hell did literally no one think to plan for the possibility of an attack by Euron and his fleet?
- How exactly would Cersei explain the timeline to Euron if she actually gave birth? Wouldn’t the baby arrive a few months too early? I don’t think Euron would be dense enough not to question it. Of course, I’m guessing that neither of them will make it out of the impending war alive, so it probably won’t matter, anyways. Though I would love to see THAT conversation…
Are you watching the final season of Game of Thrones? Join the conversation on FoCC!