Game of Thrones Recap: S8E4 - "The Last of the Starks"
Didn’t we almost have it all? At the moment I’m not sure I’m talking about the episode, this season, or (if you really want to get spicy) the first four seasons of the series, but this show started off SO WELL and then devolved into an unfounded attack on everything I love and believe in. We’re back to split locations this week so let’s get into it, and trust we’ll be discussing that ending.
TW: There is brief discussion about the use of rape as a narrative tactic in the “Winterfell” section.
The episode picks up right where we left off last week as the survivors of the Great War bid farewell to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for loss. As much as I’ve never seen it for either of them, Daenerys’s sadness over Jorah — her first friend and a man (for all his MANY faults) who was a constant throughout her adult life — and Sansa tearfully placing a Stark pin on Theon’s corpse were touching and earned conclusions of their character journeys. But there’s still no country for slave traders and child murderers so, bye!
Leading the ceremony, Jon puts some bass in his voice, does his best Captain America impression, and delivers the most impassioned and leaderly speech we’ve heard from him yet as he modifies the Night’s Watch farewell to begin lighting the pyres of fallen heroes outside the castle. Ramin Djawadi put his foot all the way in the score on this scene as we see just how much the fight took out of the survivors. All of our main characters are bruised and bloody, poor Ghost lost an ear, and Rhaegal has holes in his wings and is still too weak to fly without a bit of a hook. Everyone needs a drink.
And what an after party it is! Gendry suffers through awkward dinner conversations with his girlfriend’s father (we’ll get there) the Hound while he awaits Arya who’s a no-show at the feast. Daenerys sees him and takes the opportunity to note that he’s the unknown bastard son of a King. For a moment, I thought she was trying to make a point to Jon about the validity or lack thereof about his claim to the throne, but she instead legitimizes Gendry and proclaims him Lord of the Baratheon’s old seat of Storm’s End. By raising up the former blacksmith she not only installs a Lord Paramount of the Stormlands forever loyal to her, creating allies she desperately needs, she also buries another potential claimant against her crown.
For some reason Sansa is confused and disgusted by this and Tyrion clocks it but says nothing. As the drinking continues, Dany realizes how isolated she truly is as she listens to Jon be toasted by Tormund, a Kobe stan during a LeBron James championship parade. Instead of being a proud aunt towards her baby dragon riding nephew, Queen Daenerys sees how little she is loved by the Westorosi, an awakening that began with her witnessing Lord Royce and Theon’s admiration for Sansa earlier this season. Lurking dramatically behind her and observing all of this is, of course, Varys because he stays in the mess.
Ser Brienne, Podrick, and the Lannister brothers are playing Tyrion’s drinking game where they guess facts about each other, which is fun until the lord imp surmises that the newest knight from Tarth is a virgin. Brienne leaves in anger and shame while Jaime follows after her, leaving Tormund to finally realize where he stands as the third wheel, crying to the Hound. After Clegane chases him off into the arms of a willing Northern girl, Sansa and the Hound share their first conversation since season two and the Battle of Blackwater. When he acknowledges that the “little bird” has grown and changed as much as Arya, she tells him that without the horrors she’s had to endure she wouldn’t be the person she is today. There’s been a great deal of frustration with that line, as the notion that rape can be a tool to make a woman stronger, or that she owes her growth to the men in her life, is demonstrably false. I didn’t initially read the scene that way simply because the theme of terrible things and regrets forming people into who they are has been a repeated one this season (with Jaime, Bran, Theon, etc.), but it is a mark of poor and male-centric writing to not recognize the difference between intentional actions the male characters chose themselves and cruelty done to a character against their will that they’ve had to survive. But this wouldn’t be the last time the writers failed to understand context.
Gendry finally finds Arya in the castle working on her archery instead of reveling in the feast (Big Introvert Energy) and tells her that not only is he the son of a King, he’s now a proper lord himself. Kissing her, he gets down on one knee and tells her it doesn’t mean a thing without her by his side and proposes. Maisie Williams sells the scene with just her eyes, as she kisses Gendry back onto his feet, but has to let him down gently that being a lady is just not her. It calls back to what she constantly told Ned in season one, and the realization she had in her reunion with Nymeria last season.
Jaime channels his inner Drake and brings a flagon of wine to Brienne thee Stallion’s room, reminding her that she hasn’t finished the game. Brienne keeps her room nice and hot, so the Kingslayer starts to take off all his clothes, while probing her interest in Tormund. Always one to keep her guard up, Brienne finally realizes what’s about to happen and helps him take his shirt off as she joins him in disrobing and they finally consummate the years-long dance around and to each other’s hearts.
Daenerys and Jon finally have a heart to heart where Rhaegar’s son reiterates that he has no desire for the throne and is pledged to her. She then begs him to not tell anyone else (specifically Sansa and Arya) and to swear Samwell and Bran to secrecy lest the truth of a rival with a stronger claim gets out and threatens her position. So of course, Jon does the opposite and, forcing Sansa and Arya to promise to keep the secret in the family, has Bran divulge that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen. The scene cuts to black before we get to see their reactions to the news, but hold that thought.
With the demise of the Night King (who we’ll have to wait on the books which shall never be written to learn more about) and his army of the dead, Daenerys finally begins drawing up battle plans to take King’s Landing. As is her wont, the Dragon Queen wants ALL of the smoke and is ready to take Cersei out, whatever it takes. Ever the idealistic pacifist, Tyrion urges the long game of a siege to turn the people against her by starving the Lannisters out. Jon, who at this point doesn’t want to be in the middle of any other squabbles, concedes the feasibility of the plan but then in comes the maester of checking people in public, Lady Sansa. She councils a bit of patience on Dany’s part since her troops are dead tired from fighting zombies, one of her dragons is flying with a limp, and she really has no plan other than “I want the throne.” Admittedly, I’ve been #SansaHive for a while now, but the show seems intent on driving this division between the two matriarchs for no other reason than to manufacture tension and rush towards this narrative that Dany is the Mad Queen that has not been justified. Trying to get back in her good graces (or her bed), Jon however pulls rank and reminds the room that the North is pledged to Daenerys and will follow her to whatever end.
Ser Bronn finally arrives in Winterfell and displays the level-headed pragmatism that I’ve said more than once will put him on the Iron Throne. Rather than outright killing the Lannister men as Cersei wanted, he negotiates. While we finally discover the Queen offered him Riverrun and presumably reign of the Riverlands, Tyrion counters with Highgarden and the seat of the Reach. Less out of an affinity for the brothers and more because he’s seen what dragons can do to an army, he accepts the side he thinks is more likely to win, but promises his bill will come due once the war is over. Another thing this episode has done is remind us just how many Great Houses have fallen in Westeros. Daenerys mentions the support of a new, unnamed Prince in Dorne, and Edmure Tully is possibly still alive in a dungeon somewhere or hiding in oblivion with young Robin Arryn, but almost all of the ruling southern houses have been wiped out.
On the road from Winterfell, the Hound is riding south alone until he’s joined by Arya, and it seems they both have unfinished business back in the capital. If they’re pump faking us and we don’t get Cleganebowl, somebody has to square up. For now, the best buddy duo is back on the road again and neither have plans on coming back alive. Sansa, on the other hand, almost immediately tells Tyrion the ONE thing she promised not to and confides Jon’s secret identity. That’s how we know he wasn’t Ned’s son. Eddard managed to take decades of hate from his own wife to protect his nephew, Jon couldn’t even last a damn week.
The goodbyes continue as Tormund finally takes the wildlings back home to the REAL north to settle down and repopulate now that the threat of the White Walkers is gone. The show, choosing to emphasize his embrace of his Targaryen roots (and that he’s probably going to die soon) has Jon send Ghost north of the Wall as well, since a direwolf has no place in the South and would be happier. This is where the disrespect began and we should have seen the okey doke coming. The relationship between Jon and Ghost is one the show has always underplayed but my man would never! He didn’t even give his beloved companion a goodbye hug, simply looking on as Ghost whines for his friend. We also find out Gilly is pregnant with Sam’s baby for real this time, and if it’s a boy they’ll name him Jon. Yeah, he’s definitely going to die.
Hearing what went down at Dragonstone, Jaime, after knocking the sheen off of Brienne’s starry sapphire again for good measure, leaves in the middle of the night bound for King’s Landing. She runs out in her housecoat and slippers begging an ain’t shit man to come back into her life after just 24 hours; men are a curse. Jaime reads through the litany of things he’s done in the name of his love for Cersei and insists he’s not the good man Brienne thinks he is. It seems clear he’s going back to try to stop her this time (and possibly fulfill the prediction of the valonqar), but he doesn’t tell that to his new boo, who very uncharacteristically breaks down in tears.
With her fleet preparing to invade King’s Landing and take back the throne, Daenerys and crew set sail to her birthplace on Dragonstone. Tyrion couldn’t even wait to make it to shore and immediately tells the news of Jon’s true parentage to the Benita Buttrell of Westeros in Varys, but he ain't one to gossip, so you ain't heard it from him. As the ships drop anchor in the port however, Drogon and Rhaegal are attacked by Euron Greyjoy’s suspiciously sneaky Iron Fleet now outfitted with improved Scorpions which catch Rhaegal unaware, killing yet another dragon. Gotta pour one out for the homie as we’re now down to one and I am inconsolable. Daenerys in a rage is tempted to fly Drogon straight on to light them all up, but facing another round of fire is forced to flee. Euron being the trash panda he is then targets the ships themselves, sinking most of them and forcing the Unsullied to swim to shore. A distraught Grey Worm is left to panic as he screams for Missandei, who was not among those who washed up on the beach.
On the verge of losing everything, Daenerys is understandably tired of being checked by her advisors and is finally ready to burn the Red Keep to the ground if she can sit on the ashes. In a private conversation, Tyrion keeps trying to push the obvious solution that Jon and Dany, who are in love as it is, should just get married, solving all their problems. As infuriating as it may be that the simplest answer is the one that will never happen, even he realizes the futility of hoping for logic to win out. Varys stops short of admitting he’s putting a hit out on Dany, but the Spider, going back to his defense of the realm, is obviously ready to move on to a new leader and leaves Tyrion to drink.
Meanwhile, back in the capital Cersei has been opening the Red Keep to the common folk in an attempt to call Dany’s bluff that she wouldn’t burn the city with so many people inside the castle walls. Congratulating walking STD Euron on his successful mission Cersei tells him she’s carrying his child (as Qyburn confirms), and hides her disgust as Greyjoy is overwhelmed with new daddy glee.
The writers then lose the plot entirely as they cut to Missandei, back in shackles, Cersei’s prisoner as the queen remarks “so much for the breaker of chains.” We’ll get to it soon but it goes without saying that seeing a Black woman, the ONLY Black woman on the show, placed back into bondage when her story arc has been one of rising above her enslavement is reprehensible. That said, this is a show about reprehensible people doing reprehensible things. It hurts no less, but what used to elevate the series was that these actions were grounded in an internal logic and narrative fullness that resonated with character motivation and agency for both sides. This was simply done for shock value, both in-universe for Daenerys and out of it for the viewers.
Outside the Red Keep, the walls of which we see have also been outfitted with Scorpions, the two Hands of the Queen meet to discuss terms, and when it’s clear that Cersei will not be surrendering, Tyrion tries to speak directly to his sister and beg for her better nature to avoid bloodshed, insisting that she’s not a monster. WHAT WOMAN DOES HE THINK HE’S BEEN DEALING WITH FOR ALL THIS TIME? Of course that nonsense doesn’t work and Tyrion’s inability to recognize that villainy is possible even under the guise of white womanhood is what should get him killed. Instead it’s Missandei who is caught in the crosshairs of the 53% as she utters her last words, “Dracarys,” before being beheaded by the Mountain.
My personal affinity for Missandei should be well known, so you can imagine how I reacted to seeing this mess. To clarify, it's not just that she died that was so galling. If you read the episode two review we called that happening, and I’d assume most of you weren’t shocked either, even though it doesn’t hurt any less. It’s the how and why that was so poorly handled that added insult to injury of the pain that's inherent when you have so few people of color in the cast in general, but Black women specifically. Had she had the agency to choose her own end and her death come as the result of her story arc, so be it. This is a show of terrors and loved characters die everyday, B. Had she died in the crypts of Winterfell fighting for her life and the Queen she believed in, and Daenerys and Grey Worm had gotten to mourn her the way they gave tired, rockface Jorah his final respects it would have been better. Had her Dracarys command gotten Drogon to start the roast of the city? We outchea! But for it to be simply the impetus to justify razing King’s Landing, and as a pawn in a war of aggression between two white women while she’s placed back in bondage, was a perfect storm of disrespect, to the character and the audience. We've established for seven seasons that that city is a rathole, filled with people we haven't seen in years. I don't care about Dany burning the castle to the ground, but NOW? I need Thanos to show up because I want nothing left but ashes. For a blog whose motto is MORE Black Girls MORE Dragons, this episode was always going to be particularly painful, but the fact that there was no greater narrative purpose for it makes it even worse.