Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Ya. Obviously.
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Episode Four: The Last of the Starks – ***
Part One: TORMUND GETS A PUPPY!
This is one of the more well-structured episodes of the season so far. Yikes.
Okay, so this episode is loathed by big portions of the fanbase, and for good reason. It has some truly shoddy dialogue exchanges and plot points that straddle the border between oblivious and outright vile, emphasizing the weaknesses in the series’ writing that were never smoothed over. As those weaknesses tend to coincide with issues that affect real people beyond the confines of the relatively simple fantasy story that is Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), criticism is warranted. I’ll get into the specifics in the last section.
Before then, however, I want to give this episode its dues. The problems are too substantial to overlook (not that I want to overlook them), but I think it’s important to remember that they are not the only parts of the episode. Anyone looking to pick a fight with the entirety of the episode can do so easily, as is the style of the show. However, those with more open minds will find some scenes and exchanges that could have made the episode quite enjoyable on their own. Sansa giving Theon the wolf brooch, Brienne enjoying herself with Tyrion’s drinking game, Bronn’s confrontation with the Lannisters, and Arya rejecting Gendry’s overly-enthusiastic marriage proposal are all nice character moments with some good subtle acting and camerawork. The cinematography is also gorgeous. These things don’t excuse the show’s inability to give its female characters reasonable long-term motivations, but those are the parts that made the episode bearable for me.
To be honest, a lot of my willingness to accept this episode for what it is comes from low expectations going in. I admire the enthusiasm people have for the powerful female characters in this show, and I love the moments when those characters get to shine. Those moments are few and far between, though, and most of the nuance associated with characters like Cersei and Danaerys and Sansa is administered in small doses and stretched over their entire arcs.
I get the sense that some people are holding out hope that Sansa has been plotting some intricate scheme to resolve all major conflicts she faces, orchestrating things so that they slot into place. I also get the sense that many people consider these sorts of plans to be key to the series. Maybe I’m missing something or just pessimistic, but I don’t see that. I never have. This is a simple show with beats that are either predictable or convoluted, as is common for the genre. Episodes like this one only cement that reputation in my mind. I still find it enjoyable, but mostly for superficial reasons. That’s why I put so much pressure on those dragons.
So this episode, then.
Following the destruction of the Night King and all sense of plot-related tension, the series opts to continue the soap opera that is the characters’ interactions. Now look, I love banter. Give me complex characters and their petty problems over loud action sets any day. But the thing about banter is, it falls apart quickly if it becomes repetitive. If a character brings up a conversation they’ve had before, the context, participants, reactions, and other small details need to change. Even light conversations need a purpose within the narrative — they relieve tension, build character, aid flow, sow information, etc.
And some of the banter in this episode does that. The episode opens with a touching tribute to the fallen, then a much-needed celebration. The tone is bright, and a highlight of the night is Brienne and Jaime engaging in Tyrion’s drinking game from seasons back. This is quite possibly the first time I’ve seen Brienne laughing, and it’s infectious. She’s a cinnamon roll. Of course, this ends with Tyrion guessing that she’s a virgin (which Podrick drinks to in solidarity — apparently whatever happened with him and the ladies back in Season Three did not involve as much sex as we’ve been led to believe). From this springs the plot thread of Brienne and Jaime falling for each other as Jaime offers to remedy Brienne’s embarrassment about her virginity. I also suspect he wants to finally be able to brag about sleeping with someone who’s not his sister. Brienne’s down for it either way, and honestly, I’m fine with that.
It is odd that the series has opted to play up plot threads like this in the last season. Some of the new or expanded material introduced in this season is nice, providing characters like Gendry, Grey Worm and Missandei, the Hound, Brienne, and Tormund more depth to their character arcs. For some, like the Hound and Missandei, these moments are necessary. We’ve been with these characters for a while, and they’re connected to more major characters in significant ways. However, a lot of the others could probably do with less time spent on them. Even major characters like Sansa, Arya, Jon, Danaerys, and Tyrion are just repeating character beats we’ve seen them go through half a dozen times already. We only have two episodes left. The sixth and seventh seasons cut down the extraneous characters and spent time on setup so that the eighth season could focus on payoff. Now is not the time to introduce new arbitrary plot threads.
This is especially odd because it means that most of the characters are simply jumping into their roles from Episode Two as though they have not just lived through an enormous battle, so that makes the entire Night King invasion feel pointless. The first half of the episode continues to shove characters together for odd reunions, even. Sansa has changed a lot since she last saw the Hound, sure, but not only does their exchange amount to nothing of import, it actively detracts from Sansa’s character when she implies her growth is the result of her abusers. Not great writing, that.
There’s a lot in this episode — in this season, really — that feels like a rehash of the worst parts of older seasons. Characters in positions of power talk in exaggerated voices about political moves that are far simpler than the show seems to realize. The talk in the war room boils down to an argument that would be unimpressive for grade school children to have — “We did my thing and now I’m too tired to do your thing.” “No, I’m in charge and I say we do my thing immediately.” “But then I won’t be able to go!” “Fine, I guess we’re not friends anymore!” “Fine!” I honestly can’t tell if this is an issue with the way the show depicts interactions between Sansa and Danaerys, an issue with the writing in the show’s famous “political intrigue” (because most of it sounds like this), or an issue with the series trying to imitate plot development from earlier seasons out of context. My money’s on all three making a contribution.
The bottom line is, none of the characters act or sound like real human beings.
Part Two: Two Down, One to Go
The plot ambles along without direction for a good forty minutes or so. The driving push behind all of the characters’ interactions, albeit distantly, is Danaerys ruminating over Jon’s revelation from a few episodes back. I’ve never really liked Danaerys as a character much, but she gets moments that elicit sympathy here and there. I understand her dilemma and how that prompts her to nudge the other characters, especially as she becomes more aware of her own limitations. She’s human and a bit jealous of Jon, but more crucially, she can feel her power slipping away from her. Last season, she lost one of her dragons and most of her ships. She’s given up her stronghold at Dragonstone to march her army north, lost more of her men in the recent fight, and now she has to contend with her boyfriend stealing her throne out from under her. Given that the throne has been the main driving force behind Danaerys’ actions since the end of Season One, and that she equates her ruling the country with moral imperative, her fear of losing it when she’s so close is palpable.
But the show, contrary to its own claims, is not turning Danaerys into a villain. Danaerys burning prisoners alive with her dragons is one thing, but the most erratic action she’s taken in this season has been acting passive-aggressive to Sansa. Which is why it’s a bit weird for Tyrion and Varys to suddenly start talking about how they need to do something about their mad queen. There are a few key scenes missing to make that jump seem reasonable, even ignoring the confused internal logic of the conversation. Even if Danaerys is far from a perfect ruler, why Tyrion and Varys see Jon as a suitable replacement outside of his aptitude to fail upward is beyond me. I would say that they see Jon as more easily manipulated, but neither of them seems to want a ruler they would have to manipulate, so I’m still at a loss.
Dramatic tension comes around the halfway point when the northern and southern units start to disperse and Bronn shows up. Bronn’s scene is tense in a way that this series rarely accomplishes, and I like it a lot. Despite not being particularly complex, Bronn is perhaps the single most relatable character in the series; he just wants his paycheck. Him turning on Cersei and opting to sit out the fight is perhaps predictable, but that’s not a bad thing here. He’s there to make good on one of Tyrion’s first promises to him, and he’s had enough of running around this whole silly place fighting knights and dragons for rich people and being underpaid for his services. He has a history with both Tyrion and Jaime, but you get the distinct sense from his manner and dialogue that he does not care one lick about any of that. He’s here for one thing and one thing only, and it’s not something he has to kill to get, but he also has no qualms about killing to get it either.
This is the first time this season I genuinely felt like the series could kill off at least one major character in a shocking way and get away with it. From a character perspective, it’s unlikely that Bronn would kill either Tyrion or Jaime. However, that’s what makes the scene so tense; you know it’s unlikely, yet Bronn’s tone of voice and the established hairpin trigger of the crossbow he’s holding means that we’re one wrong move away from one of our beloved characters dying unexpectedly. Neither Tyrion or Jaime is necessary for the rest of the series, really (well, Jaime still has to assassinate Cersei, but Arya can pick up the slack), meaning the plot would be almost unaffected by the untimely death of one or both of these characters. I found myself holding my breath for a good chunk of this scene.
Two important characters do die in this episode, ironically, but Jaime and Tyrion are not among them. Rhaegal’s death is shocking and akin to some of the more brutal demises the series has thrown our way. I’m a bit torn on this scene, because its delivery demonstrates an obvious attempt to shock the audience for the sake of shock alone. It interrupts the nice music that I like, and it’s rather needlessly graphic. It’s impactful, but it doesn’t carry half the weight losing Viseryion did in the seventh season. That dragon death was shocking for all of the right reasons — it was a necessary climax and turning point in an otherwise optimistic battle, it had buildup prior to and within the scene itself, and it was novel. At that point in the story, it seemed like nothing could hurt the dragons, so one dying changed the game.
Of course, I do like what losing Rhaegal does to Dany, making her simultaneously more furious and more cautious. I also like how the series re-establishes the scorpions as legitimate threats, continuing their buildup from Season Seven.
Of course, the scene that follows Rhaegal’s death is shall we say rushed. Euron, who seems to have no real reason for being as successful as he is in anything, brings a fleet of ships out from hiding (I’m not going to question that, we’d be here all day) and, after shooting down one of Danaerys’ dragons, shoots her own ships to pieces (again, something I’m not going to question). Surprise, surprise, after lovely reunion scenes between Missandei and Grey Worm, Missandei has been kidnapped. Why Missandei and not a more prominent member of Danaerys’ council? Like someone Euron would know and recognize? Also, how?
The scene isn’t interested in providing answers, so best not to worry about it. The point is, Cersei has captured Missandei and is holding her ransom.
Except that of course she’s not. She intends to use Missandei as a lure so that Danaerys (and more importantly, Grey Worm) can watch Cersei decapitate her.
Part Three: Yeah, For a Series About a Massive Fantasy World, These Main Characters All Look Oddly White…
First, a disclaimer: I am white, so my contribution to the discussion is limited. Princess Weekes of The Mary Sue has a decent breakdown of her issues with the episode, and Eve L. Ewing has a Twitter thread of her thoughts that’s worth a read. They and many others have a better understanding of the subject matter and its significance than I do.
The reason I want to bring up this topic is that, as a reviewer, I feel like I can’t effectively voice my thoughts on this episode and Missandei’s death in particular without backing up to establish some of the context.
Structurally speaking, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Missandei dies in this episode. It sucks for fans who love her, and it’s a bit odd to give her character this much influence when the series has been keen to sideline her through most of the last few seasons, but it creates a culmination the episode sorely needs. The scene also demonstrates how important Missandei really is to Danaerys; she’s essentially Dany’s best friend and one of her only close confidants now that Jorah is dead. Danaerys would go to war for Missandei. She would even opt for a distant chance at diplomacy, something she despises and is actively bad at, if it might save Missandei’s life. That Cersei is almost certainly going to kill her anyway is beside the point; Danaerys needs Missandei’s permission to invade the city, because doing so would be a death sentence anyway.
Missandei gets the same death as Ned Stark. Grey Worm’s reaction is heartbreaking, especially since he feels responsible for her capture and made it out of the previous episode’s battle only to lose his love immediately after. If this had been Jorah, for instance, or if Missandei had been coded differently, or if, as Princess Weekes suggests, she had jumped rather than let Cersei dictate the conditions of her death, I think the ending would have been solid. I don’t fault people who think it is anyway. The wide shots of the castle walls, the small details like how Cersei’s crown is just slightly askew, and the tension wrought throughout the scene create effective drama.
So where does it go wrong?
It’s not a problem with this particular episode so much as it’s a problem with the show’s track record concerning its POC characters, which this scene merely reiterates and brings into focus. On top of sexist concepts and dialogue that handles them with the grace of a dead salmon, the scene can leave a bad taste in the mouth, and as it comes at the end, it holds extra sway over the entire episode.
Fantasy in general has a diversity problem. While the sum of fantasy writers encompass an enormous range of the variety of people who exist in the world, and their stories reflect this variety, the major players in the genre have often been more limited in scope. J. R. R. Tolkien is effectively the grandfather of the genre, so The Lord of the Rings and similar works have set the foundation for what the general public recognizes as fantasy, especially high fantasy. Tolkien is far from the only influence and there are of course other prominent fantasy writers, especially women, who have set the genre in new directions over the years, but between the books and the films, The Lord of the Rings is still the benchmark to which most high fantasy is compared. It’s no coincidence that major fantasy properties like The Elder Scrolls, Dungeons and Dragons, The Inheritance Cycle, The Wheel of Time, The Princess Bride, How to Train Your Dragon, and yes, A Song of Ice and Fire, all have Tolkien’s thumbprint on them. As a result, there are a disproportionate number of big fantasy franchises where women are fair maidens, the setting is medieval Europe, the heroes are brave knights or rangers fighting goblins and dragons and evil kings, and anyone who doesn’t look like they’re descended from Vikings comes from “that place on the other side of the world.”
A Song of Ice and Fire, and by extension Game of Thrones, takes this last bit quite literally by placing Danaerys in distant lands coded as non-European. As I mentioned in my first review on the series, this coding is very subtle. Technically speaking, Danaerys is something of a foreigner herself compared to the rest of the core cast; her family comes from Essos, she speaks the same language as the Middle Eastern-coded countries, and she was raised with a mix of Westerosi and non-Westerosi customs. While her drive to rule Westeros and her apparently insulated childhood makes her stand out in Essos, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to give her a cultural affinity to both regions. However, the series opts to make Danaerys very white when most of those in Essos are distinctly not, and her behaviors, thoughts, and principles are made to be almost indistinguishable from those found among the characters in the Europe-coded Westeros. This never really changes over the course of the series; while she tolerates certain customs in the countries she visits, from moment one, Danaerys is set as an outsider.
Perhaps more crucially, she brings her western ideals to bear in these other cultures when she has the power to do so. This is where the series starts to make me uncomfortable. In having Danaerys get used to living among the Dothraki in Season One, it’s trying to establish a give-and-take dynamic where she learns to appreciate their horsemanship and traditional customs while Khal Drogo and the rest of the Dothraki learn to respect her as a woman and accept her desires. Without diving too deeply into it, I can say that there’s a bit of baggage when it comes to the idea of white people “exchanging” parts of their culture with indigenous groups. Historically, it’s been more of a force-and-steal dynamic, and still kind of is.
Harmful tropes aside, though, within the context of the narrative, Danaerys’ introduction to the Dothraki isn’t that bad. The Dothraki are put on an even footing with the other nations in the region, and Danaerys is disempowered to the point where she reasonably mirrors the role of many aristocratic women in the Middle Ages. She’s offered as a bride in a political alliance, so the Dothraki being horse lords and speaking a foreign language is kind of just set dressing to establish that Danaerys is unfamiliar with their customs.
Of course, eventually her insistence on keeping to her own rules means that when Khal Drogo dies, she makes no effort to stay with the Dothraki. Instead, she has Dothraki followers who opt to follow her customs because she’s just that impressive. Her dragons make her a sort of Jesus figure, which in turn is what gives her a trail of devotees. That, and her freeing the slaves, which is a bit more of a complicated matter. I’m going to gloss over the fact that the slavery depicted in the show is much more similar to that of Europe and the U.S., especially in the post-colonial era, than it is to historic slavery in the regions coded in the show, and instead point out that the slave owners in Mereen are coded as non-white so that their being slave owners is tied to their being foreigners. See, someone from Westeros like Danaerys would never own slaves. That would be barbaric.
So Danaerys acting as a white savior in the show is a problem — a big one — and it’s not helped by her essentially using her Dothraki and Unsullied as cannon fodder for her ego. I’ve seen more than a few complaints about how she sent the Dothraki out in the previous episode as the front line to deal with an unseen enemy on unfamiliar terrain, and while I come down feeling for petty reasons that the move fits their attack style as cavalry and the shot was kind of worth it, I won’t deny that it’s a bit indelicate.
So to come back around to Missandei, while her death scene is narratively acceptable in isolation, it incurs additional subtext that makes it more problematic. Not only do we have a story in which there are very few people of color, but the two major characters we do have are set up to be happy together. Obviously, this is a series where happiness is fleeting, but given the dearth of non-white characters otherwise and the relative infrequency of non-white characters in other major fantasy series getting happy endings, it would be more appropriate for Grey Worm and Missandei to both survive the series. Missandei getting captured and killed, while not really surprising, is therefore disappointing. In fact, for some people, it may be actively upsetting — not just because it fulfills the superficial shock horror of the deaths in the series, but because it goes beyond that to be a bit insulting. Any given person’s response to Missandei’s death will of course depend on a lot of personal factors, but given how the series has treated her and the other non-white characters in this series, I don’t think it’s a mystery why some don’t like the idea of her last words being, “Dracarys.” Rather than being a defiant order for her queen to avenge her, it’s easy to read Missandei’s last words as a reaffirmation of how she’s devoted to Danaerys, even at the price of her own head.