4 winners and 6 losers from Game of Thrones’ disappointing “The Last of the Starks”

After a season that has largely avoided the time compression problems that felled Game of Thrones season seven, “The Last of the Starks,” the fourth episode of season eight, abruptly hit the gas and tried to shove what felt like three episodes’ worth of story into one episode of television. It was nearly an hour and 20 minutes long — so, only about an episode-and-a-third in total — but the overall effect was mildly chaotic, with a whole bunch of things happening and very few of them having the emotional weight that Game of Thrones clearly hoped they would have.

Sansa would find out information in one scene and be sworn to secrecy, then immediately betray that trust the next time she appeared onscreen. In theory, weeks passed between those moments, when Sansa truly had to agonize over the secret she now carried. In practice, it felt like about five minutes.

The episode’s direction, by David Nutter (“The Last of the Starks” was the last of the nine episodes he’s directed since Game of Thrones began), was perhaps the best of the season. But the script, by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, was a mess, making for the weakest episode of the final season so far and an inauspicious preview of the show’s remaining few hours.

Then again, maybe that’s the point! The fallout from all of these events would inevitably be messy and fractious and bloody; perhaps Game of Thrones is trying to mirror that inevitability via structural storytelling choices.

Okay, yeah, I kind of doubt that too. Here are four winners and six losers from “The Last of the Starks.”

Winner: Aegon “Jon Snow” Targaryen

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People being drawn to Jon.
Helen Sloan/HBO

If Jon … sorry, Aegon … actually, do you mind if I keep calling him Jon? Force of habit … wasn’t getting the winner’s edit before (as I suggested a couple of weeks ago), he sure as shit is now. Despite the fact that he’s displayed little to no real leadership skills beyond being able to give a semi-rousing speech, Game of Thrones has gone all in on the idea that Daenerys would be a horrible queen, and Jon would be a great king, and maybe the fact that he doesn’t want to be king is proof of how great he’d be.

I genuinely don’t mind what the show is doing with Dany — more on that in a second — but the Jon of it all feels like Benioff and Weiss got their hands on George R.R. Martin’s outline for the last couple books in the series, furrowed their brows, and then said, “Wait, Jon?” Game of Thrones has never particularly built up Jon as a character of great interest, but now, the show has all but given in to portraying him as a symbol of some other, better world to come once these silly games of thrones are over.

One reason this feels so artificial is because the show keeps telling us how good Jon is, which makes it all the easier to doubt what it’s saying. For instance, Varys tells Tyrion in this episode that “people are drawn to [Jon],” and my initial reaction to that statement was, “They are?”

You could pin this on Kit Harington, whose strengths as an actor (which are considerable!) don’t always run toward “inspiring people with his great leadership.” But I think it’s far more on the actual text of the show, which has done fuck all to convince us that Jon has any idea what he’s doing beyond being willing to risk himself and those he cares about in the name of increasingly idiotic plans.

This is probably a consequence of Game of Thrones’ hard turn toward moment-based spectacle in its latter half. Jon can never be depicted as a master tactician or a brilliant leader or anything like that, because it’s more exciting to see him snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. And that means he becomes the Westerosi version of the Dillon Panthers from Friday Night Lights — forever winning unlikely victories and hoping we ignore that he’s the main reason those victories were unlikely in the first place.

Loser: Daenerys Targaryen

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She’s very good at flying around on her dragon, though.

Dany had a pretty sweet gig going for a while there, right? She’d sail across the Narrow Sea with three dragons, a full Dothraki army, some Unsullied, and a whole bunch of other allies and compatriots. Then she’d bend the Seven Kingdoms to her will, as effectively the only person in the game with the unrivaled power of a dragon air force.

What’s more, the show she was on actively celebrated her for her actions. Game of Thrones’ sixth season, which more or less concluded the series’ second act, ended with several shots that specifically positioned Dany as a savior, forging ahead to break the reign of Cersei Lannister, who opened the season six finale at her most evil, blowing up a bunch of people in a church. The “Dany is great, and Cersei isn’t so much” dichotomy couldn’t have been more clear.

And that rough calculation held firm throughout most of season seven, too. It’s only in season eight that the show has taken a hard turn toward, “But what if Dany’s not so great after all!”

To be clear, I think this is actually a pretty compelling story turn, in theory. We’ve had plenty of hints over the years that for all of her speeches about breaking the wheel and freeing the enslaved, Dany mostly just wants power for herself. And Varys is right that her inclination toward feeling like she is destined, on some level, to occupy the Iron Throne isn’t a great sign of a stable ruler. Game of Thrones has always shown Dany making compromises to maintain power, so a slide down into tyranny isn’t that hard to imagine.

But the show has mostly tried to sell viewers on this development in this last handful of episodes, which makes it feel like it came out of nowhere far more than it actually has. For instance, I think Jorah’s death is supposed to be part of this arc, because he was Dany’s wise counsel or whatever, but it simply didn’t play that way at all, because Game of Thrones lost track of their relationship until they were fighting together against a bunch of wights.

I think turning the last battle for the Iron Throne into a battle between Jon and Dany could be really interesting, conceptually. But Jon is a bland [insert generic leader here] of a character, while Dany’s heel turn is whiplash-inducing. Nowhere has Game of Thrones’ loss of narrative real estate in these final two seasons (which ran seven and six episodes, respectively, instead of the normal 10) felt more obvious.

Loser: Game of Thrones as a work of pop feminism

It’s easy to point to Dany’s storyline as kind of a weird turn for Game of Thrones, because it wasn’t so long ago that the show boasted something along the lines of pop feminism bona fides. And by “wasn’t so long ago,” I mean literally three weeks ago, Elizabeth Warren wrote a piece about how much she loved Daenerys and the show’s women more generally.

But especially around the time of season six — when the women of Game of Thrones began to seize power and cast off the men who had oppressed, assaulted, and raped them — the show developed a certain cachet about breaking the Westeros version of the patriarchy. Did it earn this cachet honestly? I don’t know! But it certainly came up whenever TV critics, including this one, wrote about the show at that time.

“The Last of the Starks” is a pretty brutal undercutting of this reading, as it does poorly by essentially every major woman character who’s not Cersei. (Cersei was already a terrible person.)

Sansa betrays her brother’s trust and tells the Hound that without all of the years of rape and abuse she suffered, maybe she wouldn’t have risen to her current position of power, which feels less like something someone would say about a lifetime of trauma and more like something a screenwriting manual would say about a character who’s meant to be inspiring for rising above that trauma. Dany does her whole heel turn thing. Brienne hooks up with Jaime, then melts into a weeping mess when he rides off to King’s Landing again. And on and on.

I guess Arya doesn’t have a moment like this. But Missandei is only around to die and enhance other characters’ arcs (she’s also the show’s one significant woman of color, so there’s a whole subtheme to this particular sociopolitical reading). So “The Last of the Starks” was not a great episode for Game of Thrones’ women to exist as something like human beings instead of pieces on a chessboard.

To be fair, characters like Sansa and Dany, especially, are complex and interesting beyond the ways in which they’ve been flattened into symbols of “girl power,” whatever that means. Game of Thrones does not owe them a generic narrative of triumph just because it would provide a superficially more progressive story in our reality. Women can fuck up and fall apart and destroy the world, too, and actual feminist theory (as opposed to pop feminism) accounts for that.

But geez Louise, folks, I don’t know that I wanted to see Brienne reduced to a sobbing mess because of a romantic relationship with Jaime that occurred mostly offscreen. Game of Thrones’ reputation as a “““feminist””” show largely rests on its depiction of the brutality of the medieval patriarchy, contrasted with the vibrancy of its women. “The Last of the Starks” suggests that the show is largely uninterested in that reputation.

Loser: Basic emotional coherence

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Like this could have had way more power if the show hadn’t just rushed past it!
Helen Sloan/HBO

“The Last of the Starks” begins at a funeral for the many, many dead from the Battle of Winterfell. It’s fine, as these things go — lots of long shots of corpses belonging to characters both known to us and anonymous; a speech by Jon; the flicker of flames — but it’s not nearly as good as the long, drunken scene that follows, with the survivors hoisting their mugs to all they’ve lost and all they stand to gain.

In its third season, Game of Thrones might have made that celebration the entirety of the episode’s plot for characters like Dany and Jon, while occasionally cutting away to King’s Landing to check in on Cersei’s preparations. But this is the final season of Game of Thrones, where time and space are at a premium, so the episode had to shift from smaller scenes focused on people who are simply happy to be alive to an incredibly forced bout of realpolitik featuring those same people.

This ends up hurting the episode in more ways than one, as it provides rich opportunities for Game of Thrones’ wonderful cast to dig in to the season’s new status quo, but then tears those opportunities away from them abruptly. Sansa learns Jon’s true Targaryen lineage, but the very next time we see her, she’s betraying his trust to Tyrion. It’s what she needs to do to move the story along, but the show does Sophie Turner no favors by asking her to do it.

Similarly, Jaime is in love with Brienne, until he must leave her to head back to King’s Landing. He gives a speech about how he’s actually a bad person, and sure, why not. But it’s all Nikolaj Coster-Waldau can do to make sense of it, and the whole thing would have had more emotional heft if it had come even one episode later, to give it space to breathe.

The characters on Game of Thrones have always been vessels for the plot, to some degree, but that’s rarely been so acute as it has been this season. What emotional throughlines season eight boasts are largely swallowed up by its need to move the story forward at all costs.

Winner: Supporting characters who’ve stuck around this long

Okay, maybe not Missandei — who, again, died.

But definitely both Gendry and Bronn, who both find themselves getting huge promotions. Gendry is named lord of Storm’s End, and thus a full-born Baratheon, while Bronn uses his leverage over Tyrion and Jaime (a.k.a. a crossbow) to negotiate a scenario where he might end up ruling over Highgarden.

And while it’s true that Bronn doesn’t have his title yet, and Gendry doesn’t win over Arya when he asks her to marry him, both of these guys have stuck around the story for so long that they’re going to end up with some pretty impressive titles when all is said and done. Bronn even got to deliver the episode’s best speech, when he asked Jaime and Tyrion if they understood just how much cutthroats rule the world.

Winner: Cersei Lannister

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Cersei’s gonna take one of these dragons down.

Is Cersei the only character with an arc that makes sense at this point? Okay, sure, there are others, but of the main characters waging war for the Iron Throne, Cersei has by far proved herself the most capable.

Sure, she doesn’t have any dragons, but thanks to a Euron Greyjoy ambush, Dany’s down to just the one. (RIP Rhaegal.) And Cersei also understands that by surrounding herself with innocents, she can largely leverage her familiarity as a way to remain in power. Her campaign promise is, more or less, “You can hate me all you like, but you don’t know that you don’t hate her more,” which honestly, would work on me.

But, also, like, how on Earth wasn’t Dany prepared for “a giant crossbow” as a weapon to bring down her dragons at this point? How wasn’t she prepared for an ambush when she’s fighting a literal pirate? Game of Thrones keeps saying that Cersei is cornered and on the last legs of her power, but then all it actually shows us are bold masterstrokes that make it seem like she’s about to win the war without even having to try that hard.

Loser: Compelling supporting characters to surround Cersei with

When the action abruptly lurched back to King’s Landing in “The Last of the Starks,” I realized how much this half of Game of Thrones is suffering for only having Gregor Clegane, Qyburn, and Euron Greyjoy in it.

One of them is a mute zombie, another is a mad scientist, and the last is a Eurotrash pirate who apparently doesn’t realize that Tyrion knows Cersei is pregnant (thereby suggesting there’s no way the baby is Euron’s). And, look, I like all of those things in isolation, but on the show itself, they’re mostly treated with a vague sense of camp.

The result is that it feels like Cersei is starring in a much sillier version of the show. I can get with that, to be sure, but it doesn’t do the character any favors.

Winner: Director David Nutter

I said way up above that I thought this episode was solidly directed, and I stand by that. From Tyrion’s scramble across the ship’s deck in a desperate attempt just to stay alive to how Missandei’s death was shot, with Grey Worm looking away from the execution in the foreground, Nutter made interesting choices throughout, and he did a nice job with the various scenes featuring the characters just kicking back and talking.

It’s clear from the director assignments this season that Game of Thrones decided it was going to bring back Miguel Sapochnik to direct the most epic episodes (including last week’s “The Long Night” and next week’s all-out war with Cersei), and then have Nutter in to direct episodes that took a more interpersonal focus on the story. (Showrunners Benioff and Weiss will direct the series finale.)

In other seasons of Game of Thrones, that might have left Nutter feeling like he was just around to direct the episodes that moved pieces around on the board. And to an extent, he has been! But he’s made that piece-moving feel brisk and fun, and he’s imbued it with some degree of visual style, particularly in this episode and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the season’s second outing.

Loser: The status quo

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Missandei doesn’t have much longer to live.

When I was thinking about this episode ahead of watching it, I figured there would be some attempt at re-piloting — by which I mean an attempt to establish a new status quo and essential premise for the series. Now that the White Walkers are no longer a threat, the show was going to have to do some significant work to remind us of the danger Cersei poses.

I’m fine with that! I love when a show has to dig itself out of a seemingly unfillable narrative hole in the name of keeping the story going. But “The Last of the Starks” was so pressed for time that it couldn’t find a way to build a status quo it could sustain for more than a scene or two. Earth-shattering developments happened offscreen, and others were tossed off casually, as though the show needs to move at a full gallop now.

Some of this was successful — I loved how brutal and out of nowhere Rhaegal’s death was — but most of it could have used another episode or two of breathing room. Too often “The Last of the Starks” was sheer chaos.

Loser: Missandei

There are moments within the last hours of Missandei’s life that I find compelling, like how her last message for Dany — “Dracarys” — both calls back to very early in the pair’s relationship and doesn’t bode well for King’s Landing. And if you’re looking for a supporting character who is more or less expendable in a way that will move the storyline forward, well, one of Dany’s few remaining tethers to when she was trying to free Slaver’s Bay is a solid choice.

But at the same time Missandei dies mostly to service the story. It’s not brutal or random in the way Game of Thrones can be. It’s calculated, meant to provoke a certain reaction from Dany and the audience. She was young and pretty and in love, and that should make her death a tragedy. But the show never did well enough by the character to give her anything beyond “young and pretty and in love.”

The death of Missandei is the latest example of how much Game of Thrones has suffered the further it gets from George R.R. Martin’s books. There is raw pain in what happens to her, but little else. It’s an adequate cover version of something you once loved, but it has so little of the original soul. Farewell, Missandei. I don’t really know that you should be all that sad to miss the last two episodes.