“The Last Of The Starks”
May 5, 2019
[As you hopefully noticed, I’m still writing about Game Of Thrones at The A.V. Club for its final season, but I was out of town this past week (Caitlyn PenzeyMoog filled in), and so here are some belated thoughts on the antepenultimate episode of the series.]
For much of the back half of its run, Game Of Thrones has derived its tension from the Night King, and the question of whether the seven Kingdoms of Westeros could come together in order to stop this monumental threat. And so when the first half of the show’s final season ended with the Night King and his army completely erased, it raised the question of where the tension would come from for the rest of the story.
This wasn’t necessarily a mystery, to be clear: there were immediate answers that sprang to mind based on the events of the first few episodes. There was the conflict between Daenerys and the Stark siblings, who were distrustful of the Dragon queen; there was the lingering impact of Jon Snow’s true identity, and his relationship with Daenerys; and there was, of course, Cersei’s refusal to join the fight, remaining in King’s Landing to attempt to hold onto her throne with the help of the Golden Company. And sure enough, “The Last Of The Starks” plays into each of these elements of the story, demonstrating that whatever “peace” is achieved after winning the battle is deeply compromised by the complex circumstances facing the winning side.
But within the narrative of the show, there’s another tension operating, one that simultaneously serves the show and works against it. It’s the tension wherein, for many of the show’s characters, this episode is an epilogue. For Gendry Baratheon (nee Rivers), his heroism in the Battle of Winterfell is a ticket to a life as Lord of Storm’s End. For Tormund Giantsbane, defeating the apocalyptic threat wiping out his people is the end of his war, heading north to return beyond-What’s-Left-Of-The-Wall. For Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, the bounty on Tryion and Jaime is leverage for a greater reward from the other side, the wars of men just another way to get his hands on some better real estate. And for the newly knighted Ser Brienne of Tarth, who never set out to fight a war, settling into a life of serving the Starks of Winterfell as she promised to Catelyn all those years ago is the end of her chapter in the remaining conflict.
But the same cannot be said for the show’s other characters, and “The Last Of The Starks” is focused on clarifying who still has a direwolf in this fight, as it were. Sometimes this is awkward, as when Jon’s departure for King’s Landing is interrupted by Tormund, Sam, and Gilly to basically announce they’re no longer part of the narrative. It’s a weird feeling: I mean, it’s technically true that Tormund has no reason to keep fighting this war if the fate of his people isn’t at stake, and of course Sam wants to take his pregnant partner and her child somewhere safe to hole up with some books and prepare for the future. But it’s weird to see some characters just sort of hand-waving away the looming battle for the Iron Throne as something that doesn’t really concern them. And it’s certainly weird to see Jon send Ghost away with Tormund without even giving him a goddamn goodbye. But Jon’s disrespect aside, the scene makes logical sense: the fate of Westeros no longer hangs in the balance, so not everyone will keep fighting until the bitter end. But emotionally, the scene is strange, as it’s the show cutting loose characters we care about, as though their stories no longer matter.
While that particular scene felt a bit clunky, I can see why Benioff and Weiss chose this particular path. It’s most evident in Brienne and Jaime’s storyline, as the drunken revelry after the victory at Winterfell results in the two falling into what one could imagine as a sort of romantic bliss: they make love, and Jaime chooses to forego the trip to King’s Landing to clean things up. But when Jaime learns that Euron has killed Rheagal, and taken Missandei, and demonstrated Cersei has no intention to go down without a fight, he realizes that this isn’t his epilogue yet. He can’t stay in Winterfell while the war marches south. As much as I’m frankly not onboard with Jaime and Brienne’s relationship becoming romantic (much as I wasn’t onboard with Daenerys and Jon’s relationship becoming romantic, I have a pattern), I can see the value in creating this sense of potential closure on their respective journeys before Jaime realizes his atonement isn’t done. And it might not be done until he dies trying to either save Cersei from herself or save Westeros from Cersei, whatever might befall him as the fight for King’s Landing rages on.
Thematically, the focus on why people are fighting is a productive one. The episode takes some shortcuts to get there, like yet another dumb Euron sneak attack that makes Tyrion’s military strategy seem impossibly hapless (does he even know what scouts are?!), but I like the idea that the future of the Iron Throne is coming down to a question of why those involved are still in this fight. I particularly appreciate the way this makes Varys, a character that has been shuffled around the story a lot, central to the philosophical core of the show’s finale: Varys has served as Master of Whisperers under many Kings, but he’s never really served them. He’s always served the idea of the Crown, and of the Iron Throne, and of the “Realm” as he articulates it to Tyrion. He’s never wavered from that goal, even if it’s meant committing treason, and it makes him a crucial barometer in an increasingly hostile environment for Daenerys Targaryen.
As much as I appreciate the thematic question at stake here, though, I don’t know if I necessarily love the way it’s boiling down Daenerys and Jon’s respective relationships to power. I understand the story, as it’s playing out: Daenerys, finally at the finish line of the goal she’s sacrificed so much for, sees Westeros rallying behind the male war hero, and watches as her child, her forces, and one of her closest allies and advisors are killed in the midst of diplomatic maneuvers she had no interest in. The message is clear that Daenerys is showing signs of her father’s violent streak, as the show piles up incidents that makes the characters and the audience wonder if she’s really fit to lead. It’s turning her story arc into the inverse of Arya’s: whereas we saw Arya spend multiple seasons learning to be a killer and then return to Westeros to very successfully kill things while retaining her sense of self, Daenerys spent half the show learning how to be a leader, but is forgetting the lessons she learned as she—perhaps like Bran—gets lost in the past. Just look at the head-fake the show does when she calls up Gendry: given her intro, I briefly thought she might be seeking some kind of retribution for her family, instead of honoring a war hero.
But where the story loses me is setting up Jon as her inverse. I appreciate the way Varys and Tyrion’s conversation acknowledges the unfortunate but unavoidable male privilege of Jon’s claim to power, once Sansa goes against her word to Jon and tells Tyrion the truth about his lineage. And I don’t think Varys is wrong to suggest that the person who doesn’t want power might be the person you want to sit on the Iron Throne. But I will be frank: I just don’t like any situation where I’m presented with Jon Snow as some war hero who is suited to lead. The show has proven Jon’s heroism, yes, but no amount of watered-down Braveheart speeches can convince me that he’s actually a charismatic leader. I don’t actively dislike the character, or Kit Harington’s performance, but the idea that he has some kind of magnetism just doesn’t translate in the text—the show is making the argument, but it’s having to do too much of the work, without necessarily having the evidence to back it up. And so the fact that so much of the show’s endgame is coming down to the idea that Jon is the perfect solution to the situation where two women hellbent on power threaten the good of the realm just feels wrong, even if there’s a logic to the discussion that I can respect.
The instinct to shrink down the show to “Who should sit on the Iron Throne?” is the right one, I think, and is the only way to make the “Who will sit on the Iron Throne?” question even remotely interesting. The problem is that I’m far more interested in the characters who have no interest in the Iron Throne than the ones who do. I have no investment in Jon’s ride down the Kingsroad to King’s Landing, really, but Arya—not a lady, never a lady—and Sandor riding to finish some business with Cersei and the Mountain is a reminder that revenge is a story that often has no epilogue other than death. And although I certainly felt the emotional weight of Missandei’s death and Grey Worm’s anguish, can that really compare to the emotional weight of Jaime’s quest to save or stop his sister? And although I won’t necessarily defend all of her actions as it pertains to Daenerys, I’m ultimately more interested in Sansa’s future as a leader in the North than I am in whether or not Daenerys gets to sit on the pointy chair.
The tension of the episode is that it’s all so messy that it’s almost built to create this kind of oppositional viewing position. I can totally see how some people are caught up in the hashtags of who’s going to be on the throne, and weighing the pros and cons of each candidate, and thinking ahead to what the “ending” will be. But there’s enough going on that you can be just as invested in the show without really caring about Jon and Daenerys. Perhaps for you it’s a story about Tyrion, who unlike Varys has no desire to switch allegiances, believing that his job is to commit to serving one person, and doing everything in his power to advise that person. We can dive into how much that is a byproduct of his father’s disrespect, and how he and his sister are each motivated by the ways their father wronged them. And we can follow that thread to a part of the show that works, and doesn’t feel like it’s a case of the writers asserting a narrative that the text doesn’t necessarily support.
It’s not as though I’m angry at the show for focusing so much on Dany and Jon’s relationship, and respective claims to the throne, given that the text is—as of now—creating space for me to stake my claim that who rules is less important than the way this final showdown finishes off the stories of those who still have something to fight for. And while it’s clear based on this episode that the show’s true climax won’t involve the entire cast of characters, “The Last Of The Starks” emphasizes that the ideas at stake in that conflict will affect the entirety of Westeros, which suggests that we might be checking back in with their lives before the series fully closes the book on this story.
- So I got many tweets about the Starbucks situation, given that I am literally the world’s only expert on Game Of Thrones and Coffee Cups on TV Shows, but I was off-Twitter due to not being able to watch the episode until today, so I haven’t gotten to weigh in yet. And so I can report that I definitely didn’t notice it (I was also taking notes as I was watching), it’s pretty crazy that no one in post-production noticed it, and my parents—I’m visiting family for the final weeks of the season—were so afraid that I would write this review without mentioning it and create a firestorm of “WHAT ABOUT THE COFFEE CUP” comments that they were conferring about whether to tell me about it while I was finishing the episode and came down to make sure I didn’t plan on writing before checking Twitter.
- I want to be clear that Jon deciding that Ghost shouldn’t ride into the South and should instead go and live with Tormund beyond-the-Wall is probably good direwolf parenting, but I really don’t understand how the writers thought we would agree that Jon would be a good ruler after such a dispassionate farewell to his beloved companion. I understand why they didn’t do more direwolf scenes than they did, logistically speaking, but have the man pet his goddamn direwolf if you want me to think he’s a good leader.
- I really liked the little moment for Sandor and Sansa: it affirms that the show has followed through on her survivor narrative, continuing to ensure that the sexual assault she endured was not done purely for shock value, but rather became central to her transformation. I don’t necessarily buy that she needed to experience that to shed her “little bird”-ness, but the game of counterfactual was a nice moment for the SanSan pairing.
- A little disappointed that Gendry wasn’t smart enough to realize Arya had no interest in being Lady of Storm’s End, to be honest. I mean, I get that he’s got no idea how to be a Lord and needs the help, but I sort of wish he’d gone in looking for advice as opposed to a proposal.
- You should’ve seen my ears perk up at “the new Prince of Dorne pledges his support.” I love how they don’t even bother to give him a name. A+ Dorne Troll.
- Yara has taken back the Iron Islands, where she intends to…sit by idly, I guess? Yara was really the first character to be epilogued, looking back on the premiere.
- Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: Tyrion attempts to appeal to Qyburn’s rational side is maybe his most ignorant strategy yet? Surely Varys’ whisper networks have made clear that Qyburn is exactly the kind of person who takes pleasure in the death of innocent people for the sake of weapon experimentation, so why did he honestly think that Qyburn was gonna be an ally in that situation? Qyburn’s just gonna Qyburn, yo.
Is This Going To Happen In The Books, And Yes I Know The Books Might Never Exist
So, Benioff and Weiss have discussed how they sat down with G.R.R.M. to discuss the overarching ideas about the show’s ending, but he’s since noted that this means there are various supporting arcs that play out very differently. And so my question is this: is Jaime and Brienne’s relationship a romantic one in the context of the books?
I say this in part because, yes, I have long been a proponent of their relationship remaining platonic, and sort of spent the early scenes here hoping that someone was going to stop the situation and realize that we don’t need to equate respect and even love with sex and relationships in order for it to be meaningful. But I also wonder if this is the kind of thing that the showrunners would feel they could commit to without necessarily knowing if George saw it the same way. One more curiosity that, yes, I know, might never be resolved.