Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on Game of Thrones s8e4, “The Last of the Starks.”
– I’m grappling with my feelings about this episode, because I would have to generously describe it as uneven, with a mere handful of well-crafted scenes but many more moments where I could all but feel the desperate rush to arrive at the show’s conclusion stampeding over both character and narrative logic. There were some choices made this evening that felt like production concerns and others that felt like they had been unearned, but staged for purposes of creating shortcuts. Simply put, tonight I felt like I saw several of the seams of the enterprise, and found myself asking a higher number of questions than I might normally ask about the writers’ intentions. And I’ll add that I watched the Behind The Episode segment right afterwards, and nothing showrunners Benioff and Weiss described answered those questions to my satisfaction. But let me start with the things I can say I genuinely liked here.
– Speaking from my love of George R.R. Martin’s finely carved history and worldbuilding, I appreciated three different moments in which such references either directly or indirectly played a part. The first was having Daenerys legitimize Gendry as Gendry Baratheon, the new lord of Storm’s End, saving the house of her family’s former usurper from utter extirpation and rejoining that house in loyalty to the Targaryen line. One of the rarely discussed ironies of Robert’s Rebellion was that the Baratheon family’s place in the Targaryen dynasty had initially been a bond as thick as blood — when Aegon the Conqueror set forth from Dragonstone to unite the Seven Kingdoms under his rule, his most trusted lieutenant was Orys Baratheon, who may or may not have been Aegon’s bastard half-brother. The kingdom of the Stormlands became the dominion of House Baratheon when Aegon’s armies ended the reigning Durrandon dynasty; House Baratheon took over not only the castle of Storm’s End, but also the stag sigil and words of that extinguished house. For Daenerys to install Gendry as the new Baratheon lord of Storm’s End was not only sound politics, it also functioned as a bookend on a centuries-old legacy.
The second reference was more direct, with Bran casually referencing the machinery that King Daeron II Targaryen — known as Daeron the Good — had made for his mentally and physically unwell son Rhaegel. What’s interesting about this scene is less the historical information — there’s not much to draw from either the reign of Daeron II or from the short, difficult life of Rhaegel that illuminates the story told in the episode — but that it reinforces how Bran doesn’t simply have the complete history of the world in his head, but in fact has grown to a state of being that he has seen all of it, down to every minute detail.
The third such reference was in Bronn’s confrontation with Jaime and Tyrion, in which Bronn challenged Jaime’s dismissal of giving Bronn lordship over the currently headless Highgarden by accusing the Lannisters of having once been no better. Whether Bronn was making an educated guess about the nature of power and conquest or was making a deliberate jab based on having heard a spoken legend, he’s absolutely right about Jaime and Tyrion’s family, at least as far as their own stories have proudly stated. The reason their home is known as Casterly Rock, after all, is because during the Age of Heroes it had been the stronghold of House Casterly until it was stolen from them, and the house itself ended by the cutthroat and trickster Lann the Clever. The Lannister’s lion sigil and defiant house words, “Hear Me Roar!” are a similar bit of swindle, hiding the truth that the Lannisters climbed to their position of dominance in the westerlands by scheming, not through any sort of noble right or show of strength.
Also, what a beam of light Jerome Flynn was in that scene. Classic Bronn. I don’t know if he makes it but I still really want him to.
– Oh but poor Gendry, to be so full of drink, love, and new anointment that he would rush to find Arya and ask her to be the next Lady Baratheon as if her answer might somehow be an emphatic agreement. In his way, Gendry serves as an example of how even a man with a good heart can be so struck dumb by the assumptions of a feudal and patriarchal system that he forgets everything he has learned already about the person he adores. When she refuses him by declaring that she is “not a Lady, and never has been,” one hopes the look on his face is that of remembrance instead of surprise.
– On the other hand, Podrick standing in the background behind the Hound and Sansa and then casually exiting the frame with two women is one of the funniest and most subtle sight gags the show has bothered to include in all the years of its run.
– The difficult discussions between Varys and Tyrion both on the boat and within the empty throne room of Dragonstone — the fortress where Dany was born, at that — is a standout, with two of the series’ best actors struggling with the sort of thorny questions about trust, duty, and power that were a hallmark of the show during its earliest seasons, when it had more space available to take its time. After being relatively quiet for some time, The Spider reminds us why he is both a survivor of several sovereigns and a deadly master of whispers, while remaining consistent in that everything he does has been about his devotion to the smallfolk of the Realm. The question is no longer whether or not he will betray Daenerys, but how that betrayal will come, to what end, and whether or not he will manage to preserve innocent lives at the all-but-certain cost of his own.
– The significant and frequent problem with several of the other scenes in this episode, however, was that while they may have started out with strong intentions there would be something tossed in that manifested as a flat and ugly note, like a string suddenly breaking on a violin in the middle of an otherwise lovely concerto. And the dissonance of that note, in all of these cases, was so profound that it directly harmed all of the moments that led up to it.
– Let’s start with the scene between Sansa and Sandor, an interaction filled with as much meaning as Sandor’s interactions with Arya or Sansa’s interactions with Tyrion, albeit for different reasons. When she tells him that Ramsay was killed by hounds, eliciting his first genuine mirth in the midst of the revels, it is a moment of great value for both of them. And then the script hits that wrong note by forcing Sansa to give credit to both Littlefinger and Ramsay for making her into the woman she now is. It was one thing for Sansa to offer a type of gratitude to Petyr moments before having him executed, it’s entirely another and extremely wrongheaded for her to express that the horrors and manipulation inflicted upon her by those men amount to some sort of continuing debt for her growth. There seems to be an attempt to connect this with the way she then betrays Jon’s secret to Tyrion, but it rings false, as if she has been hastily molded into a dishonorable schemer with little actual tact involved. It rings false in part because we have every reason to believe Arya when she tells Jon that Sansa is trying to protect their family, and Sansa pushing this boulder downhill in such a way seems like she’s trying to get Jon killed.
– Similarly, Brienne’s brief romance with Jaime seems to have been engineered in a way that implies her weakness for Jaime has overtaken her strength in literally everything else, and it takes something away from the poetic moment when Jaime knighted her two episodes prior. For him to also be her first lover changes his intentions about her as well as her perspective on him. Even though Jaime accurately sums up his crimes as “hateful” when he departs, that his words leave her in tears makes it seem that after everything she has endured, losing the attention of a flawed and damaged man was all it took to break her spirit.
– The battle planning session at Winterfell, in which the decimation of the Targaryen forces was assessed, starts out by making it clear how much Daenerys has lost in strategic assets in addition to the personal cost she suffered, depicted movingly in the opening funeral sequence. When Sansa notes that the battle against the White Walkers has left their warriors depleted and asks for time to recuperate, it is understandable that Dany might be concerned that waiting longer allows Cersei to gain a stronger foothold, but the way the script asks her to express it comes across as petulance and personal quarrel. This plays out further when the series unceremoniously kills off Rhaegal and destroys several of Dany’s ships. Setting aside the fact that it makes almost no geographic sense for them to have marched east from Winterfell to grab a handful of ships, the idea that Dany would have somehow forgotten about Euron’s Iron Fleet to the point that they could so easily surprise her — after her first major defeat was in losing her allies from Pyke and Dorne to an attack by that same fleet — boggles the mind. Her near-suicidal charge straight into the scorpions felt like another moment of drama being built out of poor character choices, and all of this plays into the idea that Tyrion and Varys must have her replaced with Jon Snow for her own good and the good of the Realm.
I’ve tried very hard to hope that the series was preparing Daenerys for a moment of growth, but I no longer have any hope that this will occur, or that if it does it will feel like anything but a turn hard enough to cause whiplash.
– I don’t know what to make of the scene where Jon is made to say goodbye to Tormund, Sam, Gilly, and Ghost all at once save that it seemed like a budget question to have fewer actors and one less special effect on hand as the series wraps up. Tormund’s reasoning for heading back north, and his continuing respect for Jon, are all well-drawn and played well by Kristofer Hivju. I had zero understanding of why Sam would leave Jon now, after all they had been through, and after he’d been so instrumental in creating one of the rifts that is set to define the series climax. The dismissal of Ghost felt especially harsh, as if Jon had replaced his trusted direwolf with a dragon and then handed off that direwolf to the wildlings without considering how loyal and bonded he was to Jon in the first place.
– As occurred throughout the prior season, the compression of time to move from event to event quickly has robbed this series of many chances it once gave us to breathe and absorb, and creates developments that seem more convenient than earned. That Missandei would have been captured and brought to Cersei so quickly, and that this information would be so easily gathered by Dany’s forces at Dragonstone, and how did they safely get to Dragonstone anyway, what happened to Euron’s fleet that seemed to be winning, and how is it we’re all suddenly gathered at this gate outside of King’s Landing, and so on and so forth.
– It’s entirely possible that in the next episode Euron Greyjoy will recognize the odd circumstance that Tyrion was pleading with Cersei for the sake of her child, even though he himself just found out about the child he believed had been conceived by him. It’s also possible that this won’t be mentioned, at the pace this show is now going, the same way we’re left to learn that Jon told Dany he didn’t want the Iron Throne from some prior, unviewed moment. This episode saw me running quickly out of patience with our series creators and I wish I could feel more confident that the end of the show might wrap anything up in a manner that earns it the epic quality of a Song, as the saga is described.
It hurts me to write that, it really does.