Spoiler warning for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks”
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
That’s what Cersei Lannister told Ned Stark way back in the first season of Game of Thrones. She had long hair then. He still had a head. So, ya know, some shit has gone down since they had that conversation. However, as the show enters it final stretch Cersei’s words carry an extra weight. Barring some last minute twist, this is shaping up to come down to questions of royal succession and who gets to sit on the Iron Throne.
Game of Thrones, to put it bluntly, really is just about a game of thrones. I guess there’s some truth left in advertising after all. HBO knew what it was doing hyping the final season with the hashtag #ForTheThrone.
No episode this season has been more worthy of that hashtag than “The Last of the Starks.” Clocking in at just over 70 minutes, the episode begins with Dany mourning Jorah and ends with her on the brink of reminding King’s Landing just what happens when you push an already distraught Targaryen too far. In-between, there’s an awful lot of palatial intrigue since the word gets out that Jon is actually the rightful heir to the throne, not Daenerys. For those who missed Littlefinger and Varys plotting around the throne in the first season, this was the episode for you.
It’s crazy late in the game to ever complain about this kind of thing. However, “Last of the Starks” had the impossible task of following “The Long Night,” one of the biggest, most cinematic, and darkest – literally and figuratively – episodes in TV history. After so much bloodshed and the bleakest of bleak odds, Arya killed the Night King! That threat we’ve been worrying about since literally the very first scene of the show is now off the table. The heroes won!
But now we’re officially in Return of the King too-many-endings territory where everything in front of us can’t help but feel like glorified falling action. “Last of the Starks” goes as far as killing one of Dany’s dragons, leaving her with just one left, to remind us that what we’re watching still matters.
Does it though?
We’d fooled ourselves into believing the show’s palatial intrigue was all a distraction for the greater war. As the humans squabbled, the zombies and their ancient rulers forever loomed in the distance. But the White Walkers and whatever larger metaphorical meaning the internet ascribed to them – global warming seemed to be the most popular “this is what they really represent” theory – went out the window the moment the Night King forgot to check his six.
Some refuse to believe that storyline is truly over. OurMovieLife, for example, has a helpful breakdown of a Reddit theory arguing what if the Three-Eyed Raven – currently living in Bran’s body – is the real evil, so distraught of the history of the horrible things men do to one another that he wants to see them all ended. What if the White Walkers, whose motivations were never fully spelled out, were the only ones who truly knew what the Three-Eyed Raven was up to and sought to stop him?
Like most fan theories, it has plenty of holes, but it’s the type of imperfect solution you come up with when what’s actually happening on screen just doesn’t make complete sense to you. Same goes for all those Star Wars fans who refuse to believe Snoke is really dead.
However, as IndieWire argued last week Game of Thrones was probably always going to end this way. The reason Benioff and Weiss never bothered to develop The Night King beyond “scary villain” is because he was never really meant to be a full character, “The Night King is an inexorable force unlike any other in the show, but he’s also a cipher whose motivations are as one-dimensional as they are frightening. We fear him, but we don’t loathe him — compare your reaction to his death to that of King Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton.”
Cersei, however, is a character with seasons of nuanced development. Her every interaction or even a simple glance carries with it far more meaning than The Night King’s sly little smile. After everything she’s been through, they are going to have to burn the damn city to the ground to pry the throne away from her. We know how hard she’ll fight to stay in power because we know how hard she fought to get there. To Cersei, Dany is just another Margaery Tyrell – a younger queen gunning for her crown. We saw how that ended with Margaery, but she didn’t have a dragon, did she?
That Tyrion would naively believe his sister to still have a good side speaks to his extended run this season of being wrong about kind of everything. Dany offering Cersei a chance for surrender only to then see her best friend beheaded – RIP Missandei – is probably the last time we’ll see her hold back anytime soon. Much of the palatial intrigue in “Last of the Starks” was about Dany losing her entire support system and spiraling into self-doubt, causing those around her to actually whisper about switching allegiances to Jon even though he doesn’t even want the throne.
The idea is that Dany is being pushed into her baser instincts of cruelty. Pitted opposite a cunning tyrant like Cersei, she was counseled to sue for diplomacy when blunt force was always her only true option. She lost even more loved ones as a result. Next week, have mercy on the poor cannon fodder in King’s Landing. They’re about to meet the Mother of Dragons for the first time.
Yet, considering how much “Last of the Starks” devoted to planning the aftermath of Dany’s assumed victory it’s hard for me to imagine Cersei surviving another week longer. Whether it be Jaime arriving just in time to do his King Slayer thing again, Arya superhero jumping out of nowhere, or Dany riding a dragon down her throat, Cersei Lannister simply cannot win.
Coming into the season, I wouldn’t have thought so, but I also never expected the White Walker storyline to be done away with so quickly. So, as I look forward to the final two episodes I realize I’m still subscribing to the old hero’s journey ideals about this is all going to end. With all of the major characters on the board for next week’s climactic battle, I just in my gut believe Dany or Jon or both will defeat Cersei. What if I’m wrong? What an intoxicating thought. Cersei winning, however improbable, is certainly a far more intriguing possibility than the Night King.
And that’s why all of this still matters. The zombie army is gone. What’s left are the characters we’ve grown to known over the years. They’ve all had compelling journeys – journeys which are about to end. Bring it on, Game of Thrones.
Stray Thoughts About the Episode
- After two episodes of somber reflection and preparation and then a full episode of non-stop battle, “Last of the Starks” felt like a combination of both, with a somber, character-focused first half and then suddenly a dead dragon and lots of tense board setting for next week.
- If HBO wants to make a spin-off about Tormund and the Wildlings rebuilding the land beyond the now-shattered Wall, I’d watch it.
- Jon Snow keeps saying he’s not a Stark, but he persists in displaying Ned Stark-levels of naivete about the realities of the game of thrones. You know nothing, Jon Snow, now and forever.
- Really, here at the end of everything all of the guys – Jon, Tyrion, Jaime, Gendry – just seem several steps behind all of the women – Sansa, Dany, Cersei, Arya.
- I’m not even going to pretend to understand the logistics of how Missandei ended up captured while everyone else swam away. Cersei just planned it that way, clearly.
- Prediction for next week: Some combination of Jaime, Arya, and the Hound sneak attack Cersei, but several of them die in the process since unlike the Night King she’ll see them coming. Dany’s army will ultimately win the battle, but she’ll go full Mad Queen and burn so much of the town to the ground that Jon’s faith in her is finally shaken, setting the stage for a series finale in which the game of thrones boils down to either Jon or Dany.
What did you think of the episode? And what are predictions for next week? Let me know in the comments.