Game of Thrones recap: A pivot and a huge misstep plague Episode 4
From jokes to serious interactions, the stars of “Game of Thrones” talk about what it’s like when asked about spoilers.
Spoiler alert! The following contains details from “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.” Read our recap of Season 8, Episode 3 here.
And then there were two.
After last week’s long, dark and puzzling Battle of Winterfell, Sunday’s episode of “Game of Thrones” had a huge job: Pivot the series away from the apocalyptic White Walker story line it has focused on for years and back to the political, thrones-gaming narratives that, while usually strong stuff, now seem almost insignificant after a battle to be alive at all.
“The Last of the Starks” tried to get us to a place where who’s lord of Storm’s End or Riverrun or Highgarden matters and where giant crossbows are more dangerous to dragons than ice zombies, but it soundly failed at that task. It was a clumsy and overlong episode that tried to do far too much with far too little.
Dany’s quest for the Iron Throne, and the wrench Jon’s parentage throws into it, just don’t have the same emotional wallop as not just the White Walker battle, but all the other skirmishes for control of the Seven Kingdoms that populated Seasons 1-6. Measured against Ned’s desperate attempt to cling to honor in the capital or Olenna’s poisoning of Joffrey to save Margaery or even the High Sparrow’s beatific smile, Dany’s furious face outside the gates of King’s Landing just seems like a meme waiting to happen.
As has been the pattern for two seasons now, the episode was filled with lapses in logic that were too irritating to ignore, plus a plague of idiocy on the part of most of its supposed heroes.
Just two episodes remain in this series, but it doesn’t feel like “Thrones” is heading toward any type of conclusion, let alone a satisfying one. Each episode seems to write the series further into a corner from which it can’t escape. With a little over two hours of screen time, one dragon and a few scattered stories left to care about, the series’ biggest enemy of all might just end up being itself.
Drink and be merry
For a series with a ticking clock, “Thrones” took its sweet time at the beginning of this episode. It started with a rare funeral for departed characters from last week’s battle that would have seemed less hokey if the writers weren’t trying to make us weep over the likes of Dolorous Edd. (Sorry, Edd.)
But now that their watch is ended, what’s next? Drinking, obviously.
“Thrones” spends most of the first half of the episode on a long night of drunken escapades, the source of the only good scenes. First, Dany awkwardly awards Gendry the title Lord of Storm’s End (after first making him fear she was going to punish him for being Robert Baratheon’s son) – her own attempt at Westerosi politicking. It leads to a hilarious scene in which a dumbfounded and panicky Gendry pulls a dumb guy move and proposes to Arya. She, of course, lets him down gently, one of the few interactions that felt true to its characters.
Also getting giddy are Jaime and Brienne, who are playing Tyrion’s infamous truth drinking game with him, until Tyrion’s gambit that Brienne is a virgin goes too far. Brienne leaves the table, and Jaime follows her. After a few jokes about how warm her room is, the pair end up in bed, which, despite pleasing fans who have rooted for them as a couple, seems far too obvious and corny for a relationship as nuanced as theirs. But both actors do what they can with the scene, which, with Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is a lot.
Drink and be stupid
The writers squander what could have been another touching scene when Sansa and the Hound have their reunion. Instead of sharing a moment of tenderness when the Hound notes that he could have saved Sansa from her tormentors, the series has her declare that being tortured and raped made her stronger.
After years of criticism over its treatment of sexual violence, “Thrones” had to get one last turn of the knife by having Sansa be thankful for her rapes. Not only is that an incredibly offensive, gross and inaccurate depiction of trauma, it’s also a tired, hacky Hollywood trope (the “strong female character’s” backstory is rape!) and has no place in this show. Or maybe it does, because “Thrones” hasn’t proven itself to be particularly well-written over the past four weeks.
Elsewhere in the great hall, Tormund loudly and proudly extols the gospel of Jon Snow in front of Dany, who is insecure about her nephew/lover’s claim to the Iron Throne. When she and Jon are alone, he recoils and the two fight, not about their incestuous relationship, but about the claim to the throne he doesn’t particularly care about.
Despite Jon literally bending his knee for her, Dany doesn’t trust that his claim will go unsupported, and begs him not to tell anyone his secret. When he protests that he wants to tell Sansa and Arya, Dany gets cold and draws away.
Cross my heart and hope to die
Once everyone’s hangovers have abated, Dany holds a war council to plan “The Last War,” only things aren’t looking too great. They lost half their forces in the Battle of Winterfell, the dragons are both badly injured and everyone’s tired. Oh, and the Golden Company has arrived in King’s Landing. Dany, continuing her brilliant (read: horrible) battle strategy, wants a full-court press to the south, even as Tyrion counsels restraint to prevent a bloodbath in King’s Landing. But the relationship between Queen and Hand is strained at best.
Dany eventually agrees to blockade the city and wait for the people to turn on Cersei. When Sansa interjects that the troops could use rest before marching south, Dany lashes out, and the two are poised for a fight before Jon intervenes.
Sansa and Arya (and Bran) have their own meeting with Jon, and Sansa unloads on him. Arya is slightly less aggressive, and agrees with Jon’s decision to bend the knee to Dany to help stop the White Walkers, but she still doesn’t trust the Dragon Queen. When the sisters lay it on about how the four of them are the last Starks and a family, Jon can’t hold his secret any longer. He lets Bran tell them, but only after making them swear they’ll keep it quiet. But his big pinky-swear moment is a clear sign that one or both will break that promise.
I’ll double it
The episode returns to Tyrion and Jaime, who are at a tavern discussing Jaime’s decision to stay in Winterfell with Brienne, when Bronn strolls into the room with the crossbow aimed at them. Jabbering like he’s drugged, Bronn tells them about Cersei’s offer of Riverrun, but eventually he accepts Tyrion’s “double” offer of Highgarden and walks out, promising to come back for his reward after the war.
Wait, what? How did Bronn find Jaime and Tyrion? How did he know they happened to be vulnerable? Why should he trust Tyrion’s promise? Why is he betting on Cersei to lose? Just, why?
“Thrones” has an annoying habit of arriving at moments without feeling the need to explain how it got there. (Arya stabbing the Night King, for one recent example.) A generous reading is that there isn’t much time left, so writers are skipping over some exposition, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I don’t think the “why” is important anymore. It seems like writers wanted Bronn to confront the Lannister brothers, and couldn’t be bothered to figure out how and why.
A series of unfortunate decisions
Sansa is the first Stark spill the big Aegon Targaryen secret: She tells Tyrion, in a bit of intentional troublemaking for Dany. Tyrion, meanwhile, tells Varys, in a bit of unintentional troublemaking.
The two barely have time to consider the ramifications of it all when Dany’s fleet is attacked by Euron’s. While Team Starkgaryen was fighting White Walkers, Cersei and Qyburn were making scorpions (aka the giant crossbows), and Euron’s fleet has enough to kill an injured Rhaegal. Dany is too afraid to attack with her last dragon, and so her fleet is destroyed. The survivors wash up on the Dragonstone beach, but Missandei has been captured.
Cersei has her in King’s Landing. The queen is running for most popular ruler by letting the people into the Red Keep for “protection” against Dany. It has the double effect of winning over the peasants and creating a human shield for Cersei. And she tells Euron she’s pregnant with his baby, which only brings back the question of if she’s pregnant at all, and if it’s Jaime’s.
Long live whoever is convenient
It is now clear that the series is setting up an ending where Dany will go full Mad Queen, just like her father: predictable, boring and disappointing after all this time.
Her reaction to the ambush and Missandei’s capture is to suggest her favorite terrible strategy of full frontal assault of King’s Landing. Varys wants her to avoid slaughtering the people she says she wants to rule, but Dany spouts off vague statements about her destiny to remove tyrants and the sky falling, and now Varys is concerned. But handily, he now has a new brooding candidate to throw his weight behind.
In a lot of ways it makes sense for Varys to waiver in his loyalty; as Tyrion mentioned, he’s served quite a few kings on opposing sides of wars. Since Season 1 he has claimed to serve the realm. But his pivot to Jon at this late hour also feels slightly disingenuous considering how much Varys invested in Dany. Tyrion’s continued defense of Dany’s indefensible actions, and his worry over what would happen to her if Jon did take the throne, only further prove that he’s in love with her. And that love seems to cloud any judgment he has left.
What, exactly, was Tyrion’s plan? Did he really think Cersei was going to surrender to one dragon and a comically small number of Unsullied? Did he think he could appeal to her emotion? Did he think any of this would help Dany? And are we supposed to care who wins in this war of terrible queens?
In an episode full of frustrating and bewildering scenes, the last few minutes took things to a whole new level, a pointless dance between two immovable parties that only served to degrade Missandei.
Missandei’s death, while surely meant to be as much of a blow to viewers as it was to Dany, lacks emotional resonance. She, along with the other characters of color on this show, has been underdeveloped and underserved, and that her death is reduced to motivation for both Dany and Grey Worm to take revenge on Cersei is one last insult.
Also of note…
Dany spent much of this episode worrying about Jon’s claim to the throne, but not much time trying to win the love of her new people. She could have given the eulogy at the mass funeral, for instance, instead of letting Jon do it.
Arya and the Hound are King’s Landing-bound to cross off the final names on their lists, and neither expects to come back. But hey, maybe they’ll get some more road trip memories together.
When news of Euron’s ambush reaches Winterfell, Jaime abandons Brienne to go south to, what, kill Cersei? Defend her? It doesn’t make sense, nor does his listing all the evil things he’s done for his sister, considering that by sleeping with Brienne, he has finally moved on. But again, a lack of “why” doesn’t seem to matter.