With “The Last of the Starks,” let it be said that “Game of Thrones” has officially written itself into a no-win situation. This does not make it unique in the long history of groundbreaking TV series. Most great TV shows fail to close in universally satisfactory ways, although a couple of recent ones came close.
The likes of “Breaking Bad” only have a handful of A- and B-plots to tie up, however. “Game of Thrones” is strapped with resolving a number of conflicts and delivering answers to all manner of “what ifs,” even after Arya (Maisie Williams) sent the Night King to that Ice Castle in the clouds.
There’s the whole matter of who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne (don’t count out Hot Pie, y’all!) but before that can be resolved, we get to ponder who deserves to sit on the Iron Throne.
No question, this an important topic of consideration. It would have been equally worth contemplating if D.B. Weiss and David Benioff decided to maintain Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) connection to empathy. Remember that trait the show spent most of its six seasons developing? The writers even tested it in season 7 when Daenerys fried a couple of Tarlys to get their armies to bend the knee to her. One would think that Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) counsel as to why that wasn’t such a great idea would have stuck.
However, it appears no one has taken into account Dany’s narcissism and envy which have really taken off in the Northern snows. One can’t say that these less-than-admirable qualities came out of nowhere, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen them rear up in the Dragon Queen. And in these final episodes it sure seems like the writers have erased several seasons’ worth of character evolution for the sake of injecting tension.
To the credit of "The Last of the Starks," the writers' choice in spreading out the deaths and sparing key characters we thought would die last week keeps us on our toes. I am genuinely glad that Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) survived the onslaught of the wights. And I certainly did not expect Dany to make it to the final moments with all three dragons, but the sudden shock of Rhaegal's demise was almost crueler than the episode's other major death, which was mortifying and also fairly predictable: the moment Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) made post-war plans, you had to know their happily ever after would never come to pass.
However, what Dany’s turn toward tyranny in “The Last of the Starks” does is leave the ostensible choices for rulership of the Seven Kingdoms between two equal intransigents, both women who resent the notion of sharing power. Nobody wants Cersei (Lena Headey) to come out on top, but Dany isn't looking like such a grand choice either, never mind what Elizabeth Warren has to say about it. The third option, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), is the obvious face to their spiky heels, and even better, he doesn’t want the crown. What a hero! Plus, in the latest episode, he made a choice that was either sly strategy or demonstrates yet another way that even though he’s not Stupid Ned Stark’s son, by the Seven he really act like it.
Between all that, a bewildering proposal and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) boo-hooing over her lost boy, whatever feminist cred this series might have been reaching for is now, like Melisandre (Carice van Houten), naught but dust in the wind.
With that out of the way, let's get into our recap of an episode that stuffed at least two episodes worth of action into one 78-minute installment, and about 10 pounds worth of plot sausage into a two-pound sack.
"The Last of the Starks" opens with a massive post-battle cremation ceremony. A wide-shot of the field above Winterfell provided a sobering view of gigantic pyres, but only after we take in the close-up of the dearly dead we know and cherish. Dany sheds tears over Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), plants a kiss on his forehead and whispers something in his ear. Sansa weeps over Theon Grejoy (Alfie Allen), and places a hairpin topped by the Stark wolf’s head on his chest.
So it goes: Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) stands over Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton). Arya holds the torch for Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), and Jon Snow bids farewell to Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey). Once the pyres catch, the ash blacks out the sky above. The only cheery moment in this sequence is the shot of the living in attendance, revealing that Ghost, against all odds, survived the battle, minus most of an ear.
It must be said that this installment's main saving grace is David Nutter’s skillful direction, which made sense out of an episode that began soundly enough but was soon shot to pieces in a barrage of bad decision.
Afterward in the great hall, the shared meal is quiet until Gendry (Joe Dempsie), standing up to look for Arya (and getting the business from Sandor Clegane [Rory McCann] for doing so), is called out by Daenerys. She points out that he is Robert Baratheon’s bastard in a tense moment during which she also reminds the assembled that the Baratheon king wanted her dead. Gendry confirms this, but adds he had no idea who his father was until much later on.
Then she points out that without any living Baratheons, there is no living lord of Storm’s End. So she makes Gendry a legitimate Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End. The room breaks out in cheers. Sandor shakes his head and keeps on eating.
By the way, some of this script’s best craftwork is in the short moments that feature The Hound, who always saw through the idiocy of titles and the lie of knightly honor. Sandor Clegane is nobody's anyone angel, which he proves by roughly turning down all kindly company save for Sansa. And he even attempts to drive her away by revealing, in the crassest terms imaginable, that he heard about what Ramsay Bolton did to her.
The Bastard of Bolton got what he was coming to him, she tells the Hound, letting him know that she served him up fresh and screaming to his own dogs. He laughs and observes that she’s no longer the “little bird” he once knew. Then, somewhat sadly, he points out that none of the terrible things that Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton did to her would have happened if she had taken him up on his offer to get her out of King’s Landing.
Sansa responds by gently putting her hand over his. Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, she says, “I would have stayed a little bird all my life.” What an aggravating statement, as if to say that betrayal, abuse and trauma are necessities to produce strength in a woman. Little Lyanna Mormont would have contradicted that assertion; sadly, she’s dead. Besides, what are we if not the sum of our scars? Sansa seems to understand this, which is why she now has no problem looking Sandor Clegane in the face.
Speaking of which: After Daenerys legitimizes Gendry as a true Baratheon, Tyrion praises her statecraft. “See?” she tells him. “I’m not the only one who’s clever.”
This only carries her so far.
Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), toasts the Dragon Queen, and everyone cheers, mostly out of politeness. Dany toasts Arya Stark as the conquering hero, which goes over even better for about five seconds. When Tormund spins Jon’s tale for the crowd, singing his song of uniting warring people, getting murdered for it, being resurrected and riding a dragon, Dany sees what kind of legend she’s up against. Jon's story is the stuff of tall tales, but it’s all true.
Later, in what should be a tender moment, Jon assures Dany that she doesn't have to worry about him wanting the Iron Throne. Nevertheless she insists (correctly) that whether he wants to rule isn’t his call if word gets out that he has a claim to it. The North will want him, as will anyone in the realm that Dany doesn't flambé. So Dany begs/orders Jon to commit Sam and Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) to secrecy about his true parentage. But Jon insists that he needs to tell Sansa and Arya because, you know, honestly and honor and again, he might not be Ned Stark’s biological son but he surely acts like it. Dany (again, correctly) tells him they can’t be trusted with that information.
He takes her face in both his hands. “You are my queen. Nothing will change that. And they are my family. We can live together.”
“We can,” she says coldly. “I’ve just told you how.” Oof.
Around that same time Brienne, Pod, Tyrion and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) play a drinking game, the Westeros version of “Never Have I Ever” except it’s just straight up guessing what someone has done. It’s all going fine until Tyrion brings up the fact that Brienne is a virgin. This sends her running off to the privacy of her room, deflecting Tormund along the way, who watches as Jaime follows her. Giantsbane is stung, but soon takes comfort in the arms of a willing Northern girl.
Jaime knocks on Brienne’s door and goes in. He’s brought Dornish wine and points out that he knows Brienne didn’t drink during the game. They engage in a little nervous conversation about how warm the room is, and then he gets her to undo his shirt and take hers off, and next thing you know, the two Sers are playing hide the helmet.
Basically Jaime is Brienne of Tarth’s wish master: before the battle, when he thinks they’re going to die, he knights her. Now, when there’s a possibility they might survive this nightmare, he shares Brienne’s first sexual experience with her and stays around long enough to play house. For a minute. Later he bones her in a different way, but we’ll get to that.
Not long after the deed Tyrion and Jaime are enjoying a cup of wine by the fire. Tyrion congratulates Jaime for finding happiness inside the nether regions of a blonde woman to whom he’s not related. He's just about to launch into his tight five consisting of tall girl jokes when in walks Bronn, carrying the infamous crossbow Tyrion used to kill Tywin, the poetic touch to Cersei’s assassination order.
Bronn sits with the two other Lannisters and gives them a chance to make a counter-offer to Cersei’s promise to give Riverrun to Bronn, an insult on many levels to the Stark house. Never mind that. Tyrion counters with Highgarden, which appalls Jaime until Bronn argues that all noble houses begin with a hard bastard who’s good at killing (and honestly, I don’t think Olenna Tyrell would disapprove of Bronn taking over the place).
And remember Gendry? He finds Arya practicing her archery in the dark, and decides that they should get married. The writers overplay their hand here, because nobody really believes this would or should happen, right? As anyone who has been watching this must have expected, Arya turns down his offer to become the Lady of Storm’s End because, as she’s only said a million times, she’s not a lady.
It’s awkward and weird, but at least it leads to surrogate father (The Hound) and daughter (Arya) reuniting on the road to King’s Landing, both to get away from all this clumsy situational exposition and head toward their next kills, which we hope are worth the build up.
While the Northern armies are celebrating, Cersei circulates the word that the Dragon Queen is coming and urges the people to take shelter in the keep, assuring them they’ll be protected when, in reality, she’s making them into human shields. She also keeps trashy Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) clit-matized with mention that their child will rule the Seven Kingdoms once the Targaryen forces are crushed.
In the war room everyone but Dany agrees their objective is to take King’s Landing with as little bloodshed as possible. Tyrion, Varys (Conleth Hill) and Jon counsel patience, maintaining that allowing the citizens to overthrow Cersei themselves will keep the people on their side. Sansa also advises that the troops need time to rest so they’ll be able to fight better. Even Rhaegal is injured from the battle. But nobody ever listens to Sansa, although she's usually right.
Daenerys counters that no, taking more time gives the enemy longer to prepare. So they plan to engage on two fronts, with Jon, Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) and the Northern troops heading in by the King's Road. After the meeting Arya pulls Jon aside, and the Starks and secret Targaryen meet up in the Godswood with Bran . There, Jon has Arya and Sansa agree to keep a secret for him before he has Bran spill the magic beans about Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen.
Before Team Dragon takes off, Sansa and Tyrion have a chat about Dany — he wants his former wife to get along with his Queen. She counters with a bit of hot goss of her own: What if there’s a better option? she asks. So much for promises!
Not long afterward Jon bids farewell to Sam and a pregnant Gilly (Hannah Murray) and leaves Ghost to Tormund (with not so much as even a "that'll do, wolf" pet on the head), asking him to take his direwolf up North with the remaining Wildlings.
With this Tyrion goes to Varys, who has already expressed his doubts about Daenerys. “I have served tyrants all my life. They all talk about destiny,” he says at one point. Tyrion points out that she walked into a fire with three stones and came out with three dragons. That has a way of igniting one’s belief in destiny. But Varys is not convinced, and the news about Jon only increases his doubts about backing the lady and her two dragons.
Rather, make that one: as Dany is pulling up to Dragonstone with the Unsullied on her small fleet of ships, Euron is waiting with his own vessels, each armed with a scorpion, aka the dragon killers. He announces his presence by killing Rhaegal with three devastating shots before the fleet turns to the rest of Dany’s ships, shredding them.
Before the attack begins Grey Worm tells Missandei to get to a skiff. No matter — she’s captured.
Back at Winterfell, Sansa gets word of what has happened, and conveys the message to Brienne, who tells Jaime, who reacts by looking genuinely shaken. Sansa, though, taps into her endless reserves of “I told you so” and coolly expresses to Jaime that she’s disappointed that she probably won’t get the chance to witness Cersei’s execution.
But maybe he will. Jaime saddles up in the middle of the night to head back to King’s Landing despite Brienne’s assurances that he doesn’t have to. He lists all the terrible things he’s done for Cersei — his version of breaking up by writing “I’m sorry/I can’t/don’t hate me” on a Post-It note. He rides off, leaving Brienne blubbering in the cold and making us despise whichever D. wrote this moment.
In the ensuing attempt to negotiate Cersei’s surrender and the return of Missandei, Cersei counters with demanding Daenerys’ immediate surrender or else she'll execute Dany's best friend immediately. Tyrion walks up to the front, pleading with his sister not for the lives of the people, who we all know she detests, but for that of her unborn child, because he knows she loves her children.
Cersei looks moved for a blip, but then steps up to Missandei and advises her to share her last words. Missandei of Naath looks at the man she loves and her queen and yells in a deep growl, “Dracarys,” a hail back to their meeting in Astapor. With that, the Mountain steps up and beheads her. Grey Worm turns away shaken, and Dany turns on her back on the ugliness, determined to honor her friend’s wishes and burn the place down.
Upon first coming into Dany's service, Missandei tells her in Valyrian, "All men must die." Yes, Dany responds, adding, "but we are not men." In that moment Dany infers that she stands for something better than mere death and service. Her offer is freedom and triumph. As the series ends Missandei saw little of either, and in her last moments she became kindling, tossed onto the blaze to keep the narrative flames going. One can't be blamed for our affection dying down as we steel ourselves for the possibility that the grand ending to it all might just leave us cold.