[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”]
By this point, last week’s pivotal “Game of Thrones” battle has been dissected and retread a thousand times over. The episode’s stats were internet-wide talking points before the thing even aired, with “55 days of night shoots” being rattled off like part of a prophecy discovered in some volume at the Citadel. But now that the smoke and narratively convenient ice clouds have cleared on “The Long Night,” what remains is a pair of bookending episodes that, at their best, show what the series can do when freed from the weight of having to artificially move everyone in place for one final showdown. Not every character- or plot-based story decision feels earned, but at least the rapid momentum toward the series’ end has kept the eyes of “Game of Thrones” somewhat on the present, however volatile and fatal it may be.
The first half of Season 8’s Episode 4, titled “The Last of the Starks,” finds the melancholy victors of the Battle of Winterfell in various states of mourning and celebration. In many ways, it’s the aftermath rarely afforded in the wake of massive fights. Swapping in a half-hour of Winterfellian revelry in its many forms serves as a nice companion piece to Episode 2’s preamble to what Daenerys describes in retrospect as “The Great War.”
In true “Game of Thrones” “one step forward, two steps back” fashion, though, this episode finds so much effective potential in looking at what comes for these people after the fight of their lives, but uses that power to curious ends. Tyrion’s Winterfell drinking game version of “Never Have I Ever” sours when it’s used as a weapon to demean Brienne, the woman whose recent knighting just a few episodes ago the show sold as a beautiful moment of triumph. Daenerys’ decision to make Gendry a Lord, gives way to Tyrion Lannister-splaining how politics work.
But even with the extended sequences of army logistics and piercing stares delivered by Targaryens and Starks from opposite sides of a map room, it’s bloodshed that remains the fuel that keeps the “Game of Thrones” plot engine operating at maximum capacity, often to its own detriment. The latest is the big reveal of not one, but double-digit numbers of Qyburn’s patented scorpions (see: Big Crossbows) that, under the demon smile of Euron Greyjoy become both dragon-killers and Westerosi torpedoes. Just as Daenerys’ fleet is preparing for a final assault on King’s Landing, she loses Rhaegal to a vicious volley of arrows and her trusted Missandei to Euron’s thieving numbers.
In the process, once again, the battles of “Game of Thrones” have been reduced to single, momentum-swinging developments rather than the end result of seasons’ worth of machinations. Much like victory over the army of The Night King was framed as the success or failure of a single action, so too is this latest noteworthy dragon death. It’s a corrective that seems more motivated by evening up the playing field for yet another climactic showdown, rather than following a meaningful line of development from the show’s earlier foundations. Rhaegal’s grisly offing, coupled with Missandei’s untimely end put “Game of Thrones” back in chessboard mode, only able to locate its present for a short while before concerning itself with the endgame.
Of course, the future sneaks in enough times to signal that its early, relative emphasis on the present was never going to last. Daenerys’ purposefully obscured final words in her and Jorah’s corpses “Lost in Translation” moment. The Hound proclaiming that only one thing will make happy, all but conjuring the phrase “CleganeBowl” in dust above his head. Even Varys and Tyrion’s heady debate about the value of the throne and what constitutes the Seven Kingdoms anymore is hinting at the ramifications of usurping either of the women who claim dominion over them.
That Varys/Tyrion discussion stumbled on a poignant weakness in Daenerys’ motivations. As the two political advisers outline the follies of acting as if occupying a position of power is something predestined, it doubles as a warning for the show itself. After operating for much of the past three seasons with tunnel vision toward answering the question “Who will end up on the Iron Throne?” now the show has to deal with the consequences of that.
If this episode succeeds on any level, it’s because it’s forcing its characters to grapple with these questions instead of simply shoving them aside in favor of some mammoth distraction looming over the horizon. Beating the dead was a clear objective. There was no prospect of negotiation or partial victory. That’s much of what made that pursuit feel dramatically inert at times. Here though, the choice of methods to dethrone Cersei go hand in hand with what comes after.
Whether intentional or not, this episode does give voice to plenty of the greater criticisms of the show in recent seasons. Conleth Hill had to have known that his delivery of “She’s his aunt” was destined for the show’s GIF Hall of Fame as soon as they left his lips. And after seeing the ill-fated decisions and encroaching paranoia Daenerys displays as she organizes her next plan of attack, it’s hard not to empathize with Sansa’s skyward-delivered question: “Why her?” (From the opening silent moments in front of the funeral pyres to her stern rebukes of both Tyrion and Jon, Sophie Turner is helping Sansa feel like the only character who understands the true weight of every ill-fated decision that continues to unfold.)
“Game of Thrones” is also back to its old tricks of offering up humans as bait and reducing many of its strongest characters to their functionality as romantic partners. Rather than use Brienne and Jaime’s shared histories to inform their brief time sharing a bed, it jettisons all that came before to deliver a stock story of leaving-under-cover-of-darkness heartbreak. It’s a human moment, but one that seems entirely inadequate for these two particular humans.
The final line of the episode offers one last example of how “Game of Thrones” chooses to reconcile its past and its future. Giving Missandei one farewell “Dracarys” echoes her queen’s command while exhorting her to what is starting to seem like a predetermined future. Her death is the latest example of a means to a storytelling end, with a frustrating dearth of opportunities to understand the characters underneath all the turmoil. With another season-defining skirmish is on the horizon, “Game of Thrones” still has chains that need breaking.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.