Only two episodes (and two recaps) of Game of Thrones remain. Watch the show before you read. Spoilers!
The last two weeks on Game of Thrones have been difficult for secondary characters. This week’s episode, “The Last of the Starks” began with tributes and funeral pyres for those fallen in the Battle of Winterfell. It ended with another falling at the hands of the truly mad queen.
Everyone seems to be characterizing this as a “quiet” episode. Sure. One of the world’s two remaining dragons got shot down into the sea, and a six-year character with a touching romantic story arc had her head hacked off atop the gates of King’s Landing. In the context of Game of Thrones and juxtaposed between a last week’s enormous battle and the one that is poised to happen next week, quiet may not be altogether inaccurate. Just don’t call it “uneventful.” If you’re a fan of the political and personal sides of the story, plenty happened.
The Love of the Queen
After Jon delivers a farewell sermon calling to mind themes of the Night’s Watch, and the leaders light scores of mass funeral pyres, the victory feast in the Great Hall begins as a somber occasion. Daenerys breaks the spell by rewarding Gendry for his heroism (which must have been depicted mostly off-screen), proclaiming him the legitimate son of Robert Baratheon and Lord of Storm’s End. She must soon wish she had not ignited the revelry. Groups cluster together, leaving their queen brooding and alone. Tormund marvels at Jon’s manly bravery for riding a dragon, while the woman who had ridden countless times before him sits a table away, unacknowledged. The Lannister brothers play a drinking game with Ser Brienne until Tyrion insults her virginity and she stalks away with Jaime following close behind to finally consummate the unlikely relationship that has been brewing since they were captured by Roose Bolton’s men, years ago. Even the unsympathetic ear of The Hound must be more desirable than the company of the queen. He has audiences with Gendry, Tormund and Sansa. As Daenerys leaves the room, only Varys seems to notice.
Later, she tries to convince Jon to keep his family secret. She assures him that she loves him in a way she could not love Ser Jorah, and she laments that things cannot be the way they were before Jon told her that he was the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and not Ned Stark’s bastard, after all. When Jon protests that he owes Sansa and Arya the truth, she says she has never begged for anything, but she is begging him not to tell anyone. Jon tries to reassure her, saying, “You are my queen. Nothing will change that. And they are my family. We can live together.” Dany agrees, “We can. I’ve just told you how.” Ah, love with an ultimatum. The truest kind.
Any hope of the families coexisting grows fainter in the war council room, where each faction reports its losses. All of the groups have lost half their numbers, and the Dothraki have been fully wiped out. Daenerys wants to attack the capital anyway. She reluctantly agrees to a siege, rather than a full assault, and when Sansa urges a delay to allow the wounded to heal, Daenerys accuses her—all of them, really—of reneging on their promise to return to fight for her claim. Jon ends the argument by promising they will obey the orders of their queen. They plan to send some of the forces by ship, while the others march down the King’s Road. They will depart immediately. When Daenerys proclaims that soon all the people of the Seven Kingdoms will live free of fear and cruelty “under their rightful queen,” she does not betray any recognition that she understands she’s uttering a falsehood.
Immediately after this meeting, Jon tells Arya and Sansa his secret, but only after swearing them to secrecy. In the next scene, as the remnants of the Unsullied army march through the gates, Sansa breaks her vow by telling Tyrion. Though it may appear to be a moment of desperation, recall how brilliantly she played Littlefinger to trap him in his own webs. Sansa would not casually decide to share the information with Daenerys’s closest adviser. She has realized that Tyrion fears his queen and that his reasoning that “every good ruler needs to inspire a bit of fear” is a rationalization. She believes she can turn Tyrion’s loyalty to Jon and use his position as Daenerys’s Hand to her advantage.
Whether or not Sansa succeeded in turning Tyrion is uncertain. He and Varys discuss the new possibilities, with Tyrion appearing to defend Daenerys. He says that her disdain for having her authority challenged is “something she has in common with every monarch who ever lived.” When Varys expresses a preference for the more temperate, measured Jon, Tyrion reminds him that what they are speaking of is treason. “I believe in our queen,” he says. “She’ll make the right choice, with the help of her loyal advisers.”
After the debacle at the city gates, Tyrion may no longer be one of those advisers. Let’s leave that incident, for now, to cover some of the other happenings that led to that final scene.
An Unexpected Return
While Tyrion is teasing Jaime about his tall new love interest, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater appears with the gaudy crossbow that killed the two brothers’ father. Though Bronn has grown into a fan favorite with his swashbuckling style and wit, the scene makes clear that he has never been anything more than a mercenary. He’s betting on Daenerys and her dragons to win the war, and he’s calling Tyrion on his promise to double any price anyone ever offers Bronn for killing him. Cersei had promised him Riverrun, so Tyrion promises him Highgarden. If they win.
Though he may be a heartless hitman, Bronn understands how things work. When Jaime says that Highgarden will never answer to the likes of him, Bronn answers that he’s no worse than the Lannisters. “Who were your ancestors?” he asks. “It’s how all great houses started, right? Some hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a hundred and become a lord. Kill a thousand and become a king.”
Bronn urges Jaime and Tyrion to survive, but only so he can get paid. We might wonder how, exactly, a civil servant like Tyrion is supposed to pay up, even if they do survive.
In the opening scene, we said our final farewells to Jorah, Theon, Dolorous Edd, Beric Dondarion and Lyanna Mormont. Several other partings in the episode seemed to be delivered with odd finality, as well.
Arya gently (but nevertheless, crushingly) rejects Gendry’s proposal of marriage, saying she is not fit to be Lady of the Reach. “I’m not a lady,” she says. “I never have been. That’s not me.” Later, she and the Hound bid farewell to Winterfell, both saying they never intend to return. We are left to wonder whether Arya is presaging her own demise, or whether her self-awareness is so complete that she knows she can never live the quiet, domestic life, even in her ancestral home. One reprise of Arya and the Hound’s scenes from the road in seasons two and three would be phenomenal. Maybe they could slash up another band of ruffians at a random inn. Sadly, it seems unlikely there will be sufficient time for any of that fun.
Jon parts from Sam and Gilly, who are expecting a second child. If it’s a boy, they plan to name him Jon. “I hope it’s a girl,” Jon says. Maybe he’d have preferred they use “Aegon.” If this is the last we see of Sam, at least he gets his happily-ever-after. But boy, does it feel anticlimactic. Surely Sam’s saga doesn’t end here.
Tormund Giantsbane also takes his leave, and Jon tells him to take Ghost north of the wall with him. “This is farewell, then,” Jon says. “You never know,” Tormund replies.
Jon shares no more than a look with Ghost before riding off with Ser Davos. Maybe there is a telepathic connection, but Jon should have a least scratched the wolf behind his half-missing ear. Again, the anticlimax is overwhelming. Unlike Littlefinger’s dagger, which showed up to serve important purposes throughout the series, the direwolves seem to have outlived their purposes somewhere in the early middle phases of the story, and have only been kept around to pander to the demands of fans, who appear to harbor a deeper emotional connection to Ghost than Jon does.
In the most poignant of all the partings, Jaime leaves Brienne to ride back to King’s Landing. She tries to talk him out of it, saying he’s a good man. He reminds her that he pushed a boy out a tower window, strangled his cousin and would have murdered every man, woman and child in Riverrun, all for Cersei. “She’s hateful,” he says. “And so am I.” Whether he intends to deal with Cersei or to join her is ambiguous. But it’s clear he doesn’t believe he’ll return. After all this time, after realizing the impossible dream of sharing mutual affection with Jaime, Brienne is crushed. She had always concealed her vulnerabilities before. In this case, she cannot. We have to kind of hate Jaime again now. Don’t we?
The Balance Tips Again
When Daenerys crossed the Narrow Sea and landed on Dragonstone with three dragons, we said she had to lose one of them to make the story interesting. Dragons are the thermonuclear weapons of medieval fantasy warfare, and no side can have that great a power advantage if the story is to stay interesting. Last season, the Night King obliged by killing, then resurrecting, Viserion. That dragon died a final death when Arya stabbed the Night King. But with two dragons, Dany’s tired forces still have to believe they enjoy an advantage over Cersei’s army.
Consider the odds tilted against the Dragon Queen again. Ballista bolts strike Rhaegal from the sky, then turn their power on the force’s ships. Missandei is captured. Dany’s offer to accept Cersei’s surrender is laughable. Even with her one remaining dragon (that is, for some ill-conceived reason, resting behind the small assembled force, well within range of the ballistas mounted atop the city walls while they negotiate) the advantage lies clearly on Cersei’s side. She demonstrates her understanding of her strong hand by beheading Missandei in full sight of Daenerys and Grey Worm. Both are completely bereft at the sight.
Heroes of stories always face long odds. Any rational mind would tell Dany and their forces to retreat. But scenes from next week—including a moment when Euron Greyjoy looks to the sky with sudden apprehension when a dragon screeches—suggest the odds will turn again. They must, of course. The forces of evil never win, even when they should. Can we all, please, join in the hope that the turnabout will be sensible, and not result from some ridiculous Inception-level contrivance?
The Story gets Away
Managing this colossus of a tale, with its sprawling cast and labyrinthine weaves of overlapping plot was never going to be easy. If the casualty of that complexity were merely awkward dismissals of characters whose arcs once seemed important, it would be disappointing. Time remains to see whether Sam, Tormund and Brienne have really been cast off so perfunctorily. Tormund, at least, suggested he may still have a role to play.
Other assorted sloppiness is more troublesome. As many commentators have written, Daenerys’s apparent turn from the beloved “Mhysa” who freed slaves and sought to protect the oppressed, to a vindictive and demanding power-grabber has been jarringly abrupt. She began the series an abused sibling of the purported rightful heir to the Targaryen throne, was sold to a horse-lord, and gradually gathered followers and an army to stake her own claim. Sure, having dragons didn’t hurt. But she should perhaps be forgiven—or at least understood—for being so reluctant to throw down the destiny she believed to be hers just because Jon Snow has turned out to be the last male Targaryen heir. As Tyrion says, “She’s the girl who walked into the fire with three stones and walked out with three dragons. How could she not believe in destiny?”
For all the good the show did through this episode in reestablishing Tyrion as a key player, it went further down the road of ruining him, in the end. Tyrion’s scenes with Jaime, Sansa, and especially Varys showed him to be the most perceptive player in the game. Then, he conducted that parlay where he conveyed the ridiculous demand that Cersei surrender. Their force is two laughable columns. When Qyburn blows him off, Tyrion walks up to the walls to speak to his sister in person. She chooses not to have him shot full of arrows, for reasons only she can explain. She lets him ruin the secret that she was pregnant long before Euron was with her, undoing a key part of her plan to use the Lord of the Iron Fleet as an ally. After Cersei beheads Missandei, what is Tyrion supposed to do? Walk back to Daenerys and Grey Worm and proclaim, like Neville Longbottom, “That went well?” This is just the latest in his string of many failures, and Daenerys has shown she is out of patience.
Was the final scene was only staged to demonstrate Cercei’s utter ruthlessness and to have the pregnancy trick foiled? We did not need the first, and the second could surely have been accomplished another way. It makes no sense for Danerys to expose her strongest assets and show her vulnerability for a gambit that never stood any chance of succeeding. At the least, neither Dany nor Drogon should have been there. Perhaps the only reason the forces atop the wall don’t destroy all of them is because in their arrogance (which is deserved, in this case) they know they will destroy them later, anyway. But even that doesn’t make sense. Kill the dragon, and it’s over. Kill the dragon, and there is nothing any of the forces can do to overthrow Cersei on the battlefield.
Unless, that is, there is a surprise. Early on, Stannis and Melisandre talked of resurrecting the dragons of Dragonstone. Could Tyrion unlock that secret sorcery? Or, as in the Battle of Winterfell, will the field battle prove merely a cover for a behind-the-scenes assassination of Cersei? Tyrion was a feature player in the beginning. Surely, he will be in the end, too.
Best Lines from the Episode
- “You can still smell the burning bodies, and that’s where your head is at?” – the Hound, to Gendry, who is looking for Arya.
- “Vomiting is not celebrating.” – Jon Snow, who clearly never went to college parties.
- “Which one of you cowards shit in my pants?” – Tormund, to the assembled drunks in the Great Hall.
- “Without Littlefinger and Ramsey and the rest, I’d have stayed that ‘little bird’ my whole life.” – Sansa, to the Hound, expressing no regrets for the torments she survived.
- “I’ve been breaking noses since I was your size. I know what it sounds like.” – Bronn, after punching Tyrion in the nose.
- “Must’ve felt good sticking a knife in that horned fucker.” – the Hound, to Arya, about killing the Night King.
- “Dracarys.” – Missandei’s last word, calling for dragon fire that did not save her, but may come later.
Winner? Tormund, of course. Runner-up to Bronn. He probably doesn’t belong in the story anymore. But lines like this make him too fun not to keep around. I mean, we still have the latecomer, Euron, who absolutely does not deserve his giant role, and he’s no fun at all.
Maggie the Frog prophesied that Cersei would die at the hands of a "valonqar," a High Valyrian word for "little brother or sister." Who will kill Cersei?
This poll is closed
Tyrion, the little brother that she has always despised.
Jaime, her younger twin and former lover, who now realizes that her influence has made him an awful person.
Arya, who made Cersei the first name on her list, and who is a younger sibling, though not one of Cersei’s own.
The Hound, younger brother of the Mountain, who will be in King’s Landing to participate in #Cleganebowl.
Euron Greyjoy, youngest sibling of Balon Greyjoy, who will be angry over Cersei’s pregnancy lie and wants the throne for himself.
She will not die.