'Game of Thrones' Recap: How Surprising Deaths Set Up a Monster Endgame for the Series
With only two more episodes left in the final season of Game of Thrones, we’re spiraling towards a conclusion, closing off possible avenues along the way. Last week, it was the sudden end to the Army of the Dead's attack on Westeros; this week, we’re down another dragon and Missandei at the hands of Queen Cersei and her war minions, Euron Greyjoy, and The Mountain.
Season 8, episode 4, "The Last of the Starks," is the second episode so far this season where showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss share a writing credit. We know the duo had conversations about the ending with George R.R. Martin from before the show began production, but we also learned on last week’s making of featurette that the decision to make Arya the one who took out the Night King was a show decision, not one of Martin's plot nuggets from The Song of Ice And Fire novel series. We are in the endgame for Game of Thrones, as these character arcs do more to satisfy the show plot than literature-based theories, prophecies, and events. This division between the source material and the HBO show feels like an important one to emphasize as it continues to make surprising and controversial choices.
Ghost (or, goodbye, good boy)The very sweet boy who made it out of the Battle of Winterfell alive, but a bit torn up, is about as good at battle as his former master Jon Snow. He took a serious wound to his right ear, but otherwise seems to have... sat out most of the battle last week. The important thing is that he is alive and gets to live out the rest of his days with Tormund Giantsbane, the unkillable, and the Wildlings north of the wall. Ghost and Nymeria are safe now, at least as far as assumptions go. Wouldn't it have been cool to see a Targaryen ride a Direwolf, though? Yeah, well... at least Ghost didn't die in the dark with the Dothraki.
House Targaryen (or, an angry Mad Queen)It's beginning to look like Daenerys Targaryen might have more in common with her father than we've been expecting. The Mad King, who wanted to "burn them all" (a line the show has put emphasis on, not a George R.R. Martin pull), seemed driven insane and needlessly cruel. Daenerys looks like she might follow the dark side path of fear to anger, anger to hate, hate to suffering when The Mountain takes off Missandei's head after she's captured by Cersei's men. Not only do we get a reminder that Dany lost Jorah with the funeral scenes early in the episode, but now she's down her main sidekick, the one she turned Valar Morghulis around on with, "Yes, all men must die, but we are not men."
It's a powerful motivator to push both Grey Worm and Dany to the edge, and that behavior is going to freak out the Dany's remaining allies: Tyrion, Varys, and Jon. Their loyalty might buy her a little bit of latitude, but certainly not enough to go burn the Red Keep to the ground... right?
Maybe we don't have a hero on this show anymore, at least not in the game for the Iron Throne. This seems to be crafted in a way that next week we can watch Daenerys and Grey Worm exact revenge for Missandei on King’s Landing and not be completely horrified by it. As an audience, we’ll be leaning in to another Game of Thrones battle without necessarily thinking that our heroes survived the Long Night only to plunge into another war where our main characters make bad decisions. It seems like Dany's arc is bending this way because executing Missandei not only pisses off the Dragon Queen, but removes a person close to Dany that could have talked her down from killing hundreds of people. Because of the reality of Aegon/Jon's legitimacy and Tyrion's bloodline, there are very few people around her that can be trusted to have only her best interests at heart.
House Lannister (or, oathsex and bad news)Of the two Lannister boys, Jaime had the better week, but also had to admit the core of his character is forever poisoned by Cersei. Things were looking good! They both avoid being shot by Bronn and his Tywin Lannister Memorial Crossbow. Jaime and Brienne get to hook up, thanks to some honesty during a drinking game, and then -- Jaime takes off south because he still loves his sister. What a drag.
Not that our favorite female characters on this show deserve a Disney princess version of happiness, but it does feel a little odd that this season has had not one, but two scenes whose primary text is getting two fan-favorite characters together while also suggesting the writers think dying a virgin is a real tragedy. That out of the way: Did anyone Jaime and Brienne would be the core, tragic love story over the first four episodes of the final season? The other relationship that was consummated this season also gets shot down (see: House Baratheon) and this one has not one, but two concluding notes -- one with Brienne’s knighting in episode 2 and then the bittersweet acceptance of Jaime’s true character. They could have been happy together, but it doesn’t feel like Jaime can have a happy ending without Cersei. That’s the story the show wants to tell while also giving us some levity and Brienne a chance to be open and honest with Jaime before he outlines why he's a horrible person. At least he knows?
Tyrion makes an okay decision in offering Bronn Highgarden to get him to lay off, aka not kill him and Jaime, but otherwise, the Hand of the Queen continues to be outplayed by his sister in King'd Landing. When he and Varys discuss what to do for the good of the realm, it becomes obvious that they have different ideas and Varys is team Jon. Tyrion and Jon might be the last people capable of talking Dany down when she goes full Mad Queen, but given how this week's ending goes, it looks unlikely she'd to listen them anyway, lashing out from her grief and fury.
Then, there's Cersei, next week's big bad villain, who was the only person to accurately predict how the final season of Game of Thrones would play out so far. Last season, when we heard her plan was to wait out the fight with the Night King and the Army of the Dead and finish off whatever was left, it seemed like a dumb move that underestimated the realities of an army of zombies. It seemed like the "great war" was going to swallow up the final season, leading to multiple epic showdowns with magical forces. Whelp -- Cersei knew all she had to do was wait for Daenerys to reposition back from the North, then she'd hit them with Euron and the Golden Company and pack the Red Keep with people. The capturing of Missendei is a great win for her, and in a very Cersei move, it looks like she might have successfully baited Dany into burning a significant number of civilians, poisoning the people against the Dragon Queen. It's a risky move, but she pulled it off. If we're just judging by this episode, Cersei is the best player of the game, even if she's betting it all when she's swinging for the fences.
House Greyjoy (or, can Euron do math?)Given the evidence presented on the show, Euron is much better at firing those scorpion/ballistas than Bronn, who was not as accurate on land as Euron was on a boat hidden behind a rock. We've spent most of this season with Theon being our favorite Greyjoy, but now another Greyjoy rises! Kidding, of course, Euron is a monster. If you want someone to be taken seriously as a villain on this show, have them kill a dragon with ease. It was surprising and terrifying when the Night King lanced Viserion and brought him back, but Rhaegal, still battered from the Battle of Winterfell, got shot because he didn't keep one eye on what was going on below him.
With so little runtime left in the remainder of the series, the power play of reducing Daenerys to only one dragon had to go here just so next week's battle wasn't just two dragons torching Euron's fleet and the Red Keep. The show sacrifices Rhaegal to even the stakes, and that means showing off Euron and the sea-scorpions. They can't kill Drogon, because if Drogon's going to die, that's some climax-level drama you don’t throw away in the fourth episode of a six-episode season. It's understandable why Rhaegal had to take three bolts and fall into the sea, but that doesn't mean it didn't feel a bit cheap. That dragon was vaulted in importance with Jon riding him in episode 1, then taking on his zombie-brother and the Night King last week, where he was close to death at the end of the battle. Here he is this week, taking back to the sky with his mom and -- BOOM -- ballista bolt finishes him off.
Also, Euron is told Cersei's baby is his, which... it's a lot to care about and sort out next week. Was Euron paying attention when Tyrion brought it up at the end of the episode? Was he curious how Tyrion, who has been up North since the meeting at the Dragon Pit, knew about the baby he allegedly made with Cersei back in the first episode of the season? Does Euron know how babies are made? Can he do math? Or is the worst math seamen math?
House Stark (or, the pack survives)This is the most powerful the Starks have been since the pilot episode. We know Ned's words that Sansa quoted last season to Arya: "The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives." Turns out the whole pack can survive if they know to not run in a predictable straight line when fleeing the Bolton armies (yeah, looking at you, idiot Rickon). They lost their father, which was tragic, but Bran, Arya, and Sansa have now conquered the Night King, and the MVPs of the Battle of Winterfell were Starks. Everyone agrees; the North agrees. For one episode, no one was afraid of losing a Stark.
Sansa comes off cold in a series where we've been following Daenerys as a lead character, but is it really a surprise that Sansa would fight for an independent North even harder now that the result of the Long Night wasn’t a dragonfire solution, but a Stark assassin? The assumption going into the Battle of Winterfell was that Sansa's position was weakened by the reveal of Jon's true parentage. As long as Jon loved Daenerys, the future of House Stark was complex. But, since Jon isn't a Stark, but a Targaryen, holding the North and not bending the knee seems like an easier political position to hold. Sansa has all the information she needs now (and last season, off -amera, she was able to successfully use Bran to probe for information about Littlefinger, so she has access to Three Eyed Raven Google), her position grows in power. It’s pretty obvious now how much she's learned from Cersei considering she’s in the position to mop up anyone who disagrees with her after the fighting is done at King's Landing. Her decision to share Jon's parentage with Tyrion is a power play.
The Hound and Sansa get to reconnect briefly this episode. There are fan groups who hope these two get together romantically (SanSan shippers -- Sandor and Sansa), so I'm sure that the scene didn't please all of the fans, but overall it's one of the few remaining character reunions that I'd forgotten we hadn't seen yet. We're all happy that Sandor can see the progress his Little Bird has made since he left her with Joffrey.
What Arya is up to is a bit more of a mystery at the moment. We know she's headed down to King's Landing to deal with some unfinished business, and we can guess that's killing Cersei, but her comments about not coming back are less clear. Is she just abandoning Winterfell because she's not a lady? Is she going back to Essos? Does she really think she's going to die? Stay tuned.
AeJon Targaryen (or, the reluctant king)It looks like Jon Snow is going to continue being thrust by the plot into very Ned Stark-like decisions. He's bent the knee and is honor bound to his Queen, but he also isn't going to lie to the people he considers his family. Jon just mis-estimates Sansa, fighting to preserve the North, and might have accidentally tipped off a secret coup with his secret name.
As for the rest of Jon's actions, he may be constantly thinking about his Targ blood, but he's really acting like Ned Stark did, right down to his honor-blindness luring him south. Jon does have that luck that Tormund references in the episode, the kind that keeps him from dying, but it sounds like the Lord of Light has exited the Game of Thrones -- so Jon might not be able to make stupid decisions in battle anymore. He doesn't bend to Dany's cold stare and the orders of his aunt to not tell his family (and somehow swear all-knowing Bran to secrecy?), instead he turns a secret into "information," as Varys puts it.
After not having much to do all season, Varys is also the first full-throated, treasonous convert to the AeJon Team. This makes a lot of sense for the Realm loyalty reasons outlined by the character in the episode, but I also don't know how seriously to take his implied threat that he'd orchestrate the death of Daenerys and plop a sad, reluctant Jon on the throne. I believe that he'd think about it, but it's hard to see what forces would be open to that sort of swap. A lot of misogynist, lesser Lords, it sounds like.
Varys speaking this treason out in the open ups the stakes for the audience who may not be tracking how the various political alliances are going, or for people who have forgotten the peasants (many of whom look like they might get slaughtered next week), but as Tyrion points out, it's still treasonous. Varys is a character who had great scenes this week, and like any character that has great scenes (and isn't the invincible Tormund Giantsbane) climbs in the death pool.
House Baratheon (or, Gendry shoots his shot)Gendry is given Storm's End! By Dany, no less. If there's one thing Tyrion and Dany are good at doing after their victory with the Night King, it’s promise the lands they still have to win. That's some pretty basic medieval politicking right there, so it's hard to blame the gift or the bastard in this case. Gendry started as a blacksmith of no importance and has risen to be leeched, fight (and run) beyond the wall, and he smashed some wights during the Battle of Winterfell. It would be absolute overload if he then got to run off with Arya. If there's one thing that's been consistent with Arya, it is that she is not a lady in title. She wasn't when she was a young girl shooting arrows, she wasn't when she was training to be an assassin, she certainly isn't now that she successfully murdered the biggest threat to all life in Westeros. Poor Gendry joins Brienne in the broken hearts club of Season 8, but of the two, Gendry has a better chance of seeing his crush again, should she survive the impending new war.
And that's where we're at, isn't it? The final battle for the Iron Throne is about to pop off ahead of schedule. In the War of the Angry Queens, choose your side: Daenerys, whose support system and self-restraint is crumbling, Varys who wants to put an unwilling AeJon on the Throne, or Cersei who has made all the correct, hateful, moves to keep power after blowing up all her enemies.