Ever since that moment when Daenerys claimed the Unsullied in season three, I knew. I knew that Game of Thrones was leading up to a character arc that we are not used to in popular fantasy. That we would be made to root for the girl who would become the direst villain, the “boss battle,” and that would be the show’s biggest twist of all.
After I formed this theory, it was easy upon re-watch to confirm with myself that there was just too much foreshadowing to deny what would inevitably be Daenerys’ evil turn (though listing all that foreshadowing would be longer than this review).
The truth is, she’s never been nice. She’s been through a lot, but she’s always been a narcissist, bordering on psychopathy. Her go-to has always been to murder people who disagree with her, to burn people alive in order to proclaim her power. So, with the penultimate episode of the show, it turns out that ol’ Robert Baratheon was right to want to kill the child Targaryen in the first place. She’s done what she always said, and taken what she wants, what is “hers,” with fire and blood.
Maybe pledging allegiance to a Targaryen wasn’t the best idea after all (though I’d rather be on the winning side than burnt to a crisp). It turns out, members of that family are prone to violence and madness. But that should not have come as a surprise. The trouble is that we were all taken in by her charisma. We rooted for her as she climbed her way from being a victim to a Khaleesi and a Queen.
But season 8 has left her ravaged. She lost the forces around her that humanized her. Two of her dragons, her advisors, her closest friends, her lover (not dead, but distant), most of her army. And all the while, although she sacrificed so much in order to protect the North and the world from the White Walkers, did she get the appreciation she deserved? It’s true that Arya struck the killing blow on the Night King, but without Dany’s dragons, her forces, and her dragonglass, the war would have been over before it began. No, instead of thanks, she gets bitchy side-eye from Sansa, she witnesses Jon being praised in her place, and her remaining advisors are working against her.
So now Daenerys is alone. And as Maester Aemon once said, “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.” Plus, in addition to everything she’s lost, she’s going through an awkward breakup with her nephew, and that nephew just happens to be in a position to take the throne from her.
Given the title of the episode, it was pretty clear, but the moment Tyrion started to implore Daenerys to cease the attack once the bells of King’s Landing rang, it was a done deal. Dany would win, but she would not stop. “Dracarys,” as Missandei summarized.
If you thought there would be a different ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
The Targaryen army, backed by the North, quickly levelled the playing field. It went from a battle to slaughter in almost no time. The Golden Company, for all the build-up, were practically useless. Maybe it would have been different if there were elephants. (Actually, I am glad I didn’t have to watch countless elephants being burned alive.)
It turns out Varys was right. Daenerys has lost what little cool she was holding onto. Jon and Tyrion are surprised, as though this is out of the blue. But both betrayed her. And, hells, I’ve been through breakups myself when I’ve wanted to burn everything to the ground.
Also what I look like when I’m going through a breakup
So begins a cinematic immersion into the ravages of dragon fire. Arya, who turned from her quest to kill Cersei at the behest of the Hound, became our eyes on the ground, the audience’s way into the chaos. It also made it more real; it’s been easy for viewers to write off enemies being burned alive for the whole series. It’s a little different here because there are innocents, women, and children, but to truly put a human emotion to the devastation, we had to put a character we love in harm’s way.
Not much dialogue was necessary. As we watched Arya fleeing for her life as those around her are burned and crushed and destroyed, we can understand the nihilism, the meaninglessness of this attack. But acts of war happen like this, in both Westeros and Earth, all the time. Not with dragons, sure, but with whatever weapons those fighting for power can muster.
All of this is astounding, especially as we watch other characters’ impotence in the face of this carnage. Jon and Tyrion are in shock. Cersei, viewing the city from the same vantage point where she once burned the sept to the ground, can’t believe what she’s seeing. With all the scorpion bows taken out, there’s nothing she can do.
All of these are the amazing ingredients of a visually stunning episode. Unfortunately, the big twist of Daenerys’ turn didn’t land properly because of a season that has been entirely too rushed. The burden to go full-Targaryen happened over less than an episode, and rode on the shoulders of an actress who, while charismatic, has never been good at complexity.
Add to that a bafflingly unjustified fight between Euron and Jaime, Cleganebowl, and unsatisfying Lannister deaths, there were just too many rocky elements.
First off all, the Euron/Jaime fight was pretty much the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. It was too convenient, made no sense, and added nothing to the plot, the tension, or the characters. If you wanted to kill-off Euron, just have him burned up by Drogon. Or kill him later, in front of Cersei, where Jaime and Euron could fight with consequence over who gets to be the father. Euron’s blows didn’t matter anyway, because Jaime was going to die in just a little bit, whether he was stabbed or not.
As Cersei decides to flee, that’s when the Hound finds the Mountain. This was the biggest piece of fan service in the entire show. That doesn’t necessarily discredit the fight, but it was just so sorely implausible. It was like watching an anime battle segment in the middle of my favorite fantasy show. It felt out of place. The Hound, who was barely a match for his older brother before he got all zombie-beefed up, somehow holds his ground (the Mountain, by the way, having the high ground to begin with). The Mountain’s armor conveniently falls away so we can see his special FX body. And a knife through the face doesn’t do anything? Really? No, but, REALLY?
The best thing about the fight was the moment when the Mountain shoved his thumbs into Sandor’s eyes, conjuring up our latent trauma from his fight with the Red Viper back in season 4. It was a fake-out, but this episode offered up enough wanton destruction without a skull crushing, so I was thankful.
And then there were the deaths of the Lannister twins. My qualms aren’t with how they died, per say. It’s a fair complaint that after all that build-up and villainy, they get killed by… some rocks. But the stone the siblings are crushed by is the very Red Keep itself, the place where Cersei found her power, and which she was convinced would never fall.
I’m not even upset about Cersei’s emotions, her vulnerability coming out as she is faced with her mortality. It was actually nice to see her be unguarded. Because she is not a simple cartoon villain, so, yes, she would be afraid and lost in that moment. And the love that she and Jaime shared, although foul and wretched and so many complicated things, was beautiful. They left this world as they entered it. Together.
My qualm is how it felt. Cersei and Jaime were such dynamic characters. Either you loved them or you hated them, but you couldn’t really be apathetic toward them. So, if I hated them, I wanted to see them suffer. And if I loved them, I wanted to see them die so that I could feel that loss. But I got neither. It feels unreal. Hell, Qyburn’s quick death was more affecting than Cersei or Jaime’s. I don’t get to mourn two characters who have earned that emotional response from audiences over the years.
None the less, Daenerys has officially defeated the Lannisters, and all she has to do now is physically claim the throne. Aside from the Unsullied, the Dothraki, and Drogon, no one is going to be pleased with her. How will it play out? There is only one episode left to tie up all loose ends.
Will Daenerys remain Queen? My bet is no. She and Drogon probably have to die, though I have no idea what could possibly kill a dragon at this point, aside from intervention from the Lord of Light himself (but he’s probably a huge fan of the fire girl) or Bran with his warging abilities (but he’s all the way in Winterfell, and is usually pretty useless).
Is Arya riding to assassinate the Queen, or is she riding away from violence for good, or into the afterlife? While those last two theories are sweet, I do think that Arya has some unfinished business to take care of, and I really hope she gets to take out Daenerys before she is killed instead.
And what about Jon Snow? What will his honor make him do in the aftermath of all the carnage? WWNSD? (What Would Ned Stark Do?) Will he and Tyrion team up before Daenerys “burns them all”? What, if anything, will Sansa and Bran do from the North?
And, most importantly, who will wind up on the Iron Throne?
In order to really discuss any episode of this season, we have to come to terms with a few things. We have to understand that Game of Thrones isn’t the same as it was at its height. No, it’s not fair, but we simply have to accept it. For everything Game of Thrones did to change television as we know it – and the hearts and minds of its fans in the process – the show has succumbed to lazy writing, illogic, fast-travel, and what seems undeniably like showrunner burnout as we rush unnecessarily through content that might otherwise be gripping.
We can’t hold GoT up to the standards of seasons three and four anymore. It’s been a decline since they started running out of source material. Yet, we still have many of the characters we’ve grown to love over that time. So, our investment is a confused, heartbroken one.
Keeping all this in mind, “The Last of the Starks” is the best episode season 8 thus far. The first two eps were too precious, looking at death and mortality from the shallowest angle, and milking nostalgia that didn’t pay off in the Battle of Winterfell because we didn’t lose any core characters. “The Long Night” was cinematically monumental– yes, even if you think it was too damn dark — but it reduced the show’s sweeping arch into a blockbuster movie.
Feel how you want about the big battle last episode. There are reasons to love it and reasons to hate it, and it’s okay to feel any or all of those things. Game of Thrones fans are now the most volatile they’ve ever been, at each other’s throats in their rage and their pain over the quality, or lack thereof of the show that is so special to them.
“The Last of the Starks” was sloppy (Starbucks cup, anyone?) and rushed, it provided what some consider fan-service, and it did nothing to clean the bitter taste out of some viewers’ mouths. But what it did was return the focus to the political, and to interpersonal relationships. We return to mortal matters. And to be honest, that’s what the show has always done best.
After a sombre check-in with the corpses of the expendable characters we lost last episode, Jon Snow gives a heartfelt speech over their funeral pyres, and it’s time to party.
Of course, everyone is going to want to drink ‘til they black out and find someone to warm their bed. Everyone thought they were going to die. They saw their comrades die (no main characters, but tons of expendables). They fought through the bitter cold against an army of the damned undead. Now, everyone is relieved and confused – I mean, Lannisters and Starks and Targaryens and Wildlings, it’s almost surreal how far everyone has come to be able to drink to life together in the halls of Winterfell.
So, the revelry is justified. There’s still palpable tension — mostly emanating from Daenerys and mean-girl Sansa, both of whom despise the other, but would do better to realize they’re actually pissed about the same thing: Jon gets an easy pass because he’s a man, and they deserve more credit. Even Tormund, who comes from a non-patriarchal culture, praises Jon for riding a dragon, while they stand literally right in front of Daenerys, who has been doing that all along. Of course Tormund is just kind of a well-intentioned idiot, and he wants to praise his bro, but of course Dany is going to seethe. She doesn’t do well when she’s not actively receiving adoration (or burning people alive in a show of power).
Varys reads the room in that regard, and is the only one who really takes the time to think to check in on the Targaryen usurper Queen’s state of mind.
While our leading ladies of Winterfell are all busy brooding (Sansa pissed off that Daenerys exists, Daenerys sulking that she’s not the centre of adoration, and Arya – the undeniable hero of the last episode – off shooting arrows by herself), Brienne gets to be belle of the ball as she plays a drinking game with Podrick and the Lannister boys. It is lovely, innocent, good-natured, and fun. Until Tyrion makes things AWKWARD by accusing her of being a virgin (which everyone knows is true, but you don’t just say it).
For her sake, Jaime tries to change the subject, but Tyrion does not relent. Tormund, of course, would be more than happy to oblige the “big woman” if a deflowering were all she wanted (it’s not), but Jaime won’t let that happen. He drunkenly follows her to her chambers.
I read enough reviews (written by men) to gouge my eyes out as they comfortably denounced a sexual relationship between Ser Jaime and Ser Brienne. But pardon me while I remind you that, yes, these two characters have had deep feelings for each other and sexual chemistry for years. Just because Brienne doesn’t fit into your idea of what is conventionally feminine or attractive doesn’t mean she can’t get some. By all the gods, they both deserve it.
That wasn’t nearly the only pairing of the night. Some people call this “fan service,” but I think they were pretty much all adequately set up over a very long time. The most fan-servicey was Podrick going off with not one, but two sexy girls (gods, I want to know what he’ll do to them!). But that was all in good fun.
Daenerys, really trying to assert her dominance, calls out Gendry in front of the hall. Everyone looks at him like the kid who gets in trouble in class, but Dany surprises them all by naming him Lord Gendry Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End.
We haven’t gotten to know Gendry terribly well over the course of the series (honestly, there’s probably not that much to get to know about Gendry “barely knows how to use a fork” Baratheon anyway). Seven hells, he spent several seasons missing, perchance on rowboat. But I felt so sincerely for him, having survived the great battle and named a Lord – a moment he probably feels is the best of his life — as he rushes to find the lady he thinks is a “lady”, and who he thinks – bless him – that he loves.
As Gendry tells Arya what she means to him, it is a premise we’ve been conditioned to desire for female characters. The young, attractive male offers Arya to be a lady. It’s a shame, because Arya does truly care about him. And she’s genuinely happy for him. But she just can’t be the lady he wants her to be.
Aunt and nephew Targaryens meanwhile have a check-in. Jon is basically completely pussy-whipped at this point, so Daenerys’ manipulative strategies to gaslight him into lying about who he is almost work. But his Starkness is too well ingrained in him, and at the drop of a hat, he reveals the truth about his parentage to his siblings.
It is a shame that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss thought this scene was not essential, so we are left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Arya, who after all that Stark-talk leaves unceremoniously with the Hound (not only is Cleganebowl imminent, Arya just might kill off another tyrannical ruler or two), presumably does keep her promise to Jon not to tell his secret. But Sansa, unsurprisingly, cannot contain herself, and tells Tyrion pretty much the first chance she gets.
So now it’s semi-common knowledge. Or anyway, Tyrion and Varys now know the truth that Jon – the more temperate and male candidate for the throne – has the bloodline to claim it and rule the North. Varys finally gets dialogue again, and listening to the two debate over Daenerys’ sanity and who is fit to rule is a refreshing return to the types of discussions we enjoyed in the old days of the show.
Varys makes clear what he has always quietly asserted – that his loyalty is to the realm. Tyrion, blinded by his adoration of Daenerys, doesn’t understand it, just like Ned Stark didn’t in the past. Varys maybe trusts Tyrion too much, and lets slip quite a bit more of his motives than might be safe for him as developments unfold.
Daenerys is completely out of patience, and makes a totally foolish decision, unchecked by any advisor despite Sansa’s pleas, to march on King’s Landing even though her forces are depleted, injured, and exhausted. It is hardly a surprise that her fleet is caught unaware, and she pays for it dearly. Poor Rhaegal, who survived the last episode only to be skewered by Euron Greyjoy, dies brutally. The ships are easy destroyed. And Missandei is taken captive.
The exact how’s and why’s of all this – how Daenerys didn’t see Euron coming, how the Greyjoys found and captured Missandei in the chaos, why Euron didn’t finish off the survivors – are messy. Somehow Daenerys and remaining crew transport back to Dragonstone. Dany is just about ready to kill everyone in King’s Landing, but here she will make her final compromise, and she agrees to meet with Cersei.
When Jaime hears about this, he decides to leave his new girlfriend at once, and ride back to King’s Landing. Brienne begs him to stay, but Jaime’s gotta do what Jaime’s gotta do. The motives are not totally clear – whether Jaime wants to fight for his “hateful” sister, or against her with their brother, or if he’ll figure it out on the fly. The dynamics, like Jaime’s character, are conflicted. Poor Brienne is left out in the cold.
Daenerys is obviously in no position to demand anything. Her little force of remaining Unsullied is frankly embarrassing outside the gates, as Cersei – looking glorious as ever – stares down the dragon girl, with her hostage and her Greyjoy boyfriend and her Golden Company and her giant dragon-killing crossbows. (Imagine if there were elephants!)
A lot of fans were upset at some combination of character logic here, but everyone acted in accordance with their blueprints. Daenerys is in no position to demand anything, but her god-complex allows her to jump into this meeting with no leverage or game-plan. Cersei, ever-arrogant, allows this meeting because it makes her look damn good. As she said in the past, “power is power,” and she gets off on that. And Tyrion appeals to Cersei out of desperation, not because he necessarily expected more from her.
Tyrion and Qyburn are both as blindly devoted to their mad queens, having both been rewarded for their devotion by being named hand, so Tyrion recognizes that trying to reason with Qyburn is futile. He can only try to go to the source. But sadly, that tactic did not work out.
Cersei could hardly do anything but murder Missandei in this position. What, was she going to surrender? No way. Was she going to free Missandei? Why would she strategically do that? Daenerys and Tyrion don’t appear to be quite so big a threat anymore, and they have literally nothing to offer her.
With Missandei’s tragic (but inevitable) death, and her final words of “Dracarys!” we are ensured a bloodbath will ensue in the penultimate episode of the show.
Some things that don’t make sense, and some that do.
- Why doesn’t Daenerys see Euron’s fleet before they shoot her dragon? Although she appears distracted for a few seconds, that would not be enough time for a fleet to sneak up on her. It does not make sense. That whole scene doesn’t quite add up.
- Daenerys’ plan doesn’t make any sense at all. She does show some cleverness in the beginning of the show, but the dragonfire in her heart causes reason to go out the window. Even before her capture, Missandei isn’t there to speak up and temper her. And with Jorah gone, so goes that last shred of real humanity that Dany possessed.
- It DOES make sense that Cersei allowed a meeting with Daenerys, as both historically and in the show leaders of forces have done that from the beginning. It makes her look good to her subjects, it makes her look good to her forces, she gets to size up her opponents, and she gets to assert her dominance. She doesn’t murder them all right there because, despite how ruthless she is, she doesn’t needlessly murder people. (I know, but follow me here.) Wildfire at the Sept, the massacre at Highgarden, these were things she considered necessary as there was no other way out. She’s not Joffrey – she doesn’t irrationally murder when there is a better option. For Cersei, the better option is to let them live, to let Daenerys choose to attack anyway, and to defend the people against a usurper. She has almost no reason to believe that she might lose – except for a lingering thought of a prophecy from long ago, and if that prophecy comes to pass, then it must come to pass.
- It sadly does make sense that Missandei dies while in chains, insomuch as it provokes Dany’s (white) saviour complex. However, it doesn’t make it racially sensitive or justified when people of colour have not been given great consideration in the show.
So, who will wind up on the Iron Throne?
Part of viewers’ discomfort with this episode is in the realization that all rulers are flawed. As Cersei squares off against Daenerys, it is hard to say who would actually be a worse ruler. Though their stories are unique, their despotism is too similar. Next week’s episode will be a lose-lose situation, with many casualties in store no matter how the chips fall. Whoever wins, the realm loses.
The best-case scenario may be Jon, the reluctant ruler and the one with the “best claim” to the throne. He doesn’t want it, but Varys points out that might be a good quality in a leader. However, would Jon actually be a decent king? Or would he prove as fallible as his father-uncle Ned? Would his Stark-headedness and penchant for honour get him killed a second time before he even got a chance to make any positive political reforms?
It’s possible that Gendry could even skate in under the radar, now that his lineage is common knowledge. Though he’s absolutely clueless, his heart is in the right place, and he might be the best of all evils.
This is all assuming that the throne remains intact. If there are any survivors in this “final war,” someone is sure to take leadership, one way or the other.
To sum it up…
Last week’s “Battle of Winterfell” left a lot of feelings in its wake. Whether you thought it was the best episode or the worst, fans are divided and volatile like never before. With the threat of the undead army gone, the show’s focus returns to politics and interpersonal relationships. This is naturally less epic, and spits in the face of what many fans thought the point was all along. That vying for the throne, for power, is irrelevant in the face of a more serious threat to humanity itself.
But that threat is gone – whether permanently or just for now. And who is to say that the audacity of a swift return to selfish powerplays doesn’t completely support that “moral,” if Game of Thrones had one to begin with.
The biggest tragedy of the show is the creators’ need to rush through actions, truncating and amputating what could be rich dialogue, tense or heartfelt scenes, and characters that deserve more.
Actually the biggest tragedy…
The single worst thing the creators have done in the show was to write-off Ghost for several seasons, only to throw him carelessly in a few seconds of a few episodes, only to have Jon send him away without so much as a “good boy” or a pat on the head. Ghost fought for his master, he got mangled for his master, but he’s been used, abused, and dropped harder than Jaime dropped Brienne. Don’t give me any talk about budget – if you can animate DRAGONS and digitally remove a coffee cup from a scene, you can at least give me thirty seconds where Jon says a proper goodbye to his faithful direwolf.
Ghost, you are a good boy. And the North remembers.
Spoiler Alert! This review contains details about Game Of Thrones season 8 episode 2: The Long Night. Please turn back if you want to avoid reading any spoilers.
The night is dark and full of terrors. Winter is coming. ValarMorghulis. Winter is here. We have been warned for eight years via catch-phrase, through rallying cries, and through theatrical plot arc that the dead are coming, and that this real threat is more important than petty squabbling over an Iron Throne.
But the long winter only lasted a little more than eighty minutes. Winter has come, and gone. The big threat of the show, it turns out, was defeated pretty damn quickly. Even with all the build-up – eight seasons’ worth – it still managed to feel like premature ejaculation.
That is only one – huge – issue with “The Long Night,” of which there are several. And that is why it was so challenging to write this particular review. Because the episode really was enthralling and epic, because there were moments of real cinematic greatness, and because a girl’s final, saving action continues to make my eyes swell whenever I think about it. But at the same time, the episode was so utterly disappointing in so many ways that matter.
Take the darkness. I personally did mind it so much, apart from the confusion revolving the fates of certain characters. (Wait, how many dragons are dead? Who is that? What’s going on?) But the darkness was also used to brilliant effect. The flaming swords of the Dothraki – blessed by the Lord of Light, charging into the unseen threat, and extinguishing silently – was fantastic horror and beautiful suspense. The shots following the dragons through a raging, magic winter blast were as disorienting for us as it was for Daenerys and Jon, and thrillingly so. But many fans found the amount of darkness unforgivable, making the episode nearly unwatchable.
And then there was, of course, the lack of any major deaths. Sure, hoping for death just for the sake of it, chasing our Ned Stark/Red Wedding/Mountain vs Viper highs like junkies, is not reason alone for television writers to fulfill our bloodlust. However, it is not simply Walking Dead-style gratuitous death that fans yearn for – it’s realistic consequences. And given the almost incomprehensible vastness of the army of the dead, it is mind-boggling even to consider how few of our main cast perished, even if so many “red shirts” saw their final night.
Take Samwell Tarly, whose blundering incompetence gets Lord Commander Edd killed early on in the episode, but somehow survives against the undead horde by flailing a dragonglass dagger for an hour or two.
I don’t buy it.
I don’t buy that Sam and Tormund and Brienne and one-handed Jaime Lannister and basically every important character in the crypts and Greyworm are all still breathing. I don’t buy that Daenerys saves Jon Snow at the last possible moment from the Night King’s horde right before Daenerys is saved at the last possible moment by Jorah Mormont, who is out there alone exactly where Daenerys is at precisely the right moment. I can buy deus ex machina in small doses – the actual divine intervention from the Lord of Light, for instance. But there was just too much here.
Of course, as I brought up above, some characters did die – Edd, Beric Dondarrion, Theon, majority of the Dothraki horde, a pair of Mormonts, and Melisandre. But they were all easily expendable. The Dothraki have had literally no character at all for seasons, their terrifying barbarianism diminished to silent and generic bodyguards. The others, meh. Sure, you might have shed a tear for Theon or Jorah, or even for Melisandre, but their arcs are complete.
And then there are so many logical gaps, proving how sloppy the writing has truly become. The collective strategy was appalling. Sending the Dothraki out to be slaughtered immediately? Setting up trenches that were so narrow and easy to pass through? Resting the fate of the entire plan on Bran, Theon, and a handful of archers?
Putting people in the crypts for safe-keeping against a lich-king? Unforgivably dense. The fate of Ghost or Rhaegal? Lazily uncertain. How Arya even got to the Night King? Intentionally mysterious. Don’t even get me started on the Azor Ahai prophecy, which is now ultimately and utterly irrelevant.
When Game of Thrones tells us that so many of these things don’t matter, we have to wonder whatever really did matter to begin with? And what are the stakes for the remaining episodes? Why do we even care anymore?
But then there is the wonder of it — the feeling of awe in watching the episode. The production value is truly remarkable, taking eleven weeks to shoot and $15 million to create. There has never been an episode of television so cinematic or epic in scope. Miguel Sapochnik’s direction is so beautiful and Ramin Djawadi’s score is a masterpiece.
Feeling the dread, communicated largely without words, of impending death in the face of a seemingly insurmountable adversary and watching dragons in flight and fire. Seeing our beloved characters battle for their lives. Lyanna Mormont, on the brink of death, stabbing an undead giant in the eye. This high-fantasy is incomparable, the stuff of legend.
And then there are the feminist MVP’s, Melisandre and Arya. Game of Thrones has done so much to normalize the power that female characters can hold, that it is hard to believe or remember that even ten years ago it would have been ridiculous for a girl to defeat the big villain.
Maybe in a novelty, sexualised, Xena Warrior Princess way. Maybe, sometimes, in a throw a-girl-a-bone way, like Eowyn defeating the Witch-King (“I am no man!”), not the most important adversary. But not in the way that Arya Stark was allowed to have an ungendered hero’s journey all her own.
From the very beginning of the show, Arya has asserted that she wanted more than a traditional feminine life. “That’s not me,” she told her father when he told her his expectations of her growing into a noblewoman and raising a family. “Boy, girl, you are a sword,” dancing master Syrio Forel told her in the same season. And since then, through everything, Arya has grown, bled, learned from exceptional teachers, and ultimately became a master of what she does. No one questions her gender. She is autonomous. She is a badass.
Of course, in the face of overwhelming odds, she needed a short pep-talk from Melisandre to remember what she is capable of. So, in addition to bringing fire in the darkness, Melisandre was the key player in the Battle of Winterfell. Forget Theon, that is a redemption arc.
The very best moment of the episode is also the very worst. Arya performing her signature move and plunging the Valyrian steel dagger into the Night King – single-handedly defeating him and the legion of White Walkers in one move – both betrayed everything Game of Thrones has been leading up to, and beautifully brought everything in her entire arc into fruition and saving the survivors from the dead.
Some other thoughts:
- Basically throwing away the lives of the Dothraki and the Unsullied was not only brazenly stupid, but horrible racially. Putting the only people of colour on the front lines without comment is inexcusable.
- Although this episode picks up immediately after “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Daenerys was able to compartmentalise and prioritise. However, there is definitely some unfinished business regarding Jon’s lineage. And with Jorah’s death, so goes the last reasonable advisor that Dany actually listens to.
- Cersei took it easy in King’s Landing while events unfolded in Winterfell. If the undead army had made its way South, it would have seemed truer to the material, and Cersei would have been faced with the consequence for her selfish action (or inaction). Instead, there are no consequences for her. In fact, she’s in a better place now having not stood up for humanity. Daenerys is in a really rotten position to take the throne. It is even possible, however unlikely, that Cersei could win. (She won’t, but I want her to.)
- A lot of couples will be reunited in the aftermath of the battle. Greyworm and Missandei, Samwell and Gilly (I can’t believe any/all of those characters are still alive). Dany and Jon have some things to sort out, but maybe they’ll continue their incestuous affair. They are Targaryens after all. We’ll see whether Arya just saw Gendry as a pre-death fling, or if the Stark-Baratheon romance will become official. The Jaime/Brienne/Tormund love-triangle (it’s not really a love triangle: sorry fans, Brienne is just not into Tormund) still exists. Some sparks even ignited between Sansa and Tyrion in the crypts, so a sincere Stark-Lannister union is not impossible.
- Daenerys’ army is nearly destroyed, her dragons are injured, and she just lost her closest advisor. If she wants to take the Iron Throne, she is going to have to relinquish the North to the Starks in exchange for their support.
- I know I mentioned this briefly already, but it really is inexcusable how they showed Ghost for all of five seconds and then never again.
My final thought:
Game of Thrones has always profoundly dealt with death and mortality. The character who most openly encompasses death is also the one who defeated the undead King himself. There were many missed opportunities here regarding this theme. Not just in the lack of defined existential dread from our characters, and not just from lack of important character deaths, and not even in the Night King’s ultimately limited threat. But imagine if our living characters actually had to fight some other of our beloved characters, as White Walkers.
If Daenerys had to stab undead Jorah to protect herself, if Beric would have reanimated, or if the corpse of Lyanna Stark had attacked Sansa. In a show that has always been about looking death in the face, it pulled some serious punches here. And for a show that always pushed boundaries and made us suffer through loss and examine our own brief lives, taking the artistically easy way out did a disservice to the entire series, cheapening it.
Spoiler Alert! This review contains details about the second episode of season 8. Please turn back if you want to avoid reading any spoilers.
If last week’s episode was dramatic foreplay, this episode was overkill. It was difficult to chomp contentedly at the bit through another episode of reunions, tying up loose ends, and dishing out fan service, especially when there are only four more precious episodes left. Whistful and simple, largely lacking the complexity and subtlety that once made Game of Thrones great, it’s hard not to feel insulted as an audience member. However, amid some touching moments, this episode lands somewhere between “disappointing” and “beautiful,” and there is a good chance that it will be more effective on re-watches — after some of our characters are dead.
Jaime has finally made it to Winterfell, but no one is exactly thrilled at his arrival. His renown for killing and trying to kill Targaryens and Starks aplenty doesn’t endear him to Daenerys or the Northerners. Jaime is intelligent enough, and he had enough time to think on his horse ride North, so he had to have known that his reception wouldn’t be a warm one. Ready to embrace whatever fate may be presented to him, he stands at their judgement, unapologetic. “I’d do it all again,” Jaime asserts.
Bran shoots him down with a mic-drop only Jaime will understand:“The things we do for love.”
It is lucky that Brienne speaks up, especially with Jaime’s (unsurprising) news that a Lannister army is NOT on its way, and since Daenerys is just about out of patience with Tyrion. Brienne vouches for Jaime’s character to Sansa’s satisfaction. But Daenerys is not pleased, and Jon doesn’t give her the back-up she hopes for.
Meanwhile, Gendry is busy forging as many weapons from dragonglass as possible. Arya comes to check on the status of the weapon she asked for — and on her crush. In fact, if it were even still a question, as soon as Gendry heaves down a dragonglass axe in true Baratheon manner, Arya totally makes the decision that she wants him. She flirts in her own way: by expertly throwing weapons. Which is sort of scary and awkward, but it’s also badass and it works. He promises to craft the weapon she asked for.
In the Godswood, Jaime seeks Bran out to apologize. Bran wisely reflects that everything was set into motion because of that fateful push out of the tower. Events, incitements, and, yes, character development. Jaime can’t possibly comprehend everything that he set into motion with that one push, but he can understand that he has transformed as a person because of the events that sprung from that act.
In his new mysterious and macabre style, Bran forebodingly concludes: “How do you know there is an afterwards?”
Jaime is somehow the most likeable character still kicking, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gifts every scene he is in. He and Tyrion together are as lovely as ever – they give a sibling warmth that I wish the Starks brought. And his chemistry with Brienne remains strong, even while so many other relationships feel a little stiff or stale.
Meanwhile, Daenerys is really hating the North. Plus, her lover is totally ghosting her. Feeling at odds with those around her and outside of her comfort zone, she uncharacteristically pouts by herself. Jorah finds her and vouches for Tyrion (there is a lot of vouching in this episode).
At Jorah’s suggestion, Daenerys goes to speak with Sansa (whose outfit this episode channels some Baelish/Bolton/Queen-Cersei bossness). Daenerys wisely attempts a warm and diplomatic approach. They do almost bridge the gap, but there is one big sticking point. The North. This is one of the most dynamic scenes in the episode, as two strong-willed women navigate through multiple layers and power-plays.
Davos is busy dishing out soup for some reason, and Gilly is leading people down to the crypts. “They’re the safest place to be.” Has no one realized the obvious pitfall of trying to protect people against an ice-lich with powers to reanimate the dead in a place that will just give him ammunition? This seems like a very obvious oversight.
In the war room, all of our remaining key players are present. Great – we should expect a truly exciting and dynamic debate of strategy and opinion. Wait, that doesn’t happen? Instead, most everyone stands there silently and goes along with the only idea presented, which is Bran’s risky plan of leaving himself out as bait for the Night King. But no worries, he’ll be protected by… Theon Greyjoy. Sure, it is a nice gesture (that Theon doesn’t deserve) in allowing him to try to right the wrongs he committed to the Stark family in the past. But as we saw when he left his sister high-and-dry with uncle Euron, Theon is probably the last person I would choose to protect me.
Regarding the Night King, Arya is the only one who asks the reasonable question: “Dragon fire will stop him?”
Bran shows how fallible he is. “I don’t know. No one’s ever tried.”
With this remedial strategic discussion, Tormund accurately assesses the situation. We’re all going to die. But at least we die together.
This entire episode is almost saccharine in its nostalgia, but Tyrion is embracing it. Although life has never been ideal, at least it used to be simpler. Jaime finally feels comfortable enough with his brother – and his mortality – to speak openly about his relationship with Cersei. Until Brienne enters, and their unspoken love makes him all a-flutter.
Amid a deluge of reunions, the simple exchange between Tyrion and his former squire is more effective than many, as he impishly overfills a cup of wine for Podrick.
Davos and Tormund join the pre-battle party, and Tormund does a sort of mating dance. He seems to sense that Jaime is a threat to his seduction (though Brienne wouldn’t be into him, even if she weren’t in love with Jaime), and he attempts to assert himself as the dominant male. Tormund has been relegated to comic relief, but it is necessary before what is to come.
Arya joins the Hound for a scene we would all really love to watch, but it is cut short. The Hound (and the audience) clearly longs for some closure, and Arya sought out the Hound to talk to him for a reason – but she has built up so many defensive walls that she can’t allow herself to be vulnerable around anyone, and she certainly won’t be in front of Berric.
So Arya leaves to shoot a bow and arrow in peace, reminding us of season one and a happier time. She probably chose such a private place to practice so she could have some alone time before the battle. And so that if Gendry were to find her, they wouldn’t be interrupted by anyone.
He does find her, and gifts her the weapon she wanted. But that’s not the real reason he’s there. He references his old promise to come to Winterfell with her, as though he is about to share some feelings. But Arya cuts in with blunt seduction. I think Gendry was hoping for something a bit more romantic, but at the end of the day, he’s not going to object. As we saw with the Hound, Arya can’t let herself open up in that way. But she still has always had feelings for him, even if she’s never been in a position to really fully experience what having a crush is.
Anyway, they might both die. But together they find a bit of… warmth.
In the strongest scene and namesake for the episode, Tyrion mistitles Brienne as a knight. But women can’t be knights, so she feigns indifference, fooling nobody.
“I’m no king,” Tormund offers, “but if I were, I’d knight you ten times over.”
While a sweet thought, it is Jaime that steps up for her, as she did for him at the beginning of the episode. In this very intimate setting on the precipice of battle, Jaime does something that should have been done long ago and officially knights her as Ser Brienne of Tarth.
This is what she always wanted. And truly, she deserves it more than anyone else we’ve ever met on the show. Her smile is so sweetly radiant, made all the more bittersweet with the likelihood of death.
In remembrance of Lord Commander Mormont, Sam gives Jorah his family sword, Heartsbane. With this Valyrian steel, it should make five pieces in play: Jon’s Longclaw (which really should be the sword that belongs to Jorah), Brienne’s Oathkeeper, Jaime’s (formerly Joffrey’s) Widow’s Wail, and Arya’s dagger. These will be very important in the battle to come, as we have seen that in addition to dragonglass, White Walkers are susceptible to Valyrian steel.
As the party dies down and everyone knows it’s almost that time, Podrick sings a final song before the battle. With a sweet tenor and a haunting tune, we see everyone performing their last acts.
Daenerys finds Jon in the crypts. Enough is enough. We might all die, and it is silly not to spend those last moments with the person you love, even if that person is being distant. Maybe it’s just because he’s naturally broody, maybe it’s his Stark nature… there are many reasons she could probably come up with for his behaviour. But none of them come close to the truth.
Dany is in no way ready for the news Jon has been so desperately trying to avoid telling her. She asks about the statue Jon is standing in front of. “Who’s that?” He does not say his aunt – nor his mother. He is clearly really struggling to tell a truth he wishes weren’t real.
“Lyanna Stark.” Not realizing what she’s doing, Dany naturally brings up her brother Rhaegar, which gives Jon the jumping-off point he needs, and he word-vomits his epic, if unfortunate, lineage.
Daenerys is skeptical, but she seems to believe him. Unphased that her lover is her nephew, she is more concerned that Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne, which is everything she’s ever wanted. Of course, this is a huge bombshell, and in an ideal world, she would need some time to process. But she doesn’t get that luxury.
The army of the dead approach, a battle is imminent, so we don’t know how Daenerys will ultimately choose to act in response to Jon’s information. If she really loves Jon, or the Targaryen family, or the realm, she would be happy for him. But she has shown throughout the show that her love is changeable, and she tends mentally toward that of a psychopath. No one is safe next episode, but some are safer than others, so it is not unlikely that both Jon and Daenerys may live long enough for this to play out.
Game of Thrones was always so remarkable because it defied genre, subverted our expectations, surprised and devastated us. Hell, Game of Thrones itself is responsible for changing our expectations in terms of plot structure, character death, and the quality of television in general. So it is more difficult as things wrap up, as the fear sets in that we won’t experience the same surprise and wonder that we once did. It’s hard to say whether I trust the writers or not to finish the show up remarkably considering the obvious decline in the quality of writing since the source material from the books ran dry.
If the writing is good, the Night King will defeat the forces of the living at Winterfell and make it all the way to King’s Landing. Or something will happen that is unpredictable, that will surprise us and reveal more about the world and character and the bounds of what people will do for what they believe in, and for their survival. If the writing is not good, we’ll get a repeat of last season’s “Beyond the Wall,” which tried to impress us with visual spectacle but didn’t deliver on logic or substance.
It is difficult to critically analyze this episode, as the only overarching theme is preparing for death. And in terms of that, everyone seems disappointingly cool-headed. No one panics, no one tries to escape, no one offers denial or alternatives, and Tyrion is the only one that even considers the possibility of coming back as a Wight, even if it is while cracking a joke about killing Cersei.
In a show that has often been so masterfully written, and themed so heavily around death (Valar Morghulis), this episode, while offering some single-tear moments and plenty of fan service, misfires profoundly.
Some Other Thoughts:
- Poor Missandei and the racist Northerners. Greyworm generically wishes with her that they can travel away to Naath, all but sealing the fate that they won’t.
- After almost two seasons, we FINALLY see Jon’s direwolf Ghost! But it’s for a total of maybe ten seconds and in the corner of a screen, completely unacknowledged, like an afterthought. It is completely inexcusable.
- In the battle, Brienne will be commanding the left flank and Jaime will be fighting under her command. I don’t feel at all good about their positioning. Jaime only has one hand, but at least he does have some plot armour, at least insomuch as his “Kingslayer” title implies that he’s not done murdering someone in that position, whether it be the Night King, Daenerys, or Cersei.
- Sam is the ordinary guy who somehow slipped through the cracks up to this point without any major ability and without suffering the consequences for most of his actions. George R. R. Martin has said that he relates to Sam, and that gives him some plot armour, but I am hoping that Sam has served his purpose and that he might be one of the characters to bite the dust next episode.
- In an almost throwaway line that the Hound interrupts, Beric Dondarrion begins to say that this is the Lord of Light’s moment. Maybe it’s religious talk, but it would be awesome to have some fiery divine intervention against the White Walkers.
- It’s a Night’s Watch reunion. Eddison Tollett has been carrying out his duties while Same and Jon have ducked out of their Night’s Watch responsibilities. Still, there is a feeling of military brotherhood. “Last man left,” Eddison says, “burn the rest of us.” Always optimists, those men of the Night’s Watch.
- Gendry reveals that he is Robert Baratheon’s bastard, and it is possible that Arya could be pregnant with a Stark-Baratheon child, fulfilling the season one wish of Robert Baratheon to join their houses.
- “I think we might live,” Tyrion says. It might sound optimistic, and it is. A lot of beloved characters are going to be Wights soon. However, we will need enough characters alive after the battle of Winterfell to carry out three more episodes, and to fulfill the story at King’s Landing.