TV Review: Game of Thrones - "The Last of the Starks"

Season 8, Episode 4 “The Last of the Starks”

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Welcome to the Strange Harbors review of the final season of Game of Thrones. Typically, I tend to avoid posting recaps/reviews of single, individual episodes, but Game of Thrones is a cultural behemoth that deserves a more in-depth look at each installment, especially in its last six episodes. Each recap/review of the final season will be written from my perspective as A Song of Ice and Fire book-reader and a fan of the show. Today, we will be covering the fourth episode of Season 8, titled “The Last of the Starks.” Spoilers ahead…

“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” These were the choice words of Ramsay Bolton, dispensing some harsh wisdom for Theon Greyjoy all the way back in Season 3. With the Night King dead and only two episodes remaining in this final season of Game of Thrones, the late lord of the Dreadfort’s words are looking less like a warning and more like meta prophecy for the show as a whole. Our antepenultimate episode, “The Last of the Starks,” lands a myriad of emotional punches that seemingly lay the groundwork for a complicated and downbeat ending; and while the episode delivers some incredible moments that work individually, it looks like David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are fully dipping back into the well that served the events of Season 7 so poorly.

Sometimes, the best thing a television show can do is set an end date. Back in 2006, after a meandering stretch of episodes that saw prolonged drama in a bear cage and an entire episode devoted to the origins of Jack’s tattoos, Lost decided to cut the nonsense and set an end date for the show - and despite how the final season turned out, it was the best decision the show ever made. Other prestige dramas have also followed suit with predefined finales in mind: Breaking Bad exited at its fifth season prime in 2013, while FX’s The Americans was always slated to conclude after six seasons, finishing up with a note-perfect series finale last year. The idea is that setting a timetable for a show’s endgame allows for measured planning and economical storytelling, while also preventing a burnout. Unfortunately, for Game of Thrones, the opposite is true: making its seventh and eighth seasons its last did the show a significant disservice. This is the exact situation I was hoping the final season would avoid, but with the events of “The Last of the Starks” and the clock ticking, Game of Thrones is wading in troubled waters.

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“This is the exact situation I was hoping the final season would avoid, but with the events of ‘The Last of the Starks,’ Game of Thrones is wading in troubled waters.

The show, however, still knows how to stage individually impressive scenes. “The Last of the Starks” is chock full of great moments that feel like quintessential Game of Thrones, but like many other episodes from the show’s final two seasons, it falls apart under any reasonable amount of scrutiny and its rushed pacing. The episode opens up in the direct aftermath of “The Long Night,” gathering the survivors of the battle of Winterfell for a mass funeral. It’s a beautifully shot sequence, and while not too many of the deaths from the Night King’s assault hold much weight, the scene is rife with emotion and portent. As the dead are laid to rest, a pan across the Winterfell gates reveals the magnitude of the North’s losses, with countless smoking pyres that seemingly outnumber the living. The episode then borrows some respite from the season’s two best episodes, “Winterfell” and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” allowing our survivors to celebrate and feast, this time without imminent death looming over the festivities. Game of Thrones has always excelled at smaller and lighter moments, and it’s a joy to witness some fun crowd-pleasing moments, from Gendry receiving his title from Daenerys to the drinking games played by Tyrion, Jaime, and Brienne.

However, as the revelries fill the halls of Winterfell, Daenerys seethes as an outsider, noticeably envious of Jon’s easy charisma and the unquestioned loyalty he inspires - and it’s a jealousy made all the more dangerous ever since he revealed his true lineage to the Dragon Queen. Fellow television critic Todd Vanderwerff over at Vox, has pointed out that Jon Snow, in this final season, has been getting the “winner’s edit” (to clarify, a “winner’s edit” is a term used in reality television where genre savvy viewers can suss out the show or episode’s winner based on his or her behavior is portrayed). Vanderwerff observes:

“Not only is Jon humble enough to say that he doesn’t want to be king, over and over again, to many different people — a sure sign in a story like this that he’s gonna be king eventually! — but he also finds out from his ol’ buddy Samwell Tarly that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, with a more legitimate claim than his new girlfriend Daenerys. Now, Game of Thrones never met a fantasy trope it couldn’t delight in subverting, but this feels like a lot for the show to pile onto Jon at this late a date, which suggests to me that it’s prepping us either for Jon to rule or for him to die in episode three.”

Nevertheless, with “The Last of the Starks,” it seems more and more clear that as much as Jon is getting the “winner’s edit,” Daenerys Targaryen is getting the “loser’s edit,” increasingly showcasing her…less regal qualities. Now, I personally love the idea of a heel-turn for Daenerys; it’s an incredibly bold move that takes the Game of Thrones story in a fascinating direction completely in line with George R. R. Martin’s penchant for surprising his readers. However, with only two episodes remaining, it’s too little, too late to sell us on the Mad Queen. While Daenerys always had hints of a cruel streak in previous seasons (tempered by the fact that her wrath was usually directed at slavers and tyrants), her baffling progression in this episode is whiplash-inducing, undoubtedly a consequence of the show’s unrelenting rush to its series finale. Within just 78 minutes, Jon refuses to keep his true parentage a secret from his family, Sansa is openly fomenting rebellion, Rhaegal is killed in an ambush by Euron’s fleet, and Missandei is executed by Gregor Clegane - all events that contribute to Daenerys’ black-eyed rage. The episode’s accelerated pace also gives us some jarring artifacts in Emilia Clarke’s facial acting. As we sprint towards the hour’s end, we get to witness something never seen before on the show: a wide-eyed, sneering, and unhinged-looking Daenerys - and while it’s a testament to Clarke’s abilities, it’s also a rapid and uncomfortable change that flies in the face of 70 episodes of characterization. Sansa pleads with her queen: “You want to throw them into a war they’re not ready to fight?” Daenerys, with her eye only on the throne, coldly replies: “We have won the great war, now we will win the last war.” And by the end of the episode, she’s ready to burn through the innocents of King's Landing just to get to Cersei. 

“The Last of the Starks” doesn’t give its big moments - let alone Dany’s purported descent into “madness” - room to breathe. It’s a shame, because the individual scenes surrounding the episode’s developments are fantastic. Tyrion and Varys, tiptoeing around treason and debating whether or not they should throw their support behind Jon instead of their increasingly troubled queen, represent the best of Game of Throne’s nuanced palace intrigue; while Daenerys tearfully pleading - begging - Jon to keep his secret is heartbreakingly gut-wrenching. Watching this episode, I kept saying to myself: “If only we had more time.” Imagine if we had an extra season to flesh out this storyline - if Daenerys made increasingly questionable decisions over the course of ten episodes instead of just one, spreading out her defeats and losses over the course of a whole season in a land that just won’t show her any loyalty. This wish for more time on the clock seeps into other aspects as well. Jaime and Brienne shared some wonderful moments in this episode, but their relationship - which always seemed more platonic in my eyes - turned romantic over the course of an evening. By the next morning, Jaime is crawling back to King’s Landing, leaving Brienne in a sobbing heap; it’s an incredibly hard-hitting moment, but imagine if their happiness lasted for more than a mere 40 minutes. Imagine if we spent a whole season with their feelings for each other, only for Jaime to abandon her at the last moment for Cersei. This wishful thinking isn’t just pining for more hours of Game of Thrones, but a desire for its producers and showrunners to give the series the care and attention it deserves.

Game of Thrones is without a doubt a cultural phenomenon, a watershed of popular culture that has garnered critical acclaim and a rabid fanbase over the course of eight seasons. But now, with only two extra-long episodes remaining, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have one last - and one incredibly important - hurdle to clear: a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, with “The Last of the Starks” and its breakneck pace, it looks like that ending is slipping further and further away.

GRADE: B-