"The Long Night" is over, and the breaking of dawn finds the human race—somewhat to its own surprise—still standing. Now, in "The Last of the Starks," the saviors of the world are trying to celebrate their unexpected victory, but old tensions and resentments keep intruding on the general spirit of jubilation.
It is Tyrion Lannister who succinctly summarizes the problem: "We defeated them," Tyrion says. "But we still have us to contend with."
I've written a great deal about the importance of all the various factions of Westeros putting aside their differences and uniting for the greater good, and I stand by all of that. But it is now clear that "The Great War" was an aberration—a sort of time-out—for both the characters and the creators of Game of Thrones. It was important, but it was a temporary problem, too quickly dispensed with to fundamentally alter the nature of this society or this story.
Which makes sense, actually. The notion that finding a temporary common purpose could somehow transform the quarrelsome Seven Kingdoms of Westeros into something loving and utopian—though a common enough conceit in fantasy and science-fiction stories—was always far too idealistic for Game of Thrones. I said last week that I was relieved at Benioff and Weiss's decision to get the final confrontation with the Night King out of the way halfway through the final season, and this is part of the reason why: It would feel simplistic and phony for this show to end with Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and wildings all hugging it out, forming an idealistic new coalition government, and celebrating a new era of peace and prosperity by dancing to the Yub Nub song.
Game of Thrones is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that that's not how people, or societies, work. Sure, faced with extinction, rivalrous clans may temporarily set aside their differences and feuds, but you can be sure that they'll remember where they put them, and pick them right back up again as soon as the foe is thwarted. And sure, in a crisis, individuals may rise momentarily to the occasion and become heroes, but that doesn't mean they're going to stay heroes after the moment of crisis is over. Solving extraordinary problems doesn't make any of the ordinary ones go away. Thwarting the supernatural may ultimately be easier than thwarting human nature.
See, that's the problem with saving the world: Afterwards, you're still just you, and the world is still the world.
Similarly, a television show doesn't suddenly become perfect just because it's coming to an end. Game of Thrones is an amazing piece of work, one of the most impressive accomplishments of sustained storytelling in the 21st century so far. But it is far from perfect, and it has never been perfect. (No, it was not perfect even when Benioff and Weiss were closely following George R. R. Martin's novels, themselves impressive but imperfect texts.) It has always played loosely with time and space. It has always been prone to manufacturing moments of shock and spectacle at the expense of story logic, and even character logic. It has always had pacing problems, dragging out certain storylines while ridiculously compressing others. It has always had a troubling relationship to the abuse of power, seeming to criticize violence one moment while encouraging us to revel in it the next. It has always walked (and sometimes crossed) a very thin line between depicting a sexist culture and perpetuating one, between empowering its female characters and exploiting them. And it has always, always, had terrible problems with representation, overstocked with white savior figures but absurdly short on—and cruel to—characters of color.
For some viewers, these flaws were (understandably) deal breakers: Those people either never got on board with Game of Thrones, or they jumped ship at certain troubling ports along the journey. For the rest of us, we've loved the show in spite of these weaknesses and invested in it anyway. Sometimes we willfully ignore the issues, sometimes we angrily call them out, sometimes we laboriously, circuitously, desperately attempt to make excuses for them. (I have, in eight years of writing about this show, certainly done all three.)
But the problems were always there; very few of us were unaware of them, or even unwilling to acknowledge them. But they didn't bother most of us very much because Game of Thrones was large enough, and long enough, and consistently good enough, that the problems represented small and hopefully fleeting exceptions to the rule. If we had to suspend our disbelief to the point of straining at certain developments, there was usually a payoff that made us not mind so much. If a plotline started getting stupid, we trusted that it would either end soon or be course-corrected. If a character was acting annoyingly out of character in a certain moment, we knew they'd probably return to their normal selves in the next episode. Even the worst moments in the series—for my money, Cersei's rape, and Sansa's rape, and Theon's rape, most everything that happened in Dorne, and everything that happened "Beyond the Wall"—could be written off as the unusually bad creative choices of a usually reliable creative team.
I'm thinking about all of this, this week, because I have been frustrated with this final season of Game of Thrones, and I know I am not alone. I don't read other reviews of each episode before I write my own—and to be honest I rarely find time to read them after I write my own—but I know from social media that I wasn't the only one who was disappointed in "The Long Night," and I'm apparently not the only one who spent much of "The Last of the Starks" in a state of intense frustration and low-level fury. The characters are driving me crazy, seeming to discard many of the lessons they've learned and the positive changes they've made. And the show is driving me crazy, not only indulging in many of its narrative peccadilloes but actually doubling down on some of its most troubling tropes. I've spent eight years believing in the carefully layered storytelling and character development Benioff and Weiss have been doing. Now, in the final moments, it feels like they are slapping the top tiers together so clumsily that the entire delicate structure of Game of Thrones could collapse into a pile of sad and beautiful wreckage.
That's how it feels. But is that really how it is? Or does everything just seem worse now because we are hyper-aware that there is no more time for course-corrections? A character's bad decision in Season Five was just a bad decision, but a bad decision now feels like a final statement on who that character is and everything they have (or haven't) learned. Similarly, a troubling creative decision now is less easily written off as Benioff and Weiss having a bad day: It feels like a final confirmation that Game of Thrones was always more problematic than we ever wanted to believe.
So I don't know. I'm frustrated. But I'm also trying—somewhat futilely, I admit—to go into my analysis of this episode with clear eyes, unclouded by my long investment in this show and my increasingly tentative hopes for a meaningful ending. ("It's the most heroic thing we can do now," Sansa said last week. "Look the truth in the face.") I think it is entirely possible that both the character developments and the storytelling in "The Last of the Starks" are—for better and for worse—entirely consistent with everything that has come before in Game of Thrones.
"You think I'm a good man." — Jaime Lannister
In regards to the characters, the chief questions being asked this season seem to be: Has anyone really changed? Can anyone ever really change? Just before the Battle of Winterfell, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" seemed to celebrate the extraordinary arcs these people have followed. But now, just after the battle, we are brutally reminded that character may be—as Heraclitus said it was—fate.
(Or, to put it in more appropriate terms—character may be the only reliable form of prophecy.)
So let's begin with Jaime Lannister this week, since I think he best typifies what I'm talking about. Jaime's character arc has been one of my favorites in Game of Thrones, in part because it hasn't been an arc at all: Its shape is far more complex than that. He began this series as a smug, preening, evil, sister-fucking son-of-a-bitch: the kind of guy who could push a little boy from a seven-story window with a wise-ass quip. But then, over the years, his story—and personality—became much more complicated. His character path circled back on itself—revealing a certain heroism in his killing of King Aerys II, for example—and spiraled fractally forward to include moments that were both respectable and reprehensible. (I summarized some of his heroic acts and dastardly sins at the end of last season, so I won't repeat myself here.)
The one constant in his life, of course, has been his unconditional love for Cersei. "I pushed a boy out a tower window, crippled him for life, for Cersei," he confesses to Brienne this week. "I strangled my cousin with my own hands, just to get back to Cersei. I would have murdered every man, woman, and child in Riverrun, for Cersei." In my piece on Season Six's "No One," I wrote about Jaime's exclusive love for Cersei as both the one ordering principle of his life, and as a microcosm of the chief issue of Game of Thrones: the complete lack of empathy for the people who are not "us."
And these things are related: Everyone in Game of Thrones chooses the rules—religions, allegiances, codes of honor—by which they are going to define themselves, and those rules define the limits of who they care about and who they don't. Jaime's is an extreme example on both fronts: Though he has done both good and evil, he has made it clear many times that he has no real ethical code, having violated every oath he ever took. ("No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another," he said once.) Though we suppose he loved his children, and perhaps—in a more complex way—his father, the only people Jaime has ever really cared about were his sister and his brother. (And, really, he came close to letting Tyrion die when Cersei engineered it. So actually, it's just Cersei. As he said to her in the third episode of Game of Thrones, he would happily have killed everyone until the two of them were "the only people left in this world.")
Brienne of Tarth was the first real exception to that rule, the first person outside his family that he has truly cared about in, perhaps, his entire life. (All those things he did to "get back to Cersei"? He was on his way back to Cersei—free and clear—when he doubled-back for Brienne and risked being eaten by a bear for her.)
I've written about all of this before as well, but this week I realized for the first time how much Brienne is a strange alternate version of Cersei herself for Jaime. She is, of course, Cersei's opposite in many ways. Where Cersei has always been considered one of the most beautiful women in the realm, Brienne has always been mocked as "Brienne the Beauty." Where Cersei embraced traditional feminine roles—becoming Westeros's first queen, and to some extent the epitome of a high-born Westerosi woman—Brienne rejected those roles in favor of traditionally masculine pursuits, becoming the first female Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei is a highly sexual figure—adept at using her feminine wiles (as she is doing currently with Euron)—and a hyper-maternal one, valuing her children above all else. Meanwhile, Brienne is—as Tyrion tactlessly observes this week—a virgin, whose one romantic memory is of dancing with a gay man.
All of which is to say that Brienne is—in terms of all those limited, narrow definitions of gender roles that are so accepted in Westeros—a "masculine" reflection of Cersei. Which means, too, that she is a "feminine" reflection of Jaime himself: Cersei and Jaime are twins, and they have always spoken as if they are one soul split. He is what she would be if she were a man, and vice versa. But Brienne offers Jaime a different version of the feminine half of his own soul: a kinder version, a nobler version, a better version. Brienne is the twin sister he never had. (They even shared a bath together, once, like siblings.)
And that, clearly, is terrifying to him. The best we can say for him is that he tries, going further than he has ever gone before. "I've never slept with a knight before," he jokes, before he and Brienne make love. But this is not the full story: Jaime, remember, taunted Catelyn Stark once with the fact that he has never slept with anyone but Cersei. (This, by the way, helps explain why he has no moves, resorting to the hoary old "Oh, it's hot in here, let me take my shirt off!" seduction.) So this is nearly as much a deflowering for him as it is for Brienne, and almost as daring an act of connection as when Arya slept with Gendry. For one brief moment he is allowing himself to see a different path, a different life, a different self than the only one he has ever known.
But—just like with Arya—it doesn't take. It's no small thing to imagine a completely different identity for yourself than the one you've always known, especially if you've defined yourself in one specific, limited way all your life, as Jaime has. And we can imagine how daunting it must be to have lived the amoral, unethical life Jaime has lived, and see himself through the eyes of the most honorable woman in Westeros, a woman who is a better, nobler knight than he has ever been. "You think I'm a good man," he says to her here, when she tells him he's better than Cersei. "She’s hateful," he says of his sister. "And so am I.”
The notion that an amoral rogue can be redeemed by the love of a good woman is as old as fiction itself, but it's the kind of conceit that Game of Thrones has debunked so deliberately over the years. So, though Jaime's turnaround here seems abrupt and unearned, it really isn't: In fact, Jaime suddenly deciding to marry Brienne and become a hero is what would have felt abrupt and unearned. Of course Jaime returns to Cersei: Jaime always returns to Cersei. He returned to her after his first, soul-expanding adventure with Brienne: Caring for Brienne, and rediscovering, through her, the hero in himself, did not prevent his going back to Cersei. He returned to her again after his adventure in Dorne, despite his absolute horror at how she had murdered hundreds at the Sept of Baelor and made their last child kill himself.
And, as frustrating as Jaime's "relapse" is this week, we should also remember—again—that "The Great War" was an aberration in these people's lives, a temporary detour from their normal paths. Yes, Jaime decided to "fight for the living," but he was at Cersei's side right up until he did that, and he will be with her after he did that. (In fact, one could even argue that he did that, too, for her, and for their supposed unborn child.) It is one thing to fight with Cersei: It's another to discover (as he does this week from Bronn) that she has ordered his assassination. It is one thing walk away from her to help save the world: It is something altogether different to stay away from her when she is about to be destroyed.
(Somewhere in all of this, too, is the possibility that Jaime's return to King's Landing is itself—consciously or unconsciously—an act of heroism. Could the "Kingslayer" really sit canoodling in Winterfell, while yet another Targaryen planned to burn alive every man, woman, and child in the capital? I don't think so.)
It is undeniably part of the problem with Game of Thrones right now that everything is happening too fast: The nature of this final race to the finish line—and this has been true since at least last season—is that storylines play out over an episode that should take half a season. But the fact that these character arcs are compressed does not mean that they are simplistic, illogical, or unearned: In fact—as I argued last season—our long familiarity with these characters should allow Benioff and Weiss to cut a few corners now, because we should be perfectly capable of filling in all the motivational gaps ourselves. There is nothing abrupt about Jaime's decision here, and there is certainly nothing simplistic about it: It happens quickly, but there is eight seasons' worth of information informing our reading of it.
"That's not me." — Arya Stark
And the same is true for Arya's decision this week, which parallels Jaime's very nicely. They have both seduced their long-time pseudo-siblings/love-interests. They are both refusing the love those people offer them. They are both rejecting different, more heroic, potentially happier versions of themselves they might have become. And, of course, they are both—albeit for very different reasons—on their way back to Cersei.
I don't think we need to spend a lot of time on Arya this week, as I doubt her decision came as much of a surprise—or even much of a disappointment—to anyone but her poor, dim suitor. Gendry is almost as much a shadow-reflection of Arya as Brienne is of Jaime: Though she was high-born and he was an orphaned bastard, their paths were similar for a long time, moving through the Night's Watch and the Brotherhood, then forced to make their own ways alone. Neither of them has had a home or a family for a very long time, but now they are both in a position to have everything: She has been restored to her family and become the Hero of Winterfell, while he has been legitimized as Gendry Baratheon, Lord of Storm's End. It's a fairy tale happy ending for both of them, and he sees no reason they shouldn't live happily ever after. "I don't know how to be lord of anything," he says. "I hardly know how to use a fork." (These are two more traits they share in common.) "All I know is that you're beautiful, and I love you, and none of it will be worth anything if you're not with me. So be with me. Be my wife. Be the Lady of Storm's End."
And even before he finishes proposing, we know what Arya will say, and the exact words she will use. She said them way back in the fourth episode of Game of Thrones, when Ned outlined exactly this fate for her. "Can I be lord of a holdfast?" she asked her father, who laughed. "You will marry a high lord and rule his castle," he said, "and your sons shall be knights and princes and lords." Even then—even before she lost her family, even before she was forced to make her way alone in the world, even before revenge became the organizing principle of her life—she knew that wasn't going to happen.
"No, that's not me," she said to her father.
And she said a variation of those words again last season, when she encountered her spiritual familiar, Nymeria, on the road to Winterfell. "I'm heading north, girl, back to Winterfell," Arya pleaded to the wolf. "I'm finally going home. Come with me!" But Nymeria had been wild too long to be domesticated now, and Arya realized that as the wolf turned and walked away. "That's not you," she said, sadly.
And now she says those words again, to poor Gendry, kindly but definitively. “I’m not a lady, I never have been," she says, kissing him. "That’s not me.”
Like Jaime, Arya has been one sort of person too long to suddenly become another sort of person now. Like him, she has done too many terrible things to accept the label of "hero," and perhaps to even believe that she deserves love and happiness. Like Nymeria, she spent too many years living wild to ever be domesticated. She spent too many years as "No One" to ever be Lady Anyone. She was "no one," in fact, long before she met the Faceless Men, even before she was cast out into the cold: As a little girl, she defined herself to her father through negation, by explaining what she was not, for there was no accepted role for what she was.
She is unique, a true lone wolf, and she may never really have a place in the world. But she can recognize a kindred spirit when she sees one, and there is perhaps no one in the Seven Kingdoms more like her than Sandor Clegane. For The Hound is another lone wolf, another indefinable soul: He has no House or allegiances, and accepts no titles. (He has said "I'm not a Ser" almost as often as Arya has said "I'm not a lady.") He was damaged in his childhood, like she was. He is a formidable warrior, like she is. He is capable of both good and evil, like she is. He believes in no particular faith or ethos, but is driven by a desire for revenge, like she is. He is, perhaps, deep down, as tender-hearted as she is, and as lonely, beneath layers and layers of anger and mistrust and impenetrable defenses. They are really perfect for one another, perfectly matched to be alone together.
I have no doubt we will see their inevitable confrontations in King's Landing: he with his brother, and she with Cersei. But part of me would be satisfied to leave them here, riding off together, laughing eternally about how they'd probably leave each other to die given half a chance.
"You've changed, little bird." — The Hound
One thing I like about Arya's return to a bitter, nomadic existence is the show's apparent rejection of a "redemption" arc for her. As I discussed briefly last week, it would be simplistic and reductive to say that everything Arya has endured, and all the terrible things she had done, were necessary in order to prepare her to defeat the Night King and become the savior of humanity. I like that Arya does not allow herself to be celebrated as "The Hero of Winterfell." ("I hate heroes," she says to the Hound.) In fact, she can't join the celebration at all. She can't simply rejoin her family, and she certainly can't start a new one as Gendry's happy wife. Even if all that were anything she wanted, it would be impossible: Too much has happened to her to write off as destiny, and too much may have happened for a happy ending to be plausible for her.
Yet that "It was all worth it" narrative has been permeating this entire final act of Game of Thrones, in ways both rewarding and problematic. I have perpetuated it myself, arguing at the end of last season that the series has been, for the characters, "a long, punishing curriculum designed to expand their worldviews and reprogram their priorities." And this season has seemed to confirm that. "Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong," the Three-Eyed Raven said to Theon last week, seeming to not only forgive him for his terrible crimes but imply that they were necessary, even predestined. He said much the same thing to Jaime Lannister, the week before. "I'm not that person anymore," Jaime said to Bran. "You would be, if you hadn't pushed me out that window," Bran replied. Throughout this season, there have been repeated suggestions that everything that has happened—good and bad—was worth it in order to arrange the chess pieces where they needed to be for this final season.
That's deeply troubling, for a number of reasons. It is one thing to say (as I have said) that Jon Snow's arc, for example, has been a long educational process preparing him to for his role as a leader who would bring warring factions together. It is something rather different to say that the terrible crimes of Theon and Jaime were somehow not only necessary but justified, in order for them to become additional soldiers in the battle. To take that philosophy to its logical conclusion, everything that happened in Game of Thrones was somehow justified. Would Bran say the same thing to Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, and Walder Frey? "Everything you did brought these people where they need to be, where they belong." Would he say the same thing to Cersei? To Joffrey?
But Sansa does say the same thing about Ramsey Snow and Littlefinger this week, in specific reference to what was perhaps the worst scene (in every sense) in all of Game of Thrones: her rape in Season Five's "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken."
I have been wanting Sansa and The Hound to get a scene together, for theirs was a complicated early example of the show's belief that character development happens from putting very different sorts of people together, and a sort of rough prototype of the gruffly protective relationship he would later have with Arya. Neither The Hound nor Sansa had really changed yet, when they knew each other, so it seems appropriate that they check in with the people they have become now.
But their exchange here is terribly troubling. "Heard you were broken in," he says, tactlessly. "Broken in rough." (What is it about this party that turns the men into such insensitive assholes? This is an even more tactless conversational gambit than Tyrion's cheerful announcement about Brienne's virginity.) It is a particularly disturbing thing to say if we remember the complicated, ambiguous relationship between these two characters. He saved her from being raped, once. But there was also always a creepy sexual vibe in his concern for Sansa, and we know that he at least contemplated raping her himself the last time he saw her. ("Your pretty sister," The Hound said to Arya, in "The Children," when he was trying to taunt her into killing him. "I should have taken her. That night the Blackwater burned. I should have fucked her bloody. At least I'd have one happy memory.") Now he says, "None of it would have happened if you'd left King's Landing with me." It's a nasty bit of victim blaming—See? You should have come with me!—and it's a particularly dickish thing to say because we're not even sure it's true.
And Sansa's response is fairly terrible too. First she boasts of how she gave Ramsey what he deserved—being eaten by hounds—and then she seems to say that it was all worth it, even implying that she is grateful for it. "Without Littlefinger and Ramsey and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life," she says.
Like many things in this final season, this startling assertion smacks of authorial self-justification. When the controversy first broke out about Sansa's rape, the storyline was defended by many people—including the creators—as somehow necessary to her overall character development. This is the line taken by the writer of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," Bryan Cogman, in his commentary track on the episode. Sansa's rape, he says, was introduced with the idea of "setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story […] Sansa has a journey ahead of her, and what happens to her in that room is a huge part of that journey, and one that we’ve thought through.”
So yes, Sansa has taken that journey, and for the most part I think the show has done a halfway decent job—better than expected, really—of giving her back her agency without glossing over her trauma. (Thanks as much or more to Turner's performance as the writing, Sansa's experiences with Ramsey inform everything she has said and done since.) But none of that makes it any less problematic for creators to use rape as a tool for character development. (They could have gotten her here through other means: Jon didn't need to be raped to become a stronger person, and neither did Arya. Theon was raped—in another of the worst scenes Game of Thrones has ever offered—but his rape played out shamefully as half-trauma, half-sex fantasy.) It feels gross and disingenuous for Benioff and Weiss now to put the cheap defense of Sansa's storyline in Sansa's own mouth.
And, on a larger thematic level, I find the entire "it was all worth it" mentality way too simplistic. For one thing, it circles back to the idea of predestination—whether divine or authorial—that Game of Thrones has so often and admirably challenged. For another, it ultimately minimizes and cheapens the cruelty of some characters and the suffering of others, undermining what for me is the chief lesson of the story: the need for compassion and empathy. In retrospect, for example, Jaime and Theon get off too easy in their conversations with Bran, because they are faced with an emotionless plot-justification zombie instead of the real human being they traumatized. I think we can, and should, recognize the paths these characters have taken to bring them here without ever losing sight of the real human suffering involved. (I made this point in Season Six's "The Door," as well: "We can honor Hodor's necessary role in the cosmic conspiracy, and mourn the victimization of the man called Wylis," I said. "These are not contradictions: these are generative tensions that are inextricable from Game of Thrones.")
And that, for me, is what is lost in this scene with Sansa and the Hound—in part, perhaps, because the scene is too brief. (The recurring problem of the entire season: Everything happens too fast; everything is too compressed.) I can just about buy that the Hound says what he says not because he's blaming her, but because he feels guilty. And I can perhaps buy that Sansa might say what she says in reply: that she is trying to make him feel better about not protecting her, while letting him know—as it has been so important for her to get everyone to acknowledge—how much she has changed. I can even just about buy that what she says to him is the narrative she tells herself, that it is part of her coping mechanism to view her trauma as a crucible that forged her strength.
But she gets up and leaves as soon as she says it, and that's a creative misjudgment. Because what's missing is her anger: anger at the Hound, for his incredible insensitivity and the role he himself played in her early trauma. What is missing is her anger at her tormentors, and her claiming credit for her own growth instead of ceding it to the men who victimized her. What is missing is even one more line, in which she might have acknowledged that, on the whole, she would have preferred not to have been repeatedly raped and tortured in the name of character building, thank you very much.
"She's not one of us." — Arya Stark
There is something else to say about Sansa and Arya here, which is important not only to their character arcs but to the overall themes of Game of Thrones: They have learned different lessons than some of the other characters have learned.
Alone among the major characters, Sansa and Arya were not present in the Dragon Pit of King's Landing last season, when the armistice to save the world was agreed upon. At the time that seemed like just a factor of geography and plot necessity—they were in Winterfell, playing out their stupid charade with Littlefinger—but they could have been there. (Sansa was invited, after all, and sent Brienne to represent her.) So it occurs to me now there was a certain logic in their absence.
The people who were there, for the most part, were people who have absorbed one of the chief lessons of the series: That it is possible to form strong and trusting and even loving connections between different kinds of people. Jon is the epitome of this philosophy, of course. He forged his first new family with the Night's Watch, the collection of all the diverse, discarded rabble of Westeros. He's been making new friends ever since then (as we've discussed so many times that I don't feel required to catalog them now). His entire journey has been designed to counter the strict, segregated, every-house-for-itself structure of Westeros when we first knew it. And, to a lesser extent, most of the other characters who came together in the Dragon Pit—except monsters like Cersei and Euron—had similar experiences. (Tyrion, for example, is another great one for making friends across dividing lines of gender, class, and house.)
It is different for Sansa and Arya—who, make no mistake are "The Last of the Starks" to whom the title of this episode refers. Bran, after all, is barely a person anymore, and he's certainly—as he keeps reminding everyone—not Brandon Stark anymore. ("I'm something else now," he told Jaime recently.) And Jon, as Sansa and Arya learn this week, is not Ned Stark's son, as they had all believed. (Yes, Jon is still a Stark: both spiritually and, as Lyanna's son, biologically. "You don't have to choose," he told Theon last season, about being both a Stark and a Greyjoy, and that lesson applies to him as well. But I think the title of this episode draws a deliberate line around Arya and Sansa.)
Where Jon and most of the other characters have been learning to trust new people throughout the series, Arya and Sansa have been learning the exact opposite lesson. They have both met a lot of new and different people, being passed from hand to hand, traded to some and taking temporary refuge with others. But none of their experiences have taught them to be trusting and accepting. Sansa was excited to be with Joffrey and Cersei—until she discovered what they were really like. She was happy to make friends with Margaery and Olenna, until they used her as a political pawn. She found an ally in Shae, who testified under oath that Sansa and Tyrion conspired together to murder Joffrey. She found a protector in Ser Dontos, until she discovered he was just a sad fool and Littlefinger's paid lackey. Littlefinger sold her to the Boltons—promising her it was her path to power—and we all know how that worked out. Even her own aunt turned murderous on her when Sansa went to her for refuge. Sansa has no reason to trust anyone.
And Arya's path—though so different from her sister's—has not instilled in her a great deal of trust or openness. Arya's lessons have not been that everyone will betray her—no one ever really did, come to think of it—but that no one can protect her, and that everyone is just equally—if differently—awful. She spent time with the Night's Watch, and the Brotherhood, and Tywin Lannister, and the Hound, and the Faceless Men, and random people in between, and she was never safe, she was never happy, and she never saw anything to give her any faith in humanity. (She learned, basically, that people are universally shits: This is another reason she and the Hound make such a natural team.)
But this means, too, that they have missed out on what I still feel is the point of this story: that the us-versus-them mentality that dominated Westeros for generations was the root of most problems. "We don't trust your queen," they tell Jon. "She's not one of us." Jon's entire journey, as I've said, has taught him to counter this argument, and he tries to do so now: "If you only trust the people you grew up with, you won't make many allies," he says. But Arya expresses the lesson she has learned: "That's all right. I don't need many allies." It's an understandable attitude coming from her, but it's also the same siloed, isolationist, exclusionary viewpoint shared by Tywin Lannister, and Cersei Lannister, and people like Walder Frey: All that matters is our house, and fuck everybody else.
I recently wrote at length about the first three episodes of Game of Thrones—shameless plug for my book here—and one of the things I realized was that House Stark, when we met it, was just an idealized version of the same flawed and unjust structure that governed all of Westeros. The Starks were literally the only truly happy family we ever met in Game of Thrones, and Eddard Stark was one of—if not the—most caring and compassionate members of the ruling class. He cared about not just his immediate family, but the good of the people he ruled and the good of the realm. So living in the North, under the banner of kindly Eddard Stark, would not have made this kind of oppressive feudal system seem so bad. But he was the exception to the rule, and he still otherwise served—in fact, installed—a terrible king; he still made every decision according to an archaic and ultimately dangerous code that prioritized codes of honor and loyalty over doing the right thing; he still adhered troublingly to strictly limited ideas of class and gender roles. House Stark was never an exception to the unjust system: It was just the most peaceful, idealized expression of it.
My point is, I realized this week that Arya and Sansa don't necessarily have a vested interest in Dany's plan to "break the wheel," or Jon's plan to unite the whole world behind her. Their experiences have taught them that making new allies is at best disappointing, at worst dangerous. They just want to return to the way the North was under Ned Stark, which was the last time either of them was happy.
Now, complicating all of this, of course, is the fact that they may be right not to trust the Dragon Queen.
"What if there's someone else? Someone better?" — Sansa
So far this season I have largely avoided dealing with the question of who should sit on the Iron Throne, largely because the show has avoided it as well. (Until the Night King was killed, it was kind of a moot point, so everyone just kept having half-assed conversations about it.) But now we have to look it square in the face.
And I find myself conflicted, and—not unusually—frustrated. I spent much of the past eight years being Team Daenerys, for: some very good reasons (she's smarter than Jon, and is largely on the side of progress); some well-intended but questionable reasons (she's a woman); and some very bad reasons (I like it as much as anyone when she kicks ass and lights shit up with her dragons). Generally, I think she's the only contender for the throne we have ever seen who both wants the job and genuinely cares about the well-being of their subjects. "Someone who can rule, and should rule," Jorah Mormont once said. "Centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world."
But the writers have, in recent seasons, stacked the deck ridiculously against her, in a way that means it shouldn't even be a question anymore. Dany has become awful: An awful person, and an awful leader. Since at least the moment she set foot back in Westeros, she has not done a single thing right, and she has not given anyone—including us—a single reason to continue rooting for her.
(This is also true of Tyrion, by the way, which is part of Dany's problem. When did he become such a fucking moron? Every single thing he has counseled since Team Daenerys disembarked at Dragonstone has been wrong, except for the advice Dany didn't take, when she somehow managed to do her own wrong thing. Following his advice she lost the Iron Fleet, she lost Dorne, she lost Highgarden, she lost people and boats staging a pointless attack on Casterly Rock, she lost Cersei's help in the battle against the Night King, and now she's lost Missandei and one of her dragons. To be fair, she lost the other dragon ignoring his advice about going north of the Wall, and she also lost the support of pretty much everybody by ignoring his advice and executing the Tarlys. This has become the Dumb Leading the Dumb, when both of these people used to be smart.)
And the mistakes keep coming. In general, I do not enjoy or see a lot of value in writing about the occasionally awful plotting of this show. (Like a Starbucks coffee cup left onscreen, I just don't see much to say about them other than "That was dumb.") But that doesn't mean I don't notice them, or that they don't bother me. This week saw a continuation of the egregious plotting that has increasingly plagued these final seasons as Benioff and Weiss rush to the finish line, in ways that do sometimes undermine all the more interesting things happening in the show.
I am willing to overlook a lot. I can accept the magical stealth capabilities of Euron's fleet, which is able to appear out of nowhere—as it did here, and here—to wreak sudden and total destruction. I am willing to accept, I suppose, that Qyburn's new-and-improved Scorpion can bring down the already wounded Rhaegal so easily, and that the dragon was so conveniently unpiloted when it did. (Jon had to march to King's Landing, you see, for…reasons.) I am even willing to refrain from asking certain questions that would otherwise seem logical. (How do ships that sink outside of King's Landing spit up survivors in Dragonstone, several hundred miles away? How does Cersei know Missandei is so important to Dany? Why does no one ever think to consult with Bran—who is fucking omniscient—about military strategy and whether the enemy might have some unpleasant surprises in store?)
Yes, these things bother me, but not that much. I can recognize them, and grudgingly forgive them, as nothing more or less than the clumsy machinations of a rushed ending. But when the mistakes cross over into questions of character—in ways that undermine the carefully layered work of the entire series—it bothers me more. Tyrion just learned his lesson about overestimating Cersei's humanity. If she wasn't overly concerned with her own life and the life of her unborn child when the Army of the Dead was marching towards her, why does he think the same argument will work on her now, when they show up with a few dozen Unsullied soldiers and Dany's last-remaining (and cowering) dragon? (Why, for that matter, doesn't Cersei just kill them all? She clearly has every tactical advantage here.)
We will discuss the death of Missandei below, as a whole other problem. But the point here is, this entire campaign is yet another unmitigated disaster for Team Daenerys, designed to artificially level the playing field, make Dany and Tyrion look like idiots, and drive Dany into Mad Queen territory. It's just further proof that she is terrible at this, when she used to be pretty good at it. Remember how she once was clever? How she was several steps ahead of every opponent? That's a distant memory now. So, too, is our memory of the good-hearted (if sometimes wrong and impetuous) woman who wanted to set free the oppressed, the woman who wanted to lead people who wanted to be led. (Remember how she used to give everyone a choice whether to follow her? Remember how she set her khalasar free at the end of Season One? Remember how she asked the Unsullied to join her? Remember how she asked the Dothraki if they were with her? Now it's all: Bend the knee or be barbecued.)
Dany has been so consistently awful in these final seasons, in fact, that it makes us question why we ever rooted for her in the first place. And that's the part I can't decide about: Is it deliberate? Are we meant now to go back and see the evidence—which is there, certainly—that she was always just a power-hungry woman who enjoyed burning people alive as much as her father did? Did the show deliberately trick us into falling for the act of another tyrant? Is our lesson from this that character is fate? That Dany, like Jaime, hasn't really gotten better or wiser through all her travails? That Lannisters are gonna Lannister, and Targaryens are gonna Targaryen, no matter what? That seems to be what Benioff and Weiss are saying now, to the point that even Tyrion can't summon a compelling reason why Dany should rule. "Why her?" Sansa asks him, quite reasonably. "Her people love her," Tyrion replies. "You've seen how they fight for her. She wants to make the world a better place." (These are the right arguments, but the problem is we're not sure we believe them anymore: We haven't seen any sign of any of that for quite some time.)
And to Varys, who seems to be ready to have Dany killed to prevent yet another tyrant ruling the realm, Tyrion's argument is even weaker: "At a certain point, you choose a person you believe in, and you fight for that person," he tells Varys.
The arguments between Varys and Tyrion are some of the best scenes in "The Last of the Starks," but ultimately they come up against the same problem the show has come up against in this final season: Jon Snow is clearly the better choice, in every conceivable way. He's practically a saint. As I've said before, Jon may have made strategic mistakes here and there—he is not, as I've indicated, particularly bright—but he is literally the only major character who has never acted selfishly, unethically, or immorally. He has never acted out of anger or hatred or fear. Consistently, he has done everything he could do to save as many people as he could save, wherever he was, at great personal cost to himself.
That means that the conflict about who should rule feels phony and manufactured, because one candidate—importantly, the woman—has proven herself incompetent and potentially crazy. ("I worry about her state of mind," Varys says.) And that is a shame, because the show used to treat these issues more complexly. We used to see Dany's appeal, even when she was acting—as she sometimes did—rashly and wrathfully. But no longer. Now, Jon is so obviously the right choice that Dany's only idea is to beg him not to tell anyone that he has a claim to the throne—out of love.
This is just bad writing, here in the final stretch, in what should be the most central—if not most important—plotline in Game of Thrones. I am still hopeful that Benioff and Weiss will salvage something more interesting out of this than turning Dany into yet another Mad Targaryen, but right now it feels like a disservice to her character, and a disservice to—and oversimplification of—the show's entire treatment of power and leadership questions.
"So much for the 'Breaker of Chains.'" — Cersei Lannister
Maybe nobody ever really changes. Just as Game of Thrones took time this episode to remind us of how clumsily the show has always handled the sensitive issue of rape, this episode goes out of its way to remind us that the show's history with characters of color is appalling.
We can just about name on one hand the characters of color who have had more than a few speaking lines, let alone any kind of substantial character arc. And at this point they—along with half the Unsullied, and the bulk of the Dothraki—are all dead, except for the absolutely-destined-to-die-now Grey Worm. (I suppose Salladhor Saan might still be alive somewhere, but who knows? The show introduced him to take part in the Battle of Blackwater, and then didn't even bother to have him show up for it.)
The lack of representation in this cast of hundreds is undeniably shameful, and always has been. And what adds insult to injury is the way the characters of color are sacrificed in order to provide emotional motivation and growth to the white characters. With the possible (dubious) exception of the people from Dorne, none of their deaths really had anything to do with them: They were all "fridged" to advance the story of one of the more complexly developed white characters. We saw an egregious example of that last week, as nearly the entire Dothraki culture was eradicated in order to motivate Dany and provide a nice visual effect.
(In point of fact, I'd actually argue that Dany eradicated the Dothraki culture herself, in a way the show has never really dealt with. The Dothraki had a rich and thriving culture of their own, before they were dragged across the Narrow Sea to serve as the mindless, faceless foot soldiers for this white woman. None of them ever really registered as characters, and the show never even acknowledged the idea that they might have been actual people for whom this trip was a pretty big change of lifestyle. Hell, I would have been happier if the show had taken just a moment to acknowledge how cold they must have been in Winterfell.)
The death this week of Missandei of Naath is an infuriating doubling-down on the show's treatment of its non-white characters as simplistic plot devices and (forgive the pun) background color. Missandei was one of the only characters of color to have any kind of story arc. (It was never much of an arc: She did not really change, and she didn't have a lot of agency. But she grew in her role from a slave to become one of Dany's closest advisors, and she got a love story with Grey Worm, and she had her own thoughts and dreams. And Nathalie Emmanuel's performance managed to make her feel like a more fully realized person than she was on paper.)
And the character is thrown away here, just to piss Dany off. This is infuriating, for several reasons. It was completely unnecessary, first of all. (As if the death of Dany's dragon—her "child"—wasn't sufficient motivation, on top of everything else Cersei has done and all of Dany's determination to take the throne.) And, if the writers did deem it necessary for Cersei to kill someone here, it did not have to be the only black woman on the show. (They could have saved Jorah for this moment. It could have been Varys or—if she had not been pointlessly rescued a few episodes ago—Yara. It could have, should have, been Tyrion: Leave Missandei alone, and have Cersei do what she absolutely would have done, and riddle Tyrion with arrows while he pleads with her not to be a "monster." That would have felt more earned, on every side, and at this point it could only have improved Dany's administration.)
And, after taking such implausible care to save "important" characters last week, while giving other characters a "good" death, Missandei gets the worst possible death: She dies in chains, a slave once more, as a pawn and victim. (As I'm hardly the first person to point out, the pain of this could have been alleviated slightly if she had at least chosen to leap off the wall before Cersei could have her killed. One last moment of agency and self-determination would have been a far more fitting send off.)
Missandei deserved better. Grey Worm—who will certainly die now—deserves better. People of color deserve better. If you wonder why someone who loves this show as much as I do still thinks Benioff and Weiss's Confederate is a terrible, terrible idea, it's because of shit like this: I simply do not trust them to deal with race effectively, any more than I would trust them to make a show like The Handmaid's Tale that dealt prominently with rape. They're simply bad at it.
And what infuriates me finally, here at the end of this very long post, is that this scene's being so arbitrary and manipulative, I can't do anything with it but consider it in the limited way they designed it. Which is to say: I find myself thinking, resentfully, "What does it mean for the white lady?" Because I find myself wondering, now, if this is all part and parcel of Benioff and Weiss's ham-fisted dismantling of any admiration we might still harbor for Dany.
"So much for the 'Breaker of Chains,'" Cersei mocks, as she sees Missandei in her shackles. This seems to be what the creators are saying as well: that Daenerys Targaryen was always a fraud. She saved the Unsullied, only to get most of them killed. She took over leadership of the Dothraki, only to get most of them killed. She rescued Missandei from slavery, only to lead her to die in chains. It will not completely surprise me if we learn, at some point in the next two episodes, that the slavers have deposed the Daario Naharis-led puppet government Dany left behind in Essos, reclaimed Slaver's Bay, and put the population back under the whip. Benioff and Weiss seem to be telling us that all of Dany's apparent skills, ideals, and accomplishments were just so much bullshit.
I am giving them a lot of benefit of the doubt to even consider that this is the plan. And, even if it is, I'm not sure what it means. Is it—best case scenario—a deliberate deconstruction of "white savior" narratives? (That would be interesting, but it would need to have played out a lot more carefully than it has done.) Or is it simply a way to discredit our apparent female hero in the final reel, and clearly position the white male character as the only logical choice for leadership? (That would be incredibly disappointing, and ultimately make Game of Thrones smaller than the sum of its parts.)
I don't know. As I complete this post—just a few hours before the penultimate episode airs—I'm frustrated, and nervous, and trying desperately to cling to a little optimism that Game of Thrones can go out on a high note, and not squander all of the good will it has garnered.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped over the funeral scene. (Is cremation now simply the standard in Westeros, even though the Night King is dead?) It was a nice moment when Sansa put a Stark sigil on Theon's body. And I liked how Jon's speech borrowed liberally from the Night's Watch funereal rites.
- Last week I gently mocked the entire mystical storyline of this show, and how little it actually paid off. Now, I was amused by the conversation between Davos and Tyrion about the gods, which may be the show's final statement on the subject: “I don’t imagine thinking about that subject will leave you any happier than before.”
- I'd love to be there when little Gendry Baratheon shows up at Storm's End to claim it from whatever Lannister-loyal lord is currently occupying it. I'm sure they'll hand the keys right over.
- Something about Tormund sitting down to commiserate about women with The Hound made me laugh out loud.
- Can I assume that is a wrap for both Tormund and Sam? I like both characters very much—particularly Sam—but I was somewhat amused/irritated at the way they were somewhat unceremoniously ushered offstage this week. These are two characters who could have died last week to raise the emotional stakes a little bit, and apparently it wouldn't have changed anything about the story.
- Speaking of Tormund, his exit reinforces my general impression that the show is backing away from the idealistic, "utopian" message as quickly as possible after The Long Night. Having spent four or five seasons convincing Wildlings and Westerosis to live together in peace and cooperation, the Wildlings are all fucking off back beyond the Wall anyway.
- Ghost, we hardly knew ye. Jon's easy surrender of his supposedly "beloved" wolf here just reminds us how underutilized the wolves always were. But it also underlines the "Last of the Starks" point: "The dire wolf is the sigil of your house," Jon told Ned, in the pilot episode, convincing him to let his children have the wolves. But Jon is not one of Ned's children, and the dire wolf is no longer his sigil.
- How long has Bronn wanted to punch a Lannister in the face? So, so long.
- Further evidence that the show is positioning Dany to turn villain at the last minute: The language she uses about getting rid of Cersei ("We will rip her out root and stem") is Cersei's own language. ("This is what ruling is," she once said. "Lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep.") It is also the language Arya used when she massacred House Frey. ("You should have ripped them all out, root and stem," she told the Freys, of the Starks. "Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe.") This is not good language.
- Whether Jaime thinks he is going to save Cersei or not, I think we all recognize that he may end up killing her instead. At the very least, I for one have not forgotten that there are still stores and stores of wildfire beneath the city, which Cersei may decide to use if the battle doesn't go her way. Jaime's stopping her from doing that would provide some symmetry—too much symmetry?—to his complicated arc.
- Despite everything, I still dare to have high hopes for the next episode. The penultimate slot in every season is when the show goes all out, and a lot of shit goes down. (Previously, we got "Baelor," "Blackwater," "The Rains of Castamere," "Watchers on the Wall," "The Dance of Dragons," "Battle of the Bastards," and—less successfully—"Beyond the Wall.") The penultimate episode of the series should be—fingers crossed—a sight to see.