Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 4 – The Last of the Starks

“I’m here to free the world from tyrants. That is my destiny. And I will serve it no matter the cost.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After all the storming excitement of last week’s episode, I think Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss thought we needed a bit of a breather before moving on to the remaining battles for Westeros. So this week we got The Last of the Starks, a satisfying but curiously schizoid episode which came across as nothing so much as two individual eps glued together.

The show’s done that before with lengthy eps like this one (another 80 minute job), but curiously the first two eps of this season felt like one mammoth episode that was so long it had to be split into two. Here, we got a game of two halves. The first ep (as it were) was what appeared to be a mammoth party, mourning those who’d died, celebrating those who’d lived and (this being Game of Thrones) showing us who copped off with each other in the aftermath. The second showed us the battle preparations and initial engagements in the war for who will finally get to sit on Westeros’ most uncomfortable chair.

Tonally, the two halves of the ep couldn’t have been more different. The first half was very much a character drama – in fact you could almost say it was a soap opera, as ongoing character arcs were advanced or wrapped up with no fighting at all. Depending on what you like about the show, that’s a sensible use of screen time. After all, we’ve been invested in these characters for more than eight years and 70-odd episodes; if they weren’t fascinating, the show would have just been Z Nation with dragons, and probably wouldn’t have lasted this long.

So we got cheers and heartbreak, often for the same characters and within minutes of each other. Nowhere was this better exemplified than with Gendry. Joe Dempsie (here keeping his clothes on to remind us that he’s a good actor as well as an ornament) really went through the wringer this week. Firstly, it looked like the worryingly unstable Dany was going to have him killed as (another) threat to her claim for the Iron Throne. Then – relief – she made him a Lord and granted him the castle of Storm’s End. Then – heartbreak – he made an impassioned proposal to Arya, and was rejected out of hand; “I’m not a lady and never will be”.

To be honest, anyone could have seen that coming. Couplings before the Big Battle rarely lead to relationships, and in fact usually end with one or both participants dead. Here, we had the inconvenient fact that both survived, and… it got awkward.

Pity Gendry then, but not as much as poor old Brienne. Gwendoline Christie too has had the chance to stretch her acting muscles of late; firstly with her actual promotion to knight, and now by falling for (and into bed with) longtime buddy Jaime Lannister, only to lose him to his own self-hatred and refusal to believe he can be redeemed.

Their farewell, as Jaime miserably told her that Cersei was “hateful, and I am too” was WAYYY more heartbreaking than Arya’s rejection of Gendry. Principally because, while we know Brienne is a romantic at heart, she’s been so stoic all the way through. To finally make herself vulnerable to feelings then be rejected was a heartbreaking moment, and Christie totally sold it as Brienne, who formerly permitted herself no more than moist eyes and a trembling lip at moments of high emotion, burst into outright weeping.

That’s not to say that the soap opera part of the ep was all trauma, though. In fact, the dialogue hasn’t been as witty, or the characters more fun, for some years. Makes sense – they’re having a party to celebrate the aversion of a possible zombie apocalypse. In between the solemn moments, there were drinking games, frivolity, and passion. Even the Hound pulled – though of course he rejected his would-be paramour with surly contempt.

And there were worrying portents of things to come. The show’s been seeding the idea for quite a while now that Daenerys Targaryen may be more worryingly like her mad, tyrannical father than the savior she first appeared. Here, that was turned up another notch as she pretty much begged Jon to keep his lineage a secret for fear of losing her cherished Iron Throne; then turning icy cold when he protested that they could live together. “We can. I’ve just told you how.”

It’s hard to know what lengths she’ll go to here, but if I was anyone else who knew the secret, I’d be worried. Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly should sleep with one eye open from now on. Well, of course Bran has more than the usual number of eyes…

Not that killing them would do Dany any good, since Jon, broodingly as ever, confessed his secret to his ‘sisters’ both of whom swore not to tell. One of whom almost immediately did. It’s perfectly in keeping with Arya’s character that she would say nothing, and perfectly in keeping with Sansa’s that she would – for the good of the North, if not all the Seven Kingdoms. We know Maisie Williams has been brilliant as Arya, but Sophie Turner has, over the years, had an unfair amount of criticism for her performance as Sansa. I defy anyone to say that now – she has real gravitas, a logical end point for everything the character has endured to get here.

There was a pretty clear halfway point to the ep; you could even look at it as “end of part one”. It was the morning after the party, as these secrets were revealed, and planning began for the battle against the real enemy – Cersei, whose believable and even sometimes sympathetic character makes her a far more interesting baddie than the Night King ever was.

I wasn’t surprised to see her contemptuous use of the King’s Landing citizens as human shields against Dany’s impending attack, nor that she would lie to the eager Euron Greyjoy that he was the father of her soon-to-be-born child. That’s the kind of Cersei malevolence we tune in for. The showrunners know this, and of course Lena Headey’s magnificently cold performance showcases it perfectly.

No surprise there then, but the sudden early attack by the Iron Fleet really was unexpected, resulting in the surprise death of one of Dany’s two remaining Dragons of Mass Destruction. Absolute kudos there to both director David Nutter and composer Ramin Djawadi for pulling a blinder of a surprise. We’ve got so used to seeing these spectacular dragon flights accompanied by Djawadi’s soaring score that I was beginning to tune out a little; when the music abruptly cut off as Euron deployed Qyburn’s Acme Mega-Crossbow, it was a genuine “WTF??” moment.

With one dragon gone, Dany’s ships all but destroyed, and those self-same Mega-Crossbows now conspicuously mounted along the battlements of King’s Landing, it looks like Cersei has yet again evened the odds against a seemingly far stronger opponent. Hateful she may be, but she’s clever and formidable; certainly a more cunning and less predictable adversary than the brute force zombie swarms of the Night King. And yet she’s still human, and for all that she’s a monster, she’s sympathetic; witness Tyrion’s desperate appeal to her softer side. Lena Headey played that brilliantly, the merest of tics on her face betraying the battle within before she, like Jaime, gave in to her Dark Side. I’d take that kind of drama over a zombie apocalypse any day.

Sex and violence

Well, if you didn’t have enough violence last week, I don’t know what would satisfy you 😊 Consequently there was fairly little of it, but the death of Dany’s dragon was pretty bloody.

And it turns out Mega-Crossbows are good for other targets too, like fragile wooden ships.

The death of Missandei was truly heartbreaking, but uncharacteristically was played out of focus and in long shot. Again, this was a brilliant move by director David Nutter, as it foregrounded Grey Worm’s anguished expression to really ram home the emotional impact.

Not much on the sex front (so to speak) ; the only onscreen coupling was Brienne and Jaime, and it was played tenderly rather than with the lascivious exploitation the show’s often been guilty of; another good directorial choice.

Choice dialogue of the week

After last week’s virtually dialogue free action fest, the script this week was endlessly, marvellously quotable. The feast, in particular, was full of fun.

Jon Snow, confronted with Tormund’s giant horn full of booze: “Vomiting is not celebrating!”

Gendry, bringing marvellous pathos and humour to his proposal: “I don’t know how to be Lord of anything. I can barely use a fork.”

Sansa, reflecting on the journey that’s brought her here: “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and all the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.”

But best of all had to be Bronn’s typically blunt but entirely accurate rebuttal of Jaime’s snobbish superiority to ‘cut-throats’: “Who were your ancestors? The ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cut-throats! That’s how all the Great Houses started isn’t it, with some hard bastard who was good at killing? Kill a few hundred people, they make you a Lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you a King. And then all your cocksucking grandsons can ruin their family with their cocksucking ways.”

A mixed ep then, that may well have been originally two eps until they realised each script was running a bit short. Nonetheless, some great character moments, and a more measured buildup to the inevitable Final Conflict with Cersei. I like that better than going straight into Armageddon, but I’m pretty sure the carnage will resume in earnest next week.