‘Game of Thrones’: Did the Hurried Choices in “The Last of the Starks” Add Up to Anything?

     May 6, 2019

Now that The Night King has been dispatched, Game of Thrones is turning its attention back to the prickly Iron Throne and whose caboose sits upon it. For those invested in the lore of the show’s fantasy origins, this will come as something of a letdown. But the show is not done decimating the world’s mythology, as “The Last of the Starks” also rather quickly dispatched of another dragon as well as a direwolf. Like “The Long Night,” these choices call into question what, exactly, writers and showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff see as being the point of Game of Thrones. It’s clearly not the fantasy element, but the choices made in the two episodes which bookended “The Long Night” do not yet add up to a coherent storyline this season. For Game of Thrones to feel this narratively chaotic with only two episodes remaining is an odd place to find the show.

Like the season’s second, pre-battle episode, it’s fourth, post-battle episode was a mixed bag. Even the key character moments that has made the show so good in the past were tainted by uneven storytelling. Tyrion and Varys talking about whether Jon or Dany should rule is classic Thrones, and yet, it was undermined by the fact that the show is setting Dany up as a Mad Queen. For all of the pretense of the series giving women positions of power (Sansa in the North, Cersei in King’s Landing, and Dany in general), Tyrion and Varys’ conversation essentially concluded with “everything would just be a lot easier if a man was in charge.”

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Image via HBO

There’s a whole other editorial to be written about that, but even within the logic of the show, Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen has not shown himself to be a competent leader since his temporary death. For awhile, Jon was learning some hard lessons and making tough decisions that were about inclusion of marginalized people (namely the Free Folk), something Tormund brings up in this episode as one of the reasons he would follow Jon anywhere. But he hasn’t shown much interest or aptitude in that since then. Further, the Northern Lords are (rightfully) fickle with him; he’s basically the choice by default because of a patriarchal system where they would prefer a man over a woman, and yet, Lady Mormont and Sansa Stark have proved to be far more capable leaders (which the Northman have respected).

Essentially, both Jon and Dany have been reduced to Keystone Cops, bumbling around without battle plans and hoping that the dragons will take care of the rest. In the “Inside the Episode” explainer for “The Last of the Starks,” the showrunners commented that Dany “forgot” about the Iron Fleet and Euron Greyjoy, but they “did not forget about her.” Varys and Tyrion spend a lot of time talking about being advisors to Dany — so did they also forget? Much like the war room before the Battle of Winterfell, nobody seems to really address the Dragon Element of things (like the fact that Viserion had been resurrected and was powerful enough to bring down an 8,000 year old magical wall). The writers of the show don’t seem to want to deal with it either, hence Rhaegal’s sudden death.

It was a big moment, but like so much in this final season, it didn’t feel earned. Similarly, Jaime and Brienne essentially had an entire season’s worth of a relationship boiled down into “hello/sex now/goodbye.” And because we didn’t get enough of build-up, Jaime suddenly deciding to ride South to be with (or fight against) Cersei, while Brienne was left crying over him left the writers’ intent for that entire relationship in doubt. In an interview with EW, Gwendoline Christie mentions Brienne then gets on with it and “goes back to work” — an important coda we didn’t see in the final cut of the episode. All we got was a wailing woman and Jaime being wishy-washy.

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Image via HBO

The same was true with Gendry and Arya. Over the course of the second and fourth episodes, it was like the writers were saying, “oh, you thought they were cute together in some of their flirtations in the past? Well, we’re going to make Arya mount up on him and then make him a Lord so he can propose to her, isn’t that both empowering and romantic? But then Arya leaves so it’s just tragic?” It might have been, if the story was given literally any room to breathe other than “hello/sex now/goodbye.”

One of the most egregiously hurried subplots was the capture of Missandei, who the show has barely used except to occasionally hold Grey Worm’s hand, setting one of them up to die. But almost no TV time passed between Missandei being captured, used as a pawn, and then killed. It was sad, but mostly because her character was wasted. There wasn’t nearly enough time to consider the implications of what Cersei was doing for Dany’s team of advisors, and the moment — which included a former slave being put back into bondage and used as a plot point — was turned into nothing more than a reason to make Dany look “crazy” because she was favoring emotion over reason.

So what, exactly, is all of this leading towards? Euron Greyjoy, a character the show has spent almost zero time building up or getting to know, seems like he’ll be a key player. But we have no investment in him, and I could not care less if he ends up doing, well … anything. As for Cersei, there has been so much debate over Dany vs Jon as the ruler of Westeros, and yet, while Cersei has no love for her people, she certainly seems to be a generally better tactician than any of these other candidates. She has built up a strong and loyal coterie to surround her, planned shrewdly, and only seeks to secure her position of power. We have no idea what her overall plans are for Westeros or in her rule as Queen, because the show hasn’t found it important to let us know what she’s thinking beyond her scheming against Dany. And yet, one wonders how wrong things have gone in this series when we’re left to seriously consider if Cersei is our best option.

Again, all of this comes back to what Game of Thrones is offering us as a fantasy epic. Weiss and Benioff are wiping out the fantasy part, so what we’re left with is a scramble for a prickly seat. That could and should still be really interesting, but rushed plot points and a systematic undermining of the lead characters’ competency doesn’t seem to lead to any satisfying outcomes. At this point, the only way to end this game is to destroy the Throne.

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