[rating=8.00] “The Last of the Starks”
It was the best of Thrones, it was the worst of Thrones. Throughout its eight seasons, Game of Thrones has always had a problem with impulse control, so often succumbing to the worst of its impulses while simultaneously delivering moments that will forever be embedded in the pop cultural consciousness of the world. So often over the last few seasons the series has been its own worst enemy, teetering on the edge of implosion and moving forward only by the sheer force of its power in the cultural landscape.
“The Last of the Starks” was all of it at once, in a way becoming the perfect representation for what the show is and always has been. It was beautiful, flawed, stupid, amazing, shocking, and boring. It was so perfectly itself that how you felt about it almost reflects how you feel about the series as a whole. You’re either here for it or over it. It’s only divisive in that it is so completely and unabashedly itself. As much as it’s the most beloved show in generations—probably ever, actually—it’s also the most dissected, over thought, and considered series of…probably ever, actually.
One thing Game of Thrones has always been fantastic at is catharsis, and “The Last of the Starks” gave us plenty of that. Jon Snow’s opening monologue eulogizing those lost in the Battle of Winterfell, which found him echoing the words of the Night’s Watch, gave us the chance to grieve for those characters we lost in the epic battle last week but also for all the characters we’ve ever lost over the course of the series. Though laced with an almost saccharine sweet sentimentality, it served as the ultimate reminder of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
It was beautifully cliched, giving us permission to keep feeling sad about who we’ve lost and to keep having hope for the future. Of course, as we learned last week, hope is a fool’s bet in Game of Thrones. Victory comes with high costs and winning often looks and feels a lot like defeat. Still, it was almost easy to forget that during most of the first half of the 80-minute episode. The celebratory feast was one of the best sequences in the show’s history, giving us the chance to revel in the joys felt by those we’ve come to love.
And though so much of the sequence was joyous and delightful, peppered throughout were little reminders that there is no way this ending will be happy. Gendry may have been made an official Lord, but Arya’s refusal of his proposal reminded us that Arya will never be traditionally happy—even if she succeeds in crossing all the names off her list. Brienne and Jaime may have finally consummated their love, but in the end he still had no qualms leaving her in the middle of the night to go back to Cersei, even if he’s going as an enemy and not a lover. The realities of Jon and Daenerys’s relationship have finally sunk in, leading them perhaps on track to face off against each other at some point in the final two episodes.
There’s no such thing as a happy ending in Westeros, and even if Cersei is defeated in the battle to come, we shouldn’t expect anything less than total emotional devastation. We were reminded of this further as the episode continued, and the longer it went on the more it teetered on the precipice of its worst impulses. The shocking moments that peppered the latter half of the episode felt almost forced, though they, too, had lessons and reminders.
Dany has proven a few too many times that she is an inept military leader. Last week she caused more problems than she solved by flying into battle too early. This week she caused a lot more problems than she solved by, well, flying into battle too early. Even as Sansa reminded her that her army could use rest and recuperation before heading out to the next war, Daenerys let her emotions get in her way, taking her unsullied and surviving Dothraki by ship to King’s Landing where it was revealed that she’d forgotten to do so much as five minutes of recon.
Make no mistake, everything that happened as she approached that capital was 100% her own damn fault. Rhaegal’s death? All Daenerys. The destruction of her fleet? All Dany. Missandei? That too.
Hubris is the one trait that Dany has always exhibited and thus far she’s always gotten away with. Now it stands as a likely indicator of what her downfall will be. Even if she manages to take out Cersei, the realities of ruling might be beyond her scope to envision. And with the secret of Aejon Snowgaryen slowly leaking out her grasp at the Iron Throne has never been more tenuous.
How you feel about how this all transpired serves as a reflection for how you feel about the show. Game of Thrones has taken a life of its own in the larger cultural lexicon, and we’ve all made it out to be something it never was and was never intended to be. The final season of Game of Thrones was never going to be the second coming. It was never going to revolutionize style and techniques. It was never going to be anything other than what it was. You were either okay with that and enjoyed the ride, or you forgot you were watching a soap opera with, as Ian McShane once opined, “tits and dragons.” As that, it largely succeeded, setting the stage for what will no doubt be an intense, shocking, and ultimately heartbreaking final two episodes.
Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights at 9pm/8pm central on HBO.