Thursday 9 May 2019

TV Review: Game of Thrones S8E4 - 'The Last of the Starks'

Past the halfway mark now, and Game of Thrones' final season continues to divide opinion. Here are some thoughts on season eight, episode four 'The Last of the Starks'.

After last week's climactic battle with the Night King, a lot viewers were left wondering 'what the hell happens next?'. Straight of the gate, director David Nutter and writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss seek to answer the question by simply gesturing to the name of the show – it's back into the game of thrones.

After a brief reprieve where Dany appoints Gendry as Lord of Storm's End and everyone gets a little bit tipsy (well, very tipsy), it's back to the show's main players vying for power and bickering over battle lines.

Dany is desperate for Jon to keep his true parentage to himself, lest anyone proclaim him the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. She gives Jon an ultimatum – swear yourself to secrecy or he can forget about ever calling her his ally ever again. Jon, the naive but upstanding bloke that he is, feels torn between telling his family the truth and staying loyal to his queen.
Ultimately, Jon comes clean with Sansa and Arya. And despite swearing them both to secrecy, word spreads fast. Sansa tells Tyrion who tells Varys who tells god know's who. Westeros' biggest secret soon becomes common knowledge in Dany's inner circle, which leads to Varys and Tyrion questioning their queen's right to rule. This can't end well.

I said it last week and I'll say it again – this power struggle over the throne is 1000x more interesting than fighting some indescribable icy force from beyond the wall. I could watch a whole season of Sansa and Dany sniping at one another from across the room, with Jon caught in the crossfire. In fact, I wish I could – if Game of Thrones has one fatal flaw this season, it's that less episodes means less time for each revelation to sit and settle before the next one.

The first half of this episode was filled with farewells; Sansa, Sam and Gilly are staying in Winterfell. Tormund is heading north of the wall with the Free Folk, and Jon says it's cool if he takes Ghost with him. That's cool, but could you at least give Ghost a goodbye pat Jon? That poor pup just risked his neck charging headlong into a horde of wights for you. He disappeared for ages and now you're going to leave without giving his ear a scratch!? Poor form Jon.

Not long after Dany's ultimatum and Jon's confession comes an ambush en route to King's Landing. Euron, hiding behind a sneaky island, pounces on an inattentive Dany and quicker than you can say 'dracarys', Rhaegal is spewing blood and spiralling into the murky depths of the Narrow Sea.

This particular beat felt like shock value for the sake of shock value. It feels like Benioff and Weiss hurriedly finding a way to rob Dany of another dragon. Who better to call than Euron, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to dish out some serious damage. To cap it off, Missandei is captured by Cersei's forces and Dany finds himself bereft of a best friend and a child in quick succession.

Of course, this leads into the next beat. Standing outside of the gates of King's Landing, Dany, Tyrion, Varys and Grey Worm harbour hopes of bargaining with Cersei – release Missandei and surrender or we'll burn King's Landing to ash. Aside from the inherent pointlessness of trying to find common ground with tyrant, this latest move serves to underline how far Dany has fallen since she arrived in Westeros.

It makes sense she's angry – she's lost two-thirds of her aerial artillery, half her army, her most trusted lieutenant and her best friend. It feels like a natural progression of her character to lose grip on what she set out to achieve in the first place. We've seen her get angry and make poor decisions before (just ask House Tarly). She's lonely, under threat from within and on the receiving end of some shocking council – she's directing that anger, frustration and desperation towards Cersei. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of innocents will get caught up in her dragon fire next week.

I've seen a lot of online chatter berate the show for assassinating Dany's character arc this season. Really though? She's always had a mean streak. She crucified hundreds of people in Mereen. She burned the Dothraki kings alive.

This season has seen her reach a fork in the road; accept compromise and rule alongside (or in collaboration with) Jon and Sansa, or go full Anakin Skywalker and raise hell. Fantasy writing is full of poetic symmetry – Dany's descent into full-blown evil may feel a little rushed, but it still fits within the framework of the show. She's becoming the thing she swore to destroy.

In the immortal words of Ramsey Bolton – "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention".

Missandei's death has been a sticking point for a lot of people. She died in chains, coming full circle to where we first meet her in season three. Again, there's that symmetry from earlier. Did she deserve such a crushing death? No, of course not. Everyone wanted to see her and Grey Worm grow old on the sandy shores of Naarth. Alas, not everyone is going to come out of this show with their honour or head intact.

On the whole, 'The Last of the Starks' showcased both the best and the worst of this show. On the one hand, the political intrigue had me smiling from ear to ear. On the other hand, the jarring twists and plot contrivances feel all too easy and like a show that is racing to squash 10 episodes into just six.

Next week's episode looks promising. With three hours of runtime still to come, where this ends is anyone's guess.

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