Television Review – Game of Thrones 8.04 “The Last of the Starks”

How have we reached episode four of this final season already? It’s going so fast, especially with only two episodes remaining in this unnecessarily short season. I was looking forward to this week, as the fallout from the battle promised to open up some interesting character moments, from shifting loyalties, to conflicted feelings, not to mention the looming threat of Cersei and what she’d been getting up to. Kit Harington described it as Shakespearean and I totally understand what he meant, especially having now watched it a few times to take it all in.

Did I enjoy The Last of the Starks? I’m struggling with my own conflicted emotions when it comes to this question. My immediate reaction on initial viewing was that I very much enjoyed it. Character-driven episodes have always interested me more than the mystery of The Night King and it makes sense to me that the biggest threat to the realm is the evil of man (or, in this case, woman).

I’ll delve in to what I did enjoy this week in a moment, but unlike 8.02, which I thought was superb, on further watches I notice more and more the aspects of 8.04 that I didn’t like, or which didn’t make sense, or were not properly explained. The reason for that? I can’t help but feel that they are rushing this season now. We had two episodes to enjoy the preparation for battle, but we don’t have the luxury of time to build to the final climax. I’ll never understand why this season is only six episodes. I don’t imagine HBO had a problem with a 7-10 episode run, so it comes down to the creators. After seven seasons of plot and character building, often including such wonderful minutiae, they are rushing ahead now and it’s starting to make me worry that it’s impossible for this epic to be wrapped up in a satisfying way. I really do hope I’m proven wrong.

Anyway, let’s dig in to this episode more; one that covered a great deal of ground in just 75 minutes.

Strong direction by David Nutter continues to deliver the performances

I’ve missed David Nutter directing this show. He seems to always have a way of bringing something extra out in the performances of this already excellent acting ensemble and it’s been fantastic to see him back for half this season. As with 8.01 and especially 8.02, this week he brings some stunningly powerful character moments to the screen, from the mourning of the opening scenes, through the revelry and in to the devastating blows that started to pile up as we moved through the episode. I’ve read that the actors feel at ease with him and that he encourages them to let their characters breathe and it always comes across. I’ll touch on so many of these performances in this review, but a stand out was Nathalie Emmanuel, capturing Missandei’s fear, sadness, but ultimately defiance before she was so horrifically executed in front of her lover and best friend and the choice for Greyworm to turn away in agony, while Dany didn’t, as if needing to see it, to fuel her burning rage.

Honouring the dead, with a speech fit for a King……

The opening minutes of this episode were some of my favourites of the season so far, as they took time to slow it down and give us time with these characters who we’ve grown so fond of. Not as many died as I thought would be the case in the Battle of Winterfell, but those who did deserved to be acknowledged and the combination of the music, a slowed down, sadder version of the Night King’s theme from last week and some beautiful performances made this truly stand out. Seeing Dany, saying a last farewell to the man who has always believed in her, was very sad (although you did use him as a human shield in that battle Dany), but the most emotional part of this scene for me had to be Sansa mourning Theon, who she made sure died just as much a Stark as a Greyjoy. Jon’s passionate speech that followed only seemed to highlight just how inspiring a leader he is and that, arguably, he’s the better fit for the throne over Daenerys. Seeing how the episode unfolds, this moment was very well played to start the viewer thinking this at exactly the same time as others start to think about it too.

A time for merriment before it all went downhill

David Nutter directed the infamous Red Wedding, so seeing him helming a happier feast was quite a relief, as we were able to enjoy some time at Winterfell seeing everyone celebrating for a change. Tormund challenging Jon to down his drink was good fun, as was Podrick’s cheeky smile earning him the attention of the ladies. Arise Lord Gendry Baratheon too!

We also finally saw Sansa talk to The Hound again, something that hasn’t happened since season two and it was fascinating to see just how they’ve both changed so much in the years that have passed. Plus, it was also lovely to see Tyrion, Jaime, Pod and Brienne having fun together; well…until Tyrion ruined it by crossing so far over the line you couldn’t see it anymore. Not cool Tyrion. I like you. Don’t be a dick! I thought he was going to say she loved Jaime, which would have been awkward, but not as wrong as the angle he chose to take. Alcohol is no excuse. You lose points in my good books for that!

Jon Snow’s departure from the North, an eerily sad echo of Ned Stark’s farewell back in 1.02

In my deadpool I predicted that Jon would die, sacrificing himself for the greater good, or Dany. Yet, the more we move through this season, the more I start to wonder if the bittersweet end to this story will include a reluctant Jon taking the throne; something he clearly doesn’t want. His goodbyes before he departed Winterfell were incredibly sad, not just because we were seeing the likely end of the time we’ll spend with Sam, Tormund, Ghost and Jon together, but because Jon was seeming to give up everything that makes him who he is, travelling south to a place he has no interest in being, all because he’s loyal to another. Sound familiar Jon? Watching him do exactly what Ned Stark did in 1.02 was quite tragic and continues to make me wonder which way his story will go. Ultimately Tormund is right, he belongs in the North, but we’ll have to see whether his fate is to die helping another take control, or to bear the burden of bringing the realm together, even if he’d rather not.

Finally Tyrion and Varys have a role again!

This week saw a return to the whispered conversations and political plotting and I’ve very much missed it. Heck, having Littlefinger around for such scenes always added something, even though I couldn’t wait to see him dead! Varys has become very much a background character in recent years and so it was fantastic to see the Spider spinning more webs again. A lot of what he was saying this week made sense. He wants the best person for the job on the throne and looking at it objectively, I tend to agree that it’s Jon; people just seem to want to follow him and believe in him to do what’s right. Yet, the moment he suggested Dany needed removing from the picture, gave me chills. We already know he’s destined to die in Westeros, so maybe he will end up as BBQ for Dragon for betraying his queen, even if he is trying to do what he believes is for the best.

As for Tryion, he’s one of my favourite characters, but as the seasons have moved on, he’s become less and less interesting. As the characters came together, he fell in to a supporting role to Dany and with that, seemed to be given a much lesser story of his own. I’ve missed the Tyrion of old and this week we were able to enjoy all the facets of his character, from the playful, naughty Imp (I loved his passion for his game…well until that last bit..), to affectionate, bantering brother, through to the clever man who is able to negotiate his way out of a crossbow bolt (good decision Bronn) and sombre royal councillor. It made him feel important again and by the time he was face to face with Cersei, trying to stop the bloodbath to come, I’d truly realised just how much I’ve missed him and I dearly hope he survives!

The show’s best pairing is back on the road! 

Sorry Gendry, but Arya Stark was never going to be anyone’s lady, no matter how much she cares for you. She’s sadly become a loner, as was clear at the feast, when she was out in the back training and feels she needs very few people in her life. It was therefore perfect that she headed off to King’s Landing with the only person she could – The Hound. Equally a loner, she’s also the only person he’d willingly allow to go along with him. I’ve missed these two together. It’s just a pity that this unnecessarily short season will rob us of more scenes with them on their journey. He’s clearly destined to meet his brother for a showdown, someone also on Arya’s list, as well as Cersei. It’ll be interesting to see what role they have to play next week, but the fact neither of them expect to return north made me more sure that they’ll both meet their end in the capital.

The heartbreaking story of Jaime and Brienne. It still hurts. A lot.

As two of my favourite characters, this was the most painful aspect of 8.04 for me (sorry Missandei) and although it was upsetting on so many levels, the acting of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendeline Christie took these scenes to a higher emotional level. I know not everyone wanted these two together and to be honest, I’d have been happy if they hadn’t, as the knighting scene felt like the only way these two people would show their feelings, without saying the words.

I may be blinded by how much I have rooted for Jaime for years, both on the page and the screen, but I genuinely believe he loves Brienne and that he wanted to stay with her, away from King’s Landing. He just couldn’t, because he still loves Cersei too, while also hating her and what he’s become because of her; the pregnancy just making the situation worse. I also believe he wants to be the better man Brienne sees, but he simply doesn’t feel he is worthy of such love because of all the terrible actions he’s taken for House Lannister.

Is he leaving to go back to Cersei, or to try and stop her? I honestly don’t think he knows himself, but he told Bran he wasn’t the person he used to be and he’s already proven that he’ll protect the people from their ruler if he can. The emotional conflict he would suffer after surviving 8.03 was something I was most looking forward to and personally, I thought they handled it very well. He cares for Brienne and despite his reputation, when it comes to sex, he’s not that much more experienced than she is, having only ever slept with Cersei, so his awkward, cringe-worthy way of trying to simultaneously convey and understand his emotions, with Brienne in her room, felt very true to his character. I also liked that, although he came to her, Brienne took the lead in the end. As Arya did in 8.02, she chose to be vulnerable with someone she cared for. She took a risk and it was on her terms.

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His turmoil was woven throughout the episode though, right from the start and superbly played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. As Jon talks about people dying so that others may live, the camera focused on Jaime and his expression. He then continues to struggle with his emotions, first when lying next to Brienne, then when Bronn says he thinks Cersei is screwed and finally when Sansa suggested King’s Landing was about to be lit up in flames with everyone in it. It was inevitable he’d leave. He said himself that he hates the North. Just as Jon doesn’t belong in the South, Jaime couldn’t have stayed at Winterfell. He still has a role to play in all of this. As for that last scene between the two of them? It hurt. A lot. Brienne is such a wonderful character and one of the few pure, honourable, people in this world and you want her to be happy. Until I am proven wrong, I will continue to believe that Jaime was that cruel to her for the same reason Tyrion was cruel to Shae; to protect her, to try and ensure she didn’t follow him to where she’d almost certainly die one way or another.

Of course, my view on Jaime and this relationship with Brienne may change depending on where this story goes. If Jaime does turn out to have reverted to who he used to be, or the last time I see Brienne in this series, is her alone and sobbing, I’ll be very very angry. The two were clearly never going to live happily ever after, so I can now only hope that Jaime will die having made things right, realising he’s not the hateful person he still sees and ideally I’d like Brienne to be there, so there’s no doubt in her mind that he cared for her. Plus, he always said he wanted to die in the arms of the woman he loves and I refuse to accept that’ll be his evil twin!

….and talking of Cersei……

You thought The Night King was evil……he has serious competition!

Wow, Cersei is truly awful isn’t she?! She actually makes The Night King look like a fluffy bear by comparison. I can’t say I’m surprised. This was the main reason why I wasn’t disappointed that Arya defeated the supposed big bad last week; because the bigger danger was in the South. Yes, she is indeed hateful, but damn, she’s a magnificent villain and Lena Headey is long overdue an award for this role.

We were well in to the episode before her presence was felt by Euron’s ambush of Dany’s fleet just outside Dragonstone, but it was clear who was behind it all, gleefully filling the Red Keep with human shields for the inevitable battle ahead. Cersei has clearly been busy preparing too, with all those scorpions. She’s also secured Euron’s loyalty by pulling the same trick she did for years with her husband. Will that deception last though? Tyrion talking about the baby when he’d only just heard about it must surely be a red flag for Euron?

Full credit goes to Headey this week. She conveyed so much through her eyes and expression, some of it so very subtle you’d be forgiven for missing it or taking it for granted, such as the look of disgust and possibly sadness she has, after she passes Jaime’s baby off as Euron’s. She clearly still wishes it was her brother by her side deep down. Then there was the superb moments when Tyrion begs for her to surrender and release Missandei. You see her think about it, about her child and her love for it, before her eyes darken and the cruel demeanour returns; all in just a few seconds. I may not like Cersei as a person, but she is undoubtably one of the best characters in this series.

…..Despite the positives, this wasn’t an episode without problems……..

Rushing over important stories simply because you’ve chosen to make a shorter season is unfair to the series as a whole

I said at the beginning I was conflicted about 8.04. Overall, there was a lot I enjoyed and perhaps by the end I’ll continue to think that. The biggest concern, as I’ve already discussed, is that there’s so little time left and I feel the plot lines are being rushed as a result and this episode was a strong example.

Story beats that would have been given time in previous years were glossed over in The Last of the Starks. Take Jon’s parentage. We don’t get to see him tell his family who he really is?! Seriously?! That was not a scene to miss out and I’m certain had there been six more episodes rather than two, it wouldn’t have been. Then there’s the poor goodbye between Jon and Ghost. Sure, the dire wolves don’t have the same role as they do in the books, but it felt cheap to just dash past that. There’s also Jon and Dany’s relationship, which just hasn’t had the time needed to really help it take root and as a result, it all feels rather superficial and forced in order to advance the plot at this fast pace.

Sansa and Dany – two characters whose personalities are being forced too quickly to change

I like both of these women, who’ve been through so much. Yet, what we saw in 8.04 and earlier in this season has been a shifting of the personalities on to another course and in my view, there hasn’t been the time to truly make these changes feel authentic to their characters.

Sansa has grown in to one of the most interesting characters now, but her hostility to Dany has felt a little over the top. Yes, she’d feel cautious, but there’s been no real attempt to have them see if they could get along, which just doesn’t feel right to me. Then, although I agreed more with her than Dany this week (you should have let the troops and dragons rest!), betraying Jon’s trust was just disappointing and really made me frustrated. Again, had they had time to build in the nuances of these relationships it may have made more sense.

Instead it’s come across as two women being bitchy because they feel threatened by each other. Actually…..maybe that is realistic….Also, is Sansa suddenly so cruel that she’d take pleasure in telling Jaime how she was looking forward to seeing his sister executed? Honestly?! That felt more like Cersei to me, or perhaps that’s the point. Are the writers trying to make her more like the people who influenced her, namely Littlefinger (telling Tyrion the secret was classic Petyr Baelish) and Cersei? I suppose we’ll see.

As for Dany, I’ll be able to make a better assessment once we see the finale, but I’m finding the sowing of the Mad Queen seeds a bit too obvious. Even more than Sansa, her character has really started to change dramatically. Would her hunger for power truly take hold this strongly so soon after getting to Westeros. Sure, she’s displayed it before, but the way she reacted to Jon’s news, then focussed more on the throne than the battle in 8.02 and then demanded Jon lie about who he is this week, all didn’t seem to be actions the Dany of earlier years would have done. Plus trying to suggest she’s about to go nuclear because she’s going mad? She’s lost some of the closest people to her recently and just watched her best friend be executed! I think she’s justified in feeling some rage! Again, the lack of time means if this series really does end with her being as dangerous as her father, I’ll be mad.

Couldn’t Dany have burnt Euron’s ships from behind?! 

Sure, sure, there’s going to be a battle next week, but still, it seemed rather mad that after having just lost her dragon and knowing her fleet were in grave danger, Dany and Drogon just……sod off! Surely she’d have circled around and unleashed fire from behind those ships? We saw the carnage Drogon can cause in 7.04. Was this an impressive / exciting scene? Yes, but it still didn’t quite make sense. Plus, why didn’t Euron’s fleet try and capture all those half-drowned survivors on the beach, including Tyrion? They just happened to pluck Missandei out of the water and sail away? And what was the message to Dany to let her know? Again, these were all story beats which were rushed through because the creators limited themselves to a shorter run.

Looking ahead?

It’s still a testament to the series that, with only two episodes left, I have no clear idea about how this will end! Will Dany become just as much a threat to the people as Cersei, that Jon has to do the unthinkable? Will he die for her, or will be have to take up the ultimate leadership role, all the while wishing he was lost in the northern wilderness with Ghost? Is there going to any purpose for Bran?! Surely there has to be, right? Maybe he should be with the army to fill them in on what he knows is happening. His role in all of this is now a mystery to me.

Will The Hound die killing The Mountain? Will Arya help, or simply put him out of his misery if he’s mortally wounded in the fight? There’d be no greater sign of affection between these two! Will Arya wear any more faces? Qyburn’s perhaps, to slip inside the Red Keep? Will Brienne stay with Sansa, or ride south to say a final farewell to Jaime, whose arc better go the way it’s been written all these years (I assume that’s him in the hood in the above shot from the trailer)! Is Bronn going to claim a castle from the victor? That’s only a fraction of my questions and all we know for sure from the trailer for 8.05 (directed again by Miguel Sapochnik) is that the battle is going to kick off! I’m already anxious!

………

So, overall, I did enjoy this week and it certainly moved the story along, from a battle weary Winterfell, to the gates of King’s Landing, taking all the characters on an emotional rollercoaster in just 75 minutes. I simply hope that in these next two weeks there’s enough time to give all the strands, that have been so strongly woven over all these years, a satisfying ending. At the moment, I’m not as confident of that as I’d like to be.

Game of Thrones continues on Sunday in the USA at 9 p.m. on HBO  and on Monday in the UK on Sky Atlantic from 2 a.m. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/F1fqet9V494; the shorter behind the scenes of 8.04 here: https://youtu.be/u8K9XuPrXko; and the longer behind the scenes of 8.04 here:  https://youtu.be/qwQV89TE8DQ.

(All screenshots are the property of HBO/Game of Thrones)

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