We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
It has been a sort of eye-opening kind of week for me, in between episodes three and four of Game of Thrones' eighth and final season. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of eye-opening experience I was hoping to have, nor was it one I thought I would end up feeling the urge to bring up in one of these episode reviews of mine. I touched upon it lightly in my review of "The Long Night" and in some other, past reviews, but now, it's just gotten out of control.
Four episodes into season eight, and the overly demanding and quick-to-complain people of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, etc. have already declared season eight a colossal disappointment and an utter catastrophe in terms of plot and writing. It's a fact of human nature that you cannot satisfy everyone, and D&D went into the production of season eight knowing full well that however they decided to end the show, there would be angry, unhappy people that would completely disagree with the way the series would come to an end. I can already picture it: after the final episode airs on May 19th, thousands upon thousands of angry people and critics will flock to social media and berate D&D for completely ruining Game of Thrones and giving the show such an unsatisfying, disappointing finale. I suppose it's too much to ask to simply enjoy the show for what it is now, no matter how much it's changed since the early days when Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon were talking about The Hand of the King. I suppose now we're automatically supposed to assume that all the character motivations are backwards, all the twists and turns are nonsensical, and everything that happens plot-wise is rushed and without one single good thing to be had.
It is a lazy form of criticism to nitpick everything at the cost of analyzing the big picture of what a movie or an episode of television is trying to say, and while I've done my fair share of nitpicking in several of my own movie reviews and reviews of earlier Game of Thrones' episodes, I try not to do so without weighing the nitpicks against whatever strengths that said movie or television episode may have. Where I'm going with this is that to dismiss "The Last of the Starks" as a bad episode purely based on the following details is, well, not seeing the big picture:
- Jon not petting Ghost and saying goodbye before leaving Winterfell.
- Bronn sneaking into Winterfell to confront Jaime and Tyrion.
- Euron Greyjoy and the Iron Fleet launching a successful surprise attack on Daenerys and her fleet.
- The secret of Jon's heritage spreading like wildfire after Jon tells it to Sansa and Arya.
- A Starbucks coffee cup being spotted on a table during the great feast in Winterfell.
The wild reactions I've seen from people regarding the coffee cup goof really amazes me. IT'S A FREAKING COFFEE CUP THAT HAS ABSOLUTELY NO BEARINGS ON THE PLOT! I'm fully on board with all the memes that the cup has inspired, but let's not act like Game of Thrones is the only television series to ever have goofs.
At this point, I have said basically nothing about the episode itself, so I should probably jump into the actual review part of the review: "The Last of the Starks" will most likely go on to be the worst episode of season eight, but that's not to say that the episode doesn't have several redeeming qualities, no matter how much it may seem like set-up for the grand finale. David Nutter and company do a fabulous job of ramping up the tension for the final two episodes, while at the same time, recapturing a lot of what made people fall in love with Game of Thrones in the first place: surprise character deaths and intriguing political discussions, to be specific. The plot armor critique ought to be dead and buried at this point, so let's not try to bring it up again. Where "The Last of the Starks" does fall a bit short though is in the department of pacing, particularly in how it takes a little while for the episode to really rev into motion.
Following a mournful funeral scene, Winterfell holds a fun-filled feast to celebrate the defeat of the Army of the Dead, with lots of cheering, laughing, and drinking. The happiness of this scene goes on a little longer than necessary: a lot of this feast is comprised of casual conversations that, for the most part, don't really seem to be moving the plot along in the right direction. The best conversation comes between The Hound and Sansa, with Sansa remarking how all the pain and suffering she endured over the years changed her from the "little bird" she once was. It's cool that The Hound is the one who gets to hear this: The Hound has always been a tough-as-nails character who has lasted this long partially because he's good at fighting and understands that Westeros is a dog eat dog world. While Sansa has not become a fierce fighter like Arya has, she has come to understand the way Westeros works, just like The Hound does, and that she is now capable of finding ways to deal with the remaining monsters of Westeros.
This conversation has sparked a ton of controversy, primarily because the dialogue has been perceived as D&D being sexist and using rape as a tool for female empowerment. It's true that Game of Thrones has struggled at times to treat women in a positive light, but to immediately brush off this scene as outrageous sexism is- here I go again- missing the big picture. To start with, who in their right mind honestly believes that D&D sat down to write the scripts, thinking to themselves, "We hate women and we're going to show everyone how so in episode four." Also, why is this controversy purely revolved around Sansa's rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, when earlier, she experienced plenty of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Joffrey? There is not one word in the dialogue from Sansa that implies she was ever happy to go through those experiences. More so, Sansa is implying that being with Littlefinger, Ramsay, and Joffrey simply changed her, in that she learned the hard way how things work in Westeros, and later learned how she could live with such monsters and find ways to fight back against them. Now that's she back home safe in Winterfell, Sansa wants to protect her family and those closest to her because she doesn't want them to ever go through the same kind of experiences she did. Of course being abused by Joffrey and Ramsay are scars of Sansa's that will never heal, and not anything that she should feel proud of. What D&D are really trying to get at is that the "little bird" Sansa from seasons past had no idea of the kinds of horrors that ruled over the Seven Kingdoms, but now seven/eight seasons later, she is fully aware of what terrors lurk outside of her home, and she has changed enough to know how to never let such terrors harm her again. It's really one single line of a three minute conversation that's getting blown out of proportion here (and honestly, it's getting blown up as a radical left-wing argument). Sansa is giving us a summarized viewpoint of her entire Game of Thrones' journey, and it's silly to think that she was never allowed to reflect on her traumatic experiences and think what she could do to get out of such a cycle of chaos.
So, moving on then: it certainly doesn't seem like there could be any tension or drama made out of this happy moment for so many characters, but David Nutter expertly finds ways to wring out several drops of uneasiness, most notably in the way Daenerys watches Jon get all the love from the wildlings and others. Daenerys is shot as if she is like someone lost in the background, with the likes of Jon, Tormund, and others at the forefront of the frame. It's an effective camera trick to reinforce the idea that Daenerys is not welcome in the North, and no matter how much she contributed to winning the Great War, she is still viewed as a dangerous outsider. Daenerys loses her grip on so much by the end of the episode, that all signs are pointing towards her going on a fiery rampage that would likely transform her into The Mad Queen. I am all for Game of Thrones going for this angle the rest of the way, because I think that would bring about a lot of rich (and, sadly, controversial) story telling. For the time being, Daenerys and her party agree that avoiding bloodshed is the right maneuver, and this leads us to another heavily scrutinized scene, one that has had entire articles dedicated to criticizing the scene as completely nonsensical. While riding with her dragons on the way to King's Landing, Euron Greyjoy's fleet launches a surprise attack. They kill Rhaegal (oh no!) and make swiss cheese out of Daenerys' fleet.
I have seen almost universally negative reception for this scene, with the majority of criticism revolving around Daenerys not spotting Euron's fleet right away and not ever trying to attack the fleet from behind. I love how this criticism largely ignores what we saw minutes earlier: Daenerys and her entourage agreeing that a direct attack on King's Landing is not the right move. It would have been a worse writing decision had Daenerys and everyone just said, "Screw it. Let's just go attack Cersei and her army without any sort of plan." Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Sansa Stark, and others have always tried to embody strong morals and a sense of honor. What sense would it make for all of them to suddenly go against their noble ideals and not at least try to pressure Cersei into surrendering, even if it meant Cersei would give them an emphatic no? Ever since season one, characters in Game of Thrones have suffered terrible consequences for making the wrong choice. Ned Stark tried to avoid bloodshed when he went to have Joffrey and Cersei arrested, and we all know how that turned out. The plan for Daenerys and her army trying to pressure Cersei into surrendering is their last hope in regards to resolving their matters with Cersei without resorting to widespread death and destruction. The consequences for making this decision is the death of Rhaegal and the capture and death of Missandei, and seeing the anger swell up in Daenerys' face by the end of the episode is enough to tell us that peaceful negotiations are over.
I try to be as much of a Game of Thrones' optimist as can be, but I clearly feel like I'm in the minority when I try to come out and make a case for there being some semblance of logic behind the Euron attack scene. One scene I will not try to make a similar case for is the bittersweet Jon and Ghost goodbye. Ghost must have been a fan favorite character all along, if Jon not petting him goodbye was enough to spark dozens of memes, articles, and videos about how outraged people were. I've always felt like Jon and Ghost have had an on and off relationship, so the farewell between the two really just seems like a footnote when it comes to everything that season eight entails. I do wish though that Jon would have at least verbally said goodbye to Ghost or even go up to pet him, because who doesn't love a happy moment between a boy and his dog/direwolf?
We should be wrapping things up by now, so the last thing I will get into is how the news of Jon's real heritage spreads like wildfire. Sansa doesn't even try to keep it a secret after Jon and Bran tell her and Arya who Jon really is. Sansa (offscreen) tells Tyrion, and Tyrion (offscreen) tells Varys. I do really like the conversations between Tyrion and Varys in this episode: they start to question their own loyalty to Daenerys and have intriguing back and forth talk about the possibility that Jon would be the better ruler. It's tough to see Tyrion struggle to find some reasoning for why he wants to stay by Daenerys' side; he knows that what Varys tells him is true, and that Daenerys' potentially unstable state of mind could mean the lives of so many innocent people. It's as if Tyrion is trying to save the sinking ship that is Daenerys' claim to the Iron Throne, but no matter what he says, Tyrion knows deep down that what Varys is telling him is right, and that he maybe should entertain the possibility of Jon being the one who should sit on the Throne. As for Sansa not keeping Jon's heritage a secret, I don't think we can blame her too much for not being able to keep it a secret. Westeros has been fighting non-stop for years: Sansa is desperate for peace and harmony. She wants to go to bed each night knowing that she doesn't need to worry about who is sitting on the throne down in King's Landing. At long last, there is someone who not only has a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, they are someone who is very fit to rule, no matter how much they don't want to rule. For Sansa, getting Jon to sit on the Iron Throne is finally the way to a peaceful and honorable Westeros, even if it means breaking a promise she made to him.
I feel bad cutting off this review now, because there is definitely a lot more that I could get into, like Arya turning down Gendry's proposal (very much in character for Arya, I think), and Jaime and Brienne having sex with each other (another scene I give praise to). Intimate moments certainly play a big part in "The Last of the Starks", but they all add up to assure us that nearly all these surviving characters are going down a path full of sadness, anger, and regret. Plus, after everything that Cersei does to Daenerys by the end of the episode's 78 minutes, we can be sure that these final two episodes will be filled to the brim with fire, blood, and death.
It does sadden me a bit inside to all the angry, hateful responses that many people have for season eight. No one is wrong in saying they hate this season, nor is anyone wrong for having criticisms for things such as D&D's writing. My issue is in how so much hate has seemingly drowned out any and all compliments and praise that people like myself may have about season eight. I have highly enjoyed the way this season is turning out, and I for one am very excited to see what will transpire in these final two episodes. For this Game of Thrones fan here writing this review, it's about trying to see the possible good in all the choices that the show-runners make, no matter how much others perceive those choices as stupid or lazy. Screenwriting is hard. Writing, in general, is hard. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss fully understand that they cannot satisfy everyone, and that they will be criticized, no matter how they would have written this final season. I'm sure George R.R. Martin has not gone without receiving any criticism himself for the way he wrote his A Song if Ice and Fire novels. "The Last of the Starks" is not a perfect episode by any stretch of the imagination: the pacing is a bit problematic, and many of the scenes are susceptible to heated criticism. Despite this, the episode still features plenty of interesting political debate and heart-wrenching character moments, and what it does best of all is crank up the tension for what will happen next episode, which Emilia Clarke has teased as something you should see on the biggest TV you can find. I am fully confident that episode five will be can't-miss TV, and no amount of negative reviews or Starbucks coffee cup memes will convince me otherwise.
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