Game of Thrones, "The Last of the Starks"




This week on Dear Television:

Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle are here to catalogue all of the Starbucks cups, KitKat wrappers, oat milk containers, and Panera Bread You Pick Two combos they can find lying around the set of “The Last of the Starks,” the third from the last episode of Game of Thrones, a half-hour single camera comedy about different people having arrows of different sizes pointed at them. There are spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen this episode, well, it’s really up to you what you do next, isn’t it? 

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Previous episode: Season 8, Episode 3, “The Long Night”

Following episode: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells

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It’s a Small World After All

by Aaron Bady

Dear Television,

The Night King? Never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened. This is why the show needed those fiery pyres and a big speech from Jon about how no one will ever forget; otherwise, we might notice and be shocked that it didn’t matter, that everyone is going to forget, and that it never happened. But that’s why you do things like burn bodies and say words about how no one is ever going to forget them: to get rid of them so that everyone can forget them.

I liked the drinking scenes; I liked the moments where Daenerys and Sansa had to make some hard decisions, and to see the brothers Lannister play their game. I liked that Tormund correctly recognized that he no longer had any interest in this show, and seeing Jon continue to be a Stark by making pained and bad decisions is just an endless source of delight. These are charismatic actors playing characters we’ve spent a lot of time with, and watching them do things is pleasurable, a pleasure the show always gives us. This is the best thing you can say about last night’s episode: it was a Game of Thrones episode and it did Game of Thrones-y things like have Arya say Arya things and the Hound say Hound things.

Beyond that…what a mess. There’s a subterranean connection, I think, between the two worst things about Game of Thrones right now: the showrunners’ disinterest in the Night King — with whom they were saddled early and struggled to do as little as possible — and the ludicrousness of Euron, the man who made Cersei boring. But bear with me, this might take a minute to dig out. The problem is that this connection isn’t something the show articulates; it’s the form currently taken by the show’s long-running lack of articulation, how its continued use of disconnection as narrative mode feels in these late episodes, when things happen and have no connection to anything else that happens, thereafter or elsewhere. It doesn’t work anymore, and I have a theory about why.

It used to work. When there were dozens of characters scattered across seven kingdoms, two continents, and more — and when there was a vast horizon of doom and deep historic depth cast by the shadow of the Night King, the Lord of Light, the Seven, and the children of the forest — every cut from one scene to another (often right after someone would say something significant, but before their interlocutor could reply) seemed to imply and evoke the vast distances over which the show was leaping; these cuts were the kind of sweeping gesture that made the world seem vast and old. Now the Night King and his magic friends are gone, and having collected all the characters into basically one location, the rest of the show seems small and unimportant. Gendry can be the new King of Baratheon-land because, why not, and there can be a new prince of Dorne, without a name, because why not? There will be no scenes in Dorne or the Stormlands. Bronn can be king of whichever kingdom they give him, because why not; it’s not like those are places. Tormund can go back to the north, but nothing will happen there. There will be no check-ins on how Daenerys’ cities in Essos are holding up. The rest of the world does not seem to matter.

It doesn’t work now because…the rest of the world clearly doesn’t matter. There has been a lot of talk about other people and other places, from Varys’ “unnamed people” to the new princelings of Dorne and the Stormlands and whatever castle they end up giving Bronn, and I guess there’s also the crowd of “the people” who are allowed to come inside the Red Keep, as human shields — but the show has otherwise contracted to a line separating The Good Guys from The Bad Guys. No one else really matters. And on some level, the show seems to want it that way; this is a show about What Will Happen To The Characters We Like Watching?

Another thing the show wants is for Cersei to be boringly powerful. To make that happen, Euron has become what the dragons were for Daenerys, and it’s why Cersei has become as boring as Daenerys was when she had magic dragons that won every battle. Daenerys seemed unstoppable when she showed up on Westeros — with three dragons, a dozen advisors, and multiple armies (remember that she had the Tyrells, the Sand Snakes, AND the Iron Islands fleet?) — while Cersei had basically nothing. Ever since then, the show has been working hard to bring Daenerys down to earth and put Cersei in that position of overwhelming superiority. I think it’s been doing that because the only other option would have been to make Daenerys a mad, evil queen — something it’s head-faked a few times — but which it ultimately likes her too much to do. After all: Emilia Clarke is a star! Jon Snow loves her! Even the “bad” things she’s done are pale imitations of the bad things that have been done by basically most of the cast, and at the end of the day, she literally saved the realm with her dragons and armies, at personal cost, at a moment when it wasn’t clear that anyone else could or would.

Of course, no one cares because the Night King didn’t happen — it will shock you how much it didn’t happen. And as a result, all sorts of characters have decided they don’t like her and she has to go — somewhat ridiculously, since “electability” is an odd standard to hold a dragon-wielding autocrat to. But while the show might end up offing her, I don’t think it’s going to make her evil. There just isn’t time for that arc to take; there’s basically nothing she could do in the next two episodes that wouldn’t read as a traumatic lashing-out, and nothing she could do that wouldn’t seem, basically, like justified vengeance taking.

Instead, her arc has now — I predict! — been engineered so that she can have one last come-from-behind victory. This is possible because she’s traded places with Cersei, allowing her to absorb all of the “mad queen” narratives that Daenerys has vacated. At the end of season six, Daenerys had the potential to win the war easily and then be mad with power; now, since it is Cersei who occupies that position, it leaves to Daenerys the role of last-minute engineered come-from-behind sneak victory.

This is why the show has lost interest in Cersei, who has been relegated to sneering down from the top of a castle. But remember what made Cersei great and a great character, what made her queen: blowing up the sept. She was cool and calculating, and she used her enemies against each other; she knew that no one would expect her to do that, and she also knew that the Sparrows’ zeal made them predictable. When Margaery realized that something was up — “Cersei understands the consequences of her absence, and she’s absent anyway, which means she does not intend to suffer those consequences” — it was because Cersei’s calculations could be reverse engineered, because they existed, but the Sparrows were too locked into the symbols of their religion to recognize their danger. And so, Cersei won, in a way that made sense for the character — driven, as she is, by a combination of revenge and ambition — and which had a delightfully horrible cost: she failed to anticipate Tommen’s suicide. She, like the High Sparrow — like her father, in fact — has a blind spot.

Great characters have strengths and weaknesses; they know things, and have blind spots. And this is what makes the “Game of Thrones” aspire to a game like chess: when the player understands their own and their opponent’s strengths and limitations, and when they win — if they do — because their knowledge of all the possible interactions between those things allow them to plot a course to victory. Sacrifices, feints, and allowing your opponent’s strength to become their disadvantage; elegant chess — in this metaphor — is the kind where one’s opponent is hemmed in and blocked, even from a position of apparent strength.

Cersei was a chess player when she blew up the Sept, as was Daenerys when she burned down the Dothraki house and walked out unburnt, when she took/freed the Unsullied by “giving up” her dragon, and basically each move in her gradual rise to overwhelming power has functioned in these terms. These two queens have had to be chess players to fight their way out of untenable positions, and they did; they became queens because they used their pieces to out-maneuver the stronger forces of their opponents, and it’s been dramatic and exciting.

The show wants that for Dany; it doesn’t want that for Cersei. It wants Daenerys to be the chess player and for Cersei to represent the untenable position. Instead of watching Cersei use Daenerys’ weaknesses against her — and, from a position of weakness, engineer a victory — their positions have been reversed. To watch Our Dany fight her way out of the position of weakness she’s been given, Cersei has been given a position of cruel, impossible superiority from which to sneer and be defeated. And the two things that had to be done to the show to make that possible were: the Night King had to go, to make the world small, and Euron had to replace the Dragons as the most powerful piece on the board, who could go anywhere, in any direction you want.

Do not become what you’ve always struggled to defeat,

Aaron

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Flat White, Flyaways, and the Murder of Missandei

by Sarah Mesle

Dear Television,

How might we mark the timescape of this, Game of Thrones’ last season? We know that for us viewers, it’s been two years since the end of season seven, but how long for the residents of Westeros from the ill-fated zombie watch party outside of King’s Landing to this week’s return to a similar standoff, outside of Lion’s Gate?

We could mark the time a few ways. It’s been long enough for Qyburn to oversee the construction of a battalion of ship-born crossbows. It hasn’t been long enough for Cersei Lannister’s pregnancy to start really showing. But apparently, it’s definitely been time enough to establish a chain of coffee shops reaching even as far north up the king’s road as Winterfell, and to staff them past the dinner hour!

Here of course I refer to this week’s excellent meme-erator, the discovery that the Game of Thrones editors left a paper coffee cup on the table in front of Daenerys Targaryen in Winterfell’s banquet hall. This is widely being regarded as a particularly entertaining mistake, but frankly I see no necessary reason to regard it as such. What if we consider the Starbucks cup not as an error but as the interpretive navel of the whole episode?

[Editor’s Note: We, at Dear Television, fully realize that the aforementioned cup has been digitally removed from the episode, but we don’t really care that much.]

Here I’m not just saying that the introduction of Starbucks into Game of Thrones opens the possibility of a whole new world of character building, although certainly it does that. First of all: What is in Daenerys Targaryen’s Starbucks cup? A flat white, maybe? Tyrion orders espresso I’m quite certain; everyone in the North takes their coffee black; Sansa’s entire character arc can be explained in her movement from pumpkin spice latte to aggrieved slinger of dark roast (I mean who can blame her for expressing gratitude, when Ramsey and Joffrey saved her from such a basic existence?). Arya has no time for any of it, and Euron, irony-mustached hipster that he is, actually drinks kombucha.

Beyond this intriguing speculation, however, a range of more weighty interpretive issues spring forth from Daenerys’s coffee cup with all the momentum of Qyburn’s dragonlances, piercing right into the fabric of which this show is made. The logic by which we would “know” that the Starbucks cup is a mistake presumes that we know already what this show would like us to take seriously, what it wants us to “see” and what it wants us to pass over. Probably, I grant you, whatever else they want us to see, a Starbucks cup is not it. But the question of narrative focus remains for me deeply unresolved, or, perhaps better, the question is answered in intense but often conflicting ways, even within the same episode. The Starbucks cup ask us: what, in Westeros, is it possible to see as realistic? And what might we do with that metric as we try to evaluate our experience of watching Game of Thrones?

This is a question I have asked many times over in my five years of writing about this show and I want to be clear from the outset that I am not at all trying to make some boring “there are dragons so being realistic doesn’t matter” argument. All fictional worlds make worlds; their job isn’t to reflect the truth of our worlds necessarily but rather to be coherent unto themselves. This is partly a matter of genre, but not entirely, as Game of Thrones’s twinned, and often incompatible, commitments to “fantasy” and a very textured verisimilitude make clear.

All fictional worlds, regardless of whether they are “fantasies,” need to have some kind of cohesiveness so that different kinds of emotional problems can play out, give us some sense of resolution: in this world, with these constraints, every story asks, what can we learn about the human heart?

Here are some things that I believe viewers of Game of Thrones are supposed to find it realistic, or, put differently, believable within the show’s fantasy: viral diseases that spread and have to be quarantined. A deep cultural attachment to marriage, legitimacy, and bloodlines. Dragons. Miracles performed by the Lord of Light. Complex human emotional interiority. Some of these are true to our world and some of them are not; both are fine. World building is a part of writing.

Here are other things, however, which I’m never sure how closely we’re supposed to pay attention to: supply lines. Do they matter in Game of Thrones? Characters talk about them — Sansa has been very worried about grain; Dany last season earned one of her greatest victories burning up the Lannister’s stolen wheat; it seems like the risk of starvation in King’s Landing is part of the siege plans roiling under the series’ endgame. But on the other hand, I have never seen a sheep on this show, or anyone knitting, despite the elaborateness of, for instance, Arya’s cape. Where did the wool come from? Is it nit-picking to ask this question? Maybe we are just supposed to assume that the unseen “people of the realm” who so concern Varys are out there engaged in a lot of shepherding? That’s fine I guess. We can answer this question within the terms of the show’s range of focus, whereby the fact that we don’t see the sheep doesn’t mean that there aren’t sheep; it’s just that the show, unlike Varys, does not actually care about shepherds.

My question of course is always about the hair. Hair in Game of Thrones started out one way and ended up another; you could really chart the show’s negotiations with its own sense of the real by looking at Dany’s flyaways.

What I mean here is that there have been whole seasons of Game of Thrones when looking at people’s hair meant something about the material resources available to the characters at the moment: episode 1 literally features Jon, Robb (remember Robb?) and Theon getting shaved because Catelyn Stark knew that while power is power, appearance is one way to show power as power. When Cersei shows up with her gorgeous clothes and clean hair, and Catelyn’s kids are all in homespun, we see something about the material resources available to these households, including the ladies in waiting who, shepherd-like, presumably are braiding and sewing off stage. We don’t see them, but we understand that that it is possible within what this show has made realistic for them to be there.

What is happening now, with Daenerys Targaryen parading through the muddy North with her great clothes and her great braids? Does she have ladies’ maids? Ladies’ maids who developed a whole new style just for this episode? Dear Television: she does not. There is no believable off-stage for them to exist in. Daenerys’s hair has gone from something that we were supposed to see in one way — believable within the world of the story — to something we see in another, more hand-wavy way. Daenerys’s hair is profoundly less realistic in the world of the show than her dragons are, unless the same ancient power that let her walk through fire also gave her magical hair-styling abilities.

Dany’s fantastically braided hair is there for us to see but not to try to understand.  If we try to understand it, we might as well try to understand her sudden acquisition of a coffee cup, which: why not? If she’s magically getting her hair braided every night, then why couldn’t she also be magically going to Starbucks? Isn’t that also just as possible? It would be a bad writerly choice, I think we agree on that, but if you shift the rules of the realistic midway through your final season so that hair can be impossibly braided (and, say, having sex can turn Brienne into someone weeping in a bathrobe), you can do anything you want. There are makers here making choices, choices about what they want us to see and believe and in what way, and the Starbucks cup is the punctum that reminds us of that.

You know who we used to see sometimes braiding Daenerys’s hair — and also the other way around — is Missandei. Missandei, who the makers of Game of Thrones just killed.

I guess we could say that Cersei killed her, or the Mountain did, but we’re in Starbucks Cup Westeros now, and we know the score. Someone in our world, not Westeros, made the choice for it to be Missandei whom Euron fishes out of the water — not Grey Worm, not Tyrion — and presents as a gift to Cersei. What kinds of “realistic” do we see in that decision?

I want to pause here to remember some of why we’ve loved Missandei.  She hasn’t been given a lot to do recently, but she’s been around for some really great moments, not only the original “dracarys” moment that she called to mind in her last word. It’s been a long time ago now, but if you think back you can remember excellent things, such as her totally calling Tyrion out on his bullshit and ill-fated negotiations with various slavers, and her (and Grey Worm’s) excellently hilarious refusals to see Tyrion as funny. She and Dany seemed to have had a genuinely enjoyable friendship, which is unusual in this show that is so hard on them, and she and Grey Worm’s relationship has been given space to develop. She has always worried about him dying, and now she has died.

In weird ways that don’t quite line up, the spectacular display of Missandei’s death feels like the narrative inverse of all the blind spots of Game of Thrones’ realism — the braids, the sheep. We are meant to see it, but only question certain things about it. We are supposed to see it as a manifestation of Cersei’s racism and cruelty but not the show’s; the show, given that it is on the side of Daenerys, can imagine itself to be progressive, even as it instrumentalizes Missandei’s death. And in this way, Missandei’s death does run parallel to the Starbucks cup: it’s the glaring cliché the show’s makers apparently cannot see themselves, even though it’s right there in the middle of the table.

“A photograph’s punctum,” according to Roland Barthes and Urban Dictionary, “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”  It establishes our emotional relationship, and our temporal one, to the subject of a photograph: it can’t accommodate “any scrutiny.”

That’s my basic take about this strange disappointment of an episode: that it, too, is a bruise that can’t accommodate much scrutiny. I don’t totally think there’s a clear line to be drawn through this episode and its many couplings and de-couplings, its movement from Dany’s grief at Jorah’s death to her grief and rage at Missandei’s. The episode was sort of just one Starbucks cup after another, literal ones and other more figurative ones, like all the unearned emotional beats and the perplexing lack of battle strategy. I still love this show, but it’s hard not to feel the let-down; the fall from the grand battle of last week to this week’s weird serving of a mass-produced faux narrative delicacy, of which the Starbucks cup is a perfect symbol.

Maybe the ending will give Grey Worm something really interesting to do, but it’s hard just now to be hopeful,

Sarah

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Previous episode: Season 8, Episode 3, “The Long Night”

Following episode: Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells

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