When’s the last time we saw someone in Westeros properly mourn a dead friend or loved one? The Starks have never shed tears (onscreen at least) over their murdered brothers or brutally exsanguinated mother. Cersei stared straight out into the abyss after Tommen leapt from that window. Jon Snow shed a few tears over Ygritte’s body long ago, but clammed up right after. With battle after battle washing over them, and enemy after enemy coming at them hard, the grief has been piling up for years. It’s no surprise that this episode’s opening scene—burning the bodies of Jorah, and Lyanna, and Edd, and Theon—ushered in an epidemic of tears for the characters (um, and us).
But with only two episodes remaining after “The Last of the Starks,” the clock is ticking and those tears need to be wiped away, ASAP, so we can get on to the true business of Game of Thrones—the game for the actual damn throne.
Admittedly, this episode has a few bumps, among them the fact that everyone immediately intuits like a bunch of Bran Starks that Missandei has been captured, rather than understandably assuming she may have drowned. There’s also the not-so-small matter of Gendry proposing to Arya—a woman he 100 percent knows will not play lady of the manor—just because he’s high on that Baratheon energy. I’d have given a thousand casks of the best Dornish wine to see Cersei do the goddam logical thing and let her archers light Tyrion’s body up like Saint Sebastian. But in the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell, we always knew there would come another long set-up period, a chance to put the chess pieces in their new places and to strike back up the discord that lurked among our characters before they united to take down the Army of the Dead. So here’s how all that went down.
The Brienne/Jaime/Tormund triumvirate had a good run, if you can call one amply bearded man wanting to bang a human he referred to as “the big woman,” a “good” anything. And forgive me for saying this if you’re of the “Brienne doesn’t need a man” variety, but it was a sheer delight to see her get some, to see her take some actually, since it’s Brienne who ends up ripping the clothes off Jaime’s back and planting a giant kiss on his grizzled visage. (She doesn’t even seem to mind those flat-ironed man bangs!) There’s been tension crackling between the two ever since their literally steamy bath back in season five, and this sweet but hungry (or is it thirsty?) longing finally confirmed what we’ve all been assuming this whole time.
But before anyone goes off and protests the scene of their parting, where Brienne breaks down in tears and begs Jaime to stay in Winterfell, to not go after Cersei in King’s Landing, let’s remind ourselves of a few important things. The first is that this is, quite literally, a life-or-death decision for Jaime. Returning to King’s Landing—whether to protect Cersei from harm or to do her in himself—puts him directly in the line of some massively fiery and fucked up carnage. It’s no wonder Brienne wants him to stay put, snuggled up under those cozy furs with her. And secondly, Brienne has been slowly letting some of that emotional armor slide off for a few seasons now. Those wide grins and guffaws during Tyrion’s slightly-abridged version of “Never Have I Ever” are proof of that. As Christie herself put it, “She is a woman, she’s a human, she fights brilliantly, she also has some desire of companionship and sensual love.” To see a woman who has finally just landed some degree of certainty and trust from a man weep over his decision to leave her is to see her humanity. (And it isn’t a given that Jaime has ridden south to defend Cersei from death at Daenerys’s hands. “She’s hateful and so am I,” could quite easily mean that he’s willing to kill yet another monarch, and this time it’s one with whom he shared a womb.)
Sansa’s unrelenting side-eye over Daenerys was due to come to a head now that the white walkers have exploded into sno-cone bits. Her points against Daenerys are fair: Dany hasn’t shown any particularly able leadership since landing in Westeros, Jon was living out the governmental dream of being a democratically elected monarch before she came along, and now that the Night King is dead (at, um, a STARK’s hands), who the hell needs this virtually army-less lady and her dragons? What’s more, Sansa yet again takes charge as the only practical adult who will point out that these men just spent a very long night slaughtering those bags of rattling bones and a couple-thousand-mile journey isn’t exactly the self-care they need or deserve.
As a prisoner of Cersei and then Littlefinger, two of Westeros’ most conniving and intellectually monstrous pieces of walking excrement (both of whom I adore, xoxo!), Sansa has learned better than anyone that she can set wheels turning from behind the scenes. Providing Tyrion with the information that Jon is a Targaryen and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne will play out far better than directly confronting Daenerys about it.
That crack in the Targaryen/Targaryen (ew) love story is the San Andreas fault we always knew it would be. From the very first moments of the episode it’s Jon who takes charge, calling out to the people gathered around the funeral pyres, eulogizing their fallen comrades with lines taken directly from the Night’s Watch playbook: “They were the shields that guarded the realms of men and we shall never see their like again.” Daenerys, understandably riddled with grief, stands by silently. Let it be known that I stand firmly with Team Varys on this one—Daenerys has proven herself an excellent conqueror, but never a good ruler, and her conversation with Sansa in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” proves that the Dragon Queen’s monarchical planning only extends to getting the throne itself. But her fury is righteous and understandable. She’s bankrolled this entire Northern expedition with men and money, but the bros of Winterfell still emotionally hoist Jon up like they’re about to throw a cooler of Gatorade on him. “What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon?” Tormund yells during the feast, “A madman or a king!” Except Daenerys not only rode a dragon during the Battle of Winterfell, she birthed them by fire, raised them, and let Jon get on one by the grace of her big ol’ heart. No wonder she’s pissed!
Jon, who apparently learned nothing from being murdered after he insisted on doing the honorable thing, has every right to want to tell Arya and Sansa that, oh, by the way, I’m not even your half-brother, I’m a Targaryen and the heir to the throne, there was a genetic mix-up. And Daenerys is delusional if she thinks things can “be the way it was between us.” But even if they don’t want to contend with each other for the throne, the narrative can’t go any other way. This is the set-up that’s been brewing for two full seasons now.
Speaking of set-up, this episode offers us a rather expository listing of exactly what the stakes are during the Targaryen/Stark King’s-Landing-invasion-planning scene. For those keeping score at home, half the Unsullied forces are gone, along with half the Northern army. All the Dothraki but a few are dead, too. The Targaryen contingent has the support of Yara Greyjoy, who has taken back the Iron Islands and all seven remaining citizens living on them, along with some unnamed Dornish prince who honestly just apparated in from another dimension I guess. The point, as the showrunners rather hamfistedly make it, is that the opposing forces are balanced, y’all, so this showdown is going to be extra nail-bitey.
All of which brings us to Daenerys’ exceedingly terrible battle plans. Did everyone suffer a collective knock on the head and forget that the last time they sailed a fleet of soldiers down south, Euron Greyjoy parachuted in like an overzealous dad on a ziplining course and burned the shit out of said fleet? Did they also misplace the memories of the giant scorpion that nearly shot down Daenerys and Drogon during the loot train sequence? Here comes the Targaryen Army, cocky as all get-out and just utterly unprepared for the fact that the Lannisters might not just stare blankly out the windows of the Red Keep and hope they go away.
I must admit some delight, however, in the fact that GoT brought the unexpected with Rhaegal’s untimely plummet from the sky. Would it really have been so easy to hide an entire fleet just behind some cliffs? I’m no seaman, but I’m guessing no. But still, the moment injected some Lannister momentum into the episode, a reminder that Cersei isn’t the type to merely hole up in the castle with her leather bodice collection while she waits for invaders to storm her walls.
Was it a misstep to kill Missandei? It was certainly something far bigger than a shame that the show’s only woman of color was chained up as she was in her childhood and made to act as some sort of token of Cersei’s bottomless wrath. But her death also robs Daenerys of her last-remaining advisor from her early Dothraki days. There is no check on her worst tendencies now. And if you’re exclaiming that this storyline about Dany’s potential madness and unfitness to rule came out of left field, please direct your attention to Exhibit A: The crucified Masters in the siege of Meereen.
I say this as a true Tyrion apostle, but the far more fascinating option would have been for Cersei to wave her hand and rain arrows down on Tyrion. She’s desperately angled to kill him for several seasons now, and even his pretty speech (“You’re not a monster. I know this because I’ve seen it. … You’ve always loved your children”) shouldn’t have saved him. Tyrion’s survival is plot armor, plain and simple, something we’d all hoped Game of Thrones would fully shake off in this last season.
It’s heartbreaking to see Grey Worm’s face crumble when Missandei’s head goes spinning off. But even more distressing is Daenerys’ determined grimace. The series’ two most logical and politically savvy operatives sit down together to hash out what ought to be done about the Targaryen/Targaryen problem, and although only one admits it, both come to the conclusion that Jon is a more fit ruler, that Daenerys might, as Varys explains “become what [she has] always struggled to defeat.”
Yes, it’s a feminist mindscrew to have a man come along at the 11th hour and charge in with a higher likability factor. But let’s be clear: It’s been obvious for some time now that Daenerys hasn’t exactly considered the plight of the common man in her recent decision-making. Her claim to the throne is lesser, her ability to woo the typical Westerosi lower. It’s utterly shitty that a man would garner better press than a woman just because he’s got the “right” genital equipment. But we’ve known for some time that the world of Game of Thrones isn’t a gender utopia. It’d be foolish to hope now that a feminist uprising might keep Daenerys as the top contender for that absurdly uncomfortable-looking metal chair. “I don’t think a cock is a true qualification,” Tyrion wisely (and rightly) tells a plotting Varys. “Cocks,” the eunuch knowingly replies, “are important, I’m afraid.” It’s not a truth we like, but it’s probably the truth we deserve.
From the Ravens
• If I ever compose a TED Talk it will be entirely about how the female populace of Westeros is foolish not to lock down Podrick Payne, Singer of Soft Rock Ballads and Keeper of a Magical Penis
• What do we think Dany whispers to Jorah’s body as she bends over him? It’s too long for “I love you.” Cue the lip-reading friend from that excellent Seinfeld.
• On that note, the “with Iain Glenn” credit in the openers had me tricked, dammit.
• Those feastgoers were remarkably well fed thanks to the fact that somebody with a uterus remembered that people need to eat, you fools.
• Suddenly Daenerys is wearing red (her house color). Cersei, too. WONDER WHAT THAT MEANS.
• Bran whispering “I don’t really want, anymore” is so Bran that the Bran-iness of it hurts me to my Bran-weary soul. Bran is your one friend who listened to Oprah’s Soul Sessions with Eckhart Tolle and now keeps explaining to everyone that he “really sees the blades of grass for the first time.” He’s that guy who insists on doing complicated inversions before the yoga teacher even arrives just to show how fully in tune his whole body is. He’s the person who lived in a yurt in the Montana hills for a summer to really “get to know himself better.” Bran is essentially, all of LA at their wheat-germiest.
• I didn’t buy a second of Bronn bursting in on Jaime and Tyrion like that with his “Hello, I happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I might come kill you two old pals” attitude. He also just waltzed off again after a five-minute detente with a “Well, let’s see how this all goes!” Isn’t he exhausted from travel? Perhaps thirsty for a horn of ale? What in the seven hells kind of plot line is this? (Sidenote: “You boys are a pair of gold-plated cunts” is an excellent line.)
• Gilly is pregnant, which is nice. Sam and Jon hugged extra hard and exchanged BFF heart necklaces, which is nice, too, but also probably very, very bad for one of them.
• There are apparently no seats on any ships built in Westeros in the past 30 years. As I have pointed out numerous times (excuse me, Messrs. Weiss and Benioff!) everyone just keeps standing awkwardly for entire sea voyages. This episode it was Missandei and Grey Worm.
• There is nothing as hilarious as the fact that Euron is so dense that he can’t see Cersei’s disgust for him written all over her face. She tells him she’s having his baby (Important: She is not.) and he beams so big and she looks like she just drank cat pee and he never caught a clue.
• Is this how we say goodbye to Tormund? Will we see him again? “You never know.”
• People seem pissed that Jon didn’t even pet Ghost goodbye, but has Ghost ever struck you as that kind of direwolf? Honestly I think he’d be insulted by that kind of paltry domesticated-dog b.s.
• Are we supposed to be charmed by Tormund’s “After all that this fucker comes North and takes her from me” line? Blech. Brienne has literally never glanced his way with anything other than contempt.
• FINALLY SOMEONE CONFIRMS THAT MY IRRITATION ABOUT THE INCEST PROBLEM IS JUSTIFIED. In his boat chat with Tyrion, Varys says that it isn’t common to marry your aunt in the North. I’ll take my winnings in Braavosi coinage, thank you very much.