Last night’s “The Last of the Starks” had its strengths. The opening scene at funeral pyre was achingly somber and magisterial. And the dueling conversations between Tyrion, Sansa and Varys over what to make of Daenerys cut right to the heart of Game of Thrones’ long-running themes. But the strains the show has placed itself under were also on full display.
While Rhaegal’s death was a genuine out-of-left-field shock, it was also the second time Euron’s Ironborn have ambushed Daenerys’ fleet, with no explanation as to how they pulled it off. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to perform a herculean task cutting George R.R. Martin’s bloated epic down to size. Sometimes they do this well and sometimes not. But it seems clear that eight seasons just isn’t enough time, especially considering the deliberate pace the show set early in its run. Now they’re relying on plot turns that feel convenient but forced.
Another aspect that suffered was Jamie and Brienne. The show’s hinted for seasons that they might get together. They’re a wonderfully oddball pairing with enormous history, and using the return of Tyrion’s drinking game to get the ball rolling was a wonderful touch. (Seeing Jamie, Tyrion, Podrick and Brienne drunkenly yuck it up was one of my favorite moments.) But the consummation itself seemed a tad rushed, not to mention the speed at which Jamie swung back to Cersei. I can believe that, once the battle against the White Walkers was over, he’d decide to return to her. But again, what’s lacking is the show’s old deliberative pace.
That said, the moment when Jamie confessed the full extent of his crimes was revelatory. It was disturbing to see someone as formidable as Brienne reduced to a sobbing wreck. And the self-loathing coursing through Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance was something behold. There’s an interesting ambiguity here: If Jamie knows both he and Cersei are hateful, is he returning to King’s Landing to protect his sister, or to kill the things he hates?
Daenerys’ evolution into the monster she’s fought against has suffered similar problems.
As a narrative idea, it’s great. But in actual execution it’s been roughly sketched. Missandei’s climactic death was riveting television: along with the loss of Rhaegal, it was a doom-laden twist to pitch Daenerys over into full blood-and-fire mode. (Missandei’s final utterance of “dracarys” — the order in Valyrian Daenerys gives to unleash her dragons — was pitch perfect.)
At the same time, Missandei’s beheading honestly felt, well, safe. It’s never been clear whether Benioff and Weiss share Martin’s instinct for subversion, or could continue it once they outpaced the source material. Missandei is a beloved character, but she’s also part of the second tier cast. Killing her to push the main characters into their designated destinies is a bog standard traditional plotting choice. Imagine, if you will, that Tyrion got his head lopped off by the Mountain last night. Admittedly, I don’t know if Cersei actually has it in her to kill her brother at the end of they day, but a turn like that feels more in keeping with Martin’s ethos. Tyrion was on the same boat as Missandei, so it would’ve worked plot-wise. He could still have had his crucial discussions with Varys and Sansa, and could even have still made his final plea to Cersei’s humanity.
In many ways, Tyrion’s inability to decide what to make of his Dragon Queen was the core of last night’s arc. He actually managed to deliver some of the best defenses of Daenerys that we’ve heard in a while: Rulers do need to inspire a bit of fear; the circumstances of Daenerys’ long, slow rise really would convince most human beings they’re meant greatness; and she doesn’t need to be perfect because saving you from your faults really is why rulers have advisors. Tyrion even managed to cut a bit into the usually impenetrable Varys, whose devotion to “the realm” seemed a touch too abstract for the first time. Propping up and then disposing of rulers the second they disappoint you really isn’t the kind of thing you can carry on indefinitely. Eventually, you have to pick someone, roll the dice, and see it through.
The problem underlying all this — and it came through brutally clear in Peter Dinklage’s performance — is Tyrion’s own gnawing desperation. His points aren’t wrong; he’s too intelligent a man to make bad arguments. But they also increasingly feel like juggling acts; clever ploys so Tyrion can avoid staring a simple truth clear in the face. Sansa, as is her wont, cut to the bone of the matter when she noted that Tyrion himself is afraid of Daenerys now.
“Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?” Varys asks him. Both he and Tyrion and Daenerys herself all know that question points to Jon. He isn’t a brilliant tactician, on or off the battlefield. But as Tormund puts it, Jon just keeps fighting, because he’s that bullheaded and determined to do the right thing, even if doing the right thing and making everyone happy and holding together all the jagged pieces of the world cannot go together. That sort of quality inspires love in people, because it’s a reciprocal relationship: It’s not just bending the knee. Ironically, that was exactly the kind of devotion Daenerys inspired across the Narrow Sea, and it’s the devotion she’s been unable to conjure here in Westeros. Having experienced that devotion first hand, she knows Jon will never be able to control it if word of his true parentage gets out — no matter how seriously Jon may take his own oaths.
It’s a neat touch how Jon isn’t the only one who can’t quite see this train barreling down at them. Tyrion can’t as well. His belief that the better parts of Cersei can triumph is in many was an extension of his belief that the better parts of Daenerys can triumph. But Cersei once told Ned Stark that when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. She clearly believes that, and executes Missandei because she can’t conceive of a scenario where she surrenders and she and her child live. (Of course, her decision is also the very thing that guarantees her cynicism will be proven right.) Meanwhile, it was ugly to see Daenerys convince herself that Cersei should be allowed to surrender, simply so the gambit will fail and the population of King’s Landing will learn its lesson for following the wrong monarch. But she was, for a moment, willing to entertain Tyrion’s council for a different course. Now that willingness is certainly gone.
Game of Thrones started out by pitching Tyrion as the cynical, knowing opposite to Ned Stark’s straightforward sense of honor. But now Daenerys has gotten under his skin, which also revealed how Tyrion, for all his rage at them, has always been wounded and earnest and in pain when it comes to his family. Tyrion’s gamble last night was that you could play the game of thrones and preserve both your morality and your life. And that gamble failed spectacularly.
In the end, Tyrion wound up in exactly same place Ned Stark did. So while I’m not sure it would’ve worked for the larger narrative, it certainly would’ve been poetic if Tyrion had lost his head last night.