“We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”
So says Tyrion Lannister regarding the plight that faces the people of Westeros — and the show that chronicles them. Yes, the dead are no more. But will the living choose to exist together as one? Or will they return to killing each other as they always have?
These questions haunt this week’s episode, titled “The Last of the Starks.” Written by co-creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss and directed by series mainstay David Nutter, it starts of in a celebratory mood, as the survivors of the Battle of Winterfell bid farewell to their fallen comrades and then drink and screw themselves into a stupor. But it ends with the gloomy, gut-wrenching prospect of even worse horrors to come — because this time, the killers will be humans.
The hour-plus begins with the exhausted veterans of last week’s apocalyptic battle burning their dead in pyres. There’s something beautiful about Jon Snow‘s eulogy here, in that he delivers it like it’s a call to arms. In a way, it is. Wracked by grief and loss to the point of sounding angry, he’s effectively begging the disparate forces gathered together to remember what these men and women died for. It’s some of Kit Harington’s most inspiring work.
After that? Party time! The long celebration sequence that follows the funeral ceremony comes across like a “one last kegger before college” teen-movie thing, with various characters opening up, hooking up or breaking up depending on the pair in question.
Arya Stark, for example, lets her one night stand Gendry —now officially Lord Baratheon of Storm’s End thanks to Daenerys — down easy. She can’t be his lady, because she’s never been a lady at all. The youngest Stark chooses to ride south with the Hound to cross the last names off their respective lists. (Cleganebowl is coming!) At least Sandor has a chance to reconnect with Sansa Stark, the “little bird” he’d tried to save long ago, before he departs.
Elsewhere, Jaime Lannister fills up on liquid courage and finally makes a move on the one woman who truly sees him for who he is: Ser Brienne of Tarth. He’s never slept with anyone other than his sister. She’s never slept with anyone at all. The heat that results even reduces poor Tormund Giantsbane to tears. (He cheers up the moment a Northern girl looks his way, however.)
To the extent that there’s dissension in the ranks, it centers on Jon and his Dragon Queen. Daenerys knows his “sister” Sansa doesn’t trust her. She also knows that if he tells her she’s not his kin at all, because he’s actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and thus the rightful Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, that mistrust will only deepen. Jon and Bran tell the Stark sisters the truth. And over their objections, the Queen of Dragons commands the Northern army to join the march on King’s Landing, to defeat Cersei once and for all.
As Dany takes to the skies with her dragons and Jon rides south with the armies, Jaime elects to stay in the North with Brienne. Why not? She loves him, he loves her — and he and his brother Tyrion have bought themselves a little insurance against their old pal Bronn by promising to make him Lord of Highgarden if he refuses Cersei’s order to murder them. It’s all rather cheery.
Of course, the mood changes a bit when the dragon gets shot out of the sky.
No sooner does Dany’s fleet swing around her ancestral home of Dragonstone than Euron Greyjoy lets fly with the biggest scaled-up crossbow the world has ever seen. The bolt that pierces Rhaegal takes the beast down in a gurgling gusher of blood; they then turn on the Targaryen fleet, smashing its flagship to smithereens. A weapon’s-eye-view shot as the pirate king switches targets from the sky to the sea provides the ambush with a dark “oh shit!” thrill on the level of the army of Mordor rolling out that big-ass battering ram in The Return of the King.
From that point forward the episode is one long anxiety attack. Dany and her council debate whether to sack King’s Landing outright. Tyrion and Varys debate whether to cast her aside and raise up Jon in her place to avoid further slaughter. In the North, Sansa sneers at her rival’s misfortune, while Jaime abandons a devastated Brienne to ride to his sister’s aide, convinced in the end that he’s as irredeemable as she is.
Over it all hangs the threat of Missandei, one of the best and brightest people in the whole World of Ice and Fire; she’s been taken captive by Cersei, one of the worst. This seedy, almost noirish atmosphere of secrets, skullduggery and cold-blooded murder provides a grim counterpoint to both the cheerfulness of the opening half and the operatic horror of last week’s battle.
When Daenerys and her forces come to parley with Cersei at the city walls, they find Khaleesi’s right-hand woman at the wall’s edge, awaiting execution. Unless the Queen of Dragons surrenders immediately, her closest friend and advisor will die on the spot. So they learn from Qyburn, the creepy Hand of the Queen. With a dazzling sunlit backdrop, the mad maester talks to his counterpart the Imp about the sound of children burning alive — like it’s an annoying song that gets stuck in your head rather than a war atrocity.
In a last-ditch effort to keep the peace, Tyrion risks the arrows of the Lannisters’ hired soldiers and pleads directly to his sister in the name of her unborn baby. (Cersei had told Euron the baby was his; he’s gotta be wondering how word traveled this fast.) But in this contest of wills there can be no bargain.
Offering Missandei a chance to deliver her last words — “Dracarys,” she defiantly growls — the Lion Queen signals to Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. He takes the prisoner’s head off with a stroke … and sends both Grey Worm and Dany into paroxysms of grief and rage.
Only two more episodes remain. The show has a visual confidence that seems way more impervious to criticism than dragons are to scorpion bolt, with last week’s symphony of flame and darkness replaced by madness in broad daylight. It hasn’t missed a step thematically, moving from humanity’s need to stop killing itself and face a common threat to its compulsion to annihilation even after seeing what it can accomplish as a united front. And as two Queens threaten to destroy everything around them, the focus is on individual relationships: family, friendship, love. That’s how you play the game.
Previously: The Battle of Winterfell