How Episode 4 made me excited about a Iron Throne focused ending instead of a White Walker one
I have a deep love for episode 3, Season 8 of Game of Thrones ‘The Long Night’. The episode was incredibly divisive, but that did not dull its brilliance to me.
When Arya shanked the Night King, resulting in he and his other popsicle buddies shattering into the night air, I could not help but think “Uh oh.” I got worried. Concerned. My trepidations were coming true: the life vs death storyline was wrapping up far too soon, and now the second half of the season that focused on the Iron Throne was going to seem trite in comparison.
Until, that is, episode 4 ‘The Last of the Starks’ premiered this past Sunday, and completely changed my opinion. After watching those 78 minutes, I’ve gone a full 180. Episode 4 convinced me completely that I’m not just fine with the Iron Throne being the central plot of the final three episodes, I am damn excited about it.
This is how I was persuaded.
Back before Season 8 premiered I confided to my wife two things: Yes, I do know where she hides the secret cookies in the house, but more importantly I was concerned about the structure of the final Game of Thrones season. It seemed by how things were left at the end of Season 7 that the battle with the Night King was going to happen before the final tilt with Cersei.
Obviously at that point, any number of things could have been true. My personal thought was that there would be a battle or siege at Winterfell which would result in some kind of draw or ceasefire while the dead surged on through the rest of Westeros, meaning half our heroes had to go south and deal with all that (plus Cersei), before returning to Winterfell for that climatic decision of life versus death, or to put it another way, the thing the series has been building to for eight years.
It didn’t turn out that way. Again, I must stress that I have zero problem with ‘The Long Night’; I love it to pieces. In a vacuum. When I started thinking of the implications, I got slightly touchier. In my mind it would be a huge shame if that really was the end of the magic/white walker arc. I believed this was the central story, it was what the series was ultimately about. I had always thought that the entire point was all these nobles arguing over a chair that didn’t really matter because the true threat was coming down from the north.
So the idea of that being dealt with (Again, I’ve got no problem with how it was dealt with) before Cersei seemed backward on two levels. Firstly, the narrative as just discussed. The White Walkers were the first scene of the show, half the final shots of a season, the entire marketing campaign, the Stark words etc etc, but also from an in-universe perspective. The survivors of Winterfell narrowly escaped the most horrific kind of ordeal imaginable; a fight where they literally had to face hordes of dead people and a king who created them. They were supposed to turn around and still care about a queen thousands of miles away and a battle that didn’t even really affect them (the smallfolk anyway)? It seemed disingenuous.
Regardless, I held out hope. I figured maybe we’d get two episodes of Daenerys vs Cersei with some Jon mixed in for fun, and then the Night King threat would return in some way in the final episode as the real last enemy. Keeps me happy, wraps everything in a little bow, and gives a bit more depth to the whole point of Bran.
I would be lying if I didn’t say a part of me still thinks that might be on the cards in some form, but it almost doesn’t matter. Episode 4’s return to politics and human conflict was so good I am completely on board with Cersei/The Iron Throne/ our characters themselves being the final focus.
Before we get to the episode itself though, I must credit someone else with opening my mind to this avenue of thinking. History of Westeros’ Ashaya already began talking about this prior to Episode 4 and I believe has been thinking about it for some time. I’m paraphrasing, but her thinking boils down to the story actually being about how these complex, layered characters will face the ultimate ending and enemy, defeat it, and then still ultimately be their own worst enemy by continuing to destroy themselves. Essentially, humanity is its own villain. She relates it to this quote from the World of Ice and Fire book:
Yet the Great Empire of the Dawn was not reborn, for the restored world was a broken place where every tribe of men went its own way, fearful of all the others, and war and lust and murder endured, even to our present day. Or so the men and women of the Further East believe.
That is in reference to the original Long Night, so it makes sense we are seeing something similar after the second. Heroes victorious against the throes of evil, heroes who are still human and destroy themselves thusly. Hearing Ashaya talk about this on the History of Westeros show-to-book livestream really opened my third eye. I had thought the overall message of the story weakened by the Night King dying early, but now I have a new narrative to consider.
And it does fit with George/the series’ trademarks. If this had been any other series, it would have ended with the young hero defeating the evil king in the eleventh hour. Story done. But George has always been obsessed with after. He famously quoted about the ending of The Lord of the Rings and how he thought on Aragorn’s rule after the fact, and all those little orc babies. He has also commented about how A Song of Ice and Fire is a story about after the main hero (Rhaegar) has already died. It is yet another subversion of common fantasy tropes and makes the pieces fit much more than you’d think.
After the dealing with the supernatural, other-worldly beings made of ice who don’t even talk we are returned to the human element. True, the first three episodes of Season 8, and especially the first two, did deal heavily with the humanity going on inside Winterfell, but it was always against the backdrop of people who thought they were going to die within the next day. They united, finally and beautifully, against a common enemy. But now we see what happens when that enemy goes, and the idea of living returns, as does ambition and self-preservation.
Before we get to the slightly shadier sides of society ‘The Last of the Starks’ reminds us of the good. After a highly emotional mourning ceremony for the fallen we are treated to the Winterfell party scene, where the human element really bleeds in. Where Episode two ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ featured friends gathering for one final drink in front of a fire we now have a hall full of people cheering, drinking, eating together. A cheer for Gendry, a drinking game for Brienne. Podrick and Tormund leave with some lady companions. There is laughter in the north again.
But before this party even ends, we get two reminders:
Firstly, not everyone is in the party mood.
Secondly, the rest of the world still exists.
The mood first. While the masses turn from reserved to happy, some of our main characters go the other way. We see Daenerys watching Jon and begin to think on what she learnt before the battle. We see Varys watching her in turn and begin to show concern. We see Jon click that not everything is grand, while Sansa walks away from the table entirely. It is only hinted at so far, but as viewers our minds are being slowly turned away from the Battle of Winterfell.
Now the former. As mentioned, Gendry is announced Lord of Storm’s End during the feast. When is the last time you heard Storm’s End mentioned on this show? The Vale, Dorne and the Iron Islands are all quoted at various points. In Bronn’s lone scene both Riverrun and Highgarden are brought up. Daenerys and company all visit Dragonstone before the action swings to King’s Landing. The point is this: the bubble has burst. A season that has been almost entirely focused on Winterfell is now wide open again. The board has been put back on the table, and our players need to inhabit it once more. It is a reminder that the whole time they have been busy have been defending Winterfell the rest of the world hasn’t stopped, and now they all need to catch up.
That is the macro view, the overall, which is important, but Game of Thrones has always been about the micro, the people. Their stories and wants and desires are all returned to us in a sudden flood, before we can even get done with the feast. It makes sense. If you had just faced the armies of darkness and lived, wouldn’t you want to live life to the full? (Certainly what Sandor suggests) If you had survived all that, wouldn’t you be thinking “I can do anything”?
That comes at a cost. We have so many characters, of so many backgrounds and paths, that they are simply too interweaving for everyone to get what they want. It puts us viewers right in the middle. We love multiple characters, but it’s as plain as day on the screen as it always has been, not everyone is going to get what they want. More likely, they’ll get the opposite.
There is a quick turn after the feast ends, and those hints about motivation turn to outright statements. Daenerys wants to go and take the Iron Throne from Cersei. Conversely, Sansa wants to preserve and protect the north and its people. Jon is originally concerned with the truth and then with doing right by his queen. The Stark siblings want to be together. That’s just the big dogs. We have Jaime finally giving into his love for Brienne before being sharply reminded of his sister. Sandor Clegane rides south for his unfinished business. Missandei and Grey Worm just want to hold hands. There’s too many for them to not come into conflict with each other.
I’ve already mentioned Sansa and Daenerys clashing over the course of action for their armies. We see Daenerys as we’ve never seen her before when she begs Jon to keep his identity secret. Almost immediately Jon comes into conflict with his own family and gives up the truth. When Tyrion and Sansa differ on opinion Sansa reveals everything to Tyrion after swearing she would not. All the individuals and mini parties are pulling in different directions yet weaving together. It is Thrones as we’ve always known it, and the worst part is there are favourites on every team.
So quickly have we gone from the fight for survival to the backdoor, under-the-table deals and questionable decisions. We have been transported, quickly, from a very clear situation of black and white to the complex muddy grey that we’ve been watching for seven plus seasons now. Put simply, it feels like we are back in Game of Thrones.
Just as suddenly those worries about our players and their desires are not so theoretical. The players are back out on the board, and it does not go well.
While there are smaller examples from other characters, the obvious focus of this episode and the key reason for my turnaround is the mental state of Daenerys. I think an absolutely wonderous job is done of showing us how Daenerys feels throughout ‘The Last of the Starks’. This is a woman we have seen grow from slave to Khaleesi to chain-breaker to essential messiah to queen. We’ve been there supporting her for each moment and now, after what should be the greatest victory possible, we see her being dragged back down to earth by this human element.
Tormund doesn’t make it easy on her during the Winterfell scene. Despite his toasting of the Dragon Queen he really does emphasise the words ‘Man’ and ‘King’ when praising Jon, and we can see the chills go down Dany’s spine. Knowing his secret, she also finally has time to consider it, and the pieces begin to fit together in her mind. If the world knew, they would support Jon over her. It is because of her being a stranger, it is because of her being a woman, both equally unfair. After all she has achieved, to see it possibly taken away because of gender or not being in Westeros all her life (which is where she always wanted to be) is obviously heart breaking. It is no surprise to see her resort to begging Jon for silence. Whether we believe it to be a fair or unfair request, it makes sense. Jon soon betrays his promise, something Daenerys does not even know yet, but as she goes south more woe follows her. Rhaegal, her second child dies. Her best friend, whose entire arc has been about freedom, is captured. Her fleet is scuppered, and the first attempt of her attack turned back. Forced to limp to Dragonstone we are given a glimpse of Daenerys pitting her desire for A) Revenge and B) a quick victory against the advice of Varys and Tyrion. Again, we as viewers are pulled in two directions. We want Daenerys to succeed. We do not want her to burn thousands of innocents alive to do it.
Which brings in the other focus of the episode, in my humble opinion: Varys and Tyrion dealing with their slow realisation of what is happening to Daenerys. Tyrion starts out steadfast: He champions Daenerys first to Sansa before he leaves, and then to Varys after learning of Jon’s true identity. To Sansa he insists that he believes in Daenerys, that her people adore her, but Sansa aptly smacks back that Tyrion is afraid of her. Tyrion responds with a deflection, a technique he keeps up throughout the episode:
- On Daenerys frightening him, he responds all rulers have to inspire a bit of fear
- On the idea Daenerys does not like her authority to be challenge; he says it is a trait shared with every monarch who ever lived.
- On Daenerys sharing a trait with other tyrants in that she believes she is linked to destiny, Tyrion opines that maybe she is, she did walk into a fire and come out with dragons, after all.
The conversations between Imp and Spider are even stronger than usual as they grapple with the possibility of Daenerys not being their best choice. Varys hits and hits and hits at Tyrion, forcing him on the defensive. All the while we see the truth on Tyrion’s face, and we see him drink more than usual. A sure sign of his mindset.
The interaction between the three after Euron’s attack is fascinating to watch. Daenerys is at her lowest in years, while Varys and Tyrion very clearly have their concerns on their mind. It is another heart-breaking moment when Daenerys begins talking about destiny. Even when she agrees with Varys that a parlay with Cersei would look better to the smallfolk, she laces it with her reasoning being that the people should “Know who to blame when the sky falls down upon them.” She seems almost resigned to the fact that this is going to end badly. Even with Varys laying it out for both her and us “Do not become what you’ve always struggled to defeat”, her mindset is becoming clearer and clearer. Throughout this whole scene you can almost feel Varys kicking Tyrion under the table whispering “See! See!”
The destiny talk is particularly worrisome. Daenerys sounds like a woman with her mind made up and a justification found. Tyrion hears it. Varys hears it. And so do we.
It is in the following scene that Varys has his best speech in years when he reminds Tyrion of exactly who he serves. He makes another play for Jon Snow. Tyrion makes another for marriage. The two bat back at each other but in the end it comes down to Tyrion sounding like he is persuading himself more than Varys, and Varys perhaps seeing that his own persuasion is having no effect. It is another chilling, but awesome, moment to see Varys lay down his loyalty to the people, whatever that might bring.
If we weren’t concerned before, we certainly are after Missandei’s beheading. The face of Daenerys is not exactly hard to read in the moments after. The same can be said for Tyrion. He walked up to a wall full of archers and a sister who would like nothing more than to see him dead in a last-ditch effort to avoid that Daenerys face, and it didn’t work.
It makes it all the more tragic that we know exactly why Dany feels that way. We know that she has lost Ser Jorah, Missandei and Rhaegal almost all at once. She is alone. The north never welcomed her. Her trusted advisors are gone, as are her best friend and two of her children. Everything she worked so hard for is within grasp…but seems like she’ll never touch it. He has clung to believing in Daenerys all through this episode, and yet he knows what is about to happen.
How can anyone not find this situation anything less than thrilling? The possibilities that race through the mind…if Daenerys will give in and grant Missandei’s final wish of dragon fire, what Tyrion and Varys might end up doing to stop it, Jon Snow possibly arriving to find a King’s Landing in chaos as Ned did all those years to go…it is heart-pumping stuff that I cannot wait to see the resolution of.
Our characters, united just an episode ago, are now scattered amongst destiny and family and truth and loyalty and what is best. They are leaves in a wind, with some striving out towards bad decisions and some unaware of what’s even happening to them. What we do know is it is coming to a head. There will be a battle, there are sure to be betrayals, there is a Game to be played and players to play it.
Do I still hope for an eventual return of the Night King/White Walker threat? Sure. If I had my way, we would have much of the battle for King’s Landing in the next episode with it being linked to a true defeat of the Night’s King…but it seems unlikely. And that’s fine.
Thanks to episode 4, and to Ashaya’s way of thinking, I am ready to go all in on the Iron Throne being the final summit of Game of Thrones. The human element, the lengths our favourite characters are willing to go, the possible rise and fall of heroes…I am incredibly excited to see just how humanity manages to destroy itself, all in the name of a Throne.
I believe Tyrion said it best to Ser Davos at the Winterfell feast:
“We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”