Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in an increasingly rare happy moment.
Image: All images: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Unless last week was your first episode of Game of Thrones (which, weird) you’ve known the defeat of the White Walkers wasn’t going to suddenly fix everything. In fact, as last night’s episode reveals, in some ways victory has made things worse. Because now that the dead have been dealt with, Daenerys and Cersei are finally free to start destroying each other—and the gods help anyone who happens to be in the way.

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Like the much of the show’s final season thus far, “The Last of the Starks” had its problems, but it was also pretty riveting. It begins with a giant funeral for those who died in the fight (they all get burned, which would probably be a very good funeral policy for the North moving forward, I think), then moves into a giant feast in celebration of saving the world from the frozen dead. All these disparate people came together for a common goal, and now they’re comrades…at least for a little bit.

The unity between Daenerys and the North begins to fray and fall apart almost immediately. It’s done mostly in silent looks between characters and solid acting by the performers, who get more tense and unhappy even as everyone else parties around them. Sansa watches Daenerys use the celebration to try to win over the people of the North, and increasingly distrusts the queen. Daenerys sees all the people of the North fawn over Jon Snow (including a horrendously on-the-nose moment where Tormund screams how Jon is a king for riding a dragon, like he’s the first person to have managed such a feat, all while Dany is sitting about 15 feet away) and grows increasingly distressed over her nephew’s popularity…and his secret claim to the throne. Jon, meanwhile, feels everything falling apart and just gets more and more miserable.

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Of course, nothing’s ever so bad on Game of Thrones that a male Stark can’t make it worse by making an incredibly stupid yet technically “honorable” decision. Dany corners Jon after the party asking, demanding, and outright begging him not to tell anyone about his true identity. While she’s asking primarily so her claim to the throne isn’t questioned or endangered, she’s also not wrong; every person who knows Aegon Targaryen exists makes it more likely for the secret to get out, which would push Westeros into even more chaos. As Jon has pledged his fealty to Daenerys and sworn an oath to lead the North to fight to get her on that throne, you might think he’d obey this very sensible request—especially since he very, very much does not want to be king himself.

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) seen about as happy as he ever gets, which is to say “not very.”

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You might think that, but then you’d be forgetting Jon Snow is an idiot.

Somewhere in that brain of his, he feels he has to tell the truth to Sansa and Arya, because they’re his family. So he does. This is pretty dumb, both for Jon and on a story level, because there’s no code of honor that requires you tell your family everything, otherwise good ol’ Ned would have been forced to tell the entire Stark clan about Jon’s real parents. As Daenerys correctly points out, it’s also wildly dangerous to specifically tell Sansa, who would much prefer her half-brother/cousin rules Westeros, for obvious reasons. Also, Daenerys is miserable knowing the truth that after all her struggles and tragedies, someone else technically has a better right to the Iron Throne. And it’s maddening. She wishes Jon never told her, and it’s clear Jon wishes he’d never been told either, because then he could continue having sex with his aunt in blissful ignorance. This secret has ruined everything between them.

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Honestly, it’s the kind of stupid decision Jon has had to periodically make to keep the show’s overall plot conflicted and dramatic, and in this sense, boy does it work. After realizing Tyrion has some fears about the queen’s increasing ruthlessness, Sansa tells him there’s actually another option as to who might rule Westeros. Tyrion of course tells Varys, who, after seeing how easily Jon united the North, the Wildings, and Daenerys and her armies together, starts leaning very strongly towards Jon’s candidacy. With both her two biggest advisors secretly wondering if she’s the right person for the job, things are not looking good for Daenerys.

And then they get much, much worse.

While Jon and Davos march south with the armies, Daenerys and the rest sail to King’s Landing to begin this “final war” by striking first. Instead, she watches as another of her dragons, Rhaegal, is riddled with giant crossbow bolts and falls dead into the sea. It turns out Cersei has been quite busy while the dead were invading the north, as she’s outfitted all of Euron Greyjoy’s ships with new-and-improved giant crossbow scorpions. And when Daenerys is forced to fly away on Drogon, lest he get killed as well, it turns out the ballista can tear apart ships as easily as dragons. Daenerys’ fleet is trounced yet again, and the survivors can only wash ashore and regroup, but Missandei gets captured during the chaos.

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Let’s talk about the scorpions for a minute, because good grief. I thought it was ridiculous last season when Bronn got in a giant crossbow cockpit, like he was blasting TIE Fighters on the Millennium Falcon. Now the scorpions are somehow more powerful, more accurate, can seemingly reload instantly, and there was somehow enough time to make them in a Kraken design so they’re on brand for the Iron Islanders. Also, it turns out there are somehow dozens of even bigger, more powerful scorpions lining the top of the walls of King’s Landing. It seems really silly to say that these giant crossbow cannons don’t work within the verisimilitude of a show about dragons and magic ice zombies, but…I don’t think these giant crossbow cannons work within the verisimilitude of this show about dragons and magic ice zombies. Still, it certainly negates the advantage Dany’s dragons provide/provided and there are only two more episodes to go. There’s not any point in getting too bothered by them now.

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Daenerys, and Varys (Conleth Hill) seem unaware they’re about to get their asses kicked.

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We’ve seen Daenerys turn from “Breaker of Chains” to “Woman Who Has to Occasionally Be Reminded Generally Attacking King’s Landing Is a Bad Idea.” The death of Rhaegal, the capture of Missandei, and yet another ass-kicking seem to transform her into “Woman Who Plans on Breaking Chains and Is Willing to Kill as Many People as Necessary to Do So, and Also the Chain’s Name Is Cersei.”

Daenerys literally says, “I am here to rid the world of tyrants and I will serve it no matter the cost,” which does not bode well for the poor people being tyrannized. Daenerys is now so determined to kill Cersei and get back her throne that she absolutely does not care about the lives of all the smallfolk in King’s Landing, who will certainly perish if she full-on attacks the city.

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All that Tyrion can manage to do is to get Dany to agree to give Cersei a chance to surrender, which isn’t a particularly good idea but despite everything, the increasingly sentimental Tyrion genuinely wants to give his sister—and her baby-to-be—a chance to live. Daenerys only agrees to make the offer so that when Cersei inevitably refuses, the people of King’s Landing know it’s her fault when Daenerys starts burning the city down along with everyone in it…right before they turn to ash, I presume.

After all his work trying to get a compassionate ruler on the Iron Throne, Varys is not down with this. He and Tyrion have another discussion about Daenerys’ fitness to rule Westeros, and now Varys is fully ready to jump ship to the S.S. Jon Snow, since he’s 1) more compassionate, 2) is a natural leader, 3) has the better claim to the throne anyway, 4) has a penis (because the various lords will absolutely be more accepting of a king than a queen), and 5) Jon doesn’t actually want to be king, which may be the key to being a good ruler. Tyrion still believes Daenerys can be guided back becoming the queen they once believed in, but Tyrion is pointedly also getting very, very drunk. It’s absolutely one of the best conversations in recent Game of Thrones memory, and it ends with Varys seemingly ready to knock Daenerys out of the picture—much like all the bad kings he served before—and a miserable Tyrion not knowing what to do or how to fix the situation.

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Euron (Pilou Asbaek) has no idea how strong Cersei’s (Lena Headey) smug face game is.

As it turns out, Cersei does not want to surrender to the woman whose dragon she just killed and fleet she just sank. In fact, Cersei is smug as hell, and Lena Headey just kills it as a woman whose only passion is destroying the woman trying to steal the Iron Throne, and is doing a fabulous job at it. Despite Tyrion’s very heartfelt plea to his sister to surrender and live, and to let all the people in King’s Landing live, the smirking Cersei simply trots out the captured Missandei, and has the Mountain behead her in front of Daenerys and Grey Worm and the others. Dany storms away, and there’s nothing but pure hate on her face, for the woman currently sitting on her throne, and the desire to make her pay...no matter the cost to anyone. If they didn’t hate each other so much, Cersei and Daenerys would discover they have a great deal in common.

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Even though the story was told at lightspeed again, even though Jon made a tremendously dumb choice just to generate conflict, even despite those dumb gating-crossbow-cannons, “The Last of the Starks” was weirdly satisfying in a way last week’s battle against the White Walkers wasn’t. A huge amount of this is because we haven’t been anticipating the aftermath of that war for eight years, but watching our heroes’ alliance already fall apart because of human nature and grim reality feels like the core of Game of Thrones. In a way, it makes “The Long Night” feel like the aberration—like it was good the show knocked out that crazy fight between the living and the dead it had been teasing since 2011, so it could get back to the important stuff.

There’s also something that just feels so right about so many characters being desperately unhappy after winning the epic fantasy battle that was ostensibly the main conflict of the show. Daenerys has lost another battle, another dragon, the man she loves, and, technically, her claim to the Iron Throne. Tyrion has lost his queen to her desire for blood and fire, and is going to lose his sister and her child. Jon has lost the woman he loves, and has gained the horrible knowledge that in a sense he’s responsible for most of the bloodshed in Westeros for the last 30 years, since Rhaegar Targaryen’s love for Lyanna Stark is what started Robert’s Rebellion, the war that laid the foundation for most of the violence and death that’s occurred since season one—as well as all violence and death yet to come in the final two episodes.

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If Daenerys and Cersei get their way, that’s going to be quite a lot. And as bleak as that it, it also feels very, very right for Game of Thrones.

If this photo was in black and white it would look like it was taken at a renaissance festival in 1888.

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Assorted Musings:

  • So many other things happened in this episode, but first, let’s do a quick rundown of all the other main characters that are still in play. The Hound and Arya are traveling together to King’s Landing, the former surely to confront his brother the Mountain, and Arya presumably to finally kill Cersei. However…
  • …Jaime also leaves Winterfell, telling Brienne he’s running back to Cersei, but we all know he’s going to confront her, and my money’s on him being the one to stop the Mad Queen as a parallel to him killing the Mad King all those years ago. Did anyone watching actually think Jaime was going back to Cersei’s side?
  • Bronn pops up almost literally out of thin air to menace Jaime and Tyrion with that giant crossbow Cersei gave him to murder her brothers. Tyrion promises Bronn if Cersei loses he’ll get to rule Highgarden instead of merely Riverrun, which is a promise Tyrion absolutely cannot keep, but Bronn buys for some reason. Then he disappears. It’s a weird scene, and I have no idea where this little storyline is going, but Bronn assassinating Tyrion out of the blue one day does not sound narratively satisfying to me.
  • I assume Sam and Tormund’s goodbye to Jon was also for the series as a whole. I guess it’s nice that Ghost gets to run free north of the Wall, a.k.a Westeros’ farm upstate, but it would have been nice if Ghost had gotten more to do that merely pop up on-screen a couple of times purely as proof that the showrunners hadn’t forgotten he was still alive.
  • When Gilly tells Jon that if she and Sam have a son they want to name it Jon, Jon tells them he hopes it’s a girl, which is very, very sad. This is a man who considers his existence nothing but trouble.
  • Jaime and Brienne finally hooking up didn’t really land for me, although the scene of Jaime leaving did. Of course he’s self-loathing enough to tell Brienne he’s leaving to rejoin Cersei in that stupid way people do because they think being awful somehow makes it less painful for loved ones when they abandon them. Also, Gwendoline Christie has an absolutely heartbreaking cry face.
  • I don’t want to talk about whatever the hell was going on in the Sansa/Hound reunion. You guys feel free to knock yourselves out.
  • During the party, Tormund very loudly talks about Jon getting murdered and coming back to life. Daenerys very clearly hears this, yet is somehow not at all interested. It’s weird.
  • Also during the party, Daenerys calls out Gendry as the bastard son of the usurper who killed her family and drove them off their rightful throne and out of Westeros, in a very sinister way. Then she names him Lord of Storm’s End, which is a great move; it makes her look incredibly benevolent and forgiving, but it also asserts her power because she’s very publicly showing she’s in charge of deciding what happens in Westeros. Then poor Gendry asks Arya to be his lady, but Arya gives him a hard pass. She’s got people to kill!
  • On that note: Okay, as far as we know, there are only two people left on Arya’s kill list: 1) Cersei, 2) the Mountain, and 3) Ilyn Payne, the executioner who beheaded Ned back in season one, under Joffrey’s orders. Since I’m fully convinced Jaime will be the one to kill Cersei, and the Hound will obviously re-kill his brother, I don’t really know what Arya’s going to do in King’s Landing. I can’t imagine the show would let her kill the Night King and Cersei (who is effectively the show’s second big bad), but it would feel very Game of Thrones for her, after having been an unstoppable murder machine for seasons now, to get herself killed while leaving her final goal unfulfilled.
  • I know Kit Harington sometimes gets knocked for his acting, but the scene where he’s kissing Dany and you can practically see him remember that she’s his aunt and push her away was wonderful.
  • Jon to Tormund: “Vomiting is not celebrating.” Tormund, after considering it for a second: “Yes it is.”

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