4:08 am EDT, May 6, 2019

‘Game of Thrones’ 8×04 review: Hear her roar

After the battle, it was the hearts of women who ruled the day on Game of Thrones 8×04, “The Last of the Starks.”

Following up on last week’s epic, muddy, dark, and controversial episode, Game of Thrones 8×04 arrived to clear the air and… yup, provide more controversy. Consumptions, secrets, betrayals, and murder all punctuated “The Last of Starks,” to emphatically mixed results.

But first!

What happened in ‘Game of Thrones’ 8×04?

After burning their pallets upon pallets of dead, the survivors of the War for the Dawn celebrate with booze, sex, and dark looks. Daenerys legitimizes Gendry and names him Lord of Storm’s End, which prompts him to propose to Arya. She turns him down, somberly telling him that she is no lady. Jaime and Brienne finally, really, actually hook up and it’s shockingly sweet. For now.

Dany leaves the party, disturbed by the accolades and attention lavished on Jon. Sansa speaks with the Hound, crediting her previous torture with her new steely personality. Dany tells Jon her fears that he will be made to usurp her claim. He swears that she is his queen, but does not promise not to tell Sansa and Arya of his true identity.

Assessing their much-depleted forces, Dany agrees to hold off on attacking King’s Landing and gather her strength at Dragonstone. Sansa objects to her shipping off with exhausted soldiers and insists on waiting, but the massive Sansa-Dany tension is broken by Jon’s affirmation that the North will march with their queen.

In the Godswood, the Stark siblings convene and Jon tells Arya and Sansa his true identity — but not before making them swear never to reveal it. After Bronn shows up and threatens Jaime and Tyrion with a crossbow unless they make him Lord of Highgarden, Tyrion urges Sansa to cool it with the Dany hate. She confesses Jon’s secret to Tyrion. Jon takes his leave of Winterfell, Tormund, Sam and Gilly, and Ghost, heading south to fight for Dany.

While Tyrion spills the beans to Varys but continues to defend Dany, the Dragon Queen’s flight to Dragonstone is horrifically interrupted by Euron Greyjoy’s fleet. Rhaegal is shot out of the sky and her fleet ripped to tinder by Euron’s ballistas. The survivors drag themselves to the shores of Dragonstone, and Grey Worm realizes that Missandei is missing, captured by Euron.

Cersei is pleased and opens the gates of King’s Landing to the smallfolk, forcing Dany to abstain from dragon fire or burn thousands of innocents. Cersei tells Euron that she is pregnant with his child, and they are super happy and evil together.

Varys and Tyrion try to dissuade Dany from attacking King’s Landing, but she has decided that she is destined by her miraculous past to take down the tyrant Cersei. Dany grudgingly agrees that they will deliver an ultimatum and demand Cersei’s surrender. Tyrion and Varys debate what to do about their zealous queen; Varys comes down against her, while Tyrion is with her to the end.

News of the defeat arrives at Winterfell, and Sansa and Brienne inform Jaime. That night, Jaime leaves for King’s Landing, leaving Brienne weeping behind him.

As Cersei and her people watch from the ballista-bristling walls of King’s Landing, Tyrion appeals to Cersei’s motherhood. She decides not to kill him, but it will mean Missandei’s life if Dany does not surrender. Obviously the odds of that are slim, and Cersei orders Missandei to say her last words. The brave young woman steels herself and calls out “Dracarys.” Grey Worm and Dany watch in agony as she is beheaded, her body falling from the walls.

Dany turns away, face like stone, fire and blood clearly the only thing left on her mind.

Takeaways

Game of Thrones 8×04 is a tricky beast, which is becoming something of a pattern for this final season. But amidst its somber opening, wild carousal, labored tension, and eventual tragedy, one thread winds together the highs and lows of “The Last of the Starks.”

The women of Game of Thrones are the points around which the action and drama revolve, at least this week. Like markers on a map, they direct the story — and the men — through its sometimes moving, sometimes maddening motions.

It’s fitting, considering that the major male-identified villain of the story has been vanquished by Arya, leaving Cersei Lannister smirking in his place. And it is Cersei whose choices provide the main goad for much of the eventual action — Varys the Spider may have joined the Dragon Queen, but Cersei is perfectly capable of spinning deadly webs from her perch in King’s Landing.

It is her continued threat that primarily motivates Dany, though the reality of Jon’s identity is a counterbalanced pressure on her clearly fragile faith in her own power. Ironically, this is a fear the Dany shares with Sansa, also wary of Jon’s influence in the North, though neither knows this. Instead, the Lady of Winterfell and the Dragon Queen press each other endlessly, distrust and assumption building barricades that may do crushing damage before they collapse.

For her part, Sansa is also a powerful force of influence in “The Last of the Starks.” The Wall may have fallen but Sansa Stark still stands, steel-stubborn in her resistance to Dany’s assertions of power. It’s an ironic scenario; her distrust of Dany makes Dany increasingly unyielding, which in turn has the same effect on Sansa. The two women are stuck in a feedback loop where even reasonable prospects — for Sansa that its appropriate to reciprocate Dany’s help by sharing her forces, for Dany that time and rest for the men would much improve her chances — seem like impossible concessions.

It’s this, of course, that drives Sansa to what may be one of the most consequential decisions in the entirety of Game of Thrones. Despite the oath she swore to Jon, Sansa divulges Jon’s true identity, and its potential consequences, to Tyrion. Sansa clearly did not say those lightly (indecision and conflict are etched on Sophie Turner’s face, disrupting her impassive mask) but there’s also no doubt that the fallout of this broken promise could tip the scales of history against Daenerys.

For now, of course, the worst of the damage against Dany still radiates from Cersei. It is Cersei’s fleet that rips through Rhaegal and Daenerys’ forces, Cersei who floods the city with potential victims. Cersei twists Euron Greyjoy and even Jaime, far away, around her finger. And then she turns around and twists Dany even further with Missandei’s execution.

And a raised glass for Missandei as well, brought to an awful end with dignity and gravitas by Nathalie Emmanuel. Missandei’s death is a complicated bit of storytelling, foreshadowed by her and Grey Worm’s delighted hopes for the future; it also leaves a bitter taste in the mouth to realize that the death of the only non-white woman on Game of Thrones comes about for Dany’s benefit. But its hard to call any single death unwarranted in the show’s waning days, and Missandei’s proud defiance and last message for Dany — for “Dracarys” is indeed a message — at the very least usher her from the scene on a powerful note.

The only real counterpart to the twist and turn of womens’ choices in Game of Thrones 8×04 is the ongoing dialogue between Tyrion and Varys. The two old verbal dualists spar back and forth over their loyalty to Dany and what duty truly demands of them. Varys’ distrust may seem the purer, but it’s easy to see the dangers in inconstant counselors. And as for Tyrion… well, it’s hard to tell if he’s more tragedy or farce. Tyrion’s loyalty to Dany has peaked toward thoughtless and un-interrogated commitment, and as Dany grows more volatile, he may find himself falling toward an even more certain doom than he does standing baldly before Cersei’s bristling field of archers.

Of course, I hesitate to doom Dany entirely to fiery madness and bloody tyranny. “The Last of the Starks” certainly makes a point of clearly (if quickly) explaining the intense stresses under which Dany is functioning. Her grief for Jorah, love and jealousy for Jon, and her profoundly shaken confidence role as Targaryen heir, compounded by her shock and grief over the deaths of Rhaegal and Missandei is more than enough to make anyone go a little crazy.

But it does seem possible that Game of Thrones is dividing its sides between two mad and murderous queens — one with a much greater capacity for destruction than the other. It remains to be seen whether the show can dust itself off from this occasionally effective, but often clumsy installment and pull off an honorable end in its final two episodes.

Here’s hoping that at least one of these ladies remains protagonist material.

Highlight and lowlight

Yes, the peaks and valleys are one and the same in Game of Thrones 8×04.

After five seasons of buildup, Jaime and Brienne finally consummated their attraction in a scene that was as awkward as it was heartfelt and tender. Brienne’s anxiety, disbelief, and eventual eagerness to accept this un-hoped-for dream come to life are sweetness personified, and the genuine love that Jaime demonstrates for the lady knight radiates off the screen. While Game of Thrones has a sticky penchant for rewarding feminine breakthroughs with sex, Brienne and Jaime’s union felt like a long-awaited arrival of an unreliable guest, beautifully acted and so simple it was nearly perfect.

Unfortunately, the final scene of this tryst casts a shadow over the incident. I’d bet a dragon that Jaime is making for King’s Landing to murder his sister, not rejoin her, and it’s powerful to see Jaime act on the evil choices that he believes make them both so hateful.

But Brienne’s response — weeping helplessly in the courtyard of Winterfell — is just… wrong. Brienne deserves her emotional moments, certainly. But it’s discordant to watch Ser Brienne of Tarth (she who hauled Jaime Lannister back to King’s Landing practically single-handed and fought the army of the dead without flagging) crying like an abandoned kitten. It’s an image that conjures stereotypes of women and reduces Brienne to her feelings about one man. Overall, a deeply disappointing note on which to end an otherwise well-orchestrated romantic interlude.

Status updates

Deaths: Rhaegal, killed by Euron’s ballistas, and Missandei, murdered by the Mountain. Rhaegal may be much bigger than Missandei, but he leaves a far smaller hole in the story.

Battles: One, in the waters by Dragonstone, as Euron ambushed Dany’s incoming party.

Sex and romance: Tormund got laid with a maid. Arya and Gendry shared passionate kisses before (apparently) breaking up. Jon and Dany started to get it on before she remembers that she was kissing the king. And Jaime and Brienne fulfilled their destinies for a while.

Best quotes

Jon: Vomiting is not celebrating.
Tormund: Yes it is!

Sansa: He got what he deserved. I gave it to him.
The Hound: How?
Sansa: Hounds.

Jaime: You know the first thing I learned in the North? I hate the North.

Jon: If you only trust the people you grew up with, you won’t make many allies.
Arya: I don’t need many allies.

Tyrion: Do you know how long I’ve waited to tell tall jokes?

Bronn: Kill a few hundred people, they make you a lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you a king.

Sansa: The men of my family don’t do well in the capital.

Varys: It’s not a secret anymore. It’s information.

Next week…

War comes to the south.

Game of Thrones 8×05 airs Sunday, May 5 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.

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