Game of Thrones: The Last of the Starks – Review

I enjoyed this week’s episode. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s vintage Thrones, but it’s as close as we’ve come to that in a while. A lot of the things that made Game of Thrones so great were present in “The Last of the Starks”. When I think about the show at its best, I think about all the political intrigue that occurred during the show’s first three seasons. The show was characterized by shifting allegiances and political scheming. Watching it, you felt like you couldn’t relax even for a moment, because the threat of a betrayal or sinister twist always loomed over everything. In the past few seasons, the show has become much more straightforward. And part of this is down to necessity of course, as plot threads are tied together and events are streamlined. But it’s nice to see the show recapture the essence of what made it great as it prepares for its final showdown.

In many ways, I’ve always thought of the character Varys as being someone that encapsulates what the show is all about. The same could be said for Littlefinger. They embody the battle of wits that gives the show its name. They play the most dangerous game. In recent seasons, Varys has become a background figure as the plot becomes more straightforward and less complex. He might say the odd thing, but he hasn’t had an impact on events the way he used to. When he survived the Battle of Winterfell, I was annoyed. To my mind, he was a perfect candidate to kill off, given that his role in the story seemed to be over. I really wanted the wights that burrowed into the crypts to rip him apart- not because I hated him, but because I don’t like seeing characters relegated to the sidelines without any sense of agency.

But now I realize that they were saving Varys for something. All of a sudden he has agency again. He’s an active participant in the narrative. He’s playing the game of thrones. And he’s reminding us who he is and what motivates him, something I assumed wouldn’t be explored again before the show wrapped up. He is the opposite of his nemesis, Littlefinger- but no less capable. Littlefinger was motivated purely by personal ambition, exploiting whomever he needed in order to achieve as much power as possible. Whereas Varys is something of a patriot, always trying to maintain peace and stability in order to avoid the suffering of the masses. But it’s a cold, detached kind of altruism; he’s not loyal to anyone or anything, save for what he considers the well-being of the populace, and he’s not afraid to be ruthless in service of that end.

The return of this Varys was the highlight of the episode for me. Even though he’s working against the interests of my favorite character, his treasonous words have added an extra layer of tension heading into the final showdown. I don’t expect it to be resolved until after the battle however. As much as Varys might be worried about Dany’s mental state, he certainly doesn’t want Cersei to win. I expect the next episode will focus on the battle between Cersei’s forces and Dany’s, and I think the finale will be all about intrigue and resolution. With the battle over, I fully expect Varys’ scheme to reemerge in episode six, which I think will focus on who gets the throne. I also predict that Varys will be executed in that episode. I hope so anyway.

The other aspect of “The Last of the Starks” that I found really compelling was the increasing isolation of Daenerys. The banquet scene at the beginning of the episode was exceedingly well done, because it wasn’t just goofy fan service. Far from it in fact. The little character moments were super touching, and it was really interesting to have this big room with multiple points of view and storylines. But the way the revelry went from comedy to a dark spotlight on Dany’s loneliness was masterful. She tries to gain favor by making Gendry a lord, and even though everyone cheers, she goes back to being a forgotten figure in the room. Dany came to save the North and expected to be treated as a savior. Instead she is an outsider, and one whose number of trusted allies and friends is dwindling fast.

Dany has been one of the most interesting characters this season. For the longest time she’s been playing the same tune, but this season we’ve seen a range of emotions from her. And the breadth of Emilia Clarke’s acting talent has truly been on display- in particular her facial expressions. The juxtaposition of the self-assured, regal Dany that lives in the public eye and the insecure, vulnerable Dany behind closed doors made for some fantastic viewing. And of course, by the end of the episode, we see Dany become unhinged in a way we have never seen before.

As much as the loss of Rhaegal and Missandei has ignited a rage within her, I think the “Mad Queen” stuff they’re setting up is a red herring. It reminds me of season seven, in which they teased us with the possibility that Arya and Sansa would come into conflict. Many fans even speculated that Arya would kill Sansa. But of course the tension between them was just a red herring to make their alliance all the more stronger, and the death of Littlefinger all the more effective. I’m not convinced we will see Dany go batshit insane. I believe that she’ll be pushed to the brink, but that her good heart will bring her back. That’s my prediction anyway, and I say that with the belief that predicting this show is a fool’s errand. After The Battle of Winterfell ended up being so straightforward, no one can really say anymore that Game of Thrones wouldn’t do this or that.

That’s my review for the episode. Overall, it’s probably been the best one so far this season, hampered only by a few questionable decisions and logistical problems. How Missandei ended up in the hands of Euron when everyone else washed up on the nearby beach I don’t know. And having Dany and her most trusted advisors stand within range of the mounted scorpions of King’s Landing was also a little hard to believe, but of course they wanted a face to face confrontation in which she got to witness Missandei’s execution and have it fuel her ever-increasing instability.

What did y’all think of the episode? A return to form or the protracted fart of deflating balloon? Let me know in the comments. And be sure to send me all your thoughts and questions, because my mid-season Q&A will be released very soon!

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