'Game Of Thrones' Returns To Form With The Brutal, Intrigue-Heavy "The Last Of The Starks"

After last week's massive battle between the forces of good and evil (or rather, morally grey and evil), Game of Thrones returns to its old ways with "The Last of the Starks." Plotting. Intrigue. Backstabbing. Bargaining. And yes, the brutal deaths of characters we love.

/Film's resident Westeros experts Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson sat down in a dark room to talk about treason. And this episode.

Brienne and Jaime

Ben: So...am I alone in kinda loving this plotline? Brienne and Jaime have long had one of the show's best relationships, and things are finally heating up again in season 8. After that touching knighting ceremony and surviving the Battle of Winterfell, it only makes sense that these two consummated their smoldering romance. But try as he might, Jaime can't escape Cersei's grasp.

As its headed toward the series finale, this show has fallen into a far more traditional storytelling style than the one it started with, so it's not surprising that Jaime is heading back to King's Landing for one more confrontation with Cersei. But I've seen several people online react negatively to the way the show chose to depict Jaime's departure, with Brienne asking him to stay and then bursting into tears when he chooses to leave anyway. Brienne is a badass warrior, and the idea of her breaking down crying doesn't align with the audiences' ideal image of her. But I'd argue that her tearful reaction gives us more insight into how she's dealing with the heavy emotions of the past few days/weeks. Jaime is an emotionally complex character with twisted motivations, but Brienne also contains multitudes, people!

Jacob, does if feel like I'm just making excuses for the show here? How did you react to this development?

Jacob: You are most certainly not alone here, Ben. This felt like a natural progression for both characters and Brienne's tearful reaction to his departure was not a lovesick girl crying because her man was leaving her. She was weeping because a man who had revealed himself to be good and decent and reformed at his core is reverting to his old ways. Those tears weren't about a lost a boyfriend – they were being shed over an addict returning to his old ways. In Jaime, Brienne had placed her trust and her belief that we can all rise to her level. Now, that trust has been betrayed. Tears were the right response.

In any case, I'm still rooting for these two (even if Jaime seems incredibly doomed at this point). The show has been literally setting up this relationship since season 2 and they've always shared an unlikely chemistry and bond. Opposites attract. Or rather, opposites allow you to share your deepest secrets. More so than perhaps any other duo on this show, Jaime and Brienne have had every reason to become intimate. And of course it doesn't last long. Good news never lasts long in Westeros.

When Secrets Become Information

Jacob: Well, Jon's secret didn't last long, huh? It seems like barely five minutes have passed before Sansa has betrayed her promise to her brother/cousin and informed Tyrion of his Targaryen heritage. And as Varys points out, soon more people will know, which means that a well-hidden secret has been transformed into information. And information is currency for the spiders of the world.

Okay, Ben: this is my Game of Thrones. This is what made me fall in love with the show in the first place. Not giant, sweeping battles, but scenes of two people whispering in dark rooms about treason. It's been far too long since Tyrion and Varys have been alone in a room together and this episode was proof that there are few better pairings on the entire series. Two smooth-talkers, two masters of intrigue, who use their powers for the genuine good of the people, both talking about a late-game pivot after their current Queen starts to look more unstable than usual. Their dilemma is one that we, as show-watchers, have had for quite some time. Who is the best choice for the Iron Throne? And while we can have that conversation in jest, it's literally life-and-death for these two, the only characters on the show who genuinely care about what the Seven Kingdoms look like when the war is over.

Quite frankly, this is what I've been missing. Sansa and Tyrion and Varys and Jon and Daenerys all maneuvering around one another, dropping secrets and trading information and plotting about whether or not they should plot in the first place...this felt like classic Game of Thrones to me, even if the pace is now at permanent fast-forward. We're barreling toward a messy conclusion and the "good guys" are prepping for their own internal civil war, even as Cersei looks as prepared as ever in King's Landing. This is good stuff. What do you think, Ben?

Ben: No surprise here, but all of this is extremely my shit. Before the episode started, my wife and I were lamenting the fact that Varys has been awfully quiet over the past season or so. But now that the Great War is over (Varys was never much of a fighter), I'm thrilled to see him get back to what he does best – and to see the show take a hard pivot back to the way it all began. I also love how the show's once-massive scope is becoming increasingly narrow, with the focal point being on the Iron Throne. As Cersei holds her ground and the walls continue to close in around Dany, the idea of Jon ultimately sitting on the Iron Throne seems like a bigger possibility than ever. We can talk later about whether that specific outcome would be satisfying, but I am unquestionably on board with all of the maneuvering and scheming that's allowing us to have this conversation in the first place.

Saying Goodbye

Jacob: "The Last of the Starks" opens with a mass funeral that gives us one last chance to say goodbye to Jorah, Theon, Edd, and Beric, but there were seemingly other departures peppered throughout the episode. Following that uproarious and hugely entertaining victory celebration (I could watch those folks party forever!), the episode seemingly bid farewell to characters who have outlived their usefulness to the plot. There was Tormund, taking the surviving Free Folk back north. There was Sam and Gilly, revealing that Gilly is pregnant. There was Ghost, given to Tormund as Jon has apparently decided his doggo belongs in the true north. We may catch glimpses of these characters again, but these scenes felt definitive. They had survived the game of thrones and they were saying their final goodbyes to Jon, the character that has connected them all. I'm sad to see them go, but I'm relieved they have found a happy ending.

Of course, there were other departures as well. Gendry is now officially Lord Gendry Baratheon of Storm's End, which is big news! Hopefully, his newfound power will help heal that broken heart he received after Arya flat-out rejected his marriage proposal and rode out with The Hound to get her hands dirty again (CleganeBowl, anyone?). While things are heating up down south, this episode did a fine job of cleaning up in the North, sending characters to happy and bittersweet endings as the more central characters marched toward an uncertain future. What did you think of this? And do you think Arya is going to get to cross Cersei off her list?

Ben: I'm totally fine with the way Sam and Gilly and Tormund left the show, but can we talk about how this show has completely crapped the bed when it comes to the direwolves? Jon and Ghost were inseparable for seasons on end, and Jon hasn't said a damn word to him in years. Ghost just lost a freakin' ear during the Battle of Winterfell. You're telling me Jon can't even take a minute to pet him goodbye before dumping him off with Tormund? I'm sure dog owners everywhere are furious with Jon, who seems to have found a new favorite pet in the form of Rhaegal. (Guess what, buddy – that ain't gonna pan out too well for you.)

The Gendry/Arya situation struck me as totally plausible, and Arya riding south with The Hound just feels right. I'm convinced Arya is going to use her Faceless Men skills one more time before the show's end, and yes, Cersei has been on her list since the queen ordered the death of Nymeria back in season 1. But with Dany as pissed off as she is at the end of this week's episode, I'm not sure Arya will have the chance. (Also, would the show actually let her kill both Cersei and The Night King?)

Bronn's Big Plan

Ben: Leave it to Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, a sellsword who only cares about getting paid, to be one of the most logical people in this episode (right behind Sansa, naturally). Cersei wants Bronn to murder the Lannister brothers, but she can't pay him if Daenerys burns her to a crisp. So Bronn, a betting man, looks for better odds elsewhere. Instead of killing the pair and risking not being able to collect his prize, he punches Tyrion in the face, takes a few sips of wine, and gets Tyrion to promise him Highgarden.

There were several great little micro-moments in this scene that made me laugh: obvious things like Bronn knowing the sound of a broken nose, and more subtle ones like Jaime practically rolling his eyes when Tyrion clumsily attempts to recruit Bronn into their ranks as they march on King's Landing. Jaime knows Bronn is too smart to ever put himself in harm's way again, and sure enough, Bronn declines the offer, promises to find them after the dust settles, and then slips out of the room like the Joker after the pencil trick scene in The Dark Knight.

I remember you being worried about this plotline when it was introduced in this season's premiere. What do you think about how it's progressing?

Jacob: I'm still not sure I love it, but I'm also glad they didn't decide to soften Bronn in the homestretch. He was introduced as a total bastard who would do anything for a payday and he's still a total bastard who would do anything for a payday, even if the payday is now one of the biggest castles on the continent. While this scene was amusing, I do think it was weirdly stilted at times and it still feels like Bronn is being kept around not because he has any story left, but because we expect him to be around. I'm increasingly convinced he should've died last season.

Still, I enjoyed his brutal honesty and his logical assumption that all powerful families were founded by criminal scum like him. He's not incorrect. If he lands Highgarden, his descendants will be as wealthy, privileged and snobby as the Lannisters were in season 1. How appropriate.

Dragon Down

Ben: Good thing Jon decided to ride a horse to King's Landing, eh? RIP, Rhaegal – but honestly, what was Dany expecting? She saw Bronn fire that scorpion at her in season 7, so you've gotta be going into that situation ready for the worst. That lack of preparation is yet another way Dany's impatience to sit on the Iron Throne has clouded her judgment, and now she's lost another one of her dragons because of it.

I like the duality of these two women vying for power, both of whom have lost multiple "children" and are willing to do monstrous things because of the rage manifested by those losses. Dany has been especially suffering lately because Viserion, the Dothraki, Jorah, and now Rhaegal and Missandei have all been taken from her; frankly, another dragon death felt inevitable as she continues to teeter on the edge of sanity.

Jacob, were you moved at all by Rhaegal's death? I think any emotional attachment I may have had for that character was overshadowed by the feeling that, unlike so many in Game of Thrones, this death seemed so preventable.

Jacob: I wasn't moved by the death, but I was certainly shocked. With so many dead heroes, it makes sense that the most vicious characters would start to get ahead of the "heroes." And Euron Greyjoy, for all of his obnoxious faults, is a seasoned warrior, skilled at setting up ambushes, and currently funded by the Queen of Westeros. Still, I wasn't expecting him to take down a dragon in this episode, even if it makes perfect sense in retrospect. It's just another reminder of Dany's inexperience and Cersei's ruthlessness. As the Mother of Dragons gets closer to everything she has ever wanted, she continues to lose everything she has ever needed.

Still, you've got to hand it to Team Cersei. When one of those giant crossbows didn't get the job done, she went ahead and commissioned a couple dozen more. Jon and Dany may be tactical buffoons who think pluck and dragons will get them out of any fight, but Cersei actually knows how to utilize her forces. And Euron knows how to hide a small fleet behind the island that has always been the Targaryen base of operations.

A Meeting at the Gates

Jacob: Last week, I wondered if Game of Thrones had gone a bit soft on us by sparing so many characters in the Battle of Winterfell. And then "The Last of the Starks" reminded me that it can be as cruel and nasty as ever when it wants to be, especially when Cersei Lannister is involved.

First, I love how Daenerys only agrees to this meeting at the gates of King's Landing because she wants to at least create the illusion of having fought for a peaceful resolution before she roasts everyone. Second, I love the meeting between Tyrion and Qyburn because you can't imagine two more unlikely players in this game and these two men, one ruthless but kind and the other ruthless but vicious, have become unsettling mirror images of each other over the years. Third, I loved Tyrion approaching the gate and Cersei's wordless response to the whole situation. She's in a position of power and she knows it and she shows it. This whole sequence left me nauseous and unsettled before the execution of Missandei, which was upsetting but inevitable – the moment she discussed post-war plans with Grey Worm, we knew one of them was doomed. I can't remember the last time Game of Thrones left me this distressed by a sequence and, well, I'm going to go ahead and call that a good thing because Game of Thrones is at its best when it's making my stomach churn.

Ben, I'm prepared to call Cersei Lannister one of the greatest television villains of all time at this point. Few antagonists have filled me with so much rage while also allowing me to understand the source of their cruelty. In a show that has increasingly proven itself to be about women stepping up and succeeding where men have failed, she feels like the natural successor to her father – if she doesn't do everything in her power to defend her name, her family, and her life, she will be cast aside, married away, and forgotten. In other words, I get her, Ben. I hate her, but I get her.

Ben: Cersei is a brilliantly-written character, and Lena Headey has been delivering an A+ performance from the very beginning. She's absolutely one of the MVPs of the entire show. The subtle changes in her face during Tyrion's speech...that little flicker of recognition and memory when he talks about how much she's always loved her children...it's masterful stuff. And this may seem a little silly in retrospect, but we're so close to the end of the show (only two episodes left!) that I honestly thought Tyrion was going to be pumped full of arrows right then and there. The tension was off the charts.

As for Missandei, I don't want people to feel like we're avoiding this topic, so I'll address it right now: yes, this was Game of Thrones brutally killing off one of its very few black characters. And yes, the show immediately cut to Grey Worm's reaction after her murder, which left a bad taste in some people's mouths. (The implication being that Missandei's death could ultimately serve as motivation for a male character's storyline.) But while Grey Worm gets the reaction shot in that moment, it's Dany's reaction that matters more. Missandei's last word was to Daenerys, not Grey Worm, and the snarl on the Mother of Dragons' face says everything you need to know about what's going to happen from here.

To be clear, I don't want to dismiss anyone's complaints with the way the show has treated its female characters or handled issues of diversity over the years, because there are valid discussions to be had about those topics. We've all written time and again on this site about the importance of representation on screen, and I realize this might make me #problematic, but personally, I don't think anything that happens in the final three episodes of this eight-season series should necessarily be dissected in those terms first.

If the entire next episode is just Grey Worm rage-killing people, I'll gladly change my tune. I just think a "wait and see" approach might be best here. But that's just me.

Final Thoughts

Jacob: Hey, welcome back nihilistic, brutal, intrigue-heavy, morally grey Game of Thrones! After half a season of our favorite characters putting aside their differences to battle a force of Sauron-esque darkness, it was almost, well, a relief to see the petty backstabbing and plotting begin immediately. "The Last of the Starks" doubles down on all of this ending in blood and tears. You can defeat the Night King, but you can't defeat human nature, and our lust for power, that easily.

Ben, I've been seeing lots of mixed reactions to this episode online, and while we can quibble all day about characters teleporting around Westeros, I found this to be a supremely satisfying hour of feel-bad television. What say you?

Ben: I've seen lots of negativity around this episode, but this might be one of my new favorite episodes of the series. I found its balance of awful, stomach-churning moments (Missandei's death) with laugh-out-loud moments (The Hound not giving a shit about Gendry being named a Lord) to be just about right for this point in the series, and while it appears another battle might be imminent, I'm already thrilled that this season has taken the time to come full circle and get back to basics with its political intrigue.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister