Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 4 of Game of Thrones Season 8. Not seen it? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“Perhaps that’s the problem: her life has convinced her that she’s here to save us all.” That’s the sound of Game of Thrones paving the way for its final two episodes – and, as time runs out to tie up loose ends and get everyone where they need to be, this is the first episode to show the strain of that ticking clock. Time is literally a challenge for Episode 4 of Season 8, as multiple jumps forward skip to key actions and decisions but without the character beats to explain motivations. Sometimes, it’s an effective, efficient way to get through a lot of necessary plot, but other times, it’s an uneven approach that leaves things feeling necessary rather than engaging.
Titled The Last of the Starks, the episode’s main focus is on Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne, and the growing number of people who know about his Targaryen family lineage. It’s a step towards a Jon-centric ending, but whether the show goes in that direction or not, it’s also a step that apparently requires the undermining of the series’ other key heir apparent: Daenerys. The more the series positions Jon as the natural choice for king, the more it works to suggest that Daenerys would be unsuited to rule. And so we see shades of jealousy, entitlement and arrogance service, as well as anger and revenge. These are all qualities that, over a longer period of time, would add complexity to Dany, but compressed into a 74-minute chapter, it’s an abrupt about-turn for a character – not least because the show’s season finales have consistently positioned her as the hopeful disruptor of the status quo, the breaker of chains and liberator of the oppressed. Out of almost nowhere, she’s now being portrayed as the Mad Queen instead – a shift almost as jolting as the Starbucks Coffee cup that was spotted on the table during the episode’s battle planning.
It’s a lurch that you can sense right from the off, as Jon delivers a rousing speech to everyone on the morning after the Battle of Winterfell – the kind of speech that requires a charisma that Jon Snow hasn’t previously displayed, because his character isn’t a born leader, but an outsider. The mourning sequence is genuinely moving, as Dany sets fire to Jorah’s body, and everyone else has to do the same to their fallen friends or family, and it’s the most emotional scene. Compare that to Jon telling Sansa and Arya that he’s a Targaryen – or, to be specific, the way that we don’t even see it happen, because the episode skips from the bit where Dany begs Jon to keep schtum, and the bit where Jon tells his sisters to swear secrecy, right to the moment where Sansa betrays that secrecy – a gap that is certainly efficient (we presume days fell between those events), but can’t help but cheat the characters of a chance to behave more naturally.
This is, of course, a casualty of the show’s endgame, which has a fixed point that the series must reach within a limited number of hours, and the need for everyone to line up with that predetermined fate means that people either do things unexpected, or illogical, or – and this is the real misstep – without having the chance for their reasons to be explored. Varys is one of the biggest victims of this, as he begins to explicitly doubt Dany’s suitability to be the Queen – a significant 180-degree turn from his previous, unwavering support. Over a few more episodes, that kind of transformation, that kind of seeping doubt, could prove effective; Dany’s journey from a corner of Westeros where she is loved and admired to a city where nobody knows her is one that’s genuinely interesting and challenging, but one that might not get full thrift before the show’s time is out. Varys, meanwhile, has been sacrificed as the voice of reason designed to convince us of Dany’s more dubious qualities.
All of this compression and condensing of crucial plot points does mean we have more time for spectacle, and the expanded runtimes of this final season’s episodes give us more than enough chance to admire the superb storytelling during colossal battle scenes – but when the action is of a different kind, this more streamlined strategy is more noticeably uneven. Sansa’s story so far, for example, is summarised in an exchange with The Hound that makes her survival, and strength, feel cheaper than it has seemed before, while Brienne finally has the chance to connect with Jaime (ahem), and yet he rides off 10 minutes later to go back to Cersei. The former is just an instance of very potted dialogue, but the latter is something that needed longer to unfold, both for Jaime’s conflicted behaviour to ring true and for Brienne’s letting down of her guard to be more deserved and deservingly rewarded.
Fortunately, the cast remain excellent, and help to balance out the episode’s shortcomings: Sophie Turner is all imperious conviction, Kit Harington all unwanted responsibility (a quality that probably does make him the best ruler available), Peter Dinklage all confused peacemaking amid a fracturing web of shaky alliances, and Maisie Williams all calm purpose in the face of Gendry’s offer of marriage to Arya. Because yes, that moment is also squeezed in here, as Dany smartly promotes Gendry to fully-legitimate Lord of Storm’s End, and he tragically thinks that Arya might marry him and be its Lady. The pair act it well enough to be moving, but you can still sense the cogs whirring – one of the best sequences sees Bronn sneak up to the North to chat to Tyrion and Jaime with his Cersei-given crossbow, but rather than resolve the tension there and then, the show kicks the can down the road, and Bronn departs quietly, which feels more like a plot function than a character-driven move.
The main constant, then, is now Cersei, as she prepares for everyone to ride south to Kings Landing, after surviving the Night King’s onslaught – just. Dany’s forces get weaker still, as Euron pops up from nowhere with a giant crossbow and takes out one of her dragons (Rheagal) the moment they’re in the air. And so Cersei stands quite impressively at the gates, as Dany and co. rock up. She then executes Missandei as proof of intent – and it’s a convincing display, but one that’s undermined by the way that Missandei was so briefly kidnapped by Euron. Even the siege of his forces upon Dany’s ships is omitted and we cut to the aftermath, with each soldier getting washed up on the beach seconds after Rheagal falls. Is it because of budget? Or because the writers want the maximum time possible for more game-changing conversations? Either way, in this Game of Thrones, we get out first glimpse of casualties in an unintentional way; there is still much to enjoy in the emotional and moral spectacle to come, as well as the violent set pieces that alternate with it. But just as Dany’s own forces begin to question her, Season 8 for the first time leaves us wondering: can Game of Thrones actually stick the landing? Next episode promises another jaw-dropping battle to balance the scales.