Since its first moments, Game of Thrones has been a show about the nastiest depths of human pettiness, the worst failures of those who lead lives circumscribed by duty. It’s a show about the ways in which the personal lives of the powerful crush and reshape the world around them, a show in which at least two devastating wars stem from love affairs, in which accidents of birth and miscommunications have doomed hundreds of thousands to death. Can this society change? Can it, as Jon Snow begs in his furious, grief-stricken eulogy for the dead of the Battle of Winterfell, remember its own pain?
“The Last of the Starks” is a walk along the knife’s edge between love and madness, a tense and thoughtful last look at both sides of the coin in the moment before it’s tossed. Its long string of goodbyes — Jon and Tormund, Jaime and Tyrion, Arya and Gendry — serve as a reminder of the very best that can come of human relationships no matter the cultural forces arrayed against them. Jon and Tormund made peace between the Watch and the Wildlings in spite of their violent history together. Jaime and Tyrion overcame their abusive upbringing to love and support one another. At every turn Game of Thrones, seldom thought of as a hopeful show, has focused on unlikely friendships and the transformative power of leaps of faith.
Through the sobriety of the funeral scene and the easy camaraderie of the revelry that follows it, though, run threads of unease. Daenerys’s alienated discomfort at the love and loyalty Jon commands, the Stark siblings’ fractious last moments together — it’s impossible not to see these things as the seeds of horrors still to come. When Jon and Daenerys clash over his newly revealed identity as the Iron Throne’s true heir you can almost feel the scales of history tipping even before the dragon Rhaegal’s shocking, gory death at the start of the episode’s final act sends things careening toward all-out war.
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A Game of Faces
From its tender opening shots of mourners weeping over the bodies of Jorah Mormont, Theon Greyjoy, and the others lying in state on a massive field of pyres to the blurry beheading that closes it out, “The Last of the Starks” is a showcase for the bodies and visible emotions of some of television’s best actors. Watching the expression slowly drain from the face of eunuch spymaster Varys as he realizes Tyrion could expose his treasonous musings, watching actress Emilia Clarke as Daenerys curl her lip as the lines to either side of her mouth deepen and darken in one of the show’s most gut-churningly anxious scenes yet, this is some of the best work the series has done to date to locate the horrors of its grand battles and fantastical prophecies in the bodies of its characters.
An earlier close-up of Daenerys at a feast in Winterfell’s great hall pushes this insight to the point of distortion, the lens smearing the queen’s face and enlarging her wet blue eyes. She seems less and less human as the camera lingers, an increasingly obvious mask stretched thin over a seething knot of panic, rage, and controlling impulses. The villainous queen Cersei, by contrast, has no mask at all. Actress Lena Headey plays her as quiet and serene, a woman totally at peace with her appalling self. She watches her subjects flood the Red Keep’s courtyards to serve as unwitting human shields with the same pleased detachment with which she regards the beheading of Daenerys’s longtime advisor Missandei, one of the show’s voices of conscience.
The episode’s other great facial performance rests with Gwendoline Christie as ser Brienne of Tarth. For all that her love affair with Jaime Lannister feels like a stale way to end the story of their tender, difficult friendship, her look of devastation when he reveals his intent to ride south to King’s Landing is one of the episode’s most arresting moments. Christie has always been raw as Brienne and here she finds an even deeper, more vulnerable vein as a wounded young woman desperate not to lose the first person in years she’s opened herself up to. The grief that twists her features as she first pleads with Jaime not to go, then listens to his brutal litany of confession, is first love at its most nakedly painful.
Enter the Void
In the end, everything comes down, as it always does, to a conversation. Queen Cersei stands with her guards and advisors between two massive siege engines, Missandei a frail and vulnerable figure at the center of the formation. Below, her brother Tyrion meets her advisor Qyburn to talk of peace. Actor Anton Lesser as the disgraced maester risen to prominence under Cersei gives an eerily empty performance in the midst of sandy desolation, speaking with Tyrion in the no-man’s land between the two armies. He meets Tyrion’s impassioned plea for help avoiding the burning alive of children with a kind of polite disinterest, as though they were discussing a short stretch of inclement weather.
Empty space has featured prominently in the show’s final season. The fireside knighting of Brienne in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” took place in the all but deserted great hall of Winterfell, shadows held at bay by fragile firelight. The epic charge of the Dothraki in “The Long Night” vanished into chilling blackness and confusion. In “The Last of the Starks” it yawns on all sides from the vast, still rows of funeral pyres to the uncaring ocean that swallows Rhaegal and the light-slashed gloom of Dragonstone’s lonely throne room where Varys and Tyrion weigh the future of the realm. In a show so crowded with ghosts it’s easy to imagine that emptiness as their domain, the bare parts of each shot filled with the memories of those who’ve come and gone, lived and died, won and lost.
What will their lives mean if Daenerys and Cersei go to war? What will all the death we’ve watched amount to if after facing its greatest challenge as a species the human race plunges even deeper into selfish misery? “The future is shit,” a drunken Tyrion once groaned. “Just like the past.” As Westeros approaches its Tony Soprano moment, confronting its own ability or lack thereof to change for the better, or just to change at all, that emptiness seems more and more crowded. The strings of love and blood and hatred connecting every living person in Westeros have at last drawn taut. All that’s left is to see what snaps first under the weight.