Like millions of people around the world, I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones. I have read all of the books, rewatch the show constantly, and have been up at 3 AM every Sunday for the past four weeks to watch the new episodes of Season 8 live. I am also a woman and a critic. And, unfortunately, these identities often impede my ability to love Game of Thrones. This week’s episode was one of those times.
In Season 8, Episode 4, ‘The Last of the Starks’ writers and showrunners David Benioffand D.B Weiss deliver an episode that had huge dramatic potential. As a direct follow-up to the devastating Battle of Winterfell, this episode sees the Northerners mourn their dead, while also looking to the future, and their war against the tyrannical Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). In-between mass funerals and battle planning meetings, the show also leaves time for some very tense conversations about the game-changing, newly discovered secret: that Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) real name is Aegon Targarean, and he is the true heir to the Seven Kingdoms (an inheritance that, up until now, Daenerys believed herself to possess).
What could have been great
In theory, this episode looked to be a promising combination of what Game of Thrones does best: scheming, secrets, and palace intrigue in the first half, with an unexpected and devastating battle scene in the second. But in practice, this episode, and its treatment of the show’s female characters, acted as a disappointing and timely reminder of Season 8’s exclusively male writing and directing team.
For the record, Game of Thrones has only had two female writers on its entire 70+ episode run, and only one female director, ever. Moreover, these women barely worked on the show. Michelle MacLaren directed just four episodes over Season 3 and 4, and writers Jane Espenson and Vanessa Taylor worked on a total of only four episodes between them. And to make matters worse, Game of Thrones has since abandoned any pretense of encouraging female writers and directors, with men directing and writing every episode from Season 5-8.
Which brings us back to this week’s episode. I have never been so aware of the show’s white male authorship than I have this episode, watching the female characters that I love and respect, butchered at the hands of male writers. I talk specifically about Sansa, Brienne, and Missandei, three completely different women, whose character arcs were each thrown off course this week by some politically tone-deaf writing choices.
Sansa and Brienne
First we have Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), a politically savvy woman who has emerged as a natural leader of Winterfell in recent seasons. That audiences have seen her endure shocking physical and sexual abuse over the first five seasons of the show – first by the tyrannical bully Joffrey Lannister, then by the sadistic Ramsay Bolton – makes watching Sansa thrive as the Lady of Winterfell all the more satisfying.
However, it was incredibly disappointing when, in a reunion conversation with The Hound (Rory McCann), she seemingly exhibits gratitude towards her abusers for making her the woman she is today. She says to the Hound, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life”. This is such a infuriating line; it walks a dangerous line by painting Sansa’s toughness and lack of trust as a benefit of her trauma, instead of a coping mechanism she’s had to adopt to survive it. PopSugar’s recent article ‘After 8 Seasons, Game of Thrones Still Doesn’t Know How to Discuss Sexual Violence’ explains the issues of framing Sansa’s abuse in a positive light, and is a highly recommended read.
And then there’s Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), a character who, up until this episode, has been a compelling presence on the show for seven seasons, due to her unflinching moral compass, fierceness in battle, and refusal to be belittled or patronised for who she is. She is a tough, brave warrior who, in her constant quest to not be perceived as weak or feminine, has never let anyone see physical or emotional weakness. Yet we are supposed to believe that one night with Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has turned Brienne into a crying, desperate woman, begging her lover not to leave her? I don’t buy it. It’s frustrating that Benioff and Weiss have abandoned the many years of episodes which portrayed Brienne as emotionally repressed and restrained, only to have her completely lose it when Jamie leaves for King’s Landing.
All Goes Downhill After a Strong Start
Those two unfortunate scenes aside, the first half of this episode is very strong. The opening funeral scene was especially powerful and well directed by Thrones regular David Nutter. The enormous pile of bodies effectively highlighted the devastating extent of the depleted Northern forces, accompanied by a mournful Ramin Djawadi score. Meanwhile, the personal moments of the living (Daenerys, Sansa, Jon, Sam, Arya) having a farewell moment with their dead friends and family (Jorah, Theon, Lyanna, Ed, Beric) perfectly displayed the complex emotional mix of grief and survivor’s guilt felt by the living.
The feast scene was also very well directed as Nutter juggles all the simultaneous scenes, while balancing the various tones, from comic (Jamie, Brienne, Tyrion and Pod), to tense and dramatic (Daenerys and Jon). The battle planning meeting was another disappointment, as the writers are increasingly portraying Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) as power-hungry and irrational. Her history of making intelligent battle decisions is frustratingly thrown out the window again in this episode, just as it was in Season 7. She completely forgets about Euron Greyjoy’s fleet, and insists that the North force their injured and weary soldiers to King’s Landing, despite Sansa’s very reasonable counter-arguments.
This moment, where Daenerys and Jon’s parties leave King’s Landing, is where the episode goes really downhill. It’s also a moment where the showrunner’s decision to have fewer, longer, episodes feels very wrong. Had the episode ended at the 50 minute point, at the end of the strategy meeting, it would have felt like a tidy wrap up to a mostly good, talky episode. Daenerys’ sudden appearance on Dragonstone, and the subsequent sudden Battle, felt like the writers stuffing way too much into a single episode.
Dracarys: Game of Thrones’ Wrongheaded Racial Politics
Euron Greyjoy’s surprise sea-battle, culminating in the death of Daenerys’ dragon Rheagal, was a shocking but deserved twist in a show that has gotten increasingly cautious about killing off main characters. But the decision for Euron’s forces to capture and execute Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), in front of Daenerys and Greyworm, left a particularly bad feeling in the mouth.
Game of Thrones has always received criticism for its racial politics. And when you consider Daenerys’ white saviour narrative in Meereen, and the overwhelmingly white lead cast, these criticisms are very valid indeed. Last week’s writing decision to place the Dothraki and the Unsullied on the front lines to be wiped out by the Army of the Dead, felt like a particularly egregious example of the show killing a very large amount of the (already few) people of colour on the show.
By having Missandei, the only black woman on the show, killed off to provide a revenge plotline for her boyfriend and a white woman to avenge her, feels particularly problematic. This feels especially untimely, considering the recent discussion of the concept of ‘fridging’ (killing off a female character so her male partner can have moments of emotional depth), that’s been in the news lately in the context of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame. Sunday’s episode has sparked considerable backlash due to Missandei’s shocking death, and, considering that the death of one of the few people of colour is reduced to a plot point for a white woman, I believe this critique is both fair and valid.
In a recent interview for Entertainment Weekly, Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, described this week’s episode as “Shakespearean”, and I have to agree. So far, Season 8 has served as the first half of a Shakespearean Tragedy for our heroine Daenerys Targaryen. Last week, she lost both her quasi-father figure, Jorah Mormont, and the bulk of her Dothraki and Unsullied forces at the Battle of Winterfell last episode.
This episode, she loses another one of her Dragons (who she sees as children), her close advisor Missandei, and her rightful claim to the throne, as established in her tense conversation with Jon Snow (aka: Aegon Targaryen). Next episode’s highly anticipated battle scene between Daenerys and Jon’s forces versus Cersei Lannisters’, will act as the final chapter in what could be Daenerys shocking downfall, or a surprise victory. It will be interesting and exciting to see what comes next, and I hope that Benioff and Weiss can recover from what was a stunningly disappointing episode.
‘The Last of the Starks’ is an episode with a lot of potential, and some very strong scenes in the first half. But ultimately the frustratingly bad writing of Sansa and Brienne, coupled with the racially fraught implications of Missandei’s death, make this episode feel like a huge letdown, and a glaring reminder of just how far television has to go in terms of hiring female writers to write believable and complex female characters.
Game of Thrones will be back on HBO on Sunday May 12, 2019.