Spoilers follow for those yet to watch Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 4, ‘The Last of the Starks’.
For nine long years since Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, this grave threat to the realm posed by the White Walkers had been hanging over the entire show, affecting not only how we watch and interact with the show but how the characters themselves conduct themselves around each other.
‘Winter is Coming’ has not only been the unofficial motto of House Stark, but also of the whole show. We were led to the believe the greatest threat to mankind was the White Walkers marching south, leading all the armies of Westeros and Essos gathered by Jon and Daenerys to take them on in one final battle for the survival of the realm.
Yet it turns out the Night King was never the big bad all along. No, the big bad has actually been with us all along, plotting and scheming her way to the top ever since Season 1. Cersei, of House Lannister, is the final big bad that the characters we know and love have to defeat if they are to get what they desire (in Dany’s case at least), to sit atop the Iron Throne at the end of it all.
The war against the White Walkers was called the ‘Great War’, which was won conclusively by the forces of men. Yet it has turned out to be nothing but a pyrrhic victory, as the Last War has still to be fought.
‘The Last of the Starks’, as the episode was called, turned out to be a weirdly satisfying episode in a final season of Thrones that has been topsy turvy till now, to say the least. After a monumental victory in the Battle of Winterfell, the remnants of Jon and Dany’s armies sat down to mourn the dead and celebrate the living.
For the briefest period of time, all was well with the world once again as everyone who survived celebrated their victory and petty differences were set aside for the moment. But this is Game of Thrones and nothing good lasts, and within a short period of time the lies, betrayal, deceit and manipulations that made this show one of the greatest of all time was in full swing as men got back to playing the Game of Thrones now that the existential threat had been defeated.
After the great war comes the last war, but even the lines of loyalty of team Dany/Jon are not so well demarcated. With their army decimated, unity has never been more important, yet their camp has been beset by infighting brought about by Jon’s great secret, that he’s Aegon Targaryen and the true heir to the Iron Throne.
That little secret, coupled with the fact that Daenerys is slowly sliding into Mad King territory with her insistence on going to war and being worshipped, has greatly shifted the playing field. All of a sudden it looks like Jon is the only viable ruler, punctuated by the fact that the great Master of Whisperers, Varys, has decided Dany is not the right ruler due to her temperament and has even threatened to take her out ‘for the good of the realm’.
That little scene between Tyrion and Varys, when the two advisors met in a secret room to plot the future of the entire Seven Kingdoms, was Game of Thrones returning to its core of political intrigue. Sansa played her own game by telling Tyrion the secret she had sworn she wouldn’t reveal, to try and recruit him to Jon’s side instead of Daenerys’. The entire episode was filled with such political intrigue which marked a return to the Game of Thrones of earlier seasons, before all that had to take a backseat to fighting the army of the dead.
The showrunners have now shown their hand, having made Cersei the big bad of the entire series instead of the Night King. Daenerys’ army coming from Essos was too powerful to make a battle with Cersei interesting, thus the Night King was a plot device whose purpose was merely to level the playing field between the two final combatants. Watching Daenerys with a severely depleted army making demands of Cersei was laughable to watch, and Cersei rightly called her bluff and said the only thing she could have ever said, ‘bring it on’.
‘The Last of the Starks’ was one of Thrones’ famous transitional episodes, but was made stronger by the return of real political intrigue. As we head into another battle episode, the battle lines have been drawn for possibly the last time in this world, and as always the lesson from Thrones is nothing in the world is simply good and bad, black or white.
Daenerys continues to alienate everyone around her with her insistence of being worshipped, loveable Bronn seems back to his hardcore sellsword ways and Tyrion seems conflicted about what to do. Jaime told us the truth about himself, that no matter what, at his core he’s a hateful person, but one we still all love.
There is a conceivable chance Cersei wins the entire Game of Thrones, perhaps giving us the bittersweet ending befitting a show like Thrones. The world is filled with selfish assh*les like Cersei and sometimes, they get what they want.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday night on HBO.