Game of Thones S8E4: Episode review (spoiler-free) & recap (with spoilers)

After last week’s spectacular battle and climactic ending, there is an inevitability to this episode feeling hungover. The show is returning to its roots, teasing the political intrigue and moving squarely back into the Game of Thrones, but it seems unsure how to do that. 

The pacing of this episode is all over the place, caught in a valley between two pivotal moments (The Great War vs The Final War), and not entirely sure when to speed up and when to slow down. There are some moments which felt like the Game of Thrones of old, but the struggle to wrap everything up has caused some inevitable problems and they are back at the forefront in this episode.

Kit Harington in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Another issue at hand is that, having moved into (short) movie length episodes, it seems to demand more traditional storytelling. This episode is a classic three-act structure, the first being about confronting the recent and traumatic past, and the following two about looking ahead to the war to come. The show has of course done this in the past, but has also been willing to subvert that in order to develop the characters and their motivations. Here, the shift in tone and ramp up in pace is necessary, but feels rushed nonetheless, a result of having only six episodes to pull it all together. 

As always the cinematography and score are excellent, but, unlike the previous episode, they are unable to save the episode from its flaws. The show’s creators have an unenviable task of trying to pull this vast world together, and this episode is a perfect demonstration of the issues they face. For every storyline, reunion, battle, etc. that they have handled well, there is another they have not acting as a counterpoint.

The Last of the Starks: Episode recap & discussion

SPOILERS AHEAD 

Lena Headey and Pilou Asbæk in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

We’re burning the dead. I suppose that even if the White Walkers are gone, burying that many people is a logistical nightmare. Jon is responsible for the eulogy, and his voice is a little hoarse, a small price to pay for surviving a yelling match with an undead dragon.

Celebratory feast time, and it’s a little tense. With no more common enemy to unite against, the game is back on. Game of Thrones is harkening back to its finest days with these very anxious feast scenes. Gendry looks like he might be about to lose his head, but is now in fact Lord of Storm’s End. Bit of a meaningless title at this point, but a nice touch as Dany’s opening salvo for her charm offensive.

Despite all this, Sansa is making strange faces at Tyrion. At this point her dislike of Daenerys seems downright rude. Bran continues to be the family member no one really wants around, but feels they should keep inviting to parties anyway. Jon has some lovely moments with his old Wildling buddies, which seems to bother Dany, especially when they keep referring to him as King right in front of her. 

Tyrion’s idiotic drinking game from Season 1 has returned and this time he’s using it to get Brienne drunk. This seems like a rather crude way of being Jaime’s wingman. Anything to take his mind off Cersei, I suppose. 

Newly crowned Lord of Storm’s End, Gendry shoots his shot with Arya and misses spectacularly. If only he’d been paying attention to anything Arya’s ever said to him, ever.

Sansa does some poor expositional work with The Hound, saying that she would still be a “Little Bird” if she hadn’t been traded as a pawn by Littlefinger and then repeatedly and brutally raped by Ramsay. Clumsy writing, to say the least.

Brienne and Jaime finally get together, although trying to be sexy with only one hand does pose its difficulties. This whole scene reeks of fan service, although it is nice to see Brienne getting some much-deserved love and affection. Although why their relationship couldn’t stay as a lovely platonic friendship that makes them both better people, I do not know. 

Peter Dinklage, Conleth Hill, Jacob Anderson, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Dany and Jon finally have The Conversation, and it doesn’t go too well. Jon seems relatively unfussed about the whole aunt/nephew dynamic, but being the rightful heir to the Iron Throne is a bit more problematic. Jon says he doesn’t want the throne, but does seem to have a problem with keeping his claim a secret. Daenerys is rightfully upset about this; if Jon doesn’t want to claim the throne, there is no reason the best kept secret in Westeros can’t remain precisely that. Emilia Clarke does some terrific work in this scene, expertly switching from love to desperation to determined, queenly resolve.

We have a scene in the war room, where we find out that they have lost half of their armies. Could be worse. Daenerys wants to march South immediately, but Sansa rightly points out that maybe they ought to let their soldiers have a well-earned rest. Jon backs Daenerys, no doubt to try and quell her fears about the Starks ganging up on her to steal her crown. Which leads to a showdown with his sisters in the Godswood. 

Jon defies his Queen’s orders to keep his parentage a secret, and lets Bran tell Arya and Sansa. As Dany predicted, Arya and Sansa are not the girls he grew up with, and have no qualms breaking sacred vows in order to throw a wrench in Dany’s plans for world domination. Given the episode’s hints at the Red Wedding earlier in the episode, the breaking of this sacred oath may come back to haunt Sansa.  

Bronn has finally reached the North and has come to bargain, armed with a crossbow. Already promised one of the Great Lordships of Westeros, he’s come to trade up for an even bigger one. At least the end of the world is working out nicely for someone. 

Conleth Hill, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Arya and the Hound, on the road again. CleganeBowl is imminent, and Arya still has some green eyes to close (Cersei). I’m curious to see what faces Arya has brought with her for her assassination attempt. Littlefinger, perhaps? 

We have some farewells to deal with before the armies move South, Jon saying goodbye to Tormund and Ghost, Sam and newly pregnant Gilly. Hard to escape the feeling that Jon won’t be seeing any of his friends again, certainly not Ghost, who ultimately falls victim to the CGI budget rather than any logical plot point.

And out of nowhere, Rhaegal is dead. That was certainly unexpected. I’m absolutely fine with a shocking death on Game of Thrones, but how have Daenerys and her commanders not come to expect being ambushed by the Iron Fleet? Also, how exactly do they manage to ambush them when Daenerys can presumably see quite some distance from atop her dragons? And when is Euron going to stop being a clean-up artist for the plot? If Euron was a more compelling villain, as he is in the books, then maybe his almost superhuman power to singlehandedly destroy Daenerys’ armies would be excusable. As it is, he’s just a crude brute and has become tiresome. Aside from the plot, the symbolism here is clearly significant. Daenerys is down to one dragon, and with Rhaegal being ‘Jon’s dragon’, the idea of Jon and Dany ruling together is very visually being taken off the table. 

Tyrion and Varys are conspiring, which in the past has led to some excellent scenes, but here feels strained. Varys’ noble assertion that he serves only the smallfolk of Westeros is naïve and treasonous at the same time, and the show is very blatantly setting up the possibility of Daenerys becoming “The Mad Queen”. The only problem being that they’ve been setting it up for quite a while now and we don’t really need it to be rammed down our throats. Varys at least does a decent job of shooting down various fan theories about Jon and Daenerys sharing the throne, but again this wasn’t necessary. If Daenerys wanted to share the throne with Jon, she would have already asked him to marry her and do precisely that, especially after he revealed his superior claim.

The news of the ambush reaches Winterfell, prompting Jaime to decide he will support Cersei after all? This whole scene seemed forced, breaking Brienne’s heart to run back to his “hateful” sister, undoubtedly to set up a confrontation with her and Euron. Jaime’s character arc had reached a logical conclusion, so why not blow it all up for Cersei once again. 

Lena Headey in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

Cersei is playing The Game using the smallfolk as her pawns. No change there. She is testing Dany’s resolve to keep King’s Landing unburnt. If there was any doubt left about who won the exchange between Tyrion and Cersei at the end of the last season, it’s gone. Tyrion revealed that Dany wanted to torch the city and Cersei is happily using that to her advantage. 

And so we have the tense final scene setting up the inevitable battle for King’s Landing. Tyrion desperately tries to find another way out, appealing to Cersei’s better judgement, at least to save her child. Did he really think that would work? Tyrion’s fall from smartest man in Westeros to whipping boy for two different queens is both implausible and disappointing. Missandei at least knows what it will take to win this war, and is prepared to die for her Queen. Valar Morghulis. 

Benioff and Weiss have found their teeth again after being unexpectedly generous in the Battle of Winterfell, but murdering Rhaegal seems like ill-advised shock and awe tactics. Why let him survive the battle against Viserion only to kill him off immediately? Qyburn has got his Scorpions up to dragon-murdering snuff, but why did we need to know that before the battle for King’s Landing? Killing off Missandei is the ruthless Game of Thrones we’ve come to know and love, but if it only serves to push Daenerys over the edge, it will ultimately feel cheap.

Once again, they have fallen victim to the shortened season, with thousands of miles being travelled unfathomably fast and squeezing dozens of scenes and plotlines, which normally would have been given time to develop, into one episode. Despite my optimism, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the feeling that, for all of the incredible battles, cinematography and CGI work that HBO has pioneered through Game of Thrones, the end result will be worse off because of that shift to visual spectacle over compelling human drama.