Daenerys Targaryen Makes Her Move on Game of Thrones

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Last of the Starks,” which explored the fallout from last week’s epic battle and previewed a big showdown.

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones (HBO)

Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

David Sims: I don’t know where to begin with this one, so I suppose I’ll start with the last person I’ve ever wanted to talk about on Game of Thrones: Euron Greyjoy. For three seasons now, I’ve had to suffer through this goth pirate fool barging into scene after scene to inexplicably tie up some loose narrative thread that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss left dangling. He tossed his brother Balon off a bridge, built a fleet of a thousand ships in an instant, obliterated the entire Dornish royal family, and now has somehow managed to kill one of the show’s two remaining dragons in his continued campaign to impress Cersei Lannister. Morons online complained about Arya’s combat skills last week? Euron’s the one who keeps punching above his weight.

The continued existence of this character—utterly one-dimensional, introduced late in the game, whose only seeming purpose is to smash things up—really exemplifies the issues I’ve had with Thrones as it has moved beyond George R. R. Martin’s source material and tried to wrap things up as neatly as possible. In the first half of “The Last of the Starks,” it seemed viewers were in for another episode of conversation and resolving long-simmering romances, as Daenerys and Jon’s forces recovered from the big battle the night before. But then a bunch of things just happened, essentially out of nowhere—happened so quickly that it was hard to ponder their relative plausibility (yes, even a show this fantastic needs to feel plausible once in a while). By the end of the episode, the story was in the right plotting spot, previewing a big showdown between Cersei and Daenerys. But it got there by having irrelevant nincompoops like Euron magically crash through everything.

Simply put, he shouldn’t be able to bring a dragon down, certainly not by somehow sneaking up with a fleet of boats in the open ocean and shooting … a bunch of big arrows into the sky. Maester Qyburn’s concept of “how about a crossbow, but bigger” was silly enough when he constructed one last season, but apparently in just a few weeks he’s been able to cajole the starving citizens of King’s Landing into building dozens of them and mounting them to every battlement and ship in sight. It’s not that I object to the fallibility of dragons. But the only reason they’re dying off now is that the show is nearly over, and Benioff and Weiss know it’ll jolt the audience into thinking things have gotten real serious. Euron just isn’t scary enough to kill a dragon.

Cersei, atop the walls of King’s Landing, is a little more frightening, but she’s not much more than a boogeyman at this point, an obstacle for Daenerys, Jon, and everyone else to argue over. Far scarier was how in “The Last of the Starks” each cast member was behaving so wildly out of character. Jon, nobly honest to the last, couldn’t help but tell everyone within earshot about his Targaryen heritage. Brienne, after one intimate night with Jaime, became a blubbering fool, begging him not to go off to battle when she’d usually be the first one leading the charge. Sansa pondered aloud that maybe her time being abused by Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger was character-building. Tyrion, a supposed grand master of strategy, has been reduced to shaking his head with frustration as Varys openly ponders treason in front of him.

Worst of all, of course, is Daenerys, who has now lost her two dearest allies (Jorah and, sigh, Missandei) and is starting to lean very heavily on the Mad King’s favorite “burn it all down” strategy going forward. Even before she started talking about annihilating everyone at King’s Landing, the Mother of Dragon (singular) was displaying the same shoot first, ask questions later tactics she favored in eastern cities like Meereen. Gendry made some nice weapons for the battle and was Robert Baratheon’s son? Why not put him in charge of Storm’s End, a castle he’s never visited and a job he’s probably wildly ill-suited for? Daenerys never met a problem she couldn’t solve in a second, but that was how things went so bad in Slaver’s Bay, and her approach to Westeros has been similarly painful.

No wonder Varys is speaking up for the smallfolk and casting his eyes toward the stoic, if pliable, Jon Snow as a potential alternative. Jon’s the only person left on Game of Thrones who hasn’t become an outright caricature as everything descends into chaos. No, he’s as dull as ever, puzzling over every decision by squinting into the middle distance, perhaps in search of the next absurd deus ex machina on the horizon. I don’t know what else there is to look out for at this point. Spencer and Shirley, are you as despairing as I am, as the Seven Kingdoms’ fate hangs in the balance?

Spencer Kornhaber: I do think it’s too bad that while Game of Thrones used to be admired for portraying a fantasy universe you could believe was real, now it’s a show in which a fleet of boats can ambush a flying dragon. But despite all of the logical head-smack moments you laid out, David, I’m not brimming with complaints. The episode recaptured some classic Thrones qualities, really. With the tedious army of the dead turned to powder, the show can, in its final run, get back to what once made it great: very tense feasts.

Truly, the wake at Winterfell was nearly as nerve-racking to watch as the battle it commemorated. Partly that was simply due to the memory of previous Thrones dinner-party disasters, including the Red Wedding and that one time Cersei quizzed 13-year-old Sansa Stark about menstruation. But David Nutter’s directorial choices (oddly long shots of wine glugging and an eerie lack of music) as well as where exactly is this going? scenarios (drinking games, Tormund speeches, Dany revealing not only Gendry’s parentage but also that she knew who he was at all) amped the unease. Though no great calamity erupted, the tone had been set for the rest of the episode. A betrayal was coming, somehow, somewhere.

This implication made it so that even the repetitive scenes of characters tracing and retracing their dilemmas—is Dany a good leader? What of Jon’s claim?—had a certain scary spark. Emotionally, characters were raw and jangled, and we saw some surprising turns: the cold Brienne sobbing, the proud Dany begging, the lunkish Jon managing to seem legitimately inspiring. These aren’t behaviors we’ve come to expect from these characters, but they’ve arrived in an unexpected place, with the realm’s great existential threat replaced by smaller, more human, concerns. Brienne, for example, never in her life had an opportunity for love. She’s been on a deeply transformational journey with Jaime. For him to walk out just after she’s let her guard down really is something to ugly-cry about.

Emilia Clarke, too, did some of her better work when conveying Dany’s desperation that Jon not share the secret of his birthright. She’s 100 percent right: If Jon really doesn’t want to pursue the throne, he needs to shut up. To think otherwise is almost too know-nothing in nature even for Jon Snow. The show is over-insisting, one more time, on the fatal flaw of the Starks’ devotion to honesty. But Sansa, to her credit, does not appear to possess that flaw anymore. Jon swore her to secrecy, and within a few scenes she was tattling to Tyrion, which then meant the info found its way to Varys, at which point it’s basically on Westeros’s version of Twitter.

Watching the gossip spread is as fun as it is ominous. Varys and Tyrion have been sidelined all season, but now that intrigue is back as the main event, they’re essentially holding a talk show within Game of Thrones. But are they as savvy puppet masters as they once seemed to be? Tyrion demonstrated a strange amount of idealism: He didn’t only insist on Dany’s goodness; he also seemed to believe (yet again) that he might convince Cersei to stand down (a delusion that Jaime, inexplicably, appears to share). Meanwhile, Varys, admirably enough, sounded like an Enlightenment philosopher as he talked about saving lives in a world that treats common folks as expendable. He says he’ll pay any price to help the realm and that’s why he’s considering turning on Dany. Funnily enough, though, Dany says she’ll pay any price for much the same goal: ending tyranny. Varys is accusing her of delusions of grandeur, but is he suffering from the same?

Given all the sabotage talk, one underlying twist of the episode was that a Red Wedding–type situation didn’t unfold. Instead, there were two brutal deaths caused by the dirty tricks of Cersei Lannister at war. Yes, the fact that the dragons could be caught flat-winged by Euron defies all sense. (And this is a silly question at this point, I know, but couldn’t Bran have dropped the tiniest hint about those crossbows?) But the shish-kebabbing itself made for striking viewing. The music and cinematography treated the first ballista bolt like the characters did—slow to react, and then suddenly agitated. Rhaegal swirled down like a careening TIE fighter and then splashed into the sea, making him the second of Dany’s fire-breathers to meet a watery grave.

Later, the execution of Missandei was wrenching to watch, but her final snarl of “Dracarys” did give the character a well-earned last flash of dignity. Moreover, this development is in line with what’s long been clear about Cersei Lannister’s form of cunning: doing the cruelest possible thing at all times. In this case, she’s baiting her rival into acting out of emotion rather than logic, which is something Dany already has a problematic tendency to do. So when Tyrion joked that Cersei might solve all of their coalition’s problems by killing them, it wasn’t so easy to laugh off. After all, he was right about his improbable prediction before the Battle of Winterfell: “I think we might live.” Shirley, on which side of the King’s Landing walls are you placing your bets?

Shirley Li: Count me in as one of the smallfolk racing into the Red Keep for protection. I know I’m headed for fire and blood, but the lion and her kraken at least seem to know what they’re doing—unlike this episode. I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by “The Last of the Starks.” If it were a character, it’d be Gendry: It got down on its knees, drunkenly updated me on its latest victory, then tried to make me buy into the fact that moving on after fighting a battle against actual ice zombies is fairly easy to do. What you call “surprising turns,” Spencer, I call “nonsensical storytelling.” An existential event may have made Brienne, Sansa, and Jaime more prone to emotions and booze-fueled confessions, but completely changing their characters and their characters’ arcs strained credulity. I’m going to need that scene between Sansa and the Hound rewritten stat.

The thing is, I was ready to accept whatever this episode proposed. Last week’s “The Long Night” proved so disappointing on so many fronts—the confusing direction, the heavy plot armor, the messy narrative—that I couldn’t be more primed to welcome back the political intrigue. Spencer, you pointed out two weeks ago that the show had stopped giving Varys lines because it had put its squabbles over the Iron Throne on ice. Well, “The Last of the Starks” gave him plenty of dialogue tonight.

He just didn’t have much to talk about. To borrow a phrase from that other pop-culture phenomenon in the zeitgeist: We’re in the show’s endgame now, and the endgame is over whether Daenerys is fit to rule. But the show’s pivot to arguing against her is jarring; it’s always been so pro-Dany, with at least three “Dracarys”-level scenes of badassery for every Meereen-based blunder.

So as much as I have always loved these talky scenes between Tyrion and Varys—remember the Spider’s origin story?—the political chatter left me colder than that Craster baby the Night King once took to the Lands of Always Winter. (Yes, I’m still bitter we’re not going to delve into White Walker mythology anymore.) There’s not that much left to say about the dragon queen. She’s worked her entire life to go home, she believes she’s destined for the Iron Throne, and she’ll do anything to get there. We know her mind-set. We know how she came to be. And we know exactly what she’s thinking when Missandei dies.

Which, ugh, Missandei’s death. I’m not terribly bothered by how much the show has left realism behind—fine, the people of King’s Landing can construct Maester Qyburn’s giant scorpions, and fine, Bronn can just wander into Winterfell unnoticed—but when it comes to deaths, well, Thrones deaths are supposed to matter beyond inspiring emotion. The show’s most memorable kills have shed light on the world, subverted expectations, and deepened the story it’s trying to tell: When Ned lost his head, it proved that being good gets you nowhere in Westeros. When the Red Wedding happened, it demonstrated the folly of going back on an oath—and the dangers of choosing love. When Oberyn got his face squished in by the Mountain, it underlined the fact that there are no heroes in this universe and drove Tyrion to his most helpless point in the series.

Missandei’s death, though? She’s flesh-and-bone fodder, essentially, to make the war just a little more personal for Daenerys. The next episode will probably see Grey Worm, now the last remaining character of color with actual speaking lines, charge into battle looking even angrier than he did when he donned his helmet at Winterfell. There might even be a Daenerys speech about doing what she’s about to do for her best girlfriend.

Then again, many of the most recent deaths have felt pointless. Some characters, like Lyanna Mormont, certainly went out in style, but most of the departed perished right after they tidily finished their arc: Jorah served his queen and returned to the North; Theon received Bran’s forgiveness; Melisandre’s prayers to the Lord of Light were answered. With two episodes left, I guess that’s what I’m looking forward to in the coming battle between the queens: the potential for a death that will make me actually shed a tear.