Between the New York Times writeup in the morning and the fourth episode of Game of Thrones Season 8 in the evening, it was a rough day for those of us with an interest in medieval and medieval-ish things. Plenty has been said regarding both, but I found myself contemplating the commonalities between my frustrations and that’s what this recap will, to some extent, be about.
I did appreciate how “The Last of the Starks” took some time to linger on the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell, though some of the omissions were deeply bothersome. Any reference, for instance, to “the remaining Dothraki” felt like an afterthought. We got no sense that anyone acknowledged just how many of the Dothraki had perished in that first, fatal charge, or how the remaining members of the khalasar felt about it. Not a single Dothraki soldier had any screentime, aside from those early shots of funeral pyres burning outside the walls of Winterfell. They did nothing to take away from the overall sense that the Dothraki were, as they have always been, expendable.
Most of the Winterfell scenes were given over to tying up various loose ends between characters before everyone headed south, but I kept getting distracted by how hard the script was working to make us hate Daenerys Targaryen. Perhaps this was carelessness on the writers’ part rather than intentional sloppiness on hers, but her elevation of Gendry to the lordship of Storm’s End opened with a remark that Robert Baratheon had rebelled against his king because of a woman who didn’t want him.
I’ve ranted elsewhere about the show’s insistence that Daenerys doesn’t know her own family history, but this seems to be less about her and more about the oversimplification of Westeros’ history on the show. Robert’s Rebellion was not about Lyanna Stark, nor was it—as Bran would have us believe—“built on a lie.” Robert’s Rebellion was what happened when a ruling monarch started murdering his own subjects without cause, setting them on fire in the middle of his court. Although it ultimately spiraled out of control and led to thousands of deaths, both military and civilian, the initial rebellion was completely, 100% justified.
In any event, having Daenerys glibly dismiss an entire war in one of the locations where that war desperately mattered made me annoyed with her, even if that wasn’t what the writers intended by her line. And on top of the many other choices that were deliberately intended to turn viewers against her and nudge them further toward Jon, it stuck out.
The most obvious one is Varys turning on her. In the books, he’s never been with her, so it doesn’t surprise me that the showrunners had to figure out a way to separate them, but to have Varys suddenly decide that Jon is the better claimant only called attention to how sloppy the writing has been on Daenerys for the past few seasons. Varys literally travelled halfway across the world to join her counsel, and they even had that moment early in Season Seven where he at least alluded to her father’s madness and promised to help her avoid going down that path. For him to just drop her in favour of Jon is irritating to say the least, and smacks of lazy, sloppy writing.
Jon not wanting to be king is a clear sign that he shouldn’t be. The whole damn series started with Robert Baratheon admitting that he hated being king, and the piss-poor job he did as king bore witness to that. He happened to have a very good Hand in Jon Arryn, but even still, his council was packed with self-interested climbers (e.g. Littlefinger) who, despite any protestations they might make, cared more for themselves than for the realm at large.
Has Daenerys made a lot of mistakes? Yes, she has. But so has Jon. One of his biggest is in this episode. The whole point of having a secret identity is that it’s a secret. Bran and Sam know because they’re the ones who found it out, but there was zero reason for Jon to tell Sansa and Arya aside from personal ones. And if we’re going to throw Daenerys under the bus for mixing the political and the personal (c.f. her almost inevitable decision to set King’s Landing on fire because Cersei killed Missandei), Jon has to go with her.
Sansa’s decision to reveal Jon’s parentage has little to do with her personal relationship with Jon and everything to do with her status as Lady of Winterfell. Her goal is to separate the North from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, and the best way to achieve that goal is to support a monarch willing to make that break. She already broached the subject with Daenerys, who, true to the show’s completely sketchy writing of her in the past two seasons, refused to even consider it. So it makes perfect sense that Sansa would use other means to achieve her goals. What impact this will have on Arya remains to be seen, but I suspect that Arya will use the information to turn Gendry against Daenerys later on, thus losing Daenerys the Lord of Storm’s End.
The show needs to stop trying to separate the personal and the political. For Sansa to claim–as she does in her conversation with Sandor Clegane–that she somehow needed to be horribly abused and gaslighted by Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton to become the person she is now is atrocious. It couldn’t be more obvious that Benioff and Weiss don’t know the first goddamn thing about writing women, because nobody who has been through that kind of trauma would say that. Nobody.
And that brings us to the final act of the episode, where Eurion Greyjoy’s magical teleportation powers and plot armour once again swoop in to ruin Daenerys’ plotline. First and foremost, why the hell does Daenerys not have scouting ships after Euron’s first attack on her last season? Did we learn nothing at all? Also, how did she not see Euron’s ships from dragonback? And, lastly, why did Drogon not just barbecue Euron as soon as Rhaegal went down? We’ve seen how far dragonfire can reach. Euron should be charred meat by now, not grinning by Cersei’s side.
But none of this matters because the showrunners want Daenerys to bring fire and blood to King’s Landing so that Jon can sweep in to save the day. This is why Daenerys’ fleet gets destroyed yet again for phenomenally stupid reasons. This is why more people of colour are unceremoniously slaughtered in the background. This is why we had to end with the not at all shocking and wholly gratuitous murder of Missandei.
The personal is political and the political is personal. It is for Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow; it is for all three Lannisters; and it is for me. My choice to study medieval literature and history was, initially, a personal one. I found the period fascinating and wanted to learn more about it. But, as I learned more, it became political. It became about finding invisible women in texts written by men and calling attention to them. It became about dissecting modern medievalisms to determine why we can’t move past our outdated conceptions of what the medieval world looked like and using our imaginations to create better versions of that world. And, at least in the case of Game of Thrones, it became about articulating my frustrations with a text that I have loved for a long time that is now being warped to fit the narrative vision of a pair of unimaginative white dudes who cannot conceive of just how smart and diverse their audience is.
I’m not going to ragequit Game of Thrones this close to the end, nor am I going to ragequit medieval studies. But both need to do a whole hell of a lot better.