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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week we’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add the review to the page when finished. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

Light returns to Winterfell in “The Last Of The Starks,” but it’s a cold, sobering light, one that ultimately exposes the cracks in the most significant alliance in the land. Early on, a somber morning provides the backdrop for rows of funeral pyres, structures that symbolize the heavy toll “The Long Night” exacted—as the camera pans out, the dead seem to outnumber their mourners. That same light, which just grows stronger as the remnants of the North and Daenerys’ armies head south to meet Cersei’s forces, leaves the episode’s considerable flaws nowhere to hide.

“The Last Of The Starks” combines some of the strongest elements from the first three episodes of the season, including a stretch of downtime for the survivors (and getting-down-time for a certain pair of knights) that reminds us what everyone just fought so hard for. It’s also one of the last opportunities to gather so many characters in one location and show off what a great cast the show assembled (without killing a bunch of them—the characters—anyway). Delightful drinking games aside, though, the episode often feels like pure setup; it’s also, at first, a strange choice for director David Nutter, who’s usually charged with helming huge action set pieces. It’s concerning because there’s already been so much table-setting this season—not to mention that the big existential threat that was framed as being more important than palace intrigue and politics albeit wasn’t, actually. The threat posed by the Night King and his supernatural powers was never as pressing as something much more earthly: ambition.

Setting our sights back on King’s Landing, where the Last War will be waged, makes a lot of sense, even if it does feel a bit anticlimactic after last week’s deadly, blustery maelstrom. But this is the Game Of Thrones, after all, a show that’s amply demonstrated over the last eight years that the high-minded and high-born alike can still be so self-involved, so self-destructive as to let the world burn and then fight over the ashes. And even though their numbers have been halved—that’s the unofficial tally given in one of the strategy sessions—everyone from Sansa to Daenerys to Varys is wondering who is going to rule over which pile of smoking ruins. That’s when the campaigning begins, much to Jon and Dany’s chagrin. They have very different reasons for being dismayed by these developments: Jon doesn’t want to be king of anything, though it looks like nothing can impede his failing-upward trajectory, and his aunt-lover can’t believe she still has something to prove.

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But as Daenerys watches, practically seething, as everyone sings Jon’s praises while mocking his way with dragons as the leanings of a “mad man,” she realizes just how precarious her position is. Not only is Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne stronger than hers, thanks to a patriarchal society, but her heroic deeds—and the attendant risks—hold no sway in the North. Unlike Sansa, Daenerys can’t rely on her family name to curry favor; unlike Jon or even Arya, she can’t regale the Northerners with tales of exploits, though that’s probably for the best when it comes to her “liberating” Yunkai and Meereen. Even before she begs Jon to keep his identity a secret, she reeks of desperation; in order to gain an ally that isn’t already in her entourage, she sets Gendry Baratheon né Rivers up in Storm’s End. This isn’t the great strategic move she thinks it is, though, as she’s effectively legitimized someone who has their own claim to the Seven Kingdoms, but it is part and parcel with her decline throughout the season.

More than any other episode to date, “The Last Of The Starks” heralds Daenerys’ heel turn. She’s been poised for it for some time, though the timing varies depending on the character perspective—Varys has always been ready to fly to another camp if he felt something was amiss or he just found a more viable candidate, while Tyrion and Jon still want to serve her. But David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who co-wrote the episode, are clearly telling us that Dany is no longer the shining hope she once was. Jon Snow, who’s had his ass handed to him and saved in just about every major battle he’s credited with winning, has somehow earned that distinction. (There’s undoubtedly source material in support of this, but we don’t really take that into account in newbies reviews.) Dany’s descent into madness is coming, of that there’s no doubt, especially given that the episode ends with the execution of her confidante Missandei. But first, she shows virtually no tactical thinking skills at all, dividing her already depleted forces by sending Jon down the King’s Road and what remains of the Unsullied on boats that are promptly ripped to shreds by Euron, whom we’ve only been told commands the greatest fleet. Rhaegal pays for Daenerys’ shortsightedness, if not outright folly, with his life, which should work wonders on her mental state.

I’ve had my doubts about Daenerys’ ability to rule, inspired in part by the quagmire in Meereen. Still, this feels like a precipitous decline. The queen of sobriquets has always been power hungry. But if the saying that those who want to govern, shouldn’t, applies here, does it really stand to reason that reluctant, brooding, can’t-be-bothered-to-say-goodbye-to-Ghost-the-good-boy types should? Dany has never had a full vision for what happens once she obtains the Iron Throne, but that’s what her advisors, including Tyrion and Varys, are for. And the show has never exactly spelled out Jon’s platform beyond “stay alive,” so he’d also require a small council. Varys brags that Jon is “temperate and measured,” before admitting that Daenerys is “too strong for him”—or maybe Varys just wants a more easily manipulated ruler. People are drawn to Jon, we’re told, but we’ve also seen hundreds of thousands of people pledge themselves to Daenerys. Does it, as Varys and Tyrion debate, just come down to having a “cock”?

There is, of course, another woman, who also happens to be a Stark, who’s displayed a greater grasp of what it means to be responsible for her people. Sansa might not want to expand her reach beyond Winterfell, but she’s also not about to give up the North to the dragon queen. Their antipathy no longer scans as simply the result of a preponderance of men in the Thrones writers room, thankfully; quibbling over titles and territories seemed downright silly in the war against the dead, but it’s not too soon to figure out who is going to take Cersei’s place. As Daenerys has floundered, Sansa has seen to it that people are fed and sheltered—and how many times have we been reminded that those are the concerns of most folk in Westeros and elsewhere? These are positions that have been laid out for weeks, if not years, but Dany’s downturn still feels abrupt. Maybe all of her talk of breaking chains and wheels was just that, talk; maybe she really is her father’s daughter. But given Brienne’s out-of-character sobbing when Jaime heads back to King’s Landing on his own murder mission, as well as Sansa suddenly claiming that maybe all the torture and assault she endured was character building, it just felt like another example in Thrones’ long history of underdeveloping female characters or using sexist tropes as shorthand.

Not that the men behave much more accountably this episode—Tyrion knows Varys’ faith is shaken, yet he runs to tell him about Jon’s Targaryen lineage. He also remembers, or at least should remember, that Cersei just backed out of the fight to save humanity, yet he still tries to appeal to her humanity. And Jon—sweet, dull Jon—almost immediately shares his big secret with his sister-cousins, even though it means shattering the appearance of a united front, which is kind of important, since they are about to attempt to lay siege to King’s Landing. Great strategy, everyone. Is there really no text analogous to The Art Of War, or is the Westerosi equivalent of The Prince the only reading material assigned in schools? Bronn is the canniest of all the menfolk, successfully bargaining his way to lording over Highgarden, assuming Cersei is defeated.

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After an hour of the contenders mostly embarrassing themselves, we’re hit with even more devastating losses. Well, Daenerys is, as she watches both her child, Rhaegal, killed in battle before standing helplessly behind an even more hapless Tyrion as Cersei did what Cersei does, responding to pleas for decency by beheading the only woman of color (in a named role). There’s more than a hint of fridging to Missandei’s death, as she leaves behind a grief-stricken Grey Worm along with Daenerys. Missandei had little interiority beyond being Dany’s sounding board and Grey Worm’s lover, and she had to die to give them both a reason to keep killing, even though you’d think the looming Last War is reason enough. The decision is all the more confounding when you consider that it’s likely meant to motivate Daenerys’ shift into unrepentant monster, but by robbing Dany of another one of her few loved ones—especially in such a short time span—D&D have actually made her more tragic. It’s an egregious use of a woman of color to further a white woman’s story, but it’s made especially unnecessary by the rest of the episode (and previous installments). Daenerys has seen herself as avenging the wrongs done to her from the first season; she didn’t really need another to add to her list. The way they’re handled, Missandei’s death, as well as Rhaegal’s, amount to chess pieces being removed from the board. They deserve better than being a means to an end, even on a show that’s often treated death (and life) as a game to be beaten.

Stray observations

  • Sorry for the delay—Comcast must be overwhelmed in my area. And don’t worry, Alex McLevy is still recuperating from the Battle Of Winterfell, but he’ll be back next week to take you through the penultimate episode.
  • In “D&D giveth and taketh away,” the Oathsex was consummated—huzzah!—but Brienne and Jaime is as much of a non-starter as Arya and Gendry.
  • Seriously, budgets be damned: how could Jon not give Ghost a parting nuzzle?
  • Yara has taken back the Iron Islands, which has seen so many changes in leadership over the last two seasons that they probably have a chalkboard that reads “0 Days Since Our Last Coup.”
  • Qyburn says of children screaming that it is “not a pleasant sound,” thereby outBranning Bran this episode.
  • Bran says he no longer “wants anything” and that he’s just “living the past,” which I guess means he’s a Boomer.
  • Arya and the Hound riding south together not only sets up the resolution of the kill list and the Cleganebowl, it also introduces the Thrones spin-off I want most, aside from “Yara and Ellaria open a B&B in Dorne.”
  • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Euron is such a great marksman, given that Theon seemed pretty handy with a bow and arrow, but his takedown of Rhaegal seemed way too easy. But I suppose we should just talk that up to his ability to transport his entire fleet at will. 
  • For more on the episode, you can tune in tomorrow for “Winter Is Here,” the site’s new video (or audio) podcast covering the show, with Senior Writer Katie Rife and TV Editor Erik Adams. You can find all of the episodes here, or subscribe to the audio version here or wherever else you get your podcasts.