Two weeks ago, Game of Thrones delivered if not its best episode ever, certainly one of its best. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" was an emotional high point that emphasized character over spectacle and the result was a thoughtful, moving episode that felt like the proper culmination of an eight-season journey. But after a disappointing battle last week and a poorly written and ill-conceived episode this week, in which several key moments of action and story happened offscreen -- what exactly did we gain by not seeing Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) learn the truth about Jon's (Kit Harington) Targaryen parentage? -- I'm no longer convinced that Game of Thrones can end in a way that will be satisfying for viewers.
Last week's chaotic "The Long Night" featured the highly anticipated meeting of the armies of the living and the dead at Winterfell. The episode was billed as the longest onscreen battle in TV and film history, longer even than the battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But "The Long Night" was ultimately too dark and so poorly edited that it was extremely difficult to see what was happening for most of it -- let alone follow all the action. Unfortunately, the motivations were just as murky too: We never learned what drove the Night King or what he wanted to achieve (Bran's [Isaac Hempstead Wright] explanation that he had wanted to kill him, the Three-Eyed Raven, was simply not enough) -- this despite the fact the storyline had been with the show since its literal beginning.
Of course, "The Long Night" was probably never going to live up to Game of Thrones fans' lofty expectations. But although you could clearly see what was happening in Sunday's outing, titled "The Last of the Starks," the episode was somehow even worse. The hour-plus episode picked up in the aftermath of the battle and saw the misguided death of Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and multiple men and women act wildly out of character in order to service a story that disregards so much of what we've seen up until this point in order for the show to quickly reach its predetermined destination.
While much has been written lately about how Game of Thrones has positioned its narrative around four powerful women -- Sansa, Arya, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), and Cersei (Lena Headey) -- the writers continue to regularly fail women. Upon first meeting this season, Sansa and Daenerys butted heads, pitching the show dangerously close to Mean Girls territory (and not in any of the good ways). Women have been pitted against one another in competition for far too long, and although Sansa might have plenty of reasons to legitimately dislike Daenerys as a ruler -- she'd be right to be wary of her power-hungry ways or she could make an argument that Daenerys has done little in Westeros to actually earn the right to rule -- it's disheartening to see Sansa reduced to petty glares and the equivalent of mumbling under her breath every time Daenerys is around.
Sansa is a thoughtful leader who considers more than just the immediacy of what's happening in front of her before making a decision that will affect her people. She is highly intelligent -- something the writers acknowledged outright in the first episode of Season 8 -- but she's been forced into one of the most basic tropes this season all in the service of Jon's storyline, which continues to see him fail upward into higher and higher positions of power he doesn't want and honestly isn't qualified to have. As a result of this, Sansa is no longer being proactive in her approach to leadership, which is wholly unlike her and threatens to limit her power in the long run.
Further damaging was the decision to have Sansa claim her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) helped build her character. During a conversation on Sunday night with the Hound (Rory McCann), Sansa said if she hadn't experienced those horrible things, she'd have stayed a "little bird" forever. That comment was roundly denounced on social media and stood as a shockingly telling statement that reveals the writers have learned nothing over the course of creating this series (a woman's horrific rape is not the driving force behind her later empowerment and to suggest as much is dangerous and wholly irresponsible). Game of Thrones has long had an issue with gender disparity off-screen (only one woman has ever directed an episode of Game of Thrones, only two women have ever written for Game of Thrones; all the women who worked on the show in that capacity are white) and it's episodes like "The Last of the Starks" that make those disgraceful numbers stand out even more than usual. Had Game of Thrones hired more women and people of color as writers and producers it's likely the show could have prevented the Sansa moment and the show's other issues with regards to its treatment of women, including the decision to behead Missandei, the show's lone woman of color.
Missandei's death was meant to show Cersei and Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) are irredeemable and completely evil. It was cruel -- especially in the wake of the show's careless treatment of the Dothraki and the Unsullied, all people of color, last week -- but it did not serve a narrative purpose. Much like how the show never needed Ramsay to rape Sansa in order for us to understand he was a monster, the series never needed Cersei to exploit and brutalize a person of color for us to understand the horrifying depths to which she would sink.
It also wasn't necessary for Daenerys to realize the strength of her foe. Daenerys, for all the issues that have plagued her character -- she's always shared a bit in common with the tyrants she's believed it is her destiny to destroy -- is not a naive young girl. She might not understand Cersei the way Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) understands his sister, but the way Game of Thrones has started treating her this season in an attempt to create conflict with Jon (or build up his character as an alternative) is nothing short of frustrating. Varys (Conleth Hill) has never been loyal to any one person, but him suddenly losing faith in Daenerys' ability to rule after learning the truth about Jon's Targaryen parentage is telling. He literally said that "c---s are important" and that Dany is too strong for Jon, as if that is somehow a bad thing, when Tyrion suggested the two rule as queen and king. For a show that's been positioning itself as a narrative about four powerful women, Jon's penis sure does seem to mess everything up pretty easily without him having to do so much as breathe.
But Game of Thrones' problems didn't end with the manifestation of Sansa's internalized misogyny, the exploitative death of Missandei, or Varys losing faith in his queen the second a man with a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne arrived. Even when the writers were giving us what we wanted in this episode -- Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) finally consummating their simmering sexual tension, for example -- it was done in such a way that it felt cheap and contrived, resulting in a major moment that was completely devoid of emotional depth or any sense of fulfillment. Rather than have her first loving encounter with Jaime be the culmination of five seasons of honest relationship building and character growth fed by the jubilant satisfaction of having survived the chaotic Battle of Winterfell, Ser Brienne of Tarth found herself on the receiving end of a sloppy, drunk post-battle hookup engineered by Tyrion shaming her for being a virgin and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) being jealous of her interest in Jaime.
Brienne deserved much better in that moment, not because it was her first intimate experience with a man, but because she is a human being. And she certainly deserved more than to be reduced to a picture of a hysterical woman begging a man not to leave her later in the episode. The Brienne we've come to know is a brave and fearless warrior, not a young, hormonal teenager starring in a Netflix rom-com. Making her tearfully beg Jaime to stay with her in Winterfell rather than return to Cersei in King's Landing, even if he is going there in order to kill his sister -- which is what we can only hope is actually happening -- is insulting to Brienne. As the one person in the series who's been able to see through Jaime's fragile facade to the complicated man he is underneath, it would have been far more believable had she called Jaime out for his crap rather than beg him to stay. Their relationship, one of the deepest and strongest in Game of Thrones, was seemingly dismantled in a single episode by careless writing.
So with only two episodes left in Game of Thrones, it's concerning to see the show fail both its characters and its viewers. Although the series has abandoned its hourlong running time in the final season, there is little to no time to rectify the issues the writers' baffling decisions are creating as a result. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss infamously blew through story in Season 7 in order to quickly move different characters around Westeros, and they made a mess of the narrative's pacing as a result. They are doing the same thing here, rushing through story and rewriting characters and motivations to service a predetermined destination regardless of whether or not said story makes sense or goes against what has already transpired. The common refrain for why Game of Thrones' final two seasons are shorter than each of the first six was that there wasn't as much story to tell, but it's been quite clear for a while now that isn't true.
Instead, the narrative simply isn't being given time to develop. Characters are making choices they'd probably never make without concern for how those decisions affect other people. Important events are happening offscreen either because they're highly improbable or because the writers simply don't care to try to explain them. And each time this happens, it hacks away at viewers' ability to connect with the characters and their story. And so, as we down the final two episodes of the series, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Game of Thrones manages to conclude its massive story, and the stories of the many women and men at its center, in a way that will satisfy rather than enrage its fans. And that is a true disappointment.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.