'Game of Thrones' Before the Storm: The Final Season Brews Up a Breaking Point

'Game of Thrones' S8E4 Missandei and Cersei - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

As Game of Thrones rushes toward the finish line, time is running out for predictions about how David Benioff and Dan Weiss' fantasy epic will end. Enter: Before the Storm, a weekly column wherein The Hollywood Reporter's Westeros guru Josh Wigler and THR's chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg put on their Valyrian foil hats and muse aloud about the next steps of the story.

In their conversation about director David Nutter's "The Last of the Starks," Wigler and Fienberg are more focused on what's just happened rather than looking too deeply into the fires of what's ahead. This week's column centers on the two big deaths, the coffee gaffe, the renewed political tensions in Westeros specifically regarding a certain Dragon Queen and her Northern boyfriend/nephew and more.

Josh Wigler: Rhaegal! Missandei! Coffee! Much to discuss with this week's Game of Thrones, our first fully White Walker-free experience now that the Night King is dead and all eyes are turning toward King's Landing. In addition to the aforementioned deaths (yes, including the coffee cup, which is now officially scrubbed from the episode), "The Last of the Starks" brought us a fond farewell for Tormund Giantsbane, a less fond farewell to Ghost and an even worse parting of ways for Jaime and Brienne, as the Kingslayer heads back to King's Landing. Funerals, drinking, a need for more funerals, a need for more drinking... really, just a lot happening in the space of 78 minutes. I've had all week to talk out and process the episode, so you tell me: where would you like to begin?

Daniel Fienberg: It's bizarre. We're past the midway point in the final season of one of the biggest TV shows in recent history. "The Last of the Starks" was the antepenultimate episode of Game of Thrones. In Breaking Bad terms, this was "Ozymandias." And less than a week after airing, the thing we're talking about most is a freaking coffee cup. I've seen people who know nothing about TV production blaming a lone, negligent P.A. and people who know nothing about TV production schedules saying this was the cinematographer's revenge for viewers complaining previous episodes were too dark to spot details. I know enough to know that it wasn't one person's gaffe, it was a strange oversight by dozens of people and part of me thinks it's almost better for the show that we're talking about this odd piece of sloppiness, when a bigger conversation piece should be that for 78 minutes, Game of Thrones managed to sell out seemingly half of its female characters. The feeling I was left with after 78 minutes was pity for Brienne and Sansa and Missandei and even Cersei for how the show treated them, rather than what happened to them within the show. So do you have coffee cup theories or just spleen you want to vent?

Wigler: I was so deep into interviewing myself the morning after the episode that I didn't even know the coffee cup was a thing until way too late. I was tickled by it, and I remain amused, mostly because it's the great unifier, the one thing everyone has agreed to enjoy this season under their own separate definitions of "enjoy." I received more feedback from folks asking about the symbolism of the coffee cup, what it represents, than any other subject this week. Who am I to resist the low-hanging fruit of an answer: the coffee cup, an item intended to infuse its owner with energy, was the latest sign of a very tired final season, one that's trying to get us on board with some major character leaps at a frustratingly fast pace. Jaime and Brienne finally consummating their relationship, and ending it all in the span of a single hour-plus; the really terrible "little bird" conversation between Sansa and the Hound; Varys once again adjusting loyalties and setting himself up to follow Littlefinger into an unsatisfying early grave because reasons; nobody doing any form of recon whatsoever at Dragonstone, and losing yet another dragon because of it ... and please, Dan, if dragons are cheating, what do you call anti-dragon artillery? 

Fienberg: I am legitimately angry about the entirely preventable loss of Rhaegal, because it represents a continuation of the astonishing lack of military strategy exhibited by our alleged heroes in the previous episode as well. I need an explanation of how Dany possibly could have been unaware that there was an entire armada around the corner as she was flying around like she was on a lovely summer joyride. Our heroes' entire strategy seems to have been, "We have two dragons," which is not strategy. Dany was playing Rock, Paper, Dragon and she didn't realize that the other side was playing Rock, Paper, Dragon, Giant Crossbow. Best case interpretation: This is representative of Dany's hubris. Worst case interpretation: Everybody is stupid. And I'm inclined to believe the latter, because Euron was like, "Not only will my giant crossbow thingy take down a dragon, but it turns out that without any complicated geometry, they can be readjusted on-the-fly to also take out a full navy that's just sitting there waiting for the starting bell or something, completely unaware that once the armada starts firing on the dragons, the game is afoot and then you have to actually do something other than staring at the sky going, 'We have two… errr… make that one dragon.'" And why did Dany not set the entire armada on fire after she dodged the second round of spear volleys? And why can't dragons dodge? Seriously. I'm angry about this, Josh.

Wigler: I'm furious about it. It really felt like, "Well, there's only so much time left on the board and we need to get rid of another one of Dany's dragons, so ... giant crossbows?" "Giant crossbows." I also wondered why Dany couldn't just fly all the way high into the sky then dive-bomb back down on the backside of the armada. Perhaps the crossbows are on swivels? You cannot see me right now, but I am shrugging. Add it to the list of casualties of the final season's insanely quickened pace, where everything happens all at once. Clearly, the ultimate direction of Game of Thrones needs Daenerys to enter the final two episodes past her breaking point, hence the deaths of two out of three dragons, not to mention the loss of Jorah last week and the episode-closing Missandei beheading. Thoughts on Missandei's execution, and thoughts on where we're going with the Targaryen storyline?

Fienberg: Jorah at least had the agency to decide that he was willing (and eager) to sacrifice his life for Dany. Not only was Missandei given no such agency, but we got multiple episodes of her making future plans with Grey Worm, which we knew meant that one of them would die. But had it been Grey Worm who died in the third episode, at least he would have died doing what he loved: Attacking a horde of zombies without an iota of strategy on the behalf of a dragon-wielding woman doing a favor for her beloved nephew/sex-pet. Missandei died doing nothing. She was reduced to a plot point made superfluous when, for absolutely no justifiable reason, Tyrion decided that he must, once again, make a plea to Cersei's humanity, unaware that the writers have decided to make one of the show's more complicated characters (still talking Cersei here) into the one-dimensional villain they worked seven seasons to keep her from becoming. And yet, oddly, this blundered bit of strategy from Tyrion, who has entirely relinquished his claim as Westeros' smartest man, annoyed me much less than Tyrion, apropos of nothing, virgin-shaming Brienne and starting the process of turning Brienne from kickass warrior into weepy lover begging her man to stay with her. Sigh. I have anger issues, Josh.

Wigler: Look, if ever Game of Thrones earned a roast, this was the week. (That's a coffee joke. Look, I'm tired.) Tyrion's virgin-shaming is definitely high on the list of the episode's cringiest moments, but I'm not as mad as some about the final scene between Brienne and Jaime. It made sense to me that she'd be really upset to lose Jaime here. She's loved and lost someone once before, and now she loves and seems to be losing someone once again — but unlike Renly Baratheon, whom she admired from afar, Jaime Lannister is someone she knows intimately. She knows him better than pretty much anyone knows him, in fact, what with his memorable season three Kingslayer confession in the hot tubs of Harrenhal, him saving her from death by bear pit a short while later, gifting her Valyrian steel to go save the Starks a little less than a season later, their encounters together in Riverrun in season six, the knighting ceremony a couple weeks back... so much has transpired between them along the way, and if I were Brienne, I would also be viciously heartbroken to see someone I've invested so much in basically relapse into an addiction that's almost certainly going to get him killed. Of course, I'm not Brienne; I would be the first one dead in "The Long Night," let alone any other number of encounters she's survived. And maybe I'm less bothered by the breakup because there were so many other frustrations throughout "The Last of the Starks," such as everyone deciding Jon Snow is the only person in Westeros qualified to rule.

Fienberg: That's a reasonable pitch to legitimize Brienne's actions in this episode. You'd be harder pressed to do the same for the collective adoration for Jon Snow, which I guess may be the point? Is Jon Snow supposed to be the personification of white male privilege, in which everybody is embracing him due to "electability," when anybody reading the text even on a surface level knows that Jon Snow is dangerously close to being the Richard Splett of Westeros, constantly rising and rising and rising even as he displays neither interest nor aptitude for power? And yet we're supposed to take Varys as this ultimate arbiter of political understanding and he's moved to Jon's camp, so maybe he's right? I've been in the "Nobody should end the show on the Iron Throne" camp for a while, but I may have reached the point where anybody "winning" is going to be another thing that makes me angry. So much anger, Josh! In an effort to stoke more, have you thoughts on how the show sent Ghost, Tormund and Sam & Gilly Plus 1.5 off into the sunset?

Wigler: On the one hand, I am livid Jon Snow showed Ghost no love. On the other hand, I am thrilled Ghost will almost certainly survive the series, as will Tormund, Sam and Gilly. Save for a full razing of Westeros, which feels less likely now with the White Walkers gone, I can't see a reasonable scenario in which any of those four characters meet a gruesome demise. While we're on the subject, I am very happy for Sam and Gilly's baby news; that said, I am well and truly baffled at the writing decision to have Jon Snow learn about their pregnancy not by conversation, not even by raven, but by brushing bellies with GillyWhat. Was. That. Back to Ghost, or more accurately, his new owner, Tormund. Game of Thrones has had so many recent shots to kill the milk-guzzling Giantsbane (a near Private Hudson-ing in "Beyond the Wall," the Wall's fall in the season seven finale, the entirety of "The Long Night"), yet has balked at every turn. I see no reason to kill him now, and I do not expect to see him again, except for some Rowling-ish epilogue at the end of it all. I'm happy about their survival; and as it relates to Jon, maybe Tormund does represent an actual political résumé point for Lord Snow. After all, Jon was the person who bridged the gap between Night's Watch and Free Folk after thousands of years of war. If Jon can heal such a cultural rift, then maybe it's not too much to ask him to heal the Seven Kingdoms. Then again, he did take a knife to the heart from his own constituents, so... okay, I've talked myself out of it.

Fienberg: Now you have me praying that the series ends with a series of Animal House-esque postscripts for various characters. "Tormund Giantsbane tried the grown-up nesting thing with another giantess. She was not fooled. They've been married for 15 years." What else do we need to address here quickly? What did we actually like in this episode, which returned to season seven levels of apathy toward geographical and temporal continuity? I loved Gendry's rush to propose to Arya, and Arya's clear amusement and also her kindness in wanting to let him down easy. And I also appreciate both that everybody is properly celebrating Arya's role in saving the day, but nobody is acknowledging all the effort Jon put into standing in front of a zombie dragon and yelling "Go! Go! Go!" No mention of that at all! It's almost like it never occurred!

Wigler: That theory is going, going, gone, and I am as happy about that as I am about these moments: Sophie Turner's line read of "go on, I believe in you" to Jon not wanting to chug beers with Tormund, which is one of my new favorite throwaway Thrones moments; the Starks together in the Godswood, which wasn't without flaws (I wish we were allowed to see the immediate reactions from Arya and Sansa, for one) but it's probably the last time we will ever see those four in the same space again, and I'm going to miss them when they're gone; and Jaime and Brienne’s second fireside scene of the season, which was awkward and sweet and worked really well for me, even if it ended sadly. On the flip side — and I know we’re supposed to take this moment to stay positive — I must know if you had a take on Bronn coming to collect from the Lannister brothers. Bronn has been to Dorne, and somehow this was his worst scene of the series. Any takes on that, and any final predictions for where we’re going in the penultimate?

Fienberg: The Bronn scene was horrible, yes. I'm not sure what else to say about it. Bronn's a character the show hasn't known how to use in years and yet they keep using him, and so having him just wander into this episode was borderline ridiculous, but pointed to the abandonment of temporal and spatial logic that I already mentioned. And it was yet another moment that undermined Tyrion's reputation for thinking on his feet. Boy, Tyrion is a disaster now. I don't even know what I would be trying to predict about this week's episode. I hadn't been in love with any of the first three episodes, but I'd found things to like and something like a LOT about each of them and this episode wasn't even bad so much as it was utterly disheartening. What would get things back on track for you?

Wigler: More coffee.

Read all of THR's Final Path series, featuring character-by-character predictions:

1. Jon Snow
2. Daenerys Targaryen
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Cersei Lannister
5. Jaime Lannister
6. Sansa Stark
7. Arya Stark
8. Bran Stark
9. Samwell Tarly
10. Theon Greyjoy
11. The Hound
12. Brienne of Tarth
13. Varys
14. Melisandre
15. Davos Seaworth
16. Jorah Mormont
17. Bronn
18. Tormund Giantsbane
19. Beric Dondarrion
20. The Dragons
21. The Night King
22. Across the World of Ice and Fire
23. Final Predictions

Follow THR.com/GameOfThrones for continuing coverage all season long.