'Game of Thrones' Final Season Enters the Iron Throne Endgame with Fire and Blood

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Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode four of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Last of the Starks."]

Few people anticipated the Night King's death midway through the final season of Game of Thrones. In a series defined by shocking twists and turns, creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss' decision to kill off the scariest villain in the Seven Kingdoms with three episodes still remaining immediately ranked as one of the most controversial decisions of all — although it opened the door for an admittedly alluring question: if the Night King isn't the ultimate villain of Thrones, then who is?

Everyone on Thrones is the hero of their own story, of course: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Stark siblings Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright); Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her ferocious dragons; Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and the Lannister twins Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Without a frozen, undead menace standing in the way, Game of Thrones has left the core cast with nowhere to hide as their true human nature comes to the surface, all while the race for who will sit on the Iron Throne accelerates … assuming an Iron Throne even exists at the end of the series.

How does the series move forward after director Miguel Sapochnik's "The Long Night," then? The fourth episode of the final season (not to mention the final episode directed by David Nutter, architect of the Red Wedding) begins to deliver the answer, and it's an answer soaked in two of the things Daenerys Targaryen loves best: fire and blood — though not in the fashion she normally prefers. 

After losing Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and a large swath of her army in the Battle of Winterfell, the Dragon Queen suffered a couple of additional casualties in the latest episode, both of which can be summarized in a single word: "Dracarys." The identities of those deceased parties follows the below photo of the Targaryen fleet; consider this your final warning that major spoilers are ahead.

Two of Daenerys' oldest and most trusted allies are now dead and gone forever. First: Rhaegal the dragon, shot out of the sky by Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and his fleet as Daenerys and her own forces returned home to Dragonstone. In the aftermath, one main character went missing: Missandei of Naath (Nathalie Emmanuel), abducted by Euron. Days later, Daenerys marched a portion of her army to King's Landing for a tense standoff with Cersei. Tyrion does his best to cool the fury between the two queens, with a last ditch plea to his sister's better angels.

"I know you don't care about your people," Tyrion tells Cersei. "Why should you? They hate you and you hate them. But you're not a monster. I know this. I know this because I've seen it. You've always loved your children, more than yourself, more than Jaime, more than anything. I beg you, if not for yourself then for your child. Your reign is over. But that doesn't mean your life has to end. It doesn't mean your baby has to die."

For a moment, it looks like Tyrion's overture works. Soon, it's clear that Cersei plans to hold her ground. She tells Missandei to offer her final words now if she has any. Indeed, she does, as Missandei defiantly looks out at the crowd and utters one word in High Valyrian: "Dracarys."

With that, Cersei gives the command to the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who proceeds to behead Missandei in one swift move. The episode ends with a red-eyed Daenerys marching away from the scene, ready for war — a war that's certainly coming in the upcoming penultimate episode.

"The Last of the Starks" doesn't feature a body count nearly as high as the one featured in "The Long Night," but the deaths of Rhaegal and Missandei especially somehow land with even more brutality than the casualties sustained at Winterfell. Is it because of Missandei's romantic hopes for her future with Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) moving back to Naath? Is it because we have lost yet another one of Dany's dragons, a creature the audience has watched develop since infancy — and this time, there's no Night King to raise Rhaegal back from the dead? (So we think, anyway.) Perhaps it's because of what the deaths imply: so many more deaths exactly like Missandei and Rhaegal's are on the way— ones that are completely shocking, heartbreaking and ultimately avoidable.

In many ways, "The Last of the Starks" begins where it ends: Daenerys mourning a loss. First, it's Jorah Mormont, burned alongside so many others at a grand series of Winterfell funeral pyres. The former King in the North didn't kill the Night King, but he absolutely kills the speech he's tasked with giving to the survivors of "The Long Night." Here it is, verbatim:

"We're here to say goodbye to our brothers and sisters, to our fathers and mothers, to our friends. Our fellow men and women who set aside their differences. To fight together and die together so that others might live. Everyone in this world owes them a debt that can never be repaid. It is our duty and our honor to keep them alive in memory for those who come after us and those who come after them for as long as men draw breath. They were the shields that guarded the realms of men and we shall never see their like again."

The not-yet-a-king's speech gives way to a big dinner later that night, where various groups of characters celebrate their unlikely continued existence in various ways. Among those ways:

• Daenerys making Gendry an official member of House Baratheon. He's now officially the Lord of Storm's End, in search of a lady. Sadly for Gendry, that lady is not Arya. He proposes to her, which she gently but firmly refuses: "You'll be a wonderful lord, and any lady would be lucky to have you. But I'm not a lady. I never have been. That's not me."

• Another Stark who refuses newfound elevated status: Bran. Tyrion tries to compel the Three-Eyed Raven to look toward the bright side of his future as the Lord of Winterfell, but it's not an honor Bran wants. Indeed, the young man doesn't want anything anymore.

• Jaime and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) both want something: each other. After playing a drinking game with Tyrion, the two stalk away from the banquet, and wind up in each other's warm embrace. It's great news for them and a certain section of the fandom, but very sad news for Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), forced to confront his loss of the maiden fair.

Another romantic interlude: Jon Snow and Daenerys. The two meet in private after dinner, during which Daenerys not only confesses her love for Jon, but her firm hope that he never tells anyone the truth about his parents — in other words, his claim to the Iron Throne. But Jon Snow is going to be Jon Snow, which means he wants to tell his family, even though she insists they won't take it well. She believes "the truth will destroy us," but he's much more optimistic about how it can all work out. 

"You are my queen," he tells her, warmly. "Nothing will change that. And they are my family. We can live together." 

"We can," Daenerys replies, darkly. "I've just told you how."

After the merriment has died down, in the cold light of day, it's back to the drawing board for the surviving forces at Winterfell. We get a numbers check on how many people made it through "The Long Night," though it's not an exact science: half the North, half the Targaryens, half of Bronze Yohn Royce's men. (As a side note, Bronze Yohn Royce is still alive through four episodes of the final season. Who saw that coming?) There's some arguing over what to do next. Sansa wants the armies to rest and recover from their harsh battle against the dead. Daenerys is insulted at the prospect. She's eventually compelled to listen to her best advisors, who want to try waiting Cersei out until everyone in King's Landing realizes the Lion Queen is the one they should rebel against.

All well and good, right? Not so much. The Starks would like to have a word with Jon. In a scene that gives the episode its title, the last of the Starks gather together in the godswood and stage an intervention with Jon about his loyalties to the Dragon Queen. Sansa's position is well and fully established, and ultimately, Arya backs her sister: "We're family, the four of us. The last of the Starks." One big problem for Jon: he's not their brother, not by blood. Jon decides to tell them the truth, but only if they promise to never tell another soul.

We don't see the revelation play out. Instead, we see the fallout as it impacts the Stark sisters. Arya decides to leave Winterfell, heading south on a mission she hasn't fully articulated, but one can guess. She has familiar company on the road: Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), who also has unstated business in King's Landing. Set your watches for a collision course between Arya and Cersei, and the Hound and the Mountain respectively. 

As for Sansa? She maintains the secret about Jon for all of two scenes, before letting the dragon out of the bag in conversation with Tyrion. (In between Jon's revelation and Sansa's eventual secret-busting, we get a scene where Jerome Flynn's Bronn shows up at Winterfell, punches Tyrion in the nose and extorts the Lannister brothers into promising Highgarden should he spare them their lives. Really, it's no way to treat your friends.) As he sails back to Dragonstone from Winterfell, Tyrion tells yet another soul: Varys (Conleth Hill). The Imp and the Spider debate who the realm would endorse, with both making strong cases on behalf of their chosen champion: Daenerys for Tyrion, and Jon Snow for Varys. Their debate extends across two scenes: once before Euron's assault on Rhaegal and the Targaryen fleet, and then again after, in which Varys privately clarifies his concerns about Daenerys.

"A Targaryen father and a Stark mother," says Varys. "Jon is the one man alive who might be able to keep the North in the Seven Kingdoms."

The rest plays out as outlined above: Tyrion, still insisting on Daenerys as his queen, joins the Mother of Dragons and a small army of Unsullied soldiers on a mission to stand before Cersei and her forces — a mission that goes awry even after Tyrion's best attempt at brokering peace. Rest in peace, Missandei. A few other quick odds and ends from the episode worth noting:

• We may have said goodbye to a few Game of Thrones characters in this episode: Tormund, Sam (John Bradley), Gilly (Hannah Murray) and Ghost. Before leaving for King's Landing, Jon learns that Gilly is pregnant and plans to name their child after Jon if they're having a boy. "I hope it's a girl," Jon replies.

• Moments earlier, Tormund tells Jon that he's going back north beyond the Wall, where he and the other wildlings can roam freely. Jon asks him to bring Ghost with him, giving the red-headed giant a new white-haired companion to bring with him on his next adventures.

• Arya is on her way to King's Landing, presumably to kill Cersei, but is she the only one? Near the end of the hour, Jaime finds out about Cersei's attack on Daenerys' army and decides to head south in pursuit. At first glance, the scene plays as though Jaime is returning to his sister's side. There's another reading to consider: Jaime is returning south because he now fully recognizes the extent of his sister's evil, and plans to stop it. 

"You think I'm a good man? I pushed a boy out a tower window, crippled him for life, for Cersei," Jaime tells Brienne. "I strangled my cousin with my own hands just to get back to Cersei. I would have murdered every man, woman and child in Riverrun for Cersei. She's hateful, and so am I."

With that, he rides off — and while it would seem like regression for Jaime Lannister, perhaps the truth behind these words involves the Kingslayer going off on a mission to become the Queenslayer. The answer should bear out one way or another in the next episode of Game of Thrones, the penultimate installment in the series.

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

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