Reviewed by Tania Evans
Part 4 in Tania’s review of the last season of Game of Thrones, read her review of Episode 1 here, Episode 2 here and Episode 3 here.
I have a confession to make: I haven’t liked any of the episodes from this season so far. Sometimes I wonder if I’m capable of “liking” Game of Thrones anymore, after spending more than four years grappling at its meanings and intricacies and returning to it now, all grown up as a precarious researcher. I’m pleased to report that “The Last of the Starks” broke this pattern and confirmed, for me at least, that the show is excellent fantasy and does deserve its place in the fandom Hall of Fame.
Part of the reason I’m so impressed with this episode is that, logically, I don’t like a lot of what happened but I still shouted incoherently as I fell off the couch, clutched my bosom in heartbreak, and almost shed a tear. And these were separate incidents. It was an eventful episode that saw Daenerys’s armies leave the North and travel to King’s Landing to begin the siege on the capital, the “last battle” as Daenerys optimistically calls it. Along the way, the survivors at Winterfell celebrate their victory; Gendry is made Lord of Storm’s End and proposes to Arya Stark; Jaime and Brienne have sex but he decides that he has to travel to King’s Landing; Rhaegal is killed by a massive phallic crossbow wielded by Euron Greyjoy; and Missandei is captured by Cersei and executed. There is also a lot to be said about the way this episode handles Sansa Stark’s relationship to her past traumas and experiences of rape, as many feminists have already pointed out online.
However, the driving tension of the episode is the question over who should rule the Seven Kingdoms: the Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, or former Commander of the Night’s Watch and King in the North, Jon Snow. Jon is a proficient leader who is well-loved by the Westerosi. He has an advantage over Daenerys because he is a man, a fact that is delicately acknowledged at several points in the episode. Daenerys also has a history of expert leadership and political manoeuvring, although recent seasons have seen her make some uncharacteristically poor strategic decisions (such as burning Randyll and Dickon Tarly alive) that are now being played up as signs that she is too unstable to rule. The bulk of this plot point is carried through dialogue among the remaining Stark siblings and Daenerys’s councillors, although the musical score and costumes also suggest that distance has grown between Daenerys and her people; her white cloak contrasts with the dark clothing of her allies and advisors, where once Tyrion, Melisandre, and Grey Worm all wore costumes in imitation of their Queen. In short, Daenerys is no longer being positioned as the best person to rule Westeros, a choice that troubles me because it suggests that women in both fiction and the real world should be excluded from power because they are less capable than men.
It’s worth noting that this sexism is noted in the episode; Varys describes Jon as “temperate. And measured. He’s a man—which makes him more appealing to the lords of Westeros, whose support we are going to need.” Tyrion immediately rebukes this idea, saying “Joffrey was a man. I don’t think a cock is a true qualification—as I’m sure you’d agree.” As a gender expert, I appreciate this challenge to the idea that penises, power, and masculinity are forever and inextricably linked, something Brooke Askey (2018) examines in her article on eunuchs in Game of Thrones. The citation of Joffrey is critical because his character carries a lot of affective weight: viewers have been encouraged to hate his character and all of his actions, especially his violence. By linking Joffrey’s monstrous masculine performance to the idea that male characters are better rulers, the connection is made ludicrous and space is opened for a ruler who does not possess a penis and/or whose masculinity is not related to their sex. This kind of disruption to patriarchal logic is important, but it is worth noting that it is also fleeting. The conclusion to the conversation is that, as Varys puts it, “cocks are important, I’m afraid.” Daenerys’s gender remains a barrier to her securing the throne in the fictional world, as well as the real world where the showrunners have chosen to make her character less competent so that her claim to the throne can be in doubt.
For all my feminist rage over this plot turn, I have to admit that it was not Daenerys’s possible betrayal by Varys and the Starks that had me yelling into the abyss and lying on the floor of my living room. Nor was it the sudden death of Daenerys’s second-last dragon. It was Brienne and Jaime.
As I mentioned, this episode saw the pair have sex after eight seasons of variously-figured tension. They did not talk about their feelings but it was clear that Brienne was staying in Winterfell to protect Sansa Stark, and Jaime was planning to stay with her – until he got up in the middle of the night and left. There was some beautiful cinematography and carefully crafted dialogue during these scenes that suggested that Jaime was struggling with his honour, knighthood, disability, masculinity, and love for Brienne and Cersei. However, it is a bit alarming that all of the gender-queer women characters – Daenerys, Arya, and now Brienne – are being neatly placed in heterosexual boxes prior to the series’ end.
My scholarly brain and my lesbian brain agree that this is not okay, but, as I said to my Game of Thrones-viewing-partner Allison, “it’s disgusting and I love it.” Everything about Jaime and Brienne’s relationship is problematic, so why am I shipping them so hard? After sitting with this question for many hours, I have come to the conclusion that Jaime and Brienne’s relationship is fundamentally queer (as scholars such as Audrey Moyce have argued). Brienne has several relationships with other knights which reflect what Judith Butler calls the “reelaboration of kinship”: she passes on her chivalric violence and opens up space for its proliferation via a form of queer reproduction that benefits her personally as well as those who learn from her (1993, 95). One such relationship is with Jaime, the reciprocity of which is demonstrated in the bear pit scene, when he chooses to come to Brienne’s aid but they end up saving one another. Such is the ambivalence of the scene, and their relationship more broadly, that it can be interpreted as a reflection of Brienne’s positive chivalric influence on Jaime. John Cameron suggests that “like a true knight, Jaime saves Brienne, but, in a true twist on convention, he has learned how to be a knight and a hero from Brienne herself” (“A New Kind of Hero: A Song of Ice and Fire’s Brienne of Tarth”, 198). Brienne’s knightly masculine violence is reproduced through her kinship bonds with those around her.
Pivoting back to “The Last of the Starks,” there was an almost-acknowledgment of Brienne’s queerness at the beginning of the episode when Tyrion announces during a drinking game that she has “never slept with a man. Or a woman.” The second sentence is tacked on as an afterthought, but not unkindly. Brienne departs the celebration shortly thereafter and is followed by Jaime, and after a conversation in her bedchamber it becomes clear that they are about to have sex. Jaime comments, “I’ve never slept with a knight before,” to which Brienne replies, “I’ve never slept with anyone before.” They kiss as the scene fades to black.
The queerness in this scene stems from Brienne’s position as a “knight.” The knight genre convention is crucial to fantasy, which itself has a long and rich history of subversive gender representation (see Roberts and MacCallum-Stewart). I would need to write another book to fully tease out the complex weavings of genre, gender, queerness, masculinity, and power in this scene, but suffice to say that they are rich and ambiguous. The sexual encounter is at once troublingly heterosexual because it pairs male with female, while it is also refreshingly queer because two masculine-coded characters have sex (something still shied away from in films as recent as Bohemian Rhapsody). Why is Game of Thrones so uncertain about its own sexual politics? Why is Brienne’s queerness as knight acknowledged, but their tryst not shown onscreen? Indeed, why do we see barely more than a kiss between Jaime and Brienne when we have seen countless breasts, considerable full-frontal female nudity, and at least two penises? Why is this romance necessary to the plot, besides confirming that Brienne is not a lesbian? Where are all of the lesbians in the Martinverse? There are no simple answers to these questions; they reflect the series’ ambivalent depiction of gender, sexuality, and power. I am pleased to see Season Eight lean into this ambiguity. It reminds me why Game of Thrones is great fantasy and leaves me excited for the legacy that it will cement in the next two episodes.
Askey, B. (2018), “I'd Rather Have No Brains and Two Balls”: Eunuchs, Masculinity, and Power in Game of Thrones. J Pop Cult, 51: 50-67. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12647
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. 2 edition, Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Cameron, John H. “A New Kind of Hero: A Song of Ice and Fire’s Brienne of Tarth."”A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy, edited by Lori M Campbell, McFarland, 2014, pp.188-205.
Moyce, Audrey. "Brienne and Jaime’s Queer Intimacy." Vying for the Iron Throne: Essays on Power, Gender, Death and Performance in Hbo’s Game of Thrones, edited by Lindsey Mantoan and Sara Brady, McFarland, 2018, pp.59-68.
Roberts, Jude and Esther MacCallum-Stewart. "Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular
Tania Evans is a cultural studies researcher at the Australian National University, Australia. Her PhD on masculinity and Fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - current) and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011-2019), was recently passed and she will be graduating in July 2019. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika Journal, Masculinities, and Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. She teaches literary studies, film, and feminist theory.
Read more of Tania’s work on Game of Thrones here:
- An article on Cersei in Aeternum: https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
- A meme version of this article: http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/10-memes-explain-how-game-thrones-cersei-lannister-blowing-patriarchy
- A book chapter on Shireen: https://www.palgrave.com/jp/book/9783319964560