After “The Last of the Starks,” there are two Game of Thrones episodes left, but there’s something delightful about how complicated everything remains with so little time left in this massive story. The comedown from the Battle of Winterfell offered some relief - especially after the impending arrival, and difficult defeat of the Army of the Dead. But with the battle for the Iron Throne still on the horizon, showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss offer a vivid reminder of the many important issues still left unresolved, and perhaps more importantly, the choices for many that have to be lived with, and sometimes made multiple times before they can take hold.
After an appropriately mournful celebration of the lives lost at the Battle of Winterfell, Jon and Dani lead a victory celebration for the survivors. Dani quickly realizes that among the people of the North - and likely the millions of others who know her only by reputation - Jon is the more respectable of leaders, not in spite but because of his aptitude, measuredness, and humility. Dani’s efforts at diplomacy aren’t just necessarily calculated, as when she makes Gendry a full-blown Baratheon and consequently Lord of Storm’s End, but they feel calculated, the strategy of a person with determination to be in charge but not the self-assurance, perhaps?
Suffice it to say that her insecurities are exacerbated by Jon’s revelation that he is in fact her nephew and therefore has the most legitimate claim to the throne, despite his insistence that he isn’t interested in it and promises to serve her loyally. Dani subsequently demands that he not tell anyone this information, an act of desperation that feels like a tiny explosion of self-doubt in the “destiny” she has trumpeted since she first walked out of the fire with her three dragons. Jon’s honor is too great, his respect and love for his family too pure, and so he passes this along to his sisters, which only spreads the information faster - and to parties in an unusual position to do something about it: Tyrion and Varys, an advisor whose loyalty is to “The Realm” rather than a single leader.
The conversation that ensues between them plays to me a bit like a referendum on modern-day politicians, or at least choosing clear-cut political affiliations: what choice, or let’s say, what platform compromise, constitutes a contradiction of your ideals or ideologies, and therefore a betrayal of your support? The two men fear that her failure of an ideological purity test - vanquishing tyrannical rule by (to be fair, possibly) becoming a tyrant herself - may be imminent. Should Tyrion follow his hope that she fulfills her promise to be a kind and empathetic leader? Or fear, perhaps reasonably, that her divine belief in her right to rule is itself evidence that she should not ascend the throne? Conversely, is a man who resists taking command except by necessity a better, more natural leader? Whose lot will they support? And for how long will he prove himself the right leader before someone else becomes more worthy?
Continuing to make choices so that their results stick was a big theme on the night’s episode. Sansa and The Hound have a beautiful moment together in the midst of the celebration where they both reflect on the literal road not taken - he suggests that had she left King’s landing with him so many seasons ago, Sansa would have been spared all of the terrible things she experienced via Joffrey, Ramsey Bolton and more. The Hound is a man consumed by trauma and he lives a life full of regret and reflection; if only X had happened, Y would have been good instead of bad. But Sansa’s pain, and resulting maturity, has outpaced his; there’s no easy or One Right Way to come to terms with rape and abuse, but in that moment she evidences the choice she has made - to accept her experiences and allow herself, to whatever degree she can, to learn and grow from them, and most of all to move on gracefully. Perhaps it’s horrible to accept or endorse the notion that the world only presents us with the adversity that it knows we can handle, but beneath that spiritual platitude is an underlying truth that learning how to cope, how to repair ourselves, starts with not trying to relive or reimagine the past.
Then of course there’s Jaime, who is deeply uneasy with the realization that he loves Brienne, who definitely loves him back. The consummation of their relationship was a bittersweet prelude to Jaime’s quite frankly impossible philosophical and humanistic position - to choose between his newfound allies and the metastasized, dysfunctional, poisonous relationship he’s had his entire life with Cersei. I think it’s too easy to attribute Brienne’s sadness as he leaves to feelings of romantic disappointment; that’s absolutely there, but the language she uses is not to encourage him to stay, and specifically stay with her as her partner, but to remind him that he is not the sum of the terrible things that he has done as Cersei’s brother, her lover, her defender. She is heartbroken that he lacks the strength to make the choice, again, to be a good man, after temporarily abandoning being a bad one.
Cersei, meanwhile, chose a long time ago, and for better or for worse, she is determined to make the same choice again and again until everyone who opposes her dies, or she does. Tyrion’s pleas for mercy and for moderation - for even a calculated sense of empathy, much less for Missandei’s life - is the choice he cannot stop making, desperately hoping for the best from those in power around him and choosing based on that hope instead of, say, Varys’ ice-cold but likely far more accurate assessment of what is to come. All of which leaves at least one enormous choice for Dani: will she abdicate the throne to her rightfully deserving nephew Jon? How could she possibly? How could anyone possibly relinquish that much power and authority after literally growing up to believe it was yours by birthright? It seems insurmountable.
But then again, maybe that righteous fury, that desperation, those utterly calculated decisions and sacrifices are all a prelude to the benevolence and humanity Dani promised, and evidenced, long before she had enough power to claim the throne in the first place. One supposes the actual choice she faces, over and over, is the one to be the change that she wants to see in the world, to put a perfectly corny point on it, and to live up to the promises made. If Game of Thrones has reinforced any worldview, it’s that people are slaves to their nature; “The Last of the Starks” serves as an important reminder precisely what each of these characters’ natures are, and suggesting that no matter what happens, and especially no matter what we want to see happen, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised - and choose to accept what it is rather than wishing for what it wasn’t.