Spoilers ahead for Episode 4 of Game of Thrones Season 8.
Game of Thrones aired one of its most intense episodes to date last week with "The Long Night," featuring the Battle of Winterfell. As much as it may have seemed that there was no way the show could build to a potentially even more epic fight for the Iron Throne, the fourth episode of the final season indicates that the best and most terrifying could be yet to come.
The board is set for the final stage of the game of thrones, and as Cersei said way back in Season 1, you win or you die in this particular game. Let's take a look at all the ways the fourth episode set up the climax of the entire series.
Cersei Controls The Capital
Cersei has held control of King's Landing for a while now, but it's been a long time since her grip has been so tight, and it's all thanks to her gamble regarding the army of the dead.
When she decided to gather the Golden Company and Euron Greyjoy to herself rather than send her forces North, she ran the risk of the North falling and the army of the dead -- now greater than ever thanks to the Northerners, Unsullied, Dothraki, and dragons who fell at Winterfell -- sweeping what remain of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, the North won the day at great cost. Dany's forces are seriously depleted, and Cersei is sitting pretty in the sunny capital city.
Thanks to the support of the Iron Bank, Cersei has her 20,000 sellswords bought and paid for, and all signs point toward her not needing those elephants anyway if it comes to a field battle between Dany's forces and her own. The Golden Company will be fresh and ready for a fight; as Sansa pointed out when Dany was itching to leave Winterfell ASAP, their forces needed time to recover from the Battle of Winterfell.
Throw in the long land journey from Winterfell to King's Landing, and the Golden Company may have all the advantages in a field battle. Admittedly, Dany destroyed the Lannister army last season when she unleashed Drogon and the Dothraki, but she can't rely on dragon support like she once did. She lost her second dragon in Episode 4 thanks to Euron Greyjoy.
While Dany and Co. were gearing up to fight the dead in the first few episodes of Season 8, Cersei and Euron (presumably with some substantial help from Qyburn) were outfitting the Iron Fleet and the walls of King's Landing with huge scorpion weapons that fire bolts with enough force to pierce a dragon's skin.
The scorpions have been updated since the first, when Bronn managed to kinda sorta hurt Drogon. Euron easily took down Rhaegal with several massive bolts through his body, and there's no question that Rhaegal was going to die even before he sank to the bottom of the ocean. Yara may have retaken the Iron Islands, but the fleet belongs to Euron, and Dany discovered too late that he is not to be underestimated. She's down to one dragon.
Maybe Jon should have ridden Rhaegal after all! As if all that isn't enough, Cersei proved herself the master manipulator as ever, by drawing the civilians of King's Landing into the walls of the Red Keep, ostensibly for their protection from the invading Dragon Queen. Her real goal, of course, is filling the Red Keep with innocents to either prevent Dany from roasting her within its walls or force Dany to kill a whole bunch of people as part of her quest to take the Iron Throne.
Oh, Cersei. You may be doomed, but you're sure as hell putting up a good fight.
Daenerys Wants To Burn Them All
Well, in case there was any doubt that Dany is truly the daughter of The Mad King, I'd say Episode 4 was proof that she has more in common with her dear old dad than any in the Seven Kingdoms should be comfortable with.
Although Game of Thrones may not go full Mad Queen Daenerys with Dany, who believes it her destiny to free the world from tyrants, she seems as willing to "burn them all" to achieve her goals as Aerys was. Her goals are just somewhat less demented. Oh, incest. The gift that keeps on giving.
Already frustrated by the delay in taking the fight to King's Landing, Dany refused to allow the troops time to rest before marching and/or sailing south. The first half of the episode went to great lengths to show the isolation getting to Dany in the far North, as the Northerners rallied around Arya and showed their love and support for Jon Snow... the kind of love and support she only ever won for herself on the other side of the Narrow Sea.
Jon resisted her attempts to rekindle their romance -- presumably because he was raised a Stark and Starks aren't all-in on the incest like the Targaryens -- and told Dany he wanted to tell his sisters the truth about his identity. She begged him not to, which should make the "betrayal" sting all the more when she finds out. She was finding herself without trusted allies by her side, and it showed in some very poorly timed ways after news of Jon as Aegon started to circulate. But more on that later.
Losing Ser Jorah was already a big blow, and she lost one of the greatest tempering influences. In Episode 4, Cersei managed to get her hands on Missandei after Euron destroyed her fleet. Although Cersei stated that she was willing to let Missandei live if Dany surrendered unconditionally, I for one was reminded of Ramsay with Rickon. Missandei was doomed as soon as Cersei got her hands on her, and when negotiations went south, Cersei had The Mountain behead Missandei.
It was a heartbreaking scene that will undoubtedly impact both Dany and Grey Worm in some dangerous ways. Dany has lost her two closest and most trusted advisors, and Jon won't return her love the way she wants. The losses of Rhaegal and Missandei in Episode 4 could push her over the edge, and she's showing increasing willingness to roast any and all within King's Landing if it means taking the city and the Iron Throne. Learning that Tyrion knew of Cersei's pregnancy without mentioning it won't get him back in her good graces.
Hey, at least Missandei got as badass an exit as possible, considering she was shackled. Her final word? "Dracarys." R.I.P. Missandei.
A New Contender For The Iron Throne
Unsurprisingly, Jon does not want the Iron Throne for himself, and learning that he's technically ahead of Dany in the line of Targaryen succession didn't change his mind that she should be ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. The problem? Not everybody else shares his opinion.
He insisted on telling his sisters the truth about his identity, despite Dany literally begging him not to. Both Stark women promised not to tell before he confided in them, and Arya seems likely to keep that promise. As for Sansa... well, she really doesn't want Dany to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and discovering that even Tyrion is afraid of Dany convinced her that the secret shouldn't stay between the few people who already knew.
So, Sansa told Tyrion, and Tyrion told Varys. Tyrion and Varys were then put in a delicate position of considering whether Daenerys really should be the Targaryen destined for the Iron Throne. Varys seems to be on Team Jon just because Jon is less likely to roast the realm for hate of Cersei, and he went so far as to talk treason with Tyrion after Dany dismissed his concerns about attacking the city. Although he didn't make any overt moves against Dany in Episode 4, we can probably count Varys as Team Jon/Aegon.
Tyrion is a bit more complicated. He is scared of Daenerys, and his best hope for the situation is for Jon and Dany to marry so that Jon could temper her more extreme impulses. He's still behind Dany, but he could probably be convinced to switch sides if the evidence is compelling enough and Dany begins to show more shades of Aerys.
As Varys pointed out, Jon may not be willing to marry his aunt, even if everything else goes perfectly. If Dany is furious at Tyrion for keeping the secret about Cersei's pregnancy, perhaps that will be enough to sway Tyrion. Or perhaps Dany doing something to Varys could do the same. Either way, Jon is a key player in the game of thrones, even though he's technically still on the road to King's Landing and doesn't want the throne.
Honestly, a happy ending for Jon at this point might be surviving to go live beyond The Wall with Tormund and Ghost.
Jon And Ser Davos Are On The Way
Jon was hardly in Episode 4 beyond the first chunk of the episode, when he dropped the "Aegon" bomb on his sisters/cousins, said his goodbyes to Tormund and Sam, sent off Ghost without nearly enough emotion for me to accept, and hit the road with the remaining Northern soldiers, Dothraki, and Unsullied.
Ser Davos is by his side, and all rode horses. Jon cited Rhaegal's need to heal as the reason why he was traveling on horseback; everybody who wants to take down Cersei may come to regret that decision. Dany is down to one dragon. Hopefully Jon and Ser Davos arrive in a timely fashion without losing many men along the way. Poor Jon may arrive to discover that half of Team Dany has become Team Jon!
Sansa Holds The North
Sansa stayed behind to hold the North as the lady of Winterfell, and it seemed like her job was going to be to rebuild Winterfell, help the surviving Northerners, and watch Brienne and Jaime explore their relationship further. Instead, word came down that Euron's fleet ambushed Daenerys and took down Rhaegal, which gave Sansa the reason -- or perhaps excuse -- to enter the game herself. Not necessarily as a contender for the throne, but definitely somebody who should have a say.
She is after all the one who set the pieces in motion for Jon to have a shot at the throne, and Tyrion and Varys both realized that Sansa declaring for Jon would mean the loss of the North and the Vale as Dany's allies. Will Sansa stay in Winterfell, where it's safe but she can only work her political magic via raven? Or head south to play a more proactive role? Only time will tell, but I'd say she's definitely not out of the game yet. As she told the Hound, she's not a "little bird" any more.
Arya And The Hound
Both Arya and the Hound found themselves out of place following the end of the Battle of Winterfell. Neither a fan of crowds, both had unfinished business elsewhere. Arya refused Gendry's bold proposal -- A+ for effort there, Gendry -- and the Hound turned away the attentions from some ladies who were happy to be alive. He began his journey south on horseback, then was surprised and pleased in his own way when Arya turned up to join him. The travels of Arya and the Hound 2.0 commence!
The odds are that the Hound is heading south to go after what remains of his brother, which is good news for fans who have been holding out hope for CleganeBowl. As for Arya, Cersei is still on the top of her list of names, and unlike Beric and the Hound, Cersei's not getting off her list until she's dead. I still think one of the Lannister brothers will take out Cersei, but Arya is definitely a possibility, especially if she starts stealing faces again.
By the end of the episode, there are some key pieces moving around that could go in a number of directions. Bronn returned to the action, having conveniently missed the Battle of Winterfell. He had both Lannister bros at his mercy, but decided that betting on Cersei was a big gamble, and he would rather see what Tyrion and Jaime had to offer. Cersei offered Riverrun; Tyrion offered Highgarden. Bronn accepted, but he's still a wild card.
As for Jaime, he was all set up to stay behind in Winterfell and live a reformed life. I was honestly shocked when Jaime and Brienne turned overtly romantic, as I was sure one of them would die before they got a love scene. Of course, now I'm more convinced that ever that one or both will die, especially considering how he left Winterfell.
Upon learning of the all-but-certain doom heading toward his sister, Jaime fell back into old habits and declared that he was as hateful as his twin, and he left Brienne in tears. He's just off-kilter enough that I could believe that he'd kill Cersei, especially if Brienne dies somehow going after him.
Euron is firmly Team Cersei, and he was thrilled when she announced that she was pregnant with their child in their first scene together in the episode. Unfortunately for Cersei, Euron is presumably capable of doing some basic math, and he was by her side when Tyrion announced to all listening that Cersei was pregnant.
Now, unless Euron believes that Tyrion has some supernatural ability to tell when women are pregnant from a great distance, he might have to wonder if Cersei has been pregnant longer than they've been sleeping together. Tyrion was last with Cersei in the Season 7 finale, before Euron slept with Cersei. Even he could connect the dots; could he turn on Cersei and get violent if he realizes that he was about the be Robert Baratheon-ed and told he was the father of Jaime Lannister's child?
Then we have Gendry. Oh, Gendry. When Gendry was just trying to leave the feast to chase after Arya, Daenerys shocked him (and me) by legitimizing him and declaring him Gendry Baratheon, Lord of Storm's End. Gendry was thrilled at the unexpected turn of events, and took the good news to Arya.
He used his new standing to propose to her in a grand gesture that pretty clearly was going to fall flat. She told him that he's going to be a great lord and make another woman a fine lady, but that's not her. As somebody who was rooting for these two crazy kids, I still have hope that there's more for them.
At this point, though, I'm really hoping Thrones explains what exactly Gendry's going to do in Storm's End. I love the guy, but was he ever even given the chance to learn how to read, let alone govern?
Only time will tell if he lives long enough to prove whether he literate. He's obviously going to be loyal to the woman who legitimized him, and that could complicate things if a conflict arises between Dany and Jon's sides for the Iron Throne. And what about that quick mention early in the episode about Dorne having a new prince?
What will happen with the next episode, considering these new twists and all the wild cards? We'll have to wait and see. Be sure to tune in to HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET for the final episodes of Game of Thrones. Not a lot of time is left, and a lot of people are probably going to die before the final credits roll.