After a serviceable but lackluster beginning to this final season, Game of Thrones offered us a strong second episode this week. The previous chapter, while moving things forward, didn’t seem to flow very well. Some of the interactions were forced and at times the dialogue seemed somewhat stilted. Banter between characters was a little clumsy.
There was none of that this week. In a way, this episode seemed like a call back to earlier seasons. The pacing was good and the scenes seemed more relaxed. One scene led into the next very organically. The pacing was on point. Last week’s show was very utilitarian. The writers had to make sure everything was in place for the coming battle with the Night King. This week, it was almost as if they stepped back and let the characters just “be,” which resulted in an hour of great scenes and character moments.
The episode opened with Jaime Lannister basically on trial in Winterfell. After recounting Jaime’s past sins against her family, Daenerys is inclined to have nothing to do with him and Sansa agrees at first. A defiant Jaime counters that everything he did was in service to his family and that on those counts, he has no regrets. Bran, seated nearby, utters ironically, “The things we do for love.” Jaime is visibly affected by the remark, it being the same utterance he made after pushing Brandon out of the window years before. Brienne of Tarth steps forward to vouch for him, recounting all he has done since, including saving her from being raped by Roose Bolton’s men and losing his hand for it.
This scene serves to illustrate one of my favorite things about this world and the characters that inhabit it: everybody is flawed and few people are irredeemable. With few exceptions (Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey Baratheon, the Night King) nobody is completely evil. Like all of us in the real world, these people are human. Their lives are a mix of good deeds and bad, with the potential for virtue as well as vice.
We have seen over and over again people fighting not only against each other, but also against their own natures. Jon, hero that he is, is sometimes ruled by his passions and makes poor strategic decisions as a result. Dany, for all her good intentions, still exhibits the merciless temper of her father. And Jaime, the haughty and incestuous heel who pushed a little boy from a window in that very castle all those years ago, finally abandoned his family to journey north to keep his word and fight alongside his enemies, knowing full well that they may execute him on sight.
The next scene involving Jaime expands on this theme. He finds Bran sitting contemplatively in front of Winterfell’s weirwood tree and offers an apology, “for what I did to you.” He goes on to state that he isn’t that person anymore. Bran provides the insight that he still would be if he hadn’t pushed him out of that window. Bran, the Three Eyed Raven, also remarks that he would still be Brandon Stark. The quiet and understated character work present here recurs throughout the episode.
As the two talk, surrounded by the silence of the weirwood, Jaime wonders why Bran didn’t expose what he did. Bran answers that Jaime wouldn’t be able to help in the fight if the Starks had been allowed to murder him.
We also finally got to see Daenerys and Sansa try and talk things through. Sansa hasn’t always been one of my favorite characters, but I really enjoyed the interaction between these two here. The two women have been through a lot. They’ve grown from young victims of circumstance into experienced rulers in their own right and they recognize this. Sansa’s cold exterior melts a little as the two seem to warm up to each other. There is a tentative meeting of the minds here, but one sticking point remains: after the war against the dead, the North will not want to go back to being ruled by a Targaryen on the Iron Throne. The north remembers. The north always remembers.
The two are called away from their talk. Theon has returned to fight for Winterfell one last time. In a touching scene, he offers his sword and Sansa goes to him for an embrace. Again, in a quiet scene of only a few words, we are reminded that people are redeemable. That we all have a long story to live out. Sometimes we’re the hero and sometimes we’re the villain. Theon seems to have completed his journey back to the light. It’s to this show’s credit that it can make me sympathetic to, even like, characters who have done so many despicable things. If nothing else, it reminds us to be humble, because everybody is capable of the same extremes of virtue and vice.
The last of our heroes to find their way to Winterfell are Eddison Tollett, Tormund Giantsbane, and Beric Dondarrion, who we recently saw at Last Hearth. The reunion is happy but brief. They deliver the news that the dead are on the march and will arrive before sunrise. Again, these little touches of character work in these scenes are brilliant. I grinned like a fool when Tormund nearly tackled Jon at the gate.
As preparations are made for Winterfell’s defense, Jon, Dany, and the rest of our heroes gather to discuss strategy. The dead have a weakness: if they can kill the Night King, the rest of the army will cease to be animated by his magic and collapse. Bran states that the Night King is after him, so he’ll wait by the weirwood tree as bait. Theon and a detachment of men will wait with him as bodyguards. In the meantime, the rest of the army will attempt to hold the enemy back.
The rest of the episode consists of the characters passing the time until the battle begins. To paraphrase Gandalf in Return of the King, it’s the deep breath before the plunge. I was reminded of scenes from films like Saving Private Ryan and The Two Towers, when the protagonists are all gathered before the climactic battle, lost in thoughts and conversation. It’s from this point that the suspense begins to build. As Brienne puts it, the battle could begin at any minute.
Again, we have several little scenes that show us how various characters are facing the coming fight. Tyrion asks Bran about his story since they last saw each other. Missandei and Grey Worm discuss their plans after the war is over. We see Jon, Samwell, and Eddison, the last surviving members of the Night’s Watch, talking over old times and looking out over the battlements into the darkness. Jorah Mormont trying to talk Lyanna Mormont into taking refuge in the crypts and having no luck. Sam giving the Tarly’s ancestral Valerian steel blade to Jorah.
In another great scene, several gather before a fire in Winterfell’s hall. Jaime and Tyrion are joined by Brienne, Podrick, Ser Davos, and Tormund. As they all talk, conversation turns to Brienne and her lack of knighthood. “Why?” Tormund asks. She answered that woman can’t be knights. It’s tradition. “Fuck tradition,” is Tormund’s blunt reply. He states that if he were king he’d knight her 10 times over.
In one of the best moments of the episode, Jaime states that they don’t need a king. Any knight can make another knight. He tells Brienne to come forth. As the others gather around to watch, she walks over to Jaime and kneels. He then knights her Brienne of Tarth, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s a rousing moment as those in attendance applaud and Brienne can’t contain her smile.
Arya Stark had a big scene this week. When Gendry delivers the weapon she commissioned him to make, the two spend a few moments talking. In every scene with Gendry this season, Arya has demonstrated that she has not only grown up since they last met, but that she has become a formidable fighter. It’s obvious who the dominant personality is in this pairing. She playfully taunts him about the amount of sexual partners he’s had and it makes him visibly uncomfortable. They both realize that they’ll likely die soon and she reveals that she wants to know “what it’s like” before she dies.
For viewers who still think of Arya as a kid, this scene could have been a little awkward. It’s played very well by both actors. Gendry’s reaction to Arya’s scars is probably a lot like our own reactions as viewers. In particular, they reminded me of the attempt on Arya’s life by The Waif. Those scars serve to remind the audience of Arya’s journey from innocence into experience. Considering the path she’s taken, Arya’s tryst with Gendry is arguably the most normal coming-of-age experience she’s had.
The final major scene has Dany finding Jon in the crypts of Winterfell, contemplating the statue of Lyanna Stark. Dany tries to reconcile all the good things she had heard about her much older brother with the fact that he had raped Lyanna Stark. It’s then that Jon decides to reveal the information he learned from Sam in the previous episode: that Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark were in love and were married in secret, that they had a son, and that the boy was raised as Ned Stark’s bastard to protect him from the wrath of Robert Baratheon.
Dany is skeptical at first, but realizes what the information means: that Jon (whose real name is Aegon Targaryen) not only has a claim to the Iron Throne, but that his claim is stronger than hers. A horn signaling the arrival of the army of the dead sounds before the two can discuss it any further. Neither makes any mention of what it means for their relationship. More pressing matters are at hand. The enemy is at the gates.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, what does all this mean? Should Jon, who likely doesn’t want the throne anyway, have kept the information to himself until after the battle? If the Night King wins, the point is moot, anyway. What does Daenerys do? Will she come to see Jon as a threat? Will they figure out a way to rule together? Now that they realize they’re related, what does that mean for their romantic involvement?
There are a lot of ways this could play out. Share your predictions in the comments!