A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I guess how many steps there are in the Citadel…
“There’s a greater purpose at work, and we serve it together, whether we know it or not.” -Beric Dondarion
After last week’s short but action-packed episode, “Eastwatch” was much longer and denser, loaded with information and the forging of various alliances. If it wasn’t as thrilling as “The Spoils of War,” it was also a reminder of just how satisfying Game of Thrones can be even when Drogon’s only burning a couple of people — one of whom is named Dickon.
After an abrupt opening that revealed the “Will Jaime drown?” cliffhanger for the schmuckbait it was — Bronn not only saves him, but they even manage to get to the other side of the water to evade capture by Dany’s forces — “Eastwatch” dug deep into Westerosi lore to show various factions coming together or being chiseled apart. We bounce from alliance to alliance, schism to schism, until a memorable climax where a Magnificent Seven-style coalition of mismatched warriors — two bastards (or are they both?) with king’s blood, multiple men who have been resurrected, a Wildling, a disgraced ex-knight, a sorcerer, and the flippin’ Hound — marching out into the snow for a suicide mission to capture a zombie for the sole purpose of forming a coalition with a woman who wants them all dead.
Let’s start with Jon and the long-awaited return of Gendry. First, good on the show for having Davos make a joke about the idea that Gendry could have just been in the rowboat this whole time, since we’ve all been doing the same since he last appeared back in season three. In an episode full of characters arguing over who has the right to rule, it’s good to bring back the man with as good a claim as anybody else, as the biological son of Robert Baratheon. That Joffrey and Tommen sat on the Iron Throne in between messes with his claim, and it doesn’t seem as if the show intends to push for his legitimacy, but the team-up of the two men who think they’re the bastard sons of Robert and Ned — one with a warhammer, the other a Valyrian steel sword — is among the more promising late-stage unions the show has come up with. And it’s interesting to have that happen in an episode that keeps reminding us of the idea that Jon is actually a Targaryen, from the way that Drogon accepted him so quickly to Gilly reading the passage about Rhaegar’s getting an annulment so he could marry someone else (Ned’s sister Lyanna) — which would make Jon not a bastard at all, but someone with a pretty strong claim to the Throne himself, and arguably a better one than Dany, since Rhaegar was ahead of her in the line of succession to begin with.
Of course, Jon has to first make it back from north of the Wall, and even if both Bronn and Jaime could survive Drogon’s flames (twice, in Bronn’s case), it’s hard to imagine all seven men leading this raid on the Night King’s army making it back in one piece. Jon was exempted from the show’s Anyone Can Die ethos long before his brief and silly death and resurrection, and I doubt that changes now. It would seem obnoxious to pull Gendry out of limbo only to kill him an episode or two later, and the Hound might be best saved for a showdown with Arya and/or his undead brother, but nobody much cares about Beric or Thoros of Myr, and Dany and Jorah’s farewell was pregnant enough with dread that he also seems a good candidate to not make it back. This is, as the Stark bannermen note back at Winterfell, perhaps not the best use of the King in the North’s time, but he’s also the only one in that hunting party to have killed a White Walker (and — depending on how many souvenirs he was able to pack from Dragonstone — perhaps the only one with a weapon capable of killing more), and we know that defeating the Night King is more important than all the petty politicking that’s worrying Sansa, Littlefinger, and others. If he can’t risk his own life for this, what can he for?
Speaking of pregnancy, Cersei’s big news does a nice job of bringing Jaime back into the fold after he’s spent much of the season doubting his terrifying sister/lover/queen. Is this a lie designed to do exactly that, or a reality that has encouraged her to take a less suicidal path with the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Brewer of Ales? Her demeanor has definitely changed, and the fact that she would allow her traitorous younger brother — whom she still wants to believe murdered her son, even if Jaime made a convincing argument in favor of the Queen of Thorns — to leave King’s Landing alive after Tyrion went on his own absurdly dangerous mission(*). Dany’s resounding defeat of the Lannister army, and her burning of the two leading Tarly men, has changed the calculus of the war, and now Cersei knows she has to try to outwit a foe she clearly can’t outfight. That Cersei will inevitably betray any alliance Dany and Jon propose might suggest a Stupid Jon Stark situation, but after last week’s display — and how easily Drogon seemed to heal from the scorpion bolt — there’s clearly no way Dany’s army can’t win a conventional war, even though she lost the Dorne and Tyrell parts of her alliance before she even started fighting. This is more fun, and perhaps also allows the show to plausibly move the Night King to the front of the queue and then resolve the matter of Westerosi leadership towards the end of the run.
(*) Tyrion going himself into King’s Landing is one of those situations where I wish I had a better command of raven mechanics. I know it was important for Tyrion to speak to Jaime face-to-face, but surely there was a way to arrange it that didn’t involve him walking into the hometown of the woman who most wants him dead in all the world?
Up at Westeros, Littlefinger is trying something similar with the Stark sisters. He knows Arya is too dangerous and unpredictable for him to stop, and that Sansa is perhaps immune to his charms, and so the only way to defeat them is to push them apart. So he dips waaaaay back into the show’s institutional memory for the scroll Cersei forced Sansa to write back in season one, which out of context could make Sansa appear traitorous in the eyes of a sister who already thinks little of her. Will Arya inherit her parents’ stupidity and fall for this? I hope not, but Littlefinger does have a long history of making even the toughest Starks look fatally naive.
The deaths of his father and brother also leave Sam as the last Tarly man standing, not that he knows it when he lights out of the Citadel with as much stolen scripture as he could fit into a cart with Gilly and little Sam. Having Sam hanging out in Oldtown for years of apprenticeship wouldn’t have made narrative sense, and his speech to the archmaester about the Citadel’s potential influence on things created a kind of deus ex machina card — the Citadel comes out in favor of battling the Night King, and everybody else falls quickly in line — that the show smartly didn’t play, instead letting the old maesters be too smug and set in their ways to listen to Sam. Sam will be much less safe back at Castle Black, assuming that’s where he’s headed in his old uniform, but he’ll be more vital to the action, and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Gilly winds up reading another hugely important piece of information without at first realizing what it is.
The Army of the Dead was the very first threat GoT ever introduced, and the show has been remarkably patient in waiting to fully unleash the threat it poses. But with only eight episodes to go, it’s time to get back to the zombies for a while, and it’s a relief to see that so many of the characters are starting to recognize that.
Some other thoughts:
* Well, I’ll be darned. I’d given up on ever getting any new credits map locations at this late date, and suddenly the show springs Eastwatch animation on us for the episode of the same name, with the camera simply panning to the right to show us the other fortress. What other surprises might the credits designers have in store before all is said and done?
* Jon was able to abandon his vows as a Ranger because he had technically fulfilled them by dying. But now that everyone in Westeros is starting to not worry about laws and decorum as much — see also Cersei’s willingness to name Jaime the father of their latest alleged child — and the condition of House Tarly, maybe when the war is over, everyone will be fine with Sam — who already has a “son” (even if it’s not his) to continue the line — heading back to the Reach?
* The episode’s opening passages suggest Tyrion is afraid of the power he has just unleashed on his home country (and on his family’s army), but by the time we get to his conversation with Varys, he seems to have convinced himself for now that Dany is still the right horse to be backing in this race.
* With both Hot Pie and Gendry making triumphant returns this season, who is the longest-absent character we might see again? Might Davos’ pirate buddy Salladhor Saan swoop in to help Theon take care of his troublesome uncle?
* Where Sansa gets to personally enjoy — or, in many cases, not enjoy — reunions with siblings long thought dead, Jon has to find out by raven, and right before he heads off on this crazy mission. Good on the show to at least depict him finding out, since there’s no way ravens wouldn’t have been sent to Dragonstone to that effect.
* The scene at the Eastwatch jail is a nice reminder of all the reasons the various members of this septet have to distrust each other, but just as effective was Davos reminding Tyrion (and me, if I’m being honest) about the death of his son during the Battle of the Blackwater.