Death is coming, and we’ve got a lot to talk about.
And now our watch begins. –-Edd
How would you spend your last night on Earth? Grimly checking items off your bucket list? Telling off everyone who’s wronged you? Would you look for distraction, or simply a few final hours of peace and companionship? Those making their last stand at Winterfell — which encompasses about 90% of everyone on Game of Thrones — know they have little hope of seeing the sun rise. Death is on its way, and they can only hope to hold it off as long as they can. The ancestral seat of the Starks has become humanity’s Alamo.
So it’s all the more incredible, then, that “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” so fully devotes itself to depicting the calm before the storm that it harkens back to Thrones at its best — not the spectacle, or the increasingly accelerated plotting of recent seasons, but as a powerful chamber drama. Think of Jaime and Brienne in the baths, or Arya and Tywin in Harrenhall, or Tyrion and Jaime in the prison cell — so many of the show’s most memorable moments have come through dialogue, not CGI. Over 69 episodes (obligatory: nice), we have come to know and care about these characters deeply; Bryan Cogman’s script is so stunningly true to our collective understanding of them, with the words and the performances and pure storytelling working in perfect harmony (impeccably directed by David Nutter), that I would rush to place it among the very best hours the series has ever produced.
It was so good, actually, that I almost don’t want to write about it at all. I just want to re-watch it and bask in every conversation, every revelation, every bit of comic relief, every small gesture and expression of recognition. For some critics, it has become fashionable to take turns knocking Thrones off its perch as prestige television. And while the series has made its mistakes, this episode so firmly reestablished how powerful it can be when everything is clicking, that no matter what happens next week or in the weeks to come, we will always have this stunning hour of beloved characters, waiting for the end, with little else to do but talk.
It begins, smartly, in medias res: The Trial of Jaime Lannister. No one is surprised that Tyrion speaks up for him: “He came here alone knowing full well how he’d be received,” which is pretty coldly. Dany and Sansa, momentarily united, rip him a new one for his part in the deaths of their fathers and their families’ near-destruction, not to mention being the lone representative of the army Cersei promised them. But unlike some of the show’s other villains (cough Ramsey cough), Jaime’s defense for his actions, as twisted as they are, come with some degree of moral consistency: “Everything I did, I did for my house and my family, and I’d do it again.”
The erstwhile Kingslayer is most terrified, however, of Bran, who has yet to tell anyone else just who pushed him out that window so long ago, and still declines to do so here. Later, when Jaime asks why, Bran notes that neither one of them would have become who they are now (Jaime a better man, Bran… not a man) without that catalyst. From the Raven’s thousand-mile view, every action is part of a mosaic of cause and effect; it wasn’t just Jaime’s hand that pushed him, but Fate’s. So now, with Brienne vouching for him to Sansa (watch Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s reaction again, it’s a remarkable piece of acting), Jaime Lannister is given the chance to fight for the living, and should he survive that, perhaps bring his story full circle.
His younger brother’s stock, however, has slowly but steadily fallen ever since Meereen. It’s important that the other characters in Tyrion’s orbit articulate that for all his cleverness and wit, his blind spot with his own family has been a fatal flaw, and now Cersei has outsmarted him yet again. “She’s good at using the truth to tell lies,” notes Jaime, who knew what she was and loved her anyway. But no one is more aware of Tyrion’s string of failures than Tyrion himself, and after Dany chastens him again, he ruefully predicts that either Jorah or Varys will replace him after he’s fired. At least, he thinks, he’s no longer expecting to be murdered by his sister. (But Bronn and his crossbow haven’t shown up yet — will he leap into battle next week, or meet the survivors on the road South?)
Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s Jorah who intercedes on his behalf, advising Daenerys that Tyrion is still loyal and intelligent enough to keep around. He also recognizes the tension between Dany and Sansa, and as a Northman himself, encourages his Queen to make better inroads with the Wardeness. Which Dany tries — I mean, she really does try. She listens as Sansa calls her one-time husband a decent man, and tries to thaw the frost between them with a good short joke about Jon (get a better agent, Kit Harington!). Dany appeals to Sansa’s sense of girl power, keying in on how they are, Cersei excepted, the two most powerful people in all of Westeros; why do they have to be at odds? After all, Dany and Jon love each other. She came to the continent to win her own war and now she’s in Winterfell fighting Jon’s instead.
It’s a beautiful romance if you completely take it out of context, which Sansa has learned never to do: “What about after?” she asks. “The North was taken from us, and we took it back. What about the North?” And with that, the chill returns, and Dany pulls her hand away, a gesture that speaks volumes: For all her talk of “breaking the wheel,” Dany still wants that throne and all that comes with it, expecting deference and fealty because it’s her right, not because she’s earned it. Her allies are being spit on; Winter town residents who have never seen a person of color gawk and flee from Missandei and Grey Worm. Dany is an outsider who cannot simply bend the world to her will because she has a couple of dragons, at least not without building resentment in her new subjects. Sansa drives a hard bargain, but Dany is trying to have it both ways, and it simply won’t work. Tyrion maintains that the Westerosi will come around because “Daenerys is different,” but is she?
In the waning hours of the day, more characters arrive: Theon, who pledges to fight for the North if Sansa will have him, and she responds with a powerful embrace in recognition of their shared trauma — and of Theon’s earnest efforts to finally do the brave thing by choice, and not of necessity. Tormund, Edd, and Beric bring word of the Night King’s massacre at Last Hearth, though the wildling only has one thing on his mind after he nearly tackles Jon in the courtyard: “The big woman still here?” (Sure, Tormund may not be much more to the story than a Lusty Eyes Delivery System, but I laugh every single time.) The castle has been made as Walker-repellant as it can be, with pits of dragonglass-tipped spikes dotting the perimeter, Grey Worm testing traps and catapults, and Pod (so casually!) sparring with the inexperienced Northmen. As the women and children prepare to move into the crypts, Davos and Gilly connect with a scarred girl who wants to fight, but reminds them of another girl who taught them both how to read. All of these small moments matter, and I’m so grateful the show is taking the time to include them.
Later, Jon has his final command meeting: “Our enemy doesn’t tire, doesn’t fear.” He knows that getting to the Night King himself is their best chance, and Bran knows that he’s the ideal bait: “He’ll come for me. He’s tried before, many times with many three eyed ravens.” (Interesting!) He also shares, as simply as he can, what the Night King wants: Endless night. “He wants to erase this world.” He’s not a character with proper motivation. He is Death itself. Arya asks if dragon fire can stop him, and for once, Bran doesn’t know. “It’s never been tried.” So rather than join Tyrion and the other non-essentials in the crypts (which they keep saying are safe, meaning they are definitely not safe, considering that they’re fighting an enemy that can raise the dead), Bran will wait in the godswood, defended by Theon and the Ironborn. (Bye, Theon!) And then, hopefully, they can take their best shot.