In some ways this was a more typical Game of Thrones episode than anything we’ve had so far in Season 7.
The roving storylines, the distant characters, and the plotting and subplotting seen and not seen. The difference is, they all seem to be heading in the same direction. Daenerys, Cersei, Jon, Sam and Sansa all occupy different locations this episode, but all discuss the one thing: the conflict between themselves and the coming army of the dead.
That those in the North are the only ones to fully commit to safeguarding Westeros against the Night King is crucial, as it explains Cersei’s actions. She cares not for whether it is true or just myth, but is happy to embrace anything that distracts away from pressure on her legitimacy as a monarch.
Daenerys too is happy to allow Jon and his followers to go north and capture a wight, if only because it will strengthen her claim to uniting Westeros under her rule. Her comment that she has less enemies now than before due to Drogon’s attach on the Lannister-Tarly forces speaks to the lack of stakes in the first few episodes. Thrilling as each siege, battle and dragon attack might have been in their own right, they amounted to nothing more than another stalemate. Nothing gained, and seemingly nothing lost, as there is little concern in Daenerys’ camp that she lost Yara’s fleet and the Tyrell army. Seemingly, they were plot motivation to get her angry to attack on Drogon and…well, you get it. Nothing gained.
There are similar plot contrivances going on at Winterfell. Littlefinger is aware that there are now more Starks than there were before, placing him further away from power than he was before Arya and Bran returned. So he leads Arya on a string, into his locked chambers, to the hole in his mattress, and to the letter that Sansa wrote under duress back in Season 1, requesting that Robb give in to Joffrey.
Littlefinger leads Arya down this plot like Game of Thrones has led viewers all season. There’s the attempt at subtlety, but it will only work if the audience go with it unquestioningly. The irritation with this season is we will undoubtedly need to endure a few scenes of Arya challenging Sansa yet again for no other reason than to manufacture tension and delay Littlefinger’s comeuppance. Just as we’ve had to endure scenes of Sansa challenging Jon in public rather than private to manufacture tension over his reign as King in the North.
If we didn’t know where this was going, it might work a bit better. But so much of this season has clear endpoints in mind that the shuffling of pieces on the board has become clunky and stalling. Season 7 has given us the weird position of criticising a season for taking too long to deliver points while simultaneously criticising it for fast-tracking other points without doing the work to justify it.
I said this last week, but it has become plainly obvious this season that the show misses the nuance of the books. For all of George R. R. Martin’s faults with increasingly long-winded storylines, we cannot fault the books for their depth. And depth brings complexity, and complexity adds nuance and subtlety to the story.
This is why Nedd’s death in Season 1 worked the way it did. The way the Red Wedding worked as it did. And even Hodor’s death worked, because at that stage it was still building on the tracks the books had left for the show.
But we’re out of tracks. There’s clear air below the show’s version of the story now, and the only thing left are the clearly signposted plot points out in front.
Thematically, there was some nice moments in ‘Eastwatch’, even if they were merely extending the ideas already built.
The opening scene in the aftermath of last week’s battle is striking for the echoes of past character conflicts we see now in Tyrion and Daenerys. She may not be trying to repat the mistakes of her father, instead handing the burning of a few off to diplomacy rather than tyranny, but the net result is the same. Soldiers bending the knee out of fear rather than loyalty. This has been coming for a while, but if we track the progress of those swearing loyalty to Daenerys, the picture gets quite murky.
There were those few who witnessed her survival of the funeral pyre and the birth of her dragons. Then the adoring slaves of Yunkai praising her as ‘mhysa’ in the Season 3 finale. Last season we had her destruction of the khals at Dosh Khaleen and the ensuing kneeling from the Dothraki. And now, Lannister and Tarly soldiers, with their backs to the wall.
From ascension, to adoration, to awe and now fear. For Daenerys there’s no difference, but for us it’s hard to ignore that her increasingly tyrannical ways are not worthy of sympathy. Tyrion’s counsel is akin to Nedd’s counsel to Robert Baratheon in Season 1. The urging for a more moral pathway, one that is more humane and just, falls on deaf ears here as it did then.
In Oldtown, Sam is trying to prevent this new version of an old story. The maesters sit back and shake their heads and marvel at the petty ways of the world they monitor, but Sam calls them out for their complicity. At Dragonstone, Varys reflects on the same, having taken orders from the Mad King and then Robert, he has done as he told without ever believing. Firstly out of service, then out of fear.
It is fascinating to watch so many characters muse on complicity in the face of terror and violence given recent events around the world, and I doubt that Game of Thrones has any larger purpose in mind, but the point lands quite well. To see Tyrion, Varys and later Jon’s merry band of wight-hunters all acknowledge that they did things for the wrong reasons in the past, is a reminder that some characters are trying to change Game of Thrones’ narrative.
The finale scene with the rag-tag bunch is again fascinating for its unexpected nature, bringing characters together brings out unlooked-for results. Like Gendry recognising the remnants of the Brotherhood Without Banners, to Jorah remembering Thoros – Beric Dondarrion sets them all correct with the understanding that everything that came before is gone now. The only thing that matters is the future and the part they play in it.
There is the hint of this in Sam’s departure from Oldtown. Not only does he carry the tradition of characters leaving their training incomplete (Arya in Braavos, Jon in the Night’s Watch, even Sansa as a lady of the court back in Season 1), but he leaves before he could gain knowledge of his father and brother’s death at the hands of Daenerys.
Given that Tyrion and Daenerys believe another old house has gone, and the last unknown remnant of that house is charting a path toward them and – in theory – their ‘side’, there is the possibility for some excellent conflict next season.
Sam is unlikely to go to Dragonstone, and instead will head to Winterfell knowing that Bran is now there. Not only will the revelation of Jon’s parentage be officially made public, but Sam will no doubt have to convey this information to Jon at a time when he is closely aligned with Daenerys. Can Sam understand the execution of his brother by the queen that Jon now serves? Can Jon choose between Sam and Daenerys, especially once he knows he is a Targaryen?
Is he a Brother of the Night’s Watch, or a Targaryen? Is Arya an assassin or a Stark? Is Sansa a queen-in-waiting, or a sister? Is Daenerys a tyrant or a freer of slaves?
Can a person be both, or nothing at all?