Interestingly, most Game of Thrones seasons start slow in the ratings, and then slowly build. In some respects this isn’t surprising, especially given the structure of the seasons seems to be about building toward both climax and revelation.
However, this season has done the opposite. It started higher than ever before (on the strength of the mania surrounding illegal downloads and Best Show Ever hyperbole), but has dramatically dropped each episode since then, particularly in response to the utter awfulness of Episode 6.
Not that one wants to put much stock in ratings these days, but I do wonder if this episode will get things back on track in time for the final two episodes. It was certainly many things Game of Thrones has been in the past, plus a whole lot of things it has never been before.
Firstly, business. In Meereen (sigh), Tyrion and Jorah have some explaining to do in front of Daenerys. Jorah is banished, but Tyrion is able to gain an audience with Daenerys on the strength of his boasting honesty (‘I am the greatest Lannister killer of our time’), and the two enter into an interesting byplay of testy understanding.
On one hand, Tyrion is her enemy, but on the other he is everything she has been needing since Khal Drogo went to that big stable in the sky: Tyrion is direct, and thus brings momentum to the storyline. Her plot has been inert for too long, stuck in a wheel that goes nowhere, endlessly discussing who to trust, who to kill, how to lead and whether her army is large enough yet. So Daenerys wants to break the wheel.
Tyrion arrival challenges her: why does she want the Iron Throne so much? This is not power for power’s sake, and Tyrion remarks that there’s no real service for the greater good these days. Until the end of the episode, that is.
Jorah, suffering from the greyscale and continued banishment from Daenerys, signs up once more for the fighting pits. Death and glory, then.
In King’s Landing, Cersei is in the cells, refusing to confess. How quickly things have changed, after her mocking of Margaery in the same situation. There’s not much here, except a little bit of Chekovian Qyburn, reminding us that he’s still doing god-knows-what with the Mountain.
But Cersei’s imprisonment does raise a question: who is in charge? The Faith Militant are not really concerned with ruling, only cleansing. Tommen is an imprisoned puppet. Stannis is occupied with Winterfell and the North, and Daenerys with Meereen. Can Westeros handle a vacuum?
Over at Braavos, Arya is training to become a Jedi like her father before her. She has a new name, Lana, but not a new face. Somehow I imagined more of a transformation here, particularly in how these scenes are described in the books. But still, she is learning to lie, and learning to see the truth in the lives of others. Her mission from Jaqen is to observe the harbour, and see.
It is fascinating to think how Arya’s storyline might one day intersect back with the others. For now, it’s just an excellent progression of her character, particularly when one considers everything she’s gone through since leaving Winterfell. But at the moment her place in the master plan is still but a mystery.
At Winterfell, there’s continued fallout from Theon’s betrayal. He insists he is Reek, Theon was taken away from him piece by piece (‘I deserve to be Reek’). But Sansa gets the truth out of him: he didn’t kill Bran and Rickon, and she might not be alone as a Stark.
Roose and Ramsay are discussing Stannis’ arrival, but other than a nice title drop in the conversation (‘leave a feast for the crows’), this is really just about reminding the audience that the battle for Winterfell will kick off next week.
Similarly, events at The Wall aren’t great in everybody’s absence. Sam and Gilly are holding firm, but Olly’s questioning of Jon motives is a nice way of voicing the mutiny from an innocent. Olly saw his parents murdered by the Wildlings, and so is unable to see how Jon can treat with them.
This allows Sam to think he can convince Olly that it’s all for the greater good, but allow us to realise Olly is not convinced, and neither will other seasoned men of the Night’s Watch, whose hatred of the Wildlings is far more ingrained, and they are likely to be far more dissenting of Jon’s actions.
(Also, it’s worth saying that it’s nice to be writing about scenes with subtlety again. More on this later.)
Jon has arrived at Hardhome to meet the Wildlings with Tormund. The Lord of Bones is having none of this, so Tormund dispenses with him in order to initiate more civil conversation with the other Wildling leaders.
Jon the leader emerges once more, rousing all but the Thenns to join him, promising that this isn’t about past differences, but about the future. Very political is Jon Snow.
So they start to pack up and head off on the boats, but before they all depart the enemy arrives. The true enemy: the one that has been looming over the series since the very first scene.
The arrival of the White Walkers and their wights is a thing of terror, playing much like a classic monster movie. The wights are hidden behind a makeshift gate, within a veil of fog, and we catch only glimpses at first. The show is reintroducing the main antagonist, and its chilling and worthy of the magnitude that their role should have.
The world of Westeros is effectively one that is under threat by a force of destructive nature: winter has finally arrived, and the only thing they can anticipate now is death. What we’ve been witnessing in most of the characters is whether the humanity that still survives will kill itself off before winter sets in, or whether they can rally together to make a stand. We’ve known this for a while, really, but this was the first time it was ever truly witnessed.
Daenerys, Stannis, Cersei, Littlefinger and Roose: all want the throne. The White Walkers only want death. The Starks and Tyrion are the difference: none of them want to rule, and they seem to be the only ones who know what to do now. Interestingly, Robb died as the only Stark child who made a claim for the throne.
The battle is scrappy and bleak, and the show reaches new heights of fear when a White Walker lieutenant arrives, striding through fire and killing a Thenn. The old enemies are gone now, Jon’s choice is between survival or the long, cold sleep.
And then something strange happens. Without any dragonglass, Jon kills the White Walker. Valyrian steel raises itself as a forgotten symbol with new-found meaning. Jon and Tormund barely escape to the boats, and we all catch our breath.
That is until the White Walker king arrives, striding through the Wildling dead, along the pier to stare at Jon. He raises his arms, and the dead raise with him. This is all handled in gutwrenching silence, a masterpiece of restrained and subtle filmcraft. We look upon his works, as the army of the dead rises, and despair.
Holy heck it’s terrifying. And the rest is only silence, played out over the credits.
- Valar Morghulis: Lord of Bones, that Thenn guy, a lot of Wildings and some of the Night’s Watch, a stack of wights, and Karsi.
- On Karsi’s death: only introduced this episode, and only a handful of moments to make the character resonate, but gosh that was a terrifying death. Shows how much can be done with so little, if you just choose to show the right moments.
- Jon answers Tyrion’s call: putting his own life at risk to treat with the Wildlings, gave them safe haven and then saved many lives, nearly lost his own, all for the greater good.
- Dragonglass is all lost, but Valerian steel is back in vogue. Now who had the other swords? Pretty sure Brienne had one, from memory.
- Also: how does one make dragonglass? Asking for a friend.
- Probably time to recognise Edd Tollett as one of the great survivors.
- Varys is mentioned, and Kevan Lannister is back as the Hand. Two characters referenced but not seen. Cluuuuuuuess.
- Next week: Dorne (eh), Arya (ay!), Wildlings at the Wall, Winterfell, the fighting pits, and dragons. It’s all coming to a head.