Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)
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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

As you likely know if you’re reading this review, A Song Of Ice And Fire is a series driven by a sense of interiority through its point-of-view structure. It’s a tool that serves two central purposes. First, it allows Martin to understand each character on an intimate level, which helps connect us as a reader. Second, and more practically, it allowed Martin to more easily jump from story to story, location to location, as his narrative spiraled out of control.

I found myself thinking about this watching “A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms” because of how much the episode’s structure disrupts the way we understand Martin’s narrative. First and foremost, it takes place entirely in one location, meaning that there’s no need to jump from story to story as we did in the premiere with King’s Landing and Last Hearth. And while the show has done episodes in only one location before—including most of the major battle episodes— there’s never been this many characters in those locations. And whereas Martin’s format means that any character interaction always foregrounds a single perspective, here we are mostly in a position distinct to the television adaptation: the fly on the wall, observing each and every conversation where the men, women, and children collected together in Winterfell ponder the likelihood that this will be their last day.

Written by Bryan Cogman and directed by David Nutter, “A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms” is a partner to last week’s “Winterfell,” but with a very different feel. Like the premiere, it’s low on action—no one important dies, and Jaime’s arrival and the return of the group from Last Hearth create another round of reunions. But with the initial tension of the various groups coming together at Winterfell out of the way, it gives way to a castle-wide existential crisis, as everyone discovers what they would actually do in the scenario that they were fairly certain they were not long for this world. Some, like Arya, are more than happy to come right out and ask for it; others, like Brienne, are steadfast in their belief this is just another day until they accept the stakes at hand. But there is not a single soul in Winterfell who believes this to be anything less than the last stand for humanity, and their collective understanding creates an hour that made this particular fly on the wall even more emotional than he was during last week’s reunions.

That’s weird, when you think about it: last week felt almost hopeful, the culmination of such a long journey, and this week is downright elegiac by comparison. After Jaime survives his makeshift trial with the help of Brienne’s testimony, he pushes Bran (pun unintended until I chose to leave it here while editing) on why he didn’t reveal that he had been the one to push him from the tower. His answer is basically that Jaime couldn’t help them if he was dead, which suggests Bran sees Jaime’s future as valuable compared to Littlefinger’s, given how quickly he ratted out the latter. But when Jaime asked him what happens afterwards, Bran doesn’t mince words: “How do you know there is an afterwards?” It’s another in a long line of Bran’s cryptic statements, but this is an episode built for his existential bullshit, because everyone else is thinking the same thing. Only a few characters talk about death directly, but everyone is basically acting like they’re likely going to die, and that should be much more of a downer than it ends up being.

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Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Part of this stems from the central focus on Jaime, whose presence at Winterfell is the last in a long line of personal atonements. Jaime knows that he’s arriving as a one-handed soldier, and that he might well die in the process, but like Theon he wants to die righting the wrongs of his past. Jaime insists that he’s a changed man, but he hasn’t necessarily had the same opportunities to show it as Theon—he went back to Cersei’s side, delaying the redemption that his arc has been building toward. And so to see Jaime so willing to come to a place where he knew he might die before ever seeing the army of the dead is a pivotal and triumphant moment for the character, even if it means his eventual death: it’s a relief, really, to see Jaime’s full potential as a character being realized.

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Jaime is also central to the episode’s finest moment, which gives it its title. It’s the scene that feels the most meta, as a group of soldiers—Tyrion, Jaime, Davos, Tormund, Podrick, and Brienne—with no ties to House Stark gathers together around a fire contemplating how it is they came to be here, just as we as an audience are piecing together the oddity of the group. Most fought the Starks, as Tyrion, notes, but the one exception to this is Lady Brienne of Tarth, who has resisted any suggestions that this is anything but another battle. She talks of Podrick’s training as if it will continue on after the battle is done, and pushes back against Tyrion’s planned boozing as if to reject the effort to acknowledge the gravity of the equation. And when Jaime visits her to ask to serve under her command on the left flank, she gets furious with him when he hasn’t insulted her, realizing that his tone has shifted in light of the stakes at hand. But as Tyrion holds court, his slip of the tongue regarding “Ser Brienne of Tarth” creates an opening, something she has always wanted but would never ask for. And then, without much hesitation, Jaime decides: a Knight can make a Knight, and thus Ser Brienne of Tarth came to be.

Screenshot: HBO

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It’s the perfect example of a scene that’s constantly shifting point of view, taking advantage of the untethered perspective: the scene jumps into Tormund’s incredulity, then Brienne’s stubbornness, then Pod’s “What are you talking about?” look, followed by Jaime’s determination, and then finally the complete wave of emotion that comes over Brienne when she realizes that this is real. By the time Brienne is kneeling, the scene has created the kind of interiority that the books have by default—we are only with her in that moment, right through until Gwendoline Christie’s smile at the end, which speaks more words than any inner monologue could have. It’s also something that only happened because of the existential dread hanging over everything and everyone in Winterfell, her knighting a byproduct of the feeling that now is the time to do the things you feel you need to before you die. (Update: It’s also a scene that carries even more weight the second time around, apparently, because I just got even more emotional rewatching it than I did the first time.) (Update to the update: Third time was even worse, honestly.)

Not everything is quite as emotional. We might ‘ship Arya and Gendry, but there’s nothing emotional about her choice to skip the small talk with Gendry and get right to the sex-having, lest she never get the chance to know what it’s like. But it’s an example of a scene that creates the possibility for more emotion in the future, as the foreshadowing becomes much more prominent heading into next week’s climax. Bran wonders if there will be an “afterwards,” but we know there will be: there’s still going to be three episodes left in the season. But we know that not all these characters will see this afterwards, and for me I’m conditioned to read everything we see as a sign of who lives and who dies. The fact that Arya and Gendry slept together wasn’t played as particularly emotional, but it raises the stakes if something were to happen to Gendry. Similarly, the choice to pair Sansa with Theon adds to the likelihood of Theon sacrificing himself while defending Bran from the Night King, and Grey Worm and Missandei’s talk of a future back in her homeland certainly creates a stronger likelihood that they don’t see the end of the battle. I’ve never been one to participate in “Death Pools” for the show, but this was an episode filled with scenes of characters preparing for their likely deaths, and there’s thus plenty of fodder for those conversations.

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Screenshot: HBO

But for me, the episode’s biggest “contribution” was the first efforts at trying to articulate the actual goals of the Night King. The Night King’s actual motives have always been vague, but here Bran is clear that his only goal is to kill the Three-Eyed Raven, and in so doing plunge Westeros into darkness by wiping out its history. While we’ve always known that the Night King has shown a particular interest in him, it’s the first time I’d argue the show has been explicit about what the Night King wants, even if the “why” remains sort of half-heartedly attributed to the torture he was subjected to by the Children of the Forest.

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The plan is for Bran to serve as bait in the Godswood, with Theon and the Ironborn protecting him, while everyone else tries to buy time for the Night King to fall into their trap. What struck me about this was the choice of location—the Godswood has long been an iconic presence in the show, dating back to Ned in the pilot and returning in full force with Jon and Arya’s reunion last week and Bran and Jaime’s meeting here. But it’s also a symbol of the Old Gods, and this week offered a fairly interesting cross-section of the various religions floating around Winterfell. Jaime knights Brienne using the New Gods, the Seven, while Beric is about to launch into a sermon about the Lord of Light before Sandor cuts him off. In moments of existential crisis, religion is often where people turn, but it’s the last bit that makes me wonder what role R’hllor might have to play in this conflict. If the Night King’s goal is to plunge Westeros into an(other) endless night, is it not the Lord of Light who represents the opposing force? Melisandre’s parting words to Varys as she traveled back to Essos were that they were both doomed to die in Westeros, and I spent the last half of the episode wondering if her own existential moment will converge with this one soon enough.

Or maybe Melisandre is part of the “afterwards.” I appreciated that the episode doesn’t entirely suggest that the sense of doom has united everyone together with bygones being bygones. While Jorah convinces Daenerys to forgive Tyrion, his attempt to help her smooth over her relationship with Sansa doesn’t go as planned. It’s a crucial scene for articulating that whatever drama they have, it is not as simple as two women who can’t get along. They resolve the initial coldness, born out of a lack of niceties that they’ve both struggled with in light of being women in power in a patriarchal society, but then they discover a fundamental disagreement over the future of the North in any “afterwards.” Their disagreement has nothing to do with Jon, as Dany seems to believe, and everything to do with Sansa’s desire to reclaim the North after the region had rallied around the idea that they would never bow to another monarch. Theon’s arrival interrupts the conversation, but they leave far from the “verge of agreement,” but on matters of policy, not matters of personal relationships.

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Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

And we see an echo of this scene when, finally, Jon comes clean to Daenerys about his true identity, and its implications. It’s the one bit of existentialism that doesn’t come even close to being resolved: she has time to question the source of the information (his brother and best friend), and realize the implication that he is the last male heir, but then the battle horns sound out. Every other character got to have a moment of solace before the battle came: they got their goodbyes, and their fireside chats, and their shags, and their wine. But Jon and Daenerys (and to a lesser degree Sansa and Daenerys) didn’t get to resolve their situation before flying their dragons into battle, meaning that they’re carrying a heavy weight into the fight ahead. And it also means that however this battle goes down, their points of view will be both critical and clouded, creating a most conflicted climax for the two characters whose fates seem the most central to the story, if not necessarily the points-of-view I find most compelling as a viewer.

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Perhaps that’s why I feel like these opening two episodes, despite the absence of spectacle, are going to resonate with me so much more than any battle that comes after. Sam’s speech equating memory and life is a bit on-the-nose, but the show’s weaponizing of memory in these opening episodes has been deeply effective. In this episode alone, you have Jon, Sam, and Edd “on watch” on the parapets of Winterfell, remembering Pyp and Grenn. You have Brienne, retelling the story of Jaime saving her from being raped. You have Tyrion, remembering back when he and Jaime had been visitors at Winterfell. And, of course, you have the show finally remembering that Ghost isn’t dead. Tyrion asks Bran to tell him his story, and notes that they’re stuck in a castle, in the middle of winter, with nowhere to go—what else are they going to do? But the truth is the show could have rushed itself forward to the “climax” of this story, and skipped over what is essentially a bottle episode by the show’s standards, but the show and its story are better for it. And whatever is to come in the Battle of Winterfell, its ultimate value to this story will be better for having been preceded by two confident and contained episodes exploring the breadth of humanity on display in the series as a whole.

Stray observations

  • Podrick Payne gets his Peregrin Took moment for the montage that brings the episode to a close, breaking out into “Jenny Of Oldstones,” as the show has renamed what the Wiki of Ice and Fire identifies as “Jenny’s Song.” You can find Florence + The Machine’s version, played over the end credits, above. A beautiful moment for Daniel Portman as Podrick, who certainly feels ripe for a tragic death.
  • It doesn’t often fit into a paragraph of a review comfortably, but man I love Tormund Giantsbane. The complete lack of tact in his origin story; the aggressive chugging of ale; the confusion at why women can’t be knights; the purely earnest affection when he gives the standing ovation for Brienne? Just a delightful collection of moments brought to life by Kristofer Hivju.
  • So Jon isn’t questioning Sam and Bran’s story because he just has a feeling that it’s true—I suppose that’s fair, but the episode skips over Jon processing the information, instead using Dany’s perspective on Jon for much of the episode as he avoids her. It’s not helping the feeling that the group of characters who spent the episode by the fire is in fact the emotional core of the show, despite the narrative continuing to argue for these two unsuccessfully.
  • Gendry was a little turned on when he saw Arya twirling the spear he made her, but he went from aroused to alarmed when he saw her scars as she undressed—no one truly understands how much death Arya has seen, and how willing she is to face death despite the long life that could be ahead of her.
  • A nice beat with Jorah trying to convince Lyanna Mormont to stay behind, followed by a nice beat of Sam letting Jorah wield Heartsbane—we were talking last week how they skipped over the possibility of the Mormonts meeting, so it was nice to have an extra hour to explore some of these smaller relationships in a bit more detail.
  • Grey Worm and Missandei think there’s nowhere in Westeros where they’ll be accepted, but given that Dorne has apparently been wiped off the map, at least put it in the “Maybe” pile? They have beaches there too! Just saying!
  • “Dragon fire will stop him?”—this has long been the theory of sorts as to what can kill the Night King, but it was nice that Bran acknowledged that he doesn’t actually know if it works, since no one has ever tried. Looking forward to the Night King no-selling some dragon fire next week.
  • Last week was all about setting the dragon flight to songs, but I’d love to see Edd, Tormund and Beric’s return set to “The Boys Are Back In Town,” if the internet will oblige.
  • “She never fooled you—you always knew exactly what she was, and you loved her anyway”—this line from Tyrion was really critical in terms of refusing to let Jaime claim ignorance drove his actions. I don’t know if the show fully sold me on him standing by Cersei’s side after she destroyed to Sept of Baelor, but at least they’re not pretending he didn’t understand the gravity of his choice.
  • Bran dropping “the things we do for love” into Jaime’s trial was such a flex, and I imagine created a stream of GIFs on the social media, which seems to be something these episodes were built for.
  • Check out episode two of our new video podcast, Winter Is Here with The A.V. Club, where Senior Writer Katie Rife and Managing Editor Caity PenzeyMoog discuss Arya, Tormund, and more.

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How much of this is going to happen in the books?

My biggest question coming out of this episode is how, precisely, Martin would intend to introduce the Night King and subsequently articulate his motivations. Obviously Bran would still be the likely source of that information, but I actually feel like this might be a space where Martin would have something of an advantage. While the show has consciously kept us out of Bran’s head, Martin is going to have to enter it, and it’s possible that there will be more space to explore the history of the Night King and his rivalry with the Three-Eyed Raven in ways that delve into a bit more exposition. But perhaps Martin has the same intention of leaving his readers in the dark until the threat is on Winterfell’s doorstep, but that seems unlikely to me. Thoughts?

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