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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

“The North remembers.” This was always a saying meant to convey pride. Pride in being a northerner, pride in refusing to ignore the past, pride in the warning it served to any who would dare cross swords or wits with those living in the upper lands of Westeros. But in the face of an existential threat, one that challenges the very existence of humanity, it has become something more. It expresses the essence of what all these people gathered at Winterfell are now trying to defend—the fact of history. Humankind has a past, and what defines the species is knowledge of itself. Sam puts it most succinctly: Memory makes people who and what they are. It’s the entire purpose of legacies, written accounts, and the passing on of stories, a means of enshrining and declaring that this happened. As long as someone remembers, a thing can’t be erased from the world. And the army of the living is here to remember.

That odd guy who sat around in the courtyard all last week has turned out to be not just the best hope for drawing out the Night King and ending his threat, but the avatar for the assembled hopes of every person making a stand at Winterfell. Brandon Stark (or the one who used to go by that name, anyway) embodies the very concept of history. “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory,” the three-eyed raven tells Dany and her assembled counselors, and the declaration seems to awaken something in everyone who hears it. Memory of the past carries within it the hope for memory in the future, and if there’s anything they’re trying to preserve beyond their lives, it’s the possibility of a human world going on after they’re gone, and someone to tell the story. It’s what gives meaning to their actions. It’s the only thing that does.

Game Of Thrones has always been a story about stories, a narrative about making narratives, and an epic about the reasons we choose to act as we do, in hopes of contributing in some small way to our own story—our memories, and those of others. “A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms” takes that old reliable framework—the calm before the storm—and uses it to reflect on how and why its characters have all ended up in this one place, making a desperate stand against the dead. And what begins haltingly and piecemeal, in fits and starts as people attempt to really speak to each other during what might be their final hours, slowly coheres into one of the most satisfying and rewarding episodes in the history of the series. To call it “fan service” would be to do a disservice to what credited writer Bryan Cogman and director David Nutter have pulled off here: Summing up eight years’ worth of development in a way that does justice to this large panoply of characters without tipping into phony sentiment. These conversations were often baldly sincere, occasionally awkward, sometimes brittle, and downright mawkish at times...and not a single one rang false.

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

There’s an inherent pleasure to watching these people who have spent most of the series scattered across the world come together, and last episode delved lightly into some of the easier satisfactions that come from such a setup. But here, there was a deliberate sense that it’s not the show smashing them together for our entertainment; each interaction was a meaningful choice for the character who initiated it, a decision to reveal themselves in ways big or small with the knowledge that there may never be another chance. If it was maudlin at times, or silly, or overly solemn, well, that’s what people do in such circumstances. They indulge in passions or pleasures or vulnerabilities that would normally never bubble to the surface. They say what they mean. It’s the kind of thing the best shows normally spend their entire runtimes dancing around, and the worst shows let fly without a thought as to whether it’s been earned. These conversations? These were earned. Another two hours of this would have felt just as rich.

That sense of meaty character study, of the assessment of who these people are and how they ended up in Winterfell, came through in the conversation between Sansa and Daenerys. It’s in Sansa’s earnest explanation of her suspicions of the would-be queen, how Jon’s emotional state worried her. “Men do stupid things for women,” she says, and Daenerys knows exactly what she means. The icy Targaryen chooses to open up, to be vulnerable in a way she’s insisted be kept from those she plans to rule in order to avoid looking weak. After seven seasons of imperious demeanor rarely broken by weakness, Dany reaches out to Sansa quite literally, in hopes of making a connection she values. She didn’t need Sansa’s friendship; she wanted it. And even the ominous rebuff of Targaryen rule comes from a place of vulnerability. Sansa wanted Dany to know the North would not just accept her rule should they win. It wasn’t the tactically smart move, but it was the open and honest one.

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

The rich payoff for everything leading up to now was also present in the heart to heart between Tyrion and Jaime. “You were a golden lion; I was a drunken whoremonger.” Jaime Lannister represents the chance for redemption, a man who stands by his actions yet in the eleventh hour will renounce the person he loves for the sake of something more. He’s been humbled by time and tragedy, and made wise in the process. Tyrion has seen an equal share of pain, and has similarly given himself over to the acceptance of his position. The frustration of what he calls “self-betterment” may lack the basic enjoyment of his whoring days, but it contains a deeper and more sophisticated pleasure.

The payoff is present in the simple acknowledgment of connection between Arya and the Hound. “I fought for you, didn’t I?” he mutters when she asks how he could have become so self-sacrificing, and in that brief retort the two locate their common connection. It lets her later assessment of Sandor and Beric as “two miserable old shits” contain the affection she intends, and he receives.

It’s present in the teasing yet earnest moment shared between the three remaining men of the Night’s Watch. Edd, Sam, and Jon reflect on the unlikely events that drove them together, pushed them forward, and now see them possibly taking their last stand as brothers in arms. “And now our watch begins,” Edd says, and for once, no one’s laughing at him.

It’s present in the brief moment where Davos Seaworth and Gilly convince a stubborn young girl to enter the crypt rather than stay above ground to fight. The onion knight sees the spirit of his former charge; Gilly sees a girl like too many she’s known; both recognize the spirited attitude and find their own pasts reflected in it, through those they’ve lost.

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

It’s present in the hug Sansa gives Theon when he arrives at Winterfell, ready to fight alongside those he once betrayed. We’ve seen him reduced to nothing, yet summon the fleeting strength to find himself at his weakest and help Sansa escape from Ramsey Bolton. She sees that goodness in him, and it’s all that matters to her.

And it’s present when Arya finally sleeps with Gendry. It’s telling that when the youngest Stark abandoned Jaqen H’ghar and left the House Of Black And White to return home, she didn’t just reclaim her name and reject becoming no one. Arya was reclaiming the first part of that sentence: “A girl is...” She was rendered a child for so long, when she finally came of age, it was always under the auspices of something neutral and sexless: A killer, a fighter, someone who repressed emotion in order to maximize efficiency and effectiveness in her hunt. But upon returning to Winterfell, she’s found her emotions, and with them, her passions. She wants to become the person she kept at bay all those years. She found that spark with Gendry, albeit a spark that seems less about him and more about her sense of distance from an act the rest of the world can’t seem to shut up about. When she’s lying next to him afterwards, it’s unclear if her wide eyes are the result of conflicted emotions toward the man she just slept with or if he’s already left her troubled thoughts.

But there’s a reason this episode is titled “A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms.” The long and winding hangout session that takes place with Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne, Pod, Davos, and Tormund forms the emotional core of the episode, and Brienne being knighted by Jaime is the centerpiece. It captures a theme of the series in the way it upends tradition and finds people doing what they think is right as opposed to what is expected. “Fuck tradition,” Tormund sputters in reaction to the reason given why Brienne isn’t a knight, and it’s a sentiment shared by the entire room. Tradition is part of what wrecked the world; if a woman is going to sit on the Iron Throne, there’s no reason another woman shouldn’t be a member of the knighthood that fights for her. Part of the arc of the series has been women claiming the power and authority previously granted only to men. Watching Brienne rise as a knight felt like a long-overdue piece finally falling into place.

It’s no coincidence that the biggest plot advancement, that of Jon telling Daenerys his true name and parentage, is thrown in right at the end and then abruptly set aside as the horns sound the arrival of the Night King’s army. Even the plan to use Bran as bait, placing him in the godswood in hopes of drawing out the Night King, is more meaningful for its symbolic weight (the iconic location where the series first set its plot in motion) than to next week’s battle. Such narrative machinations are an afterthought here, for both the episode and the characters. Nothing matters as much as these moments of shared humanity, during the few hours available to them ahead of what will likely be the end for more than a few. Last week found symmetry with the beginning of season one, but a more important mirroring took place here. The show has become known for its epic battles, but what makes all those clashes of swords count are the characters wielding them. Both the seven kingdoms of Westeros and the reasons for Game Of Thrones’ massive success are fundamentally the result of the same thing: people sitting in rooms, talking.

Stray observations

  • Tyrion remains the Hand and both Jorah and Sansa explain to Dany why that’s as it should be. Jorah, especially, has an excellent scene that showcases why he’s such a good advisor: He knows when someone else is better.
  • Missandei and Grey Worm hope to leave Westeros together after Dany is queen. Given his role in the coming fight, the odds of that happy ending seem dicey at best.
  • Lady Mormont is going to fight, thank you very much. Go, Tiny Mormont!
  • Sam gives Jorah his Valyrian blade, Heartsbane, acknowledging the sword will be put to much better use in the hands of the superior fighter.
  • Arya has a few badass moments, but the best one is probably flinging the three dragonglass blades into the wooden pillar across the room to Gendry’s dropped jaw.
  • Brienne vouching for Jaime was a good scene, but their stammering exchange on the ground, where he asks to serve under her command, is better.
  • The Lannister brothers’ reunion is scored to the sound of a Northman spitting in their general direction. “And the masses rejoice.”
  • Tormund is unquestionably the episode MVP. A delight from start to finish, but especially his story of why he got the name Giantsbane—and the long, lusty drink that subsequently ran down his beard.
  • 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.
  • For those curious, “Jenny’s Song,” first sung by Pod and then performed by Florence + The Machine over the end credits, is apparently a “sad song that is always requested by the ghost of High Heart as payment in exchange for telling the brotherhood without banners of her prophetic dreams.” Here’s the full version:

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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.