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 Brandon Nowalk’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.
“Putting a team together” is a classic trope: most commonly associated with heist stories, it presents a plan and then begins to pull together a group of characters to execute that plan.
Normally, such a trope would fit poorly in the context of Game Of Thrones, a show once defined by the isolation of its respective storylines, delaying any type of convergence. But for Game Of Thrones in its final seasons, the trope suits the new pacing well: Jon’s plan to convince Cersei to offer an armistice and unite in order to attack the White Walkers didn’t even exist before the episode begins, but it ends up with a ragtag group of misfits, each with their own special skills, by the time they cross through the Wall at Eastwatch to conclude the episode.
“Eastwatch” is far and away the least eventful hour of the season thus far, with its “action” as it were taking the form of diplomacy. Sure, some of this diplomacy includes Daenerys burning Randyll and Dickon Tarly alive, but it’s diplomacy nonetheless: the Loot Train Attack (as it has been dubbed by the producers, accepting suggestions for a more suitably badass name in the comments) was such a show of force that those who survived—and yes, that obviously includes Bronn and Jaime, who emerge from the water to open the episode—agree that there is no way Cersei can win this war outright. The War Of The Two Queens (And Like Sort Of The King In The North But He’s Not Really Into It), as it were, is basically over before it truly began, leaving everyone to figure out what represents the best strategic move to position themselves for whatever the next war will be.
It’s an interesting variation on the “piece-moving” episode that has been a huge part of the show’s past. This critique has always been a bit overly simplistic, a way of dismissing episodes where no major events take place before fully understanding the importance of those “pieces” to the events that follow. But in this case, the piece-moving takes on a different texture, which is that the characters are finally all playing the same game. Whereas before you were seeing pieces moving into place to set up a set of four or five different climaxes to the season, here all of the moving pieces are taking place on the same continent, and with an impact on the same central story arc.
This is not to say that the various sides all see the game in the same way. The episode’s most notable turn is that Cersei has basically given up her immediate battle in favor of winning a longer one, willing to seek terms with Daenerys in order to play out the political conflict at hand. Whereas we are seeing the decision-making of Dany and Jon as they try to find a path forward to allow them to stop the White Walkers, Cersei’s decision-making is happening behind closed doors with Qyburn, twice seen with Cersei in scenes we’re not privy to. Tyrion and Varys have a conversation in the episode about the challenges of advising rulers and ultimately living with the decisions they make (or, more specifically, the people they burn alive, whether justly or not). But Qyburn’s entire character is built around his lack of ethics or morals, and thus the question turns to what pieces he’s moving into place that we’re not seeing. Cersei’s baby—or purported baby, I’ve watched too many soap operas to take her at her word—is part of this, surely, but there’s more happening there that will play into the conflicts ahead.
But for everyone else, the game takes shape quickly, and its players start coming out of the woodwork. Dany’s return to Dragonstone comes just as Jorah arrives from Oldtown, while Davos’ journey to King’s Landing to smuggle Tyrion into his meeting with Jaime involves a side trip to Flea Bottom to visit with our pal Gendry. The latter case was, unfortunately, spoiled by Joe Dempsie’s return to the main credits, but it was still nice to finally square the circle of his disappearance, and I appreciated how his return embodied the show’s newfound swiftness of purpose. Davos lays out a track for a longer Gendry storyline, hiding as a smith aiming to travel to Winterfell, but he just barrels in with the truth of it: He’s Robert’s bastard, and he’s here to fight. His and Jon’s subsequent conversation gets everything out of the way: their fathers (well, father and uncle, but more on that in the strays) knew each other, they each met the other’s father (uncle), and now they’ll fight alongside each other as the next generation.
That interest in generations pops up elsewhere in “Eastwatch.” The episode begins with Tyrion trying to convince Daenerys to avoid wiping out two generations of the Tarly family, unaware that there’s another generation sitting in the Citadel fighting with the Archmaesters to get off their asses and do something about the White Walkers. Sam’s contention when he gathers some papers on the Long Night and leaves with Gilly and little Sam is essentially that he’s tired of sitting on the sidelines, and that is essentially the same argument that Gendry makes to Davos, and which the Brotherhood Without Banners make when they’re in a cell at Eastwatch asking to go beyond the Wall with Jon. In a sense, there are no more sidelines on Game Of Thrones: everyone is in the heart of the conflict, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, and that means there’s a very good likelihood that one or more of the men who crossed through the gate at Eastwatch will end up marching back toward the Wall as a wight before this war is done.
The one space that we see in “Eastwatch” that still feels a bit like sidelines is Winterfell, where Arya and Littlefinger have begun their inevitable struggle over Sansa’s soul. I appreciate how the story doesn’t waste any time reminding us of Arya and Sansa’s childhood conflicts, reemerging here as Arya sees her sister’s dreams of a courtly life warping her perspective. It also doesn’t present Littlefinger as a naïve fool: he’s watching Arya as much as she’s watching him, not willing to be caught unaware. As for what Arya catches Littlefinger hiding away from Maester Luwin’s archives, I expected it might have been a letter that could implicate Littlefinger, but it’s the letter Sansa was forced to send by Cersei in order to convince her brother to bend the knee after Ned’s arrest, which compromises Sansa instead. And while he could claim that he was trying to protect Sansa, the fact he hid it instead of starting a fire to burn it is telling enough, although we get no clear sense of what the “climax” of their particular conflict will be.
Indeed, watching “Eastwatch” I was struck by how unclear it is where this season will end, and where we’ll be heading in the following season. Before this week, I would have said it was most likely that the War Of The Two Queens (And Like Sort Of The King In The North But He’s Not Really Into It) would have ended before the battle with the Night’s King began, but now Cersei’s plan creates the possibility that an alliance could be forged and Westeros could battle into the Long Night together. But that seems like a bit of a false flag, at the end of the day: for as much as the show largely connects dots when pulling together the team heading north of the Wall, I have to believe that the show will zig when we expect it to zag at some point before the season is over. Thus far, the season has surprised me with how fast some stories have developed, and with how quickly actions are taken by certain characters, but the actual results of those stories have been fairly predictable. The characters who have died have been expendable, and despite being in extreme peril none of the characters whose arcs truly matter have met their ends. The season has been fast-paced and engaging, but it has not yet thrown the show’s trademark knuckleball.
Certainly the coming raid on the White Walkers army creates that opportunity. When Gendry was first reintroduced, my immediate instinct was that it was so he could be the one person who died on the coming mission. But then Jorah volunteered to go on the mission, and I realized they had another option. And then the Brotherhood showed up at Eastwatch, and I supposed that Beric or Thoros could die and serve the same function. My mind, especially after Bronn and Jaime survived last week, now rushes to trying to figure out just how important each character’s arc is at this stage. Would Gendry need to reunite with Arya for his story to be fully concluded? Was Jorah’s emotional farewell to Daenerys emotional enough to be their last? Would anyone care enough about Beric (who has died a lot) and Thoros (who has appeared only occasionally) for their deaths to resonate? Would they really kill Tormund without giving him one last chance to see “The Big Woman”? Would they really deny us CleganeBowl when the possibility of the Hound and the Mountain reuniting feels closer than ever with talk of an armistice?
I don’t have an answer to these questions, but these are the types of questions the writers would be asking. As “Eastwatch” moves pieces into place, it is being done with the acknowledgment that the writers have only eight more episodes to tell this story. Even without the faster pace, and even without the convergence that makes the characters’ pieces more connected than ever, the simple fact the show is so close to the end makes piece-moving feel very different than before. When you toss in the fact that as book readers we got used to seeing pieces move with the knowledge of where the story was heading, you have a great deal of uncertainty that inspires productive (and, yes, obsessive) speculation. All we can truly know at this point is that the team put together over the course of “Eastwatch” is on a journey to capture a wight: everything else is up in the air, waiting for the clarity that will come when the pieces align before season’s end, and creating an effective if uneventful bit of staging before the season enters its final two hours.
- Sexual Tension Corner: Dany and Jon are still getting along well, but then Dany received Jorah particularly warmly, and the camerawork treats them like secret lovers caught by a stranger when Jon comes up to them as they said their farewell. And while we know that Jon’s moment with Drogon could be a signal of his Targaryen blood (and thus his ability to tame and/or ride the dragons), Dany might just read it as a sign of their potential love connection.
- So how exactly are wights made, do we know? Do White Walkers need to be nearby? If not, shouldn’t Jon—for the sake of humanity’s survival—find someone close to death, kill them, and see if they reanimate BEFORE risking his life and the lives of others to capture one from an entire army? Just sayin’.
- So, I can’t wade through thousands of comments to find it, but someone made a comment about the show revealing that Jon was the true-born son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, and I was like “Right, because someone’s just going to stumble onto a marriage license to confirm that,” and someone was like, “Well, maybe Sam could find it,” then that is exactly what bloody happened. So, kudos to that person provided that wasn’t part of the HBO leak, at which point shame on that person. (Notably, Sam doesn’t let Gilly finish the story, and it’s not clear if the book came with them on their journey, so it’s possible that was just there for us and not the characters? But it does mean that Jon is likely the true-born heir to the Iron Throne and not Dany).
- I quickly realized that Gendry’s presence at Eastwatch was in part to remind us of his ties to the Brotherhood, but I didn’t expect Jorah and Thoros to reconnect—that’s logical, but it’s a reminder they are of an older generation, as we’ve never actually seen them interact before due to Jorah’s banishment.
- On that note, Jorah is really the man trapped between worlds on two levels: he’s technically of Ned and Robert’s generation, but he’s constantly living in his father’s shadow, in addition to of course being caught between his past life and his banished one. If this is the end of his arc, I’m curious to see where those stories land.
- I’ve been skipping the opening credits recently for the sake of efficiency, which meant I could have saved myself getting spoiled on Gendry, but I happened to hit play right before his credit came up. C’est la vie.
- I appreciated they didn’t hit the nail on the head too hard in terms of Gendry preferring the same weapon as his father (and yes, you are correct that I showed no such restraint writing this pun).
- It’s a brief reunion, and without the same follow-through as we saw with the Starks, but it’s still been a very long time since Jaime and Tyrion have seen one another, and I thought Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau did some fine acting working through their respective emotions in that moment.
- “Safety is never a permanent state of affairs”—a reminder that a “happy ending” seems fundamentally impossible for this story.
- “Thought you might still be rowing”—look, this is a good joke and I appreciate Davos’ sense of humor, but this maybe tilted too far into meta territory for me, and yes I know I’m no fun if you met me you’d know I know that.
- Again, I’m not going to hit the temporality drum too hard, but here’s my question: When in relation to other events did Sam just leave the Citadel? It’s the storyline that feels the most out-of-time, particularly when it’s tied into the show’s new trick of showing us a raven being sent and then immediately showing it being received elsewhere in the next scene. (Reminder: no, this doesn’t ruin the show, and I know why it’s happening, I just also am trying to figure out when and where Sam might be rejoining the larger story as its most isolated component.)
- The show hasn’t really invested itself in actual outright politics since it stopped spending time in Small Council meetings, but the Archmaesters return us to that world, and offers a clear indictment of “power” structures as they refuse to heed Bran and Sam’s warning and use their considerable influence to help save Westeros. Curious to see if their refusal is just an inciting incident for Sam’s departure, or something we’ll return to before the series’ end. I sort of feel like we should see Jim Broadbent again at some point.
- Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I’m sort of desperate to know what he’s up to, but given that his last big scheme was a scorpion that didn’t even slow Drogon down for more than a few minutes, I’m preparing myself to be underwhelmed.
- Last week in the comments, several people argued Bronn was extending his self-interest by fighting to keep Jaime alive so he could get paid, which Bronn himself repeats here. But I don’t actually buy that explanation, and it doesn’t track with his decision to arrange the meeting with Tyrion either. Speaking of which: it’s unfortunate that we never got to see Bronn and Tyrion interact with one another, which seems like something we’re owed before either bites it.
- Question of the week: The episode opens with Tyrion’s continued discomfort with Daenerys’ way of doing business, specifically the whole burning people alive situation. Where do people stand on Daenerys’ approach here? I’d argue the show has largely used Tyrion as a voice of reason in the past, and here we see him reverting to the wheel’s old ways of doling out justice (sending them to the Wall, for example). But do you agree with Daenerys that the time for such measures is over? I expected the show would ruminate more on this, but then it went headlong into the plan to abduct a wight, and I was left with questions the show didn’t explore. Do we judge Dany harshly for her actions here, or is Tyrion just woefully unprepared for the realities of this war?