Photo: HBO

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 whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

Seven seasons in, the running themes of Game Of Thrones become clear: Dropping out of school is good, siblings are a pain in the ass, and it always helps to know your friends’ parents. That last point is especially prominent this season, as everyone’s making common cause with the children of people they once knew, wrapped up in a bow with Beric’s beautiful “Here we all are” speech. But there’s a specific question of paternity that’s hung over the entire series so far, a question that had partly been answered in season six. Jon Snow is the son Lyanna Stark gave birth to in the Tower Of Joy, the bastard of Rhaegar Targaryen. At least, that’s what it looked like before “Eastwatch.”

As Gilly plays sitcom wife, reading aloud from a book while Sam tries to read his own across the table, she throws away a line about someone named Maynard once having annulled the marriage of someone named Prince Raggar and remarrying him in the same ceremony in Dorne. Which sounds an awful lot like Prince Rhaegar, the legitimate heir to the mad king Aerys Targaryen, was released from his vows to Elia Martell and legally wed to Lyanna Stark, making Jon Snow his true-born son and someone with a hell of a claim to the Iron Throne.

Photo: HBO

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The situation is immediately muddied by everything that’s happened since, but take a moment to consider the impact, since “Eastwatch” skips past it in an attempt to let us discover it on our own. Jon Snow is not a bastard. Think how much bastardhood has shaped him, humbled him, haunted him. Ned promised to tell him the truth the next time they saw each other. If he knew about the marriage, I can imagine that information being very sensitive with the Lannisters wrapping their fingers around the throne and Jon Arryn murdered. All of a sudden, Ned’s promise becomes a lot more complicated.

But that’s the thing. Jon Snow is the legitimate heir to the Targaryen line, by the old rules, of the old government, which was dissolved and reshaped by King Robert. Westeros has strayed so far from there that its current queen has no legitimate claim, so it’s not clear how much “legitimacy” really matters. It’s surely consequential that Jon has a claim to the throne, whether he knows about it or not, but all of that is overshadowed by his immediate circumstances, which are that Jon Snow is leading a raiding party beyond the Wall to kidnap a wight.

It’s the dumbest plan ever concocted on Game Of Thrones, so naturally all the once-brilliant strategists in Dragonstone, the people we’ve watched rout King’s Landing of political enemies without breaking a sweat and dominate battles in Blackwater Bay, Castle Black, and all over Essos tacitly consent. “Even if we could get into King’s Landing unnoticed and get an audience with the queen with a wight in tow without being murdered by either her people or the wight, how do we even get up to Eastwatch and back to King’s Landing before the war against the dead begins in earnest?” Nobody has any answers, but that’s okay with everyone in the room, because they know that way it’ll be a bigger surprise for the audience whenever they do whatever they’re gonna do.

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Photo: HBO

The pace of the season can’t help but cheapen these scenes, but I can’t deny that it’s a blast. I’ve been critical of both the relative depopulation of the cast in this final run and the speedy, schematic narrative that checks off high points and moves on without really building to them. The drama, such as it is, misses too many opportunities. I miss when Game Of Thrones was wide open, but even then, the writers were chained to a narrative they didn’t yet know the ending of and feared straying too far from. Subplots that might have been fun to explore were relegated or eventually sidelined altogether in the case of characters like Gendry, who disappeared for years and finally resurfaces as a blacksmith in King’s Landing, literally waiting for the call to his hero’s journey. But Game Of Thrones is not going to be the flavorful political soap it was in season two or the sickening thriller it was in season three. It’s going to be the blockbuster it was in the season six finale, and by that standard it’s been fantastic.

Another element that’s changed along the way is the subversion of fantasy tropes. For instance, when the five Stark children discover five direwolves and a sixth runt for the bastard, you might expect that coincidence to mean something special. Instead, within an episode one of the direwolves is killed and another sent away, and at least two of the other direwolves have tragically failed to protect their Stark counterparts and been murdered. There still might be something supernatural there, but narratively speaking, they’re just protective dogs. The dragons have never been presented the same way on the show, but there’s definitely no subversion of their presumed special-ness now. Drogon sniffs Jon—and Dany apparently doesn’t care enough about Jon’s life to get off Drogon so she can witness their interaction on the other side of his fat neck and make sure her son isn’t eating his cousin—and seems to sense he’s a good egg at the least and quite possibly that he’s a Targaryen.

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As for the skeleton crew still manning the stage, episodes like “Eastwatch” offer more than a disguise. They prove that we have plenty of actual characters left. Take the parlay in King’s Landing. The episode doesn’t give it any weight whatsoever, not even a meaningful glance from Tyrion to Bronn—see what I mean about missed opportunities?—but longtime viewers know how pivotal Bronn’s relationship is to the Lannister brothers. There may only be so many characters left, but that means they all tend to have sparks in their various permutations.

Photo: HBO

Better yet, “Eastwatch” presents a hell of a way to rebuild the Night’s Watch. Instead of solid backup like Grenn and even Lord Commander Edd, the Eastwatch raiding party is a diverse assembly of people we’ve watched develop for years. There’s Jon Snow direct from Dragonstone with both Ser Jorah and Gendry at his side. Tormund is in charge of the wildlings manning the castle. And finally there’s the new Brotherhood, comprised most notably of Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and The Hound. Not one person in that crew is just a name. We know where all of them came from, how they got here, and what they want. We see how each of these personalities clashes over even the prospect of alliance. And as the episode ends, we (I) get chills watching the new Night’s Watch pass through the gates of Eastwatch into the beyond. If only the Dragonstone council chamber scenes had this much life.

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Going behind enemy lines is what ties up the episode, which, in keeping with the season, maintains a low profile for a while and eventually leaves you exhilarated. Take the Arya scenes. First she walks into some gathering of Northern lords in the great hall, the rabble roused against Jon and for Sansa upon the news that Jon is heading beyond the Wall. Arya just watches her sister handle these people, a skill she developed well at the House Of Black And White, and she reads her like a book. Afterward they catch up in Ned and Cat’s chamber—ask and ye shall receive!—and Arya accuses Sansa of eyeing the throne, and then the Iron Throne, for herself. “You’re thinking it right now. You don’t want to be, but the thought just won’t go away.” Sansa’s non-denial confirms her suspicion. It’s a thrilling idea, and that’s enough in the moment. Then Arya gets a terrific extended sequence spying on Littlefinger. First she watches him receive some information from a girl, and when he looks over at Arya, she’s not there. That’s the moment that best convinces us she’s the cat to his mouse. But really he’s laying a trap for her, and that shot is a trap for us. He hides a message for her to find. We don’t get a good look at it, and then she exits the episode, Littlefinger twirling his mustache in the hall. At first the Winterfell scenes are dull—do these lords know how to do anything other than complain?—but by the end I’m on tenterhooks.

Photo: HBO

That said, the idea of Sansa letting ambition get the better of her could use some actual substance instead of mere implication. It started with the Battle Of The Bastards, when she made a secret alliance with Littlefinger to unite the knights of The Vale to Jon’s side. Then she privately prepared the execution chamber for Ramsay. Finally Littlefinger revealed his game (although there’s always some hint of doubt with him, just as there’s always something in the back of my mind that says anyone Arya deals with could be Jaqen). Littlefinger wants to sit on the Iron Throne with Sansa at his side. Her refusal to confront that for what it is, a threat to Jon for starters, might be all the answer we need. But if Sansa is really going to take after Cersei and Littlefinger, if she’s really resorting to her childhood dreams of royalty, she needs some more screen-time doing something other than managerial duties at Winterfell.

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Tyrion and Davos go behind enemy lines at King’s Landing, but on separate adventures. Again, it would ruin the surprise if they had actually communicated their plans like comrades. How Jaime and Bronn make it to the parlay is beyond me. They wash ashore in the opening shot, a Sergio Leone special where a gorgeous landscape is overtaken by a face popping into frame in the foreground. After watching Jaime sink, the idea that the river swept them far enough away from Dany that scouts don’t even go looking for them is preposterous, but Jaime has to be alive for his best scene with Cersei all season.

Photo: HBO

“I met with Tyrion,” he says. “What did our brother have to say?” That’s the dialogue. But Lena Headey takes an enormous beat before speaking, the better to take in the news and give those words all the notes they require, her fury with her hated brother and her disappointment and relief that her other brother didn’t try to keep the meeting from her. That’s the kind of thing that’s been missing from their scenes lately. As predicted, Jaime impresses upon her the truth about Joffrey’s murder, and that it really is the truth, and Cersei seems to accept it. At the parlay, Tyrion also tries to claim Tywin’s murder was self-defense, which holds some water, and despite Jaime’s anger, I suspect he can see it from that side. But Cersei is more concerned with another Lannister, the one growing in her womb. She’s prepared to reveal that Jaime’s the father, which he takes in differently than he used to. In previous seasons, being so forthright about their relationship had put him off. This time he grabs her by the waist, pulls her in, and kisses her in celebration of all they’ve meant to each other. It’s a rich moment even before Cersei whispers in his ear, “Never betray me again.”

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Stray observations:

  • “Eastwatch” is written by Dave Hill and directed by Matt Shakman. Partly thanks to the material, it doesn’t shine as much visually as Shakman’s previous episode, but the writing stands out for its humor.
  • Eastwatch joins the credits map just in time for Oldtown to depart. What are the odds even a single other location gets added to the map before the end?
  • “You’re fucked,” Bronn says about the dragons. “Don’t you mean we’re fucked?” Jaime asks. “No, I do not.”
  • Tyrion walks through the battlefield to an elegiac version of “The Rains Of Castamere.” Metaphorically, that’s what he does the whole episode, troubled by Dany’s brutality both morally and politically. But his best moment comes right before Dickon’s. Dany has singled out Randyll Tarly as an enemy who won’t bend the knee and who will then be executed, so Dickon calls out that he should be executed too. Tyrion tells him a great house (the Tyrells) has already been wiped out of history. “Don’t let it happen again.” But he says it like a trusted authority, a casual command, not taking the boy seriously. Basically, he tosses off the line, expecting that to be the end of the conversation. It’s crushing when it’s not, when he realizes he underestimated Dickon. Shakman gives Dickon his due in a close-up as that empty head, filled with stories of honor and constrained by a strict upbringing, fails to find a way out. Tyrion tries to send Randyll to the Night’s Watch and Dickon to a black cell for a few weeks, but Dany won’t have it. His dread reminds me of Robb Stark refusing to see any other path than beheading Rickard Karstark. Bend the knee or die is not a choice, and Tyrion knows it.
  • But about that “one great house” remark: It’s a hell of an underestimate. The Baratheons, Boltons, and Freys at the very least join the Tyrells, and the Martells presumably are on their way. I know there’s a war on, but at least three of the seven kingdoms (The Stormlands, Dorne, and The Reach) have no current lords that we know of. Those others may not have made much of an impression on Dickon, but you’d think Tyrion at least would feel the weight of what these wars have done to Westeros.
  • Randyll tries to claim allegiance to Cersei, and Tyrion calls him out for his selective principles. “It appears your allegiances are somewhat flexible.”
  • “So we fight and die or submit and die. I’ve made my choice.” Cersei is frighteningly fatalistic at the beginning of the episode, but eventually she decides she can accommodate the dragon queen to a certain extent, for the good of her child and the Lannister line. The only conclusion is she has something up her sleeve. So it looks like Cersei and Jaime will host Dany and Tyrion and all the rest after all. There is one advantage to depopulating the show. All the main characters except the Starks seem headed for the same room in King’s Landing, probably in time for the finale, and it’s hard not to imagine both sides preparing some surprises for the other.
  • Davos finds Gendry hard at work forging a blade. “Wasn’t sure I’d find you. Thought you might still be rowing.”
  • I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I find myself hoping Cersei gives birth to a dwarf. That’s if she’s actually pregnant by Jaime in the traditional sense, as opposed to the Melisandre sense. Could she give live birth to a dragon of her own?
  • Cersei tells Jaime she knows everything that goes on in the capital, and it’s awfully menacing, but do you think she really knows about Davos and Gendry?
  • The getaway from King’s Landing is an excellent example of actually giving a scene drama. Too often obstacles are waved away to get onto the next expository scene. But the threat posed by these two red cloaks comes in waves, mounting and then subsiding three times before they’re finally dealt with for good. And each time is different. First Davos shows off his smuggling skills, paying the guys off and charming them with a lie. The second part is similar, but this time it’s about Davos protecting Gendry from intervening the hard way, mainly because Davos is, as he tells us from the start, not a fighter. Finally Tyrion shows up right as the guards are leaving, and they recognize him, and all bets are off.
  • Gendry clubs the guards once with his mallet, and from the looks of their bloody, caved-in heads, he’s going to be a good fighter. Davos tells Tyrion, “This is Gendry.” Tyrion replies, “He’ll do.”
  • Tyrion: “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont. Nobody glowers quite like you.”

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