This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 2
Late in tonight’s preemptively mournful hour, the Hound rumbles upon seeing another familiar face, “Oh for fuck’s sake, may as well be at a bloody wedding.” Given the connotation most Game of Thrones fans have for the term “wedding,” that sounds about right. Not since Joffrey’s ill-fated nuptials have so many beloved countenances been gathered in one location. However, given the usual hurricane that follows such deceptively calm waters, we too should hold our breaths. In the seven days since last week’s solid if flawed season 8 premiere, I’ve heard more than one person grouch that they wanted someone to die in that first hour. Now as we face the prospect of everyone we care about being on the chopping block—save for the lovably loathsome Cersei—the Many-Faced God of Death can go ahead and take another week off. Because next week, he’s coming for all our darlings.
Aye, tonight was about honoring the dead before they pass, because there might not be anyone left afterward (or if there is, there’s a scarily good chance they’ll be fleeing the smoking ruins of the Starks’ ancestral home). So in what essentially boiled down to being a living wake for your Westerosi favorites before a cacophony of slaughter, it is fitting Game of Thrones regained much of its gracefulness from seasons past, even as these characters’ history threatened to return by swallowing them whole.
And no character has had a more contentious history than Jaime Lannister. Once, as Tyrion so eloquently ascribed, a Golden Lion who entered the gates of Winterfell with his head held high, he came last week into the Stark home with a cloak drawn round his profile, beleaguered and abandoned, and a lonely figure ignored by all save Brandon Stark. It thus felt initially inexplicable that Jaime Lannister began the episode standing before Daenerys Targaryen’s judgment, as opposed to Bran’s. However, the showrunners obviously wished to save that moment for later while cutting straight to the most intense sequence of the night that did not involve the existential threat of White Walkers. Instead Jaime faced a much more immediate and visible menace.
As with his early prancing into season one Winterfell, memories linger of how Jaime was discovered over the slain body of Mad King Aerys II with a smirk on his face and a pride that bordered on petulance. In truth, Jaime Lannister saved King’s Landing when he stabbed the king he’d sworn to protect in the back. That very king was giving the order to burn all of the capital when Jaime acted the hero, but only to an audience of himself and those like Bran Stark who can see all. Ned Stark, meanwhile, only found reigning arrogance beside a crowned corpse and judged the callow Lannister youth too harshly.
Still, even after losing his hand and beginning his reclamation project in season three, Jaime could not see the folly in his pride when he growled to Brienne in a bath tub, “By what right does the Wolf judge the Lion?” All his life, Jaime’s entitlement has shielded him from standing open and true before those around him, even in the midst of the perpetual theatre of courtier life. Tonight, however, he willingly stood his true self, all but naked, before a tribunal of Wolves, reluctantly expecting their judgment. Theirs and the Dragon’s.
Hence the greater irony that it was now a Stark who saved him again from a fiery death, as Daenerys seemed no more inclined to spare a perceived enemy than when Tyrion Lannister begged for the lives of Randyll and Dickon Tarly in season seven. Tyrion spoke common sense when he noted Jaime arrived one handed, alone, and humiliated before a nest of enemies, begging for the opportunity to offering his aging and somewhat disabled services. He must be speaking truth. Alas, Tyrion has a steep price to pay though after not only misreading Cersei’s intentions when she promised to send her armies North as aid, but also for the time he sent Daenerys on a wild goose chase to Casterly Rock while the very man in front of her sacked her allies in Highgarden… and that was before he charged her on the field of battle while holding a spear.
“I see one man with one hand,” Daenerys seethes, and for the first time Sansa seems to be on the same page. Even oblivious of what Jaime Lannister did to her brother, Sansa is aware of the fact he crippled Lord Eddard Stark in the streets of King’s Landing—the beginning of the end for Ned—and later raised his hand against the North and Robb. Hence the shock that it’s also Sansa who comes around to see his worth due to the forthright sentiments of… Brienne of Tarth. Once a woman content with the fact she could never be a knight, and pleased just to quietly serve in the same room as her unrequited love Renly Baratheon, Brienne now stands before queens and former kings to vouch for Jaime’s honor. In one way or another, each and every character in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” knows the value of another who might’ve been dismissed. If they could only put aside their grievances, what a better world they can make. At least on the current edge of death, it fleetingly exists as momentarily as the visions in a flame.
It is Brienne’s ability to speak of Jaime’s trustworthiness and honor, particularly in that it was he who set Brienne on her quest to find Sansa Stark, that saves Jaime’s life, just as it is Sansa’s tender feelings for a fellow survivor of their own private war that speaks to Theon’s devotion to House Stark more than any gallant words before a slightly confused and interloping Daenerys; wee Lady Lyanna Mormont may have no use for her formerly exiled cousin Ser Jorah Mormont, but his redemption can be implicit to even this prideful bear cub by the fact he stands as the most trusted counsel behind a queen—or that the son of a man that same queen roasted would arm this fallen Bear Knight with his family’s Valyrian steel. It’s a worthy blade to replace the Valyrian steel Jorah had in turn bequeathed to Jon Snow.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is about the better world that can never be, in our own or Westeros’ fanciful fictions. Only in quiet interludes can these sweeter fantasies fly. Last week’s episode might’ve relied too much on reunions and nostalgia, and yet that same nostalgia becomes a deadly weapon when we realize that all these characters with sordid histories can make a stand together as valiant as any more traditional fantasy epic where the good guys are as clearly defined as white cloaks and black armor. But even in a series as cynical as this, Starks and Lannisters can find a moment of light, if only because everything is about to cut to eternal dark. This is what makes scenes like Sansa and Daenerys’ brief flirtation with a détente of unspoken hostilities so thrilling—and so bitterly distant.
I read too many think pieces last week dismissing Sansa and Dany’s arguably justifiable grievances as padding or a missed opportunity to celebrate their implicit sisterhood. Sure enough, that political ideal is suggested tonight, even as the very truthful pains of coalition-building then tear it asunder. It is Jorah Mormont who—again seeing the worth in a man he once took hostage—approaches his Khaleesi and requests that she keep Tyrion’s cunning as her Hand, as well as reach out to the fraying end at her House Stark alliance by breaking metaphorical bread with Lady Stark. Well aware that this may be the last time we see Jorah and Dany onscreen together (unless he comes back as a wight), it is a lovely moment for two of the most reliable scene partners to have one more bow, albeit it is missing a gravely intoned “Khaleesi.”
Nicer still though was seeing Daenerys and Sansa share their first genuine moment. The two last major female power players on Game of Thrones who are not coded to be villains have more in common than they do differences. Both have been ignored, underestimated, and even abused by men who savored their patriarchal power over politically weakened women from once great houses—they were pawns meant to be moved and sacrificed even by those who claimed to love them, be it a brother or that creepy uncle-like figure wearing a mockingbird. Now they stand as the most trusted figures of their respective households. Daenerys tries to reach out to Sansa, and we see a brief but radiant horizon over the series’ storm clouds: the gratification of “heroes” working together, and of women helping each other up rather than tear one another down. But life is more than heroes or villains, political correctness, or “doing the right thing.”
At the end of the day, Sansa is acting as a genuine leader for her people: Why should the North bend the knee to a queen, even one who is fighting by their side, after seeing their lands and destinies destroyed time and again by Southron lords, including Daenerys’ father who cooked Rickard Stark in his own suit of armor? Diplomacy is about the art of the possible, and unlike Jon, Sansa is going to try to extract as much autonomy and freedom for the North out of Dany as possible. These political gestures are not as liberating as a raised sword meant to break across the coming waves of the Night King’s forces, but they’re closer to the realities of political jockeying between allies, even if one of them is superpowered by a nuclear threat-sized dragon.
The question of “what happens afterward” likewise promises that even if all of our favorite characters survived next week’s episode, there’d still be problems in this world that cannot be solved by a heroic assembling of forces. The War to End All Wars had a sequel, and that sequel did not even secure peace for a generation. But that question of what comes next will not be answered until the dead are surveyed, and tonight is about commemorating those who will be joining those ranks. For Sansa, it comes in a wistful reunion with Theon Greyjoy that is blessedly wordless while speaking volumes. For Daenerys, it comes in more bitter snowfalls beneath the Winterfell crypts.
It is there that Jon Snow reveals to his lover that he is Aegon Targaryen. This might be true, but ever a Stark, he admits it in the most compassionate and ill-suited space. Rather than before lords and allies, friends or even potential foes, he shares his secret that his aunt is also a lover simply by taking her to meet his mother. She’s dead now, memorialized by a simple statue that Robert Baratheon once mused did her no justice, but it’s all he has left when he confesses to Daenerys they’re kin. She takes it about as well as one might expect, immediately dismissing its validity since it was revealed and confirmed by Jon Snow’s brother and friend—even as she is trusting her battlefield strategy of surviving the Night King on Bran Stark’s word that the Dead come specifically for him—and intriguingly Jon Snow takes it even harder. Mayhaps in the hours since we saw him last, Jon had hoped Dany would be as equally horrified or at least conflicted by the knowledge that they’re aunt and nephew… and maybe just also aware that they’re not so alone as they thought.
Instead Dany reaches immediately toward the metaphorical sword, realizing that Jon is saying he has a better claim on the Iron Throne than she. Jon, and the writers, could’ve done the merciful thing and just added, even with the Dead at the gates, that he has no interest in the crown. But he ultimately seems too disappointed in Dany’s reaction, and then distracted by their need to rally.
More satisfying was how the others rallied for each other now that politics are moot. The best moment of the night is the one where “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” received its title. Faced with imminent death, Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne, Podrick, Davos, and Tormund Giantsbane all stumble into the Great Hall looking for hearth and fellowship. Not unlike their nobler counterparts in J.R.R. Tolkien’s grander alternative to Westeros, they have found community and now communion in an unlikely place.
Yet it is stranger still for a show as cynical as Game of Thrones that so many smiling faces can be found amongst former enemies. As Tyrion is the one to vocalize, as is his gift, they’ve all at one point or another stood against House Stark—obviously Tyrion and Jaime as Lannisters, Davos as Stannis’ Hand, Brienne as Renly’s knight in all but name, and even Tormund who once upon a time might’ve greeted Jon Snow and all “Northerners” with an axe instead of a hug. Now they’re here to defend it to their last breath. Tyrion is right to smirk at the thought of their father seeing his two sons reunited after a patricide as allies to the Starks.
Still, Tyrion speaks too optimistically when he says he thinks they can all survive. Come this time next week, many or all of the characters we’re watching laugh and share suspicious looks as Tormund pours beer down his gullet and speaks of suckling from the teats of widowed giants will be dead. Mayhaps all of them. That makes it all better that each can share a wry glance when Tormund revealed himself to be the Homebrewing hipster of the Seven Kingdoms. Seeing Tyrion, meanwhile, pour wine for his former squire until his glass overflows is worth a thousand speeches about “family” and “the team” on a thousand other shows. These two haven’t even had more than a scene together since 2014, but the unspoken joy of being reunited within their shared passion for drink is infectious.
This is realized even more by the contrast of how much they’ve changed. I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons Tyrion has lost his gift for scathing wit is because most of his best lines were authored by George R.R. Martin. But maybe this is too glib considering he is no longer the same man he once was. As much as Jaime Lannister has gone through startling transformation over eight seasons, Tyrion is long past his whore-mongering “impish” days when he too first set foot in Winterfell. “The perils of self-betterment,” Tyrion bemoans with fair insight. A man weighted by the constraints of power and a Hand’s pin he barely can keep stuck to his chest cannot be the smartass who always gets the last word. After all, it’s Tyrion who gives a look of caution to Jaime before the Kingslayer insult a gingerhaired ally sitting across from him, just as it is Jaime, who once mocked the very idea of nobility, that now celebrates it in Brienne.
For too long the “lady knight” or “large woman” of Game of Thrones has gone by monikers unbefitting her honor and worth. The noblest person on the show by far, she has long run from her heart’s desire. She refused to ever let Podrick call her a knight, and dared not ask it of Renly or Jaime, two men she loved enough to serve but always at a distance and a glance away from eye-contact. When Jaime offers his hand to the better person—the truer knight—by requesting to serve beneath her command, she flinches. Unlike Tyrion she has never been able to vocalize her wants, desires, or even awareness of the situations around her. Situations like the plain injustice of a woman of unparalleled talent and skill not being anointed a “knight” because of tradition.
In the shadow of death, we can say fuck tradition, and that world becomes a little more perfect when Brienne kneels a lady and rises the truest knight. As the happiest face in Winterfell, it is a poor omen about what will come for Ser Brienne next week, but tonight it is worth all the gold in Casterly Rock. It is something to be savored, like Podrick’s singing, a reunion of the Brothers in Black standing atop a wall, Grey Worm’s promise to Missandei for a future that will never be, or a rekindling of old flames.
Indeed, probably the moment to be most written about and agonized over is Arya Stark and Gendry of House Baratheon (fuck tradition) finally uniting the Wolf and the Stag. It’s been a relationship that’s always been there, at least since they met in the season 1 finale. Arya eyed Gendry as more than just a friend throughout seasons 2 and 3, albeit he knew her only as his little sister then. But the glances she stole of him above a forger’s flame were not of sisterly affection. Nonetheless, I never fully expected Game of Thrones to go there, particularly before the real endgame will be settled. But therein lies the point.
Whether Arya is a teenager or in her 20s now (the timeline is intentionally left fuzzy in the series), she had the ability to study Gendry’s physique in season 2 and feel the sting of betrayal when he chose to leave her in season 3. Since that breakup, she has become a woman who defies all conventions of her age and even some of our own. She takes what she wants from the Freys, in pies and blood, and she gives what she needs to in equal measure from the likes of Petyr Baelish and Meryn Trant. Ever since she told Jaqen H’ghar that “a girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home,” Arya has known exactly who she is and what she wants. That she would wish to experience sex, particularly on the precipice of death, with the only torch she’s ever carried is entirely natural and true to the most iconoclastic Stark. So she takes Gendry with as much force as she took Walder Frey, doing in her young adulthood what she dreamed of in her childhood.
Their foreplay before this moment also allowed for several of the subtler joys of the night. Little things like Arya dismissing the cryptic shorthand with which Gendry and a thousand movie/TV characters speak of foreboding things as “really bad.” It also saw Arya, once stealing a perfect bullseye away from Bran, now firing openly and proudly before an archery target. And never missing. Her ability to also land her shot on Gendry and his initial false modesty is true, yet speaks ill of his chances. Tonight she waits alert and troubled by the side of her slumbering lover. I have a hunch that by this time next week, she’ll be forced to stare into that face again with its much bluer eyes.
This really is the end of things. Which is why we’re more or less beginning where we started. Once more Jaime has a word in private with Bran Stark, although now in shameful regret as opposed to snide indifference to the little boy he was pushing out a window. Unfortunately the scene is robbed of its full emotional potency since Bran Stark has completely uploaded his soul to the Westerosi cloud and cannot be bothered with heart-to-heart apologies, even in the presence of the Heart Tree. Still, he sums up the beauty and poignancy of this night. When Jaime attempts to explain he is no longer the man he was, Bran remarks, “You still would be if you hadn’t pushed me out of that window. And I would still be Brandon Stark.” These two people, a boy and the humbled man who wronged him, are genuinely different souls eight seasons later.
If you think back to every character from those early seasons who still breathes, even perma-brooder Jon Snow, you’ll see the shades of their past etched into the dramatically different, and much more so dramatically satisfying, persons they are today. Daenerys is not a passive pawn in men’s games but a queen who has shattered their game board; Arya is not a young girl who grieves the adventures she’ll never allowed to go on, but a woman who’s seen too many grim adventures to waste time on grief for the road not taken; Sansa, once the girl who naively dreamed of marrying a king, will now be able to refuse fully bending before a queen more than necessary while defending the rights of her people; and Jaime and Bran are now allies surrounded by former enemies, be they Greyjoy or Targaryen, wildlings and crows.
That is the true terror of the Night King: not only will he kill these characters you love, but he’ll kill the culmination of all their pain, all their growth, and all their transformations. It will come to mean nothing. They’ll be forgotten in a way Ned, Catelyn, Tywin, and even Ramsay’s ghosts were not tonight. There will be no ghosts if only the dead inherit the earth. It is the threat to their shared history—the ties that keep them apart yet bind them together as the living inhabitants of Westeros—that has made this brief, better world possible. “He wants to erase this world and its memory,” warns Three-Eyed Bran while speaking of the Night King. The threat of losing this world, or its purpose for being after eight seasons, should scare viewers. More than any theory, this admission by Bran of White Walker motive should dispel the prospect of the Night King ascending the Iron Throne.
For the show to have a purpose, this world must have a future—someone must be left to remember those who have died and those still yet to meet the Many-Faced God. That dread of meetings yet to come is what brought serenity and joy to tonight’s episode. Nothing but a deep breath, it was one full of reflection and a bittersweet flavor that’ll last long in our own collective memory. More so than last week’s premiere, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” reminded us why we love these characters, and why it’ll hurt so much when we say to the Many-Faced God next week, “So it is today, old friend.”