Last night, Game of Thrones returned to its roots with an intimate, grounded episode that features arguably some of the strongest writing that the show has seen in years.
Game of Thrones’ sweeping title sequence has long emphasized its vast world of scattered characters. In previous seasons, as the narrative jumped from place to place, storylines often felt so disjointed and disparate that it was sometimes difficult to envision how plotlines and characters would ultimately come together and reconcile.
However, times have changed and in its latest installment, the show successfully reinforced the new-found unity that exists among the majority of Westeros’ remaining inhabitants. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” begins in Winterfell and lingers there for the entirety of the episode’s duration. As almost the entire cast of characters gather in the Stark stronghold on the eve of the White Walkers’ attack, Game of Thrones slowed its frantic pace for once to focus on character interactions. As the audience empathized with the plight of those within Winterfell’s walls, the show expertly developed a sense of palpable dread before what is sure to be a terrifying event. At the same time, audiences were reminded of the larger implications of the battle to come.
Some reunions and conversations lead to tangible progressions in the show’s culminating plot—Bran expands on the Night King’s motivation to murder him and makes his peace with Jaime; Jon finally reveals the truth of his ancestry to Daenerys. Others simply highlight the tangible humanity of those about to battle the dead.
With the end of GOT almost upon us, time, like Cersei’s elephants, often feels like a luxury that the show cannot afford. It is easy to irritably question the relevance of scenes such as when Ser Davos spoons up soup for a little girl, Grey Worm and Missandei discuss their future vacation plans, or Tormund vigorously chugs sour goats’ milk. However, as we watch the more mundane matters of battle preparation—the training, the strategizing, the drinking, the singing—Winterfell is transformed from a place on a fantasy map to a castle that is lived in and worth fighting for. The characters that inhabit the castle are not pawns to be thrown with abandon at a horde of wights, but humans that the audience knows intimately, with real pasts, futures, and relationships that they will lose if they die.
Over the course of the show, blinded by greed or fear or misplaced love, many of those who have recently straggled back to Winterfell lost sight of their place in the world. Now, before they die, they want to remember what it is they truly value. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” reminds us of how far characters have come—and where they want to go—by offering a slow-paced, nuanced meditation on their evolved relationships with others as they prepare to meet their deaths. “If we forget where we’ve been, and what we’ve done,” muses Samwell Tarly, “we’re not men anymore. Just animals.”
With the army of the dead arriving at any moment, characters settle down within the walls of Winterfell for what might be their last night alive. Perhaps not even the most prudish viewer would blame them now, in the darkening dread of death, for indulging in some of the show’s signature primal pleasures—good food and sex. However, while at the start of the show, characters were in many ways “just animals” who defined themselves through their beastly sigils and animalistic debauchery, now they want more. Self-serving and solipsistic behavior was all well and good for the summer, but now unity affirms humanity in the face of an inhumanly unstoppable threat.
“We’re all going to die,” declares Tormund the wildling, “but at least we die together.” Indeed, it is a celebration of togetherness, rather than personal pleasure that defines the episode. Undeniably, there is lovemaking. But when Arya and Gendry finally consummate their attraction for each other, the act is less about lust and more about Arya’s desire to experience human emotions of romantic love for the first time. Similarly, there is eating and drinking, but when Theon and Sansa share a meal together, it is more about emotional nourishment than physical sustenance.
Looking back on the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, when the dragons were pint-sized reptiles charmingly charring cubes of meat instead of Tarlys and the White Walkers were still distant enough in their danger to be droll, it’s easy to find oneself asking what kept viewers so engaged. Today, with the series a third of the way through its final season, GOT has become an increasingly dazzling spectacle packed with stunning visuals and ambitious, high-adrenaline battle sequences. Audiences have grown accustomed to and almost complacent with behemoth-sized dragons, some of whom are now ice zombies. Ice zombies themselves are no longer looming threats but creatures with names, motivations, and enormous armies that are imminently poised to attack the characters that we have been following since Season One. In many ways, the Game of Thrones of 2019 is not at all the Game of Thrones of, say, 2014, but neither are its characters.
Perhaps, Game of Thrones was so compelling to audiences from the outset merely because it promised a future of out-sized dragons and epic battles with bastards and dead things. In truth, however, I suspect that the show won our hearts far before the dragons ever hatched. Since its premiere in 2011, Thrones has garnered acclaim for its multi-faceted characters, not to mention their increasingly complex relationships with each other and the world around them.
Fans of Game of Thrones are drawn to the relatable, human truths that the characters of the show illuminate, even against the backdrop of an alien world that is often gratuitously cruel and ugly. Despite its well-recognized appeal, the show’s dedication to well-wrought characterization has not always been consistent. At times, characters that once felt human seemed reduced to little more than snappy exposition machines or sorrowful punching bags. Sometimes their development as people felt overshadowed by a desire to further the larger plot. But for me at least, it is the characters of Game of Thrones, not the battles or beasts, that keep me coming back.
In that light, one begins to understand what keeps the series’ characters coming back to Winterfell. It is their attachment, not to the castle itself, but to the humans they love. As once warring Houses put aside their differences and unite against a common foe, characters are self-aware enough to marvel at the absurdity of how dramatically some of them have reversed their priorities and values.
To Tyrion, it’s easier to focus on what a strange turn of events it is that the likes of Jaime Lannister—once Kingslayer and incestuous would-be child murderer— and Theon Greyjoy— traitor and child-murderer to the stars— are choosing to die for the Starks than it is to tackle the more abstractly incomprehensible matter of the dead rising from their graves. Tyrion, happily reunited with his brother, Jaime, muses on these “perils of self-betterment,” but such potentially deadly choices to return to the North are catalyzed as much by an urge to better oneself as by the human desire to live a meaningful life.
When faced with what seems to be an inescapable end, characters examine what is truly important to them—not their pride or the arbitrary expectations that they once believed they were meant to fulfill—but their relationships with others. Jaime risks his life to face the daughter of the king he murdered and the boy he attempted to kill so that he can die beside Brienne, a woman he loves and respects. Brienne’s values of honor and loyalty have given Jaime’s life true meaning, and he wants to acknowledge that.
Similarly, when he arrives at Winterfell, Theon bypasses Daenerys, to whom he technically has sworn fealty, to offer his forces to Sansa. Despite Daenerys’ slight displeasure, everyone seems to implicitly understand that the days of technicalities and formalities are over. Theon may have a biological sister at sea and a level of responsibility to Daenerys, but he has chosen Sansa as his family. Sansa gave his life meaning, and now her acceptance will give his death meaning as well. Where once one’s posthumous glory was a competitively individualistic pursuit, now it is based on community experience and understanding.
As the show draws to an end, audiences are also asked to interrogate what they feel Game of Thrones is truly about– does it really all boil down to, as actor Ian Mcshane rather infamously put it, “tits and dragons?” Perhaps there’s something more.
Moments after Ser Jaime Lannister throws convention to the winter winds and knights Brienne of Tarth, a night of drinking and bonding seems to be at an end. After all, there are wights to fight in the morning. As Davos Seaworth and a grumbly Tormund Giantsbane prepare to head off to bed, Tyrion stalls. Almost desperately, he asks if anyone can sing a song. When Podrick Payne complies with a lilting rendition of “Jenny of Oldstones,” we understand Tyrion’s inarticulate need for something more after a night of veritably cheerful merry-making.
The likes of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are becoming larger than life mythological figures who will inspire their own songs and the next generation of Westeros should the White Walkers be defeated. However, the lesser characters of Game of Thrones want to understand the inexplicable. They want words that they can’t conjure themselves for impossible terror (when asked to describe the wights, Gendry can only choke out “bad”). They want assurance that their lives have had some kind of purpose and meaning. They need context for their existence.
Game of Thrones has been accused of nihilism from time to time, and even the characters of the show sense an aimlessness in their suffering that must be corrected.
Songs and stories are made in an effort to unite seemingly disparate, senseless moments and affix them with some kind of significance. As much as humans crave gold and glory and hedonism, most of all, unlike the animals the lords and ladies of Westeros emblazon on their clothing, they crave meaning.
Even if one’s war cries do not echo into eternity, and no one sings about your battle long after the world has slipped beneath the waves, no one wants to perish feeling that they lived and died for nothing. Such a desire is what separates men from the animals that Samwell invoked earlier. It is also what separates living men from the grotesquely animalized army of the dead.
In the end, there is nothing to be learned from a hunk of ice and a fizzling fire alone, but A Song of Ice and Fire, in all of its grim and fantastical impossibilities offers us insights into our own human lives. Strung together, the lives we have watched unfold before us over the course of Game of Thrones come together to form a story that is about empathy and forgiveness– the same qualities that we see the characters of the show cultivating in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”
As it drifts through the dim halls of Winterfell as a reverent montage of quiet, social moments take place throughout the castle, the lyrics of “Jenny of Oldstones” are oddly appropriate for the characters we come across. In a time where the world seems to be uniquely and irrevocably in disarray, the universality of human experience, as evinced through Podrick’s song and how it applies to those within the castle, is comforting. It affirms the resilience and incomprehensible but real meaningfulness of human history. All is not in vain.
Despite seemingly insurmountable differences, characters find a shared sense of fulfillment in the personal meaning that they make from their love and friendships. Podrick’s Jenny “never wanted to leave” her cathartic dance with the ghosts of the past, and such sentiments resonate not only with the characters of the show but with the audience itself. With the show ending for good, this iteration of Westeros at least will be gone forever. At the same time, half of the characters present at the end of the episode, some of whom we have known from the start of the show, may have perished by the end of the next.
The episode ends with a fragile, liminal moment where characters, like Jenny’s ghosts, are caught between life and death, their past and their present. Similarly, the show is quite aware of its imminent finality, and we are too. Thus, the calm of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is a moment we never want to leave. But the spell is broken by the raspy horns of war. The calm has passed, and now the storm is here.
Speaking of storms, check out the preview for next week’s episode below. Episode Three is going to be intense!
Also, don’t miss this haunting cover of “Jenny of Oldstones” by Florence + the Machine:
What did you think of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms?” Share your thoughts in the comments below.