Game of Thrones, Episode 7.05: “Eastwatch”

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Hello again and welcome back to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog of Game of Thrones, in which we review, recap, analyze, and generally nerd the hell out about the goings-on in Westeros. This week: plans are hatched, siblings squabble, Jon Snow pets a dragon, Gendry brings the hammer down, and The Avengers Beyond the Wall assemble. It’s Nikki’s turn to lead us off, so …

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Nikki: WOW! Every week we marvel about how many threads from the series are being brought together but oh my GOD this week was just one of those, “you better have paid attention for the past six seasons or you are going to be looooooost” episodes. We actually had to pause the episode a few times because I simply couldn’t keep up with my notetaking. The Avengers of Westeros are starting to assemble (on more than one front), a character I’ve waited to see since season THREE has returned and is back in the fold better than he ever was before, and Gilly has a perfect moment where she finally confirms something fans have waited to have confirmed since the beginning of time and gets cut off by Sam in the midst of it (and then puts on that face every woman puts on at some point that says, “Sigh… interrupted by a man in the midst of an important revelation AGAIN.”)

But let’s start back at the beginning! Watch closely in the opening credits and you’ll see Eastwatch added to the end of the sequence showing the Wall, and then we continue immediately where we left off in the previous episode. Jaime and Bronn appear back on the opposite shore from the one where Drogon just tried to broil them alive (and somehow Bronn has dragged Jaime up from the 5,000-meter depth despite Jaime wearing full armour, and Jaime’s golden hand is back on despite it seeming to NOT be there in the final sequence of the previous episode, but that could have been my eyes playing tricks on me) and Jaime’s first words were, “You could’ve killed me.” Ha! Bronn chastises him for being an idiot, and tells him that until he gets his full pay (which he lost in the midst of the battle), no one gets to kill Jaime except Bronn. The two men realize that the war at this point seems hopeless: despite the fact last week I pictured Cersei mass-producing the dragon-killing machine, Jaime just pictures three of the creatures he just saw mowing down all of Westeros. And even Bronn knows when things have gone too far. “Dragons are where our partnership ends,” he says. Jaime’s just upset that he has to be the one to tell Cersei.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the battlefield, Tyrion walks amongst the carnage and sees what destruction Daenerys and Drogon have wrought. He watched the Lannisters burn people alive with wildfire, and he knew what they were doing was wrong because it was in the name of keeping the kingdom and keeping that throne. He was fighting on the side of the Lannister army because he was part of the family at the time, and believed he could prove himself to them. They didn’t care who got caught in the middle of it. Daenerys, on the other hand, fights for the poor and the meek and the helpless, and yet lately seems more concerned with people bending the knee before her than for any meek or helpless. Once again Tyrion is fighting on the side of the victor, but wonders if he’s sold his soul once again to do it. As Tyrion steps over the ashes of dead Lannister soldiers, we wonder how many of them were from Fleabottom and had no other choice in life but to join the army if they were going to be fed. Did they deserve to be immolated like this? (I also couldn’t help but marvel at the how much work went into the set itself in this moment, to make it look like thousands of men and horses and carts had been instantly turned to ashes. The set is remarkable.)

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And just as we’re thinking that, we flip to Daenerys standing before the remaining Lannister soldiers they managed to round up from the battlefield and take prisoner. She tells them that Cersei has told them a bunch of lies about her, saying that she’s the daughter of the Mad King and will come to burn them all alive. But Daenerys rejects that notion, and says instead she wants them to know that Cersei is the evil queen, not her. She’s the kind one.

And then her actions sort of, you know, say the opposite.

One of the key titles that Daenerys uses is “Breaker of Chains”: she stands to free all men and women from slavery. And yet here she stands before the soldiers, telling them if they don’t bend the knee they will be killed. They have no choice; they have no freedom in this matter. There are about 200 men standing there; Cersei’s thousands have been reduced to a handful of survivors. They are broken and destroyed, yet managed to survive what seemed to be an unsurvivable onslaught. And instead of showing any respect for any of them for having done so, she treats them the same way she treated the slavers or anyone who has harmed or threatened her. These men aren’t threatening anyone. Even the formidable Randyll Tarly looks defeated, still glaring at her with his black eyes, but saying nothing. She tells them to bend the knee, and many of them do, showing not that they respect and love her, but that they fear her. Only a few remain standing. For the first time in the series, I actually respected Randyll Tarly: he knows he’s going to die, but he remains standing. Tyrion, of course, calls out the hypocrisy of this action: he flipped sides pretty quickly away from House Tyrell and over to House Lannister when it seemed to suit his purpose, and wouldn’t it suit his purpose now to bend the knee to the one who will otherwise KILL HIM?

Ah, but then we see what’s really going on, and I once again went back to hating the sonofabitch. Turns out Tarly’s a modern-day Republican. He’ll follow the insane queen who will burn her own city alive and start useless wars with people just to fuel her own narcissism, but damn it to HELL if he’s going to listen to a damn immigrant!! I mean, is she really even from this area? Has anyone seen her birth certificate??!! Cersei Lannister is going to Make Westeros Great Again and he’s going to stand behind her gulldarnit! Unfortunately, our new hero DICKON is going to follow his father into the cremation chamber, despite Tyrion’s plea to not do this. In the final moments, Tyrion pleads with the Tarlys to stop being so stupid, pleads with his queen to stop acting like his sister, but no one listens to him. Daenerys has tasted power and sees anyone associated with the Lannisters as being part of the family that dethroned her family in the first place and murdered her brother and father, and she can’t be stopped. So… that’s the end of Samwell’s dad and brother. Daenerys turns to the remaining Lannister soldiers, who instantly drop to the ground. She smiles in triumph, and Tyrion drops his head in defeat. Just as they would with Cersei, they bend the knee out of fear, not love or respect.

And speaking of the alcoholic who sits on the Iron Throne, Cersei clearly has received word that she’s lost, but Jaime’s come to tell her how. What did you think of his explanation and her reaction, Chris?

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Christopher: As this episode makes clear, Cersei is in a tight spot—her only options are victory or death. She knows too well that she will not survive a loss, that there are no circumstances in which surrendering to Daenerys might allow her to live out her years in a small estate overlooking the ocean. Not that she would consider that a life—at this point, Cersei has become as power-mad as any Targaryen king. Jaime would likely throw everything away if it meant he could live out his years with his sister in a humble cottage raising goats, but Cersei would sooner die.

“How many men did we lose?” Cersei asks. Jaime’s answer, “We haven’t done a full accounting,” is a prevarication: on hearing her question, I’d expected him to say, “All of them.” Because while I imagine there were some deserters who managed to flee, it appeared as though Daenerys’s victory was more or less total … something Jaime is too aware of, something that haunts him as he tries to convince his sister of the impossibility of their position. But knowing she has no choice, Cersei reaches for whatever straws are at hand. “It’s not only armies that win wars,” she says. “We have the Tyrell gold, we have the Iron Bank behind us. We can buy mercenaries.” Considering the rather calculating terms Bronn laid out for Jaime in this episode’s first few minutes, we know this hope is rooted in delusion—dragons are a deal-breaker.

Jaime makes this point obliquely, but builds to it in classic debate club fashion. First, he makes his basic point about mercenaries: “I just saw the Dothraki fight,” he says. “They’ll beat any mercenary army.” Then, he adds, “They’ll beat any army I’ve ever seen. Killing our men wasn’t war for them, it was sport.” So even if it was just the Dothraki, the Lannisters and whatever swords they can hire are pretty much fucked. Of course, that’s not all they face: “Her dragon burnt a thousand wagons,” he continues. “Qyburn’s scorpion fired bolts bigger than you, they couldn’t stop it, and she has three of them.” Jaime had the same thought I did after last week: this is what just one dragon can do. He comes to the obvious conclusion: “This isn’t a war we can win.”

But if Jaime speaks with a soldier’s pragmatism, Cersei speaks with a tyrant’s fear, the fear of knowing that her position, and indeed her continued ability to draw breath, rests on maintaining power. She is not one who enjoys the love of the people; her only leverage is, ironically, fear. So long as she can make her people fear Daenerys, she can maintain her authority. And she has no illusions about the violence that led to her reign, not just recently, but historically. When Jaime suggests something like détente with Daenerys, Cersei reminds him, “I sit on her father’s throne, the father you betrayed and murdered.” In other words: I might piss her off by sitting on this throne, but you turned your cloak to kill her father. Even given Daenerys’ ostensibly clear-eyed understanding of the Mad King’s crimes, she’d probably be less than sympathetic to the man who quite literally stabbed him in the back.

It’s a measure of where Cersei’s at that Jaime’s revelation that it was Olenna who killed Joffrey and not Tyrion doesn’t sink in with her until he lays it out for her in stark strategic terms: Joffrey was erratic and intractable, and indeed insane; Tommen was young and impressionable; who best for Margaery to manipulate? Whom would the Queen of Thorns want her granddaughter married to? I have to imagine that only a season ago, Cersei would have much less receptive to Jaime’s argument. But now, having lost all her children and inhabiting a world in which the perpetuation of her own power is her primary consideration, she sees the truth quite quickly, and regrets her mercy: “I shouldn’t have listened to you,” she grates at Jaime. “She should have died screaming.” Considering the hell Ellaria Sand must be enduring at the present moment, all those of us who loved the Queen of Thorns can quietly thank Jaime for his humane intervention.

I must admit, there was a smug satisfaction, after a few episodes of Lannister victories, in watching Jaime and Cersei face the facts of their situation. In the end, all of Jaime’s arguments run up against the obstinate wall of Cersei’s brutal calculus: “So we fight and die or submit and die; I know my choice!” Experienced viewers of course know that, when this sort of scene occurs at the start of an episode, something will happen by the end to complicate it. But for now, let’s luxuriate in Cersei’s hopelessness, shall we?

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And then go back to Dragonstone, where Jon Snow—presumably taking a break from all his arduous dragonglass mining—is once again brooding on a cliff’s edge when Daenerys returns on the back of Drogon.

Let me pause here to expound on my pet theory that dragons are basically cats. They’re capricious, they kill things just because, and they act like dicks to you until you hold out your hand for you to sniff. This is basically what happens in this moment: Drogon lands, and in spite of the fact that his “mother” is on his back, looks for all the world like he’s about to have the King in the North for a snack. Jon, to his credit—because he’s brave to a point of idiocy—stands his ground, and has the uncommon sense to remove his glove and touch Drogon’s nose … which has the effect of mollifying the beast, much as though he’d just scratched him behind the ears.

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My cat Gloucester as a kitten, doing his best dragon impersonation. He thinks he’s Drogon, but really he’s Toothless.

That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t observe that this is a HUGE moment. HUGE. Why? Because, as every fan site has been chattering about since thirty seconds after this episode ended, dragons supposedly only respond in this way to people with Targaryen blood. So while Daenerys (justifiably) calls the dragons her “children,” we the audience know that Jon Snow is also a Targaryen (something that is confirmed later in this episode, but more on that later).

(Further to my theory about dragons as cats: my girlfriend pointed out that, after Jon Snow touched his nose, Drogon blinked slowly … which is something cats do when they trust you).

Anyway … Daenerys is impressed. Her expression suggests equal measures of incredulity and desire. Though she is less than pleased when Jon does not immediately agree that her dragons are beautiful. His backpedalling is funny, but speaks to an element of Daenerys’ disconnection—we’re seeing her settle more and more into the role of “mother of dragons,” which has less and less relation to how other people see things. Her conversation with Jon Snow says as much, as she callously observes that she has fewer enemies than she had before she left; observing that Jon is not entirely comfortable with what she has done—something he acknowledges—she says, “We both want to help people; we can only help them from a position of strength.” This, of course, is a variation on every ends-justifying-means political argument that says “We can only do good if we win.” When she acknowledges that “Sometimes strength is terrible,” it is a callback to the opening minutes on the episode in which Tyrion picks his horrified way through the burnt remains of Lannister soldiers frozen in Pompeii-like corpses by dragonfire. That scene, to my mind, is the most powerful of the episode, and evokes the Duke of Wellington’s adage that the only thing worse than losing a battle is winning one.

Fortunately for Jon, Daenerys’ curiosity about Davos’ slip about his “knife to the heart” is interrupted by the return of a beloved character. What did you think of Ser Jorah’s return, Nikki?

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Nikki: First of all, I just want to say that your girlfriend and my husband had the same reaction to Drogon. As he landed and Jon Snow held out his hand (with its darkened fingernails), my husband said, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, these dragons are like cats!” And then when Drogon sniffed and blinked, and you could see its inner eyelid cross the eyeball, he said, “They ARE cats!!” And then we wondered if, like our cats, they pee everywhere to mark their territory. (Sigh.)

But yes, Ser Jorah has returned, and Daenerys embraces him and shows a level of affection towards him that she’s shown no one else in recent times. She embraces him fondly, though he doesn’t hug her back (after all, she’s the Khaleesi, and you’re not supposed to touch her, even if she’s hugging you). Her embrace shows not only her affection, but her lack of fear over his recent greyscale affliction. She asks him if he’d found a cure, and he says he wouldn’t be back here if he hadn’t, and I kept muttering, “Say Sam’s name, say Sam’s name…” but he didn’t. In an episode full of reunions and groups coming together, I still wanted to see Jon Snow’s face as he recognizes the name of his old friend. What’s interesting about this scene is the way Jorah immediately sizes up Jon, as if he thinks Jon is Daenerys’s new Daario. Jon tells Jorah that he served with his father (remember Lord Commander Mormont, who basically took on Jon as his personal assistant and treated him like a son) and Jorah has a moment of pause. The last time someone mentioned his father to him was when Sam came into his room to cure him and said he would do so out of respect and honour to his father. Perhaps in this moment Jorah realizes that Jon knew Sam, but he says nothing. Instead he continues to watch Jon suspiciously the whole time. Daenerys willingly accepts Ser Jorah back into her service, and he’s back where he’s always wanted to be: by his Khaleesi’s side. (Well, I think we all know he wants to be even closer but that doesn’t look like it’ll happen, so…)

And then we cut to Bran warging with the ravens, who are flying north of the wall and who are spotted by the Night King. Bran de-wargs (I have no idea what the actual technical term is here) with a jolt and tells the Maester that they need to send ravens immediately.

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Cut to the Citadel, where the maesters have received one of those ravens and read the missive that a crippled boy from Winterfell has seen the army of the dead moving southward. With a dismissive chuckle the maesters wave off the concern, but Sam Tarly is standing nearby and can’t help himself. He knows they’re talking about Bran and says so, and says not only has he met Bran and has seen his powers at work, but he’s seen the White Walkers as well, and they really are a threat. Once again, just like two episodes ago where he discovered the cure to the plague of Westeros in a book, he’s inches away from effecting action that could create a major power shift with the White Walkers. Archmaester Ebrose pauses and listens, and Sam says to tell every House to send their men north, tell every maester in the Citadel to search the books and scrolls for ways to fight the dead, and they could defeat them. And then as Sam holds that goofily hopeful smile on his face, Ebrose’s attention moves back to the maesters, where he says Sam makes interesting points, but let us discuss this a lot more and do nothing right now. Again, pointing out the ineptitude of the scholars at the Citadel. They have all of the answers to everything at their fingertips, but they live in a world of theories and discussions, not one of action. Outside the walls of Oldtown, everyone else lives in a world of action, but they don’t have the knowledge to go with it. Ebron’s response isn’t an unreasonable one — after all, let’s imagine any one of us reacting to a letter like the one he’s holding in his hand — but Sam’s frustration oozes through our television screens and we can’t help but shout at the idiocy. As Sam leaves the room in a defeated huff, one of the maesters asks Ebrose if he’s told him about the deaths of Randyl and DICKon, but he hasn’t been able to bring himself to do so.

And then they all giggle about the previous notes they’d gotten about the Children of the Forest and the Drowned God rising up and destroying Aegon the Conqueror — both as mythical as the White Walkers, in their eyes — and we wonder… what other disasters in Westeros have happened because the scholars at the Citadel ignored the pleas and warnings of the people depending on them? The Children of the Forest accidentally invented the White Walkers. Aegon the Conqueror (the first of the Targaryens) has been mentioned on the show a few times, and it’s important that his name should come up now, because much like his descendant, Daenerys, he was the first to show up in Westeros with the determination to rule the Seven Kingdoms. He had three enormous dragons — Tyrion mentioned them a couple of seasons ago when he was talking about how Daenerys’s are small in comparison because they were locked up and no longer had the ability to grow — and he was the man who forged the Iron Throne. The Drowned God that the maesters mention is the god that the people of the Iron Islands pray to, the one who has sparked their “what is dead may never die” mantra.

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And Aegon the Conqueror is exactly whom Tyrion is worried Daenerys is turning into. As he sits with Varys, drinking (a sure sign that Tyrion is back on the downswing), he tries to justify her actions. He’s traumatized by seeing the destruction she’s left behind, imagining all of Westeros looking like that one day if she is left to destroy everything the way Aegon once conquered all, but he’s trying to make excuses. Varys just stares at him like his bald conscience. Tyrion continues to gulp the wine while saying look, I can’t make her decisions for her… and Varys remembers when he tried to explain away his own complicity in the Mad King’s actions the same way:

That’s what I used to tell myself about her father. I found the traitors but I wasn’t the one burning them alive. I was only a purveyor of information. It’s what I told myself when I watched them beg for mercy. I’m not the one doing it. When the pitch of their screams rose higher, I’m not the one doing it. When their hair caught fire and the smell of their burning flesh filled the throne room, I’m not the one doing it.

While Varys talks, even he drinks from the wine goblet (and winces) and we can’t help but think, oh man, we are SCREWED if Varys is drinking now. But when Tyrion argues that Daenerys is not her father, Varys agrees, with a caveat: “And she never will be… with the right counsel.” He tells Tyrion that he must make her listen. Her father, and her ancestors, refused to listen and just wreaked havoc with abandon. The attack on the Lannister army in the previous episode has left a beautiful valley in ruins and has turned thousands of lives to soot. Earlier in the season Cersei said she would be fine being queen of the ashes, but if Daenerys keeps this up, she will literally be the queen of the ashes.

And that’s when Tyrion notices that Varys is holding the same raven scroll that Ebron had been holding in the previous scene.

Tyrion: Who’s that for?
Varys: Jon Snow.
Tyrion: Did you read it?
Varys [taking fake offense]: It’s a sealed scroll for the King of the North!
Tyrion: [long gulp of wine]
Tyrion: …Tyrion: What’s it say?
Varys: Nothing good.

Ha! Even in a serious scene, we still get a great laugh.

And then it’s to the War Room, where the beginnings of the plans for the rest of the series take shape. What did you think of the plan to get to Cersei, Chris?

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Christopher: Blerg. Honestly? I had the same feeling in this scene as I did in season five of The Wire when it becomes apparent that McNulty intended to manufacture a fictional serial killer story in order to loosen the municipal purse strings. More specifically: it feels like an unnecessary plot twist. Now, that being said, Game of Thrones is not The Wire, and can likely sustain a cockamamie plan much better than Daniels, Freamon, and Bunny Colvin could, but it still made me have a WTF moment. Really? Capture a wight and cart it one thousand miles south? What makes you think it will even survive the journey intact? I somehow doubt Cersei will be impressed with a properly functioning ice zombie, never mind a sad bag of bones.

But all things being equal, I suppose this makes more narrative sense than a war of attrition in which Daenerys and her dragons grind away at the Lannisters while Jon Snow waits impatiently for them to finish and come north. This at least gets Jon away from Dragonstone, and hopefully back to Winterfell. I’ve skipped over the affecting intro to this scene, where Jon reads the news that both Arya and Bran are alive; as Daenerys observes, he doesn’t seem happy—but of course Jon is too aware of the fact that he’s far from home and effectively a prisoner.

At least that is about to change. When Tyrion hatches his scheme to capture a wight, Ser Jorah leaps into the breach: “You asked me to find a cure so I could serve you,” he says to Daenerys. “Allow me to serve you.” And when Davos points out that the Free Folk won’t follow Jorah, Jon Snow says “They won’t have to.”

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Right. So this is the third episode in which Jon Snow has been on Dragonstone, and we’ve watched the attraction between him and Daenerys build. You mentioned, Nikki, that Jorah looks at Jon as if he might be the new Daario, but neglect to mention Jon’s own look—wondering if this is his romantic interest’s boyfriend returning. Of course, Ser Jorah is irrevocably in the friendzone, and if we wondered about that on his return, Daenerys’ expression when Jon makes it clear that he means to head north clarifies things (as does his expression when he looks back at her).

Jon Snow’s speech, when Daenerys points out that she hasn’t given him permission to leave, more or less distills his character and is another reminder of how much he learned from his putative father. The key word is trust—and of course Daenerys cannot gainsay his words, however much she obviously wants to keep him close (also, and perhaps I’m just projecting here, but she is so obviously turned on by what he says).

So the cockamamie idea gets royal assent. And as Jon Snow makes his way to the Wall, people back at Winterfell are getting irate by his absence. Arya walks into the—what, meeting room? The Winterfell people have to get their shit together and make Jon Snow a throne already—in time to witness some of the Stark bannermen getting stroppy over the fact that Jon isn’t present. “The King in the North should stay in the North!” declaims Lord Glover, whom I think I might rename Lord Windvane (to be fair, Robett Glover is played by Tim McInnerny; all those years in the service of Edmund Blackadder have probably given him trust issues). He goes on to suggest that perhaps they were wrong—perhaps they should have made Sansa queen instead. And while Sansa rejects these suggestions, Arya isn’t wrong when she says that Sansa took too long in doing so—that she’s starting to have her own designs on the Northern throne.

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Arya’s misgivings are obvious when she gives Sansa shit for occupying what was once their parents’ bedroom. While it’s nice to see that Sansa no longer has patience for prevarication—“Say what you mean!” she tells her sister—I do wonder why she didn’t just say that Jon insisted she have the room. First, that’s true; second, Arya obviously trusts Jon’s judgment more than her sister’s. But instead, Sansa lets Arya make a thing of it, and Arya falls back into her dislike of Sansa circa season one. “You always liked nice things,” she says. “Made you feel better than everyone.”

I think this is the only moment in the series (so far) where I hate Arya. Both sisters have come so far from where they were six years ago (our time), by way of very different paths. Both have suffered, but in this moment I’m totally Team Sansa. Arya’s suggestion about lopping off the heads of Jon’s bannermen reflects the ruthlessness she’s learned; Sansa’s diplomacy reflects her far subtler education about human nature. Arya might suspect Sansa of ambition, but in truth, she has learned how to rule—and it’s hardly surprising she might look at Jon Snow’s empty chair and entertain certain speculations. “How can you think such a horrible thing?” Sansa asks Arya when Arya suggests she’s unwilling to be ruthless because she wants to maintain support in the event of Jon’s death. “You’re thinking it right now,” Arya retorts.

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And again: Team Sansa here. It’s in her interests to maintain Jon’s coalition whether he returns or not. While I loved the back and forth here between Sophie Turner and Maesie Williams, the actual logic of the scene pissed me off. Is Arya really that resentful, still, of her sister? Is she incapable of seeing the larger picture? Can she not understand that if Jon doesn’t come back, “Lady Sansa” is the best eventuality? It’s not as though Arya the Assassin has any designs on power herself.

Of course, anyone who’s been paying attention these past six and a half seasons knows why everything is going a bit pear-shaped down Winterfell way. But we’ll get to Littlefinger later.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Davos return to King’s Landing, and both have bad memories of the place. “The last time I was here, I killed my father with a crossbow,” Tyrion says. To which Davos rejoins, “The last time I was here, you killed my son with wildfire.” Have I mentioned lately how much I love Davos? I’d hesitate to call him the moral compass of the show, but he’s close—he follows whom he believes to be right, but has a pragmatism that eludes all the ideologues from Stannis to Jon Snow, and a common sense we all wish we could bash into their heads. In response to Tyrion’s incredulous question of whether he means to stay with their boat, he says simply, “I have my own business in Flea Bottom.”

We’ll see what that business is soon enough, but in the meantime we are treated to Bronn and an exasperated Jaime, walking through the dragon room of the Red Keep basement.

Tyrion and Jaime’s reunion is about as awkward as one might expect, with Jaime silent and glowering in the face of Tyrion’s banter until he mentions their father—the one real point of contention they have, given Olenna’s revelation that she killed Joffrey. “He was going to execute me,” Tyrion says. Tywin was willing to kill his own son in spite of knowing he was innocent, because he saw Tyrion as a monster.

A pause here to address a fan theory, of which I am becoming increasingly convinced: in the novels, but even more explicitly in The World of Ice and Fire, GRRM hints that Tyrion might not be Tywin’s son—he might actually be the product of the Mad King Aerys’ rape of Lady Joanna Lannister. Aerys’ desire for Joanna and his jealousy of Tywin for marrying her is mentioned in the novels, and while there hasn’t been (to the best of my recollection) anything like this in the series, it has been pointed out that Tyrion’s interactions with the chained dragons in Meereen—in which he emerged un-singed—indicates that he might have Targaryen blood (just as Jon Snow’s ability to soothe Drogon makes the same suggestion). One way or another, Tywin’s suspicion that Tyrion might be Targaryen spawn certainly accounts for his irrational hatred of his most intelligent son.

I must say that my two favourite scenes of this episode are sibling showdowns: Arya and Sansa, and Jaime and Tyrion. Though as I point out that the logic of the former, narratively, is idiotic, it doesn’t detract from the performances of the actors; and in the latter, well, we all know Peter Dinklage is brilliant. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been a fantastic Jaime, but here he matches Dinklage. Such a powerful scene.

From there we cut to the Street of Steel, and apparently Gendry stopped rowing a while back. Nikki?

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Nikki: I’ve long had this niggling feeling in the back of my brain that Tyrion could be a bastard, since much has been made of him aligning himself with other bastards and comparing his lot in life with them, but I didn’t actually know it was a fully realized fan theory. That’s fascinating (and I agree; Jon Snow petting Drogon this week immediately put me in mind of Tyrion not getting eaten by him a few seasons back). And one note I wanted to add about the Arya and Sansa scene (where, like you, I felt a little ill because for the first time I thought Arya was a petulant know-it-all who seems to think she’s the only person who’s gone out in the world and done stuff, which was incredibly annoying): to me it hearkened back to the scene with Jon Snow standing before the heads of the northern Houses and calling for mercy on the traitors, while Sansa was arguing for them to be relinquished of their titles and sent out into the cold. It’s interesting that both Arya and Sansa lean to the hard-nosed side of things, despite Ned being a more forgiving type like Jon. (I think the young women are more like their mother than their father in that regard.) But as you point out, even Sansa wasn’t calling for their heads.

But yes, over to Gendry! It’s been a while since we saw this guy, and a quick recap: many of the wheels of this show began turning when Ned Stark figured out that Jon Arryn had been in Flea Bottom seeking out Baratheon bastards, and Ned figured out that Gendry was Robert Baratheon’s son. When Robert is killed by the Lannisters (and Ned killed by them as well), Gendry escapes the city with Hot Pie and Arya. He eventually figures out that Arya is a girl (and insists on calling her My Lady, to her chagrin), and Hot Pie stops his adventures at an inn while Gendry and Arya continue on with the Brotherhood Without Banners and the Hound. The Brotherhood sells Gendry to Melisandre and Arya eventually takes off with the Hound, and Melisandre takes Gendry back to Stannis where his blood is leeched through a sacrifice after Davos convinces Stannis not to kill his nephew. But his pleas are soon ignored when the Red Witch bends Stannis’s ear, and, sensing that Gendry’s life is in danger, Davos whisks him out of the castle at Dragonstone and gives him a rowboat so he can split.

Whew.

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“The hammer … is my hammer.”

And now we find him a few years later, a blacksmith back in Flea Bottom, where he’s been hiding right under the Lannisters’ noses. I loved the way the camera built up to the revelation that this was Gendry, where many viewers knew the moment they cut over to him, and others may have needed the memory jog (or that moment on the couch where one viewer says, “Wait, who’s that guy?” and as the camera pans around the blacksmith shop the other viewers can explain it to them). Davos believes he’ll have his work cut out for him in trying to convince Gendry to leave this life and come with him, but he no sooner ekes out, “So I was thinking that maybe…” than Gendry has grabbed his war hammer and is out the door.

We then get an amusing scene that turns nasty pretty quickly (involving fermented crab as an aphrodisiac, and, like you Chris, Davos is my favourite character at the moment and this scene was fantastic) before Gendry shows he’s lived up to the threats he was uttering at Hot Pie in season one when he was swinging a sword at him when they first met. He knows how to wield that hammer. But now that they’ve left two guards with their heads bashed in on the shore, Tyrion, Davos, and Gendry jump into the boat and get out of there fast.

But Tyrion’s visit has left an impact. Jaime returns to Cersei’s quarters (where Cersei is mysteriously saying to Qyburn, “That won’t be necessary,” making me wonder what the hell they were just talking about), and once the Weirdo Hand of the Queen leaves the room Jaime bluntly says, “I met with Tyrion.” The loooooooong WTF look on Cersei’s face, which is like stone, is kind of hilarious for how long Lena Headey holds the pose, just staring at him, until he continues by saying that Daenerys wants to discuss an armistice because an army of dead men is marching on the Seven Kingdoms.

Yeah, that line will win friends and influence people.

Cersei, of course, shows that she’s the new Varys and clearly has little birds everywhere, because she already knew that he’d met with Tyrion, and that Bronn had set up the meeting. She tells Jaime that Bronn betrayed him, which seems to her to be an important point her brother has failed to mention. But in addition to being a few steps ahead of Jaime, she’s already a few steps ahead of Daenerys. She wants to join forces with her so she can ultimately betray her and take the Seven Kingdoms for herself. “Dead men, dragons, and dragon queens,” she says. “Whatever stands in our way, we will defeat it.”

And then she announces that she’s pregnant. (Oh cripes.) As Jaime hugs her passionately, once again remembering how they felt before all of this had begun, she keeps her mind in the moment: “Never betray me again,” she purrs into his ear. Which seems to me like some pretty dark foreshadowing that he will do exactly that.

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And after that brief interlude we’re back with the Davos gang. And lemme tell you… if you’re planning a surprise party, DO NOT TELL GENDRY. Holy cow that guy can’t keep a secret for four seconds, but I was so glad he couldn’t, because not only do we get to see Classic Davos Face when he immediately undercuts Davos’s instructions to not say anything, we finally get something out in the open immediately so we don’t have to work through more secrets. Besides, Gendry’s move was a smart one. What better way to immediately ingratiate yourself to the King of the North than to say hey, I’m a bastard too! And not only that but my illegitimate father was best mates with YOUR illegitimate father! He will be a much better use to Jon in the coming fight if Jon knows who he is and what’s at stake. Gendry tells him he can’t use a sword, but that he certainly knows how to fight (as we just saw back on the beach at King’s Landing), and not only that, he doesn’t question Davos’s story about the White Walkers. He believes they are coming (Davos has given him every reason to trust him, after all) and he’s here to help. After all, it doesn’t matter who is from what House or who is a bastard and who’s legitimate if they’re all dead. And Davos is going along because, as someone who, as he puts it, has done nothing more than “live to a ripe old age,” what does he have to lose?

And then just as they landed on shore, they’re back in a boat heading to Eastwatch: Davos, Gendry, Jon Snow, and Ser Jorah, among others. Tyrion tells Jorah that he’s actually missed him, adding, “Nobody glowers quite like you.” He gives him the coin that Yezzan the slaver had given him back in season five (when Yezzan bought Tyrion and Jorah to use in the slaving pits, Tyrion tells him that he and Jorah should be paid so Queen Daenerys wouldn’t accuse Yezzan of slavery, and Yezzan flips him a coin and says that should last them the rest of their lives) and tells Jorah to bring it back when he returns. Daenerys fondly says goodbye, and Jorah glowers like he’s never glowered before, giving quick glances over to Jon Snow the whole time. We know how long and far Jorah has travelled to be by his queen’s side again, and here he is leaving not one day later, it seems. There hasn’t been a single look of calm or happiness on Jorah’s face since being reunited with his Khaleesi, as if he had fantasized a very different reunion that didn’t pan out. Daenerys tells Jon she’s finally grown used to having him around, and I think this scene could be interpreted equally one of two ways: she’s actually interested in him in a romantic fashion (or just has a fondness for him and his earnestness), and/or she has a sense of respect and awe for a man who showed up and won over the always-skeptical queen.

And then we switch over to Sam and Gilly, and a quiet little scene that tucks in a whopper of a revelation. We finally had it confirmed that L+R=J last season, but now we have LEGITIMACY, which sets up a whole new series of possibilities. But of course Sam mansplains Gilly out of finding out anything more and that’s that.

Because I know you’ve been waiting three times longer than I have to know this for sure, Chris, I’ll let you take over and unpack this scene. (I was watching it and imagining you fanboying out while watching!)

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Christopher: To be perfectly honest, I almost missed it! I was both enjoying Gilly’s delight in the interesting but useless trivia she could now discover with her newfound literacy, and sympathetic with Sam’s irritation—irritation not so much at Gilly as the Citadel’s inertia. So when she comes across the passage detailing Rhaegar’s annulment and remarriage, my response was “Wait. What?” Which is unfortunately more than Sam can say, so preoccupied is he with his own brooding thoughts. “These maesters!” he grouses, interrupting Gilly as she reads what is perhaps the most important detail in the series so far.

They set me to the task of preserving that man’s wind accounts, accounting and annulments and bowel movements for all eternity, while the secret to defeating the Night King is sitting on some dusty shelf somewhere, completely ignored … but that’s all right, isn’t it? We can all become slavering murderous imbeciles enthralled to evil incarnate, just so long as we can have access to the full record of High Septon Maynard’s fifteenth thousand, seven hundred and eighty-two shits!

I love stroppy Sam, almost as much as I love how unfazed Gilly is when she corrects him. “Steps. That number was steps.”

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But whatever the reason, his steps or his shits, Sam has had enough—like a put-upon grad student suddenly having a nervous breakdown in the midst of grading endless undergrad papers, he basically says “Fuck this shit,” and, raiding the restricted section of the library for an armload of books, makes tracks with Gilly and Little Sam in tow. He has a moment of remorse as he pauses, looking up at the massive mirrors that light the library by day, framed by the soaring stacks that so enthralled him at the end of last season; but he soldiers on, loading up his wagon. “I’m tired of reading about the achievements of better men,” he says wearily when Gilly asks him if he’s sure about this. Of course, he’s been through more, see more, endured more, and has demonstrated more courage, than most of the people he’s read about … but it’s not in Sam’s character to recognize that.

I do rather hope he tossed High Septon Maynard’s book in with the rest of his heist; I speculated last week that it will have to be Bran who reveals Jon Snow’s true parentage, but having the historical record support him will be key. And not only does Maynard’s account help establish Jon’s parentage, it shows that he is not a bastard—that he is in fact the legitimate and legal son of Rheagar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. And not only is he their legitimate son, that means, according to the laws of patrilineal descent, he actually has a stronger claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys, as the son of the crown prince.

Not that that is such a crucial consideration any more: perhaps ironically, the Targaryen conquest occurred only three centuries before the start of our story, and that was the first time the Seven Kingdoms had been brought together as a single realm. That’s relatively recent, which makes it unsurprising that the death of Robert Baratheon gave rise to a cluster of new kings, only three of whom (Joffrey, Renly, and Stannis) were keen to rule the entire continent. The other two, Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy, were happy to call themselves king of their respective territories. Now we’re down to three monarchs: two queens and a king in the North, each of whom represent rather distinct preoccupations and philosophies. Jon Snow, of course, doesn’t give a fig for the Iron Throne, concerned only with the existential threat from north of the Wall; Daenerys sees the Iron Throne as her birthright, but grasps the need to rule from a position of trust and justice (her immolation of House Tarly notwithstanding); and of course, Cersei is a classic despot, a tyrant whose only choice is between maintaining power or death, because she is unlikely to be forgiven for the crimes she committed to claim the throne to start with.

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Another exemplar of power and its exercises awaits us in Winterfell, as what we all suspected at the start of the episode is made clear: namely, that the discontent among Jon Snow’s bannermen and the groundswell of support for Sansa to be promoted from Lady Stark to Queen Sansa is the product of Littlefinger’s whispering and manipulation. At first it looks as though Arya has his number: spying on him as he pays off a servant girl for something, and as he has a murmured conversation with Lords Royce and Glover. The she watches as the maester brings him a scroll, for which he searched through the late Maester Luwin’s archives. “Lady Stark thanks you for your service,” says Littlefinger, and that’s the moment we should realize that perhaps Arya isn’t a stealthy as she thinks. She breaks into Littlefinger’s chambers and finds the scroll, but as she makes her exit, we see Littlefinger standing more or less precisely where she had stood, watching Arya leave.

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My first thought was “Oh crap, he’s rumbled her.” But then on rewatching, I paused when Arya opened the scroll. It was the message Sansa wrote to Robb and Catelyn when Ned Stark was in the dungeons; she wrote it under duress, out of fear for her father’s life, at a time when she was still young and naïve. In the letter, she says:

Robb, I write to you with a heavy heart. Our good king Robert is dead, killed from wounds he took in a boar hunt. Father has been charged with treason. He conspired with Robert’s brothers against my beloved Joffrey and tried to steal his throne. The Lannisters are treating me very well and provide me with every comfort. I beg you: come to King’s Landing, swear fealty to King Joffrey and prevent any strife between the great houses of Lannister and Stark.

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This was when I realize that Arya’s been played—Littlefinger wanted her to find the note, and that was why he very specifically mentioned “Lady Stark” to the maester. Arya’s already primed to be suspicious of Sansa; what will she make of a letter begging Robb to bend the knee, calling their father a traitor, and referring to her “beloved Joffrey”?

Clever, clever Littlefinger. I’m now putting my money on Arya killing him—possibly while wearing the face of the servant girl he paid off—but in the interim, he’s going to cause an awful lot of chaos. Because ladders.

But we end this episode with Jon and company reaching the wall, and being reunited with Tormund—who isn’t at all happy with the plan they’ve concocted. “Isn’t it your job to talk him out of stupid fucking ideas like this?” he growls at Davos, who has to admit that he hasn’t succeeded much on that front lately. I love Tormund: he has a great talent for cutting to the chase. He delineates between the two queens as “the one with the dragons, or the one who fucks her brother,” and quite candidly agrees with Davos when he notes that he’d be a liability. Nor is he pleased with Jon’s response when he asks how many men he brought. “Not enough,” Jon admits. And in what is easily my favourite line from the episode, Tormund asks hopefully, “The big woman?”

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Ah, poor lovesick Tormund Giantsbane. If he and Brienne don’t get together and spawn a bunch of massive lethal babies, a large number of GoT fans will be storming HBO’s main offices.

But as it turns out, there’s a handful of unlooked-for volunteers for Jon’s expedition. Beric Dondarrion, Thoros, and the Hound are all mouldering away in Eastwatch’s dungeon, captured as they made their way to the Wall (which begs the question: what happened to the rest of their men? Did they say thanks but no thanks to the prospect of meeting the army of the dead, or did they die on the way?)

The scene that follows is entertaining in the way it establishes the vectors of dislike and distrust running in various directions: Gendry’s memory of being sold to Melisandre is still fresh, Tormund is irked to discover that Jorah’s a Mormont, and the Hound is just generally good at antagonizing whomever he meets. But as Jon Snow points out, they’re all on the same side. “How can we be?” Gendry asks incredulously.

“We’re all breathing.”

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the end of another week of Game of Thrones, with a scant two episodes left in the season! We’ll see you hear again next week. In the meantime: be good, work hard, and always assume that Littlefinger is two steps ahead of you.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.04: “The Spoils of War”

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Hello hello, everyone! It’s hard to believe, but we’re now on the downslope of the season—episode four of seven marks the precise middle, so now we only have three to go. But what we’re lacking in the number of episodes seems to be made up for in narrative resolutions and culminations. Six and a half seasons in, and stuff we’ve been waiting seven years for is finally happening! So without further ado …

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Christopher: We begin in the immediate aftermath of Jaime’s fraught audience with Lady Olenna, soon enough that he’s still in a pissy mood despite his victory—something noticed by Bronn. Jaime opens up one of their wagons laden with Tyrell gold and hands Bronn a conspicuously heavy bag. “You’ve just won the biggest prize in the world,” Bronn snarks as he attaches the bag to his saddle, “What could you possibly have to be upset about?” Jaime’s silence speaks volumes, more perhaps than he’d like, as Bronn is no idiot: “Queen of Thorns give you one last prick in the balls before saying goodbye?” To which Jaime responds that he’ll save his confessions for the High Septon. “There is no more High Septon!” “No! There isn’t, is there?”

I quite liked this exchange. It offers a subtle glimpse into Jaime’s mindset: still irked by Lady Olenna’s revelation that she murdered Joffrey, but not about to share that detail with Bronn, one suspects that he’s been thinking over all the choices that brought him to this point. And not just his own choices: perhaps just as disturbing as Olenna’s dying words was her piercing insight into Jaime’s devotion to Cersei, and her statement of the now-undeniable fact of her monstrosity. Jaime has never been much of a leader or decision maker, living his life according to the twin goals of staying close to his sister and killing a lot of people with his preternatural sword skills. But now those skills are mostly gone, taken away along with his right hand, and his sister has turned into a grotesque parody of the Mad King. She tells Mycroft Tycho Nestoris that she wants “control of this continent and every person in it.” The first half of that statement is understandable and indeed necessary in order to be a monarch—it is, after all, what Daenerys aims at—but the second half articulates the difference between ruler and despot.

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Meanwhile, Jaime, who has hitched his wagon to Cersei basically since birth, does not have the option Tyrion did of renouncing family and deserting (though, granted, that option was basically forced on him by Cersei too). But if there’s a benefit here, it’s that he is no longer subject to the disapprobation of others. Last episode, he panicked when Cersei let a serving girl see him in her bed; but here, in his sarcastic acknowledgement that yes, the High Septon is dead, he seems to be saying—to himself as much as Bronn—that he no longer answers to a higher authority … any higher authority.

Which makes Bronn’s demand to be paid a little tone-deaf for a man who intuited that Jaime’s meeting with Olenna did not end well. Then again, he is a mercenary, and “getting paid” could well be his house motto when he gets around to it. Jaime patiently points out he has a massive sack of gold now affixed to his saddle; but Bronn will have his castle, dammit, and isn’t Highgarden now in need of a new landlord? Though Jaime is remarkably patient with him, this moment reminded me of the scene in Richard III when Buckingham, having colluded with Richard and put him on the throne, is asked to be complicit in one crime too many: the murder of Richard’s nephews. He asks for “some breath, some little pause, my lord / Before I positively herein” (4.2:26-27), which is totally not what Richard wants to hear. And when he returns to demand what had been promised him, the newly crowned king is less than forthcoming:

BUCKINGHAM: My lord, I claim your gift, my due by promise,
For which your honour and your faith is pawn’d;
The earldom of Hereford and the moveables
The which you promised I should possess. (4.2: 91-94)

To which Richard responds, after basically ignoring him for several minutes, “I am not in the giving vein to-day.”

I somehow doubt that Jaime will treat Bronn in the same way, but he makes his impatience plain by giving him the task of harassing farmers with the point of his sword—and as an extra special fuck you sends him off with Randyll Tarly, whom we can expect to treat a jumped-up lowborn mercenary with all of the contempt the lord of a proud and long-standing house can muster (which, as we saw when Sam stopped in at home, is an awful lot of contempt).

Before I move on to the next scene, I should say that I quite loved the way this episode is bookended: watching that long wagon train of plunder from Highgarden, my first thought was “if only Daenerys could catch them with her dragons!”

The next sequence between Cersei and Tycho made for an interesting contrast with Bronn’s demand for land and titles. Bronn’s desire is for a key element of the feudal system; the Iron Bank represents a distinctly modern understanding of capital and credit, one more or less global in scope. I’ve frequently argued that the comparisons some make between Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are well-meaning but wrong-headed; Game of Thrones, for all of its classic fantasy tropes, has far more in common with the typical HBO themes seen in The Wire and Deadwood, which have to do with power not as an extrinsic principle, but as fluid and constantly shifting—for which the most potent metaphor is money. “Money don’t got owners,” Omar tells Marlo Stanfield in season three of The Wire, “just spenders.” Tycho’s little joke about how upset some members of the Iron Bank will be to have the Iron Throne’s debt paid in full, because they’ll miss the interest payments, will probably fall flat to anyone with credit card debt of any significance. Like a credit card that raises your limit when you pay it off, Tycho is eager to loan Cersei as much as she needs to win her war—and is more than happy to put her in touch with people who can help (presumably for a small finder’s fee). Of course, such help, financial and otherwise, is contingent on repayment: “You can count on the Iron Bank’s support … as soon as the gold appears.”

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Speaking of Jaime’s poor choices—or at least, actions performed on behalf of Cersei—we get a sharp reminder of the things he does for love as we cut to Winterfell. In the aftermath of his fall, Bran did not remember how it happened; now that he’s the Three-Eyed Raven, has that fog of memory burned away? Does he remember that Jaime pushed him out that window in season one, episode one? Perhaps more importantly, does he care?

What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: I assume Bran does know, but as you say, doesn’t care. Pushing a little boy out of a window and making him a paraplegic is the sort of thing that alters lives of the individual and his family, but not necessarily the world around him. Bran’s fall means nothing in the grand scheme of things, and now all Bran can see is the grand scheme of things.

And knowing that Bran is back and this is yet another Stark to be manipulated, good old Bae is back to give him the Valyrian steel dagger and say hey, no hard feelings, eh bub? Because what better gift can you give a long-lost person than the very knife that was once used to try to kill them? Man, Baelish… someone seriously needs to teach you some social conventions.

But let me repeat: Bran knows ALL. And that means all the little conversations and machinations that Baelish has been involved in all along the way. He tells Bran that he would have stopped the dagger that cut his mother’s throat with his own heart (and part of me believes that in his heart he truly believes that, but in the moment Petyr never would have had the guts to do that). Bran simply looks at him and asks where the dagger came from. Littlefinger plays dumb, of course.

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This is the dagger that the cutthroat used when he climbed into Bran’s window and attempted to kill him when the little boy couldn’t move. Catelyn carried it around showing it to everyone, but couldn’t get to the bottom of who would have ordered the hit. Littlefinger eventually pointed the finger at Tyrion, who denied it vehemently, but Catelyn never believed in Tyrion’s innocence. Ned took possession of the dagger when Catelyn headed up to the Riverlands to arrest Tyrion for attempting to murder her son, and later, after Ned was beheaded, Petyr took it.

We saw the dagger briefly in the first episode of this season, as many eagle-eyed fans have pointed out: as Sam Tarly was leafing through the stolen manuscripts, he paused on a particular page that has a clear drawing of the very dagger Petyr gives to Bran in this scene, which suggests it might play a role in stopping the White Walkers. But more interestingly, Bran lets Baelish know very subtly that he knows what he’s been up to when he says calmly, “Chaos is a ladder.”

Now, I’ll admit I looked at my husband and said, “Did he say chaos is Alanna?” We had no idea and backed it up. “No, I think he said chaos is Aladdin.” Turned on the closed-captioning. “Oh, a LADDER!” and then suddenly something pinged in my brain and I knew I’d heard it before, so I looked it up. And sure enough, it’s from an exchange between Varys and Littlefinger from way back in season three:

VARYS: What do we have left when we abandon the lie? Chaos: the gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
LITTLEFINGER: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, they’re given a chance to climb, but they refuse. The cling to the realm, for the gods, for love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

This is one of the key moments of season three (the speech turns into a voiceover as we see Joffrey post-massacre of Ros) and shows how Littlefinger exists outside of many of the others, hoping for something else. It could be a foreshadowing of all of the players on the show who are currently climbing the ladder: Daenerys, Cersei, even Littlefinger himself. (Jon Snow isn’t climbing anything; he’s trying to stop impending doom.)

But most importantly, it’s Bran saying, “I know what you do and say when no one else is in the room. And I know what you’ve done, and what you still plan to do.” Apparently Littlefinger memorizes all of his super-deep speeches because the moment Bran utters those words, he looks startled, and leaves the room very quickly.

Meera comes into the room and says she’s leaving, and is upset by the lack of emotion Bran shows, but as I pointed out last week, Bran is really no longer capable of showing anything. She says she’s sacrificed so much to save him, and then says with a pleading voice, “Bran.” And he says, “Not really, not anymore.” Just as Arya said “That’s not you” to Nymeria, Bran is admitting that he’s not Bran anymore. And Meera agrees. “You died in that cave,” she says.

And then we get to Stark Reunion #2. I said with much regret last week that I didn’t think Arya was going to come to Winterfell, but thank goodness I was wrong! First we get her arguing with the bumbling Monty Pythonesque guards (and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going, “NO YOU IDIOTS!” and worried that Arya would change her mind and we’d have come this close to the reunion only for it to slip through our fingers), but thank goodness that doesn’t happen. She tells the men she wants to see Rodrick and Maester Luwin, and when the guards tell Sansa that, she knows that her sister is in the crypt, visiting these very people along with all the other dead. Just imagine how many people have died since the last time Arya was in that crypt.

But before we get there, I want to pause on that lovely moment of Arya waiting for the guards to deal with things as she glances around the Winterfell courtyard, a small smile playing on her lips. Season seven is definitely the one for retrospection, since, as you pointed out last week, Chris, all of the threads are starting to finally weave themselves together. As she looked around the courtyard I couldn’t help but think of how much of it was the same as when Arya is little, and how much as changed. In a way, she must feel like she’s returned home; in another way, she must feel like a complete stranger in a strange land.

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The reunion between Sansa and Arya is a little less emotional and a little more jokey between Sansa and Bran. When Sansa finds her little sister all grown up in the crypt, Arya says flatly, “Do I have to call you Lady Stark now?” And with little hesitation, Sansa says, “Yes.” They hug, and comment on the statue that was built for Ned and how it doesn’t really look like him. “Everyone who knew his face is dead,” Sansa says sadly. In this one brief scene, you can tell there’s strangeness between them. Sansa looks at Arya like she barely knows her, and chuckles when Arya says she’s keeping a list of people she’s going to kill. (The “no really” look on Arya’s face doesn’t seem to convince her sister at all.)

But Sansa thinks you know what? At least she’s not speaking in a monotone and having visions about me being raped on my wedding night, so… yay? And with that she takes Arya to meet their brother to have a big ol’ happy family re– oh wait, maybe not. George Harrison Bran is sitting out in the weirwood grove (goddammit, Sansa just don’t go near him in the weirwood grove) and Arya smiles as she sees him, but the smile quickly fades as Bran begins to tell her things as well, that he saw her at the crossroads, and knows about her list. He told Sansa he’d seen the worst thing that ever happened to her, perhaps because he didn’t think his sister would understand anything subtle, but it just takes these mentions to let Arya know that he sees all. And also to show her sister that no, she wasn’t joking about that list of people. “Who’s on the list?” Sansa says with incredulity. “Most of them are dead now,” Arya says with a look and Sansa knows without a doubt that her little sister is all grown up and has become someone new. The women see Bran holding the dagger, and Sansa immediately shows that she hasn’t been pulled in unknowingly by Baelish, when she warns her brother that he won’t give anything as a gift unless he thinks he’ll get something back from it, but Bran doesn’t want it, and hands it over to Arya instead. FORESHADOWING.

As the three Starks return to Winterfell, they make a motley crew. Lady Sansa sweeps behind them in a majestic wool coat; Bran stares dead-eyed as his wheelchair is being pushed by his warrior-like sister, who’s lost that childhood giggle and knows more about the world than any one person ever should. And watching from a distance is Brienne and Podrick, who marvel that somehow all of the living Starks ended up back together. Podrick tells Brienne that she kept her word and the two sisters are alive, and despite trying to argue with him, Brienne gives in and just takes the compliment.

And then we’re back at Dragonstone, where Missandei is just about to add TMI to the conversation with Daenerys when Jon Snow appears and has something to show her. What did you think of the scene in the caves, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat the joke that people started making IMMEDIATELY on Twitter, which has to do with what happened the last time Jon Snow took a woman into a cave …

The look Daenerys exchanges with Missandei doesn’t help things—of course it’s because she was sharing hints about Missandei’s sexytimes with Grey Worm, but the sequence can also serendipitously communicate the sense of, “Oh, that cute emo boy wants to talk to you now.” Given that Jon Snow is ice and Daenerys is fire, and given that the fact that they’re related doesn’t matter in the long history of Targaryen incest, it has long been a fan assumption that these two ultimately get together.

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And it is a measure of the trust Daenerys has developed for Jon Snow that she orders her bloodriders to stay behind—maybe they’re not quite ready to kiss, but at least she’s comfortable in her assumption that he won’t kill her.

The cave drawings illustrate (sorry) an interesting aspect of George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding that departs from traditional fantasy. The literary critic Farah Mendelsohn, in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, points out that history as presented in much fantasy is meant to be taken as plain and indeed absolute fact—there’s no hearsay in the “download of legend” as she terms it, whether it’s The Silmarillion’s prehistory of Middle-Earth or the random sage telling the accidental tourist who has fallen through a portal the Story Till Now. But GRRM plays games with the historical record in his novels, giving his world civilizations that evolved from equivalents to our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; and more importantly, there’s no definitive history, but rather a series of competing and contradictory stories and legends. The series hasn’t delved into this particular aspect of the novels all that much—and with Bran’s new talents, we’re getting in both what amounts to an authoritative account—but the cave drawings Jon shows Daenerys carry the symbolic power with which we imbue archaeological traces. “They were standing where we’re standing,” Daenerys says in awe, “before there were Targaryens or Lannisters or Starks. Maybe even before there were men.”

 

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But no: there were people, who were allied with the Children of the Forest against the White Walkers. And, Jon Snow points out, they survived—because they fought together. Now, given the fact that the Children of the Forest created White Walkers (as Bran saw in a vision) in desperation because these interlopers were wiping them out, as well as the fact that they are now all but extinct, Jon’s emotional plea doesn’t perhaps have the strongest historical footing. But hey—he doesn’t know that, and neither does Daenerys, who starts to come around to Jon’s point of view. She pledges that she’ll fight for the North … if he bends the knee.

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Jon is kind of between a rock and a hard place with Daenerys’ demand for fealty. One suspects that, while not a matter of indifference to him, he would still be inclined to bend the knee if it were only up to him. He did not seek the Northern throne, after all, and is far more concerned with defeating the existential threat of the White Walkers than with Westerosi power struggles. That being said, he is still deeply a Northerner and very much Ned Stark’s son (in spirit if not in fact), and he knows too well how little his people would think of a return to Targaryen rule. He is also aware of the technical illegitimacy of his claim, but in a nice bit of rhetorical jiu jitsu Daenerys turns that around on him, pointing out that it is precisely because of his illegitimacy that we know his people trust him: “They chose you to lead them. They chose you to protect them.”

Again, we’re saturated with dramatic irony here, and a man wonders how the truth of Jon’s parentage will be revealed. Actually, it’s less a question of how than when and where, seeing as how the only person who can speak that truth is Bran. He witnessed Jon’s birth in the Tower of Joy, so one has to assume it will be he who drops the bomb. Hence the timing of his arrival, after Jon’s departure for Dragonstone—no overlap there in which Bran could have said, “Oh, say hi to your aunt for me.” So now the question is: what plot twists will the show employ to keep Jon from hearing that news? (Because however unimportant Bran might consider his own injury at the hands of the Lannisters, one assumes that the unification of ice and fire would be as important to him as it was to Melisandre).

The camera plays a little trick on us as Jon and Daenerys exit the cave: perhaps it’s inadvertent, but it really sort of looks like they’re holding hands until we see them from the front (and even then it looks a little like they are until it’s apparent they’re not). There’s a tension building between these two; it’s not a sexual attraction just yet, but it’s obvious she’s coming to trust him. The revelation in the cave makes it seem for just a few moments that Daenerys is convinced—and maybe she is, but she’s not about to drop her claim to all seven of the seven kingdoms.

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They exit the cave to the good news / bad news about Casterly Rock. “Your strategy has lost us Dorne, the Iron Islands, and the Reach,” she snarls are Tyrion, who right now is not looking like quite the master strategist he was just a few episodes ago. “If I have underestimated our enemies—” he starts to say, but she cuts him off. “Our enemies? Your family, you mean! Perhaps you don’t want to hurt them after all.” Ouch. Granted, Tyrion was outmaneuvered by Cersei, which is hurtful enough, but in this moment Daenerys questions not just his competence, but his loyalty. Is this something we can expect to see more of? She challenged Varys’ flexible loyalties in episode two; that appeared to be a fairly cool and calculated interrogation, whereas this one was spoken in the heat of anger, but perhaps we’re starting to see some cracks in Daenerys’ confidence.

It’s a measure of Daenerys’ growing regard for Jon Snow that she asks his advice—turning from her Hand and other trusted advisors to question a Northern bastard. The looks on Varys’ and Missandei’s faces made me laugh out loud: what is she doing? They probably assume he’s going to confirm her worst idea and egg her on to turn King’s Landing to cinders. But no. Check out the wisdom on Jon Snow! I always wondered if he had it in him:

I never thought that dragons would exist again. No one did. The people that follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.

Perhaps hearing it from Jon Snow, who, as Tyrion pointed out, has more reason to hate Cersei than anyone, makes the difference here; perhaps it’s just hearing it from a new voice; or perhaps Daenerys is starting to see Jon as something more than just a potential ally.

We shift from Jon laying down a wisdom bomb to Pod once again getting the shit kicked out of him by Brienne. He doesn’t seem to be improving much, does he? But then, as Arya says, perhaps the lesson he should learn is “Don’t fight someone like her in the first place.” Which, of course, Arya will proceed to do, with Sansa and Littlefinger looking on with increasing incredulity.

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There’s always been a running debate over who was the best fighter on Game of Thrones—Jaime Lannister before he lost his hand, Loras Tyrell, Khal Drogo, the Hound, Oberyn Martell, Brienne of Tarth. Given Jaime’s amputation and Oberyn and Drogo’s deaths, Brienne’s defeat of both Loras and the Hound would seem to leave her in the top spot … until she meets Arya, who is simply too quick. The best line of the episode is when Brienne asks her who trained her. “No one,” she replies.

The looks on the faces of Littlefinger and Sansa are interesting: Sansa, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks deeply discomfited—even though her reunion with Arya was warmer than the one with Bran, there is still, as you point out Nikki, the sense that she’s an entirely different person now. Watching her handily fight Brienne to a draw confirms this, and Sansa’s expression is heartbreaking—a reflection of how much her family has lost. Her eyes downcast, she leaves Littlefinger standing at the rail looking down into the courtyard.

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Littlefinger, by contrast, seems oddly pleased with everything he sees below. What is he thinking? We can’t know, but can surmise that he sees in Arya a new piece on the board, one that might work to his advantage if he can gain her trust. He smiles down at them, and Arya, seeing the distasteful expression on Brienne’s face as she looks up, follows her gaze. Littlefinger smiles and makes a little bow before following Sansa; Arya however throws what can only be characterized as some epic shade. Something tells me that it might not be too long before Littlefinger ends up on a certain list.

And then we’re back in Dragonstone. What did you make of Jon’s banter about bastardy with Missandei, Nikki?

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Nikki: Arya brought some serious Buffy moves to that fight. That was definitely one of many highlights of this season so far for me. And, like I said earlier, I couldn’t help but remember us watching Arya in season one, looking down on Bran in the courtyard fighting with his little wooden sword and lamenting that she didn’t get to fight like the boys. And now those boys wish they could fight like her.

Also, I couldn’t help but giggle to myself in the cave scene, wondering if earlier that day Jon Snow was standing in the caves madly etching pictures of the White Walkers and hoping Daenerys didn’t notice how new they looked.

But yes, back to Missandei and Davos’s discussion, summed up in a variation on the Dr. Pepper jingle: “I’m a bastard, you’re a bastard, he’s a bastard, she’s a bastard, wouldn’t you like to be a bastard, too!” Missandei has never considered herself a bastard, simply because in Naath there are no marriages. If you are all born out of wedlock, then no one is a bastard. She explains that she was bought by slavers at a young age (sort of snapping us out of thinking of world as being utopian in any way) but Daenerys freed her. Davos counters by saying that’s all well and good, but haven’t you basically traded one slaver for another? After all, you serve Daenerys. Missandei smiles the smile you give to someone who is intellectually inferior, and says no, that she could leave at any time. Davos smiles the smirk you give to someone who is a naive little lamb, and says, oh really? And you think Daenerys would let you go? Missandei says she would, in a heartbeat. “She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew,” Missandei says. “She’s our queen because we chose her.” Davos looks over at Jon and mentions casually that he’s about to switch sides. Ha!

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I loved this scene because, as earlier with Missandei and Grey Worm in his chambers, we once again get the perspective from the “common folk.” These aren’t magical people or kings or queens from great houses, these are people who were sold into slavery and have discovered a way to find choice in their lives. But even more importantly, these are two common people who have risen far above their station. Missandei was sold into slavery, and now she’s the most trusted advisor of one of the key players in the game of thrones, a woman who sees herself as the rightful ruler of all of Westeros. Davos still carries that Fleabottom accent with a little bit of shame, and yet he’s the trusted advisor to Jon Snow, the King of the North. And he’s gone from being illiterate to correcting Jon Snow’s grammar, a moment I found hysterically funny (yay, hat tips to the editors like me out there!) Not only is the “less than/fewer than” dichotomy a pet peeve of mine, but this was a nod to an ongoing little joke that the show has looked at before. I’ve pointed out twice before that Stannis Baratheon can’t be all bad because he’s a total grammar Nazi, as he’s corrected Davos on the less/fewer mistake before:

Which is what made Davos now correcting Jon Snow such a clever little full-circle moment. (And notice Davos similarly says, “Nothing,” when Jon asks him what he just said.)

BUT ENOUGH GRAMMAR, THEON JUST SHOWED UP.

Cripes, I thought. Three awkward Stark reunions in the span of two episodes?! While Jon is a Targar– ahem, I mean… Snow, and Theon is a Greyjoy, both of them were actually raised at Winterfell by Ned Stark, with Jon being the bastard son and Theon being the ward he took on as a prize. They were raised as brothers, but this is the first time they’ve been face to face since Theon went nuts and took Winterfell by storm (and pretended to kill Bran and Rickon). Jon grabs him by the collar and snarls into his face that if Theon hadn’t saved Sansa, he would kill him now. Theon doesn’t even argue, since he doesn’t disagree with anyone anymore. He just quietly says he has come to see if Daenerys will help him get his sister back.

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It’s interesting: Jon Snow has made some mistakes and is constantly being picked on for “knowing nothing,” and Theon has made major mistakes and has paid for it in massive ways and is essentially a broken man, but here are two men who stand as the eldest sons of their houses, neither of which is actually looking to gain the throne. Both of them are on quests to save their loved ones: Theon knows he screwed up yet again and was unable to save Yara’s life, and Jon wants to save all of humanity. Daenerys tells Jon to bend the knee so she knows she has his loyalty, but all these two care about is staying alive. I love these little moments where you can see that everyone is on a desperate mission, but all for very different reasons.

But Daenerys isn’t there right now so Theon can’t talk to her. Why? Where did she go?

Cut to the Lannister army in a deep valley and me grabbing my hair and going, “Oooooh SHIT!!!!!” and knowing any second now, THERE BE DRAGONS.

And honest to GOD I wish the writers and directors on this show (in this case the director is Matt Shakman) would direct every single battle scene ever because as I’ve said many times before, NO ONE does battle scenes like Game of Thrones. SO FREAKIN’ GOOD!!

But I’ll let you get us started on this one, Chris!

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Christopher: It’s battle scenes like this one that speak to the huge success of Game of Thrones. No longer is money quite the concern it was: in season one, the great climactic battles between the Lannisters and the Starks happened off-screen; the first real sense of scale we got was toward the end of season two with “Blackwater,” and even then they tweaked the details of that battle (principally, doing it at night so they didn’t have to pay for huge CGI armies and navies) to make it more economical. But as the popularity of the show has grown, so too have the purse strings at HBO loosened, to the point where we reliably get spectacles like Hardhome, the final battle of Meereen, the Battle of the Bastards, Euron’s assault on Yara’s fleet, and now this: really, what we’ve been waiting seven seasons for, which is Daenerys and her dragons laying waste to the Lannisters.

Granted, it’s just the one dragon this time (which, frankly, might have been a tactical error), but it has the sense of a teaser: if this is what one dragon can do, along with just one of Daenerys’ armies, the Seven Kingdoms better sit up and take notice.

Because this is Game of Thrones, we can’t have an unequivocal victory: everything is always tainted with loss. Tyrion won the Battle of the Blackwater, but suffered grievous wounds and was then humiliated by his father. Hardhome was at best a pyrrhic victory. Daenerys won the battle of Meereen, but only after much hardship and loss; ditto Jon and Sansa at The Battle of the Bastards, which claimed the life of Rickon and could only happen because of Sansa’s Faustian bargain with Littlefinger. Here, the Lannisters accomplished the principal mission of delivering Tyrell gold to the Iron Bank, and Qyburn’s weapon showed that Daenerys’ dragons are vulnerable.

In addition to which, there’s the queasy fact that we sympathize with the bad guys. Jaime is no longer the black hat he once was, and I think we’d all mourn Bronn. The more I think of the episode’s final shot, the more I appreciate it. I would be very surprised if Jaime dies, but then this is a show that defies such narrative certainties. I think Bronn’s survival is even money: he saves Jaime, but it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for this show to sacrifice him—especially after that shot we get of his blood money spilled on the ground when his horse goes down.

But I’m getting ahead of things. One thing I want to mention before I pass it over to you, Nikki, is how this sequence gets military tactics right … mostly. A friend of mine who is both a fellow GoT nerd and military history nerd sent me a message saying “Thought you’d be interested to know that Drogon (subbing for artillery) and the Dothraki were an absolutely textbook example of how to ‘break’ an infantry square in the Napoleonic Era, which was super cool to see,” along with this link. By way of explanation: ever since we’ve had cavalry vs. infantry, the infantry learned that horses are generally smarter than people, and will not charge a wall of shields bristling with spears, pikes, and/or bayonets. So as long as infantry had the discipline to hold firm against a cavalry charge and not break and run in a panic, the cavalry was helpless to hurt them. Unless, of course, they could outflank them—which gave rise to the “square” formation, in which the infantry would form into a square that presented spears or bayonets on all sides.

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Game of Thrones has been pretty good with its realistic depiction of medieval military formations—the Battle of the Bastards a case in point—so I was pleased to see that they (mostly) hewed to realism in this scene. “Realism” here is, of course, dragon-adjusted … though as my friend points out, Drogon plays the role of artillery: once armies graduated from steel to gunpowder, the logic of the square formation remained, but now there was the possibility of blasting a hole in the line with cannons—a hole through which the cavalry could charge. When Jaime tells Bronn, “We can hold them,” he’s hewing to his certainty as a career soldier that a well-disciplined shield wall can hold off cavalry indefinitely. Of course, as soon as he says that, we hear Drogon’s screech … and, really, that’s the ball game. It’s basically how World War One would have proceeded if the Allies had had even a single squadron of Spitfires (pun intended: for my fellow military history nerds, the more appropriate planes to mention would be fighter-bombers like the Typhoon or Tempest, or American planes like the P-38 Lightning or P-47 Thunderbolt).

Drogon’s first blast of fire blows a hole in the Lannister line through which the Dothraki charge, and anyone who knows their military history knows that the battle ended right then. There are, however, a few other moments when the Dothraki charge is not dismayed by the shield wall, but plunges through. The argument could be made that the soldiers were panicked by the sight of their fellows being immolated, and thus had lost their discipline; or perhaps that they were pretty much panicked from the moment the Dothraki crested the rise. Perhaps.

One way or another, it was so deeply satisfying after six and a half seasons to see dragons in Westeros again. It was worth the wait. What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: You’re right: after six and a half seasons, this is the moment we have ALL been waiting for. (Along with Daenerys and Jon finally meeting [check], the Stark siblings being reunited [check], and Daenerys having her showdown with Cersei [TBD].) This battle sequence was so spectacular that as soon as it was done, we backed up the show by 15 minutes and just watched it again. (And not just for Bronn laughing at the way Jaime’s soldier says “Dick-on,” which was hilarious.)

I love that link you just posted: it doesn’t surprise me that they followed actual military tactics to the letter. That’s another reason why Game of Thrones is so successful: the writers and directors are so smart they do their research. The opening of the battle sequence actually made me think of the American Revolution. From what I remember of this war’s tactics when I took it in high school history class, it was military style versus guerilla warfare that won that one: the Redcoats all lined up in style and marched the way they were supposed to, while the rebels hid in the woods, jumped them from behind, and simply followed very few rules whatsoever, which helped them beat their enemy who was too busy towing the line to realize that every man for himself warfare might actually fare better. And then of course George Washington called in his dragon and the war was won. (I believe it’s a deleted track on the Hamilton soundtrack…)

I talked a few weeks ago about the lousy Ed Sheeran cameo and how it was too distracting, but this time there was actually a cameo in this sequence that worked EXACTLY how a cameo should work. I knew in advance that NY Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard (a favourite of my son’s, who has a framed jersey card of his) was going to be in the episode, but in the midst of the battle, I completely forgot and didn’t even see him when he showed up. His cameo is very quick, he’s barely recognizable, and he’s immediately immolated by Drogon (which will no doubt keep him on the DL even longer than he’s been this season). Now that is how you do a cameo.

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But Easter eggs aside, this scene is just astounding. From the rumble in the distance and the fear as the Lannister soldiers quickly try to get themselves in line while we wait for what seems like an eternity for the Dothraki to show up on the crest of the hill; to the burning anticipation of the dragon — which is SO AMAZING when it does happen that I couldn’t help but shriek with delight — to the incredible moment where you discover Daenerys is riding on his back; to the look on Jaime’s face as he tries to keep his cool while panicking inside; to the stoic and ambivalent look on Tyrion’s face as he watches his Queen destroy her enemies while recognizing that these were once his own men, and that despite everything he loves his brother and doesn’t want to see him fail outright; to the revelation that the Lannister army brought along the Dragon Killer with them (I don’t remember the last time I was this scared in a scene)… this entire sequence is simply not for the faint of heart and is thrilling on every level.

And what did the Dragon Killer achieve? Well, it brought a dragon out of the sky and down to Earth. The dragon can still breathe fire (and it turned Bronn’s weapon to ashes and smashed it with its tail in one fell swoop) but just imagine what a thousand of those machines will do. And we know Cersei is already starting the production line right this second. Drogon has been hit in the shoulder, and he’ll survive and be fine, but if Bronn’s aim had been just a little bit better, and he’d gotten it right in Drogon’s mouth and through the back of his skull, that would have been the end of both the dragon and its mother.

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Daenerys’s surprise attack is amazing for so many reasons, not least of all because of the karma she doles out: you put a sneak attack on Highgarden, kill the old woman and strip an old, barren castle of its gold; I’ll find your entire army and reduce it to ashes on a hillside and leave Cersei with nothing. But it also speaks to Jon Snow’s wisdom earlier in the episode: he said if you come at the Red Keep with your dragons and kill the queen, burn the castle, and kill innocent civilians in a bid for the throne you’re no better than your own father. And so she instead attacked the army when it’s nothing but the army: no queen, no castle, no civilians.

And what of Jaime? As he sank to the bottom of the water (where you could see a strange structure sticking up from the bottom that might be an old ship, but it wasn’t clear), my husband said, “And that’s the end of Jaime,” but I don’t think so. Because I just don’t think we’re done with his story. He’s the only one who knows the truth about who killed Joffrey, and I believe it’ll be an important plot point for him to tell Cersei that. I’d love to see him be reunited with Brienne one last time.

But also, I’d love to see him and Tyrion have one final scene together. I really wanted him to look up and see the imp standing on the hill, but it was Tyrion watching Jaime throughout, not the other way around. And Tyrion knows his brother well enough to know what’s running through his mind as he sees Daenerys trying to pull the spear out of Drogon, her back to him. Tyrion mutters under his breath, “Flee, you idiot,” as he sees Jaime pause on the midst of the burned-out battlefield. As Jaime instead grabs a nearby spear and begins charging towards Daenerys like he’s at a jousting tournament, Tyrion’s face turns to dread as he mutters, “You fucking idiot,” and we all hold our collective breaths as Drogon pulls his head down over his mother’s, and opens his mouth and you get to see exactly what it looks like to anyone just before they’re immolated… and then Bronn grabs Jaime and pulls him into the water. The weight of the armour is going to pull Jaime to the very bottom, but I don’t believe that’s the end of him.

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What a show. We thought they had too much ground to cover for a mere 13 final episodes but now they have nine of them left and I’m thrilled, thinking they can do so much more but they’ve already given us some of the very things we’ve waited years to see. This week is going to feel like an eternity… I cannot wait for next week’s episode!!
Thank you to everyone who has read this far, and for continuing to read and leave comments. I love reading your feedback and your thoughts on every episode. Until next week!

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.03: “The Queen’s Justice”

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Hello fellow Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog, now in its seventh iteration! I think it’s safe to say this was one of the BEST EPISODES EVER. And what’s even more remarkable about that is that there was no massive set-piece battle (though there was, sort of), no shocking death of a beloved character (um, though there kind of was), and no tearful reunion of beloved characters long separated (except that … OK, you know what? It was TOTALLY like every other mind-blowingly good episode, EXCEPT THAT IT WASN’T. FUCK OFF).

Ahem. Nikki?

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Nikki: What an episode! We got two reunions, one moment of two seven-season leads sharing the screen for the first time, we watched the Westerosian chess pieces move around the board yet again, and saw the best chugging of wine in TV history (followed by one of the greatest moments ever on this series).

Throughout this episode, the recurring theme seemed to be monstrosity: who/what are the true monsters in Westeros? What constitutes monstrosity? And what should the Westerosians be afraid of — should the strongest armies be engaged in a battle amongst themselves, or should they be joining forces to fight the dead that will end them all, regardless of the outcome of the game of thrones?

After the credits (where I keep meaning to mention: despite Pyke not being shown this season, they keep showing it in the credits because it’s the Greyjoy stronghold, and I love the way the two bridges swing wildly when the three towers rise and lock into place at the beginning of each episode), we immediately open with Jon Snow arriving with Davos at Dragonstone as Tyrion and Missandei await his arrival on the shore. This is the first time Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister have been reunited since Tyrion left the Wall in season one. They glare for a moment, acknowledging each other, with Tyrion addressing him as “the bastard of Winterfell” and Jon calling him “the dwarf of Casterly Rock,” before each man’s face breaks into a sly smile.

It’s an fun moment for fans that calls back to the very first episode, when the Lannisters arrived at Winterfell and Tyrion noticed that bastard son standing apart from the others:

TYRION: Let me tell you something, bastard. Never forget what you are — the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.
JON: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?
TYRION: All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.

In this moment the two men find a connection: each one is the son of a man who doesn’t acknowledge them as a rightful son. In Jon’s case it’s a wee bit more complicated (since Ned isn’t actually his father), but Jon doesn’t realize that. And now, seven seasons later, Jon is on his own but has risen above Ned’s achievements, and has been deemed the King of the North, while Tyrion has murdered his own father and has been ousted by his siblings, who would kill him on sight if given the chance. He has become the Hand of the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and now that he seems to have put his alcoholism to the side, has become a trusted advisor to Cersei. As Tyrion acknowledges to Jon, “It’s ben a long road, but we’re both still here.”

After Jon and Davos are stripped of their weapons, they begin the ascent to Daenerys’s throne room, with Jon being dwarfed by the Dothraki soldiers as he chats with Tyrion. Davos tries to make small talk with Missandei, but doesn’t get very far, simply muttering to Jon that things have changed around here.

Tyrion asks about Sansa, anticipating Jon’s questions or comments before Jon has the chance to ask them (which we know he wouldn’t have done in any case). He tells him it was a sham marriage, and unconsummated. He tells Jon that Sansa is smarter than she lets on, to which Jon amusingly replies, “She’s starting to let on.” Ha! Jon is actually less interested in hearing about the marriage his sister was forced into, and more interested to find out how Tyrion became the Hand of the Queen, but Tyrion just waves it off, saying it was a long and blessed ceremony, and adding, “To be honest I was drunk for most of it.”

If Jon weren’t there to try to save all of humanity against the white walkers, and Tyrion weren’t dodging deeper questions of what really has happened to him over the past seven years, this scene would have looked like two old friends catching up after a long absence. But there’s a deep gravity to the situation, and Jon has to remind himself that he’s there to see Daenerys. The reminder comes quickly when one of her dragons swoops low overhead, knocking both Jon and Davos to the ground in abject fear. I couldn’t help but remember the look on Tyrion’s face as he stood on that boat and saw Drogon for the first time. I assume one never forgets their first dragon, and the looks on Davos and Jon’s faces are priceless… and pretty much what Tyrion looked like a couple of seasons ago. Tyrion holds out a hand to help up Jon, and reassures him, “I’d say you get used to them, but you really don’t.”

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And then before the big meeting between Jon and Daenerys — for which we’ve been waiting SEVEN YEARS — we flash up to Melisandre and Varys chatting in a tower. “I’ve brought fire and ice together,” she says, but he’s sussed out that she’s afraid of something.

Melisandre: My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end.
Varys: Oh, I doubt that. Give us commonfolk one taste of power, we’re like the lion who tasted man. Nothing is ever so sweet again.

Melisandre isn’t scared of Varys, and she’ll have none of his chit-chat, reminding him instead that neither one of them is commonfolk anymore. She knows that Davos has sworn to kill her if he ever lays eyes on her again, and she won’t taunt him by letting him know she’s there. As you and I have said many, many times before, Christopher, Davos is one of the best characters on the show simply because he’s possibly the most honourable. He has intense loyalty, but knows when something is morally wrong. He is one of the most trustworthy characters on the show, and when he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. And Melisandre knows that.

And then we cut to the moment we’ve been waiting for. Missandei introduces her leader to Jon and Davos: “You stand in the presence of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.”

There’s a pause as Jon and Davos stand there in awe for a moment, before Davos realizes he’s supposed to do the same, and he says, “This is Jon Snow…” Beat. “He’s King of the North.” It doesn’t exactly trumpet in Jon with a parade and bagpipes, but it’s all they’ve got right now.

What did you think of this meeting we’ve all been waiting for for so long, Chris?

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Christopher: It was brilliant. As was this entire episode. Before I talk about the long-awaited encounter between Jon and Daenerys, however, let me say just how much I loved this episode. It is one of the best ones of the series, but unlike some of the great episodes that function almost as standalones and rely upon epic spectacle (“Blackwater” comes to mind, as does “The Battle of the Bastards”), “The Queen’s Justice” is brilliant specifically because of the cumulative power of this series. We’re seven seasons in, and narrative threads initially spun out at the very beginning are starting to resolve into tapestry. We’ve lived with these characters for so long now—especially Jon, Daenerys, and Sansa, as well as Jaime and Cersei—that seeing these events unfold carries such emotional weight.

But that in and of itself is only half the story here—the other half is just how good the writing is, and how beautiful this episode is to look at. All of the dialogue has a kinetic energy that is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin at his best—not sententious, speechifying Sorkin, but dynamic, rhythmic Sorkin, in which the cadences of conversation reflect the intelligence and intensity of the characters. How many amazing interchanges do we experience? Tyrion and Jon, Jon and Daenerys, Varys and Melisandre, Mycroft Tycho Nestoris and Cersei, Ebrose and Sam, and of course—the cherry on the cake of this brilliant episode—Jaime and Olenna. And as I say above, so much of these exchanges is based in our familiarity with these characters. Seeing Tyrion and Jon meet again was worth the price of admission; Jon sparring with Daenerys was what we’ve been waiting six seasons for; but then those moments of humour, like when Tyrion complains that he can’t brood in the vicinity of Jon Snow because he’d feel like an amateur, are similarly payoffs that come from the slow burn of a long, well-tended narrative. Ditto for the moment you mention, Nikki, when Davos’ best response to Daenerys’ lengthy CV is to simply say “This is Jon Snow.” It’s a hilarious fish out of water moment, reflective of both Jon Snow and Davos’ discomfort with the trappings of rank, but also manages to communicate something about Jon Snow’s simplicity of purpose, and simplicity of self.

And before I get into Jon’s encounter with Daenerys, let me rhapsodize a moment longer on just how beautiful this episode looked. Mark Mylod, who directed this episode, made extraordinary use of the natural landscapes in which they shot:

 

I’ll let those stills speak for themselves.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. This is the classic definition of dramatic irony, no? At this point we all know, when Daenerys says, “I am the last Targaryen,” that NO, no you’re not! Dude standing in front of you? Your nephew! Which is weird in a variety of ways and ever so slightly creepy (especially with all the Daenerys-Jon ‘shipping that has already begun), but it makes all this maneuvering and negotiation at least somewhat moot.

That being said, what I loved most about this scene was the weight of history lying upon it, something that has been a common trope for this season so far. Tyrion observes that, had he been Jon’s advisor, he’d have argued vigorously against meeting Daenerys—as he says, Starks have not fared well when they travel south, a point raised by pretty much every other person at Winterfell. When Daenerys demands that Jon Snow bend the knee, he reminds her of precisely what Sansa reminded him, that their grandfather and uncle had been burned alive by the Mad King. And while Daenerys has the good grace to ask his forgiveness for her father’s transgressions, she still expects him to honour the oaths sworn by his forbearers.

I think one of the things I loved most about this scene is the way it shows the weakness of Daenerys’ claim. Yes, she is (excepting Jon Snow) the last scion of the Targaryens; by the laws of patrilineal descent, she has a claim on the throne, but that claim was, for all intents and purposes, obviated by Robert Baratheon’s usurpation of her father. I kept wanting Jon to say, “The Targaryens ruled for three hundred years! That’s, like, thirty seconds in the history of Westeros!” (Fun historical fact: given that GRRM based his novels in part on the Wars of the Roses, it’s worth noting that the Plantagenets—the royal family that features in Shakespeare’s history plays—essentially ruled England from Henry II’s coronation in 1154 until the death of Richard III in 1485, a span of 331 years. So the Targaryen dynasty syncs up with that history a little). Daenerys believes herself the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by law, but her ancestor Aegon took the Iron Throne by right of conquest. He forced the kings of Westeros—including Jon’s ancestor Torrhen Stark—to swear fealty, or else be turned into cinders by the same dragonfire that forged the Iron Throne.

Which is an option that Daenerys has at her disposal, but one which, as Jon Snow points out, she is reluctant to deploy. “You haven’t stormed King’s Landing,” he says. “Why not? The only reason I can see is you don’t want to kill thousands of innocent people.” A point that we know is true, because we heard Daenerys say as much in last week’s episode—and an indication that she grasps the weakness of her position from a legal and historical perspective. She learned hard lessons in Meereen, a city in which her only authority, ultimately, came from the people themselves. Though she might claim her family name gives her rights to Westeros, she knows a wise ruler wins the people.

This does not, however, prevent her from telling Jon Snow that, however batshit her dad was, her family name gives her rights to Westeros, and she is annoyed that he is reluctant to swear fealty.

(Just as an aside, was anyone else remembering Daenerys’ willingness last season to entertain the idea of letting the Iron Islands be a separate kingdom in exchange for Yara’s allegiance and her fleet? Where’s that open-mindedness with Jon Snow?)

If we realize in this scene how tenuous Daenerys’ legal claim to the throne is, we also realize how ludicrous Jon Snow’s warning about White Walkers is. One wonders if Daenerys would have tolerated his apparent gibberings had Melisandre not primed her that (1) Jon Snow was someone of substance, and (2) she needed to listen to what he said.

One way or another, Jon’s impassioned plea is cut short by the bad news of Yara’s fleet being waylaid, and we segue to Theon being fished out of the drink. And from there, we go to Euron making his triumphant way through the streets of King’s Landing, with his prisoners in tow. What did you think of his presentation to Cersei, Nikki? And perhaps more importantly, what did you think of Cersei’s long monologue to Ellaria?

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Nikki: Excellent summation of a scene we’ve been waiting to see for years, my friend, and I agree: it’s episodes like this one that make long-form television worth watching. I wanted to add three things: one, I couldn’t help but think while watching it… Jon Snow is standing before Daenerys talking of the dead coming back to life and walking south, and tells her he’s seen it. That Ice has defied all logic, all laws of nature, and is resurrecting the dead and they will vanquish the living. And she looks at him like he’s some nutjob who just climbed down from the crazy tree. And yet… Daenerys Targaryen cannot be burned by fire. He has seen Ice defy logic, but with Daenerys, Fire defies all logic. She has emerged unburned from several fiery moments, and oh, by the way, she owns three motherfreakin’ DRAGONS that she hatched from the funeral pyre of her husband from which she emerged not only alive and unburned, but with a full head of hair when technically she should have been bald as a cueball.

So I thought it was interesting that she thought of his account as a bunch of “myths” when her entire life story sounds like some jacked-up Brothers Grimm tale.

Secondly, I loved the moment where Davos starts to talk about Jon Snow’s resurrection and Jon leans in like, “Hush-hush-hush-zipit!!” It reminded me of Basil Fawlty marching around Fawlty Towers and saying loudly around the Germans, “DON’T MENTION THE WAR!!!

And thirdly, one of our readers, Audrey, wondered on my FB wall if, when the dragon swooped down at Jon on his walk up to the castle, is it possible the dragons can sense another Targaryen in their midst? HMMM…

But on to King’s Landing! Yes, let’s gloss quickly over Euron’s triumphant return and Yara and the Sand Snakes having to a do a walk of shame similar to Cersei’s and then him being a dick to Jaime. I can’t wait to see terrible things happen to Euron (and yet, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I kind of love watching him at the same time because he’s just so slimy!) He will be the naval captain and Jaime will be the army captain… and both men want Cersei. But let’s get to the meat of what happens next.

My husband thought that when Ellaria and Tyene got there, Cersei would go to town on Ellaria. But I said to him, no, that’ll never happen: she’ll go to town on Tyene, and make Ellaria watch. It’s the kind of revenge any mom would enact on another mom if the argument involved one of their children being hurt. And that’s exactly what Cersei does.

Lena Headey is extraordinary in this scene — I don’t think she’s been better in this entire series. She’s angry, vengeful, but about to see her deepest fantasy come true. Yet she can’t help but betray how broken she still is over the death of her daughter through the waver in her voice, the bitterness of her words, the jabs she takes at Ellaria’s expense. She’s matched in this scene only by Indira Varma, who has an even more difficult task as she must convey all of those same things — anger and brokenness over the death of Oberyn, fear for her daughter’s life, pleading — all without saying a word. Her eyes brim with tears throughout the scene, her forehead has veins pulsing out of them in terror, and she strains at her chains in an effort to gouge out Cersei’s eyes one minute, plead for any shred of sympathy the next. The two actresses are remarkable.

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The best way to go through this scene is to actually quote Cersei’s words, because her monologue is brilliant, and as you point out, Chris, the dialogue is SO well written in this episode. This is probably my new favourite monologue of a series that has featured so many: “When my daughter was taken from me — my only daughter — well, you can’t imagine how that feels unless you’ve lost a child,” she begins. This one sentence contains so much. We know she’s about to be brutally honest with Ellaria and tell her how Ellaria’s actions affected her. We hear the resentment in the way she says “only,” and there’s also taunting there — she says the sentence in a way that indicates Ellaria couldn’t possibly know what this feels like, despite the fact Ellaria’s other daughters were killed just hours earlier. It’s vicious and heartbreaking. And then Cersei continues:

I fed her at my own breast even though they told me to give her to the wet nurse. I couldn’t bear to see her in another woman’s arms. I never got to have a mother, but Myrcella did. She was mine and you took her from me. Why did you do that?!

At this moment Cersei’s voice wavers for the one and only time in her monologue. She’s never gotten over the pain of losing Myrcella, who was clearly her favourite. She was devastated after Joffrey’s death, yet there was a part of her that was perhaps relieved — even his own mother knew he’d turned into a monster. Myrcella was innocent and good and kind, and was pulled into this as an innocent casualty. Cersei has never gotten past that. Tommen was similarly sweet and kind, but he took his own life, which Cersei has taken to be a judgment on her actions, and a betrayal by him that he would leave her in such a way. Myrcella’s death is the one that resonates the deepest for her. But then she composes herself and talks about Tyene’s Dornish beauty, and how she guesses Tyene is actually Ellaria’s favourite, too. She says we shouldn’t choose favourites, but sometimes the heart just wants what it wants. “We all make our choices,” she says. “You chose to murder my daughter. You must have felt powerful after you made that choice. Do you feel powerful now?”

Ellaria knows what’s coming. She doesn’t know when, and she doesn’t know how, but she knows something terrible is about to befall Tyene. And then Cersei actually, unknowingly, aligns herself with Arya by saying she doesn’t sleep well at night, instead imagining how she will hurt the enemies who have hurt her. Turns out, much like Arya (for whom Cersei is at the top of the list), Cersei has a kill list as well. Probably every character does. She tells Ellaria she imagined crushing her skull the way the Mountain crushed Oberyn’s, but that would be too quick. She imagined him crushing Tyene’s skull instead, but that would be a terrible waste of her beauty.

And then… she kisses Tyene on the lips, and the horror of what Cersei has just done washes over Ellaria. Her eyes bulge in terror, her body goes rigid, and her mind must be travelling at a million miles a second. In that moment she probably regrets everything she’s done to get to this moment, nothing more than the death kiss she herself planted on Myrcella’s lips. Cersei quietly wipes her own lips and takes the antidote as Qyburn explains it could take hours or days to die, but death will be certain. And then Cersei deals the final blow, which even I didn’t see coming:

Your daughter will die here in this cell. You will be here watching when she does. You’ll be here the rest of your days. If you refuse to eat, we’ll force food down your throat. You will live to watch your daughter rot, to watch that beautiful face collapse to bone and dust, all the while contemplating the choices you’ve made. [to the Mountain] Make sure the guards change the torches every few hours — I don’t want her to miss a thing.

And with that, Cersei sweeps out of the room. Tyene’s fate is sealed, and Ellaria doesn’t just have the burden of watching her daughter die, but of watching (and smelling) her daughter’s body as it rots. The rest of her (possibly many) days and years will be spent watching her daughter disintegrate, and they will be filled with unspeakable torture. It’s the worst revenge anyone could have on a mother, and Cersei’s done it.

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And here’s the part where I go dark: it felt deserved. Yes, I said it. I despise Cersei, but Myrcella had no role to play in any of this other than to be the pawn that Ellaria drew in to the battle. Ellaria killed a little girl, and destroyed her mother. Yes, Ellaria believes that Cersei is responsible for Oberyn’s death, but as Chris and I both pointed out in that episode, and as Cersei mentions at the top of her monologue in this scene, Oberyn COULD have won that battle. He had the upper hand, but he had to prance around the ring, sucking up the accolades, giving Clegane the opportunity to get back up and crush his head like a melon. Cersei didn’t kill Oberyn: his own pride did. And Ellaria killed Myrcella out of revenge. If someone had killed my child, I would want the worst possible thing to happen to that person, and I can’t think of anything worse than what Cersei has put on Ellaria (I wouldn’t be able to actually do it, but one has to admire Cersei for being able to do it… when you have nothing to lose, you can do anything). As Cersei leaves the room, my heart went out to Ellaria and Tyene, straining at their chains, their mouths gagged, able to see each other but not hug each other for comfort or touch each other in any way. But another part of me felt, Ellaria deserves this.

A Lannister always pays her debts, indeed.

And then we cut to Cersei walking into Jaime’s chambers and kissing him full on the mouth, and all I could think was, “OMG I hope she really wiped off that Long Farewell from her lips!” She and Jaime sleep together for the first time since Myrcella’s death because for once, Cersei feels like she might be on the path to becoming whole again. They’re awakened by a page (who shares Cersei’s haircut for some reason, though hers looks better than that shaggy mess on Cersei’s head), telling her the man from Braavos has arrived.

And then Mycroft shows up, and basically explains that the Bank of Braavos places its bets on the side that they believe will win, and the Lannisters owe a huge debt to Braavos that has never been paid back (a debt that goes back to her spendthrift husband, Robert Baratheon). Cersei has an answer for everything, reminding him that the Bank of Braavos has put a lot of money into the slave trade, and how’s that working out for them now that Daenerys has freed the slaves? Mycroft pauses and says, “The slave trade has seen a… downturn.” She tells him Daenerys isn’t a queen so much as a revolutionary, and revolutionaries aren’t worth banking on because they’re not about the money. Cersei, on the other hand, will show him who’s worth banking on. Cersei explains that she needs two weeks to prove him wrong, that the Lannisters will be the stronger party, and that she will pay off what she owes because “A Lannister always pays his debts.” Mycroft smiles and remarks that Cersei is definitely her father’s daughter.

And now it’s time for Tyrion and Jon Snow to brood on the same cliff. What did you think about their conversation post–Daenerys/Jon meeting, Christopher?

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Christopher: I know that I’m supposed to be super stoked that Jon Snow and Daenerys have finally met—and I am—but I think my favourite parts of this episode were Tyrion and Jon reuniting. Tyrion is whom Jon needed these past six seasons—he needed that voice of pragmatic wisdom guiding him, correcting all the bad instincts he learned from Ned Stark. These two characters have incredible chemistry, something we’re reminded of when, after their stilted greetings on the beach, they both smile. A “sly smile,” as you say, Nikki—a less restrained pair of actors might have broken into grins and laughter and embraced, but here we have a world of respect communicated subtly.

As I say above, I love the bit of humour that begins this scene. “I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack,” Tyrion tells Jon Snow. “You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding.” Well, of course he feels that way: Jon Snow is an Olympic-level brooder. If brooding were a Nobel category, he’d be a laureate yesterday. He could give Angel a run for his Byronic money. If Springsteen ever recorded a single titled “Born to Brood,” it would have Jon Snow on the cover. This we all know, because we’ve been watching for six seasons, so Tyrion’s little gibe is at once a vintage Tyrion bon mot and a lovely shout out to the audience. It’s also a subtle little preamble to the wisdom the Dwarf of Casterly Rock will be laying down on the King in the North. Brooding is certainly aesthetically pleasing when done by the likes of Jon Snow, but there’s a metric fuck-tonne of practical considerations with which Game of Thrones, as a fantasy series, is almost fetishistically obsessed. Logistics, money, politics, and of course the great grey area between good and evil into which pretty much every character on this show falls.

Jon Snow is a character who would have fared so much better in Narnia or Middle-Earth—virtuous and pure of purpose, he’s a Peter Pevensie or an Aragorn, but in Westeros such people don’t tend to do well. They need a Tyrion to guide them.

In our first post of the new season, I compared Jon Snow to a climate change activist beset by deniers and people who don’t see the severity of the threat. That comes through in this episode as well, especially in terms of Jon’s frustration with everyone. And frankly, his frustration is not entirely reasonable: when he says “it’s hard for me to fathom, it really is—if someone told me about the White Walkers and the Night King …” he trails off, as if suddenly recognizing that, well, he’d probably not believe it either. Tyrion puts it in perspective, saying “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” There’s a great line in Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, in which one character says she can’t let herself think about climate change, because if she did, she wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. As Tyrion says, people can deal with concrete and understandable monstrosity more than they can with something enormous but abstract: “The White Walkers, the Night King, the army of the dead … it’s almost a relief to confront a comfortably familiar monster like my sister.” But “conventional wisdom” necessarily gives way to evidence, and a wise person knows to trust the trustworthy. “It was nonsense, and everybody knew it,” he tells Jon. “But then Mormont saw them. You saw them. And I trust the eyes of an honest man more than I trust what everybody knows.”

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The other key theme in this scene is patrimony, and the mistakes and sins of parents carried by their offspring. When Jon Snow laments that perhaps he’s just repeating his father’s mistakes, Tyrion tells him “Children are not their fathers … luckily for all of us.” This is an episode preoccupied with fathers: I said above that the weight of history lies upon the action, and it makes itself most poignantly present in the memories of fathers no longer present, but whose actions in life still affect the behaviour and expectations of the living. Tyene will die in Ellaria’s presence because of Ellaria’s revenge for the death of Tyene’s father; both Cersei and Jaime are compared to Tywin, while Tyrion orchestrates the Unsullied’s sack of Casterly Rock by way of a task Tywin once gave him to humiliate him; Daenerys must struggle upstream against the trauma inflicted by her father on an entire kingdom; Jon Snow sees himself repeating his father and grandfather’s mistakes; but in the episode’s great dramatic irony, we know who his true father was.

But Tyrion, perhaps because at this point he has little more than contempt for the memory of his father, is having none of it: telling Jon Snow, basically, not to be an idiot—that it is entirely unreasonable to expect Daenerys to accept the words of a man she’d never met after a single meeting, a meeting in which he has all but rejected her claim to the throne. People are rarely what they seem, that there is more to “Northern fools than meets the eye,” and, by the same token, that Jon would do well to familiarize himself with what Daenerys has done and why. “She protects people from monsters,” he tells Jon, “just as you do.” As you say in your opening comments, Nikki, this is an episode about monstrosity and the forms it takes, and the question of which monsters are worse. Tyrion’s point here is to raise that very question to Jon Snow: he protects his people from monsters, but sometimes the human ones—like Ramsay Bolton—are at least as bad as the non-human ones.

I hope when they make their submission for Peter Dinklage’s Emmy nomination this year that they include this episode, because he’s so damn good in this scene. Tyrion lays it all out for Jon Snow; it’s such a great contrast between the single-minded ideologue living in frustration because nobody sees his simple, glaring Truth, and the talented political operative who knows how to get shit done. Tyrion believes Jon, but is also very aware of what is possible and what is not. Jon is ready to decamp almost immediately because Daenerys is unreceptive to his pleas; Tyrion puts him in his place, pointing out “It’s not a reasonable thing to ask,” but then saying, “So, do you have anything reasonable to ask?”

As it turns out? Yes. Yes, he does. “Dragonglass?” Daenerys asks incredulously, and Tyrion finds himself patiently explaining to his queen—who chooses at this moment to be as obtuse as her nephew—why they should grant this request. “We just lost two of our allies!” she says petulantly. “Which is why,” Tyrion responds slowly, almost as if he’s sounding out the words for a dunce, “I was meeting with Jon Snow—a potential ally.” When she asks if he believes Jon’s tales, Tyrion makes a pretty commonsensical point—that he wouldn’t have come if he wasn’t under great duress, and that letting him mine the dragonglass earns Daenerys a potential ally in exchange for a resource that is worthless to her and which she was unaware of anyway.

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While I’m irked by the fact that this will be a short season, I have to admit that it seems to be making for a much brisker narrative progression. I had more or less assumed that the long-awaited meeting of Daenerys and Jon Snow would come at the very end of the episode, frustrating viewers by drawing this particular drama out. But no: not only do they meet at the start, but we get TWO tête-a-têtes between the characters that have become, for all intents and purposes, the main characters in this sprawling ensemble.

Their second scene together, however brief, is powerful, and we begin to see the first stirring of an alliance based in trust. She tells him that she named two of her dragons for her brothers, and then notes that he lost two brothers as well. I have to imagine Jon is being polite when he doesn’t correct that number—as far as he knows, he’s lost three brothers, as he doesn’t yet know Bran is still alive, as Sam swore to keep Bran’s secret. (Wait … did he? I know he did in the novels, but now I can’t remember if he did in the series).

And speaking of Bran … what did you think of the latest Stark reunion, Nikki?

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Nikki: Oh man, you ask a good question at the end there, and I’m sure our readers will let us know the real answer, but I’m pretty sure Theon told Sansa that he didn’t, in fact, kill Rickon and Bran, and so she knows they’re alive at that point (I’m thinking that was end of season five? Damn, I need a rewatch). So she would have told Jon that, but they would also know that Rickon is now dead because Jon watched him die at the Battle of the Bastards when Rickon wouldn’t frickin’ zig-zag. So my thinking is, they know he lived, but they don’t know if he’s still alive because he’s out there on his own and is crippled. For the time being, Jon isn’t going to count him among the dead until he knows for sure.

But yes, speaking of Bran, onto that… awkward… reunion. I’ve been dying to see the Starks actually get a bit of happy news, and knowing how close-knit the family is, and how devastated they’ve been over the deaths of Ned, Catelyn, Robb, and Rickon, finding anyone who shares their DNA would be a happy moment right now. So when there’s a knock at the gate and Sansa is called, I thought, “OMG I WAS WRONG IT’S ARYA!” And… it wasn’t Arya. Last week I suggested that after seeing Nymeria, perhaps Arya realizes she doesn’t actually belong at Winterfell and was turning to go south instead. And if that’s the case, maybe we’ll never get that long-awaited reunion between her and her family. Instead, we get Bran. Dead-eyed, robot-sounding, George-Harrison-looking, prominent-Adam’s-apple, three-eyed-raven Bran. The best part of this scene is the look on Sansa’s face, the swirl of emotions that rises up in her, the fact that her brother was just a tiny little thing the last time she saw him, crippled, and that she’s already mourned his death once and here he is, finally back from the dead. All of those things pass over her face in an instant (Sophie Turner does a beautiful job in this scene) and she rushes to his side and grips him in a huge bear hug. And Bran… doesn’t hug back. Um… I thought he was a paraplegic? What the heck happened to his arms?!

Anyway.

You and I have lamented throughout the series, Chris, that the Bran sections are the snoozefests, and the show is best when we don’t have to deal with Bran (remember that joyous season five?) And he should be an interesting character: he’s a Stark, he’s the unfortunate victim of Jaime and Cersei’s canoodling way back in season one, he’s the breathing example of why we can never 100% forgive Jaime Lannister, he’s a warg, he is one of their best hopes in the war against the white walkers. But there’s just something so unsettling about this kid. He’s gone away a boy and come back some mystical guru changed by a cult, and Sansa has to sit there going, “Ehhh… yeah, I’m gonna be over there now bye” after spending a whole two minutes with him.

The gist of the conversation is basically:

Sansa: You’re the lord of Winterfell now.
Bran: I can’t be the lord of anything, I’m the three-eyed raven.
Sansa: WTF is that?
Bran: Sorry, you wouldn’t understand.
Sansa: Uh, try me?
Bran: I can see everything, past, present, future, all in weird little bits, but I need to train more so I can see the picture more clearly. I know all of this because the three-eyed raven told me.
Sansa: I… thought… YOU were the three-eyed raven?
Bran: I told you it would be too complicated, and by the way, you looked so beautiful that night Ramsay violently raped you on your wedding night.

Jesus Christ, Bran!!! First he mansplains the teachings of the three-eyed raven the way Kellyanne Conway would explain the tweeting of the small-handed man, and then of all the moments he could touch upon to let Sansa know he can see all, he points out the single most traumatic moment of her life?

This is How Not to Reunite With Family 101.

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But now… Bran’s defense, because I’ve thought about this a lot and I believe this is the only way these scenes could have gone. If you could see everything that’s ever happened, and everything that will happen, but only in bits and pieces you could barely put together, there are several ways you could handle this. Most people would simply go stark raving mad, screaming and screaming whilst clutching their heads in agony. Or you would kill yourself because NO ONE wants to live with the pain of the history of the universe in their heads. Or you could adopt this Zen-like attitude, shutting down all emotions because emotions will kill you. And Bran has done exactly that. He can’t experience human emotions anymore because the moment he feels pain over seeing his sister get raped, he’ll feel pain over Rickon’s death, he’ll watch Ned’s head get chopped off in an endless loop, he’ll see his mother’s throat slit, his brother’s unborn baby stabbed… he’ll see every Stark ancestor, every person in the history of Winterfell be raped and killed and mutilated throughout history. He needs to shut down emotions and simply read this information the way a computer would. Bran simply cannot hug Sansa: that would express happiness or gratitude or relief over seeing his sister, and he can no longer feel those things. He can’t feel sympathy or empathy in any way. He’s an automaton. He is one of their greatest weapons in the fight against the white walkers (as long as he can figure out how to control his powers) but he can no longer feel anything emotionally.

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He has given up his very soul in order to give himself over to the cause. In a way, Bran IS dead, because this is not Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, he is the one who no longer bears even the slightest resemblance to his former self, not physically, emotionally, or personality-wise. And as Sansa walks away from him, she knows it. He’s now an ally, but he’s no longer her brother. There will be no more family chats in the weirwood tree grove.

Now I skipped past the scene that preceded this one, so I’ll touch on it briefly, but just before the knock at the gate, Sansa is talking to Baelish and showing that while the boys are entirely focused on war, the women can get down to the practical matters of how to stay alive during the war. She sets about filling their grain stores, contacting local Houses, setting up alliances as they head into the long winter. Meanwhile Littlefinger is yip-yip-yipping into her ear telling her that he knows Cersei better than anyone (to which she briskly and curtly replies, “No, you don’t” and then points out, ooh, you think it’s a revelation that the woman who killed my mother, brother, and father is evil? OLD NEWS, BUDDY) but he tells her that the best way to live from this point on is to imagine every single possibility, every outcome, is happening at once, so she will never be surprised.

And then along comes a brother who tells her he can see everything that’s ever happened and will happen all at once. Excellent timing, dude!

But now we move over to Sam and Sir Jorah. The Maester inspects the wounds and says it’s like someone peeled off the greyscale and put some sort of ointment on them. Sam tries to play dumb and Jorah says nope, he just happened to wake up this way. The scene is really funny just for their ridiculous attempts to put one over on the Maester, who clearly knows he’s dealing with a couple of clowns who have figured out how to conquer greyscale. The triumph that Jorah Mormont will actually live and will once again see his Khaleesi is undercut by the hilarity of the scene, which then cuts to Sam in the Maester’s office. Archmaester Ebrose knows exactly what Sam has done, and Sam sees a future of nothing but fecal duty from this point on, until the Maester expresses how impressed he is that Sam did that. And he asks how he did it. How in a place where they’ve all been trying to figure out a cure did he just figure one out that quickly? Sam says, simply, “I read the books and followed the instructions.” Ha! The Citadel is crammed full of books, it’s built on books, it’s surrounded by books, and they spend all day looking at books. And yet, somehow, it never seemed to have occurred to anyone to, you know, check the bloody books. And so he says Sam has proven himself well, and we have this moment of thinking OMG Sam just fast-tracked himself to a quick grad school graduation and will be given a class to teach… but no. He’s basically sent to the photocopier room and told to make copies of the old, musty books sitting there.

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I know we’re supposed to regard this as a funny outcome, that them’s the breaks and Sam is not going to be able to leapfrog over someone with more seniority, but I also read the scene as pointing out everything that’s wrong in situations like that, whether it be academia or other institutions. In a place where people are in agony and dying of a disease, one man found a cure (whoa, that sentence sounded like the opening of a movie trailer…) and used it to save the life of a man who seemed beyond saving. And instead of immediately setting to work to save every other person in the place, he’s sent off to yet another menial task as everyone else gets back to whatever useless task they were doing before. Sam proved that the answers can lie in books — not only did he figure out the cure for Ser Jorah, but he discovered where Jon could find copious amounts of dragonglass — but the other scholars say no, you’re moving too fast, young buck, let’s just slow down and spend the next 200 years searching through these books slowly to find the very things you found in a week, shall we? Sam will have to continue to be a rebel if the Citadel is going to be any help at all against the white walkers, because the other scholars are clearly too blinded by their own hierarchies and traditions to see when someone has a better way of doing things. Here’s hoping there’s a dazzling answer to everything somewhere in those scrolls (I’m hoping for the Roman numeral 42 to be at the top of one of them!)

And from here we move back to the war room (“You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”) and Daenerys and Tyrion enacting their very important plan to trick Cersei. And I’ll let you take this one to the end, my friend!

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Christopher: Before I carry on to the end of the episode, one more aesthetic observation: the stills from this episode could fill an art gallery, and they seem evenly divided between the kind of epic landscape shots I cited above, and people in rooms bathed in light from a window. We’re back in the war room, as you say, and Daenerys and her chief advisors are framed in a nimbus of light behind them. But throughout this episode, we have similar shots, from Ser Jorah’s deeply symbolic moment of salvation after Ebrose’s diagnosis, to the low-angle show of Tycho Nestoris, to the first glimpse we have of Lady Olenna in her room, brooding as she awaits her fate.

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I have little doubt that if one went back and combed through the series from the start, we’d see lots of such shots—after all, it is set in a world sans electricity, so the directors and cinematographers have to be inventive with torchlight and candlelight and sun streaming through windows. But it does seem to me that this episode was particularly invested in this strategy, perhaps as a visual balance to the proliferation of epic landscape mise-en-scène.

But to the war room! Daenerys wishes to chase down Euron’s fleet personally and burn them to their waterlines with her dragons—which, I must confess, I think is the best response. Yes, it puts the queen at risk, but … dragons! How better to wipe that smug grin off Euron’s face than with fire as hot as the sun? Fortunately for her advisors, who are not keen on the idea, she allows herself to be distracted by Tyrion’s battle plan.

And we’re back to fathers and sons. “Interesting thing about my father,” says Tyrion, “He built our house up from near ruin. He built our army, he built Casterly Rock as we know it … but he didn’t build the sewers.” No, he gave Tyrion that job to punish him for being Tyrion—and Tyrion took advantage of his father’s arrogance to build a back door into an otherwise impregnable castle in order to better continue his nocturnal debauches.

(Just as an aside: why is Tyrion just telling Daenerys et al about this plan now? Would this not have been a conversation they had when he first proposed sacking Casterly Rock? “But it’s impregnable!” someone says. “You might think so,” he replies, “but listen to this amusing anecdote about my father’s self-destructive need to humiliate me!” But no, apparently he just convinced Daenerys to throw the Unsullied against the seat of Lannister power on the strength of “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you my plan later”).

We get a Bronn echo in this monologue: “Casterly Rock is an impregnable fortress,” Tyrion admits, “but as a good friend of mine once said, ‘Give me ten good men and I’ll impregnate the bitch.’” That was Bronn’s boast in season one in response to Tyrion’s comment that the Eyrie was impregnable. The fact that these lines are spoken in voice-over as the Unsullied run through the main gates like a flood of sperm is … well, on one hand, a bit overdone; on another hand, at least a little ironic.

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(Not included here: Lockett’s tedious professorial lecture on the semantic significance of “impregnable” as having the same root as “impregnate” and the fact that in Shakespeare un-sacked cities are referred to as “maidens” and that the military conquest of towns and fortresses is explicitly figured as sexual violation. See Henry V and The Rape of Lucrece if interested).

Oh, the bait-and-switch of these episodes—we watch with increasing glee as Daenerys’ forces overcome the Lannisters, our feelings stoked by Tyrion’s “why we fight” voice-over … only to realize our heroes have been out-maneuvered again. Grey Worm suddenly realizes that Casterly Rock is manned by, essentially, a skeleton crew; and he mounts the battlements to see Daenerys’ fleet again surprised and routed by Euron Greyjoy. “Where are they?” Grey Worm demands of a dying Lannister soldier. “Where are the rest of the Lannisters?”

Cut to Jaime riding through the serried ranks of soldiers the Unsullied had expected to rout. And we see who his allies are …

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Earlier in this post I commented on the symbolic role of the absent father, so it’s interesting to note that the one father who is present in the episode is Randyll Tarly—having obviously decided to betray House Tyrell and throw in his lot with the Lannisters, we see him riding alongside Bronn as the Lannister army marches on Highgarden. It’s an interesting little reveal: Randyll Tarly, however much of an asshole he is to his son Samwell, has a reputation for honour rivaling Ned Stark’s, something we caught a glimpse of in the last episode. But here he is: though Jaime was technically correct last week in saying that his loyalty to the throne supersedes his loyalty to House Tyrell, the state of the throne is such that Cersei’s legitimacy is hardly a done deal. More certain is the legitimacy of the Tyrells, but Randyll has obviously rationalized his betrayal and his elevation to Warden. Meanwhile, his disinherited son has embraced that fate and found an almost equally censorious father figure—though one that at least recognizes his talents.

But more poignantly, we see the approaching army from the perspective of the Queen of Thorns. Looking down at the attacking army from her perch, she turns away and waits for the inevitable. Jaime strides through Highgarden, passing heaps of Tyrell dead. The sequence is actually quite unusual for the show: mostly a camera following Jaime from behind, with jump cuts between different parts of the castle as, once again, “The Rains of Castemere” plays. “It’s done?” Olenna asks Jaime when he enters her chambers. On hearing the affirmative, she says, with a touch of mockery at her sentimentality, “And now the rains weep o’er our halls,” citing the very song playing. (“And so he spoke, and so he spoke, / That lord of Castamere, / But now the rains weep o’er his hall, / With no one there to hear).

Fighting, Olenna says, “was never our forte,” a line that echoes her season three excoriation of House Tyrell’s motto “Growing Strong,” and its choice of a rose as a sigil. She seems unsurprised, somehow, to be in this position—as if in her long life she has learned not to rely too heavily on hopeful expectations. Tyrion’s gambit, it turns out, did not work, at least in part because he did not know how precipitously Lannister fortunes had declined. Jaime makes clear to Olenna that he values Casterly Rock—for purely sentimental reasons, and will eventually take it back … but for the moment, it has no real value. There’s a sad bit of symbolism there for our episode’s theme of patrimony: Tyrion wanted Casterly Rock, had in fact demanded it of his father, and been rebuffed in insulting fashion. That he makes this error now—committing Daenrys’ precious Unsullied to taking a fortress that no longer has any strategic value—feels entirely like Tywin has checkmated him from beyond the grave.

But for all of our heroes’ frustrations at being outmaneuvered, there is at least one gleam of satisfaction in Olenna’s final barb. Jaime the Merciful will allow her to die without pain, in spite of all of Cersei’s baroque torture and execution fantasies. Poisoned wine—a poetic end, and she herself acknowledges.

But before I get into that, let me just say that in a brilliant episode whose brilliance was the writing and dialogue, this final scene was just. So. Good. I’m sad to bid farewell to Olenna Tyrell, but happy that she left this world delivering the barbs (or thorns) she dealt while in it. She drinks her poisoned wine quickly, so Jaime cannot change his mind about the method of her execution, but then explains why a painless poison is so very different from the way she murdered his son. “Not at all what I intended,” she says, having gulped down her death. “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.”

There are two great moments of face acting in this episode: Ellaria, when she realizes that Cersei has killed Tyene, and Jaime, when Olenna’s words land.

And with the latter, the episode ends. That it ends not with a huge spectacle or plot twist, but with the revelation of a truth we already knew speaks to the power of this episode’s writing. Things are coming together; Jon Snow meets Daenerys, but secrets like Olenna’s murder of Joffrey are coming to light. We don’t necessarily need Bran to be the Three-Eyed Raven to tell us what’s what—shit’s getting real one way or another.

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“You should know, I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

And with that, we’re done with another week of Game of Thrones! Thank you all, and we’ll see you next week. In the meantime, call you dads and tell them you love them … you have no idea what might happen otherwise.

 

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.02: “Stormborn”

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Hello again, and welcome to episode two of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones! My apologies for the lateness of this posting–entirely my fault–but here we are with our weekly recap/review/analysis. And by “we,” of course, I mean myself and the incomparable Nikki Stafford.

Lots to get through, so let’s just jump in …

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Christopher: Well, we’re in it now! We begin with Daenerys’ first major war council, and end with her first major setback, as Yara’s fleet is waylaid by Euron’s while en route to Dorne. So much for the best laid plans.

Remember last week when I said the brooding gloom of Stannis’ Dragonstone scenes had been replaced with the sun and blue skies of Daenerys’ homecoming? Well, that didn’t last long. We open on Daenerys’ new seat of power barely visible through the sheeting rain and dark—we might be on the island of Dragonstone, but the castle feels like Otranto. It’s such a wonderfully gothic intro, I couldn’t help wondering if Qyburn had relocated his cadaver reanimation lab to one of these towers, along with a supercilious hunchback assistant.

If ever I need to define pathetic fallacy to classes of mine in the future, I think I will just show them this scene: the hope of triumph of last week has given way to the stormclouds of distrust (yes, I just wrote that sentence), in a suitably portentous way. As Tyrion observes, it was on Dragonstone on just such a tempestuous night that Daenerys was born. (A quick recap of Thrones history: Daenerys was still in her mother’s belly when the queen was forced to flee King’s Landing with her young son Viserys and a handful of loyal followers, just before the Lannister army sacked the city. They sailed for Dragonstone, and it was in the throes of a terrible storm that she was born. Her mother died soon after). Daenerys, however, does not seem particularly happy. “I always imagined this would be a homecoming,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a homecoming.” Whether it’s the foul weather or the dawning awareness of the enormity of the task she’s taken on, the Mother Dragons seems to be in a bit of a mood—and less inclined than usual to deal with anyone’s bullshit. When Varys speaks encouragingly of how disliked Cersei is by any measure, suggesting that Daenerys’ arrival will erode even more support for the newly crowed queen, she’s having none of it. Flatterers and knaves had long pumped up Viserys’ dreams with lies about how the common people of Westeros drank secret toasts to him and prayed for his return; and all the while, aggrandized by such illusions, he’d abused and demeaned his little sister and his enablers facilitated her sale to Khal Drogo.

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I will admit, Daenerys’ castigation of Varys seemed to come from nowhere; and it felt entirely unfair, but only because Varys has come to be one of my favourite characters. At first I was affronted on his behalf, but as Daenerys added to the list of charges, I couldn’t help but think … well, yes—he has been playing all sides. He was complicit in essentially enslaving her to the Dothraki. She navigated herself through that magnificently, as Varys points out, but that doesn’t really negate his willingness to use a helpless girl as a pawn on his board, and to assist a cruel and capricious fool in his quest for power.

So where do Varys’ loyalties lie? His response is one of my favourite Varys moments yet, and it is a speech I kind of want to send to every Republican in Congress cynically working with Trump:

Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes I’ll use them. I wasn’t born into a great house. I came from nothing. I was sold as a slave, and carved up as an offering. When I was a child, I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people, the people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win.

Daenerys comes around to his perspective, making him swear he’ll tell her if she forsakes her duty to the people. It’s an interesting moment, and an interesting question for a fantasy series that has, for all intents and purposes, progressive politics: how to square a contemporary, democratic worldview with a neo-medieval narrative? One thing Game of Thrones has done well—both the novels and the series—is complicate the traditional regressive tendencies of fantasy, which as a genre is nostalgic about rather emphatically undemocratic politics, i.e. hereditary monarchy. As a rule, the genre cheats: employing the trope of fate or destiny, the suggestion is always that the person or people destined to rule will always be great rulers simply by dint of being destined (Aragorn, King Arthur, the Pevensie siblings, e.g.). One thing Thrones has made clear is that hereditary kings and queens—and the absolute power they wield—are pretty much a nightmare, and the best you can hope for is a ruler that isn’t actually sociopathic.

But then we shift from Varys’ quasi-egalitarian and vaguely humanist manifesto to an audience with someone who is all about the destiny. What did you make of Melissandre’s return, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’m a huge fan of the complexities of Melisandre, and I think the actress playing her is astounding, so I was thrilled when she showed up. And it’s so interesting to think, in a way, that she’s literally back where she started when we first saw her: at Dragonstone, where she was with Stannis Baratheon in the season two premiere. And as Dany points out, her timing is rather fortuitous. Just moments earlier Tyrion stood between Daenerys and Varys as they went back and forth, and watched the two of them like a tennis match, occasionally interjecting with support for Varys. You could tell he was nervous: the Mother of Dragons seemed suddenly pissed, and, you know, she has dragons so all the little birds in the world weren’t going to help The Spider in that moment. And now we have Melisandre, standing before Daenerys and telling her that she needs to ally herself with Jon Snow, King of the North (cough your nephew cough), to stop the White Walkers. Once again Daenerys begins to challenge the person standing before her, and once again Tyrion jumps in to stick up for Jon Snow. He seems A) surprised to hear that Jon Snow is still alive, and B) impressed at how far he’s come, and happy to advise Dany to align herself with him because he knows Jon Snow is a man of honor. Daenerys replies that she will allow Jon Snow to come and talk to her directly, but under one condition: he needs to bend the knee to her. As I’ve often said, the main difference between Daenerys and Jon Snow in the game of thrones is that she actually wants it; he does not. But all I could think of at the end of this scene is, “EEEEE, we’re finally going to see Daenerys and Jon Snow in the same scene!!”

I love your summary of Varys’s scene above: I mentioned to you in one of my emails last week, Chris, that I was this close to mentioning politics in my post last week but decided against it. But now, two weeks in a row, much like you I can’t help but mention how easy it is to read the insane politics of the real world into the insane politics of this show. It’s not that Game of Thrones has changed — I mean, this has always been a show about politics, and we’ve been discussing and analyzing the different political stances of the characters for years now — it’s that Western politics have changed so drastically in the past year that now we’re seeing real parallels between our world and Westeros. No more having to reach back through history to talk about parallels between this show and real leaders: we just have to check yesterday’s Twitter feed to do that.

Last week we had Sansa and Jon going toe to toe, with Jon taking more of the position of the left — yes these Houses may have been against us but we are willing to forgive to keep our promises and to keep the government moving forward — versus Sansa’s more right-wing strategy — they betrayed us, and this is every man for himself and if betray us, we leave them behind. Neither side took an extreme position, but it was an excellent demonstration of how each side has its positives and negatives. Jon comes off looking weak in his pursuit to keep things moving, and Sansa comes off looking heartless and filibustering in her pursuit to deter others from making the same move. And yet Jon also looks like he has a heart, whereas Sansa looks like she’s got a good point: if we let anyone betray us and we forgive them, won’t more people betray us?

And then we had the discussion between Samwell Tarly and Archmaester Ebrose during the autopsy last week. As Sam is lamenting the white walkers coming and the world descending into madness and wondering how they’ll ever get out of this one, the Archmaester reassures him that actually, the world was descending into this terrible place before, and they survived it once. Sam is like, “But but but the white walkers are different, and they’re carrying banners saying they’re going to make Westeros great again!” but the Archmaester waves off his concerns and says that the white walkers used to carry banners with swastikas on them and we survived that.

And now we have Lord Varys being brutally honest in the opening that it’s not that he’s disloyal, but he will call out any leader who is no longer leading the people in the manner they deserve. In a monarchist system, he’s the one imposing a measure of democracy.

What’s really interesting is that you and I read the scene the same way, Chris, because we’re both pretty entrenched on the left. I imagine a viewer who supports Trump probably read it entirely differently, cheering equally loudly, thinking that Varys would be the one to unseat a despot like Obama and make sure the people’s voices are heard through Trump. (But even if Varys ever DID think something like this, six months into this presidency I would assume he would be infiltrating the Russians just to figure out a way to burn down Trump Tower.)

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And from this scene we move to Cersei, sitting on the Iron Throne and twisting the truth about Daenerys so far it’s screaming for mercy when she makes up a bunch of lies. She tells them that as the Mad King’s daughter, she’ll similarly destroy all of Westeros. She’ll destroy the castles, and her Dothraki will butcher small children. They are the foreigners who will invade their free land and rape and pillage their people (I half-expected her to propose a wall). Daenerys will open a pizza parlour in Dorne and traffic children through it in the basement (despite the fact it has no basement) and by the way this bullshit about winter coming being blamed on the environment is crap because climate change isn’t real!!!! Cersei is charismatic, and has every person hanging on her every word. She takes real things and twists them into what she knows her people want to hear. She whips her people into a frothy angry mess until they’re all willing to go after the Dragon Queen, while certain viewers at home (like me) are yelling, “FAKE NEWS!!” the whole time. And it seems that she’s got them all in the palm of her hand until Lord Randyll Tarly steps forward (yes, that would be Samwell Tarly’s cruel and horrible father) and wants to know exactly how they plan to stop three full-grown dragons. Qyburn says don’t worry, we have a solution.

While Cersei sits on the throne waving her small hands around and shouting epithets, Jaime takes Lord Tarly aside to try to woo him. He knows Tarly is powerful, as is his House. He also knows that the Tarlys’ strongest allegiance is to the Tyrells, who are now their worst enemy after Cersei managed to blow up Olenna’s grandchildren real good. Tarly is hesitant: once you swear an oath, you should stick to it, but Jaime reminds him that Olenna Tyrell was the one who brought the Dothraki to their shores. (If you’ll recall, at the end of season six, Ellaria Sand talked Olenna into joining forces with her, and then Varys stepped out of the shadows to offer revenge in return for the Tyrell ships, and it’s those ships that carried Daenerys and the Dothraki army and the Unsullied to the shores of Westeros.) Jaime tells Tarly that if he switches his allegiance from the Tyrells to the Lannisters, he will make him ward of the South. And you can see in Tarly’s eyes that his allegiance just changed.

From there we’re back over to Oldtown (now with far fewer scenes involving fecal matter!). What did you think of the scene in the Citadel and Jorah Mormont’s diagnosis, Chris?

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Christopher: I’m loving Sam’s continuing education, what few scraps of it we’re party to—it’s become obvious that Archmaester Ebrose is his mentor, or advisor, or however they designate that relationship in the Citadel. Sam shadows him, and apparently acts as his research assistant as well (more on that in a moment). And in the course of such duties, he’s present for the Archmaester’s diagnosis of Ser Jorah, who is now well and truly afflicted by greyscale (though, fortunately, leaving his ruggedly handsome face untouched).

One of the things I loved about this episode was the serendipitous intersections that occur—after six seasons, one has the sense of things starting to come together. Tyrion’s moment of surprise on hearing Jon Snow is King in the North; Arya encountering Hot Pie again, and hearing from him the same news; and of course the heartbreaking scene in which Arya is briefly reunited with her direwolf Nymeria. But for me it was so affecting to see Sam’s expression when Ser Jorah tells Sam his last name. “Mormont?” Sam repeats the name, almost incredulously.

Is it the knowledge that Jorah is related to his belated, beloved Lord Commander that inspires Sam to attempt a desperate cure? One assumes so, though before he goes rogue he has to run the idea past Ebrose—who is far more preoccupied with his own research project, which is a “chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” As he leads Sam through the labyrinth of the stacks, loading him up with an increasingly vertiginous pile of books, he lectures him pedantically about the need to split the difference between conscientious research and an engaging writing style.

I like this moment because it makes clear the fact that the Citadel is basically a medieval / early modern university. It may seem odd to contemporary sensibilities that a physician would also be engaged in writing history, not as a hobby but as part of his scholarly pursuits; but the model of scholarship outlined by GRRM is one in which maesters earn their chain of office by mastering different disciplines, with each link in their chain forged from a different metal symbolizing a specific area of expertise. Given that we live in an age of hyperspecialization, it’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, the premise of the university was built into that very word—i.e., universality. The last vestiges of that philosophy are present in the way we make students take representative courses in humanities, social science, and science … the holdover of a time when one could actually become an expert in most things.

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It occurred to me that Ebrose is basically writing the story we’re living—again, “a chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” “What?” he says to Sam. “You don’t like the title? What would you call it then?” As tactfully as he can, Sam replies, “Possibly something a bit more … poetic?” Something, perhaps, about thrones? And the games people play to get them?

I’m just spitballing here.

But Sam has been doing some research of his own, and thinks he’s found a way to cure Ser Jorah. And of course, his advisor quashes the idea, as advisors have been doing since the dawn of academe. But Sam is undeterred: we fade to Ser Jorah writing what we assume is his final missive to Daenerys (all that is legible is “Khaleesi, I came to the Citadel” before the text blurs into unintelligibility); as in a brief moment earlier, when Ebrose said he’d give him an extra day “to use as he wished,” Jorah pauses to look at his sword—the rather obvious suggestion being that he intends suicide rather than be sent to Valyria to live among the stone men. But enter the Samwell ex machina! Who tells Jorah he knew his father, and was there when he died, and that Jorah will not be dying today.

A very poignant and touching moment—followed by one of the more excruciating sequences since Ramsay’s torture of Theon. Yikes. “Have you ever done this before?” Jorah asks. The expression on his face when Sam says no is such a lovely bit of wordless acting by Iain Glenn: communicating, even before Sam says as much, that this is his only choice, and that there’s no question that he’ll suffer whatever he’s subjected to.

The less said about the cut to Arya’s scene the better. Suffice to say, I won’t be eating chicken pot pie any time soon.

But in skipping to the possible cure for greyscale, I’ve leapfrogged some key scenes. What did you think of Daenerys’ meeting with the allies, of Tyrion’s war plan, and Olenna’s advice? And what did you think of the consummation of Grey Worm and Missandei’s love?

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Nikki: Yeah, I’m with you on that one. I just bought a bunch of meat pies and they’re in my freezer. They might be there for a while now.

In the midst of Sam dealing with Jorah’s greyscale, we see Cersei descend into the caves with Qyburn where he shows her his device, the very thing he believes will give her an edge over the Mother of Dragons. They stare at the skull of a dragon that once belonged to Aegon, a dragon even bigger and fiercer than Drogon, Daenerys’s largest and most beloved “child.” Qyburn leads Cersei to a giant crossbow armed with a spear, and tells Cersei that in a recent battle one of the dragons had been hurt by a much smaller spear. He allows her the honour of pulling the lever of the crossbow, and this massive iron spear pierces the dragon’s skull, taking out the eye cavity and back of its head. Cersei stands there smiling slyly.

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It’s interesting how many times revenge has been wreaked on Cersei’s offspring. When Cersei had Oberon killed, Ellaria got her revenge by killing Myrcella. When Olenna Tyrell had had enough of the Lannister sister, she killed her son, Joffrey. And when Tommen had had enough of his mother, he killed himself. So now that Cersei is faced with possibly the biggest challenge to her Iron Throne, she decides to go after Daenerys’s three children the same way people came at hers. I can’t even begin to imagine what Dany would do if Cersei hurts her dragons. But knowing this show, we’re gonna find out.

Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, Dany is meeting with her allies — Yara Greyjoy (with her brother Theon standing silently behind her), Ellaria Sand (with the Sand Snakes backing her), and Olenna Tyrell, who needs no entourage. They’re skeptical at first, and Olenna looks upon Dany as one who is too young and inexperienced to possibly go up against Cersei. They believe the only way to win this is to lay a siege upon King’s Landing. When Daenerys declares that she will not be queen of the ashes, Olenna explains that Margaery was the most beloved queen of all time (whitewashing that history just a wee bit) and now she’s nothing but ashes. But Daenerys holds strong: she won’t attack King’s Landing. And that’s when Tyrion steps up and states his plan: the Tyrell and Dorne armies will surround King’s Landing and starve out Cersei. And meanwhile, the Unsullied will attack and take Casterly Rock, the ancestral home of the Lannisters. Olenna smiles, and gives her permission for the attack to take place, as do the rest. But when the others leave the room, Olenna cautions Daenerys that Tyrion is a clever man, but that doesn’t mean she needs to follow everything he tells her to do. “You’re a dragon, not a sheep,” she tells her, and reminds her that she’s a powerful woman going up against a powerful woman (and listening to the advice of a powerful woman). Westeros is not the sort of place where women heed men. All of the power on the show currently resides in the hands of women. And while it seems like a good plan, let’s not forget that the one place Tyrion would want more than any other would be Casterly Rock. What better way to return to the world in blazing glory than to take his father’s home from the conniving siblings who have ousted him from everything he’s owed?

BUT… I think Tyrion’s plan is sound. We saw the way Cersei was twisting who Daenerys is, and portraying her and her armies as the foreigners who were going to come into their land and sully everything by destroying King’s Landing. Tyrion knows his sister, and knows this is the sort of thing she’s going to say, and so by going to Casterly Rock they make it personal, and don’t alienate all of the people who live in King’s Landing. They’re looking to take out Cersei while keeping the civilian casualties to a minimum.

And then we get the moment of boom chicka bow bow with Grey Worm and Missandei. I shouldn’t actually minimize it, because it was a beautiful moment between two people who have been tortured and treated like animals their entire lives, who have had their freedoms and sense of agency stripped from them, and in this one moment they finally do something both of them want to do, and it involves the wishes or desires of no one but them. Though I couldn’t help but think the scene went on for a long time, and when we have only eleven episodes left after this one — ELEVEN! — there’s a part of me that feels like we don’t have time for this!!! But then again, maybe that’s the point: we’re so caught up in the giant politics and the Houses and the chess pieces moving all over the huge map of Westeros that we’re forgetting about the little people, the ones who don’t belong to great houses, the ones whose lives won’t fundamentally be changed by whoever is sitting on that throne, who are focusing on the things they could gain and the things they could lose in this war. We spend so much time on the key families — the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, Greyjoys, Tyrells, Mormonts, Tarlys, Baratheons… and several bastards — that we never actually see anyone outside of them. And it’s lovely to see them. BUT LET’S GET BACK TO THE ACTION.

sam-eyebrow

I actually loved the camera cut here again, Chris. Just as earlier they did the oogy camera cut from the pussy scab to the oozing pot pie (NOOOOOOO), here they cut from Grey Worm about to put his head between Missandei’s legs to… Ebrose sliding his hand sideways between two books. I laughed right out loud.

And now over to Arya, who, as you mentioned, is reunited with Hot Pie. I was so happy to see him again! I think he last saw Arya in season three when she left him at this inn and he gave her a lumpy little loaf of bread sort of shaped like a direwolf. When Brienne returned to the inn (a meeting he mentions here), he gives her another one, and this is a very highly skilled shape of a direwolf. Now it seems his cooking skills have improved once again as Arya tucks hungrily into his food. I loved watching the way she eats, all messy and constantly wiping her hand across her face. I couldn’t help but once again remember her back in season one, with Sansa complaining that she’s not ladylike and Arya complaining that that’s simply not who she is. I hope the reunion with Sansa includes Sansa sitting there slightly disgusted while Arya slurps up her stew.

hotpie

But after he gives Sansa the shocking news that Jon Snow has won the Battle of the Bastards and Ramsay Bolton is dead, she goes outside and changes direction. No longer is she heading for revenge on Cersei; she’s realized being with her family is what she really wants, and she’s been alone for far too long.

And that’s when we get the scene I’ve been waiting for since season one. We’ve both maintained that that direwolf is out there somewhere, and when Arya is at first surrounded by wolves I thought, but she’s from House Stark; would wolves automatically stand down knowing that she used to have a— and just then, the giant direwolf steps up. I leapt right off the couch when it happened, stammering through my words as my husband said, “Is that a direwolf?” “It’s HER direwolf oh my GOD it’s Lady NO WAIT that was Sansa’s it’s the one she let go when she thought Joffrey was going to have it killed it’s NYMERIA!!!” This scene was BEAUTIFULLY done. There’s no way anyone else would have walked away from that moment alive, but Arya recognizes her direwolf right away. She walks up to it tentatively, and after a few moments of baring her teeth, Nymeria recognizes her human and steps back to look at her for a moment. Arya tries to coax her to come with her, to tell her that she’s returning to Winterfell… but the direwolf makes eye contact, they have their moment, and then it’s over. Arya says, “That’s not you,” as Nymeria leaves her, and all of the other wolves from her pack follow her. I took the line to mean that Arya was speaking for both of them in that moment. Just as I mentioned the rough eating reminded me of Arya saying she’s not meant to be ladylike, and now, all these years later she’s proven that’s exactly the case, Nymeria, too, wasn’t meant to be someone’s direwolf. We can’t imagine the things she’s been through or seen, but being by Arya’s side is no longer her place. She has her own life now, and it’s not with Arya. She acknowledges that she remembers her human by looking right at Arya and leaving her intact, but she’s going to return to her pack now, and go on with her life. And, perhaps, Arya’s life no longer requires a direwolf to be at her side, either. I can’t stress how gorgeous I thought this scene was. It played out exactly the opposite of how we wanted it to, and yet it seemed perfect. The last time Nymeria saw Arya, Arya hugged her and then shooed her away into the woods, and despite Nymeria constantly looking back, pleading with her eyes to return to her, Arya continued to shoo her away. She can’t just ask the direwolf to return now: she has her own life, and it doesn’t include Arya.

nymeria-nice

And that’s when I couldn’t help but think… does Arya even belong with the Starks? I joke about the eating scene with Sansa, but could you imagine the two sisters actually living together beyond that initial reunion? I can think of so many characters Arya would be better suited to hang out with than Sansa — hell, the Hound comes to mind — and it’s unclear now if Arya will continue on to Winterfell, or turn that horse around yet again and head back to where she was originally going.

But speaking of people coming together that I cannot WAIT to see happen, Jon Snow has gotten Dany’s raven, and he insists he’s going to see her. And we get a reprise of the government scene from last week. What did you think of Jon Snow’s performance before the Houses of the North this week, Chris?

jon-meeting

Christopher: Well, first it begins with a brief scene in which Jon pores over a map, which seems to be becoming a key motif this season. The solitude of power: here he is, alone, weighing his, and the North’s, options. His maester arrives with Sam’s message about dragonglass on Dragonstone, and whatever question he had about responding to Tyrion’s message is suddenly resolved.

As I said last week, Jon is a single-issue leader: the threat from the Night’s King consumes him, and whatever qualms he might have had about meeting Daenerys in person are overruled by the prospect of access to the weapons he needs to win that war. In the earlier scene when Davos points out that dragonfire would be a great asset against the wights, I wrote in my notes “Davos gets it!” Which is of course unsurprising—Davos has proven himself to be one of the smartest and most astute characters on the show. The fact that Jon means to travel to Dragonstone with him speaks both to this fact, and to Jon’s own occasional bout of common sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did he do with the northern houses? Like last time we had this scene, he has to deal with Sansa’s objections; unlike last time, he has to deal with the unanimity of opinion against his decision. The houses, it seemed, could go both ways on the question of who should get the traitorous houses’ castles; but they’re all pretty united in the idea that Jon needs to stay put. Even Lyanna Mormont, usually the reliable voice of dissent, says “Winter is here, Your Grace—we need the King in the North in the North.”

We feel the weight of history in this scene: “A Targaryen cannot be trusted,” Yohn Royce tells Jon. “Nor can a Lannister.” The spectre of the Mad King lies over Daenerys—whatever his actually crimes, the intervening years have augmented them and the Targaryen name by association. The weight of recent history pervades as well. Lord Glover reminds Jon that his brother Robb died when he went south, not on the field of battle, but in a craven trap set by the Lannisters. Why would he willingly put his head in the lion’s mouth, as it were, knowing everything that has happened before?

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all smacked our heads in the past at Jon’s poor judgment. At least here we, as the audience, have the gods’-eye view that lets us know this is the right choice—his instincts about Tyrion are correct (and vice versa), and we know Daenerys is not her father. So it’s an odd turn on dramatic irony to watch this scene and want to scream at the people trying to dissuade Jon as opposed to the other way around. Plus, we’re all just SO FUCKING STOKED to finally have Daenerys meet the only other living Targaryen (even if both are oblivious to the fact).

But of course, he still needs to convince his people that he’s making a good decision, or at the very least that he’s not leaving them in the lurch. “You’re abandoning your people!” Sansa accuses him. “You’re abandoning your home!” Jon’s declaration that the North will be Sansa’s until he returns seems to satisfy the room, including Sansa—whose expression (Sophie Turner is so good in this moment) is a beautiful mélange of surprise, happiness, and anxiety. Of course, the expression we then cut to is Littlefinger’s, which is somewhat less confused—Sansa will be in charge? How delightful! We can see the gears turning right away.

(Speaking of conflicted expressions, both Brienne and Davos look at best ambivalent, possibly because both have the same misgivings about Littlefinger as EVERY HALFWAY INTELLIGENT PERSON IN THE WORLD).

jon-littlefinger

Speaking of Littlefinger, I can only imagine it’s because he was emboldened by Jon’s declared intention to (1) transfer power to Sansa and (2) leave Winterfell for an indeterminate time, that he felt compelled to join Jon in the crypts and tell him lies about his relationship to Ned. And then—and this is where he gets brazen—tell truths about his love for Catelyn and now Sansa. Jon reacts predictably, in fact reacts precisely the same way as Ned did in season one when Littlefinger, promising to bring Ned to Catelyn, brings him to a brothel. You’d think the man would get weary of being choked by Starks, but here we are …

“Touch my sister,” Jon growls, “ and I’ll kill you myself.” He stalks off, leaving Littlefinger to catch his breath and smirk.

Right now I’m hoping Littlefinger dies a particularly gruesome death before all is done, and I hope Varys presides over it.

Which brings us to the final spectacular scene of the episode, which unfortunately begins with the Sand Snakes squabbling and with what qualifies as some of the worst pre-coital chat I’ve heard outside of “Yeah, I’m here to fix the cable?” What did you make of this episode’s ship-burning finale, Nikki?

yara_ellaria

Nikki: No one does fiery battles like Game of Thrones. The special effects are spectacular and jaw-dropping… this show can’t be topped when it comes to scenes like this one. It hearkened back to the Battle of the Blackwater: ships on the water, fire floating atop it, major characters’ lives at stake. And with us coming down to the final episodes of the series, there’s so much at stake now the tension seemed to be fraught the entire time.

The scene began below decks with Yara coming on to Ellaria, who immediately takes the bait and moves over to the other side of the table to have her way with the Greyjoy daughter… although I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellaria was pulling her into a Sand trap in that moment and was going to stab her in the back for reasons I hadn’t yet figured out and didn’t need to because OMG what is happening above decks?!

And sure enough, good ol’ Uncle Euron has shown up to the Thanksgiving dinner pissed again, and everyone’s going to pay for it this time. I won’t go into detail on the battle itself — it just needs to be watched, and I simply stopped taking notes because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen — but the Sand Snakes immediately jump to the decks to protect their mother… and don’t fare so well.

euron

Before I say anymore, I must admit that I’ve been a little disappointed by the Sand Snakes. They were built up so much by the readers of the books that I feel that they were more well-rounded in GRRM’s version, because over here they talk a tough talk, but we rarely see them actually do anything. It’s like I’ve spent the entire time they’ve existed on the show just waiting for the moment they’ll be truly spectacular, and that moment has never come.

And so, when Obara is killed first (my favourite Sand Snake, but only because Keisha Castle-Hughes plays her and Whale Rider is one of my all-time favourite movies), I was actually quite upset. Not because we’ve lost someone who was a great character, but because we’d lost someone who had the potential to be a great character and I was still waiting for her moment.

The next one to go was Nymeria — how strange that one episode showed the reappearance of Nymeria the direwolf, and the death of Nymeria the Sand Snake — who is strangled by her own whip. My husband was quick to call both of the now-deceased Sand Snakes “useless” in this moment, but I will say they fought a hell of a lot harder and longer than I would have done. Again, I think they had the potential to be formidable foes, but in a story that so far has featured 27,741 main characters, there just wasn’t a lot of room for three more.

But speaking of how useless I would have been in a fight, we now come back around to Theon. Or, should I say… Reek. For yes, he’s back, and in a poignant moment that actually made my chest hurt, the show didn’t shy away from Theon’s inability to perform in this moment to save his sister. Nor did it hang on to the fiction that he was going to be just fine. As I’ve maintained before, he will now always be Reek, because he’s broken. He will never be whole again.

Yara fights brilliantly, but her uncle overpowers her. As Euron grabs Yara and holds his axe to her throat, he begins to goad “little Theon” to come and save her. And for a brief moment Theon doesn’t hesitate, and moves to do exactly that… until he hears the screams of the men around him. He looks down, and sees Euron’s men torturing the Ironborn army, and you can see the PTSD flash through his brain and return in an instant. His face takes on a different look, and he begins to jerk his head with that strange tic he developed when he became Ramsay’s dog. And as Yara looks on, the hope fades from her eyes as she sees her brother disappear and Reek pop up in his place, and she knows she’s a dead woman. Moments before she’d been telling Ellaria that Theon would become her bodyguard and advisor, but she had tricked herself into thinking her brother was somehow better.

I loved this moment, because in the midst of a spectacular battle scene, we have this small moment where the show deigns to touch on a severe mental illness that’s been brought on by the torture of a man, and that one moment changes the course of the entire battle. The Theon Greyjoy of old might have had a shot against Euron Greyjoy (might) but Theon left the building a few years ago. Reek can do nothing but jump overboard as Yara resigns herself to her fate, tears of anger and hopelessness running down her face.

theon_yara

As the episode ends, Theon floats on some driftwood in the water looking at the ships on fire around him. He can’t board any of them, he’s let down his sister and his leader, and he watches Euron Greyjoy’s boat sail away with Obara and Nymeria impaled and hanging on the prow of the ship, like human figureheads. Theon has nowhere to go now.

And Euron Greyjoy sails back to King’s Landing, with Ellaria, Yara, and Ellaria’s daughter… and now he’s got his gift for Cersei. Last week I said, “I wonder who’s head it will be?” but he’s not bringing back heads — he’s going to let Cersei do the torturing. I’m thinking he hands her Ellaria and Tyene and keeps Yara for himself. And Cersei is going to make Ellaria watch as she tortures Tyene. Ugh.

This was such a packed episode — deaths, a great battle, small moments, political movements forward, and lots of old faces. But it definitely had a recurring theme as we come to the end of this incredible series, and that is that people have been changed fundamentally. Just as Arya says, “That’s not you” to Nymeria, recognizing that the direwolf has changed, and so has she, we look at so many of the characters on this show and realize they’ve changed, too. Theon Greyjoy will never be the same because of the events of the last few years. Arya has changed, Sansa has changed and become much tougher politically… Sam Tarly never would have had the guts to do what he’s doing right now before he’d fought in the Night’s Watch and saved Gilly and her baby… Cersei has become even colder and more heartless than she used to be. And yet Daenerys and Jon Snow seem to be moving along in the same course they always were, never wavering from their original beliefs. They’ve both been changed forever, and yet intrinsically they remain the same. I can’t wait to see them on the screen at the same time next week.
And that concludes yet another week of our Game of Thrones chat. Thanks for reading this far, and we’ll see you next week!

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Don’t Ruin My TV With Politics! … and other absurdities.

Nikki and I will have this week’s Game of Thrones recap and review up in a day or two, but in the meantime I want to share my newfound Twitter celebrity.

Well … Twitter celebrity by my standards, which is to say the standards of someone whose blog posts top out at maybe one hundred page views and who tweets about once a millennium.

It’s my turn to lead off our Thrones discussion this week, so I wanted to get my first pass done before going to bed. I was in the middle of talking about Varys’ amazing speech defending his ostensibly flexible loyalties when a thought occurred to me. Quickly finding that scene on TMN Go, I took a screen cap of Varys and memed it. I posted it to Facebook and then—as an afterthought, because I hardly ever use Twitter—I tweeted it.

main tweet

Within a few minutes, my phone was buzzing every few seconds to tell me someone liked it and/or retweeted it (as I write this the next day, my phone is still going off with alarming regularity). I woke this morning to see that I had over a thousand likes, which by my standard makes me want to don a Garbo-esque scarf and seek solitude. I mentioned this to my girlfriend as we had coffee, and she immediately called it up on her phone. “Oh my god,” she said. “Have you read any of the replies?”

I had honestly forgotten than people can reply to tweets, mainly because I’ve had so few replies in the past. But now that I had a tweet being fairly broadly disseminated, it was inspiring responses beyond just likes and retweets—and many of the responses were, shall we say, less than enthused. To put it briefly: I’m apparently a lunatic libtard intent on destroying a great TV show by bringing politics into it. Case(s) in point:

justatvshow

politics

lib-lunatic

OK. So, I’m going to talk about the political content of Game of Thrones later in this post, but for now can I just say: Wha? Getting your nose out of joint because someone “brings politics” into Thrones is like getting upset with someone for suggesting that The Wire has a lot to do with race. The show is about politics, as a few respondents pointed out …

realvsfantasy

And here, a classic misapprehension of precisely what fantasy—and fabulation, fiction, and imaginative invention more broadly—is about. Perhaps you watch Game of Thrones to distract yourself from the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in some variety of ways, about the world.

But again, more on that below.

First, here’s a few of my favourite responses. It is taking ALL MY WILLPOWER not to respond to them individually on Twitter, but as my girlfriend reminded me this morning, it isn’t worth it to feed the trolls. As Jayne Cobb would say, there ain’t no percentage in it. Instead I’ll respond to them here for the benefit of my tens of readers.

swampMAGA

And how’s that working out for you?

At least one person granted that the show might have an allegorical dimension:

hilary

Then there was this one, a variation on the Trump-wrestling-CNN gif:

OK, so with this one I just have to ask: you do know that Euron is the bad guy, right? He’s a despot and rapist, and his attack on these key female characters is …

Sigh. Never mind.

democratsheep

By what metric? Obama was worse than Hoover, Filmore, or Pierce? Or Bush Jr.? Look, even if you think everything Obama did was disastrous, the key question here is competence. Hate what he did all you want, but dude at least got shit done.

Here’s someone who apparently took the few seconds to read my profile:

associateprof

Two things: one, what “associate professor” actually means is that I have tenure. Two, that’s the lawyers’ business what they call themselves. “Counselor” is a pretty cool title, so perhaps they’re happy with that. And for what it’s worth, the title “doctor” was employed by doctors of philosophy for centuries before physicians adopted it.

This one makes me wonder if the guy knows me:

jackass

That seems a wee bit personal. But as it happens, I’m in good company. There are plenty of jackasses who see real world politics in GoT (and over 1500 of them have liked my tweet so far).

entitlement

I’m just going to assume this one is a knee-jerk response this person tweets to anything resembling liberal/lefty sentiment, given that I really don’t see what it has to do with my tweet.

Speaking of WTF tweets:

republicans

I … what? I suppose I would be … if I had been. I mean, I am Canadian, and I suppose the balance of my bosses might have been card-carrying Tories, but …

Yeah. Really don’t get this one.

libtard

Dear Americans: fix that electoral college already, wouldya?

workday

Well, except for those who obviously watched the show and made a special point to take the time to call me an idiot.

sopolitically

I think my Twitter handle confused this poor fellow.

And my favourite thus far (as the hits keep coming):

butthurt

Yes. Yes. It’s true. I cannot hold more than one thought in my head. Trump is the only thing there is any more, and he has ruined every pleasure I might otherwise have. Samwell in the Citadel Library? All I can think of is Betsy DeVos. Ser Jorah’s greyscale? OMG, Medicaid cuts! I wonder if Melissandre is plagiarizing Michelle Obama. What bathroom would Grey Worm use in South Carolina? Is Cersei going to build a wall? Are all Dornishmen bringing drugs? Are they rapists? Littlefinger? Little hands! Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

Idiot.

***

So, back to the question of Thrones and politics.

Is Game of Thrones about politics? Of course it is. It’s a show all about individuals and groups jockeying for power, and striving to maintain what power they have. It’s somewhat amusing that people would question this with regard to this episode in particular, considering that three out of the five principal storylines have to do with political maneuvering: Tyrion counseling Daenerys to proceed in a manner that will win her the support of the major houses, Cersei attempting to frighten other houses into falling in line behind the throne (and Jaime making an extra effort to recruit Randyll Tarly), and Jon Snow considering the risk vs. reward scenario of allying with Daenerys. The episode might have given us a thrilling sea-battle, and might have distracted us with the sexual shenanigans of Grey Worm and Missandei, and Yara and Ellaria, but ultimately this episode—like so many episodes preceding it—was a meditation on what it means to attain, retain, and exercise power.

And the show depicts the contestations of power and politics in a manner far more consonant with other HBO offerings like The Wire and Deadwood than with The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. To the dude above who tells us “Don’t compare real and fantasy,” I say don’t confuse fantasy with “fantasy.” Game of Thrones might have magic and dragons and take place in an alternative reality, but it is an eminently political show.

But then, The Lord of the Rings is also political—just not in the same manner as Thrones. Power is treated in markedly different ways in the two works, but both make political statements. Tolkien’s masterpiece is an expression of nostalgia for a premodern world governed by extrinsic, spiritual laws and a rigid religious hierarchy, and was written in part as a vehement reaction against what he saw as the depredations of modernity, secularism, and technology. Is that not a political statement? Daenerys’ challenge to Varys in this week’s episode articulates a tension in GRRM’s work between an essentially progressive sensibility embedded in an essentially conservative genre—Varys’ impassioned speech is populist and democratic, but reflects the difficulty of finding a vehicle for such beliefs in a monarchical, undemocratic world.

As it is, sadly, in our own at the moment.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.01: “Dragonstone”

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Welcome back one and all to season seven of Game of Thrones and, along with it, the great Chris and Nikki co-blog—in which we dissect, debate, recap, and just generally dork out on an episode by episode basis.

In the season seven premiere, we watch the dissolution of House Frey, see Euron Greyjoy go all emo, sow the seeds of a Stark sibling rivalry, suffer through bad, bad celebrity casting, and suffer also alongside Sam as he learns that grad school isn’t what the brochure said. Oh, and Daenerys returns home.

Seeing as how Nikki played us out at the end of last season, she gets the first word. Nikki?

arya_dead-freys

Nikki: The episode opens not with its trademark credits, but at a party that looks suspiciously like the Red Wedding. Walder Frey is holding court in front of the people who aided him with the Red Wedding, which happened ages ago… or, wait, no, maybe this is a flashback, since we all saw Arya feed Frey some beautiful finger food (snort) in the previous episode before slicing his throat in the same way her own mother’s throat had been sliced at the wedding. So… if he’s alive and chatting, maybe we’re seeing a flashback to shortly after the wedding happened. But wait, there’s that frumpy wife of his who just became his wife recently, I think. He’s got his harem/daughters/who knows anymore pouring wine for all of his soldiers, thanking them for their work at the Red Wedding, and adding that they did a good job killing a bunch of innocent people (cue WTF looks being passed around by the soldiers) but they didn’t actually kill all of the Starks. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe,” he says.

And then the men start dropping, which we knew would happen. They die in horrific ways, much the same way Joffrey died at his own wedding. (Might I say that the wine murders are highly effective on this show.) And then, just as viewers are starting to catch on — if they hadn’t when Frey was talking — Frey pulls a Scooby-Doo, yanks off his face, and it’s our beloved Arya Stark. She turns to Frey’s shocked wife and says that if anyone asks what happened here, “Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

YES!!! And with that, cue credits. What a wicked opening.

zombie_giant

For the last time, people, it isn’t Wun Wun!

Because the writers have to cover a ton of territory from this point on, we get a flash of The Walking Dead: Northern Exposure as the white walkers come in a swirl of blizzard, moving southward while bringing the storms with them. Then there’s a quick cut to Bran arriving at the Wall with Meera (Eeee! Reunions are coming!). And then we cut to Jon Snow and return to the main story.

What I really loved about this episode is that at the end of season six we were left with a few “certainties”: Sam Tarly had the best job ever, Jon Snow and Sansa were aligned in their leadership in the North, Jaime was going to probably kill Cersei for what happened, Euron was going to take a while to get to King’s Landing… and many of those expectations were undermined in this first episode.

What did you think of Jon Snow’s meeting when we see him for the first time this episode, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first, let me just say it’s amazing to be back discussing this show with you, Nikki, especially after having to wait two and a half months longer than usual. Worth the wait, though—that cold open was, to my mind, the best the series has given us (not that it has much competition—there’s only been a few in the entire run of the show). And I had the same Scooby-Doo vibe when Arya pulled off her Walder Frey mask, though it occurred to me that it was a reverse Scooby-Doo—in which the werewolf / ghost / vampire pulls off his own mask at the end to reveal Old Man Jones, who laughs at the success of his evil plan while the gang all lie dead at his feet.

Yeah, my mind takes dark turns at times.

Sansa is right when she later tells Jon “You’re good at this.” He is—he carries authority well, and commands the room, no thanks to Sansa herself. But more on that in a moment.

As always, Lyanna Mormont is the star—this time telling off one of Jon’s lords when he scoffs at the notion that he should put a sword in the hand of his granddaughter. It was a wonderful speech, but it also left me thinking “would this hard-bitten Northman really cede authority to a woman, much less a girl, so meekly?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally team Lyanna in this; and the look on Brienne’s face as she’s speaking is worth the price of admission. But for a fantasy series that invests so much of its capital in a certain amount of historical realism, I found the lord’s diffidence a bit of a stretch. To be certain, the larger portion of the ass-kicking that has happened on this show (literally and figuratively) has been doled out by women, but I hardly expect Lord Wossname from the remote North to have internalized such a fact. At least a little truculence or annoyance on his part would have made the scene more believable (and would have set us up for a deeply satisfying moment at a later date when Lady Lyanna saves his ass).

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That look you get just before you file adoption papers.

Most significantly, of course, what this scene sets up is what will likely be one of the sticking-points of the season: a conflict between Jon and Sansa, aggravated by Littlefinger’s whispers. We saw that coming a mile off at the end of last season; Jon is stubborn and doesn’t recognize that Sansa has a subtler mind than him (“So I should listen to you?” he asks. “Would that be so bad?” she responds); after several seasons of being by turns passive, victimized, and abused, Sansa has come to recognize her own abilities, and is clearly frustrated to be sidelined. Jon would do himself a great favour by in fact listening to her, but I did more or less agree with him that it’s a bad idea for her to undermine him in front of the lords. Their argument about the castles could really go either way for me—rewarding loyalty with land elevates those you trust; on the other hand, Northerners are deeply invested in tradition, and Jon’s reluctance to disenfranchise families with centuries of fidelity because of the actions of a few just recently likely resonated with many of the people in the room—but Sansa’s opposition on a potentially very divisive question could have the effect of sowing dissension at a dangerous time.

But again, to be clear: Jon needs to listen to Sansa. I have a sinking feeling I’m going to be spending much of this season smacking my head over the bloody-mindedness of Jon Snow.

(Incidentally, Sansa throwing “Joffrey never let anyone question his authority” in Jon’s face totally effaces any moral standing she might have had here, which she seems to recognize a few minutes later when she has to admit that Jon “is as far from Joffrey as anyone I’ve ever met.” Yet that comes to be a bit of a backhanded compliment, as she makes clear that the kind of pure virtue that is the antithesis of Joffrey—which Jon embodies—is its own detriment. “You need to be smarter than Father,” she says. “You need to be smarter than Robb”).

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However this division develops, I do hope they don’t make it about jealousy or resentment. It was clear in this episode that Jon and Sansa have what might prove to be incommensurably different worldviews, which each arrived at by way of how they learned hard lessons over the previous six seasons. Sansa’s maturation occurred in the stew of King’s Landing intrigues, and her personal experience of just how cruel people can be to one another; when she tells Jon she “learned a lot” from Cersei, that’s shorthand for learning not to trust other people and looking out for oneself. Her concern at this point is worldly politics: the Lannisters are a threat, she thinks it folly not to disenfranchise formerly disloyal houses, and is generally preoccupied with her own survival and the survival of those closest to her. Too much honour, she tries to tell Jon, got their father and brother killed.

Jon, by contrast, is preoccupied with otherworldly concerns, and I don’t just mean the supernatural threat from the North. Though we now know he wasn’t Ned Stark’s son, he’s nevertheless very much Ned Stark’s son, if by temperament rather than birth. And he has internalized the North’s deep obsession with tradition and honour, and its long, long history. The idea of disenfranchising families with centuries of loyalty to the Starks, however they might have acted in recent days, in nonsensical to him … as, probably, is the notion that he can have “too much” honour. With regard to the White Walkers and the threat they pose, he sees the big picture—or rather, having been confronted by the big picture north of the Wall, he’s disinclined or simply unable to see anything but. “I’m consumed with the Night’s King because I’ve seen him,” he says. “And believe me, you’d think of little else if you had too.” As far as he’s concerned, the squabbles of warring houses are all but irrelevant in the face of the White Walkers; unless everyone can get on the same page, they’re all going to die anyway.

And while, as I said, I do more or less agree with Jon that undermining each other in public is a bad idea, he needs to listen to Sansa. She’s the pragmatic one; he’s the wide-angle guy. I came away from their argument thinking that he’s the equivalent of someone who recognizes climate change as an existential threat. Everyone else, including Sansa and Archmaester Quincy, Medical Examiner, seems inclined to downplay the threat: “the wall has always stood” is the Westeros equivalent, it seems, of recycling and buying a hybrid car. And that’s not even getting to all those White Walker Deniers. But at the same time, arriving at a solution requires a certain amount of political savvy, which is increasingly looking to be Sansa’s forte. Together, they could be a pretty formidable team, if only Jon would listen and Brienne could relieve Littlefinger of his head.

What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: Agree with you as usual, my friend, and I love how close our notes are at times. I’ve written down that awesome throwdown line from Lyanna — “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me” [under her watch the TARDIS would have never allowed a man inside yet] — and then beside it I have written “OMG Brienne’s FACE.” Every season you and I mention what spinoff road-trip-show pairings we want, and my new one is Lyanna and Brienne. With Tormund bringing up the rear.

The scene was very well played, as you point out, with Jon saying one thing, Sansa another, viewers trying not to reach into the TV to smack Jon in the head, but then realizing well, ok, he’s got a point, and then Sansa saying something else, Jon contradicting her, Sansa posting angry emojis under Jon’s comments on Facebook, Jon blocking her from his feed… and all the while Baelish smiling to himself in the corner while all our stress levels rise steadily. The Karstarks and Umbers will keep their family castles, but the only people left in those families are children (and I can’t be the only one who thought Alice Karstark was Sansa’s younger double). Now, when it comes to Lyanna, we certainly can’t undermine children in any way, but this also isn’t Lord of the Flies: will they be able to fight the White Walkers?

Though, you know, something tells me Lyanna could have them turning tail and running.

Like you, I’m hoping I don’t spend the season flipping out over Jon and Sansa. They must get on the same page, and I don’t want to see Littlefinger smiling smugly in the corner anymore.

But then Jon gets a raven from Cersei demanding fealty, and as he says to Sansa, he was so caught up in the enemy of the North, he forgot the one in the South. Just as Sansa had made the Joffrey comment earlier — almost making it sound like Jon fell short of that little bastard by not being like him — now Sansa tells Jon not to mess with the Lannister queen, because she’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. “You almost sound as if you admire her,” he says. “Learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replies.

Like you said, Chris, just because Sansa is listening to whispers from Littlefinger and making comments about Joffrey and Cersei that are… questionable… doesn’t mean we should not listen to her. Cersei and Baelish might be the bad guys but they also know a thing or two about power. And with Sansa’s knowledge of how they work, funnelled through Jon Snow’s inherent goodness, they might have something here. Together I would think these two could be nearly unstoppable, he just needs to pay attention to her and give her the respect she’s more than earned.

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This episode’s lesson: if you want to be queen, you need a sweet map.

But now let’s to King’s Landing, where Cersei is drinking (natch) while walking on a giant map on the ground, since apparently a small one drawn in a book wouldn’t have been good enough (listen closely and you hear a very quiet version of “Rains of Castamere” playing in the background… it’s like Cersei’s personal breakup music or something). Dragonstone might have a wooden slab with little people on it that Stannis could move around, but Cersei’s going to have a goddamn map drawn on the floor, to scale, by someone she will no doubt kill as soon as he’s done. It’s a beautiful visual, though, when the camera peers down from the ceiling: Cersei, standing mighty over the kingdoms of Westeros, in the centre, and as she walks around she talks about how Daenerys is going to land at Dragonstone to the east, that Ellaria and her Sand Snakes threaten her from the south, the Tyrells are in the west, and the Starks are in the north. She’s surrounded, but unfazed. In her new black get-up, she stands over these kingdoms and proclaims she will prevail.

Jaime, standing off to the side, quiet, wonders why they’re bothering. They’ve lost everything — all three of their children they’ve created together — all for this, and yet, without them, what does it mean? Cersei is saying she wants to have a dynasty — not one with Joan Collins and Linda Evans, that’s a DIE-nesty, and Cersei quite Britishly calls this one a dinnesty — but as Jaime adeptly points out, a dynasty suggests it’s being passed down to future generations, and does he have to repeat himself that they no longer have any children?? Cersei then basically says she’s going to do it for their own honour, that they’re the last of the Lannisters “who count” and that she will win this bloody war, dammit.

But then again, her army consists of an orange-haired musician who can’t bloody well act so WHAT DOES SHE KNOW. #whenstuntcastinggoeswrong

ANYWAY… and while Daenerys was already on her way over to Dragonstone at the end of the previous episode, but Euron had to build a thousand ships in order to get to Cersei, somehow he beat her there and here he is on Cersei’s steps pledging himself to her. (And yes, I know people are going to say that the ships are probably being built and he headed over there on a single ship but I found some of the way these storylines lined up seemed a little odd timewise.) There’s something about Euron I kinda love, I don’t know why. I tend to hate the Greyjoys on principle, and he’s a complete dick, but I love that he shows up looking totally different from when we last saw him with this new rock star appearance: shirt opened at front, hair shorn closer to his head… still giving off a distinct Oliver-Reed-as-Bill-Sykes vibe but now with a distinct Noel Gallagher swagger about him. And he has the nerve to show up at the steps of what is probably the most powerful woman currently in Westeros and say, “So, yeah, whaddya say: you, me, few goblets of wine, we could spend the rest of our days plotting the deaths of our family members, amirite?!” like he’s somehow the greatest catch in the land. In fact, this gave me the one big laugh-out-loud moment of the episode when he proclaimed himself the greatest captain of the 14 seas, and Cersei mumbles, “But not the most humble.” Ha!

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I don’t know how seriously I can take anyone who looks like an emo version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.

Cersei, to her credit, declines. She knows if he could stab his own brother in the back, what the hell would he do to his wife? “You murdered your own brother,” she says to him. “You should try it, feels wonderful,” he responds with a sneer. Jaime shuffles and hopes this isn’t foreshadowing. But Euron’s not giving up, and says he’s going to come back with a gift. Whose head will it be, I wonder…

And then… the montage from HELL. As I said on Facebook, at the end of the previous season, when we saw that spectacular library of the maesters, I said if I could be one character on the show, it would be Samwell Tarly. I take that back now. What did you think of this, um, shitty symphony that was Sam’s new life, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first I just want to add how much I loved Pilou Asbæk’s performance in that scene—I was underwhelmed by his turn as Euron last season, but he’s definitely upped his game. And he has one of the two best burns of the episode: “Here I am with a thousand ships and two good hands!” he leers, as Jaime looks on angrily (the other best burn being Sansa’s elegant “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish—I’ll assume it was something clever.” Ouch!).

As for Sam … well, about halfway through the oddly rhythmic books/bedpans/food montage, I said “Ah! Sam’s a grad student now!” Considering that at least half the people with whom I watched the episode are former and/or recovering grad students, it got a big laugh. But of course, such drudgery is something we should have expected; though both you and I ended last season in a Sam-like state of bibliophilic bliss looking at the Citadel’s unearthly library (both of us, as I recall, likened it to our own first visits to U of T’s Robarts Library Rare Book Collection), the truth of any apprenticeship (academic or otherwise) is one of tedium and drudgery punctuated by moments of epiphany. (I can’t possibly be the only person who saw Sam sneaking by night into the restricted area and thought of Hermione’s forays into the forbidden sections of the Hogwarts Library). Sam is training to be a maester, which is not exactly something one can fast-track. His exchange with Archmaester Ebrose, aka Quincy, was a few moments of quiet brilliance in the way it articulated both the virtue and drawback of the scholarly mindset. The Archmaester employs the Westrosi equivalent of Occam’s Razor to Sam’s claims: “The simplest explanation for your grating obsession with the White Walkers,” he says, “is that you’re telling the truth. And that you saw what you say you saw.” Not that that means he’s about to aid Sam in his quest. “In the Citadel, we lead different lives,” he tells Sam. “We are this world’s memory.” And as the world’s memory, they stand aloof from the occasionally catastrophic events of the realm, always enduring. He echoes Sansa’s assertion that the Wall has always stood, and that winter always ends.

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His speech is a paean to knowledge and scholarship, and hearkens—for the real world—back to the role played by monasteries in the dark and middle ages of Europe in archiving books and knowledge. For me, however, his words resonate with the ostensible role of the university, whose oft-maligned “ivory towers” maintain spaces of inquiry and research free from the pressures and incursions of quotidian politics. Of course, this characterization bears little resemblance to the reality, but the Archmaester’s words strike a chord because the inertia of the academy is at once its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw. In the context of Game of Thrones, we know that his complacency is foolishness; in the present moment, we in the university environment with the privilege of full-time positions are being shaken out of our institutional torpor by the pressures of austerity economics and the push toward corporatization. And yet that torpor is slow to slough off—too many of us assume the Wall will always stand.

Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes these university analogues strike too close to home.

On a lighter note: Twitter was ablaze after this episode with the Ed Sheeran cameo, and I can tell you have some, er, rather strong thoughts on the subject. Tell you what, Nikki: considering I wouldn’t know an Ed Sheeran song if it walked up and bit me in the arse, I leave commentary on that bit of casting to you. I will however say that my fangasm came during the autopsy scene when I realized that the archmaester was played by Jim Broadbent. Not sure what that says about me, but here we are.

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We shift from Oldtown back to Winterfell, and witness the next stage in Tormund’s courtship of Brienne. Gotta say—dude has to up his game. If all he’s going to do is make googly eyes and waggle his eyebrows, the Lady of Tarth is going to remain resolutely unimpressed. Though given his wistful observation that Pod is “a lucky man”—just after the poor boy has been made to faceplant into a snowdrift—it might be that he’d be happy just receiving arse-kickings from Brienne. I hear some men like that sort of thing.

What did you think of Sansa’s wintry conversation with Littlefinger, Nikki? It’s obvious he means to stir the pot, and just as obvious that we’re being primed for conflict between Jon and Sansa, but she seems about done with his shit. “He wants something,” says Brienne in her role as Captain Obvious. “I know precisely what he wants,” Sansa replies.

What gives? Is Sansa seriously ready to kick him to the curb, or is she just playing it close to the vest?

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Nikki: I loved Sansa in this scene, because there are moments in Game of Thrones where you glance at a character and can’t help but think of how far they’ve come in the past seven years. This was one of those moments. In season one, Sansa was an insufferable girly-girl who needed Arya to start acting girlier, who giggled and flirted with any boy who looked in her direction, and who left the real thinking to the men. And look at where we are now. She’s strong, she never even looks at Baelish once in this scene the entire time he’s talking to her, and she just stares off into the fighting grounds with her eyelids heavy, as if his very presence bores the hell out of her. Baelish remarks that Brienne is “an impressive woman” and Sansa’s face looks like she’s fighting back an eyeroll, as if to counter, “Brienne isn’t an impressive woman, you twerp, she’s an impressive fighter, period. For god’s sakes the Ghostbusters are women, Wonder Woman has the best superhero film out there, and the main hero of Star Wars is Rey, get with the effing program, you twat.” Instead, she just holds back that eyeroll.

Baelish asks her why she’s not happy, and what will make her happy, and she simply says peace and quiet in a bid to get rid of him. But I couldn’t help but look at her in that moment and think, in the past six years she’s lost her parents, her siblings, and she believes she’s the last Stark standing. The only one left is her bastard brother who is currently at odds with her on how to lead, and despite the leaps and bounds she’s made in her life she’s still struggling to earn anyone’s ear or respect. As Littlefinger leaves in his rather Cersei-ish gown (did anyone else sense a weird flip of gender stereotypes between Sansa and Baelish’s body language?), Sansa mutters to Brienne that they do actually owe him their lives, and that without the Vale the battle would have been lost.

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And then we cut to Sansa’s sister, who was having a nice, peaceful ride through the woods until she heard the voice of an angel breaking through the trees. Arya pauses for a moment, thinking, “Oh wow, I feel like I know this voice but usually his songs are so bland and boring and yet this is intriguing and…” and… yes it’s Ed Sheeran, member of the the Lannister army (as IF, worst casting ever) singing “Hands of Gold.” I had to look it up to see if this was a song that actually existed in the books, and turns out it does. (Chris can probably elaborate more for context in his next bit.) Apparently a singer in book three finds out about Tyrion and Shae and writes this song about them, threatening to tell everyone. Tyrion pays him blackmail money but eventually orders Bronn to kill him, and as Tyrion kills Shae with the golden chain around her neck, he sings one of the lines of the song:

He rode through the streets of the city,
Down from his hill on high.
O’er the winds and the steps and the cobbles,
He rode to a woman’s sigh.
For she was his secret treasure,
She was his shame and his bliss.
And a chain and a keep are nothing,
Compared to a woman’s kiss.
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!

Of course, during the song I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics seemed to fit Jaime: his hand is made of gold, and it’s even referenced earlier by Euron, as Chris pointed out. And he does ride and sail to get to the woman who is both his shame and his bliss.

But back to the horrible stunt casting of Ed Sheeran. And, a wee bit of behind-the-scenesery here. As many of you know, Chris and I write this in stages. I write my bit, send it to him for his pass, he lobs it back to me, etc. It usually takes a few days, and during that time I avoid other reviews of the show and try to avoid anyone’s comments on social media because I don’t want anyone else shaping my opinions. I assumed I was going to be in the minority on Ed Sheeran because he’s a hugely popular singer whose popularity has always surprised me, because his music is sooooo boring to me. But then I saw an article that showed I was actually in the majority, and that people didn’t just hate his cameo, they loathed it. So much so that he’s been getting a ton of hate mail via Twitter and as of Tuesday, actually deleted his account.

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While he was deleting his Twitter account, I was writing a vicious takedown of his appearance in this scene. And then I found out that happened, and I’ve deleted it. Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually hate Ed Sheeran. I don’t even think of Ed Sheeran. He’s just not my thing and I find his immense popularity kind of baffling.

But he was cast in this role as a surprise to Maisie Williams, who is a huge fan. Which… is cute, but… seriously? This is the biggest show on television and they’re now basing their casting decisions on what would make their young stars giddy? We all love Maisie, but that seems a bit much.

Now, for those who are Sheeran fans, I know what you might be thinking: you were jumping up and down when members of the National appeared at the Red Wedding. You were squeeing with delight when Sigur Ros played the troubadours at the Purple Wedding. But the thing is, they were cast to play musicians and then disappeared from the scene. The problem here isn’t Ed Sheeran. The problem is the writers who thought it would be fun to keep him in the scene, having him sit next to his biggest fan, and then give him NOTHING to do. My original takedown talked about how he just sat there like a big grinning idiot with a brain injury. But that’s the thing: what else was he supposed to do? They didn’t give him any lines, they just made him sing and then he was forced to sit there. And he’s ED SHEERAN, meaning many, many, many people were going to recognize him. Even Sigur Ros fans don’t know what Sigur Ros look like, so when they were fumbling on the ground for the money Joffrey nonchalantly tossed at them, they just looked like three extras. But Ed Sheeran is a massive star, and instantly recognizable to a lot of people, and for that entire scene we were taken out of Westeros and it was made abundantly clear that this is Ed Sheeran sitting next to Maisie Williams, who is trying desperately not to make eye contact with him. She ceased being Arya, he was never a soldier, it was just two stars sitting on a log with her giggling and him giggling and viewers taking to Twitter to tell Ed Sheeran he’s the worst actor in the world.

My daughter begged me to take her to Pitch Perfect 2 last year. Aside from being two hours of my life I’ll never get back, the movie had an Ed Sheeran cameo that was actually kind of funny. Now, he was playing himself, and he wasn’t in Westeros, so it worked. Making him a Lannister soldier with no lines who has to sit through a scene that now feels SO MUCH LONGER than it should have been, didn’t work. The fault isn’t with Sheeran: who among us would say NO to Benioff and Weiss if they asked us to appear in an episode of Game of Thrones? Not one of us. It’s the fault of the writers for doing this. They could have found a way to use him in a funny way, perhaps even just having him sing to himself in a ditch as Arya was passing by, maybe even have her make a comment about how grating she finds his singing to be ironic, and we would have all found that amusing. Yes, for that one brief moment it would have been Maisie and Ed, but it still would have been funny. This scene simply didn’t work, and now I’m actually sad to know that Sheeran has deleted Twitter, is probably having one of the worst weeks of his life, and will probably never be able to watch the show ever again.

I remember being infuriated when Ashanti was cast in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet, oddly, they made it work. The gal could actually act. But the writers just couldn’t make this scene work at all.

But enough about terrible stunt casting and back to the episode (see, Game of Thrones? You pulled me so far out of the world of Westeros I’m talking about Buffy again… but I won’t get into that time Oberyn was on Buffy or we’ll be here all day).

So Sheeran and his fellow troubadours soldiers have been sent up from King’s Landing to the Riverlands because they heard there were problems at Frey’s. Arya keeps her poker face the whole time and then flatly tells them she’s going to kill the queen. There’s silence, they all stare at each other, and then they start laughing. Because of course I’m not going to kill the queen I mean OH MY GOD did I just say that out loud hahahaha!

And then we cut away to the next scene. I assume that she gets on her horse and travels away from them and they head off to Frey’s where Ed Sheeran’s character contracts dysentery. A girl can dream.

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And we’re back to the Hound, making fun of a guy’s man bun (HA!) in a scene that harkens back to a scene from season four, when the Hound and Arya came upon a little house with a man and his daughter. The farmer was kind to both of them, and offers to give them some money, but when the Hound realizes the man has a bag of silver he takes it from him, leaving the man hurt and the little girl tending to him. Arya is angry, but the Hound argues that they’ll be dead by winter anyway. And now, in the present, the Hound is back at that farmhouse and he sees their corpses, but enough of their bodies remain that he can see the agony on their faces, and knows what he’s done to them. In the midst of starving to death — probably due to a lack of funds to buy any seeds or food — the farmer killed his daughter for her own good, before taking his own life. We all know the Hound is not one to show sentiment, but we know he feels it. He was fond of Arya, and he cares about people. Unlike his brother he’s not an automaton that was put on this earth to bring misery, so when he actually does, he atones for it.

Clegane snidely refers to the “fire worshippers” who make up the Brotherhood Without Banners with whom he’s now travelling, and he comments that he distinctly remembers seeing Beric at the tournament at King’s Landing, Beric being the man who keeps dying and is brought back to life by Thoros of Myr. Thoros tells Sandor to come and look at the fire. If there’s one thing the Hound is afraid of, it’s flames (it’s how he lost one side of his face) but he very carefully comes close to the fire… and sees something. And in a moment that surprises everyone in the room — most of all, Clegane — he sees an image of the Wall, the castle, and the dead marching towards that castle. The show has had so much destruction on it, but with fewer than two seasons left now, we’re going to start seeing solutions. If Beric was brought back to life, could there be an answer coming soon as to how?

We know that the Hound will never become an acolyte, it’s simply not in his nature. Later he buries the bodies of the dead farmer and his daughter, and Thoros comes out to find him there and help him. Sandor begins to say a prayer to the Seven, but forgets how it actually goes and says some pithy words that they deserved better than to die like this. Thoros ascertains that the Hound actually knew the people, and that’s why he’s burying them, but the Hound brushes him off. This isn’t going to be a guy dressed in robes and chanting around a fire, but perhaps his skepticism has been shaken a wee bit now.

What did you make of the Hound’s vision in the fire, Chris?

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Christopher: I didn’t love it. It makes a certain perverse sense that the flame-phobic Hound should be the one to see a crucial vision in the fire, but the whole scene was played without any affect. I find it difficult to believe that someone as cynical and skeptical as Sandor Clegane could suddenly find himself having a vision, and be so blasé about it. Where’s his incredulity? His anger and resistance to the whole thing? It was a little too pat for me, which is unfortunate, because Rory McCann is otherwise so brilliant in this episode. He does such an amazing job of bringing a sense of humanity to a person who has otherwise only known brutality, violence, and cynical self-preservation his entire life. His atonement and redemption narrative is subtle and nuanced precisely because we understand just how little use he has for the ideas of atonement and redemption while desiring them in spite of himself.

When he tells Thoros that he’s “burying the dead,” it occurred to me that this is the Hound’s raison d’etre from here on in: burying the dead of his past both literally and metaphorically.

From there we move to Sam and Gilly and Little Sam, where Sam is forcing himself to read in spite of his exhaustion and Gilly’s remonstrance. Once again, overtones of grad school! He pores over his ill-gotten texts, finally coming to a map of Dragonstone with the island’s wealth of dragonglass clearly marked.

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Did you notice how maps are a crucial motif in this episode? We see Circe plotting her next move as she paces around an unfinished map of Westeros, the episode ends with Daenerys entering the map room of Dragonstone (more on that in a moment), and Sam discovers what will presumably be a key plot point in episodes to come almost literally marked off like a treasure map. Two maps that represent dreams of conquest, and a third that promises salvation: we begin every episode with a reminder of Westeros’ geography in the opening credits, and it seems to me that, as we move toward the endgame, the show is intent on hewing to the “game” metaphor by giving us maps on which the players will place and move their pieces.

Sam’s discovery of the Dragonstone map sets us up for Daenerys’ arrival—finally!—at the island itself, but there’s a brief, poignant scene in between that acts almost as a connection between Sam and Dany. In yet another tedious task, Sam takes empty food bowls away from what look like prison cells. But as we realize, it’s more of a sanitarium, in which people infected with greyscale are kept quarantined. Including, as it turns out, Ser Jorah Mormont, who begs Sam for news of the Dragon Queen. Sam of course knows nothing, but presumably that will change as news of her landing spreads.

The last we saw Jorah, he’d been sent away with orders from his Queen to find a cure for his disease—a quest that seems to have led him to the Citadel. Judging by the progression of the disease and the quality of his voice, Jorah’s in a bad way. Will the Citadel be able to cure him?

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The reminder of his plight tempers the triumph of Daenerys’ long-awaited return home—as she is rowed up to the beach, it is hard not to think of Jorah’s despair and what he would be feeling if he could be there with her. That being said, it is a deeply affecting scene: beautifully shot, and done without words until the final moment. (I couldn’t help thinking as we see the craggy spur of land to Daenerys’ right as she approaches the beach, that there’s where the dragonglass is).

When last we saw Dragonstone, it was inhabited by Stannis Baratheon and his forces, and it was invariably dark and brooding—most of the scenes took place at night, and we never really saw the castle in all its glory. Here it is the precise opposite: seen in beautiful and sunny weather, the oppressive castle of Stannis’ days is breathtaking in its architecture and the rugged cliffs from which it rises. Though the symbolism is not overt, the suggestion is the dawning of a new day.

Walking through the throne room (pausing to tear down a Baratheon banner on the way), she passes into the room with the ornate table carved into a map of Westeros by her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, who plotted his Westrosi campaign in that room. Again, the set design here is stunning, especially the dragons carved in bas-relief into the walls. I loved Tyrion’s quiet awe—one senses in Peter Dinklage’s expression Tyrion’s sudden apprehension of the enormity of what they are about to attempt.

And then: “Shall we begin?”

Yes. Yes we shall.

dragonstone-maproom

That’s all for this week, friends and neighbours! It kind of sucks that we’re only getting seven episodes this time around, but we’ll make the best of it for you. Once again, Nikki, it is a delight to team up with you on this ride. For everyone else, stay warm and beware of stingy old men who suddenly want to give you wine.

 

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American Gods Episode 1.02: “The Secret of Spoons”

credits

Apologies for such a late posting—writing about the second episode three days after episode three went up is rather more than tardy, but I plead a particularly recalcitrant piece of writing I needed to get done for this past Sunday that occupied all of my attention. So, without further ado: episode two!

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First, a review.

My first impression of this episode was essentially meh. It started well with Mr. Nancy’s magisterial speech aboard the slave ship, but from that point on was rather uneven—the pacing was odd, and it lacked a cohering through-line, thematically or otherwise. There were some stellar stand-out moments, to be sure—Mr. Nancy, Gillian Anderson as the god of Media in the guise of Lucille Ball, Wednesday’s many little brilliant moments, Cloris Leachman!, and of course Peter Stormare’s vituperative, chain-smoking Slavic god Czernobog—but at first glance, the episode felt like a patchwork of unevenly-paced set-pieces interrupted by a montage of Bilquis’ equal opportunity predatory sex.

My second and third viewings made it clear that this is a series that rewards rewatching. That’s not necessarily what television execs want to hear, but it speaks to the depth of material on display here, the quality of the writing, and the brilliance of the performances.

On this last point: can we sing songs of triumph for Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare? I’m particularly hung up on Cloris Leachman, whom I’ve loved since first I watched Young Frankenstein. I want to single her out because the other three are given virtuosic text—and they all rise admirably to it—but she manages to bring remarkable gravitas to a part that could easily be played as a one-dimensional stereotype. Considering the dark threat Stormare brings to his role, it’s a testament to Leachman that she makes it clear this is her home.

zorya

Second, my thoughts.

As I said above, there’s no clear unifying theme in this episode, with the exception of Czernobog’s comments about race, which close a circle with Mr. Nancy’s speech aboard the Dutch slaver (about which, more below). Rather, the episode unfolds almost as a trio of one-act plays—or four, if we include the wordless montage of Bilquis consuming her lovers/worshippers, and then having a wistful moment at a museum where she looks upon a statue of her old self and the jewelry her acolytes would wear.

I cannot say enough about Orlando Jones’ impassioned rage as the trickster spider god Anansi, appearing in flamboyant twentieth-century garb on a Dutch slave ship. Did I say last week that American Gods seems to be leaning into the racial politics of American history? The raw rage he communicates here is mind-numbing, and strips away whatever platitudes and obfuscations we might employ to euphemize the brutal, inhuman reality of slavery and its legacy:

“Shit! You all don’t know you black yet!” he says, a line that will resonate later in the episode. “You think that you’re just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black!” As much, however, as he inspires and channels the anger of the slaves—and as much as his speech communicates his own rage at what has been done to his people—Anansi ultimately goads them into a blood sacrifice that will benefit him. When one of the prisoners protests that they will be killed if they rebel, Anansi sneers, “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.” A sacrifice, it turns out, for Anansi, whose incarnation crawls ashore amid the flotsam of the destroyed slave ship, an African god transplanted to America.

Mr. Nancy - spider

It is a reminder of something we’ve already been learning from Mr. Wednesday: gods in the Gaiman firmament are not deities who exist prior to humanity, on whom we are dependent; they are the product of human belief, and are therefore dependent upon us for devotion, worship, and above all, sacrifice. As such, they are grifters, reliant upon trickery and prestidigitation to goad us into giving of ourselves. Mr. Wednesday, we have seen, is quite the accomplished con man, playacting his way into a first-class seat in the first episode; in episode three, he employs an even more elaborate grift to rob a bank (but more about that in my next post). On one hand, his roguish behaviour is entirely in keeping with the Odin of Norse myth, who delighted in outsmarting his enemies even more than he took pleasure in battle. But his grifting is also what passes for worship in his new reality, as he feeds on the gullibility of everyone he cons. In a speech to the other old gods in the novel—which I will be very surprised if it isn’t repeated verbatim in the series—he says,

We have, let’s face it and admit it, very little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

Except, as we’re coming to realize, America isn’t entirely without its own gods. For those who haven’t read the novel, last episode’s encounter with Technical Boy might have been somewhat baffling; Shadow’s latest run-in brings things into slightly more focus, as Media—played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson as Lucille Ball (sorry, Ricardo)—makes her pitch for Shadow’s defection:

“The screen’s the altar,” she tells Shadow. “I’m the one they sacrifice to … Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood.” The battle lines are being drawn: the old gods versus the new, the transplants from around to the world to this “new land without gods.” Religious devotion has changed, shifted, to the deities of secular modernity. Media’s crass little proposition to Shadow—“Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”—provides a striking contrast to the kind of desire at the root of religion most obviously, and explicitly, manifested in this episode with the extended Bliquis montage. Religion, or more elementally, belief, is rooted in desire as much as anything else: desire for knowledge, for safety, for plenty, for health, for children, for another year of life. There is a dual critique built into Gaiman’s novel, and it will be interesting to see how much of it the series realizes: a very humanist critique of religion itself, and a critique of the postmodern moment’s monetization of the needs and impulses that led people to create gods in the first place—a critique that is as much about America itself. There’s something vaguely pathetic in Bilquis’ serial seduction of willing victims, both on her part and theirs—her need degrades the rite, as does the obliviousness of her lovers. Her moment of nostalgic longing as she looks on her statue evokes a time in her past when she was worshipped openly and her acolytes were willing sacrifices, which reflects poorly on her need to employ internet dating to feed her needs.

bilquis

By the same token, one of the novel’s unanswered questions, which has come up whenever I’ve taught American Gods—if the New Gods have so much of America’s attention, why can’t they just crush the Old Gods?—speaks to the degraded nature of worship itself in the present moment. “Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood,” claims Media, but how powerful is a sacrifice when it is partially a product of indifference? “They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me,” Media tells Shadow, but “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand, so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” Obviously, Media seems to think of this as a good development for her, but it is hardly exemplary of worshippers’ focused devotion. Her offer to show Shadow Lucy’s breasts degrades the understanding of “icon,” with all of the word’s religious connotations, and sets itself squarely in a media environment of hacked cell phones and nude selfies.

media-lucy

But, onward to Chicago, where Wednesday means to acquire his “hammer.” It’s worth acknowledging the little head-fake here: by this moment in the second episode, viewers will undoubtedly have grasped the central conflict between old and new gods; which of the old gods Wednesday is might still be unclear to some, and his mention of a hammer followed by images of lightning might lead some to wonder if he’s Thor. That question is cleared up, however, when Czernobog calls him Wotan—the Germanic name for Odin (and those who know their days of the week know “Wednesday” is derived from “Woden’s Day,” Woden being the Old English name for Odin). And the hammer is question is Czernobog’s, a relic of his days working in a slaughterhouse before the introduction of the captive bolt gun (used to such devastating effect by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men).

Czernobog is an old Slavic god—the “black god” of death (whose brother Bielobog, the god of light and sun, is alluded to but never named), who came to America with the Zorya sisters (more on them in my next post). I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Peter Stormare’s casting in this role—in the novel he is described as being much older, but I was not accounting for Stormare’s ability to play a dissolute and embittered old man who wears the threat of violence on his shoulders like a thundercloud. I loved everything about this sequence, from Zorya’s first ambivalent greeting of Wednesday (“You are worst man in the world!”), to her response to Shadow calling Czernobog her husband (“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive … even if you do not like them”), to the final scene in which Shadow loses a game of checkers, and with it the wager of his life, to Czernobog. “A shame,” he sighs, “You’re my only black friend.”

I freely admit to laughing out loud to this closing line, which would have been funny under any circumstances, but was particularly poignant after Czernobog’s dinner conversation with Shadow. When he observes that Shadow is black, and Shadow tightly asks whether that’s a problem, Czernobog essentially shrugs:

We never cared so much about skin like the Americans. Where we’re from, everyone is the same colour. So we must fight over shades. You see, my brother had light hair and beard, and me dark … like you. I was like the black man, over there. As against my brother, the white. Everybody thought he must be the good one! So I became me.

This little speech resonates with Mr. Nancy’s revelation to the African slaves: “The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided they white, then you get to be black, and that’s the nice name they call you.” It’s a reminder that the very idea of blackness is an imperial invention: a distinction that drew lines between those with power and those without, between those who arrogated to themselves the innate right of rule and those unfit to rise in American society; between the “worthy” nations and countries of origin (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Christian), and those whose people possessed the taint and degradation of lesser blood. While we should never equate the immigrant experience with that of African slavery, it is nevertheless important to remember that the waves of immigrants in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe—the Czernobogs of America, in other words—were not considered “white” in the way their descendants are today. Czernobog’s words to Shadow—and Mr. Nancy’s words to the men in the slaver’s hold—speak to the contingency and constructed nature of race.

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Who is “white”? Who is “black”? Who decides? Those to whom we give power. And if Neil Gaiman’s inversion of our relationship to the gods teaches us anything, it’s that we hold the power ourselves.

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