Category Archives: television

Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

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The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

watership down 2018

But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).

TWD-Terminus

Ewwww.

Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.

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*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.

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Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part two): A Tale of Two West Wing Episodes

Since Trump’s election, one of the ways I’ve tried to escape daily reality is by rewatching episodes of The West Wing. This is not, from what I have gleaned, an uncommon strategy. I have also rewatched Aaron Sorkin’s proto-West Wing film The American President at least three times, and watched President Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) climactic speech more times than I can count.

Since the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’ve been wanting to rewatch what I think is easily the best post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing: season five’s “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, Netflix no longer carries The West Wing, and I only own the first four seasons on DVD (first world problems). But after last Thursday’s testimonial drama, I bought the single episode on iTunes and watched it.

The premise and the resolution is classic West Wing, to the point where it made me wonder when I first watched it if it was an episode Sorkin had written before his exit from the show (it wasn’t). Justice Owen Brady, a young(ish) conservative firebrand, dies suddenly, and so the Bartlett White House is given the gift of replacing a conservative judge with someone more in their wheelhouse. Of course, given the Republican control of Congress, anyone too liberal—or really, liberal at all—is out of the question. But in a bit of theatre to scare conservatives and make their ultimate nomination more palatable, the senior staff make a show of interviewing some liberal firebrands—most specifically, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), whose judicial history defending women’s reproductive rights has made her a bête noir of the right. Meanwhile, as her presence in the West Wing causes conservatives to shake in their space boots, the president and senior staff set their sights on moderate Brad Shelton (Robert Picardo), who is pretty much guaranteed not to rock any ideological boats:

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BARTLETT: Affirmative action is going to be back in the next few years. Let’s start there.
SHELTON: What do I know about it?
BARTLETT: What do you think about it?
SHELTON: I don’t know. [pause] Not the answer you were looking for?
BARTLETT: Not really.
SHELTON: Unnerving, isn’t it?
BARTLETT: Is there another topic you’d be more comfortable with?
SHELTON: Nothing comes to mind.
BARTLETT: Perhaps you should make something up.
SHELTON: I’m not trying to be cagey, but I don’t position myself on issues and I don’t know what I think about a case until I hear it. There are moderates who are called that because they are not activists. And there are moderates who are called that because sometimes they wind up on the left and sometimes on the right.

I’ll come back to this passage momentarily, but meanwhile, long story short: the episode is an indictment of moderation, depicting the need to find milquetoast candidates for SCOTUS as a failure of the higher ideals of debate and argument between fiercely opposed but honest camps. A compromise is brokered: Chief Justice Roy Ashland (Milo O’Shea), a brilliant liberal lion suffering from dementia, will step down and be replaced by Evelyn Baker Lang. In exchange, the Republicans get to replace the dead Brady with conservative firebrand Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner), who earlier in the episode articulated the value of having ideologues on the Court.

MULREADY: Who’s at the top of the list? [pause] If I leaked it would they believe me?
BARTLETT: Brad Shelton.
MULREADY: Really?
BARTLETT: You don’t like him?
MULREADY: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Charmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clarke and Brandagen all drop dead this summer, the center will still be well tended.
BARTLETT: [laughs] You want another Brady?
MULREADY: Sure, just like you’d like another Ashland—who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
BARTLETT: Plenty of good law written by the voice of moderation.
MULREADY: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority opinion whose time hasn’t come, but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at three in the morning.

This tune wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but sounds like a pretty accomplished Sorkin cover band. The attractive mythos of his work is that all people in the wrong need is one persuasive argument to come around; that, and the depiction of workplaces staffed by intelligent, dedicated, honestly devoted people. My favourite line from his first series Sports Night is when Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillame) says, “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It’s sentiments like this that make The West Wing and other Sorkin products feel like safe harbour in the present moment of rampant bad faith, hypocrisy, and mendacity.

BUT.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going here.

I rewatched “The Supremes,” but it was unsatisfying … even as fantasy. Its principal centerpiece was when Evelyn Baker Lang runs into Christopher Mulready in the West Wing, and the two proceed to have an animated argument about various points of law—ideological enemies who obviously enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy even more the cut and thrust of legal debate.

supremes - close & fichtner

Which, for what it’s worth, I have no doubt happens in the actual SCOTUS. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have expressed affection for the late Antonin Scalia, someone whose opinions and personality you would think would be anathema to them. But the fact remains that the Court has become almost absolutely polarized in the past few decades; the fact that Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals on abortion and gay rights made him the sole justice whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The prospect of a court filled with Brad Sheltons, who might honestly consider cases on their individual merits and whose votes would not be predictable, seems vaguely utopian in the present moment. I suppose that in the imaginary SCOTUS of this West Wing episode, in which, apparently, five out of the nine justices are centrists, a couple of extreme voices would be good for the sake of debate; but that has not been the nature of the Supreme Court for a very long time, if indeed it ever was.

Fortunately, The West Wing boasts more than one episode devoted to nominating a Supreme Court justice. Well … one other episode, from season one, which is actually far more germane to our present situation for a variety of reasons. In “The Short List,” the senior staff plan to nominate a justice who is, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite expressions, right out of central casting. His name is:

JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
DONNA: Yes.
JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III. He sounds like he should be a Supreme Court justice.
DONNA: It’s a good name.
JOSH: Phillips Exeter, Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review, for which he was, oh yeah, the editor. Did I mention that he was dean of Harvard Law School? Did I mention that his father was attorney general to Eisenhower?
DONNA: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
JOSH: That’s right.
DONNA: Jewish fellow?
JOSH: You’re not gonna ruin this moment for me, Donna.

(There’s a “Merrick Garland” joke to be made here, but I’m just going to ignore it).

When the President later meets with Justice Joseph Crouch (Mason Adams), whose retirement is opening the seat, the justice takes Bartlet to task for not living up to the promise of his campaign:

CROUCH: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
BARTLET: Excuse me, sir…
CROUCH: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. Hmm! And instead I got you.

He also upbraids Bartlet for making such an obvious choice for his replacement, and begs him to reconsider nominating someone else:

CROUCH: You’ve decided on Harrison.
BARTLET: I haven’t made a decision yet, Joseph.
CROUCH: You’ve made the call. [beat] Did you even consider Mendoza?
BARTLET: Mendoza was on the short list.
CROUCH: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.
BARTLET: That’s not true, Joseph.

Long story short: Bartlet has second thoughts, enough to make him ask his staff to put together some information for him on Mendoza—“I just want to be able to know something. There’s gonna be a lot of questions. I don’t want it to be ‘we had a Hispanic on the short list’”—but not enough to make him change his mind. That is, until Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) uncovers an old article of Judge Harrison’s making the argument that there is no constitutional protection for privacy. Long story even shorter, they throw Harrison out of the boat and bring in Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) for an interview.

(Full disclosure: I love Edward James Olmos, and would happily watch anything he’s in. He’s one of those actors who brings such immense gravitas to everything he does, and his sole two appearances on The West Wing are no exception).

weat wing - olmos and sheen

Some people in the West Wing are not overly pleased with the change in game plan, however:

MANDY: I’m the one who has to sell this. And he is not exactly America’s idea of Supreme Court justice.
JOSH: Mandy, I don’t…
MANDY: Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. [reads from piece of paper] Harrison went to Walnut Park Country Day, Phillips Exeter, and Princeton undergrad, and Harvard Law. Mendoza attended P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, City University of New York, and the New York Police Department. Harrison clerked for Warren Berger. Mendoza…
JOSH: [off of the top of his head] New York City Police Department ’65 to ’76, Assistant District Attorney Brooklyn ’76 to ’80, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eastern District, Federal District Judge, Eastern District. Let me tell you something, Mendoza went to Law School the hard way. He got shot in the leg, and when they offered him a hundred percent dispensation, he took a desk job instead and went to law school at night. He’s brilliant, decisive, compassionate, and experienced. And if you don’t think that he’s America’s idea of a jurist, then you don’t have enough faith in Americans.

OK—this is where this episode resonates with me in the present moment. My next post in this series will be about the pernicious myth of meritocracy, something present, I’m sorry to say, in almost every other piece of Sorkin property. Generally, The West Wing is obsessed with credentials: Sam’s secret service code name is “Princeton,” C.J. has a Masters from Berkley, Josh was a Fulbright scholar and went to Harvard Law, and the President is a graduate of Notre Dame, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but Brett Kavanaugh’s repeated, plaintive mantra of “I went to Yale!” made me think of this moment in the episode, especially the point at which Peyton Cabot Harrison III, under intense questioning from Sam Seaborn, says

HARRISON: This sideshow is over. With all due respect, Mr. President, I find this kind of questioning very rude.
SAM: Well then, you’re really gonna enjoy meeting the U.S. Senate.
HARRISON: Be that as it may, it’s disgusting. We all know you need me as much as I need you. I read the same polling information you do. Seven to ten point bump, 90 votes, unanimous out of committee, I was courted. Now, you have me taken to school by some kid.

This, of course, is hardly the spittle-flecked rage exhibited by Kavanaugh, but it is a dramatization of the same sense of entitlement. A few moments later, Harrison says, “I am an extremely well credentialed man, Mr. President, and I’m unaccustomed to this sort of questioning.” Again, resonance with the present moment: the anger Kavanaugh exhibited last week was this sort of sentiment cranked up to eleven: anger at the effrontery that you might be denied what you feel you deserve. “The Supremes” is a great episode, and one that articulates an idealized vision of good-faith debate; “The Short List” articulates something more immediate and crucial to our present moment, which I’ll get into in my next post: namely, that diversity isn’t just about race and gender, but also about thought and background. As I said in my previous post, the fulminations from Lindsey Graham et al that these accusations levelled at Kavanaugh will “ruin his life” are just so much horseshit. Kavanaugh’s suggestion that his admission to Yale was due entirely to his own hard work is more of the same.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why he might consider his educational background a defense. Looking at the current SCOTUS, every single justice went to either Harvard or Yale law school; the only sort-of exception is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

I’m not saying an Ivy League education is a bad thing. What I am saying is that I will address this question in my next post.

To be continued.

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Filed under politics, television, The Trump Era

Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

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One of the many tributes to Anthony Bourdain I’ve read in the last twenty-four hours said that he was a connoisseur of “authentic” food.

That’s the wrong word. “Authenticity” as it relates to culture is fraught at best, actively misleading at worst: the search for the authentic too often becomes a fetishistic quest that ignores the glorious, protean, evolutionary nature of culture—and, as Anthony Bourdain spent the last twenty years exploring, there is no better exemplar of this principle than food.

Bourdain didn’t care about authenticity, he cared about honesty. Or perhaps more accurately, he loathed bullshit, whether it took the form of political pieties, pretentious or corporatized food, or, not infrequently, his own fulminations. Aside from his enormous intelligence, talent, and insight, his death comprises the loss of that rarest of commodities in the present moment: an open mind. Though he was never shy about his political leanings, he was always willing to break bread and find common ground with just about anybody, and was always brutally honest about his own blind spots. He started his public career celebrating the brutal and caustic masculinity of the professional kitchen; he ended it apologizing for his part in valorizing such meathead attitudes and embracing #MeToo. He made great hay in the early days ridiculing celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, but would later acknowledge their culinary talents, befriend them, and speak in a more nuanced way about the complexities of food and celebrity. And through it all, he never claimed for himself the mantle of brilliant chef, though many people tended unthinkingly to make that assumption: he was, he was always very clear to assert, a journeyman cook who lucked out.

The stars might have aligned for him when he got an article published in The New Yorker, but from that point on he made his bones on his talent as a writer, critic, and observer. My first encounter with Bourdain’s work was when I read Kitchen Confidential twelve years ago. By then, I knew his name, but only vaguely. Reading that book was a revelation, not just for his exposé of the life of a professional cook, but for his narrative voice: though he matured beyond the punk aesthetic of that career-making book, he never lost his caustic, no-bullshit approach. I envied his verbal dexterity and ability to be at once pithy and eloquent. Television might have become his medium of choice, but he was first and foremost a writer of enormous talent.

His death by his own hand reminds us that no outward appearance of success or happiness necessarily reflects what is inside.

His life reminds us that there is always more to learn, and the best way to learn is from other people. Food was how Anthony Bourdain entered the world; it’s eminently appropriate that his television career took him increasingly farther away from food as his focus while it also remained the anchor of his explorations. Parts Unknown was far more about culture and history and the specifics of a given locality than about the vagaries of cuisine, but it remained the basis of his interactions with people: his interviews almost always took place over food and drink, and whether he was talking to gun-loving Trump voters in West Virginia, survivors of America’s illegal war in Cambodia, or (recently) Newfoundlanders in a Big R restaurant in St. John’s, food wasn’t just a symbol of common humanity but the literal, material thing that connects us.

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Thoughts on the (non) cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which spiral into a broader discussion of prestige TV vs. sitcoms)

I really need to get these posts written faster. I started writing this yesterday apropos of Fox’s cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Thursday; I left a bit to be written today, and I wake up to see that NBC has revived the show for an abbreviated sixth season. So, rumours of the show’s death were greatly exaggerated, but I’ll keep my original intro out of laziness and the fact that I like it …

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Thursday, Fox announced it was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons. After their indecorous shitcanning of Firefly so many years ago, I didn’t think there was any way for Fox to hurt me again … but then I let Andy Samberg’s cop sitcom worm its way into my heart, having been lulled in the intervening years to forget the first rule of avoiding heartbreak: don’t get attached to Fox properties, especially if they’re unusually intelligent and well made. That just never ends well.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a television junky. Once upon a time this might have been considered a failing in an English professor, but since the rise of HBO and its various imitators, the tube now offers an embarrassment of riches. What has been perhaps most interesting in the past few years, however, is not so much the continued production of dramatic HBO and HBO-type juggernauts, with Game of Thrones and Westworld (among others) picking up the torch from the likes of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but that some of the smartest and most progressive television has appeared in the form of network sitcoms. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is (or was) exemplary of this tendency, with a racially diverse cast than never reeked of tokenism, and nuanced, complex characters who transcended what were at first glance one-dimensional comedic tropes: Jake’s macho goofball obsessed with 70s cop shows, Rosa’s acerbic ass-kicking woman, Amy’s goody-two-shoes, Terry’s musclebound sergeant, and so forth. Each of these actors at once managed to have their cake and eat it too, playing the stereotypes for laughs while simultaneously getting laughs for playing against type and revealing depths of character that served as trenchant critiques of a host of things from toxic masculinity to racial profiling.

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To be sure, sitcoms have always tended to be the more subversive and insidiously political shows, from Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family to The Simpsons; but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when television broke out of its formulaic box and aspired to the level of art with such series as The Sopranos and Mad Men, it tended to replicate a certain masculinist narrative logic and more often than not placed damaged, complicated, difficult, and frequently violent men—white men, pretty much exclusively—at the center of the story: Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in Deadwood, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Raylen Givens in Justified, and so on. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have anything to say or do with questions of gender, race, and identity, but that such considerations almost always serve to reflect back on the shows’ masculine center of gravity undercuts the substance of their critique.

By contrast, such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and such non-network examples as Master of None, High Maintenance, Broad City, Archer, and Big Mouth—to say nothing of Parks and Recreation, quite possibly the greatest sitcom ever to air—have been doing yeoman’s work in introducing diversity in their casts, as well as articulating (generally) a politics of hope and understanding. It’s one of the reasons why Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta served to turn off a significant number of viewers at the outset, but rewarded those who stuck with the show: his heroes are the hard-bitten, cynical cops of 70s films, and most centrally, John McClane of Die Hard (I would be interested to know precisely how many episodes there are in which Die Hard or McClane aren’t name-checked). That is to say: his ostensible dream is to be the kind of take-no-prisoners, I-make-my-own-rules, go-ahead-make-my-day rogue cop that valorizes masculine violence and disdain for law and procedure. But as much as he might fantasize about being that kind of cop, Jake’s journey over the series’ five seasons has been a process of discovering the value of community and teamwork over gut instinct and radical individualism. That he would eventually get together with the Hermione-esque Amy Santiago was more or less inevitable according to the laws of sitcoms, but it was narratively hard-won—not least because it was in part Amy’s influence in eroding Jake’s John McClane delusions that he transcended his character’s initial defining tropes.

 

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About two weeks ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in the comments for a Slate article by Kathryn VanArendonk titled “Overly Long Episodes are the Manspreading of TV,” wondering what my thoughts on the argument were.

The article essentially argues that episodes of an hour or longer have become unnecessarily commonplace in prestige television, citing, for example, the 69-minute season two premiere of Westworld. For an HBO season premiere, VanArendonk allows, such a length episode is not unusual, but the second episode was even longer (71 minutes), “and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.” She continues,

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space—after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

“The time has come,” she asserts, “to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse.” And per her title, she charges that “Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling.”

Before offering my two cents, I read further on in the comments thread, and was unsurprised to find the article’s premise largely mocked and ridiculed. “That has to be one of the most tortured analogies I’ve ever seen,” said one commenter; another, “This is to be filed under: ‘I have nothing of value to say, so choose an “unpopular” topic to complain about instead’.” “Ok, funny analogy, unbearably long text and nope for your theory.” And finally, “I agree that more may not necessarily be better, but what does gendering the pattern do aside from foment gender antagonism?”

The sentiment of this last comment recurred quite frequently, often expressed in, shall we say, much less polite terms. Why make your complaint about lengthy episodes a gendered one? said many people. To more than a few complainants, this was the main issue with the article. For my part, I also found the manspreading analogy somewhat tortured, but I knew precisely what the article’s title meant: that prestige TV is masculinist in its DNA, and that the key tropes of its early, groundbreaking shows have persisted even as television itself, more broadly, becomes more inventive and diverse across an unprecedented number of platforms and media.

The most insightful observation of the article to my mind was the attribution of episode bloat to “prestige signaling,” a means of communicating the weight and heft of a show’s thematic gravity:

The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence—and the prestige and “quality” implications—of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

This article would have been less glib had it directly addressed the tacit association of “importance” with the kind of violent and/or self-obsessed masculinity on display with all of the shows mentioned. In the early days of HBO, shows like Oz and The Sopranos were a revelation because they seemed to break all the established laws of episodic television in terms not just of their violence, profanity, and nudity, but also in terms of how they told their stories—and abjuring the rigid 42-minute run time of network dramas allowed for more flexibility for the writers and directors to take as much time to tell a story as the story demanded or needed. Sometimes that ran long, sometimes not so much. And often it was precisely the case that an episode might run over an hour because it needed that time to convey its substance and complexity.

I think a more useful way to consider the episode bloat against which VanArendonk rails is to think in terms of prestige television having come to comprise its own genre. The charge of “prestige signaling” points in this direction, as it suggests that these later-generation shows from HBO, AMC (we could spend an entire post just talking about The Walking Dead in this capacity), and FX, and now also Netflix and Amazon, are self-conscious about conveying their seriousness. Genre, as I tell my students repeatedly, is largely about expectations, of going in knowing the formulae. The more iterative a genre gets, the more formulaic, and in the end the satisfaction of expectations does not always serve the content in logical or coherent ways, which is, I would argue, one of the key reasons the victims in slasher films tend to behave stupidly—less because the characters are meant to be stupid than that is what satisfies the genre’s expectations. It’s a bit ironic that we can now start to discern generic conventions in prestige television, given that the early breakthroughs often tended to entail the utter disruption of genre: the mob movie with The Sopranos, the police procedural with The Wire, the western with Deadwood, the historical epic with Rome (stayed tuned for a future post in which I explain why The Walking Dead’s deficiencies proceed from the fact that it has not managed to subvert or divest itself of its own generic expectations).

Recently, a good friend of mine expressed horror and bafflement that I have not yet watched Westworld. Considering my long preoccupation with prestige television, both from an academic and a personal perspective, it seemed unthinkable to him that I would not yet have obsessively binge-watched it. And I will! Eventually. But as I told him, I think I hit critical mass with the self-conscious high seriousness of prestige television a while ago. I’m delighted that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has won a reprieve, not because such sitcoms offer an escape from the heavy fare of the Westworlds of the TV landscape, but because increasingly such shows exhibit the intelligence and complexity of critique of hour-long-and-longer dramas, while doing so with greater diversity and humanity.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.07: The Dragon and the Wolf

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Greetings once again fellow Throne-heads, and welcome to the final installment of season seven—it was a short season, but did not lack for action and stuff happening, especially with regard to the resolution of certain narrative threads that have been dangled in front of us from the beginning … as well as some new shit going down.

As always I am joined by the incomparable Nikki of House Stafford (house words: “Hale and Well-Met”). And this is a super-sized blog post for a super-sized episode, so pour yourself a drink and settle in. Gonna be bumpy. Lead us off, Nikki!

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Nikki: This week featured some more awesome vistas, amazing CGI, incredible acting (Lena Headey you are on fire this season!), and the loss of a beloved longtime character.

It begins with the Unsullied lining up in their proper, perfect lines, as they’ve been trained to do, and then the Dothraki racing through those lines as if to say, “Yes, we will follow military protocol… but we’re also just here to randomly slaughter you, so…” The music that was playing in this opening was new and awesome. It felt like a more ominous version of the guards music from Wizard of Oz. Bronn tells the Lannister soldiers to get 500 barrels of oil in addition to the 500 they already have, and the soldier responds, “Yes, m’lord.” I wrote in my notes, “Bronn’s gonna love that” and then immediately he told Jaime how much he likes being called that.

Bronn watches the Unsullied prepare, and crassly (and hilariously) says to Jaime, “You wouldn’t find me fighting in any army if I had no cock. What’s left to fight for?” Jaime counters that gold is worth fighting for, and you use that gold to protect your family. Bronn responds that you won’t have a family if you don’t have a cock, and Jaime pauses for a moment and concurs that yeah, maybe all this IS about cocks.

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Which is a beautifully ironic comment, given that everyone who is currently in power is a woman.

Jaime looks hopeless, because he’s already been here once before, and Bronn agrees that their chances aren’t good. “I think we’re about to be the downtrodden,” he says. In several moments in this episode you’ll see Jaime’s face be almost unreadable, but one thing you can read is how torn he is about following Cersei, whom he knows is wrong. While he sits by her side, he understands the threat in the north is far greater than anything they’re dealing with here, he knows that she’s as murderous as everyone says she is, and he knows that Daenerys would massacre their armies in minutes. But his loyalty (for now, at least) is to the woman carrying his child.

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Doesn’t anyone ever sit down on ships in Westeros?

Meanwhile, on the ship, Tyrion watches as they approach King’s Landing. Jon Snow stands beside him, and wonders aloud how many people live in King’s Landing. When Tyrion says over a million, Jon asks why so many people would want to be crammed all together like that. He comes from the north, with its open moors and wide vistas of sky, and here’s a metropolis that smells like shit with people living on the streets. But Tyrion says for many this is their only hope of survival, and besides, the brothels are far superior in King’s Landing. Coming home to King’s Landing is never easy for Tyrion, but you can tell he’ll always have an uneasy fondness for the place.

In the hold of the ship, the Hound knocks on the crate and the wight sounds like a small dragon trying to fight its way out. Even I was frightened, and I’d already seen that thing.

At the Red Keep, Cersei prepares for the meeting, which she’s attending against her better judgment. She instructs the Mountain that if anything goes wrong, he’s to “kill the silver-headed bitch first,” followed by her brother Tyrion.

As Tyrion et al disembark and enter the royal gardens, they see where the dragons had been kept long ago in the time of Aegon, and Tyrion comments that given the madness of the king and the size of his dragons — which would have dwarfed Dany’s children — King’s Landing at one time must have been the most terrifying place in the world.

And then we get a ton of reunions all at once — Brienne and Jaime, Podrick and Tyrion, Brienne and the Hound, Bronn and Tyrion. It’s like covering off a ton of lost time in one fell swoop. What did you think of all of these former allies/enemies all coming together again, Chris?

 

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AWKWARD.

Christopher: It had me thinking about the difference between Game of Thrones and our other favourite examples of prestige television: namely that, more than any show I can think of, this series has been playing—of necessity!—the long game. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m particularly susceptible to well-written and intelligent television for the simple fact that I’m a narrative junkie. I love a good story well told, and love the slow burn of a Breaking Bad or The Wire. Series like that are about as close to a sprawling, chunky novel as you’re likely to find in a visual medium, something that speaks to the fact that the most revolutionary aspect of “prestige” television is the shift from episodic to serial storytelling. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, more or less made this case in annoyed response to those who said that his show had an “unfair advantage” because HBO didn’t have to play by the FCC’s rules:

All of us have the freedom to do story lines that unfold slowly. We all have the freedom to create characters that are complex and contradictory. The FCC doesn’t govern that. We all have the freedom to tell stupid, bad jokes that may actually turn out to be funny. And we all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what’s going on rather than telling them what’s going on.

But in many cases, if not most, the laws of television still govern on some level for most shows, and the perennial question of renewal versus cancellation has tended to dictate that narrative arcs describe seasons rather than entire series. Nowhere has this been more explicit that with The Wire, with each season exploring a different aspect of Baltimore within the larger context of the War on Drugs. This innovation of David Simon’s was in part a genius compromise with the television imperative of season-ending cliffhangers—episodes of that show often ended surprisingly, with none of the narratives cues that usually tell you the credits are about to roll. But because of the thematic continuity of each season, the finales provided definite ends, while still leaving you wanting more.

Game of Thrones, by contrast, is all about the cliffhangers—but to a great extent, its cliffhangers are doubly effective because this is a series whose endgame was established early on (arguably, in the pilot episode’s cold open). Even though the novels are still in progress (dammit, GRRM!), it’s been pretty clear from the start just what kind of ultimate confrontation we’re heading to—and though we’ve seen skirmishes (Fist of the First Men, Hardhome), we end this season with the first real battle of the great war. (It’s amusing to speculate on just how much bigger the sales of the novels would have been if HBO had pulled the plug after season four or so—how many people would have run to the bookstore to see what happens in the end).

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And so—to finally answer your question, Nikki—what we’re seeing in this episode, and what we’ve been seeing in the various reunions over the past ten episodes or so, is a deeply satisfying narrative convergence. What did I think of everyone coming together again here? It felt like a payoff for all the time we’ve been watching this show. Considering that for six seasons, one half of the action was taking place on an entirely different continent—with Daenerys building her strength, her confidence, and her armies—having her actually in the same space as Cersei Lannister was brilliant.

But as for the leadup, I can’t tell you how much I loved this scene—Tyrion and Pod’s heartfelt reunion, the Hound and Brienne’s comically respectful exchange (“I thought you were dead”; “Not yet. You came pretty close”), in which she tells him Arya is alive and well at Winterfell; when he asks who’s protecting her, Brienne says, “The only one that needs protecting is whoever gets in her way,” to which the Hound responds, feelingly, “It won’t be me.” Ha! Ol’ Sad Eyes is learning some wisdom in his age. And then, of course, Tyrion and Bronn: on reminding Bronn of his offer to double whatever anyone else pays him, and suggesting that arranging a meeting between him and Jaime might make Bronn suspect in Cersei’s eyes, Bronn counters that it’s because of him that Cersei now has the option of beheading a bunch of traitors as soon as she gets bored with their badinage, “All thanks to Ser Bronn of the fucking Blackwater! If that’s not looking after myself, I don’t know what is.” Tyrion’s expression is priceless—caught between knowing the danger they’re all in, the fact that if everything goes pear-shaped that Bronn will have out-thought him, and grudging respect for Bronn’s survival instincts. “It’s good to see you again,” he says after a moment, and we know he’s sincere when he says it. “Yeah, you too,” Bronn admits.

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Lots of side-eye going on in this scene.

But then we arrive, everyone wearing their game faces as they enter the Dragonpit for a confrontation we’ve been waiting six freakin’ years to see—everyone, that is, but the Mother of Dragons herself (the fact that Bronn and Pod leave to have a drink “while the fancy folks talk” was hilarious—I think I’d almost rather have been present to hear their conversation than that of the A plot). There follows several moments of watchfulness as some of our principals—Jon, Brienne, Jorah, Tyrion, the Hound—survey the arena for possible threats or treachery. “I left this shit city because I didn’t want to die in it,” the Hound snarls at Tyrion. “Am I going to die in this shit city?” When Tyrion acknowledges that possibility, the Hound says, with equal measure venom and fatalism, “This is all your idea. Seems every bad idea has some Lannister cunt behind it.” “And some Clegane cunt to help them see it through,” says Tyrion through gritted teeth, and at that moment Sandor sees his brother Gregor—surely the most poisonous of all the reunions of the episode, even more so than Cersei and Tyrion. As the queen’s procession passes through, there are a series of glances: Brienne and Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion, and Euron and Theon. Before Cersei can complain about Daenerys’ absence, the Hound strides up to confront the Mountain. “What did they do to you?” he asks. “Doesn’t fucking matter. You know who’s coming for you. You always know.” (Ser Gregor might want to pay special attention to the upcoming tutorial on how to kill the undead).

 

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That moment you stop complaining about someone’s tardiness.

Cersei is quite irked by Daenerys’ tardiness, quite possibly because showing up after her enemies had been her power play. But of course Daenerys knows better than anyone how to make an entrance, and on rewatching the sequence in which she swoops in on Drogon, I paid more attention to the expressions of everyone assembled—and it’s more or less a masterclass in face-acting. Jaime, presumably still somewhat traumatized by his last dragon encounter, is fearful and nervous; Cersei, discomfited, but refusing to stand and give her adversary the satisfaction; Euron, genuinely perturbed for once; Davos, stoical as always; Jorah, obviously trying to suppress a grin; and Jon, lovestruck—or possibly slightly gassy, it’s hard to tell with him.

I think however that the prize for face-acting in this entire sequence goes to Qyburn—not afraid of the dragon so much as fascinated in a deeply creepy way … just as he is when he first sees the wight. When he later picks up the severed undead arm, he wears an expression that one imagines Tycho Nestoris would wear on seeing Smaug’s hoard—one of something approaching lust. Anton Lesser, the actor playing Qyburn, does a masterful job conveying a mad scientist’s sociopathic fascination with stuff that could further his diabolical studies. The things I could do with this, he seems to think of both the dragon and the wight.

Truly, if there was ever a character who might happily work for the Night King …

Also great face acting: the “WTF?” Tyrion gives Jaime when Euron interrupts him to yell at Theon.

I quite enjoyed this scene: I wasn’t sure how it would play out when I saw the episode preview, but I loved the balance of egos and personalities, and the way in which the good guys present their case to Cersei. “There is nothing that can erase the past fifty years,” Tyrion admits. A truce is the best anyone can hope for in this situation, a pause in hostilities while the greater threat is dealt with. Eventually, it will come down to Daenerys versus Cersei, and Cersei can see no reason to pause—as far as she is concerned, all of this is a pantomime, designed to neuter the Lannisters while Daenerys and Jon Snow muster even greater forces.

Which, to be fair, is precisely the response they’d expected from her, which is why “We have something to show you,” says Tyrion. Cue the Hound emerging from the Dragonpit green room with the crated wight.

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I loved this protracted nature of the sequence that follows: the excruciatingly slow reveal as the Hound unlocks and unbars the crate, while Cersei shares skeptical glances with Jaime; the expectant looks on the faces of Daenerys et al; and finally, the long moment after it has been opened in which we all wonder if perhaps the ice zombie has disintegrated in the interim … and what that might mean for this summit.

And then: The Walking Dead: Westeros!

What did you think of the reveal, Nikki, and of Cersei’s response to it?

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Nikki: I thought the same thing, that the wight was actually completely dead and not sorta dead, and we were about to be in big trouble — of course, I was thinking this while simultaneously knowing deep down it wasn’t, and thinking of the writers, “You sly bastards.” Of course it’s alive, and it’s effing TERRIFYING.

On The Walking Dead, zombies can freeze. There’s an onrunning joke that if they would just walk north, for god’s sakes, instead of hanging around in Atlanta, they would be in the frozen tundra and the zombies would freeze where they stand. Here in Westeros, of course, the rules are different. When you’re created in ice, you can move in ice, and that last battle north of the Wall was a formidable one. And yet, this wight has been chained in a box for a few days, and now he’s in a warmer temperature for the first time, and he just seemed to move SO FAST. That’s not what we typically think of the slow-moving, lumbering beasts. The audience is privy to the Cersei-cam view, and just as it runs right at her, we see it coming for us, all sinew and bone and grey, hanging skin… and screaming. The look on Cersei’s face when that thing flung itself at her was one of the best moments in the series for me. She looks genuinely terrified, but just as she tried to keep her face neutral and unimpressed when Daenerys arrived via Dragon Express earlier in the meeting, here she similarly tries not to show her fear.

It doesn’t work.

At some point Cersei moves from “I’m not going to show anyone I might be scared” to “OMG GET THIS HORRIBLE THING AWAY FROM ME” and her hands clutch the sides of the chair and her eyes grow to the size of saucers and she pulls herself as far back into the chair as she can get. To her credit, she does NOT jump out of the chair and run screaming from the Dragon Pit, but she looks about as scared as I’ve ever seen Cersei, except for the moment when she was kneeling by Joffrey’s side and saw the life flow out of him.

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Moments earlier Cersei had referred to the Army of the Dead as nothing but a colossal joke, and Dany as nothing but a usurper. Now… shit just got real. Now everyone is silenced, even the loudmouthed Euron, who showed just how uncouth he is by interrupting the only major summit of everyone trying to lay claim to the Iron Throne and making it all about him just a few moments earlier. Westeros’s own Dr. Frankenstein Qyburn, as you mentioned, Chris, looks utterly fascinated.

The dead are coming back to life and they will eat us all.

We don’t stand a bloody chance.

Dragons schmagons, that is a DEAD GUY in front of us and he almost ripped out Cersei’s throat.

Suddenly, all the politicking and battles between human armies seems completely petty, and mean nothing. Cersei will truly be the queen of the ashes if this guy persists. I mean… she’ll be queen for one minute before she’s eaten, too, of course. Much was made of the Dragon Pit on the way in as being the most terrifying place in all of Westeros. Now, given what they now know is coming for them, the Dragon Pit seems positively safe, and yet in that one moment, it truly is the most terrifying place in Westeros. Even Brienne looked like she was about to soil her armour.

Euron asks if the zombies can swim, and the answer is no. Welp! That’s THAT, then, and he grabs his things and says he’s running back to the Iron Islands. He leans in to Dany on his away out and tells her she’d best head back to her island, too, because when all is said and done, and when this winter is over, the people on the islands will be the only ones alive.

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Which… seems like a good plan until we remember that now, they can fly. D’oh. But more on that later.

As he walks away, Cersei admits Euron is a complete coward, but moves back to official business, and says she will join forces with them and will accept their truce. “Until the dead are defeated,” she says, “they are the enemy.” For once it looks like Cersei’s going to do the right thing. However, she has a tiny little request in return: after the dead have been vanquished, the King of the North needs to retreat to the north and stay there. He cannot take up arms against her army, he cannot choose sides. He has to be Switzerland. “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word.” (At which point GRRM, sitting in the back, stands up, looks around and says, “Sorry, does anyone see one of Ned Stark’s sons sitting anywhere here because I DON’T.” Ahem.)

Okay, this is easy, Jon, you just look at her and say, “Cool, cool… no problem. As soon as the wights are all dead Ima head back to my homestead and y’all can fight this one to the end, that’s totally cool.” Then he can turn and give a big wink to Dany when Cersei isn’t looking and it’s all great, this is going to be ea—

I am true to my word, or I try to be. That is why I cannot give you what you ask. I cannot serve two queens. I’ve already pledged myself to Queen Daenerys of House Targaryen.

GODDAMMIT JON SNOW.

Davos stands there, dumbfounded, suddenly realizing he really should have counselled this kid better because clearly Jon Snow is more of a dumb shit than even Ygritte thought he was. Daenerys goes wide-eyed. Tyrion just closes his. Somewhere, off in space, Captain Picard is face-palming in frustration.

Cersei has a brief moment where she probably thinks, “Well, good luck with this one then, Dany, because Jon Snow’s armies will be marching on Dorne when they take a wrong right turn on their way to King’s Landing. Seriously, where do you find these guys?!” And she stands up, tells them there’s nothing more to discuss, and to have fun fighting the White Walkers in the north — she’ll deal with whatever gets past them.

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As the King’s Landing contingent leaves the stage, Brienne races after Jaime and tries to appeal to him. She saw how scared he looked when that thing jumped out of the box, because it mirrored her own face, and she knows that he knows they can’t just let it happen, that if they deal with “whatever is left” it’ll be not only the 100,000 marching south, but everyone in the north that will have been killed and reanimated to march on the south. Jaime counters that he can’t help her: “I’m loyal to the queen and you’re loyal to Sansa and her dolt brother.” (HAHA!) Brienne stops him in his tracks when she says, “Oh fuck loyalty!”

Whoa.

Brienne is a character who is loyal to a fault. She has actually made questionable decisions at times due to her unbending loyalty, has put herself in harm’s way constantly for loyalty, has even questioned her own loyalty knowing it’s not leading her down the right path… and yet, she remains loyal to Renly Baratheon, to Catelyn Stark, to Sansa and Arya Stark. So even Jaime almost gets whiplash when his head jerks back at this statement coming from her, of all people. “Fuck loyalty?!” he says. She tells him they can’t beat this alone, and he knows it, and he has to tell the queen. At this point Cersei has stopped and is staring at the two of them — two people, by the way, who actually became quite intimate at one time, with Brienne being the only person who is a rival for Jaime’s affection. But he just says, “Tell her what?” and keeps walking.

Back on the stage, people are pissed. Tyrion watches Cersei leave. He knows his sister better than anyone, and knows that not only have they just lost her army, but Jon Snow would have lost all Cersei’s respect for not lying. She doesn’t respect honesty — the last person she met who was this stupidly honest was Ned Stark, and we all know what she did to him. Even Theon is standing there looking surprised in the background, and I couldn’t help but think only Jon Snow could make Theon Greyjoy look like a Rhodes Scholar in comparison.

Davos flat-out says, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” Daenerys marches over and says, “I’m grateful for your loyalty, but my dragon died so we could be here, and if it’s all for nothing, then he died for nothing.”

Jon looks torn — in his heart he believes he did the right thing, but he knows he’s just betrayed the very queen he swore an oath to, which is the OPPOSITE of the right thing in his world. Tyrion turns on his heel and says with evident frustration in his voice, “Have you ever considered learning how to lie now and then JUST A BIT??”

And Jon Snow looks at them all with that look of his and says he won’t swear an oath to uphold, because the world is built on lies and over time words mean nothing and blah blah blah self-righteous blah blah blah I’m ushering in a better world yadda yadda yadda.

Tyrion says the more immediate problem they have to face now is that they’re all FUCKED. And he has decided the only way they could possibly get unfucked is if he goes to Cersei himself. I couldn’t help but wonder, by the way, if the Lannister army is truly the only real shot they have against the White Walkers? Daenerys slaughtered their army in the valley, and I know that wasn’t the entire Lannister army but it was certainly a large portion of them. And she reduced them to fewer than a thousand men. So… is that really their best chance? But anyway…

Dany rushes to his side and says she didn’t come all this way to have her Hand murdered by the queen, and he said neither has he, but it’s the only way. Jon Snow offers to go himself — because somehow even being a major player in what just happened he seems to have missed WHAT JUST HAPPENED — and they all look at him like he’s even stupider than they thought three seconds ago and Tyrion says NO, he will go to the queen because it’s his sister, and he knows her. And if she kills him she kills him, but this is the only way we’ll get anything done.

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And Tyrion heads off to see Cersei, but first he has to get through his brother Jaime. I know we’ve already seen one reunion between Tyrion and Jaime, but this one felt more like the one I wanted to see: you can see that Jaime still has some affection for Tyrion — and perhaps, now that he’s seen Tyrion’s queen up close and sees that Tyrion is actually there for good reason and means well, he actually respects and feels some awe for his brother. Tyrion is the imp who was never cared for or loved by his mother, who was the bane of his father’s existence, who was despised by his sister, who became a drunk who was going to amount to nothing, but who got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter… and he became the Hand of Queen Daenerys. Jaime sits next to Cersei’s throne, but only because at night she’s, you know, sitting on his. And despite being put into the dungeon and exiled and Jaime saying he would kill him if he ever saw him again, Tyrion has never stopped looking up to his older brother, never stopped wanting him to respect Tyrion for everything Tyrion has done. He believes his brother is one of the most fearsome warriors alive, and while that respect has cooled somewhat, you could tell in this scene he’s still seeking that approval.

Tyrion looks at Jaime and says he might be an idiot, but he’s about to walk into a room with the most murderous woman alive (considering how many people Dany has killed with that dragon that might not be completely true but let’s not fixate on that). And of course, Jaime doesn’t argue with him. He tells him that perhaps he should say his goodbye now, and even though there’s a joke underlying that moment, you can tell Jaime would be saddened and torn if that does, in fact, play out to be true. I loved this quiet little scene between the two brothers.

And then, Tyrion walks into the lion’s den. What did you think of this scene, Chris? Did you think in another life Tyrion and Cersei might have made good drinking buddies?

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Christopher: Um, no. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which Cersei would ever be friendly with Tyrion. There was an Imagur.com visual recap of the episode with comic captions making the rounds on Facebook; it is worth reading just because it is hilarious, but also because it is the only thing I’ve seen that points out that the Hound’s presence goes unremarked by the Lannisters (in spite of the fact that he used to work for them—and was, in fact, Joffrey’s sword shield, and that his desertion at the Battle of Blackwater Bay was kind of a big deal for that reason):

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“All ugly people look the same to me” is perhaps something of a reductive distillation of Cersei’s worldview, but it is not unhelpful in summing up a certain aspect of her character: she doesn’t mind ugliness when it is coupled with power and serves her purposes (e.g. the Mountain), but when it falls outside her use, it is beneath contempt. One imagines that had Tyrion been born a clean-limbed version of her and Jaime, Cersei might have been inclined to forgive him her mother’s death in childbirth; by the same token, had he not been such a clever little shit and rebellious to boot, she might have been satisfied with contempt as opposed to outright loathing. Cersei’s hatred of Tyrion (in contrast to Daenerys’ valuing of him) is representative of her congenital antipathy to anything not falling within her very rigid sense of herself, which is also her sense of how the world should work. Euron’s sneering comment that children born like Tyrion were left to die of exposure reminds us of Tyrion’s first-season observation that peasant families in Westeros did the same—that the only reason he was allowed to live was because he was a Lannister. And for all of Cersei’s veneration of her father, we know all too well she wishes he had treated Tyrion as the Iron Islanders or peasant Westrosi would have.

In a more metaphorical sense, though, Tyrion represents the peasantry and all the rest of the people(s) Cersei sees as beneath her. If her conversation with Tyrion makes anything clear (if it wasn’t already clear), it’s that her sole and primary concern is for herself and for her family.

So no—I cannot envision a parallel reality in which Cersei and Tyrion would be good drinking buddies.

That being said, this scene between them is one of the best acted parts of the series thus far (and as we both know, that’s saying a lot). The intensity in this scene is remarkable, due in part to what I mentioned before about how long it’s been in coming—but in the hands of lesser actors, it would have been … well, less than it is. It took me some time, as you and our more devoted readers will remember, Nikki, to warm up to Lena Headey as Cersei—not because I didn’t think she was a good actor, but because she was so very different from how GRRM depicts her in the novels. But she has so totally owned this character that when The Winds of Winter finally comes out in thirty years, I suspect I’ll find the Cersei of the novels out of step with what I’ve become accustomed to.

What I loved most about this scene relates to what I was just saying about Cersei’s absolute sense of order—her anger with Tyrion for killing Tywin has little or nothing in this moment to do with love or grief, but rather with the fact that the death of Tywin left the Lannisters vulnerable. Tyrion’s defense is that his father had sentenced him to death, knowing full well he was innocent; and further that Tywin had humiliated and belittled him his entire life. But they’re speaking different languages. Cersei might feel grief for her children, and blame Tyrion’s murder of Tywin for that, but the greater sin—the absolute sin, as far as she is concerned—is the betrayal of family, the making vulnerable. As we have seen this entire series, vulnerability is precisely the thing that Cersei loathes and fears the most.

Which is not to say there is no humanity in her—no, that would be too simplistic, too easy, and unworthy of this series. Cersei is, as characters from Olenna Tyrell to Tyrion himself have professed, a monster—but she’s hardly a Bond villain or some sort of mustache-twirling, cackling caricature of evil. What I love about this scene is the pain and fear that Lena Headey brings to the character, roiling just beneath the surface and inflecting the rage she professes. Everything she does in this episode is about restraint; the genius of the summit scene was, in part, due to Cersei’s studied calm, betrayed only in minute gestures and facial expressions. Ditto her scene with Tyrion. Peter Dinklage gets to emote here, which isn’t at all a knock against his performance—his speech that crescendos with him daring Cersei to order the Mountain to kill him (and his shuddering relief when she doesn’t) is brilliant. But the tension of that moment doesn’t lie in the Mountain starting to unsheathe his sword so much as the close up of Cersei’s face and the hunger there as she balances on the line between desire and pragmatism.

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But of course she doesn’t accede to her own wish to see Tyrion dead—instead, she plays him. It’s really only obvious on rewatching—and it makes me doubly suspicious that her pregnancy is a sham—that she seeks to fetch Tyrion in with her talk of how seeing the wight narrowed the world for her down to concern for her immediate family. What’s brilliant about her deceit here is that one suspects it isn’t really deceit: I have little doubt Cersei is speaking truth when she says that the specter of the army of the dead didn’t make her fear for the world at large, but for herself and those close to her. If nothing else, this is what this tête-a-tête articulates to us: that Jon Snow and Daenerys, whatever their flaws, are the good guys because they care for the whole of Westeros and not just those close to them. Dany’s encounter with the Night King transformed her thinking, even though it came at the cost of one of her children. Jon Snow has always been on the side of the masses. In the moment when she’s most obviously signaling her ostensible pregnancy to Tyrion, Cersei wonders whether or not Euron had the right idea about retreating to an island—and we wonder if, in that moment, she’s sincere.

dany-jon-jawbone

 

With that, we return to the Dragonpit, and the next installment in the Jon and Dany chronicles. Of the various complaints about this season, and the final few episodes in particular, those not preoccupied with geography (guilty) have fixated on the fact that we don’t really get a better development of the romance between these two. The most critical have charged that there’s NO chemistry between these two WHATSOEVER, but I disagree with that—I think there’s definite chemistry between Dany and Jon, it just needed more cultivation. And perhaps a little more subtlety in the writing? I mean, it seems that every time the two of them talked, Daenerys saw fit to remind him that she couldn’t have children … which can be read as (1) Dany already thinking about getting it on, (2) offering a caveat in advance of a possible dynastic marriage, or (3) basically letting him know that, hey, birth control? not an issue! That being said, the final seconds of this scene were redolent with desire—it was totally a moment in which the two would-be lovers really wanted to kiss, not least because Jon Snow (who might know something after all) has, to coin an expression, the audacity of hope. When Dany tells him that she learned of her barrenness from “the witch who murdered my husband,” Jon asks, “Has it occurred to you that she might not have been a reliable source of information?” Really, what’s remarkable here is that after all these years it’s JON FUCKING SNOW who points out this rather obvious flaw in Daenerys’ reasoning.

Cue Tyrion’s return, in advance of Cersei and her entourage. “My armies will not stand down,” she informs them all. “Nor will I pull them back to the capital. I will march them north to fight alongside you in the great war.” Awesome! Nothing could possibly go wrong now, right?

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Well, as if to distract us from the UTTER CERTAINTY of Cersei’s insincerity, we cut to Sansa’s conversation with Littlefinger, and a further suggestion that Sansa means to do Arya harm. In order to emphasize this, we open on her tapping a scroll on the table—news that Jon had chosen to bend the knee to Daenerys, which is bad enough, but also reminding us of the incriminating scroll Littlefinger had left in his mattress for Arya to find. But it is Jon’s choice to submit to Daenerys that is the first item of business, with Sansa (rather understandably) irked and a bit incredulous that he would do such a thing. Littlefinger of course wants to make it sordid: citing the rumour that Daenerys is beautiful, he says “Jon is young and unmarried; Daenerys is young and unmarried.” An alliance, he says, makes sense—together they’d be difficult to defeat, but though he was named King in the North, “he can be un-named.”

And here’s the point at which, in hindsight, we wonder how much Sansa and Arya have already started plotting? Is this entire scene a means of drawing Littlefinger out, or is this where Sansa has her epiphany thanks to Littlefinger’s “game” of imagining worst intentions? Is it after this scene that Sansa goes to Arya and says, “Hey, I know we’ve been bitching at each other, but where did you get that scroll?”, or is she now just knowingly giving him enough rope to hang himself? I guess we can’t ever know that, but it’s still a pretty decent scene, especially considering it’s Mayor Carcetti’s swan song. Of all the characters on this series, he’s had a good run—of those who we met in season one, he’s one of the few who has made it this far.

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He leads Sansa through all of the worst possible scenarios, all of the worst possible reasons Arya has acted as she has—leading her, ultimately, to the conclusion that she wants to be the Lady of Winterfell.

If I’d really been thinking, this is where I’d have gotten off the Sansa-vs-Arya train and realized (for certain) that Littlefinger’s number was up. Not because I considered it unlikely that Arya might be murderous, but because of a flaw in Littlefinger’s logic, one based in his own desires—he assumes that everyone else has ambitions comparable to his own, that everyone else wants power and status. Or else that everyone else can be convinced that ostensible rivals are driven by a desire for power or status. But however creepy Sansa’s encounter with Arya and her bag of faces was, one thing that emerged from that (and from every encounter they’ve had since Arya’s return) is that Arya has no desire to be the “Lady”—that she has spent her life charting a different course.

I’d like to think this was the moment that a part of Sansa’s brain called bullshit. But I guess we’ll never know.

From there we cut to Daenerys’ war room, and whether or not it’s in Dany’s best interests to fly or sail. What did you think of Daenerys’ declaration that “We’ll sail together,” Nikki? Was she already thinking of that sumptuous stateroom she has on her ship?

dany-maproom

Nikki: It’s possible she was thinking of that stateroom, but more importantly, she chose a side. Like you, as our readers know, I was late to the “Dany ♥ Jonny” party because I really just wanted to see it as a political match-up. (And, you know, that whole auntie thing.) And I’d like to think that Daenerys here is ruled by her head and not her heart and was making a solid political move in saying she’ll sail and going against the advice of Jorah, much to Jorah’s chagrin (and he obviously can see the attraction between the two). But then again, so what if she is ruled by her heart? It would only show us that she’s human. She’s been involved in so many political moves for someone so young, and the only person who’s ever truly had her heart — Khal Drogo — was a union she was forced into, one that began with rape. So hey, why not have her fall for the cute, dumb jock?

Mr. November leaves the war room and is crossing the throne room when Theon stops him, and we have the only private discussion between these two former sort-of brothers of Winterfell. Neither one was legitimately a Stark brother, both of them had lived on the periphery, although Jon had more stake than Theon (remember way back in season one, when they found the direwolves, Jon got one but Theon didn’t). Theon tells Jon that he respected what he did back at the Dragon Pit, and unlike everyone else present, Theon wasn’t surprised by Jon’s actions, because they were in keeping with the honourable Jon Snow he grew up with. “Every step you take [every move you make] seems to be the right one,” he tells Jon. Jon plays it humble, saying he’s made many mistakes, and we know he has. “Not compared to me, you haven’t,” says Theon, and Jon immediately agrees.

Theon explains that when he was at Winterfell he was always torn between loyalties: he had been taken as Ned Stark’s ward away from the Iron Islands during the Greyjoy uprising against the Iron Throne, but even though Ned took him as a prize when Balon Greyjoy surrendered to Robert Baratheon, Ned has raised him with love, not as a slave. He’s eaten and slept and grown up alongside the Stark children, and became very close to Robb. And yet, he was torn. He was born a Greyjoy, and remained a Greyjoy. He had worshipped the Drowned God as a child and had a sister, Yara (his brothers were killed in the war). And yet, he was also a Stark, living at Winterfell, learning archery and sword-fighting among the other Starks. In this declaration we finally get to the central problem in Theon’s head: having grown up torn between two loyalties, it’s difficult for him to remain loyal to anyone. It’s why he so easily switched sides in the early seasons before Ramsay Bolton nabbed and tortured him. And he lives with the pain of knowing how his lack of loyalty ended up hurting both the Starks and the Greyjoys. Jon listens to him, and you can see his loathing dissipate for Theon as he does, because he knows how it feels — Jon was accepted as a Stark by Ned, but was always treated like an outsider by Catelyn because Jon represented her husband’s infidelity. (What I would give to bring Catelyn back to life for one minute just to tell her that Ned had never been unfaithful to her.)

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Game of Thrones is a story of outsiders. Tyrion is the imp who didn’t belong in the Lannister clan. Jon Snow is the bastard who was never fully welcomed at Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy was a boy torn between two Houses. Ramsay Bolton lost his mind as the bastard son of Roose Bolton. Brienne of Tarth was so large she could never be trussed up like a lady, but because she was still a woman she could never be fully treated like a male soldier. The Hound’s own brother pushed his face into the fire, scarring him for life and making him an outcast. Samwell Tarly didn’t have the desire or ability to be the military leader of House Tarly like his father wanted him to be, so he was shipped off to the Wall. Ser Jorah was exiled from House Mormont after he had participated in the slave trade, which shamed his family. Gendry was one of the many bastard children of Robert Baratheon, but he lives in fear of Cersei finding him and killing him so he can’t lay claim to the throne. The list goes on and on. Even within the legitimate families, you have characters like Arya who don’t fit, or Tommen, who knows he’s a bastard but goes along with the whole “Baratheon” story.

Despite his sympathy, Jon acknowledges that Theon has been guilty of many crimes. “I can’t forgive you for all of it, but what I can forgive, I do,” he says. And then he finally looks right at Theon and adds, “You don’t need to choose. You’re a Greyjoy, and you’re a Stark.” This is such an important line: all of the people I’ve just named above have been treated as outcasts, but they are part of something. Tyrion is still a legitimate Lannister. Theon a legitimate Greyjoy who could just as easily swear fealty to House Stark. Despite Ramsay’s bastardy, he took over as the head of House Bolton (well, you know, after he murdered his legit baby brother). Brienne is the most formidable swordsperson in the Seven Kingdoms (save, perhaps, Arya) and has been accepted into many folds. And similarly, Jon Snow is a Stark, even if he’s not a Stark by way of Eddard (something we know and he doesn’t). He’s been raised as one, he thinks more like Eddard than any other character on this show, and he remains loyal to his House.

Theon tells Jon that Yara actually tried to save him when no one else would, recalling the scene where she breaks in to save Theon, who cowered in the back of the cage and refused to go with her. “She needs me now,” he says. “So why’re you still talking to me?” asks Jon, and he leaves. I was a wee bit disappointed at the very ending of this conversation. Jon just told him he’s as much a Stark as he is a Greyjoy, and should be proud of that. And then when Theon hints that he could use some help in the next little bit to retrieve his sister before Euron departs with her, Jon says, “You’re on your own.”

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Theon heads down to the beach to try to conjure up help from the Iron soldiers since Jon didn’t offer any, but the men will not be led by the man they perceive as Reek. They tell him they’re going to start over, find an island, kill all the men, and take their women (incidentally, this is actually part of the Drowned God philosophy and very much what the culture of the Iron Islands is based on). In the fight that ensues I actually thought Theon might die, but no matter how many times he knocks him down and screams at him to STAY DOWN, Theon conjures up his inner Rocky Balboa and stands up again. And then he gains the upper hand when the Greyjoy soldier kicks him in the crotch… and then does it again… and Theon just stands there grinning at him.

It reminded me of that scene in my favourite episode of King of the Hill, where Bobby Hill goes to the women’s self-defense classes and learns the best way to take down a bully is to kick him in the crotch while yelling, “That’s my purse! I don’t know you!” (What ensues is comedy GOLD.) And when his Mom starts to berate him at the end of the episode, he kicks her squarely in the crotch… and she doesn’t go down.

Where Peggy Hill does not kill her 10-year-old son on the front lawn at that point, Theon does move in for the kill and takes out the soldier with his bare hands, which is a pretty awesome display of ferocity, and then he moves to go get his sister.

I’ll admit the lack of the actual Yara rescue scene was a little disappointing to me in this episode — I felt like that’s something that could have been resolved now so we don’t have to wait until season eight, but whatever. That said, time is of the essence at this point, and I wouldn’t want that scene to be rushed, despite the whole Greyjoy saga being rather peripheral at this point.

And from here we move to the scene with Arya and Sansa. Remember last week when you said that for the first time in the series you truly hated Arya, and then I spent about 3,000 words explaining to everyone exactly where the sisters were in season one and how if we look at it entirely from Arya’s point of view, it actually stands to reason that she would hate her sister, although the only part I thought felt suspicious is when she said Sansa has nothing to worry about if she’s innocent, when Arya’s experience would tell her that’s not true at all?

Well… this week all I have to say is:

radner

Anyway. I still think it was well done and fitting that Arya should go after Sansa, and I swear not 10 minutes after we posted our blog last week, the fan theory that Arya and Sansa were actually playing Littlefinger blew up all over my FB newsfeed. But my first response, as I posted on my FB wall, was, if someone is actually being played, I believe Arya’s doing it and Sansa’s not in on it. And therefore my explanation still stands because I believe Arya was playing everyone knowing that Littlefinger was watching and Sansa — thinking that her sister really was about to kill her — would be able to pull him into a trap, but at the same time, she was releasing some of the hostility and pent-up feelings she’s had towards her sister for many years. It’s a perfect way to get off her chest what she really thinks of Sansa, while at the same time going, “Well THAT was a fun pantomime of which I didn’t mean a single word, eh sis??”

What’s come out in the last few days — I’m not sure if you saw it or not, Chris — is that there was a deleted scene where Sansa actually went to Bran and asked if Mr. I Can See Across Time could look at Arya for her and tell her if she’s actually planning to kill her. They took out this scene for time reasons, but it goes a LONG way to explaining that no, Sansa wasn’t actually in on it, but in this moment she finally realized Arya’s stunning endgame, and that it would help the two of them put an end to Lord Baelish once and for all. It’s too bad they took it out, because without that scene, it leaves the [non]-trail a little too jarring, and for a show that shows us SO much exposition with every character, putting the audience into their heads, it rarely falls to such trickery.

That said, Arya’s dagger slice was pretty awesome to watch.

Though, oddly, I’ll admit, I think the show loses a little something without Lord Baelish in it. Not only does he keep everyone on their toes — and he’s actually put that delightful Lucky Charms Leprechaun lilt back into his voice in recent episodes — but he’s actually a rather sympathetic character in the books, I felt, simply because the books provide the flashback to his childhood where you see what a sweet person he was, always hanging back beside Catelyn trying to impress her, while Eddard was a bit of a buffoon to him.

What did you think of the quick death of Lord Baelish, Chris? Were you at all sad to see him go, at least from the show’s narrative point of view?

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Christopher: Before I get to that, I want to dispute your characterization of Jon Snow as a not-too-bright jock. I’d say rather that he’s the not-too-bright emo guy who writes really bad poetry, but whom everyone likes anyway because he’s a genuinely nice guy. I mean, as long as we’re slotting everyone into Breakfast Club-style designations. He’s really kind of a combination of Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall.

But anyway … I’m at once delighted that Littlefinger got his comeuppance in such dramatic fashion (“as justice goes, it’s not unpoetic”), and also sad to see him go—both from a narrative perspective, but also because I just love watching Aiden Gillen do his thing so much. He’s such a good actor. The first thing I ever saw him in was the British Queer as Folk, in which he played Stuart—the sexpot character in the small group of friends on which the show focused. He was kind of an asshole on that show too, but so very compelling. It’s a testament to his acting that when the American adaptation was made, they cast an actor (Gale Harold) in the Gillen role so good-looking that he might possibly have Greek god lineage. Gillen is himself quite an attractive man, but he acted his sex appeal—there are moments in the British Queer as Folk in which be basically exudes sex. (Fun fact for anyone who likes to play television series master-universe crossover: the teenager Stuart deflowers in the first episode of Queer as Folk, Nathan, is played by Charlie Hunnam. So for those keeping score, Jax Teller of Sons of Anarchy had his cherry popped by Lord Petyr Baelish).

From there, Gillen went on to play idealistic councilman Tommy Carcetti on The Wire, whose election to the role of mayor starts with him having all the best intentions, but soon he become compromised by his own ambition and ego. When he was cast as Littlefinger, I joked (after I’d done my Dance of Joy for such brilliant casting) that this was perfect because Littlefinger was basically Carcetti ten years on, having lost whatever idealism he’d had at the start. I’ll miss him for all of those reasons, and for the fact that he’s always just a value-added character in any scene he graces (his occasional lapses into Irish Batman notwithstanding).

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“Wait. What?”

 

But alas, Littlefinger is gone—and we cut from his death to the shadowed outline of Cersei from behind and she walks to where Jaime is briefing his generals (just as an aside—is it just me, or have they been using this shot, i.e. the medium close-up from behind featuring a character’s head and shoulders, as they walk to whatever significant meeting they have, an awful lot this season? It could very well serve as the cover for the DVD collection). Jaime is, unsurprisingly, doing what he does best—leading the Lannister armies. He bites out a series of orders crisply and clearly, and the impression we get is one of extreme competence. He’s in his element here. So of course it’s up to Cersei to disabuse him of his assumptions.

Dismissing his generals, she marvels at his stupidity—did he really imagine they were joining up with Jon Snow and Daenerys? To be fair, Jaime isn’t the most subtle of thinkers—much to Tywin’s dismay, his heir was, as Cersei observes, always far more interested in hunting and fighting. Tyrion was the true thinker, though Cersei now seems to have adopted the role of the key Lannister intellect now that the Imp has gone over to the enemy.

It’s worth pausing a moment to note once again the way in which different characters have evolved over the seven seasons of this show. Jaime Lannister when we first met him was brash, arrogant, and amoral—something encapsulated in how he pushes Bran out the window at the end of the pilot episode, obviously not wanting to do so, but also more or less indifferent to the fact that he’s killing a child. (Interesting thought—one assumes some time next season he’ll meet Bran; will the new Three Eyed Raven bear a grudge?). Since then, he’s been captured by the enemy, imprisoned, released, re-captured and de-phalanged, returned home, lost his son, watched his brother convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, helped his brother escape, lost his father to that brother’s vengeance, lost his daughter, and lost his other son.

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“But … but … I’ve only JUST NOW developed this sense of morality!”

So, y’know, he’s been through a lot. And apparently for Jaime Lannister, that puts him in touch with his inner Ned Stark: he’s appalled at Cersei’s plot, mostly because he’s given his word, and her betrayal means he must betray his own honour. The amorality of Season One Jaime is nowhere to be seen; instead, we have an older, wiser (but apparently still unsubtle) Kingslayer for whom words actually mean something. Not so much his sister: “I’ll say whatever I need to say to ensure the survival of our house,” she tells him, but Jaime has shifted into a new paradigm. “This isn’t about noble houses,” he rages, “this is about the living and the dead.” He gets it—he’s had his Saul-on-the-road-to-Taursus moment, or what I suppose in Westeros we now have to call his Jon Snow moment. The stakes are clear to him. He made a promise … but Cersei only concerned about survival. Her survival, and that of her family. All of the scenarios she outlines for him—the dead win, they come south; the living win, they come south—she frames not perhaps as win-win, but certainly that their would-be allies have about the same designs on them as the wight they’d seen that morning. That is to say: there is no eventuality in which the Lannisters are not ultimately on the chopping block.

One can almost admire her cold calculus: if one’s only concern is oneself and those closest to you, it makes total sense not to risk anything when your enemies will destroy each other. The one variable Cersei doesn’t seem to have considered, however, is that if the Night King wins, he comes south THAT MUCH MORE POWERFUL. If Jon and Dany prevail … well, they’ll almost certainly be very depleted, to the point where Cersei’s armies have a fighting chance. That’s an awfully big risk to take, but Cersei doesn’t seem to have figured that out. Jaime, by contrast, has—and despite his prospective fatherhood, Cersei’s maybe-baby is not a poker chip one wants to play in this imminent war.

Especially not when one considers the fact that his relatively newfound honour puts him at odds with the woman he’s loved literally all his life. Seeing the wight pushed Jaime past a certain point, but Cersei’s own recognition that “The monsters are real” doesn’t change her calculus, for a reason that was made explicit to Jaime by the Queen of Thorns: though Cersei goes on to name all the figures of myth and legend from White Walkers to Dothraki Screamers, the fact becomes unavoidable to Jaime is that the true monster is the woman he loves.

cersei-maproom

What I love about this scene is that it really is a paradigm shift for Jaime, and it makes clear the fact that they’re no longer speaking the same language. In an effort to convince her, he falls back on the logic of armed force and his memory of being routed by the Dothraki and a dragon—there is no way to defeat them, he reminds her. But say what you will of Cersei, she is nothing if not observant, having noticed that Dany brought only two dragons to the summit. When Jaime lamely suggests that the third might be guarding her fleet, she deals him a withering look. No, she says: Daenerys brought her full force so as best to intimidate them. That should have included all three dragons; the absence of one means that they’re vulnerable.

(Which is of course a moment of dramatic irony for all of us: knowing as we do that Viserion was brought down by the very threat to which Cersei is indifferent, and that he’ll be a weapon deployed against the living , is something she cannot know. And we, the audience, only come to appreciate the magnitude of that threat in the final moments of the episode).

And then we come to grasp the full extent of Cersei’s plotting in her revelations about the Iron Bank and Euron’s deception. I must admit, I had a grudging admiration for Cersei in this moment—genuinely thinking a few steps ahead. One wonders what excuse Euron would have made to beat a hasty exit during the summit if the good guys hadn’t brought the wight? But he’s off, one way or another, gone to fetch twenty thousand swords to bolster the Lannister host. Though it is rather questionable just how loyal mercenaries from a different continent will prove when faced with the army of the dead. Not really something the Bronns of the world would be willing to face, no matter what the payday.

(Huh. Writing that makes me realize: Bronn went to have a drink with Pod at the start of the summit, and so wasn’t there for the release of the wight, was he? Clever work, GoT writers! Because I have to imagine that, on seeing that thing, he wouldn’t be quite so keen to have a castle in continental Westeros—probably would have pledged his sword to Euron at that point).

What follows then is a brief but heated argument over betrayal and treason. Jaime is irked that Cersei plotted with Euron behind his back; but Cersei—not unreasonably—is still angry at Jaime for treating with Tyrion and, by extension, with Daenerys. She’s not wrong in calling that betrayal; whether it’s treason is a matter for the lawyers, but what becomes obvious in this moment is that Jaime has started thinking globally (as it were). He has a bigger picture in mind, even as he worries about the survival of House Lannister. In the end, however, he is resolute in hewing to his promises—as I said above, he finds his inner Stark!—and basically breaks up with Cersei here.

Let me repeat that in all caps. HE BREAKS UP WITH CERSEI.

Though not without concern for his life: the Mountain, once again, offers the threat of death. Twice in this episode has Cersei been challenged by one of her brothers to order the Mountain to kill them, and twice she blinked. And while Tyrion emitted explosive gasps of relief when he wasn’t summarily cut down, I suspect Jaime didn’t care much one way or another—he was deserting his sister, the woman he’s illicitly loved all his life, and if Ser Gregor had actually put up a fight, he might well have welcomed death.

Instead, he’s on the road … alone. I suppose it was naïve of me to think he might have taken some of the Lannister army with him. But no—he’s alone, and as he pulls a glove over his golden hand, a snowflake falls on it.

(I suppose it’s only appropriate that, given how long this show has been saying “winter is coming,” when winter comes, it takes an awfully long time to do so).

What follows is a rather beautiful and poignant sequence in which we see snow and night falling—over the desiccated jawbones of dwarf dragons, over the Dragonpit itself, and over the rooftops of King’s Landing. (I’m having a James Joyce moment here: “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”).

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The falling snow provides an elegant segue back to Winterfell, where Samwell Tarly has arrived! And for once I won’t complain about the brevity of the journey, which really should have taken all of next season. What did you think of Sam’s reunion with Bran, Nikki, and Bran’s, um, exposition?

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Nikki: First, I think “maybe-baby” is my new phrase, so thank you for that! And also, while I’m with you that I would have loved to have seen Podrick and Bronn have that break for the beer, and that not letting Bronn see the wight means he’ll actually stick around, there was actually a more pragmatic reason that Bronn splits at the very beginning of the scene. Turns out Jerome Flynn and Lena Headey were very much an item, but the relationship ended so badly that when he was cast as Bronn on the show, both actors had it included in their contracts that they would never, ever appear in a scene together. So the writers had to come up with a way to have Bronn lead the group to the Dragon Pit and then immediately leave — and sure enough, if you watch, he’s never actually in the same shot, which means the moment of him putting a hand on Pod’s shoulder and saying “Let’s go grab a drink” was probably filmed separately with just the two of them.

Ah… love.

But anyway, back to the scene with Sam and Bran. First of all, I loved loved LOVED this scene, and not for the reason that everyone else probably did (although that moment was AMAZING) but because we actually caught a glimpse of the old Samwell Tarly. Eager to please, hilarious, stuttering… not the world-weary Sam we’ve seen at the Citadel. He comes into Bran’s room and finds the Bran we’ve been dealing with all season staring at the fire, and he asks him, “What happened to you north of the Wall?” Bran replies cryptically, “I became the three-eyed raven.” Sam stands for a moment in stunned silence and says the way one would to a child who just showed you a special picture they’d drawn, “Oh!” Pause. “I don’t know what that means.”

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And then my favourite bit of dialogue of the episode (for its irony): “I can see things happening in the past… I can see things happening now, all over the world. Why did you come to Winterfell?” I actually laughed out loud at this scene. “I CAN SEE ALL. So… um… why are you here because obviously I didn’t see that.” Sam says he knows Jon is going to fight the White Walkers, and he’s here to help. This makes me SO happy. While I’ve enjoyed the glimpse of the Citadel this season, having Sam back in the fold will be so fantastic next season.

And then Bran gives the big reveal to Sam, the one we already knew but was so much fun to finally hear spoken aloud: Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and his last name is Sand. At that point Sam goes wide-eyed and excitedly explains that NO, his last name is NOT Sand, it’s Targaryen! He tells Bran that he translated a book for the High Septon and discovered an interesting bit of information in there (wrong: you were translating another book for the High Septon and GILLY found the bit of information and you then took that book from her and handed it to little Sam to shut her up but sure, we’ll let you take the credit, because we love you) and then we flash back to the actual wedding ceremony of Lyanna Stark and OH MY GOD IS THAT VISERYS oh thank god no it isn’t but lord, were they twins or something?? And that’s when all of history shifts for Bran. “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie,” he says. Robert Baratheon invaded King’s Landing in order to get his beloved Lyanna Stark back from the horrible Rhaegar Targaryen, whom he believed had kidnapped and raped her, but Lyanna died in childbirth, Aegon was killed by Jaime, and this whole “who has the right to sit on the Iron Throne” battle all started there and has spiralled downward when the original thesis was entirely wrong.

D’oh.

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“Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt and rape her…” Bran says as the scene cuts to Jon Snow knocking on Daenerys’s door (no no no)… “He loved her,” he continues as the door closes with him inside the room (no no no please make it stop no), “And she loved him,” and we all throw up in our mouths a little as we see Jon Snow — sorry… AEGON TARGARYEN… as he makes love to his aunt and shows her that maybe she thought she was barren, but his powerful Starkaryen sperm has other ideas.

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They did that to us on purpose, you know. They made that scene oogie and awful and it could have been really great but it was like watching Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker get it on AFTER we knew the truth.

And yet still… god I loved how they intertwined the two stories, because it was like it was daring us. The showrunners were saying, “oh come ON, you want to look away but you are loving this. Totally loving this.” I hate them all. And I love them so freakin’ much for filming it that way.

As we see the two of them making love — while Tyrion glowers in the hallway — we hear Bran say in his clipped Hemingway-like prose, “He’s never been a bastard. He’s the heir to the Iron Throne. He needs to know. We need to tell him.” These four sentences become the key to the entire series.

And what of Tyrion standing in that hallway? Some have suggested that perhaps he’s jealous of Jon Snow, and has been secretly in love with Daenerys this whole time. That’s possible, although we’ve never seen any sign of that whatsoever, and Tyrion is usually pretty open when he likes a woman romantically. I think instead he’s seeing possible disaster ahead. Jon Snow is now romantically linked with Dany, and that could cloud his judgment — and hers — when they’re trying to line up battle plans. Think about it: the last time a Stark and Targaryen got together, the world rained blood for a generation and is still doing so. Tyrion knows his Westerosi history, and this kind of pairing NEVER turns out well for anyone.

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From here we have a quick and quiet little scene with the two Stark sisters as we once again remember Ned Stark and the impact he’s had on the whole show. Has there ever been another series that has gone on for eight years where a character who died in season one had such a long-standing impact on the rest of the show? Here’s my one and only wish for season eight: that Sean Bean returns for just ONE scene, whether it’s in flashback or as some Mufasa-type of thing talking to Bran from the clouds (I would totally buy that), I just would give anything to actually see Ned Stark one more time in the form we originally saw him.

Here his two daughters remember their father, and Sansa tells Arya that she is the strongest person she knows, and Arya smiles and says that’s the nicest thing her sister has ever said to her. Though Sansa adds that she still finds Arya annoying, which is really funny. And then Arya says, “I miss him.” “Me too,” says Sansa.

Tears.

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And then it’s off to the inevitable end of the season, which has to happen north of the Wall. This has been a White Walker–free episode, with the exception of the wight, and has instead focused on the politics and romantic entanglements, which I much prefer, but back at the wall, Tormund and Beric spot the White Walkers approaching much quicker than they thought they would. But just as they’re probably thinking, “We’ll send a FedEx raven and surely Jon and Daenerys can get from Dragonstone to the Wall in 20 minutes on season seven time…” Tormund’s eyes widen as he sees Viserion fly in, with the Night King on its back.

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I don’t know about you, Chris, but while this scene was truly awesome, it was also so sad for me to watch. Viserion’s wings had holes in them, and he’s clearly rotting. The Night King just doesn’t… belong on his back (especially considering Daenerys only rode Drogon and not the other two). As the men on the Eastwatch section of the Wall race down the rickety stairs in a vain attempt to reach the bottom, Viserion just blasts away at the Wall with his new butane flame breath as the rest of the Army of the Dead just stand and watch. And as the last of the Wall crumbles — seconds after we see Tormund and Beric still standing on it — the White Walkers advance south of the Wall and make their way into Winterfell.

 

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Is Tormund dead? Will he never get to make those giant babies with Brienne? Has Beric finally found his final resting place without Thoros of Myr to bring him back to life? How long before the dead reach Winterfell?

ALL QUESTIONS FOR NEXT SEASON, MY CHILDREN!

But first, I just want to address one fan theory that’s been circulating the past couple of days: that Bran is actually the Night King. We see him warg right before the dead march on Eastwatch, and even though it cuts to the ravens to show how he’s watching this happening, some fans have noticed that the dead seem to form what appears to be the Stark sigil as they enter the north:

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This has fans in a tizzy, and instead of seeing this as a cool Easter egg showing that the first House that will hit will be Winterfell, someone on Reddit has jumped from point A to point M and seems to think this means Bran is the Night King himself, and that the Night King was the good guy all along.

Erm. Okay. Maybe I’ll be wrong a year or so from now, but I’m going to lean to no on that one. Remember, just a couple of episodes Bran was warging into a raven and saw the Night King and nearly fell out of his wheelchair when he was spotted by him. And it was made very clear that he can warg into living things, and the Night King isn’t exactly living.

But who knows. This show has made greater leaps. In my opinion, this isn’t going to be one of them. We have bigger things to worry about with only six episodes left.

And whether those episodes are going to be 90-120 minutes long, as some rumours are suggesting, or whether the season won’t actually begin until 2019, as some other sources are saying, only time will tell.

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Well, we’ve officially topped our longest post with this one. I want to extend another huge thanks to the brilliant Christopher Lockett, without whom I simply couldn’t do these. Thank you for joining me once again, and thank you to everyone who actually manages to read these to the end! (My own husband rolls his eyes and says NO ONE reads anything this long on the internet.) We will see you back here for season eight, and until then, stay warm and beware of… actually, pretty much everyone.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.06: “Beyond the Wall”

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Hello hello, and welcome once again to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog on Game of Thrones. It’s hard to believe, but we’re at the penultimate episode of this season! Only one more to go. And hopefully the final episode will be mind-blowing, because I found a whole lot about this one that quite simply pissed me off. This Saturday I will be doing a talk at the Avalon Expo here in St. John’s on cartography and world-building (plus another thing) … so you might imagine how this episode’s total fudging of geography might have annoyed me, yes?

But that being said … it’s my turn to lead us off, so—

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Christopher: I’m going to lead off by saying that I was about ready to give up on this episode about three quarters of the way through—as I’ve observed before, the show has pretty much given up on anything resembling a realistic sense of scale when it comes to geography, and so the whole premise that a raven could get to Dragonstone and Daenerys could get back with her dragons in the space of twenty-four hours was just obnoxious (the North is BIG, people—as is observed several times in the novels, the North is pretty much as big as the other six kingdoms combined. No way a raven could make that trip without several stops on the way, especially not if it was gripping a coconut by the husk). Also, the whole cunning plan to kidnap a wight and return it to the south was always just fakakta.

Also, Arya was REALLY pissing me off this episode.

BUT … the episode retroactively redeemed itself by giving us a critical mass of heartbreak and plot twists in the final fifteen minutes or so. I’m still not inclined to forgive the geographical discrepancies or the sheer stupidity of the wight-napping plan, but they do fade somewhat into the background.

We begin with an interesting opening shot, a long slow track up the map-shaped conference table at Dragonstone, moving from south to north until we’re past the wall—which would be a nifty little way to geographically situate Jon Snow and his merry band (assuming we’d completely forgotten the end of last week’s episode), if it weren’t for the fact that the episode then proceeds to completely fudge the distances involved. That being said, the first extreme long shot of Jon and the others is of a piece with this season’s self-consciously epic use of landscape porn. Every episode, we’re treated to gorgeous images of characters dwarfed by sea, sky, and cliffs—or in this case, snow and mountains. Which is, again, tonally and practically out of step with the ease with which characters seem able to traverse great distances, but I’ll let that one go for now.

However idiotic the wight-napping plot, my favourite part of this episode was the series of conversations that transpires. There’s a lot of exposition, which can often weigh down an episode; and while there are moments that have a “the story till now” feel, they are mostly really rather entertaining—due in part to good writing and good chemistry between the actors. We begin with the assertion of geographical relativity: Gendry’s never been north, and as far as Tormund is concerned, Winterfell is the south.

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We also have Tormund dropping a hint about one of the ways the episode will end: when Jon tells him that Daenerys will only help them if he bends the knee, he says, “You’ve spent too much time with the Free Folk. Now you don’t like kneeling!” Once upon a time, that would have been the highest compliment Tormund could have paid Jon. But his own experience, both north and south of the Wall, seems to have tempered Tormund’s views on the matter. “Mance Rayder was a great man,” he reflects. “Proud man. The King-Beyond-the-Wall would never bend the knee. How many people died because of his pride?” The fact that even a wildling like Tormund is now reconsidering the wisdom of Mance’s absolutism signals the stakes for which they’re now playing, and also works like Chekhov’s proverbial gun on the wall in act one, which is fired at the end when Jon (metaphorically) bends the knee to Daenerys.

The next expository dialogue is between Gendry and the Brotherhood—reminding us all of the fact that Beric and Thoros, for reasons both faith-based and pecuniary, essentially sold Gendry to Melisandre. For all intents and purposes, Gendry provides a decently “Previously on ..” in his complaint: “I wanted to be one of you,” he says. “I wanted to be a member of the Brotherhood, but you sold me off like a slave!” Of course, his initial description of what Melisandre did to him—“She strapped me down on a bed, she stripped me naked—“ doesn’t seem quite such a hardship, especially to those who’ve seen Melisandre. Though the next bit is about leeches, the Hound’s question, “Was she naked too?” suggests that perhaps Gendry’s initial fate wasn’t as bad as he’s making out.

We know we’ve passed a certain threshold with this particular fellowship when the Hound dismisses Gendry’s charge that Melisandre at al meant, ultimately, to kill him: “But they didn’t! Did they? So what’re you whinging about?” (Incidentally, the Hound’s statement that “Your lips are moving, you’re complaining about something, that’s whinging” is now on par for me with Buffy’s comment to Cordelia that “Your mouth is moving and sounds are coming out—that’s never a good thing” as one of the world’s greatest put-downs). Indicating Beric, he continues, “This one’s been killed six times, you don’t hear him bitching about it.” This dismissal of Gendry’s basic complaint, along with Tormund’s insinuation that they might all use Gendry for their sexual pleasure, capped with Thoros giving the boy a drink from his flask, all has the feel of a hazing ritual.

The cap to this sequence is the bonding of two figures separated for most of this series, but whose fates were pretty much inscribed from day one (though the fact that the name “Sam Tarly” STILL hasn’t apparently come up makes me as crazy as it does you, Nikki). History is burbling up at an accelerated rate now, as we’ll see in the Sansa-Arya conflict; here, at least, it’s conciliatory—Jorah acknowledging his transgressions and the justice of Eddard Stark’s sentence, as well as the rightness of his father’s disownment of him. Jon, having characterized his father as the most honourable man he ever knew, feels compelled to return Longclaw to Jorah and House Mormont—but again, Jorah’s a stand-up guy, and refuses Jon’s largesse. As well he should.

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Considering that we cut from the myriad bromances budding out on the ice to the cat fight brewing between Arya and Sansa, can I just pause and ask whether anyone else felt that this was something of an egregiously gendered contrast? It wouldn’t bother me as much if the conflict between Arya and Sansa wasn’t so fucking contrived. My argument with this episode as a whole is about its narrative logic—the idiocy of wight-napping and the erasure of geographical distance on one hand, but the antagonism between the Stark sisters on the other. I grant we can expect Arya to have developed a certain amount of suspicion and cynicism in her long sojourn apart from her family, but at no point did we see her relinquish her intelligence. Yes, coming home to Winterfell to find Sansa in charge would be expected to bring all those old resentments back—but not to this extreme, not to the point where she seems to threaten to kill Sansa and take her face. Is the idea that her time with the Faceless Men drove her insane?

I hate narrative conflicts that could be so easily solved by someone asking the obvious question, such as “Wait, where did you get that scroll?” If the series had made Sansa blindly trusting of Littlefinger’s council, this current dispute would make a certain amount of distressing sense. But LITERALLY EVERYONE WHO MATTERS distrusts Littlefinger! All it would take is for Arya to say “Oh, I found this in Baelish’s mattress,” and suddenly she’s fighting Brienne for the right to put Mayor Carcetti’s head on a pike.

Argh.

But speaking of Brienne—it’s a measure of my love and regard for you, Nikki, that I now pass the gauntlet to you to speak about what is possibly my favourite conversation from the entire series so far.

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Nikki: Yeah, as episodes this season go, this one was definitely the one I liked the least, even if it gave me 30 heart attacks in the final 15 minutes. The defiance of all laws of time and space rankled with me the whole episode, too (I half-expected Gendry to return in the goddamn TARDIS) and a friend of mine and I were joking about whether they now use Raven FedEx or Raven Email, given the swiftness of those birds.

But more on that later, I assume. Because what this episode lacked in actual common sense, it more than made up for with deep emotional resonance.

Last year we had the Battle of the Bastards, and in this episode we get the Smackdown of the Sisters. And it’s as emotionally painful to watch as I could have imagined. Now, I’ll agree with you, Christopher, that watching this scene made me want to tie Arya to a chair and force her to watch every Sansa scene from the past seven years… but that was the point, and the reason that I actually thought this scene was brutally realistic. If either Arya or Sansa had acted any differently in this scene I would have cried foul, but I thought it was as close to perfect as it could have been.

First we have to recap Arya and Sansa in season one… these two were always at each other’s throats, and almost immediately after Robert and his entourage arrive at Winterfell, Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey. Sansa has always responded positively to being trained in “ladylike ways” — she has perfect handwriting, as Arya points out in this episode, and happily sewed when Arya pushed against societal norms and wanted to be out in the courtyard practising sword-fighting and archery like her brothers. All Sansa ever aspired to be was a lady, so when given the opportunity to marry Joffrey Baratheon — with the promise of becoming queen one day — it was every girly-girl’s dream come true. And it made Arya want to gag.

Ned packed up his daughters and took them to King’s Landing, and they took their direwolves with them. When Arya accompanied Joffrey and Sansa to the river and Joffrey threatens Arya, Nymeria bit him (as we discussed a couple of weeks ago on this blog) and Arya forced Nymeria to run away so she wouldn’t be hurt. What many of us have forgotten, though, is when they went back to King’s Landing and were questioned about what happened, Sansa played dumb, and said she didn’t see anything but she’s pretty sure it wasn’t Joffrey’s fault. Arya was beside herself, even when Sansa’s direwolf was the one sacrificed for Sansa’s lie. Arya never forgave Sansa for that betrayal, and eventually when Ned glommed onto the Lannister incest and was captured by Cersei, Sansa was “kept safe” and told to write the letter begging Robb to bend the knee before Joffrey, while Arya was forced to live on the streets. The last time Arya saw her sister, Sansa was standing on the scaffolding with a fancy dress and outrageously styled hair, while Arya had been eating pigeons and trying not to be killed (and, by the way, had already inadvertently killed a man). One can only imagine that image of Sansa burning into Arya’s retinas and searing into her memory, and Ned was beheaded by Joffrey, with Sansa standing right by his side.

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Arya hasn’t seen her sister since. But if those are her memories of her, of course she despises her. She’s had Joffrey at the top of her kill list from that moment, and was disappointed to find out someone else had the joy of killing him first. She returned to Winterfell and didn’t fall into Sansa’s arms, but instead kept her distance. She’s not at Winterfell for Sansa, but out of loyalty to the Stark clan. And now that she’s got the proof in her hands that her sister was a conniving accomplice to the Lannisters — and therefore part of the reason their father is dead — it’s brought back all those memories to her, and the loathing she’s always felt for Sansa since season one rises to the surface.

Remember, we all thought Sansa was an insipid, annoying, awful character in those first seasons, but we’ve had the privilege of watching her every move since then, while Arya hasn’t. We’re expecting Arya to have respect for a sister whom she hasn’t seen grow in character and maturity the way we have. All she sees is that conniving sister who wormed her way into the Lannisters’ hearts and has now taken over as Lady of Winterfell.

Meanwhile… Sansa remembers Arya being the little annoying twit who was trying to get between her and Joffrey. Her direwolf is dead because Arya wanted to play swords with Joffrey, and while she knows she’s to blame for what happened with the Lannisters, Arya as a child was always that voice yipping in her ear telling her she was just as bad a person as she feared she might be. Arya tried to stop her from becoming queen by getting her into trouble with the Lannisters, and is now standing between her and the lords of the northern Houses. While Sansa doesn’t harbour hatred for Arya, she harbours a deep annoyance, and her actions and words in this scene come from that feeling. She knows Arya is unpredictable and rash, and that very rashness could get them both killed.

Sansa has been in the midst of several battles, narrowly escaped being married to a man she knew would torture her for the rest of her life, was a suspect in his murder, was whisked away by a man who fancied her mother and now doesn’t seem to notice she’s not her mother (ew), learned from the inside by watching and listening just how to duck and parry her way through the political machinations happening around her, was then married to Ramsay Bolton and raped repeatedly for their entire marriage, narrowly escaped from his clutches, and then called on Littlefinger — the very person who married her to Bolton — to help save Jon Snow from the battle, thus winning the Battle of the Bastards, regaining Winterfell for her family, and still taking second chair to a brother that isn’t even a proper Stark while possessing more political knowledge and experience than many of the people in that room.

Arya lived hand to mouth for years, pretended to be a boy, and (in no particular order) narrowly escaped Melisandre and the Brotherhood Without Banners, travelled with the Hound and his unfeeling, unemotional ways, met Brienne (and Brienne remains the only real connection between Sansa and Arya in all these years, since she served both of them), was this close to reuniting with her mother and brother before hiding in the stables as she heard their screams as they were slaughtered by the Freys, narrowly escaped being killed and tortured by Tywin Lannister, met and was saved by Jaqen H’ghar, then trained to be a Faceless Man — where she was beaten and belittled by Jaqen and the Waif, was blinded, continued to train, taught to be devoid of emotions, and eventually came out of there a warrior — and along the way has killed so many people.

Their paths diverged long ago, but both of them have been brutalized in many ways that are unfathomable, and yet each one imagines there’s no way the other one has been through as terrible a time as they have, and they say as much in this scene. Seven years ago, Ned’s daughters couldn’t have possibly imagined their lives turning out the way they did.

What’s interesting is that when Bran showed up, he instantly knew everything Sansa had endured, and she had to walk away from him because knowing that her baby brother had watched her in his weird timey-wimey way as she was raped by a monster was too much for her to handle. The problem with Arya, on the other hand, is that while Bran knows everything that’s happened to Sansa but is unable to show any emotion because of the mystical state he’s in, Arya knows nothing of what has happened to Sansa out of her arrogance that no one could have possibly gone through what she has. And Sansa has never asked Arya what she’s been through, either.

At the top of this scene Arya remembers standing all alone in the courtyard shooting an arrow and hitting the bullseye, and looking up to her father’s slow clap up on the balcony. Interestingly, many of the details in her story are wrong, which seems to have been done on purpose. She wasn’t alone (Bran was having his archery practice and Robb and Jon were standing nearby), Catelyn was with Ned, and he didn’t slow clap.

But she did hit that bullseye, and her father was watching. Time and experience have faded the other parts of the scene for her, but I loved that she remembers being all alone — after so many years of being exactly that, she no longer remembers being surrounded by people who loved her.

She ends the little reverie, however, with words that seem to foreshadow what’s coming next; the underlying threat is unmistakable: “I knew what I was doing was against the rules but he was smiling, so I knew it wasn’t wrong: the rules were wrong. I was doing what I was meant to be doing and he knew it.” And then she adds, “Now he’s dead, killed by the Lannisters, with your help.” Sansa had been smiling on this little memory until that moment, where the shift was something even someone who has come to expect anything… didn’t expect. They discuss the day Ned was beheaded, and Sansa discovers for the first time that Arya was in the audience (when Ned was killed, Sansa feared her sister had been killed by soldiers). As Arya talks about Sansa standing on that scaffold doing nothing, Sansa counters that if Arya was in the audience, why didn’t she just rush the stage and save all of them? Then she uses the kind of words that Sansa used to use when they were kids, the very thing that would drive Arya mad in this scene: “You should be on your knees thanking me,” she says, and she’s right: if not for Sansa and her brilliance, Winterfell would not be in the hands of the Starks right now. She explains exactly what she did at the Battle of the Bastards, which SHOULD have opened up a line of dialogue for the two of them to sit down and tell each other exactly what they’ve been through. But neither of them is interested in a catch-up chat, especially Arya, who seems to have kept Sansa off her kill list only because they share DNA.

Arya believes Sansa has sat around being pretty for seven years; Sansa believes Arya has been travelling the world as a carefree vagabond while she’s been working to take back Winterfell. “While you were training, I suffered things you could never imagine,” she hisses at Arya.

“Oh, I don’t know about that, and I can imagine quite a lot,” Arya replies.

And that’s the moment where most Game of Thrones fans probably screamed in frustration. Sometimes dramatic irony REALLY SUCKS. (I actually gasped aloud and went, “Arya, NO!”) Sansa counters by saying, “You never would have survived what I survived,” and again, viewers around the world gasped a eollective gasp and yelled, “Sansa, NO!!” A few weeks ago, when Arya re-encountered Nymeria and I said she shouldn’t return to Winterfell because there is nothing between her and Sansa, I did so with regret because I wanted to see a happy reunion. But deep down I knew this is what would happen, and that Arya should have turned that damn horse the other way.

I hope the context I provided above might help us move through this scene a little better and understand the perspective each of these young women brings to this scene, but there is one moment where Arya actually seems to affirm Sansa’s notion that she’s too naive, and that’s when she begins taunting Sansa about the letter, saying there’s no reason Sansa has to be nervous because if she hasn’t done anything wrong, she won’t be punished. Even Sansa responds with an exasperated, “Arya!” How did Arya get this far thinking that only villains are punished, innocent people are never hurt, and the good guys always win? Of COURSE she knows if she shows that letter to anyone it’ll hurt Sansa even if Sansa was innocent — there’s always someone in the shadows waiting to twist things to their advantage, and 75% of the time that person is Littlefinger. But Arya’s not actually that naive; she’s just mocking Sansa to terrify her.

The only one who says anything remotely correct in this scene is Sansa, who points out that if Cersei could see them now, she’d be thrilled. Sansa maintains that she was a child when she penned that letter, and Arya points out that tough, take-no-shit Lyanna Mormont is younger, but she would never write a letter like that. The scene ends with Sansa saying, “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things,” and Arya countering, “Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things. I’ll go with anger.”

And Game of Thrones fans everywhere sob.

And then it’s back to the north, where time and distance mean NOTHING, with the Hound making comments about gingers, dicks, and Brienne. What did you think of this lovely little bit of fan service, Chris, with Tormund imagining a, um, romantic future with Brienne?

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Christopher: Well, that was a very nice way of reminding me of all the emotional baggage weighing down the Stark sisters. Perhaps their conflict is not quite as contrived as I suggest.

But Arya’s still pissing me off.

One little correction to your account before I go on: you suggest that Arya is misremembering or misrepresenting her story about practicing archery, alone, in the Winterfell courtyard, citing the scene in the very first episode when she intrudes upon Bran’s shooting—with Ned and Catelyn looking on, and Jon and Robb helping. As Bran keeps missing his mark, suddenly Arya appears and shoots a perfect bulls-eye. But the episode she recounts to Sansa is a different one entirely—I took that story to mean she picked up the bow and shot again and again, earning her father’s approbation, so that when she shows Bran up in the first episode, she’d already practiced enough to hit the bulls-eye with ease.

But back to the North! And thank you for letting me talk about what is my favourite scene in this and probably ever other episode. Tormund and the Hound—if ever on this show there were brothers from another mother, it would be these two. Both big, violent, but ultimately good-hearted men. Already by the time of my writing this there’s half a dozen remixes on YouTube reimagining this scene as a sitcom of one stripe or another. From Tormund’s first line—“You’re the one they call the Dog!”—you know this is going to be comedy gold. And it’s doubly hilarious because we hear Tormund lay out clearly what the show has left un-verbalized, namely his infatuation with Brienne.

But before we get there, we get more indications that Tormund is one of the smarter and more insightful characters on the show. Certainly, he’s verbally dexterous—“Gingers are beautiful!” he says in cheerful response to the Hound’s insult. “Kissed by fire—just like you!” He reaches a finger out to indicate the Hound’s scars, which (surprise surprise) is not met with smiles and kisses. “Don’t point your fucking finger at me!” he snarls, smacking away Tormund’s hand and stalking away. But Tormund only grins, and pursues his quarry. Not, it should be clear, in a mean-spirited manner—he’s not interested in antagonizing the Hound, he’s just … interested. A curious nature speaks to an active mind, and his questions betray an actual interest. When the Hound admits he was pushed into the fire (if we recall, it was his older brother Gregor, The Mountain, who pushed young Sandor’s face into a brazier when he caught him playing with one of his toys), Tormund says “And ever since, you’ve been mean!” (I imagine this entire conversation unfolding in a psychiatrist’s office, with the Hound reclining on a handsome leather couch and Tormund making careful notes as he speaks). In what has to be one of my favourite character observations in the series, Tormund says, “I don’t think you’re truly mean. You have sad eyes.” I might have actually said “Wow!” while first watching this; coming from anyone else, such dialogue would have seemed trite, but from Tormund it has the undeniable ring of truth … not least because it rather pithily articulates something we’ve all known about the Hound for some time now—that he is a man driven by loss and anger and, since his “rebirth” following Arya leaving him for death, atonement.

Of course, the Hound is a reluctant patient at best, and tries to shut Tormund down with a classic masculinist attack—charging that the wildling is gay, and that his disturbing insights into the Hound’s character are really just an expression of homoeroticism. Hilariously, this attack founders on a basic misunderstanding: apparently, “dick” is not a colloquialism used north of the Wall. But once Tormund understands the Hound’s attempted insult, it allows him to wax poetic about the true object of his affections: “I have a beauty waiting for me back at Winterfell … if I ever get back there. Yellow hair. Blue eyes. Tallest woman you’ve ever seen. Almost as tall as you!” And then the Hound twigs to what he’s saying. “Brienne of Tarth?” he demands incredulously. “You’re with Brienne of fucking Tarth?” Which of course means Tormund has to demure, admitting that they’re not actually together, not yet, but “I want to make babies with her! Think of them! Great big monsters! They’d conquer the world!”

I want to pause here to note that in our last post I said that if Tormund “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.” Obviously I’m on the same wavelength with Tormund.

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And then in yet another in the snowballing number of hints that Jon Snow is not the son of Eddard Stark, Beric says “You don’t look much like him.” What follows, however, is a theological discussion about the Lord of Light, with Beric finding common ground with Jon—both have been brought back from the dead (Beric, admittedly, many more times than Jon). Beric has little to offer Jon in terms of concrete knowledge—all he can say, ultimately, is that the Lord of Light moves in mysterious ways (cue the U2). But he also expresses a certain consonance with what Jon Snow has been on about for two seasons—namely, that this war has little and less to do with the game of thrones, and everything to do with the greater existential threat posed by the Night King. “Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last.” When Jon points out the obvious—that we all die—Beric says, “The enemy always wins. But we still need to fight him.”

I loved Beric’s fatalism here, and was gutted by it—his acknowledgement that he finds no joy in life any more. His confident assertion that neither will Jon is somewhat undercut at the end of the episode, but in the moment, his words seem to resonate. “I am the shield that guards the realms of men,” Jon says, quoting his Night’s Watch oath. “Maybe that’s enough,” says Beric.

Not to harp on the geography issue, but the Hound then spots the mountain shaped like an arrowhead he saw in his vision. It’s unclear how long they’ve been walking at this point, but if Gendry can sprint back to the gate without slowing to a walk, they can’t have been on the road that long. And if they’re really less than a day out from Eastwatch, THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO SEE THE MOUNTAIN FROM THE TOP OF THE WALL. It really should have been in their sights from the beginning.

Argh.

But then we’re back to those who sit at wait at Dragonstone. What did you think of the exchange between Daenerys and Tyrion, Nikki?

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Nikki: I love that in an episode that seemed not to have the same depth as the rest of this season, you and I are going to stretch it out to be the longest GoT post EVER. Hahaha!! (And you’re probably absolutely right about Arya; I just thought it would be really poetic if her character misremembered a scene involving her entire family and reduced it to her and her dad all alone and against the world, which is how she lives her life: alone, with Ned’s spirit inside her.)

The chat between Daenerys and Tyrion finally makes it clear that despite me desperately wanting the look in Dany’s eyes to be one of respect, she’s got a thing for The Man Who Knows Nothing, and despite me thinking Jon had an emotionless face, Tyrion saw a lustfulness for Dany there. I just can’t stop thinking about her being Auntie Dan, although as you point out, Chris, this is a land where incest is the order of the day. Dany tells Tyrion that she’s happy he’s not a hero (to which Tyrion hilariously mumbles that he’s been heroic on occasion and points to the scar bisecting his face), that heroes are the people who do stupid things and then they die. She mentions specifically Drogo, Jorah, Daario, and Jon Snow, and Tyrion points out they’re all people who fell in love with her. For the first time in a long time she comes off as a teenage girl going, “oh my GAWD Jon Snow is not in love with me get OUT!” and he says, “He IS in love with you, bae, I could TOTALLY see it in his eyes” and she said “oh shut UP stupid, you are cray-cray!!” (I may be paraphrasing.) She counters that Jon Snow is too little for her (as a joke) and then realizes whose ears that joke just fell upon. (D’oh.) They switch gears to discuss meeting with Cersei once the Avengers bring back the wight, and Tyrion says Cersei would torture Daenerys terribly and then murder her, and that no one trusts his sister less than he does (note proper use of the word “less”). Tyrion says they need to keep their eyes open on this one — after all, they was caught by surprise at Highgarden, and then caught the Lannisters by surprise at the valley, so she knows it’s her turn to get stabbed in the back. She wonders if Cersei could be laying a trap for her.

He tells Daenerys that when they enter King’s Landing, they will do so with their two armies and three dragons, and it’ll be unavoidable to everyone there that there’s no way Cersei is stronger. However, he advises her that if you rule in fear, then everyone below you will simply want you dead, much like his sister who knows only how to rule with fear. He tells Dany that Cersei is going to say something to provoke her, and she cannot be provoked or she might do something impulsive (here it comes…) Daenerys spins around, eyes aflame, and says what exactly has she done lately that was impulsive? He stands still for a moment and then mutters that maybe she could have killed the father and not the son… or just let them rot in a prison… just sayin’… and she explains that no, killing the Tarlys was a well-thought-out action and she will not be called impulsive for doing what she did. (And we can’t help but wonder if a male leader would be questioned the same way here…)

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He reminds her of the discussion they had at that table two seasons ago when she said she wants to create a new society by breaking the wheel. He says, “After we break the wheel, how do we ensure it remains broken?” He wants to discuss succession, but she responds to it the same way people do the first time they have to make a will, and says, “Um let’s talk about this later k bye.” Or, in her words, she won’t discuss this at all until she’s wearing the crown. You can tell she’s becoming annoyed by him — first he’s questioned her actions with the Tarlys, something he’s suggested wasn’t merciful enough (remember, last episode he discussed it with Varys but not Dany), and now he’s imagining her death and wondering who would take over from her. In a season where, as you’ve pointed out a couple of times now, Chris, Daenerys seems to be suspicious of everyone, suddenly having Tyrion ask about who would succeed her when she dies and making sure everything would be fine would be enough to send her over the edge. After all, just because she’s paranoid doesn’t mean Tyrion isn’t looking to unseat her. (We know that’s not the case, but Daenerys has been betrayed too many times.) Not to mention, Tyrion has just returned from having a chat with Jaime, and so she comes right out and asks if perhaps imaginings of her death were part of Tyrion’s discussion with his brother.

Daenerys also mentions here and later in the episode with Jon Snow the fact that she cannot bear children. This is a callback to season one, when Daenerys was pregnant with her and Khal Drogo’s child and Drogo took a wound in battle that got seriously infected. Dany brought in a woman who was a healer (whose entire village had just been massacred and raped by the Dothraki) and asked her to do what she could to heal Drogo. When Dany goes into labour she becomes unconscious, and when she awakes she discovers that Drogo is a vegetable, and her child has been stillborn and misshapen, and the healer smiles as she takes credit for what’s happened. The woman had suffered greatly at the hands of the Dothraki, and tells Daenerys that she’s cast a spell over Dany and Drogo so that neither he nor his son will ever cause any more suffering. And from that point forward Daenerys has assumed she is unable to bear children.

But… what if she’s wrong? Hm…

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And from there it’s back to the north (I feel like cuing the Hamilton soundtrack here all of a sudden and singing, “After the war I went BACK to the north!”) and they find a motherfucking undead bear on the motherfucking wintry tundra. That scene was hellishly freaky, and in it we see what each person’s strength and weakness is. Thoros and Beric’s swords flame on… which is slightly terrifying to the pyrophobic Sandor. Jon and Thormund fly into the battle with their swords, and Jorah doesn’t hesitate going after it (although all of them seem to disappear for long periods of time once the bear has tackled Thoros of Myr, as if they were battling snowflakes in the meantime or something). Thoros isn’t able to get out of the bear’s grip without suffering serious wounds — and it doesn’t help that the flame swords have set the beast on fire, which keeps the Hound at bay. The bear is eventually vanquished, but Thoros “I just got bit by a dead bear” is pretty much done for at that point. Beric kneels before the man who has brought him back from the dead six times and cauterizes his wounds with his flaming sword (ouch).

Meanwhile back at Winterfell Sansa tells the Artful Dodger about the letter with which Arya confronted her, but Baelish plays dumb and says he can’t imagine where her sister might have found that letter. Earlier Arya had accused her sister of being guilty of a crime due to her fear about that letter, but here we find out Sansa’s deepest worry mirrors that of just about every woman who’s ever tried to be in power: it’s that it doesn’t matter how capable she has proven herself to be, she is in control of 20,000 men of the northern Houses who will fight for Jon, but not her. And they’re asking them to join this fight in the midst of the worst winter they’ve ever seen. (And in the case of Sansa, she’s never seen a White Walker so she’s going on faith here.) She reminds Baelish that the lords of the north are about as loyal as a cat who hasn’t been fed: if someone else is holding the can, they’ll forget you in a heartbeat. How can she count on these Houses to back House Stark if they switch sides like windvanes? Just as Bran has become a stranger to her, she tells Baelish that she doesn’t know Arya anymore.

I was surprised that after Sansa declared earlier in the season that she knew exactly what Littlefinger wanted and that you have to keep one eye open with him at all times that she’d just unleash everything here. It’s interesting how Sansa said Cersei would be thrilled to see them fighting, yet she seemed to have missed that Littlefinger would also be thrilled to see them fighting, or notice that he’s the one who orchestrated it (or, as you said Chris, that Arya never told her where she got that piece of paper).

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Baelish tells Sansa that Brienne could be the one to help her out. He reminds Sansa that Brienne had sworn to protect both of the sisters, and then asks, “If either of you were going to harm the other, would she intercede?” It’s a cunning question, because Sansa knows that Brienne has been at her side more recently, but that she’s also sworn fealty to Arya. And Brienne also loathes the Lannisters. Is it possible her sister could turn Brienne against her? Brienne was obviously impressed by Arya’s swordfighting skills in the courtyard; could she align herself with Arya and the two women come after Sansa? After all, Arya’s holding a piece of evidence that would make Brienne’s heart turn cold if she thought for one second that Sansa was in cahoots with the Lannisters. Despite all of us knowing that Brienne is one of the rare characters who waits to get all of the information before acting, Sansa believes she would protect Arya, and Sansa would be in danger. Of course my first thought was, “Of course! Brienne could absolutely protect Sansa and make sure that Arya doesn’t hurt her,” but for some reason, as we’ll soon see, Sansa’s brain made the opposite calculation.

And then we’re back to the north, where Thoros of Myr ain’t doing so well, and our gang discovers a shocking twist in the “how to kill a wight” saga. What did you think of this revelation, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, it’s certainly convenient—doubly so that when Jon Snow kills the White Walker, there was only a single wight in his group that he apparently did not resurrect. But then, I suppose it makes sense—not unlike the variation on vampire mythology that says killing the eldest will do in all the vamps he sired. Especially considering that the zombification of wights is effected by magic, it makes sense that there is a source of that magic, and that killing it cuts off the lifeline.

Still, the merry band has their captive ice-zombie to parade before Cersei’s skeptical eyes, though not before it’s able to screech out a distress call to the horde not far on its heels. Realizing what’s about to happen, Jon sends Gendry sprinting back to Eastwatch to send a raven to Daenerys—though at first I was baffled by why they didn’t all run back, though I suppose Jon made a split-second decision that they couldn’t outrun them as a group, and so made for defensible ground (a decision he apparently communicated telepathically, as no one seemed confused, or suggested that running might be the better option).

So they find themselves literally on thin ice, something that actually saves them when they’re able to make it to the island in the middle of the frozen lake, but the wights start crashing through the ice. Which brings us to fun fact number two in the How to Kill Your Wight instruction book: apparently, they don’t do water. So instead they line the banks of the frozen lake, patient as stones, as their White Walker herders look on. I guess the Night King has no qualms about letting them die of starvation or the cold. I mean, his planned war on the south has been in the works for centuries, perhaps millennia, so what’s another few days to turn Jon into a Snowsicle?

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Meanwhile, Gendry makes it to Eastwatch and, like Pheidippides collapsing before the gates of Athens, crashes to the ground and can’t get up. Fortunately, he has gotten to the Wall, and is revived by Davos. “Raven!” Gendry gasps out, “We need to send a raven!” and sets up the deus ex draconis in what is probably the most explicitly telegraphed rescue in television history. But as we shall see, it’s not the rescue that’s the plot twist …

We return to our besieged heroes the following morning to find that Thoros has died in the night. So: no more resurrections for Jon or Beric, not unless they make nice with Melisandre. But really, that seems like less of a concern than the vast army of the dead surrounding them. Making certain Thoros does not join their ranks, Jon says they need to burn the body. Somehow it seems a fitting tribute that he pours the last of Thoros’ rum on him to act as an accelerant; with the help of Beric’s ZippoSword™, they send Thoros to meet the Lord of Light.

Meanwhile, as they play the waiting game, there’s some time for exposition—in answer to Jorah’s question, Jon’s speculation more or less confirms the fact that when a White Walker is killed, all of the dead it had resurrected also die (again). Which leads Beric to suggest that their best bet is to kill the Night King himself, considering that he is the one responsible for the entire army (and presumably for the creation of other White Walkers—if we think back to season four, episode four, “Oathbreaker,” it ends with our first glimpse of the Night King, taking Craster’s infant son and touching his cheek with a fingernail, at which point the baby’s eyes turn ice-blue—a moment echoed at the end of this episode. Which raises the question: if they kill the Night King, will the other White Walkers die?). Beric argues that he and Jon have been brought back to life for a purpose—perhaps this is that purpose? But Jon isn’t convinced, or at least doesn’t say anything one way or another in response. It does seem a bit of a suicide mission, considering how unlikely it is they’d make it past all those wights, and also considering that it seems only Jon and Jorah have the weapons for the task, Jon with Valyrian steel, and Jorah with his obsidian dagger. See, this is where dragonglass arrowheads would be a great idea—try and pick off the White Walkers from a distance.

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We leave Jon staring with loathing at the Night King to find that events in the wider world have not ceased, as Sansa receives a missive inviting her to King’s Landing for the Daenerys-Cersei summit. Your thoughts, Nikki, about Littlefinger sowing a seed of doubt about Brienne seem to bear fruit here: Brienne is to go in Sansa’s stead, even though Brienne is far more clear-eyed about who poses a danger to whom, and about just how insidious Littlefinger’s whispers can be. “I have many guards who would happily imprison him or behead him, whether or not you are here,” Sansa says dismissively. “And you trust their loyalty?” Brienne demands. “You trust he hasn’t been speaking to them all behind your back?”

And there it is—truth to power, and Brienne is rewarded for her loyalty and honesty by being sent off rather peremptorily. In the Who Kills Littlefinger pool, Brienne’s odds just got shorter. I completely understand why Sansa simply won’t go to King’s Landing while Cersei’s on the throne—I’d completely understand if she refused to go one way or another—but sending Brienne is simply a stupid idea. If she was thinking straight, she’d send Littlefinger, clearing Winterfell of his whispers for several weeks while at the same time giving him an honour he could hardly refuse—speaking on behalf of the Lady of Winterfell. And who knows, perhaps he has an accident while there? Dangerous place, King’s Landing … but alas, Sansa is not thinking straight, which leads her to later invade Arya’s chambers in search of—what? an indication of what she’s thinking? planning?—and finds a more disturbing trove than she could have imagined.

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But that scene only comes after the deus ex draconis. Again, completely telegraphed—but I should have known something was up when we see Daenerys—dressed for northern climes in a fabulous long fur-trimmed coat that really only needed one of those fuzzy Russian hats to complete the look—launching her dragons to fly to the rescue. OK, we know the rescue is coming, we know we’ll see dragons encounter the army of the dead for the first time, so I should have been primed for a twist. Silly me.

Of course, Tyrion is dead set against Daenerys putting herself in danger. “I’m not doing nothing again,” she tells him, and in spite of the huge loss she’s about to experience, it’s the right decision, as she sees for herself the scope and scale of the threat against them. It’s also a good decision in terms of being seen at the forefront of the battle, as opposed to cowering in the rear. Tyrion’s thinking is very much a sort of Secret Service mentality, which dictates the safety of the sovereign at all costs.

And because it would be anticlimactic for Daenerys and her dragons to come roaring over the mountaintops while the wights stand motionless on the shore, the Hound feels compelled to goad them into attacking. Was I the only person who, watching the Hound throw rocks at the wights, suddenly flashed to Boromir throwing stones into the black pool at the doors of Moria? Either way, the result is similar … bad things happen. (Though to raise yet another quibble, the wight looks down at the rock that did not break the ice in a moment of comprehension—though from everything we’ve seen, the ice zombies have about the same level of brain function as your average Walking Dead ghoul. Are we to assume some vestigial thought process?). The wight starts across the newly-frozen ice, and then the dam breaks. Chaos. Mayhem. And a protracted battle in which yet more wildling redshirts die while our heroes survive (though for a moment it looked like Tormund’s number was up—my girlfriend and I were screaming “No, not Tormund! He can’t die! He has to make massive babies with Brienne!” That he’s saved by the Hound is a narrative imperative, but it was still a great moment).

And then—dragons! And I will admit, in spite of my quibbles, the scene is pretty awesome, and deeply satisfying to see those pillars of flame gouging canyons through the army of the dead and tearing up the frozen lake. But if you’ll permit me some back-of-the-napkin math before I continue? [pushes glasses up nose]:

The distance from the Wall to Dragonstone, conservatively, is 1500 miles as the dragon flies. Assuming that Daenerys’ departure from Dragonstone took place shortly after dawn, and being generous and assuming she swoops in on Jon et al just before dusk, that means she made the journey in about twelve hours. Which makes for an average speed of 125mph, or about 200kph. I suppose that’s possible, given that dragons are an unknown factor, and that that’s more or less the speed of a WWI biplane. What I don’t buy is that a person could cling to a dragon’s back for twelve hours in the freezing cold with hurricane-force headwinds. Daenerys didn’t even have a hat or aviator goggles (at least she wore gloves). And that isn’t even getting to the fact that the raven sent from Eastwatch would have had to make the same distance, when most bird flight (not counting dives) tops out at 60mph.

Ahem.

But yes, still a thrilling scene. And then …

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Nikki: And then my world fell apart. I’m not alone in being one of those people who can watch people die in television shows and movies, but you show the death of a family pet or any sort of animal and I am a mess. And we’ve seen these dragons grow from the size of birds to cats to lions to MASSIVE DRAGONS… we’ve watched their first little puffs of smoke… we’ve watched them purr as babies and snap at Mommy as toddlers… despite seeing them constantly in season seven it still takes my breath away to watch them swoop overhead. But as much as I was right there with you and your girlfriend screaming that they cannot kill Tormund, when the Night King turned and took that spear and aimed it, I felt my whole body turn to ice. I couldn’t look away, and said to my husband, “Oh my god… ice kills fire.”

For the record, I don’t remember THAT dichotomy in Rock Paper Scissors. Just sayin’. (My notes simply have NOOOOOOOOO written in increasingly devastated scrawl across the page.)

Now, I’ll admit: picking Drogon out of a lineup is easy because he’s the biggest of the three dragons, and I’m sure there are uberfans out there who can tell the difference between Viserion and Rhaegal, but I honestly didn’t know which one had just dropped to the ground (spewing black blood out of his stomach oh my god it was terrible aaaaahhhhh) but my first instinct was Rhaegal. After all, considering all three dragons were named after men who were killed, Rhaegar was the first namesake to die. But as soon as the dragon went through the ice and the rest of the cast of The Walking Dead: Westeros Edition looked on, I said to my husband, “Oh my god… they’re going to reanimate him.” And then I knew it had to be Viserion — because of course if, in the final battle, Dany is forced to face one of her own children, it would be the one named after her horrible brother.

But let’s focus on that moment of Viserion being hit. In an episode filled with unlikely coincidences (I was laughing out loud reading your bird speed math, Chris, imagining you were right there with me in thinking, “WHAT is the air-speed velocity of a well-laden swallow?” while watching this episode), somehow the Night King managed to throw a javelin unlike anything any of us have ever seen, prompting memes like this one to appear everywhere on the internet that same evening:

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Does he decide to go for the one sitting on the ground while riders climb onto its back? Hell no… might as well go for the one twisting and turning in the air. Even though the one on the ground is also the biggest, and would be the one you’d want to recruit for your army of the undead but whatevs. Daenerys looks like she’s in shock, and she probably is, and sits there in her fancy white coat from the limited Targaryen Winterwear™ collection unable to move, watching one of her children as it plummets to the earth and then slowly sinks under the water. It’s a horrifying moment. Watch how Tormund, Beric, and the Hound — who, incidentally, have never seen dragons until a few moments ago — stare stunned at the hole in the ice where Viserion has just disappeared, but Jorah’s eyes move to his Khaleesi. He was there when the dragons were born, and he has watched them grow; not only that… he’s the one who gifted her the eggs in the first place. If not for Jorah, these dragons wouldn’t even exist, and the pained expression on his face speaks volumes.

But Jon immediately throws himself into action, sees the Night King grab for a second javelin, and screams for Dany to take off NOW before the Night King can take his second Olympic gold medal. Daenerys hesitates until she sees Jon get pulled under the water by two wights, and then she assumes he’s gone the way of Viserion and she takes off. The Night King throws the javelin and Drogon lists to the left, and no doubt all of the first-time riders on his back pee their pants because oh my god could you imagine how terrifying that ride would be? Jorah slips off but doesn’t fall, and it seems like a bit of a cheap moment because of course he wasn’t going to fall — the writers wouldn’t have undercut the death of Viserion or the abandonment of Jon Snow with a second death of a character we’d known since the beginning.

Cut back to the water and… Jon Snow pulls himself back up onto the ice in yet another unlikely scenario. Weighed down with about 100 pounds of wet clothing, with two wights scrambling at him under the water (who don’t have to breathe), he somehow escapes and swims to the top.

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Cool.

Now, I’ve seen several people sharing an article with a headline saying that the eyeballs on the direwolf on Longclaw suddenly open in this scene, which I just don’t buy. There’s a fan theory that Bran can warg into anything, throwing out the logic that he can warg into living things, and that the eyes are white and suddenly black when he comes out… The eyes are crystals, and before Jon rises to the surface all that was reflecting off them was the sky, and when he moved into view a cameraperson no doubt stepped to the side and the crystal reflected the dark figure and looked black. I truly don’t believe he wargs into the damn sword, but maybe I’m wrong (and if I’m wrong, I’ll be really disappointed in this twist…)

Meanwhile the wights (who, I agree, Chris, seem to have a sentience that is NOT ALLOWED in zombie lore!) realize there’s a live being among them and charge again… and along comes good old Uncle Benjen, whom we last saw with Bran in season six. When Bran headed towards the Wall, Benjen couldn’t accompany him because he said there was magic in the Wall that he couldn’t get through. His last words to Bran were, “The great war is coming and I still fight for the living. I’ll do what I can . . . as long as I can.” And once again he does exactly that, fighting for Jon, giving him his horse, and taking out a few wights with his lantern before being consumed by them.

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Now, I know this is going to be an unpopular opinion, but here’s the thing: I gave up on The Walking Dead because I found the storylines tiring, repetitive, and frankly the gore was beyond escapism and was just painful to watch. And I watched it for many, many years. Instead, I watch Game of Thrones, with its superior storytelling, its political machinations, the long epic quality of the storyline, the division of power, the role of religion, the character development… I just don’t want a zombie storyline to dominate this show. I want the final showdown to be between the various political Houses, and the thought that the very final episode of the entire series could come down to man vs. zombie is so deflating to me. I think one of the reasons why this episode didn’t fly for me is because I’m simply over the whole Night King thing. I care about the people on this and how they hurt one another. Do they really think the viewers find the Night King vs. Jon Snow tension worse than the Sansa vs. Arya tension? Because they don’t. But anyway, that’s all I’ll say about that. I’m just happy to get back to the actual series for next week’s finale and be rid of this TWD knock-off.

Back at the Wall, the Hound loads the wight onto the boat as Beric tells him they’ll meet again someday. “Fuckin’ hope not,” Sandor snarls. All I could think of was… will Daenerys be super pissed when she discovers that she just sacrificed a dragon to catch a wight to prove to Cersei that the dead can be reanimated… only to be met at the castle door by the reanimated corpse of The Mountain? Meanwhile, Daenerys stands at the top of the Wall staring into the frozen tundra that is now a graveyard for her child as Drogon circles overhead.
(Did… anyone else notice that Rhaegal seemed to have disappeared partway through the battle scene? As soon as Viserion went down you never see a third dragon after that, and only a single dragon is flying around in the sky at the Wall. I had assumed maybe she only brought the two with her, but watching the battle scene again you clearly see all three of them at one point. It could be a very simple explanation, like the CGI for two dragons at the end is double the cost, and we have the same effectiveness to just have one, but it seemed odd that he was just gone.)

And just as Dany’s about to give up waiting, Jon Snow’s horse comes limping through the trees and into the clearing, and you hear screams of “Open the gate!!” The scene cuts to Jon on the ship with Davos and Gendry tending to his wounds, which are rather severe (though, given this is Jon Snow, every fan went, “Meh, I’ve seen worse on the guy”). There are what appear to be sword slices, or perhaps claw marks, on his chest, as well as his body being a faint shade of blue from probable hypothermia from being underwater and then having his clothing turn to solid ice on horseback. Daenerys looks on, concerned.

Now, blog tradition has it that Christopher and I do three passes each to finish up the episode, but given that this episode was almost 20 minutes longer than normal (and next week’s episode will be 80), I’m going to pass it back to you, Chris, for the final pass, especially since I’ve already spent a ton of time talking about Sansa and Arya and you can discuss the final scene between the two of them, where, even I’ll admit, I wanted to pop Arya. (And for anyone still reading, bravo!!)

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Christopher: Bravo indeed. Welcome to the Ulysses version of the Chris & Nikki co-blog (“Yes I said yes not Dany I said yes my Queen”). But if you’re still with us, let’s soldier on into the “Why do you have faces in your satchel?” part of the episode.

Leaving aside the wisdom or lack thereof of Sansa’s intrusion, and her perfectly reasonable reaction to Arya’s bag of faces, I think it’s worth actually just jumping to Arya’s little monologue:

We both wanted to be other people when we were younger. You wanted to be a queen, to sit next to a handsome young king on the Iron Throne. I wanted to be a knight, to pick up a sword and go off to battle. Neither of us got to be that other person, did we? The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they want to be. But I can now. With the faces, I can choose … I can become someone else. Speak in their voice. Live in their skin. I can even become you.

At which point she picks up her Valyrian steel dagger and seems as though she’s threatening Sansa—only to reverse the blade and hand the hilt to her, and then walk out of the room … leaving Sansa right freaked.

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A question: in hindsight, how precisely did Arya manage to simply walk away from the Faceless Men? Granted, Jaqen let her go, but isn’t it in the interests of an ancient and deeply ethical (by their own rules) society of assassins to not allow for rogues? Arya’s acting rather erratic at this point, and whether or not her threat to Sansa is sincere, don’t the powers that be in the House of Black and White have an interest in curtailing the proliferation of their skill set? Or are they waiting for Arya to actually do something egregious? (Imagined conversation back at Faceless HQ: “She killed ALL the Freys!” Shrug. “Yeah. But they were assholes.”)

One way or another—bet Sansa’s rethinking sending Brienne away.

And then we’re at sea, with Daenerys sitting at Jon Snow’s bedside. He wakes and says the words that have the Tenth Doctor’s lawyers coming at him for copyright infringement: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” But though Jon wishes they had never gone, Daenerys rejects that thought: “If we hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have seen. You have to see it to know. Now I know.” Which is a net good for the battle between light and dark, but doesn’t bode well for their ultimate plan to convince the Lannisters with a captive wight—not quite the same thing as seeing the army of the dead and watching one of your dragons killed by an ice javelin. What odds Cersei sees the skeletal thing and has her conversion on the road to Tarsus? I don’t hold out good odds.

But still: Daenerys is on board, though we don’t get to that point without more discussion of her dragon children and inability to create human ones. The show is starting to hit this point rather a lot—and the fact that Daenerys makes it to a nearly-naked Jon Snow starts to raise questions, as you point out, Nikki; did the witch-woman who cursed Daenerys’ womb count on Stark-Targaryen uber-sperm? (yes, I just wrote that sentence. For those who’ve read this far, you’re welcome).

But the upshot is that she is now committed to destroying the Night King, and to doing it with Jon. “Thank you Dany,” says Jon, which is not quite welcomed by Daenerys. The last person to call her that was Viserys, who is not “the company you want to keep.” To which Jon responds, “All right. Not Dany. How about my Queen?” Jon’s ready now to bend the knee, though he’s not in the proper physical condition to do so; “They’ll see you as I do,” he says when Daenerys asks about his lords.

I must say: the show has done a good job with these two—considering the time they’ve had and the weight of fan expectation, they’ve played it out well. Even here, at a moment when they might have been forgiven for going in for the kiss, the show shows some restraint, with Daenerys visibly getting her senses back and departing. “You should get some rest,” she says, somewhat abruptly.

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Which would be as good a time as any for the credits to roll, but NO! I have no idea where the Night King got such massive iron chains, but we see the army of the dead toiling away—bringing the dead Viseryon up from the depths of the frozen lake.

Considering that the moment that most gutted me in this episode wasn’t Viseryon getting struck with the ice javelin, or his pained flameout, but rather his slow slide back into the water, seeing him brought back above the ice was so very sad.

And then … ZOMBIE DRAGON

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R’Hllor save us all.

 

And that’s it for us this week, friends—thanks for sticking with this INCREDIBLY LONG POST, and meet us here next week for the final episode of season seven. Yes: the FINAL episode. In the meantime, be good, work hard, and make sure you have a healthy supply of dragonglass arrowheads.

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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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sansa's-scroll

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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