It's no surprise that the episode following "The Spoil of War" would be more grounded, an hour that wrestles with the fallout of last week's spectacle while racing forward towards the season's hastened finish line. But what sets "Eastwatch" apart from other Game of Thrones setup episodes is the magnitude of its revelations and returns, escalating the stakes and tension heading into the final hours of season seven.
But much like last week's episode, it's the final ten minutes that stuck with me after the episode went off air. Director Matt Shakman counters last week’s ending with a more intimate scene that perfectly encapsulates the tangled web that is Game of Thrones. Seven men (plus Davos, acting in a Nick Fury capacity) who have no business being in the same room together, brought together to face down the doom of their time. And even with those stakes, it’s the rich relationships and histories that made this scene pop.
Untying the knot is complicatedly fun. Jon’s “father” sent Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr to kill the Hound’s brother. Jon served under Ser Jorah’s father in the Night’s Watch, oft battling forces led by Tormund Giantsbane. The Hound served the king who beheaded Jon’s father. Gendry was once a member, and then a bargaining chip, of Beric and Thoros, who just happens to be the natural son of King Robert. Jon and Beric, two men brought back to life by the Lord of Light. Ser Jorah and Thoros, two warriors who stormed the gates of Pyke and put down the Greyjoy rebellion ten years before.
The King in the North. A wildling chieftan. An exiled knight. Robert’s illegitimate son. A red priest. A resurrected lord. Joffrey’s dog. The question of whether humanity would band together against the White Walkers has always loomed large, and despite the meager odds of success, this mission beyond the Wall shows that some are prepared to make the necessary sacrifice. Even the number of members evokes the symbolism of the Seven Gods of the Faith, or the Seven Kingdoms these warriors purport to protect.
When this band of brothers pass under the gate at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, the audience gets a moment to revel in the calm before the oncoming storm. Even though we still have eight episodes of television left, the plunge into winter begins now. This group is Westeros writ small, and their fate beyond the Wall may portend the fate of all those to its south.
Among the major events this week is the return of Gendry, who Davos discovers working on the Street of Steel in Flea Bottom once again. Gone is the green boy from years ago; sporting a fresh haircut and warhammer, Gendry is a man renewed after his ordeals with the Lannisters and Stannis. He reignites his fast friendship with Ser Davos, and agrees to join the force of those trekking into the far north.
But what perhaps is most striking about Gendry’s return is how fully he (and the show) is channeling a young Robert Baratheon, the spitting image of the man who killed Rhaegar Targaryen and ushered in the end of the Targaryen dynasty. Only George R.R. Martin knows if book Gendry will go down the same path, but this is yet another example of how Game of Thrones has changed as an adaption in its later seasons. The first three seasons are straightforward adaptations of the text, with deviations and streamlining here and there, but a near-faithful retelling of Martin’s story nonetheless. But as the show either went off-text or ran out of it entirely, the method of adaptation has changed, both cinematically and narratively.
As a matter of visual storytelling, Game of Thrones has begun taking more risks with how it develops its episodes, borrowing from different genres to give a fresh feel to critical moments. The climax to “Hardhome” borrowed heavily from horror and zombie films to emphasize the oncoming dread of the White Walkers. Tyrion’s trial borrowed heavily from law procedurals, and last week’s finish had a western flavor that informed the stakes and emotions of the battle. By adapting or pulling from other types of film, the show deepens its visual vocabulary, allowing familiar story beats to play out in new ways.
From a narrative standpoint, the showrunners have chosen to fold in the broader mythology of Martin’s vision, stealing bits from Westerosi history and adapting it into the current narrative. Cersei’s exploding of Baelor’s sept echoed a book moment when she burns down the Tower of the Hand. Last episode’s loot train battle echoed the Field of Fire, an event from Aegon’s Conquest 300 years before our story began. And now Gendry becomes a vehicle for the imagery of Robert Baratheon.
Chief among these adaptations is the Night King, whose name is borrowed from the similarly-titled Night’s King in A Song of Ice and Fire lore. The book version speaks to the 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (Jon was the 998th for reference) who consorted with a woman “with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars… skin as cold as ice.” This pairing between Lord Commander and White Walker would birth the reign of the Night’s King, who had to be put down by the joint forces of the King in the North and the King-beyond-the-Wall. The books even hint that the Night’s King may be a Stark of Winterfell.
While little and less of this history makes the show, it provides fertile ground for the showrunners to develop the leader of the White Walkers. The man we saw become the Night King was not the 13th Lord Commander, but given his fixation on Jon Snow in “Hardhome,” Stark ancestry is still in play. And while Tormund is no king, we once again see the King in the North and wildlings coming together to put down a supernatural threat. It’s a neat choice that allows Benioff and Weiss to work in parts of history that may be too cumbersome to convey through dialogue, while also offering easter eggs to readers of these books.
The episode itself offered us the briefest look at the Night King, as he marshals the White Walkers and army of the dead to attack the realms of men. They march south for Eastwatch, a course that will pit them against Jon Snow and his band of soldiers. Unlike Hardhome, there is no surprise in what is to come. The protagonists are knowingly marching into the mouth of the beast.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Speaking of the mouth of the beast, Jon Snow gets up close and personal with Drogon this week. It’s a subtle but wonderful bit of acting from Kit Harington, who properly balances the fear and awe of the dragon with the courage one would expect of a man who killed a White Walker and keeps a direwolf as a pet. But more importantly, this was one of two scenes which helped center Jon’s parentage as the show winds up for its big finish.
The scene on Dragonstone showed Drogon’s relative comfort around Jon, immediately hinting that Jon may have more to him than meets the eye. While much of Daenerys’s crew have habituated to the dragons, few have chosen to approach them and even fewer come within arm’s length. Dany’s face here also indicates that wheels are turning in her head, that this King in the North may be as great a man as Ser Davos proclaims.
- The other relevant scene occurs in Oldtown, as Jon’s best friend Sam become increasingly frustrated by the bureaucracy and inaction of the Citadel. So frustrated, even, that Sam glosses over a major revelation by Gilly – that Rhaegar Targaryen, the actual father of Jon Snow, had annulled his marriage with Elia Martell and remarried that same day in secret ceremony.
Sam and Gilly, ignorant to Jon’s real parentage, have no reason to think on this much, but the implications of this annulment are far reaching. If Rhaegar and Lyanna were married, then Jon Snow is actually Jon Targaryen, a trueborn son and immediate heir to the Iron Throne (if observing the Targaryen lineage). By law, his claim would come before Daenerys’s. Jon has been a reluctant monarch thus far, and claims on the Iron Throne are likely the furthest thought from his mind. But given Daenerys’s insistence that Jon bend the knee, this new information could mark a paradigm shift for the warming relationship between Jon and Dany.
- Lastly, Littlefinger finally returns to form as he lays the groundwork to one up Arya. Lord Baelish has been out of his element among the mysticism at Winterfell, and his scheming has dropped off since he became ruler of the Vale. Unable to wedge himself into northern politics, Lord Baelish has found a way to weaponize Arya’s distrust, likely using it to grow closer to Sansa. What initially came off as a sleuth, stealth Arya scene reveals itself to be a LIttlefinger ploy.
While the exact plan is still unknown to us, the content of the letter Arya found is not. When Cersei sprung her trap on Ned Stark in season one, Sansa became the hostage of House Lannister. Cersei, along with Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle, forced Sansa to write a letter to Robb imploring him to bend the knee to the new King Joffrey. Robb and Maester Luwin figured out that they were Cersei’s words, but Arya has no knowledge of this. Arya is already mistrusting of her older sister, and now this letter may sow further discord in House Stark.