Game of Thrones: S08E02 – ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’If death was looming, how would you spend your final hours? Who would you spend them with? What would you want to remember?
This sentiment and thought process lingers through every scene, through every single encounter of 'A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms'; a great episode that takes all the things this season's premiere did wrong, and shows to us how to do them right.
Death has always been an integral part to 'Game of Thrones' storytelling structure and the lives of its characters. But most of the time, death came unexpectedly for them, usually as a consequence of previously mishandled situations and the consequential begrudging emotions other people have felt – anger, revenge, grief. Very rarely did the characters see the possibility of their own death, or those close to them, as closely impending as they do now that they are seemingly facing something that is, by their own definition, literal death. Surely, I would have preferred the White Walkers and the Night King to gain another third dimension that revealed a deeper sense of motivation and could have thrown things into context, but this hour made a very great argument for using an all-evil manifestation not for purpose of shock value or big set pieces, but for the purpose of revealing something true about humanity - how what we truly value shines out the most in the face of our potential demise.
And while the episode doesn’t frame every scene around this sentiment, there certainly is an overarching sense of death and impending change looming throughout the entire hour thanks to the clever limited time-frame and small, intimate set-ups in which everyone goes back to that which has originally lured us into the show - people sitting and talking.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ sets up several scenes that show us the preparation for battle and, even though it doesn’t actually bother explaining their battle strategy, that can be easily excused because by how said discussion is put aside in favor of laying open and conveying what these characters are feeling with and for each other, what they have been fighting for in the past, and what they are fighting for now. Unlike the case in the season premiere, this is the kind of remembrance of the past that has real character study at its heart, and that puts all the work in of actually exploring its characters rather than hinting or skipping through their progress. Basically, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ did everything the premiere failed at, and it does so with a melancholic, poetic pace.
As an example, let's dig into the emotional heart of the episode - Jaime and Brienne's wonderfully complex and tragically subdued relationship. Jaime's willingness to stand trial for his past failures is a continuation of his series-long redemption arc and a true testament to how far he has come to be willing to face death, even before he faces the White Walkers, in order to seek atonement. As a consequence, Daenerys reminding us of his betrayal to her father, the Mad King, doesn't feel like simple nostalgia but is an instant reminder that Jaime has had the greater good for the people in mind before. More significantly, however, once Brienne takes a stand for him is where the scene’s years of storytelling truly pays off: Her word is trusted and listened to because she has earned her respect to almost anyone in that room in a way no one on this show has been able to. So, all at once, the episode’s writer Cogman reminds us of the strength of the bonds Brienne has forged in the past as well as Brienne’s role as the catalyst that has started Jaime’s yearning for atonement and his deeply felt, unspoken emotions towards her. This is a strong example of evoking the past not to draw shortcuts on feelings and skip clear character development, like the season premiere did, but to highlight the character’s previous motivations and frame them anew in their current situation. What used to drive Jaime and Brienne, and what is driving them now to stick up for one another, and to face the possibility of death the next day, anyway?
You could argue, thus, that the highlight of this episode that lends it its title, Brienne’s knighting by Jaime, is arguably the most romantic moment the two of them have shared yet, and a way for Jaime to make good on the famous words of a Lannister who always pays his debts as he finally repays her for setting him into the redemptive direction he’s been following ever since. It is, in fact, the defining act of his redemption (so far, because I have suspicion of a final one). His knighting of her marks Jaime’s most selfless act yet and is a display of a profound sense of empathy and understanding towards Brienne which he had not ever expressed on the exterior before so visibly. Of course, Jaime could have given Brienne physical affection, and it seems possible she wouldn’t have refused, but giving her the one thing she’s always wanted but has always been much too honorable and selfless to demand or ask for, is a much more romantic and humane demonstration of his love towards her. Both are absolutely terrific in this scene, but Gwendoline Christie’s gradual melting of her usual stony and resolute expression that oscillates between embarrassed amusement and confusion to humility and finally turns into a relief of pure joy must be one of, if not the, most cheerful moments of this series and it’s all thanks to the perfect ways Christie has always understood to play Brienne as a female fighter struggling with an omnipresent battle between confidence and insecurity that, now, seems to have found its winner for good. It is, arguably, the most earned moment of the series yet, in which a woman who has acted so selfless in care for everyone else and everything she believes in, to be finally acknowledged and rewarded for her life-long humble nobility by all the men.
In a different relationship, Jaime's arrival at Winterfell also highlights an issue, and resolves it (if only for one episode), that has been in place for way too long. Tyrion, who used to be the, or at least one of the, best characters on the show, has not only been terribly underutilized since the fifth season, but has often acted completely out of character. Their reunion last season had the same problems as so much did that year and rushed through all emotional beats within seconds and no emotional depth. Here, their reunion is used effectively in the same way that all scenes are being used: A reminder of who Jaime and Tyrion used to be, but also an expression of what their journeys mean to them now. Jaime's willingness to fight and atone is underlined again, but, much more essentially, we finally get the sense that Tyrion has indeed changed in light of the stakes to come. His recollection of past sexual adventures isn't just a light nod to the Tyrion that used to be promiscuous, witty and bold, but a stark contrast to a man who is now so drained and exhausted by the accumulated pain of his past that the he can’t hide the gravity of his suffering behind superficial, sexual encounters anymore. Tyrion’s acknowledgement of that feeling is the best and most intense look we have been given in years into his actual personality and mind and makes me wish he was allowed to be a full character like this all the time.
While Jaime is making his rounds to the different people (Brienne, Tyrion, Bran) linked to many of his past mistakes and redemptions in order to seek out the forgiveness he is craving for, there are also others who have gone on a journey of redemption and are being reminded of it.
In the wake of death, Arya cares to find closure on a part of her past that was extremely defining to who she has become. Arya’s relationship with The Hound has always been complex and culminated when she realized she had grown so fond of him that she couldn’t murder him anymore and, instead, took him off her list, but not grown fond enough (or strong enough) to help The Hound out of his misery after his fight for death with Brienne, either. When she tries to understand just why he would, after all this time, now fight for a Brotherhood for the greater good, for selfless reasons, he simply declares ‘I fought for you, didn’t I?’ and so beautifully sums up his complex relationship with Arya in a single line. Bryan Cogman’s sharp writing here immediately evokes their entire past but uses this as an explainer and an acknowledgment that The Hound had always partially been driven by similar values, but that his connection with Arya heightened these principles in him more than before (not so unlike the case with Brienne and Jaime). One line can go a long way into describing character and feeling, and this does both elegantly. It's a powerful and rare display of affection from The Hound that sums up his arc and current drives but also serves as graceful emotional closure to Arya who once used to be too young and impulsive to be able to understand The Hound’s conflicting intents towards her, but now gets to stride off with a feeling of connection and growth.
However, for Arya, impending death is not used to shine a light on what used to, and does, motivate her, but it reveals hidden desires that she wants to experience before it could be too late. I don't fully agree with the episode's insistence on pairing her with Gendry, but I do appreciate that her last shot in bed with him stays ambiguous and vague - maybe there was no real emotion for her here, but only an attempt to connect to the human side Arya has been so out of touch with for years with a person that has once reminded her of it. It also makes sense that the journey of self-discovery and return to humanity she has been on since she has left the Faceless Men, for a girl like Arya, who continuously had to be stripped of her femininity to survive, would eventually lead to a desire of sexual expression, as well. It Is a means of getting in touch with one of the most primal experiences and feelings a woman could have and a side of herself as a woman and a human that she hadn’t explored in this capacity yet and now wants to before she might die.
In contrast, we also get scenes with characters far less important than the aforementioned ones, but with similar emotional resonance. Take the little girl in the Gilly and Davos scene which, at first glance, feels like it should go under between all the depth explored by characters more important and established. It doesn't, however, and that's because there is a well-earned intimacy and profundity at play here that has been built for over the years. The little girl reminds Davos of Shireen, the most open and heartfelt connection he has had in the show, and who was a major reason of why he stuck with Stannis for a very long time. Of course, she also reminds Gilly of Shireen but, on top of that, all the girls she used to live with in the past, either too brave or too naïve for their own good. And, finally, the little girl reminds us of the two's paths in the same way, how both have been taught how to read by Shireen, and in the process also conjures in us the insight of what has brought Gilly and Davos this far and what keeps them going even now - a desire to survive for other people that are close to them in hopes they can continue protecting them in the future. It's a plaintive and beautiful reminder of their values all at the same time and (at least in the world of 'Game of Thrones') delivered much more subdued instead of through real text or dialogue.
I could go on about how almost every scene works towards the same objective. Sansa’s reunion with Theon is so emotional because it brings in mind a shared trauma conflicted upon them both by the same person that no one else could understand. Turner is amazing, again, in conveying just how much Sansa feels relief to see and spend time with the one person in Westeros that comes closest to grasping the emotional and physical abuse that has inflicted her in the past, and has in turn made her so protective to wanting to defend the North (and herself) today. In that same breath, Sansa and Daenerys manage to resolve their past personal distance and are now standing at a conflict that has their interests as future sovereigns at heart, not a personal disdain for each other. There is a scene of the last living Night’s Watch members (relevant to us, anyway) Samwell Tarly, Jon Snow and Dolorous Edd contemplating on the reasons they joined the brotherhood all those years ago only to have realized that the values of protecting the realm preached by the Night’s Watch have now come to truly shape their beliefs and actions. And there are Missandei and Greyworm, who express their past desire was to be freed and fight for the ruler they believe in only to now realize that is not equal to believing in the kingdom she intends to rule. So instead, they have come to a resolution where they are willing to fight for a joint future outside of Westeros.
In summation, ‘Game of Thrones’ finally returns to an episodic approach of which I have always argued it tends to deliver its very best episodes. Here, it is the exploration of what the possibility of impending death triggers in the show’s characters filtered through the lens of what has driven them before. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ works, not because it reminds us of everything these characters have went through, but because it makes a case for why they are still fighting despite of what they have went through. Bran receives some depth as he is defined as a living embodiment of the shared history and memories of humanity and explains that the Night King’s goal is to get rid of him and their past once and for all. To rid people of memories, they argue, is to rid them of what defines their humanity. It doesn’t matter that you could make many arguments against this sentiment because essentially it is only vocalized this way to trigger anxieties in the characters in order to start the previously described reflections of their past and their connected willingness to look ahead.
I did not expect the series to craft an entire character-focused hour this good so late in its game but it is what ‘Game of Thrones’ deeply needed. Moving forward from now on, we will understand why everyone is invested to fight the next battle in first place. We will grasp the stakes at play for them to come in the upcoming events, and we will feel the gravity of the inevitable death and emotional losses some of them are going to have to suffer through soon. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ is a love letter to its distinct characters and a return to the idea that ‘Game of Thrones’ is not only interested in producing empty big events but diving into the emotional machinations behind them that can feel just as monumental and overwhelming as anything else and that are what make the aforementioned spectacle feel so very alive and personal.
* I could dwell on how old character-focused episodes would have stronger dialogue, but what’s the point? No one here is GRRM, but Cogman is as close as it gets and despite some clumsiness and the lack of real highlights, the dialogue finally felt very in character again, and concisely to the point. 'Game of Thrones' used to be a show where one line could reveal many truths about a character and, even though this week's dialogue may not have been quite as poetic as it used to be, it does go back to some of that long-lost poignancy.
** The direction in this episode is good, albeit not great. Some dialogue scenes are shot in the standard face-to-face format, whereas others are shot with more engagement through several blocking (movement of the characters) techniques. There is some strong lighting work in this episode, as well, that often plays with contrasts of the deep dark and high light ends that not only makes the images much more watchable but also emphasizes the episode’s various contrasts of contemplating past with present, confronting opposing dynamics (Sansa and Daenerys), but more so even of juxtaposing their motivations to live with the imminent possibility of death (light/dark). Fittingly, the episode turns darker (and increasingly contrasts that darkness with fire light) as the White Walkers are nearing and the ruminations on death are made vocal more actively.
*** The episode is not without its flaws, while more minor. I admire the Sansa and Daenerys scene but timing its confrontational ending with Theon's arrival in order to prolong the resolution of its conflict is convenient. Similarly, Jon's reveal about his heritage to Daenerys being stopped by the convenient arrival of the Night King's army. However, even here, especially in the former scene, we are left with a sense of development. Sansa and Daenerys' struggles aren't personal anymore, but linked to the core of their reigning principles. And if Jon's reveal wasn't quite as character revealing and propelling as that, it did confirm the feeling that Daenerys has a hard time not thinking of her own reign as the end goal. Finally, the show is going to have some dramatic urgency after next week's battle, so I don't fully hate the timing choices here, but they do seem awfully convenient and contrived in an episode where so little plot is otherwise essential.
**** There is an interesting parallel between Jaime and Tyrion Lannister and The Hound, all three of whom are framed as having now turned towards a cause that has the improvement of others in mind. Interestingly, when this episode reflects through their past it highlights alongside it that all three of them have previously acted for similar reasons in various occasions but that each of them used to hide this vignette of their personality from others and themselves but found a way to embrace and admit to it through the connections they have made over the years.
* Why does Emilia Clarke have so much more chemistry with Sophie Turner than she does with Kit Harington? Or maybe it's just that Turner elevates her in ways Harington simply cannot, but it really does contrast that the lack of emotional tone between Daenerys and Jon does not only stem from a rushed-through evolution of their relationship, but also from a lack of competent performances to carry it.
*** So, I basically didn’t dive into the biggest scene, the fireplace one, at all, despite it being an obvious highlight. For some people, impending death comes with the desire to enjoy life and company one last time, and the present characters in that scene seem fitting to express that sentiment. It also ponders on their past (everyone present once supported a fraction that used to be a Stark enemy), but, aside from the Brienne/Jaime standout, it is mostly a showcase of defining characters and their traits through simple observation of living and talking.
**** The song Podrick sings is called 'Jenny and the Oldstones' and about an old Targaryen heir who abdicated the throne for his love and ends right as the final scene between Jon and Daenerys starts. Do with that what you want.
* The irony that ‘Game of Thrones’ delivers its best episode in a very long time while also featuring the least screen time for either Jon or Daenerys. I do not think that this is a coincidence.