“We’re all on the same side,” Jon Snow (Kit Harington) declares towards the end of “Eastwatch” as he, Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) set off past the Wall in the most baroque reimagining of “Ocean’s Eleven” possible. “We’re all breathing.” Though “Eastwatch” put “Game of Thrones” back in setup mode after last week’s firey Loot Train Battle, it also raised a critically important question that lurks below the surface of all the action to come. On what terms is it possible to make stable alliances, and thus to build a new world? Or even to hold the most basic of human relationships together?
Near King’s Landing, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) insists on establishing her absolute military superiority to the men she has conquered: They can bend the knee, or be burned.
It has been fascinating to watch this season as “Game of Thrones” has taken Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner), a character we knew mostly for his cruel treatment of Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), and turned him into a figure of complicated sympathy. First, the Lannisters murdered Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), extirpating the house to which Randyll owed his allegiance, and then they sent him into battle against monsters of legend and Dothraki warriors against whom his men couldn’t possibly stand.
In this episode, “Game of Thrones” uses Randyll’s dignity in the face of Dany’s demand that he bend the knee to make it clear what choice it is that she’s really offering: death in service to a queen whose cruelty and capriciousness are known quantities, or life serving a queen whose cruelty may yet be coming into flower, and who promises to transform the world in ways the people of Westeros cannot possibly anticipate. I’m not entirely sure where “Game of Thrones” is going with this, especially given another enormous development from this episode I’ll discuss later. But Randyll giving Dickon leave to surrender, a generosity he never would have extended to Sam, and seeing him reach for his son’s hand so he won’t face death alone, is a surprisingly tender moment — even if Dany and Drogon quickly reduce it to ash.
Dany may insist that “all I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit to no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” But until she has a way to make concrete her vision of what would turn the world into a “better place,” she’s left relying on brute military strength. “Sometimes strength is terrible,” she acknowledges to Jon after she returns to Dragonstone and finds Drogon surprisingly curious about the King in the North. I’m not yet sure she understands that exerting terrible strength can turn your alliance into quicksand rather than forging it into Valyrian steel.
In the South and North, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) are dealing with this question on a more mundane level.
Cersei, having seen her armies decimated by Dany and the Dothraki, is trying to convince herself that she can simply purchase a new army to replace an old one. Though she tells Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) that she’s open to discussing an armistice with Dany, Cersei’s us-against-the-world talk is beginning to acquire a suicidal edge, especially as Dany’s pronunciations become more absolute.
And at Winterfell, Sansa is trying to hold on to the restive lords who pledged their fealty to Jon only to have him jaunt off first to Dragonstone and then to Eastwatch. Sansa, recognizing the serious practical challenges that face her, attempts to be diplomatic, but Arya (Maisie Williams), whose life is now guided by her righteous sense of vengeance, sees only betrayal of Jon.
Even Sam’s institutional loyalty reaches a breaking point when Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) refuses to act quickly on the news that the Night King is on the move. Leaving the Citadel means Sam is breaking two promises: one to Jon to train as the future maester of the Night’s Watch and another to his teachers at the Citadel. But both institutions have betrayed Sam and the values that are his true strength. The Night’s Watch rebelled and killed Jon, Sam’s best friend. And the Citadel has become too bogged down in academic debates and old processes to act urgently when required. It’s terribly sad to see Sam give up the dream he’s harbored his whole life. But he’s correct that sometimes “reading about the achievements of better men” doesn’t cut it. If only Randyll could have lived to see the man his heir became.
In fact, the only alliance in this episode that seems to work particularly well is the one emerging at the Wall. Jon and his team of rangers don’t necessarily agree about why they’re going on this possibly suicidal quest. But there is a pressing need that makes all of their disparate goals converge. More than anything else happening in this episode, this is what coalition politics look like. The men who venture out with Jon may not all be able to stay on the same side forever. They’re divided by birth, by experience and by faith. But they’ve all stepped away from a world where their decisions and loyalties were governed by their family name or what side of the Wall they were born on. However temporary this is, it’s a newer way of organizing a political alliance than Dany’s offer of surrender or immolation.
This being “Game of Thrones,” of course, relationships between individuals tell us as much about the viability of any new coalition or society that moves into our view in a given episode. And Eastwatch’s saddest contemplation of this question comes between siblings, long-lost and newly discovered.
In Winterfell, it turns out there’s a downside to the Stark women not having shared their stories in all the years since they’ve met. Arya can’t let go of the version of Sansa she once knew, the one who valued the fine things she loved over loyalty to her family. And Sansa, perhaps, hasn’t fully grasped that Arya’s mind as well as her body has been forged into a weapon. Even if the camera didn’t linger on the note Arya found in Petyr Baelish’s (Aidan Gillen) mattress ticking for long, the few words we caught, and Baelish’s emergence from the shadows, suggest that Littlefinger is setting up one Stark to eliminate the other, likely with the letter Cersei forced Sansa to write to her family so many seasons ago.
On Dragonstone, by contrast, Jon and Gendry, whom Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) retrieves from the King’s Landing smithy where he’s been hiding all this time, click immediately. They’re mirror images of each other, or so they think: the illegitimate sons of great men who grew up hearing stories of their fathers’ friendship and heroics, and have struggled to follow in their footsteps. If Gendry’s long-awaited re-entrance into the narrative came with a fan service-y joke about just how long he’d been rowing that little boat, so be it. Amid all the death and destruction in Westeros, it was lovely to see, even for a moment, a younger generation making a concerted effort to be better than their fathers: Gendry more disciplined, and Jon more pragmatic.
Of course, Gilly’s (Hannah Murray) leisure reading in Oldtown turns up a tidbit of information that could sever not just this fresh bond, but so many others Jon has developed so far: Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage turned out to have been annulled before he married someone else. And if, as the show has strongly implied, that someone else is Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi), Jon isn’t merely a secret Targaryen: He’s a legitimate Targaryen whose claim to the throne would trump Dany’s.
And in King’s Landing, the Lannister siblings are drawn closer together by Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) daring gambit, and Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn) soft spot for the first Lannister to get him under contract. Dinklage and Coster-Waldau have been turning in consistently fine performances this entire season, and it was a heartbreaking delight to see them together again. Unlike Sansa and Arya, Tyrion and Jaime know full well what the other has been up to. And where the Starks’ tragedy might be that their inability to talk is keeping them apart unnecessarily, the scars the Lannister brothers have between them are too great to overcome.
As difficult as it was to see Tyrion and Jaime’s sad reunion, it was worse to see Jaime go back to Cersei (Lena Headey) and be pulled under the tide of her personality again with the promise of another child, one they could claim publicly as their own. The dynamic between those two has always been complex, and obviously the show hasn’t consistently handled it with the dexterity it requires. But “Game of Thrones” has figured out the central tragedy of the Lannisters’ story: Jaime will always be torn between the brother who encourages him to be his best self but has done grievous harm to his family and his values, and the sister who lures him to be his worst self in the name of honoring those same values and demonstrating the loyalty Tyrion lacks.
For much of the run of “Game of Thrones,” there has always been another choice, another situation to talk or fight your way out of, another ally to make or to buy, another strategy to embrace. As the series moves into its endgame, the choices are going to get harder for all of our characters. And none of them will be able to comfort themselves with the excuse that Varys used: “I’m not the one who’s doing it.”