Note: I’m reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, while my colleague David Malitz, who hasn’t read the books, will be writing straight recaps. His write-up of episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” will appear at The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of the April 21 episode of “Game of Thrones” in detail. You can find my recaps of every prior episode of the show here. Can’t get enough “Game of Thrones”? Come on over to my Washington Post chat here Monday at 1 p.m.
“He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory,” Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) tells the assembled leadership of humanity, as they finalize their plans to face the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) in a moving, elegiac “Game of Thrones.” His argument makes Sam Tarly (John Bradley) realize something important: that the real, final death is the loss of memory.
It’s a sly note to those of us who have spent a decade or longer with George R.R. Martin’s characters, an admonition that even when this hugely absorbing series ends in a few weeks, its best moments will live on in those of us who have loved it and challenged it. And in the hands of writer and co-executive producer Bryan Cogman — who has always, to my mind, better understood what made “Game of Thrones” wonderful than even the men who created and ran the darn thing — Sam’s remark places this episode in a new context.
The events of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” are, in a technical sense, a prelude to the epic clash that will come in next week’s episode, rather than the stuff of legends. No one is going to write a song about the knighting of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie, quietly magnificent as always) or the deflowering of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). The only thing legendary about Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) revelation of his true parentage to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is his sense of bad timing. But the thing is, legends often miss the point. The very final-feeling conversations between characters in this show are the stuff their humanity is made of. Whatever the outcome of next episode’s battle is — and I suspect it will be a very high body count — the real distinction between the living and the dead was drawn this week in the warm bodies and warmer conversations between our tragically, beautifully human characters.
The episode opens with what is effectively a debate over whether Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a man or a monster. To Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), he is the archvillain of her bedtime stories. To Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), he is yet another example of Lannister perfidy. It takes the testimony of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), who once had the show’s most rigid definition of honor, to make the case that Jaime actually meets that high standard through how much he sacrificed to protect her and how much he invested in ensuring Sansa’s safe return.
“Game of Thrones,” by virtue of its short final season, has to do a lot of telling in these few remaining episodes, and if all we had to go on before the dark descended was Brienne’s plot summary, this episode might have shared some of last week’s Wikipedia-like qualities. Blessedly, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” took the time to show us Jaime’s humanity as well.
Like Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who has grown enough to offer his services first to his sister (Gemma Whelan) and now to Sansa, Jaime is now man enough to serve under a woman, and to give her the rank she’s long deserved but been denied by tradition. Like Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Jaime can see their sister, Cersei, for what she is — and to recognize that their shared last name is no longer enough to make Cersei his lodestar. This man, who once declared that “There are no other men like me. Only me,” is now like everyone else. When it comes time to face death on the morrow, he wants a drink, some light conversation and to do a last kindness for the people he truly loves, even if it means knighting Brienne in a largely empty hall.
Little kindnesses are everywhere, and they turn out to mean everything. Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) give a fierce little girl a sense of mission that will also protect her. Sam gives Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) the sword Heartsbane, freeing Sam from the burden of a family he finds unliftably heavy, but also giving the disgraced knight an opportunity to face death armed as a true champion. Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) give each other the comforting fantasy that they’ll survive not merely the White Walkers, but the constant low-level racism they experience in the North, and live to return to the beaches of Naath.* Gendry (Joe Dempsie) gives Arya both the weapon she wanted and the chance to feel like a normal, lusty teenage girl. Sansa gives Theon a true welcome home.
Even Bran, in losing an essential element of his humanity, his sense of how time moves, has acquired a uniquely human quality: mercy. He may frame his decision to protect Jaime in instrumentalist terms, telling him that “You won’t be able to help us in this fight if I let them murder you first.” But Bran is also giving Jaime an opportunity to continue the journey he unwittingly began when the older man crippled a child to protect his incestuous relationship with his sister. “I’m not that person any more,” Jaime explains to his former victim. “You still would be if you hadn’t pushed me out of that window,” Bran tells him. Bran may not be exonerating Jaime for that act, exactly. It’s just that, like us (if more dramatically) Bran’s acquired a new perspective on the man who maimed him.
And while most of the humanity on display in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is loving and lovely, there is one character for whom it’s not. Dany is most human in this episode not when she’s telling Ser Jorah that his transgressions are in the past, nor when she’s trying to improve her relationship with Sansa, but when her brittleness and rigidity are in full bloom.
Perhaps it’s understandable that Dany is initially unwilling to welcome Jaime, the monster of her childhood bedtime stories, back into the fold. But even more telling than the harsh words that open the episode is the expression on her face when Jon breaks with her and supports Sansa. Dany invokes their shared experiences as female leaders to try to woo Sansa and claims to have been wooed from her life’s mission by Jon’s charms, but she freezes up when Sansa asks what happens to the North after Dany is crowned queen. And most of all, Dany’s mind rebels when confronted with the possibility that someone else might have a legitimate claim to the throne that has been her “one goal.”
Throughout the run of “Game of Thrones,” it’s often been easy to read Dany’s story as a simple empowerment fiction. On its surface, the show is absolutely the story of a woman who was abused by her brother in exile and discounted by a patriarchal culture that considered her worthless when her husband died, but who then accomplished the impossible by resurrecting dragons and conquering a continent. “Khaleesi” entered the Social Security Administration’s baby name rankings, and a thousand Etsy shops bloomed.
Yet as we come down the home stretch, Dany’s behavior suggests that the show might be open to a more challenging — and interesting — possible outcome, one in which Dany can’t escape the curse of her family’s hereditary insanity, to destructive effect. Real equality means not that women are inherently saintly, or even that oppression gives women the insight that makes them superior leaders. It means that we can be just as mediocre and malign as any man. For all the fantasies of seeing Dany on the Iron Throne, it might be even more thematically apt for Dany to prove her Targaryen claim and to demonstrate her humanity by tearing apart the land she wants to rule.
*I frankly appreciate the show’s efforts over the last two episodes to incorporate racism into its worldbuilding rather than pretending that Northerners are so busy with the White Walkers that they don’t see color.