“It is our duty and our honor to keep them alive in memory for those who come after us, and for those who come after them, as long as men draw breath,” Jon Snow (Kit Harington) says as he and his compatriots prepare to light the biers of those who fell in the Battle of Winterfell. His sentiments are in keeping with Bran Stark’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) argument for the importance of history. And they’re also a fitting framework for this episode, which is all about bringing together characters who have known each other since the beginning of the events depicted in “Game of Thrones,” or close to it.
But, as quickly becomes clear, history is a tricky thing. Knowing who someone was doesn’t mean you know who they are now. Having grown with someone who believes one thing about your essential nature doesn’t mean that you are capable of believing that yourself. And this episode, which is shot through with dangerous conversations about royal bloodlines — the ultimate way the past tries to force itself on the present — it’s clear that history can be a prison as well as a guide forward.
In three bittersweet scenes at Winterfell, it becomes clear it’s easier for some people to shake off the mist of their memories than it is for others to adjust to new realities.
Most consequential is the one between Jon, the women who believe themselves to be his sisters and Bran, who knows what Jon is about to tell them. Jon is playing a tricky game with history here, relying on his ties to both Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to swear them to secrecy when he informs them of his true parentage. And to a certain extent, he’s asking them to continue thinking of him in a way neither has for years, as a bastard boy with no claim to Winterfell, much less the Iron Throne, even as he gives them information that makes that kind of return to the past impossible. Jon’s reluctance about kingship may be the very thing that makes him best suited for it, as spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill) later tells Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). But as with his approach to many things, Jon’s approach to history here is muddled. He wants to maintain his old relationships even as he radically rewrites his origin story, and he wants his siblings to maintain their loyalty to a woman they have accepted as their queen even as he upends the legitimacy of her claim to the throne.
(Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) herself, of course, has asked Jon to swear not to reveal the truth of his parentage, an act that would allow her to usurp the Iron Throne, albeit in a gentler fashion than Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) once did.)
For all his shameful origins, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) has always had an instinct for the courtesies that accompany hierarchies. Ever since he met Arya on the road north to Castle Black and discovered that the filthy orphan he knew as Arry was not merely a girl, but a highborn lady, he’s tried to treat her that way. And despite seeing her as a grown woman, and seeing the scars that are underneath her clothes, when Dany legitimizes Gendry and makes him lord of Storm’s End, Gendry tries to make Arya fit his idea of ladyhood one final time, by proposing to her and asking her to help him rule. When Arya turns him down, it’s heartbreaking, and not just because of how far she’s traveled and how much she’s endured since they met on the way out of King’s Landing. Gendry’s insistence that Arya is a lady meant that he never really knew her in the first place, that he was always trying to slot her into a fantasy.
Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), by contrast, has always kept a gimlet eye out for the ugly truth behind titles, refusing the title of Ser for himself and condemning the naivete behind Sansa’s embrace of protocol. His roughness might have frightened her, then, but it also means Sandor can see Sansa more clearly now than Gendry can Arya. Sandor may regret that Sansa didn’t come with him and that he didn’t have a chance to protect her. But when she tells him that “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life," Sandor doesn’t argue with Sansa. His scars may show more clearly than hers do, but he knows what it means to be marked for life. It’s fitting that when he leaves Winterfell, he leaves with Arya, not Sansa. There were never going to be any fairytale endings for those two killers, and they’re both wise enough to recognize it.
For a brief moment, it seems as though Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are going to get their revisionist happily-ever-after, thanks to the raucous drinking party that kicks off the episode.
I suspect that when we all look back on the final season of “Game of Thrones” with the benefit of some hindsight (and when some of us are not in the position of speed-writing recaps late on a Sunday night), the pacing of these final six episodes is going to seem at least a little off. We’re really whiplashing between lovely emotional send-offs to these characters and these relationships and a lot of extremely fast-moving plot. But in the moment, I was delighted to see all of these characters loose and wonderfully, vitally alive — and very much aware of it, especially if it meant Brienne and Jaime finally went to bed. That Brienne gets to go out both a knight and not a virgin, and both by the, er, sword of the man she loves is a turn of events that may not live up to my long-standing devotion to this show’s glowering view of humanity. Still, if the events of “Game of Thrones” break Westeros’s long-standing taboo on female knights and produce an outcome in which at least one consenting adult couple who aren’t related to each other and not suffering from a grievous power imbalance gets to have loving, affirming sex, even my stony heart can’t resist that.
What followed was a bit trickier. It makes a certain amount of emotional sense for Jaime and Brienne not to end up settling some holdfast in the North and raising a bunch of tall, blond, extremely deadly children. If you care about the prophecy that suggests that Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) will be killed by her younger brother and suspect that it might end up being Jaime rather than Tyrion, the brother she’s hated since she was born, or Arya, who, given the loose rules of divination in this universe, could well be a “little brother,” then it makes logistical sense, as well. That said, it’s odd that a mere expression of comparatively mild bloodthirstiness from Sansa would undo all the character work “Game of Thrones” has put into Jaime this season and in all the seasons prior. It’s a moment when it feels as though the show is leaning too heavily on a pair of characters’ history to make up for scant time. For some reason, “Game of Thrones” needs Jaime to get on the road again, so it’s recapitulating his history to get him back on that horse.
It also appears that “Game of Thrones” has committed itself to a fairly predictable path, one in which Dany falls prey to the hereditary strain of Targaryen madness. If three episodes doesn’t seem like quite enough time for this development to really work out, this one at least got the fireball rolling in an appropriate fashion, by cutting Dany off from the two people who have been with her longest on her journey to queendom.
Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), who knew Dany when she was a mere princess to be bartered away in trade for a Dothraki army, is the first face we see in the episode, lying on a pyre as Dany struggles to say goodbye to him. And Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) turns her death into an act of defiance, calling out “Dracarys” as her final words, before Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) executes her. Jorah, more so than anyone on “Game of Thrones," was a person Dany would truly listen to, especially on the subject of the madness and weakness that claimed her father and brother. Missandei, whom Dany liberated from a life of slavery, was the living witness to the power of what was once Dany’s mission. Slipping Dany loose of the moorings that bound her both to her family’s extended history and the best acts of her own epic story makes sense as a way to truly send her spiraling into a widening gyre.
And just as this season began with Tyrion and Varys sniping at each other from inside a wagon, so, too, does this episode’s most consequential conversation involve these two — Well, what would you call them? Friends? Allies? Colleagues? — men. Tyrion, for all his puckishness and disobedience, still needs a queen to believe in. Varys, by contrast, has been hiding a revolutionary idea in plain sight. He’s told Tyrion and characters such as Ned Stark (Sean Bean) that he serves the realm for so long that it sounds like a kind of irreverent disguise for his self-interest. Who could possibly think of national self-interest as separate from service to a particular royal lineage? But if “Game of Thrones" is headed in the direction it seems to be signaling, Westeros and all the lands beyond the Narrow Sea will need a man like Varys who can see history clearly enough to imagine escaping from it.