If “Winterfell” was all about reunions, then “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the second episode of the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is about recompense. As if tidying up before a party, the episode takes advantage of its unified location to clear away the lingering bad blood between its various characters. In so doing, some honest to god storytelling takes place, but the lagging sensation that plagued “Winterfell” persists.
To be sure more happens in the first sixty seconds of this episode than happened in sixty minutes of the last, Jaime Lannister’s return to Winterfell sews discontent among the tenuously unified cast of main characters and brings long-simmering tensions to a head, only for them to be lanced one by one.
Jaime’s bad blood with House Stark and House Targaryen evaporate like morning dew — even Bran, now possessing the monastic tranquility of the Three-Eyed Raven, doesn’t have an ax to grind against him. Theon Greyjoy makes amends with the Starks as well. In general, the episode bends over backward to end as much character tension as it possibly can as quickly as it can — Dany even attempts to mend fences with Sansa, and the two characters have barely spent ten minutes of screen time together, it seems, and their rivalry very nearly dies in the crib.
It also feels at times that the series is trying to apologize, both for the last episode’s lack of action and for the last few seasons’ hyper-sexist overtones. Most of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” consists of a prolonged calm before the storm sequence, as characters prepare for the Night King’s imminent nocturnal undead assault. Lubricated by wine, weapons and the thought of their own imminent demise, some of the raid fire quipping that made the early seasons so fun mercifully returns.
Attempts to reposition the female characters at the center of the story works less well. Sansa and Dany’s lady boss alliance never quite congeals, and a supposed-to-be-heartwarming sequence wherein Jaime knights Lady Brienne —hence the title of the episode — comes across as patriarchal and condescending. The ultimate moment in the episode, however, belongs to Arya: while about to consummate her long-simmering-at-a-very-low-boil romance with Gendry she tells him to take his own pants off. It’s sexy, smart and a bit discomforting, everything the series once did so well. That the show manages to build them so quickly from ships passing in the night to romance and possible claim to the throne is a testament to the economical storytelling that the show can employ when it chooses to. Too bad it almost never chooses to.
I’m not prepared to lay the blame entirely at the showrunners’ feet, however. Not for lack of trying, the undead attack doesn’t manage to rev up by the series’ end, in part because so many tiny character moments get in the way. For a show so keen to kill off its major players, Game of Thrones seems oddly reluctant to let Gilly, Lady Mormont or Davos Seaworth off without a standout moment, even though Bran and The Night King have a much better chance of meeting their gory ends in next week’s promised battle episode.
Add Jaime Lannister to the list of probable deaths, as well. Nicolaj Costar-Waldau gets more screen time than almost any other actor in the episode and manages to fill the screen with understated charisma. Peter Dinklage may get top billing, and his scenes with Costar-Waldau remain some of the strongest in the show, but his character has stalled out. Jaime’s changed the most since the beginning of the story, and his journey from egotist to self-sacrificing hero has quietly become the moral core of the entire “Game of Thrones” universe.
Sam Tarley, however, delivers maybe the most thematically important line of dialog in the entire series.
While discussing their lot to draw out and kill the Night King, hopefully thereby disintegrating his entire zombie army, Bran offers himself up as bait, saying he’s the person The Night King most wishes to kill because, as the Three-Eyed Raven, he serves as civilization’s memory.
“That’s what dying is,” Sam reflects, nearly shoving his entire head through the fourth wall. “Forgetting, being forgotten.” Finally, out of all the chaos-is-a-ladder cynicism, the story offers a coherent statement of value. I wrote last week that George R.R. Martin’s great complaint seems to be with people more willing to pursue power than to heed truth in service of the greater good. Here, the story offers some insight as to why. It seems that the great offense Martin takes with the ignoramuses of history, the stand-ins for naysayers and climate deniers, is not just that they endanger themselves and everyone around them, but because when they do so they make an offense to storytelling, to history, to memory. To what makes us human.
For all of its faults, “Game of Thrones” and the A Song of Ice and Fire book series attempt to offer a coherent history of a world, of an age, and storytelling without memory is impossible. In fact, they may be conjoined twins, unable to live without another.
Even in the face of certain death, life as posited by “Game of Thrones” isn’t worth living without stories to tell.
In a quiet, perfect moment of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Tyrion pulls a chair up next to Bran and asks for his life story. When Bran says it would take too long, Tyrion quips “If only we were trapped in a castle, in the middle of winter, with nowhere to go.” According to George R.R. Martin, maybe that’s not a bad place to be, after all.