Game of Thrones: No Choice at All

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Eastwatch,” the fifth episode of the seventh season.

Jon Snow in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan / HBO

Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

David Sims: This late in its run, Game of Thrones is mostly about tyrants, and I’m glad it’s aware of that. There are plentiful types of tyranny for the Westerosi to choose from, of course. There’s the conniving elitism of Cersei Lannister, still convinced of her house’s utmost superiority and willing to rule over whatever kingdom she can get, even if she has to blow everyone up in the process. There’s the “liberation” offered by Daenerys, who claims to offer freedom from oppressive rulers but really is presenting a more binary choice: Join her, or die. Finally, to the north, there’s the impassive force of the Night King, who offers only the apocalypse, something more than a few bedraggled citizens of Westeros might welcome at this point.

It would be too easy for this show to pitch Daenerys’s efforts at conquest as a battle between good and evil. That’s never been a narrative pursuit in George R. R. Martin’s books, and it was entirely absent from the fiery ass-kicking her Dothraki/dragon combo delivered to Jaime’s forces last episode. There are people to root for, and people to fear, on both sides, and the viewer’s sympathies lie more with Tyrion, aghast at the visceral carnage. “Eastwatch” picked up right in the aftermath of Daenerys’s assault on the Lannister loot train, as the mother of dragons stuck firmly to her brand and offered the beleaguered troops a supposed “choice”: Bend the knee, or get roasted alive. They all bent the knee, of course, except for the flinty Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon (or was it Abercrombie?), who stood against her foreign hordes and were quickly barbecued alive.

There was nothing triumphant about the scene. Randyll has never been a particularly sympathetic character, and Tyrion wisely pointed out his betrayal of the Tyrell memory in defecting to Cersei, but there was still a noble ring to his comeback: “There are no easy choices anymore,” he sighed. Too true, but to Daenerys, the choice she offers is the easiest of all—why would anyone pick death over the freedom she offers? Especially as it’s spoken in vaguely populist terms like “I’m not here to murder” and something about stopping “the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor.”

It’s a problem that has plagued Daenerys since her days liberating Slaver’s Bay: the concept that her noble ideals, backed up with displays of strength (i.e., dragonfire and conquest), will be enough to win hearts and minds. Instead, as Tyrion and Varys know, all you end up with are endless displays of strength, which can quickly make you a Mad King (or Queen). As Game of Thrones winds to a close, they (and others) are looking to break the endless chain of tyranny, and by gum, they may just have found the way to do it, and it involves a boat filled with stinky, fermented crab.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but I dare you to argue with the notion that Davos was the MVP of this episode, and perhaps the show as a whole, smuggling Tyrion into King’s Landing to advance some secret diplomacy, humanely rescuing Gendry in the process, and doing a whole five-minute stand-up set about how crab is an aphrodisiac in the middle there. Crustacean jokes aside, Davos’s involvement in Daenerys’s new scheme (to present a White Walker, or one of its wights, to Cersei as an example of the looming threat in the north) felt particularly crucial to the bigger thematic stuff I’m wrestling with here, in the show’s endgame.

Davos is a loyal soldier, and his loyalty only ended up costing him his son’s life (as he reminded Tyrion), the men around him, and eventually, his liege lord Stannis Baratheon. His loyalty to Daenerys is different and more complicated, the same kind of loyalty Tyrion, and Varys, and even doe-eyed Jorah have for her: They see the chance for something different in her, even if she often behaves just as badly as the rulers they served in the past. It’s something Jon recognizes, too (and, in turn, something Daenerys recognizes in him), and that’s why this mission to retrieve a White Walker makes a mad sort of sense, as hair-raisingly dangerous as it might be. That Daenerys would consider such a scheme, rather than going around burning more castles and scoring more easy victories, is the glimmer of real hope that everyone recognizes beyond the tyranny.

Cersei has no such glimmer, now planning to publicly proclaim her love for Jaime (and give birth to their fourth child together). The Night King still advances silently, promising only destruction. “Eastwatch” was mostly another set-up episode, getting the pieces in place for Jon’s raid beyond the wall with a colorful cast of bandits (including Tormund, the Hound, Beric, and a hammer-wielding Gendry) next week. It had plenty of little tidbits to dig into, most frustrating of them all being Littlefinger’s continued machinations in Winterfell and Sam’s complete inability to listen to Gilly dropping major plot points about the legitimacy of Jon’s birth. But it was encouraging, even exciting, in how it drew on years of characterization, on seasons of world-building, to create momentum and context for its next major battle. Lenika, are you as stirred to the cause as I am? Or is Daenerys’s willingness to par-boil her enemies too fatal a flaw?

Lenika Cruz: I usually find Dany a more reasonable would-be conquerer than many show-watchers do—her repeated citations of her claim to the throne don’t strike me as unhinged, mainly because the show is careful to balance her fire-and-bloodthirsty side with more coolheaded decisions. But the start of this episode was disturbing and gave me the strongest Mad Queen vibes I’ve felt from Daenerys this season. Post-Dracarys justifications to Jon aside, her executions of Randyll and Dickon Tarly were chilling (not literally, obviously)—less because of the fact that they were killed and more because of the manner in which it happened. Tyrion’s clear desperation, and Dany’s stoic dismissal of his pleas, combined with the sight of Drogon as her very own, castle-sized Queen's Justice roaring at bloodied prisoners of war, all but invalidated her “let's make the world a better place together” pitch. Papa Aerys would have been proud. (It helped that this was the most frightening Drogon has ever been from an effects-standpoint: That screech! Those scales! Those teeth! That lumbering, I’m-gonna-eat-you gait!)

The father-son conflagration accomplished a few other things this episode: It made Jon’s fearless approach of Drogon seem mystically fated, an impression only deepened by Gilly’s hint that Lord Snow might, after all, be the true-born son of a Targaryen. It got Varys to stress-drink and meditate on his complicity in the acts of violence his masters have carried out. And it all but brought House Tarly to an end (as a brother of the Night's Watch, Sam is forbidden from inheriting or passing on anything). “You are the future of your house,” Tyrion told Dickon when he stepped forward to die next to his father. “This war has already wiped one great house from the world. Don’t let it happen again.” Not only was Dickon not moved, but Tyrion was also wrong on his second point. The return of Gendry in “Eastwatch,” after three and a half seasons of “still rowing” jokes, wasn’t a shock, but it’s telling that his reappearance came in an episode even more preoccupied with the subject of lineage and family survival than usual.

In addition to the sly reference to Rhaegar Targaryen's annulment of his marriage to Elia Martell—which, I think, positions Jon before Dany in the line of succession, which we all know matters a great deal in Westeros these days—Game of Thrones brought back the last known heir to House Baratheon. (I had been irked that the show hadn’t changed the stag sigil on King's Landing in the show intro to a Lannister lion at the start of Season 7. I'm still convinced it's just an oversight, but perhaps there's a sneakier reason for keeping the Baratheon sigil in place now that Gendry's back.) Either way, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are giving us a bunch of last-hope, only children carrying on some noble cause after being dismissed by their family—Samwell Tarly (disowned his dad), Jorah Mormont (same), Gendry (same), Daenerys (exploited by her garbage brother Viserys), Jon Snow (who, by virtue of his bastard-dom, could never be a real Stark; he was also murdered by his Night’s Watch brothers).

Game of Thrones enjoys poking at the arbitrary conventions involved in maintaining the institution of family; it also suggests the strength of blood depends entirely on how seriously the members of a given clan take that bond. The Lannisters take family most seriously of all the houses left on the show. From the earliest hours of Season 1, Jaime and Cersei were dripping with scorn for “anyone who isn't us,” a refrain that endures today. I said a few weeks ago that I was concerned that Cersei would be a deflated, less interesting version of herself with her children gone. Now, it turns out that she is pregnant with another child by her brother, and the Lannister name and self-obsession may live on after all. (Though, I wouldn’t put it past Cersei to lie about something like this to Jaime, setting up her chat with Qyburn for maximum believability.) Meanwhile, Daenerys made it a point yet again of calling her dragons her “children” in this episode, a reminder that even she sees herself as part of an indivisible, unquestionable unit.

Look up north for a contrast. We noted last week how peculiar and cold the Stark family reunion was. I’m not saying the Starks don’t care about each other, but the individual identities of the members of their family have been destabilized to the point where mere relation doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure feelings of loyalty. Bran and Arya and Sansa have all become different people: the Three-Eyed Raven, No One, and Lady Stark (f.k.a Lady Bolton, f.k.a. wife of Tyrion Lannister). We saw this week the rapid erosion of whatever trust may have existed between Sansa and Arya after so many years apart. Sansa craves power, something she can only really possess with Jon out of the way. Arya, still devoted to Jon, suspects Sansa’s good intentions aren’t enough to keep her from wanting to rule Winterfell, a belief likely fueled by Arya’s latent resentment for her older sister. And ready to exploit this all is Littlefinger, who proved that for all of Arya’s expert shadow-lurking, he's still the lurkiest shadow-lurker around. (In case you didn't get to pause that shot of the scroll Arya found, it looks like the letter Sansa wrote to Robb asking him to swear fealty to Joffrey.)

In all, this was a solid hour—it was plenty entertaining (as you noted, David, in large part thanks to the ever-fantastic Onion Knight) and the plot sped forward yet again, despite the absence of a couple of storylines (the Greyjoys, the Unsullied). We got some impressive Drogon shots. We got good ole Gendry back. Jorah finally got his hug from Daenerys. Tyrion and Jaime had a reunion. But my credulity continues to be strained in ways I’m trying not to overthink. Like: Is Drogon hurt at all? How did Jaime and Bronn get away from the loot train attack so easily? How did Jaime and Tyrion meet so easily in King’s Landing, with Tyrion not even bothering to toss so much as a scarf on his head for a disguise? Why doesn’t the plan to drag a lone wight before Cersei come under a little more scrutiny? Why does it immediately seem like a good enough idea for an entire band of fighters to volunteer to wander straight into the path of the Army of the Dead in hopes of snagging one ice zombie? How does one even transport an ice zombie?

I’m still very, very excited for the Big Battle That Was Promised next week. It will likely be spectacular, and pivotal, and the most big-picture-y fight yet, since the fate of the entire continent, not just one army or house, depends on it. For all this episode's fixation on protecting and ending bloodlines, and on family name-checking (even Gendry and Jon trust each other almost instantly because of who their fathers were), more important was how “Eastwatch” coaxed the characters to think less tribally, for once. Even Cersei seemed willing to consider a collaboration with Dany, however manipulative her motives. Jon crucially allowed Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and the Hound out from their cells, declaring that the only side they should care about belonging to is that of the “breathing.”

That the entire breathing population of Westeros could ever truly come to see themselves as a single family of sorts is still a remote possibility to me. But I’m intrigued that Game of Thrones is sincerely trying to explore that route in the first place. Megan, do you think Daenerys was wise to sanction this seemingly doomed mission north of the Wall? Personally, I’m comforted knowing that the crew involves two guys who were raised from the dead, plus a guy with resurrection abilities. But given the very sweet hi-and-bye that Jorah received this episode, I wouldn’t be shocked if the knight followed in his father’s footsteps next week…

Megan Garber: Sigh, I agree about Jorah. But ironically, if he meets his end in the next episode—a death not by stone but by ice—it would be one of the least existentially tragic deaths the show has portrayed so far. In “Eastwatch,” Jorah got what he’s been wanting for so long: reconciliation with Dany. That element of his story, which is in a lot of ways the element of his story, was given a happy ending. Which is a rare thing in Game of Thrones’s world: So few of the people in this place end their stories having gotten what they want. So few die fulfilled. That’s one of the things that makes watching this show—in addition to the, uh, torture and gore and general bleakness of life in Westeros and beyond—so reliably depressing: There is a pervasive sadness to the proceedings here. On top of everything else, this is a land of dead dreams.

But! (Slightly) more optimistically! As to your Dany question, Lenika, I’m on board (heh) with the mission. And not just because of the people who are engaging in it, but also simply because it is happening in the first place. One of the things Game of Thrones has been so heavy-handedly hinting at this season—beyond the idea that Jaime might betray Cersei and that Jon Snow’s true parentage would be revealed and in due course Change Everything™—is that, in a show about dragon-fire and ice zombies and all the rest, the most destructive thing of all, in the end, might be classic human obstinance. Would humans being human be the death of humanity? Would people’s stubbornness and selfishness and willful ignorance prevent them, in the end, from resisting the encroachments of the Night King?

One of the things I’ve appreciated about the show, pervasive existential sadness notwithstanding, is how methodically—but also how artfully—it has infused those questions into its storyline. From the start, it has been interested in the tangle of information that is true and information that is manipulated—in belief that is justified and belief that is not. And Jon Snow, in particular, has been a nexus of a lot of that—especially when it comes to the White Walkers. The show has been building up to the idea that maybe people simply won’t believe Jon and the others who talk about the threat (because believing them, to be fair to those people, first requires believing in dormant ice-zombies who are under the leadership of a sentient and strategic ice-king and also coming to Kill Them All). Maybe people will be too constrained by their own complacency to accept the idea of impending apocalypse. Or maybe: They will simply take too long to realize the danger they’re in.

People have compared the White Walker plot in Games of Thrones’s world to climate change in our own, and I think, in general, that’s a really fair comparison to make: The White Walkers, too, are a slow-moving menace. Battling them requires first that people expand their views of the world to accommodate a new and weird reality. In Game of Thrones’s universe, the epic and climactic battle between the forces of winter and the forces of life could end up being, the show has hinted, less a classic war and more an easy conquest. The White Walkers could win by default. They could win simply because they have at their disposal that most powerful of things: weaponized human ignorance.

If you buy that reading of the situation, you could also read a lot of Season 7 so far as an exploration of the small, human impediments to solving an existential crisis: This has been a season that has been, in addition to everything else, a really detailed portrayal of the dynamics between belief and disbelief. Jon Snow has been doing everything he can think of to convince people that 1) winter is coming, like rightnowaswespeak, and 2) winter in this case involves an army of nearly indestructible ice-corpses—some of whom may well include zombie versions of people’s own relatives—coming to kill everyone and everything they know. Jon Snow has been Al Gore, basically: heard by some, mocked by others. There are lots of White Walker deniers in Westeros.

I didn’t like “Eastwatch” as much as you guys did—I found it a little clunky, from the beginning (the winky aftermath of Jaime’s-deus-ex-machina, Jon’s emo dragon-petting) on down—but I did appreciate how the episode explored belief itself as a weapon in the war against the Night King and his forces. Archmaester Marwyn, debating Sam about whether the Citadel should believe Jon’s stories. The plan to kill a wight and bring it back to the south as physical—undeniable—evidence of the Night King’s capabilities: a Westerosi version of Al Gore’s slide decks. So I’m all about that mission, and in general all about that little-rowboat-that-could and its ragtag occupants. After all—to paraphrase another epic that explores the consequences of belief and its discontents—they could be humanity’s only hope.