HBO

This story contains major spoilers through the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones announced its theme early. “The things we do for love,” Bran Stark said, echoing the words Jaime Lannister had spoken to him in the series premiere all those years ago. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” set on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, did the emotional work that much of last season failed to do. It offered some long-delayed character development in the form of a moving meditation on the question of what we do, and whom we seek, when death is at our door. This week’s answer was, resoundingly, that it’s love—often romantic love—that matters most when the chips are down.

While Game of Thrones has featured plenty of lost or troubled romances over its run, it can sometimes be easy to forget that nearly all these couplings ended with death. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” spent time on two of the remaining romantic pairings: Gilly and Samwell Tarly, as well as Missandei and Grey Worm. Viewers also witnessed the new but long-awaited hookup between Arya Stark and Gendry Baratheon, some affection between Brienne of Tarth and Jaime, and even a flash of tenderness between Daenerys Targaryen and Jorah Mormont.

“The things we do for love”—an expression of deep sincerity and wild devotion—feels relevant for basically every couple on the show but one: Jon Snow and Daenerys. Unfortunately, theirs is also the partnership that carries the highest stakes on the series. Game of Thrones has set up the fate of their union to be, perhaps, the fate of all humanity. On Sunday that union was fractured irrevocably—but anticlimactically—when Dany learned that Jon is really her nephew and has the stronger claim to the Iron Throne.

This reveal should have hit harder, but instead it felt like an afterthought. The fact that Jon and Dany have always felt like two awkward kids flirting—and not like two leaders in love enough to make the kinds of sacrifices that, say, Sam and Gilly have for each other—is a major flaw of the show. Because, while love mattering in the face of death was the message of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the episode also suggested that it could be the deeply human message at the core of the entire show. It is a shame that the relationship between Jon and Dany hasn’t evolved authentically enough to support the weight of that idea.

One of the show’s well-documented failings in Season 7 was how it neglected character development in favor of plot payoffs. The Dany/Jon pairing was arguably a casualty of that preference. When the two entered a cave together last season, viewers should have felt the rush of remembering Jon falling in love with his wildling love, Ygritte, in a cave in Season 3. But other than hinting at some burgeoning chemistry, the show did nothing to establish a real connection between Jon and Dany; their conversation then was all politics, all the way down. That’s exactly how it was in Sunday’s episode, when Jon told Dany of his true parentage. “You’d have a claim to the Iron Throne,” she said coldly after learning that he’s her nephew—instead of “What about us?” You could be forgiven for forgetting that earlier in that episode, Dany confessed to Jon’s sister (technically his cousin) Sansa, “I’m here because I love your brother, and I trust him. And I know he’s true to his word.” Dany added, “He’s only the second man in my life I can say that about,” in an apparent reference to her late husband, Khal Drogo.

In last week’s premiere, Dany’s adviser Tyrion looked down on his queen and Jon from a distance—a perfect encapsulation of the show’s emotionally aloof approach to the duo. Even in that all-important moment of their first coupling last season, viewers saw only Jon entering Dany’s chambers. Our perspective wasn’t with him. We were with Bran and Sam narrating the truth of Jon’s birth; then, as the camera cut to outside the room, we were with Tyrion witnessing Jon’s visit from the hall. When we cut back to the couple, they were already naked in bed. Viewers missed their first kiss, the first move from platonic to erotic. By contrast, we saw that first-kiss moment on Sunday with Arya and Gendry. We certainly saw it long ago with Jon and Ygritte, and more recently with Missandei and Grey Worm. “He loved her,” Bran said in a voice-over as Jon knocked on Dany’s door, in reference both to Jon’s father and to the White Wolf himself. On Sunday, Sansa informed Dany that Jon loves her. But viewers are always told about their love, rather than being made to see or feel it.

This oversight has consequences for the series as a whole. Game of Thrones would be a different—and better—show if viewers could buy into this once-in-a-lifetime passion. The story would be a true tragedy, a tale of choosing between the person you love and everything else that matters—the politics, the wars, the tribalism, and the history. Why and how did the show miss its chance to invest viewers in the only ongoing romance that could have repercussions for the whole Thrones universe?

Gilly, Baby Sam, and Sam Tarly await the arrival of the Night King at Winterfell. (HBO)

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” cleared up the answer. For comparison’s sake, look at the sorrow and the admiration we see in Gendry when he notes that Arya has changed since he last saw her, years ago; she’s developed both brutal scars and deadly skills with a knife. Look at the emotion on Brienne’s face when Jaime finally knights her. Look at the familial goodness of Sam curled up in bed with Gilly and their son before the army of the dead arrives. These resonant pairings should recall, many seasons ago, Dany’s pain at having to leave behind a phantom Khal Drogo in the House of the Undying, and Jon’s agony at holding Ygritte in his arms as she died. Of course, one big difference between these relationships and Jon and Dany is time. The other couples formed over the course of seasons—and, most important, their coming together was never inevitable.

But, the show insists, the Mother of Dragons and the erstwhile King in the North had been fated to meet since before they were born. They are the ice and fire of the original book series’ title. The show pushed them together out of narrative inexorability, not emotional truth. If viewers accept that Jon and Dany must get together, then we never need a scene where they sit around and chat as their love blooms beneath the surface. The show seems to believe such scenes weren’t necessary, even though the two would have had plenty to bond over. They are two people who have suffered deeply in love and still carry their losses with them. They’ve both learned to set aside romance in favor of political necessity. In a better version of Game of Thrones, the richness of these parallel stories would be informing their relationship now.

Jon and Dany’s half-hearted romance is in stark contrast to a second duo whose shadow has loomed over the show from the very start: Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. The fact that Jon’s dead parents fell in love, not just in lust, despite the ugly politics of their time is the foundation on which the series is built. Jon was born of their stubborn and inconvenient desire to be together, despite the enmity between their houses—and this desire made all the difference for the future of Westeros.

Was romantic love Jon’s parents’ downfall, or was it their destiny? And although the acting and direction haven’t helped viewers feel it, another question lies ahead this season: Will the presumptive king and queen of the Seven Kingdoms choose love in the face of death, or will they sacrifice it?

Next week promises to bring the Battle of Winterfell and plenty of bloodshed; the function of battle episodes is to test, strengthen, and shake up character dynamics. If Thrones’ main couple were more convincingly committed to each other, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” could have given elegant voice to a central question in advance of that fight: When humanity looks death in the face, will they think about love in opposition to destiny, or love as destiny? For Episode 3, fans will have to look to characters beyond Jon and Daenerys to see that tension meaningfully played out.

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