Game of Thrones: The One Where Everyone Contemplates Imminent Death

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the second episode of Season 8.

Helen Sloan / HBO

Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing 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: Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones was all about the human stakes of the conflict ahead, and the unlikely alliances and friendships that had been forged over the past seven seasons. “Winterfell” existed to build up serious dramatic tension ahead of the climactic clash with the Night King and his army of the dead. This week’s episode, titled “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and written by series mainstay Bryan Cogman, served the exact same purpose. Set on the eve before battle, it saw almost all the show’s friendly characters gather at Winterfell to hash out old grievances, pursue long-simmering romances, and generally cast a wistful glance back at all the crazy circumstances that brought them together.

I’m not opposed to such a notion—Thrones has always been as much about the interpersonal dynamics as it is about the big-budget fights. I’d gently suggest, though, that perhaps audiences didn’t need most of last week’s dire episode, which suffered from molasses-slow pacing and an excess of interest in the Jon-Daenerys relationship (one of the least compelling bonds in the series, which exists only for plot purposes). Smoosh that episode together with this one, and you could distill from them a good hour of fan service. But with one-third of the season now spent, I can’t deny I’m eager for everyone to get to the fireworks factory already.

Cogman, who has served as the writing staff’s foremost expert on the deep lore of George R. R. Martin’s books, was best suited to tackle the action of this episode, which amounted to a bunch of meaningful fireside chats. Some characters who finally got to hash things out, like Jaime and Bran, essentially hadn’t interacted since the Game of Thrones pilot. Other long-awaited reunions—between Brienne and Tormund, or Sansa and Theon—had previously been interrupted by the usual Game of Thrones plot contrivances (war, subterfuge, throne-room politics).

The most vital and best-handled bit of “satisfying payoff”? When Davos Seaworth made a big pot of onion soup for everyone. Kidding. It was Jaime’s knighting of Brienne, which functioned partly as a way for him to try to repay her for the good she saw in him. The moment was also an acknowledgment of the ludicrousness of the chivalric traditions of Westeros, which had elevated him to godlike status while largely ignoring or marginalizing her. Jaime, even in his diminished state, is a legend walking into the halls of Winterfell at the beginning of the episode, his notoriety built up in a world that is likely going to be swept aside in the coming weeks. In knighting Brienne, he not only acknowledged his obvious love for her, but also nodded at a potentially bright future if everyone can make it through this darkest night.

The “fireplace club” (which also included great characters like Tyrion, Tormund, Davos, and Podrick) was a nice assemblage of Game of Thrones’ reliable middle-management workhorses—politicians and brawlers alike who have made their mistakes and scored a few big triumphs, and who will all soon be tossed into the blender by the Night King (and whatever battle for the throne follows). As Thrones wraps up, I’m always going to be happy to hear war stories from the personalities I’ve enjoyed the most over the years.

Some of the other reunions I could take or leave. Arya’s motivations in scoring one hot night with Gendry before the big fight were perfectly understandable, but the scene was awkwardly presented. It was one of a few that felt like it had sprung from the pages of fan fiction rather than Martin’s novels. As the show has progressed beyond the Song of Ice and Fire series, certain plot developments have felt annoyingly neat, and this was one of them—as was Arya’s cold goodbye to the Hound, or Sam’s presentation of a Valyrian steel blade to Jorah.

I’m all for Thrones celebrating the quieter moments. But there were times during “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” when I felt the show running down a checklist and making sure it spent a little time on everything before getting ready to kill off a bunch of main characters. Next week’s edition should finally settle the dust on the situation at Winterfell and start zooming back out to consider Westeros at large. But Lenika and Spencer, I ask you: Has the show left itself enough time to dig into what comes next?

Lenika Cruz: I hate that I’m thinking about this season in such a clinical way, but it does seem as if the showrunners have split these six episodes between “the lead up to The Big Battle” and “the aftermath.” Which makes sense! But I’m still not confident about what shape this aftermath will take; and that framing sort of assumes that the dead will be “dealt with” as of the end of Episode 3. (As Bran put it, “How do you know there is an afterwards?”) Nothing has genuinely surprised me so far this season as the show continues its table-setting, so I’m hoping that next week offers a development that feels somewhat paradigm-shifting or subversive.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was an entire episode dedicated to the “eve before the fight,” something that in the past Thrones had simply squeezed into the battle episodes themselves. Throughout the show’s run, these night-before scenes have featured some poignant mix of dark humor (remember Ser Davos’s lovely habit of anxiety-pooping the night before a fight), quiet horror (Cersei cooly informing Sansa about the wartime tradition of mass rape as they cowered in the Red Keep), and mundane logistics management. Characters tend to grapple with the tension between needing to accept the very real possibility of death and needing to hope that there might be an “after” to look forward to. Of course, the Battles of the Green Fork, Blackwater, Castle Black, and Bastards are nothing compared to next week’s clash, the stakes of which feel impossible to comprehend.

This episode, for all its loose-end-tying and fireside banter, tried to give some narrative structure to the impending Battle of Winterfell, perhaps realizing that the living versus the dead may be an epic premise, but also a vague one. The objective, as decided by a rather crowded war room, isn’t to play a numbers game and pray, but to target the Night King. If he falls, presumably, the whole nightmare will be over and the North will just have to clean up a bunch of leathery corpses for a few months. Really, it’s a dual mission: Kill the Night King and protect Bran. The former for obvious reasons (I’m rooting for Jaime to reprise his role as Kingslayer), and the latter because he’s a Stark and we like him (even if he’s prone to random pronouncements and eerie staring) and because he is the literal embodiment of the world’s history. “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory,” Bran explained of the Night King. “That’s what death is, isn’t it?” Samwell offered, clearly having thought this through already. “Forgetting. Being forgotten … If we forget where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. Just animals.” Grander stakes: established.

I know a lot of people found plenty to love in this episode, and there were definitely some moments that made me emotional (Ser Brienne’s smile shone as brightly as the sun glinting off the sapphire waters of Tarth). But I wish “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” had dug a little more into the existential terror that characters must be feeling in concrete or insightful ways. I get that the prospect of dying is always going to be abstract, but the fate awaiting everyone now is qualitatively different from the kind of death facing the soldiers at the Blackwater or even in the Lannister loot train. When people died then—whether by wildfire or by dragonfire—that was it. This time, they’re contemplating not only dying but also having their bodies reanimated and possibly being used to murder everyone they love.

Maybe no one—outside of Jon and Sam and those who’ve already seen the wights—wants to think too hard about the details. But if we were going to have a quieter, dialogue-heavy episode, I could have used conversations filled with more curiosity or reflectiveness about the particular nature of the looming threat. Instead, we got Arya asking Gendry, “What are they like?” and him replying, “Bad. Really bad.” He elaborated: “Death. That’s what they’re like.” (There was a little bit of lampshading with Arya making fun of Gendry’s terrible answer, but she moved on quickly to flirting-via-dagger-throwing.) More broadly, we got the usual proclamations of “We’re all going to die!” and general references to being ripped apart by zombies.

The episode, to be fair, offered other meaningful exchanges that should make next week’s cavalcade of death harder to stomach and that helped foreshadow who might say goodbye. (I am sorry to report that Grey Worm will probably never see the beaches of Naath with Missandei.) And I appreciated the show’s efforts to pump the brakes a little on the post-battle, political table-setting in favor of revisiting the personal relationships. This is, after all, the last time that many characters will ever see one another off a battlefield. It’s also entirely possible that I’ll feel more warmly about “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” during future rewatches, after learning what devastation lies ahead.

How did this episode work for you, Spencer? Did it do enough to prepare you for the Battle of Helm’s Deep, part two? Are you as concerned as I am about the idea of stowing women and children in the crypt with a bunch of dead bodies when a zombie king with reanimation powers is on his way?

Spencer Kornhaber: I am concerned about the crypt, but I’m also perversely looking forward to a few of these suddenly sentimental characters turning spooky again. Thrones viewers used to be able to brag that this series offered something far richer than “good guys” and “bad guys,” valiant knights and wicked monsters, and so on. But after eight seasons of shaking up the conventional brew, the ingredients have settled, and here we are with more than a dozen über-sympathetic heroes, all rising to the top. Or, rather, to the North.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” toured what might seem like a rogue’s gallery: holy men and drunks, princesses and commoners, tiny children and grizzled milk-swilling giants. Each character has undertaken some unlikely journey to arrive on the front lines of the fight to save the world. And yet somehow these diverse elements have recongealed into a samey goo. No one evinced knotty inner struggles or considered bolting before the dead arrive. Each conflict that arose evaporated just as quickly. When Jaime arrived at Winterfell, Dany understandably feared he might be there to cut her throat. The audience really didn’t fear that, though. They know the show is done with intrigue for now, which perhaps explains why Varys has stopped having lines.

Thrones is also apparently done mounting scenes that are riveting in their own right, rather than ones that just cash in on years of pent-up audience desires. Did any of this episode’s farewells and cuddle piles subvert expectations? Were any relationships further deepened? Were our understandings of characters made more complex? Okay, Podrick as a potential winner of Westerosi Idol was a twist. But Tormund Giantsbane just got more giants-baney, explaining his name and glugging out of a horn. The Brienne-Jaime interactions ratified a relational shift that happened long ago. Tyrion rued his mistakes, rued that his whoring days are behind him, and rued the memory of his father, which is to say, he just rued the obvious.

Even scenes that existed to amp tension felt remedial. It’s nice to see Dany try to use sweetness and solidarity to get Sansa on her side, but the dragon queen appeared bizarrely unprepared to address what both parties knew was the real impasse in their relationship: northern independence. Then there was Jon revealing his parentage to Dany at precisely the least opportune moment, and without offering any hint on whether he’d pursue his claim to the Iron Throne. Granted, there might not be any appropriate moment for such talk during an all-nighter before what could turn out to be an Endless Night. So maybe just stow it for now?

Arya and Gendry’s shack-up is sure to spark a ton of conversation, but that development too came off like a sop to fans’ bingo cards and betting pools. In our own world, Arya’s age being unspecified makes this a queasy coupling; given the circumstances in Westeros, you can understand it as not all that weird. The problem is that the show hasn’t done anything to reconcile the former fact with the latter, which is to say, it hasn’t gotten the viewer near being able to interpret what’s happening. Gendry, from everything he’s said, basically perceives her as a little girl. Arya has given almost no indication of sexual curiosity over these past eight years. The show seems caught between playing this pairing as cute and gross. It’s hard to trust that it knows what it’s doing.

It’s also hard to trust that Dany’s generals do. When the powers at Winterfell gathered over a map to formulate their battle plan, they engaged not in prickly deliberation but rather a game of “first thought, best thought.” Bran declared by fiat that he’d plant his trap in the Godswood. Theon landed the gig of guarding him, even though Theon would seem the last person anyone in Winterfell might trust with any important job, much less the task of securing all of humankind. No one fretted about how to prevent a White Walker from shish-kebabbing another dragon. And yes, Lenika, the crypt would seem to be a dicey sort of safe zone when the enemy can reanimate the dead.

Then again, let the hordes come. It’s time for some gnarly, insurmountable obstacles to again face these ragtag do-gooders who, after years of double-crosses and reversals, are hardening back into clichés. That the battle on the horizon will upend the heroes’ plans is a given. That many beloved characters will fall seems sure. But the scariest implication of this episode is that Thrones might execute its grandest showdown without the zings of surprise, imagination, and bald-eunuch machinations that once made it great.