Game of Thrones is about opposition, shifting alliances, and rivals stabbing one another in the back. But in a weird way, it’s also about teamwork and cooperation. The events that have ravaged Westeros and turned king against king against king have also produced no end of unexpected allies and strange bedfellows.
From the beginning of the series, when Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) forged an uneasy alliance with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), to the present where warring queens agree to talk armistice, bastards become brothers in arms, and blacksmiths fight alongside the men who once bought and sold them, the series has always shown that interests sometimes align and serve to unite people who, under other circumstances, might be at one another’s throats.
That’s partly a conceit of a television show that traffics in the thrills and novelties of these sorts of pairings. Let’s be honest, as much as Game of Thrones endeavors to justify these unions in storytelling terms, at a basic level, it’s just exciting to see characters we’ve come to know and care about face one another for the first time in a long time.
It’s hard not to cheer a little when Jon (Kit Harington) meets Gendry (Joe Dempsie), or Jorah (Iain Glen) reunites with Dany (Emilia Clarke), or Tyrion faces Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in their first encounter since the death of their father. Sure, there’s a point and a purpose to all of it, but at base, it’s simply exciting for a show in its seventh season to take characters who’ve been established or changed or developed over the course of the series and bounce them off one another.
That’s the tack “Eastwatch” takes, with extraordinary results. In contrast to last week’s installment, there’s little out-and-out action in this one. Instead, it’s an episode full of characters sharing moments together, expressing their enmities and affections and concerns, and relishing those quieter moments between flame-ridden battles and ice-tinged quests to reflect on where those alliances might lead and what might follow after.
“Eastwatch” soars not just by injecting humor and history into its major figures’ interactions, but by tying them to the larger back-and-forth going on across the map, over whether to fight the battle that’s right in front of them or worry about the larger problems that might be on the horizon.
It’s those immediate conflicts that divide our heroes (and villains), but it’s the bigger ones that may eventually unite them. Despite the major blow struck by Daenerys Targaryen in “The Spoils of War” and Jaime’s pleas to his sister that a mercenary army cannot possibly match a three-headed dragon attack flanked by men who fight for sport, the struggle between Dany and Cersei (Lena Headey) rages on. But the balance has shifted. House after house is being wiped out, and even with the support of the Iron Bank or Lannister conscripts, nothing says that this war won’t continue for some time, dividing Kings in the North and Queens in the South and plenty of folk in between.
But as Jon has been trying to persuade anyone who will listen, there is a bigger enemy coming from beyond the wall, and that possibility is enough to make everyone from monarchs to vagabonds come together, however warily or temporarily, to fight it. The conflicts in Westeros go back generations, but if, as Dany claims, she means to break the wheel and unite the people under the aegis of something new, a cause like this may be enough to break through those old barriers.
In the short term, that means an audience between Cersei and Dany is in the offing. On Dany’s part, it’s necessary to prove to her enemy that the fiends beyond the wall really exist, giving them each a reason to press pause on their struggle for the Iron Throne. On Cersei’s part, she knows that between the lost soldiers and lost grain, the forces loyal to her are outmatched, and she’ll need to be more clever to defeat The Dragon Queen. “Eastwatch” provides good reasons for the two leaders to set aside their differences, however fleetingly and however different their motivations, setting up one more tantalizing face-to-face meeting yet to come.
But arranging it takes enlisting a few favors. It’s a nice touch that Bronn (Jerome Flynn) serves as the key to bringing Tyrion and Jaime together, and Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster Waldau each puts on a hell of a show. Tyrion tries to defuse the tense reunion with his usual wry asides; Jaime seethes with quiet anger, and Tyrion, clearly hurt that his jibes don’t soften his brother’s resolve, spills out his insecurities and resentments over what happened with their father. In the end, the wounds between them still fester, but it’s enough to put the plan in front of Cersei.
It also provides an excuse for Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) to go scrounge up Gendry, making his first appearance since The Onion Knight set him off in a rowboat back in Season 3. It’s a treat to see the pair’s repartee once again. And Gendry’s directness, his lack of any need for persuasion, and his readiness to jump back into the fray make for a welcome return of King Baratheon’s bastard. The ensuing encounter with a pair of Gold Cloaks shows off Davos’ confidence man talents, Tyrion’s difficulty blending in, and Gendry’s quick-thinking skills with his warhammer. Tyrion’s “He’ll do” pronouncement understates the excitement of Gendry’s reappearance nicely, and it’s yet another fun alliance offered by “Eastwatch.”
Still, worrying about the bigger picture, not just the immediate fight, doesn’t just mean setting aside the political and internecine squabbles and focusing on the threat of The Night King. It also means worrying about the future, about what kind of ruler you’re supporting and installing once this war is over.
Sometimes art is eerily timely, and there’s something striking about Tyrion looking on with concern as his leader unleashes literal fire and fury on her enemies. We know Dany. We’re meant to like her. We’re meant to believe that she offers the possibility of something different for Westeros, even as the ascendance of another Targaryen to the throne rings with the sound of the old ways. But the creatures who make it possible for her to take the throne, to start a new order in Westeros, also give her a terrible power to destroy anyone poses a threat or dare opposes her.
The all too easy but terrible path, as many have warned, is for Dany to simply blast her way to King’s Landing and bury the countryside in a torrent of ash. Instead, she has taken a middle path thus far, attacking military targets and supplies with her dragons. But there continue to be shades of The Mad King, the unstable man who saw unrivaled and unimaginable force as the answer to any threat, in her actions.
Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) was around for those days, and in the episode’s most poignant scene, he speaks with Tyrion about how he let himself off the hook for his role in Aegon’s brutality. He ignored the cruelty he was complicit in, until he could ignore it no longer and could not help but feel the guilt of his part in such grisly events. His remembrance is a warning to Tyrion, that the promise of change and something different is all well and good, but that a handhold on unfathomable destructive power makes it tempting to turn difficult situations into explosive solutions that leave men burnt up like kindling on a pyre.
Still, there are plenty of good guys and bad guys left, for the moment, to fight the threat of the White Walkers, and it means assembling one more motley group of unlikely allies to go north of the wall. The assembled intended to bring back a wight to prove to Cersei that the promised invasion is no mere ghost story.
It’s a quest that both unites and divides. It separates Jorah from Dany, despite their just having been reunited in a moving scene laden with unspoken sentiment. It brings together Gendry and Jon, who have a connection through their (putative) fathers and bastard upbringings. It sets Jon face-to-face with Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) once more, who’s baffled that the King in the North wants to go fight White Walkers again (and asks after Brienne). And most notably, it brings this makeshift coalition, Gendry in particular, face to face with the Brotherhood Without Banners with The Hound in tow.
There is, understandably, no shortage of bad blood between Gendy and the men who once sold him to Melisandre (Nathalie Emmanuel). But as Jon points out, whether it’s to marshal an army, persuade a monarch, or simply because of a belief in a higher power instructing them to do so, each of these men wants the same thing. Each of them is called to the same purpose, and as much anger and mistrust and grudges persist among them, they don’t have to like each other to want the same thing and thus be united under a common cause.
In some ways, this season set a trajectory that felt too neat for the messy world of Game of Thrones. It seemed as though Dany would unite with Jon to unseat Cersei and then a new ruler would gather a unified force to fight The White Walkers. This series, however, is rarely that simple or straightforward. In that spirit, the show seems apt to keep all the pieces on the board for now, to show the heroes and villains not matching up in the prelims and then having those left standing face down the real enemy.
Instead, it seems poised to have them work together, in uneasy alliances and shaky truces. Dany will have her audience with Cersei. The Brotherhood Without Banners will fight alongside a man they once sold like cattle. Much to Arya’s (Maisie Williams) chagrin, Sansa (Sophie Turner) will remain focused on forging a path for the lords of The North to work together rather than meting out justice and resting on principle. The ground is constantly shifting in Westeros, and however uncomfortable it may be, that has a way of just as easily changing where people stand, and more importantly, whom they’re standing with.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: As mentioned above, Gendry makes his triumphant return here, wielding a warhammer and, naturally, finding himself rowboat adjacent. I may as well retire this feature since it’s going to be hard to top Gendry’s reappearance, short of a Stark, Lannister, or Targaryen coming back from the dead.
So Long and Thanks for All the Blackfish: Lord Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon Tarly (Tom Hopper), survive the “Loot Train Battle” just long enough to be burned alive by Drogon after refusing to bend the knee to Dany. This makes Samwell (John Bradley-West) the reigning lord of House Tarly. Granted, Sam renounced all that when he took the black, but that didn’t exactly stop Jon.
Line of the Night: “I’m tired of reading about the achievements of better men.” The last true-born son of House Tarly uses his father’s words well. A determined, fed-up Sam — one who’s more concerned with defeating the White Walkers than counting the steps or shits of prior generations — is an endearing Sam.
This Week in Lore: Gilly reads that Rhaegar Targaryen (Jon’s real dad, for those of you keeping score at home) annulled his marriage to his Dornish wife (Oberyn’s sister). This potentially makes Jon a trueborn son if his dad secretly married Lyanna Stark before the events at the Tower of Joy. It should help Jon out if there’s ever a debate over who rightfully inherited all that dragonglass in Westerosi probate court.
I Heard She Thinks Oysters, Clams, and Cockles Are Stupid Too: Rebuffed by Sansa, Jon, and Bran in turn, Littlefinger tries his hand at winning Arya to his side by sowing discord between her and her sister. He uses the letter Cersei forced Sansa to write to her mother and brother back in Season 1, making an already suspicious Arya further doubt Sansa’s loyalties and ambitions. It’s nice to see the show leaning into, rather than glossing over, the tensions between the two siblings that were not erased by last week’s tender reunion.
Smells Like Barbecued Goat: Drogon sniffs Jon and even lets The King in the North pet him, a hint to Dany that Jon is a worthy ally and that Targaryen blood flows through his veins. Tyrion had an easier time with the dragons that most as well, but we’ll chalk that one up to “maybe hinting, maybe coincidence.” Though after this week, it seems safe to say that “Tarly” isn’t an Ellis Island bastardization of “Targaryen.”
It’ll Have Plenty of Hand-Me-Downs: Cersei is pregnant with Jaime’s child and is prepared to tell the world who the father is. I’m sure Qyburn throws one hell of a baby shower.