Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5, "Eastwatch"

After last week’s thrills, this week features another piece-moving episode. Unsurprisingly, Jaime survives his plunge into the lake, but I was disappointed to find him escaping capture by the Dothraki, as I thought it would deprive us of the Lannister reunion I had hoped for. Thankfully, we still get that reunion later in the episode, just under different circumstances. And considering what Daenerys decides to do with her prisoners, it’s ultimately a good thing.

Rest in peace Dickon Tarly, we hardly new thee. Burn in hell, Randyll Tarly, you were always an asshole, and you demonstrated it once again in your final speech, which is xenophobic and hypocritical. He damns Tyrion for his betrayals, but weakly defends his own betrayal of Olenna under the premise that war is complicated. Good riddance.

This scene is interesting to compare with Daenerys’s other victories, and how we’re meant to feel about them. Previously, her victories were entirely sympathetic, as she was fighting against slavers, both when she freed the Unsullied in Astapor, and again when she freed the slaves in Yunkai and Meereen. The same goes for her eradication of the Dothraki Khals, who were misogynist pigs. Each time, she expected -- and received -- the unswerving loyalty of the people whom she deigned to rule, with the Dothraki literally bowing to her. Here though, things are more complicated.

Her terms are essentially the same as before -- follow me or be put to death -- but now, the people to whom she’s offering this choice don’t see her as a savior or predestined ruler, but as a terrifying oppressor forcing them into her service. Forcing the Lannister soldiers to choose between death and servitude makes hollow the speech she gives them about about fighting for a noble cause, and Daenerys doesn’t seem to realize it. Daenerys has taken on many different characteristics over the course of this series, but this is the first time she’s seemed like a tyrant. This impression is aided in no small part by this scene's aesthetic choices, like the lighting and staging (as in the above image), but also the music, which makes Daenerys's motif sound ominous and threatening, and the Lannister motif mournful and somber.

Tyrion also complicates the allegiance we might feel for Daenerys in this scene. His sympathy for the defeated Lannisters makes him keenly aware of how they must see her, and his advice to her is meant to mitigate the damaging first impression she’s making as their would-be ruler. Dickon performs a similar function. We might be happy to see Randyll die a fiery death, but Dickon has become marginally sympathetic, and it’s hard to feel good about Daenerys burning him alive along with his father. She’s behaving like Stannis here, which is never good for viewer allegiances.

For that matter, she’s also behaving a bit like Mad King Aerys Targaryen, who also burned people alive, a point Varys is keenly aware of in his scene with Tyrion, even though her decisions are motivated by her sense of justice, rather than insanity. Somewhat strangely, Varys implores Tyrion to make Dany listen to reason, even though only a few episodes ago ("Stormborn"), Varys promised to always give Daenerys his unfiltered counsel. It feels like we’re missing a scene here where Varys tries this himself.

When Dany returns to Dragonstone, Jon and Drogon get familiar with one another. This scene hints at answers to some of the questions I had back in "The Queen's Justice." First, Jon’s Targaryen blood likely makes him a viable candidate to ride one of Dany’s dragons; they would submit to him, just as they submit to Daenerys, if he ever worked up the courage to mount one. Perhaps Rhaegal (the green one) would be a good fit, considering he’s named after Jon’s father, Rhaegar. Second, Jon is probably at least fire resistant, if not entirely fireproof. I don't think we've ever seen him get burned or flinch at fire, but it would interesting to see what would happen if he somehow discovered this for himself.

Seeing Drogon being friendly with Jon also fans the flames of Dany’s feelings for him. As she tells him here, she considers the dragons her children. What single mother wouldn’t be interested in a handsome, principled single guy who is good with her children (even if they’re dragons, and even if the guy is a bit thick)? Their romantic interest in one another was hinted at last week, but the look on her face when Jon pets Drogon indicates not only Dany’s attraction, but also her own surprise at how powerfully she feels it. It’s a nice moment from Emilia Clarke. I imagine Daenerys making a similar face if she were to learn that she is in fact his aunt.

Later scenes reconfirm her interest in him. Tyrion concocts a plan to bring a wight south to convince Cersei of the urgency of the threat the Night King represents, opening a path toward an armistice that would allow Dany to lend her support to Jon. This, of course, requires their actually procuring a wight from beyond the wall, and Jon insists on leading the raiding party. His motivation is quite thin (and stupid) -- something along the lines of, “I’m the only one who has fought these guys before” -- but it pays dramatic dividends. First, we see that Dany is crestfallen over his decision to leave. Second, it will give Jon more agency in the coming action. It might not be tactically sound to have kings and queens leading risky raiding parties or flying into battle on dragons, but having heroes actively pursuing their own goals gives them greater agency and heightens the suspense, if you can get past the notion that Jon doesn't really need to execute this plan himself (at least Dany has the excuse that no one else really wants to mount a dragon).

This episode also gives Davos something to do aside from bemusedly commenting on other characters’ love lives: he gets to exercise his smuggling skills, and finally brings Gendry back into the fold. Their scenes nicely recall how they bonded previously, and Gendry is as refreshingly frank and straightforward as ever. Rather than needing convincing to join Davos, he drops everything and is ready to go instantly. It’s as if Gendry is as impatient to push to the plot forward as everyone else watching the show. The same goes for the nice scene where he meets Jon, again propelling the story forward rather than weighing it down.

Meanwhile, in the north, Sansa offers weak reassurances of Jon’s course of action when the northerners grow restless with his absence. Arya sees this, and confronts Sansa over what she sees as Sansa’s lust for power. I think we’re supposed to agree with Arya here, and see Sansa’s behavior as a conflict between her loyalty to Jon and her own desire to rule of the north. If true, I think this is a poorly motivated storytelling decision.

Sansa has been this show’s punching bag for nearly its entire run; her plots have often emphasized the misery of her repeated traumatic experiences much more than any belief she might harbor over how she’d do things better if she were ever in a position of power. The way the show has portrayed her reaction to these experiences makes me think she’d try to preserve the harmony and unity of her family as a bulwark against possible future trauma, not undermine her brother to launch herself to power. Of course, it’s always possible that this is how she feels, or that she also feels Jon is forcing her hand by jeopardizing her current safety with his absence. I’m just not seeing it though, neither in the writing nor in Sofie Turner’s performance. Moreover, if Sansa doesn't really want to usurp Jon, then a lot of this business at Winterfell is a narrative dead end (unless we're moving to a plot beat where Arya tries to sabotage Sansa, or is so disgusted with everything that she sets out for King's Landing to continue her Cersei hunt).

In addition to keeping an eye on Sansa, Arya is also keeping an eye on Littlefinger. At first, I was happy to see a Stark with the wherewithal to sniff out others’ plots, rather than being on the receiving end of them, but we soon discover that Littlefinger counted on her mistrusting him, deliberately planting a scroll for her to find. Arya might be a rogue, but Littlefinger’s been a master manipulator for a long time, and it’s not something he’d have survived this long if he weren’t good at it. I suppose it was too much to hope that a Stark would finally get one over on Littlerfinger. I'll keep my fingers crossed that Arya finds cause to kill him, preferably with a Scooby-Doo face reveal.

Littlefinger's planted note is one that Sansa was forced to send to Robb after Joffrey claimed the throne. I’m not entirely clear on what Arya is supposed to infer from this note. Perhaps it makes it look as though Sansa supported Joffrey’s ascension to the throne, implausible as that may be? Regardless, it seems that Littlefinger’s ploy is to drive a wedge between Sansa and Arya, hoping that Sansa will turn to Littlefinger for help in dealing with her sister.

In other news, when the Citadel receives word from Bran about the white walkers and the army of the dead, the maesters are skeptical, but Sam tries to bolster the case for alarm and emergency now that he’s been corroborated by an independent source. To archmaester Ebrose’s credit, he hears Sam out, and lets him propose a plan of action to the rest of the faculty: inform the lords of Westeros that they need to send men to defend the wall. However, Sam can only get Ebrose to agree to send a raven asking for more information. The maesters’ decision might seem insufficient to Sam, but getting a stubborn faculty to agree to make even minor course corrections is nothing short of a miracle. Sam should see this as a major accomplishment.

Instead, he sees it as yet another frustrating setback, one that convinces him that if he’s going to help Jon defeat the white walkers, it’s not going to be as a maester-in-training at the Citadel. He steals a bunch of helpful books and rides north with his family. I am as conflicted about this decision as Sam appears to be. On the one hand, Sam is wise to abandon an intractable institution that refuses to listen to him when we know he’s right. On the other hand, this episode also gives us a great example of the opportunities for additional knowledge that Sam is abandoning: before he decides to leave, Gilly reads to him a strong clue about Jon’s parentage, but Sam’s too distracted by his irritation with the maesters to realize it. Ultimately, it’s a good story move: having the maesters treat Sam’s warnings seriously and marshalling the kingdoms to defend the wall would deprive our other heroes of some of their agency, and having Sam leave the citadel also puts him back in the orbit of the other characters again (even though I'll miss Ebrose).

Finally, Jon, Jorah, Davos, and Gendry meet up with Tormund at Eastwatch, and then join company with the main figures from the Brotherhood without Banners (the Hound, Thoros, and Beric). The scene where they’re all introduced is a delight, as it features a series of cascading recognitions and the airing of mutual animosities. It’s possibly the best example that we’ve seen so far of the joining of characters from different plotlines. Jon puts a stop to their bickering by framing it within the threat posed by the Night King, and the episode ends like the setup for a Westerosi version of Seven Samurai, where these seven (minus Davos) set out beyond the wall to capture a wight. I’d happily watch a feature film about this adventure, but I suppose we’ll have to settle for whatever we get next week.

Other thoughts:

- Another new opening credits location: Eastwatch.

- Perhaps the lake Jaime fell into last week has magical properties. Not only does its topography lead to a deep drop off a few feet from the beach, but apparently it can also teleport you to another part of the lake entirely when you surface, as Bronn and Jaime do here.

- Maybe I shouldn't complain too much about the lake. Overall, it’s a strong episode for instantaneous jumps to different locations in a season that has been full of big ellipses. In this episode alone, Davos goes from Dragonstone to King’s Landing and back, and then to the wall. I'm happy the writers are speeding things up by cutting out travel time, but this is giving me whiplash. It’s as if the writers have discovered the television equivalent of video game “fast travel.”

- Jaime once again misunderstands Bronn’s loyalty, despite Bronn explicitly spelling it out for him. At least Bronn's mercenary attitude makes Jaime realize that Cersei's plan to hire the Golden Company won’t be terribly effective.

- I got a chuckle out of Jon’s initial failure to grasp how Dany views her dragons, sticking his foot in his mouth by calling them beasts and suggesting that “beautiful” is not the first word that comes to his mind upon looking at them. You still know nothing, Jon Snow (although he’s learning; he seems to instantly recognize how Jorah feels about Dany when he shows up at Dragonstone, for instance).

- Randyll Tarly isn’t the only one to confront Tyrion over his murder of Tywin. Jaime does so too when the two reunite in King’s Landing. The reunion is as emotional as I’d hoped, but not as friendly as Tyrion would have liked. The emotional dynamic between them is pretty easy to sum up: Tyrion still hopes their bond has survived Tyrion’s siding with Dany (he opens their exchange with jokes), but he quickly realizes it’s been irreparably damaged by his murder of Tywin, whom Jaime loved, even if they never got along. Peter Dinklage is great in the moment where Tyrion realizes this.

- Cersei’s scenes with Jaime were interesting for furthering Jaime's concern about his sister’s state of mind. She undercuts his joy at learning that she’s pregnant again with a chilling caution to never “betray” her again, and earlier she also asks Jaime if he’ll punish Bronn for “betraying” Jaime by arranging for the rendezvous with Tyrion. Awfully quick to spot betrayal, isn't she? Perhaps her behavior even resembles that of a Mad King Jaime once slew. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't bother him. After all, he still easily looks past her other hateful behavior. Just look at her reaction to being convinced that Olenna -- not Tyrion -- was behind Joffrey’s murder. Rather than being relieved to let go of her hatred for her brother, Cersei is furious with Olenna for taking away the rationale she used to justify it. Jaime doesn't bat an eye at this.

- One of the reasons Jaime and Cersei are so interesting is that our respective sympathies for them have been on opposite trajectories over the life of the series. They both begin the series as villains, certainly, but Jaime starts to become more sympathetic when he loses his hand and learns humility (see last week’s post for more on Jaime). Cersei, on the other hand, began the series as the more sympathetic one, particularly in a fantastic scene from season one where she wistfully recalls what she was like when she first married Robert, and reflects on how much she's grown to loathe him in the time since. That scene was remarkable because we discover it was Robert’s disinterest in Cersei that embittered her and drove her into Jaime’s arms, and we’re invited to imagine, along with Cersei, how different her life would have been if Robert had simply loved her, rather than pining over the dead Lyanna Stark.

However, her behavior over the life of the series has made her increasingly antipathetic. We’ve seen it in many of her more impactful actions (her orchestration of Robert’s death, the joy she took in Joffrey’s sadism, her hatred of Tyrion, her arming the Faith Militant just to stick it to Margaery, and so on), but in smaller moments too, like when she enacts her revenge on Ellaria Sand, and again here in her reaction to Olenna's confession about poisoning Joffrey. This increasing antipathy is all the more remarkable for it being occasionally counteracted by scenes that foster sympathy or pity for her, like when she's marched through the streets naked, or her protectiveness of her children. It takes a special kind of villainy to be so antipathetic even when the show places her in situations that foster our pity. Something tells me that despite Jon and Dany’s best efforts, showing Cersei a wight won’t convince her of the urgency of the plight in the north.

- Man, I love Tormund, especially when he asks if Jon brought “the big woman” with him.

- Much like in Seven Samurai, some of the characters who set out beyond the wall are almost certainly going to die. Thoros, Beric, and Gendry are probably the least developed, and thus the most expendable. The character I fear for most is Tormund, but if I had to bet on one character to die, I might place my money on Jorah. His reunion with Daenerys also seemed like a farewell. How horrible would it be for Dany if the wight they bring back is a now-deceased Jorah?

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