Monday, April 22, 2019

Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Last week I found the season premiere, “Winterfell,” underwhelming. Consisting almost entirely of reunions and introductions between characters that have spent a long time apart, the only substantial plot development involved Sam telling Jon about his true parentage. Other critics described it glowingly as an episode about the calm before the storm, but on the whole, I thought the episode seemed like an extended bout of fan service. So why, then, is “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which also has its fair share of reunions and introductions, and which also features very few plot developments, a much more substantive and satisfying episode?

The reason concerns the nature of these reunions and meetings. Unlike in “Winterfell,” most of the scenes in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” are oriented more toward the narrative future than the narrative past. Rather than playing catch-up with each other, in this episode the characters spend a lot of time ruminating on the battle they’re about to face, and the high likelihood that they will die fighting the undead. Some, like Tormund and Tyrion, express this thought directly, while others, like Arya, Sam, and Jaime express it through their actions. Even more importantly, these ruminations on their impending deaths often lead to powerful moments that provide resolution for long-running character arcs. It’s these resolutions that give “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” its emotional weight, and make it feel much more like the calm before the storm than did “Winterfell.”

Take Arya, for instance. Calms before storms often feature the trope of lovers who share one last night of passion before their world comes crashing down. Here, Arya fulfills the trope when she sleeps with Gendry. Arya has done a lot of growing up over the life of the series, but she's never taken a lover. By sleeping with Gendry, not only does she resolve the flirtation that began between them in season two, but she also performs a final rite of passage into adulthood. Moreover, their sex scene is well-motivated by the changes the characters have undergone. Previously, social class was the major impediment to Arya and Gendry acting on their feelings: she was a highborn lady, he lowly commoner. Now, however, not only does he know that he’s Robert’s bastard, but Arya also convinces him that she’s no longer a child when she recites some Faceless Men mantra at him while playing darts with Gendry’s obsidian spearheads (and again when he sees the scars lining her abdomen). Rather than merely reference what their relationship used to be like, their scenes together make use of that past to push their relationship forward in a new direction, one that feels like a satisfying resolution.

Something similar can be said for all of Jaime’s scenes in this episode. He makes up for his absence from “Winterfell,” by going through his own series of reunions and introductions here, but most of these scenes do more than merely allow characters to reminisce about days gone by; instead they contribute to his series-long character arc, in which he’s transformed from the kind of character who would push a child out of a window, to one who would humbly request to serve under the command of his former captor.

In the first of these scenes he’s tried by Daenerys, who must decide whether to punish him for his crimes or let him fight alongside everyone else. The scene is largely expositional, reminding us of Jaime’s laundry list of deeds both good and bad, the best reminder being Bran cryptically parroting Jaime’s own words back at him from when Jaime pushed Bran out of the window in the pilot. As expected, Brienne vouches for Jaime, which is enough to convince Sansa to trust him. Jon is laser-focused on the Night King, and doesn’t care who fights with him, so long as they’re living. With Sansa and Jon on board, Daenerys relents and allows Jaime to live, despite her soreness over his murdering her father.*

*Although should Dany really be as mad as she is when she meets Jaime? She knows how bad Mad King Aerys was, and seems to understand why his rule was ended. Jaime was merely Aerys’s executioner; it was Robert who tried to wipe out her entire house.

In subsequent scenes, Jaime draws explicit attention to how much he’s changed when he apologizes to Bran, and when he asks Brienne to fight under her command. In apologizing to Bran, Jaime tells Bran he’s not the same person he was the last time he was in Wintefell. If anyone can understand the truth of this, it’s Bran, who not only knows exactly how and why Jaime changed, but who is also literally a different person himself. It's a necessary scene, given Bran's abilities: we need to know why he decided not to expose Jaime's villainous acts from seasons past. He tells Jaime the living will need all the help it can get against the dead, but like Game of Thrones viewers, I suspect he's judged Jaime's reformation for himself, and found it genuine.

Of course, Jaime’s character change is largely a product of his relationship with Brienne (and his lost hand), thus in their first scene together, he honors her by asking to serve under her command in the coming battle. It’s a touching moment, because as Brienne notes, Jaime’s tenor is different now. Gone are the smirks and bemusement that characterized his attitude toward her previously. Here, finally, Jaime treats her with the respect and deference she deserves, and in doing so, he perhaps recognizes that her integrity has made him become a better person.

Brienne herself also receives a wonderfully satisfying resolution to her character arc, courtesy of a further honor Jaime bestows upon her. In what is by far the episode’s best scene, Jaime, Tyrion, Brienne, Tormund, Davos, and Pod share a drink around the fire in the Wintferll great hall. Like other scenes in this episode, it features characters ruminating on the past and the future, as well as some thoroughly amusing interactions between Tormund and the rest, but it derives its emotional heft from a cathartic resolution to Brienne’s character arc. Brienne has had many different long term goals throughout the series, most of them concerning the oaths she’s sworn or the vows she’s made to various rulers: Renly, Catelyn, Sansa, and so on. Underlying all of these explicit goals, however, was an even more important implicit one: to be taken seriously as an honorable warrior who upholds all of the codes of conduct of Westerosi knighthood. Being a woman made that difficult, not only because of the sexism of the men she regularly interacted with, but also because of the sexism of Westeros customs, which dictate that only men can become knights.

Here, at Tormund’s prompting, Jaime bucks this tradition and decides to knight Brienne. It’s a symbolic gesture, but a hugely meaningful one, and its gravitas is conveyed not only through Gwendoline Christie’s excellent performance, but also through how this scene builds up to it. Brienne is used to being mocked, so she’s grown thick emotional barriers, and they are staunchly in place at the beginning of this scene. When Tormund asks why she isn’t a knight, Brienne claims she doesn’t even want to be one, but we know better, and so does Pod, who glares so skeptically at Brienne that she’s forced to look away. When Jaime realizes he has the power to knight her himself, and offers to do so, those barriers are still in place: she reflexively laughs off the gesture, but then she catches herself. This isn’t a prank meant to make her look foolish, but a genuine offer, and one made all the more meaningful because it’s coming from someone who once mocked her relentlessly, but who has gradually come to understand and respect her integrity and loyalty (a realization we can see Jaime make repeatedly throughout the episode, not only when she saves his life during Daenerys’s trial, but also when he takes note of Brienne musing that if they are all going to die in the coming battle, at least they’ll do so with honor).

Thus when Brienne receives glances of reassurance, both from Pod and from Jaime, she lowers her defenses and kneels before Jaime with tears in her eyes. When the knighting ceremony is over, Tormund applauds enthusiastically, hilariously modeling viewer behavior, and Brienne shows us how proud she is by flashing the biggest and most genuine smile she’s ever had. It’s a powerfully cathartic moment of character resolution that expertly calls upon the long history we’ve had with these characters and the arc of their relationships with one another.

Elsewhere in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” characters are involved in arcs that will likely only resolve with the series’ conclusion. Sansa, Daenerys, and Jon seem to be the only characters contemplating victory over the Night King, since they’re the only ones concerned with what happens after the battle is over. Sansa and Dany have a nice little scene where they try to rectify their instant dislike of one another in “Winterfell.” There are two concerns here: Sansa’s suspicion that Daenerys is manipulating Jon’s love rather than reciprocating it, and Sansa’s steadfast desire for the north’s independence. Daenerys allays Sansa’s first concern: she’s here in the north, fighting Jon’s war, not her own war against the Lannisters, is she not? Sansa relents, and apologizes for her coldness in their first meeting.

However, the second concern remains a sticking point. Dany’s goal is to rule all of the Seven Kingdoms, not just six of them, yet Sansa is understandably tired of having the Starks ruled by others. After all, her family has a bad history in this regard. Not only was Ned murdered by Joffrey, but part of Robert’s Rebellion was incited by the Mad King’s murder and execution of her grandfather and uncle. Moreover, Sansa still bears the emotional scars of her time as the Lannisters’ hostage in King’s Landing. She might be okay with Jon ceding the head of the Winterfell great hall to Daenerys (notable in Jaime’s trial scene), but Sansa wants to be rid of southern rulers.

Before they can resolve this particular impasse, Sansa and Dany are interrupted  by Theon’s return, providing yet another character reunion. Theon’s dual loyalties are on display here, but most of the emotion is between him and Sansa, who repays Theon for saving her life with a tearful embrace. It’s a nice moment for Sansa, even if it’s undercut by my own exhaustion with Theon’s redemption arc. Later, Theon puts a button on his arc by telling Bran that he wants to guard him from the Night King to repay him for taking Winterfell from him previously. Of all the characters not long for this story, Theon seems the most likely candidate to die. Sacrificing himself to save a Stark would be a fitting penance for his crimes, and a good end to his story.

The final scene of note involves Jon and Daenerys. Jon spends most of the episode avoiding Dany, both because he realizes he’s been sleeping with his aunt, and because he wants to avoid the complicated conversation that will result from telling her about his true lineage. That conversation finally takes place, appropriately enough, in front of Lyanna Stark’s tomb. The scene has a lot of nice undertones. When Dany finds Jon, he’s contemplating Lyanna’s tomb, which makes perfect sense in light of Sam’s revelation in “Winterfell,” and when Jon tells Dany whose tomb it is, Dany suddenly feels guilty. So far as she knows, Lyanna’s fate represents the heinous actions of yet another Targaryen that Dany must live down. This provides Jon with the perfect opportunity to reveal the true story of Rhaegar and Lyanna, as well as his true name and lineage. Dany immediately realizes the implications and is understandably distraught, but before they can discuss what this means for them, they are interrupted by horns signaling the arrival of the army of the undead.

Perhaps Jon was on the verge of telling her he doesn’t want to rule, or of saying he’ll keep his ancestry secret. He never wanted any of this, after all. Or perhaps he was about to argue that it won’t matter if they rule together. Or perhaps he'll revive stupid Stark syndrome and insist on ruling in some vague gesture toward honor. I've said my piece on this before -- I loathe the undercutting of Daenerys's claim to the throne because it impinges on the goals of one of the show's strongest female characters. But then again, Game of Thrones loves to make things complicated, doesn't it? Nothing ever comes easily to good characters on this series, and moral waters are usually muddy rather than clear.

In any case, before Jon and Dany can resolve this particular impasse, first they must survive the Night King’s assault. If “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” gave us resolution to some character arcs and pushed others incrementally closer to the finish line, I strongly suspect that next week’s likely action-packed installment will deliver even more resolution, this time in the form of dead minor characters.

Other thoughts:

- This week’s hypothesis corner: how will the final four episodes proceed? Will the battle against the Night King, which next episode seems to promise, be followed by a battle between the survivors and  Cersei’s forces? I find it hard to imagine how that could be anything but anti-climactic. Earlier in the episode, I began to wonder if the Night King might circumvent Winterfell and head for King’s Landing, providing a more climactic three-way battle. Bran nixed that hypothesis when he tells the war council that the Night King's goal is to blot out life and erase the world’s memory, starting with Bran, who is essentially a living memory, but I suspect further complications at some point. At the very least, I question the wisdom of moving the vulnerable residents of Winterfell into the crypt – the Night King can make the dead rise, after all. The entombed might have a hard time escaping from their resting places, but it hardly seems like the safest place.

- Sam and Jorah also get a nice scene that looks toward the future while also calling on the past when he gives Jorah his family’s Valyrian steel sword. Here, Sam and Jorah’s exchange is about Sam trying to give the living their best chance at staving off death, but it also references the relationship Sam had with Jeor, Jorah's father, when Jeor was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, as well as their scene from the previous episode. Unlike Sam and Dany’s scene in “Winterfell,” it’s strengthened because it’s more about what’s going to happen rather than what has already happened.

- Sam also has a nice character turn, sticking up for himself for once in his scene with Jon and Dolorous Edd. Finally, he gets in a friendly dig at a fellow Night’s Watchmen, rather than the other way around.

- The “someone taller” Dany told Sansa that she once trusted: probably Drogo?

- One would think that someone would want to have sex the night before a battle where most of the participants expect to die, especially on a show with as much explicit sex as Game of Thrones, but it’s a non-starter for almost everyone else but Arya. Tormund, of course, is interested in “the big woman” Brienne, but she’s too repulsed by him. Jon and Daenerys would have been good candidates up through the end of “Winterfell,” but understandably, he can’t even look at her until the end of this episode. Sam and Gilly are last seen sharing a bed together, but between them lies little Sam. Grey Worm and Missandei merely share a kiss, and a perhaps ill-fated promise to return to Naath once Grey Worm has defeated all of Daenerys’s enemies. None of the other characters have romantic prospects.

- Arya shooting arrows is a callback to the pilot, where she teased Bran by being a better shot than him.

- Gendry and Arya's sex scene satisfied my curiosity over just how complicated a lot of the Game of Thrones costumes are, with their many elaborate straps and clasps. The answer: very complicated, as it takes Arya forever to finally slip out of her outfit.

- Bran is probably the only remaining major character who hasn’t had sex.

- A nice edit: cutting from Arya having sex with Gendry to Tormund staring into the fire in the great hall, likely thinking about how he wishes he was having sex with Brienne.

- It appears as though video game fast travel is still enabled for this final season, given that Theon traveled from King’s Landing to Winterfell in the space of an episode. With almost all of the characters in one spot, at least there likely won’t be much more opportunity for Game of Thrones to shove Westeros’s sudden spatiotemporal elasticity in our faces.

- Tormund is comedy gold once again, trying to impress Brienne both with the story of how he got his name and with his appetite for sloppy drinking. Wildling courtship rituals seem pretty fun, no?

- The music cues are on point in this episode. Note the subtle use of Stannis's motif when Jaime knights Brienne. The motif is given a nice melodic resolution, one that matches Brienn's narrative resolution.

- Jaime also gets a reunion scene with Tyrion. While this one isn’t as resolution-laden as other Jaime scenes, it is interesting because it’s the first of many moments in the episode where characters contemplate dying, and because Tyrion calls Jaime on one of his major weaknesses: his continuing love for Cersei despite knowing how monstrous she is. For all the resolution Jaime received in this episode, his relationship with Cersei is still unresolved. Before it’s all over, might he be the one who ends up killing Cersei? Perhaps he could push her from a window to make everything really come full circle.

- Bran’s description of the Night King’s goals (“endless night,” erasing the world’s memories etc.) made me think of a writer falling asleep on the “delete” key.

- My favorite part of the war council scene was when all of the members turned to Bran for answers to their questions about the Night King’s behavior. When in doubt, consult Westerosipedia.

- Bran's abilities create some interesting storytelling challenges. He has effectively become an omniscient narrator. Theoretically, he knows everyone's history because he can be anywhere at any time, and can reason out everyone's motives and actions. With almost all of the characters of note seeming to understand and accept his encyclopedic knowledge, Bran makes it difficult for characters to keep important secrets from one another, harbor duplicitous agendas, or effectively work at cross purposes, thus eliminating a lot of the possible drama or suspense that could be derived from such scenarios (Cersei is one of the only holdouts). Thus it's appropriate that Bran was (seemingly) instrumental in the demise of the one character who best represented this form narrative interest: Littlefinger (even if the handling of that plot was botched). Still, his presence, and the deference other characters give him, creates even more of an imperative for all of the remaining characters to work together to defeat the Night King: it prevents the characters from simply consulting the omniscient narrator to solve their problems.

- I was happy to see a scene between Jorah and Lyanna Mormont, answering my questions about their relationship. Also, it allows Lyanna to demonstrate her resolve once again: she’s not going to sit in the crypt with the other noncombatants, despite Jorah’s patronizing pleas for her to do so. You go girl. Just don't become a zombie, please.

- When Davos chats with a brave little girl who reminds him of Shireen, I wondered if/when Melisandre would return.

No comments:

Post a Comment