Although dramatically less action-packed than last week's episode, Game of Thrones' penultimate season continues to enthrall as old faces return and the pieces get put into place for Jon's showdown with the Night King.
Following on from what may be Thrones‘s greatest episode to date was never going to be an easy task, but if Season 7 of the hit fantasy show has told us anything so far, it’s that providing 10 episodes’ worth of content in just seven episodes packs even the least action-heavy instalments with enough character drama, plot points and hidden easter eggs to make them just as thrilling as the most intense battles. ‘Eastwatch’, however, takes this idea to the next level, as we are treated to not one but two hints towards Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) ancestry, finally watch Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) actually play the game, welcome back a fan-favourite character, and so much more besides. It is a masterfully packed episode, but one that never feels overwhelming, and it has me very excited for what is left for us as we head into the season’s final two episodes.
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.
With so many threads to untangle, it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s just get the big one out the way: Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is back! And in a big way too – since he was last seen rowing away from Dragonstone in Season 3 (side-question: who else loved Davos’ (Liam Cunningham) fantastic – if overly fan-service – line, “Thought you’d still be rowing”?), fans have speculated that the man who was so coveted by Melisandre and her Lord of Light as part of Stannis’ quest for the Iron Throne would have a larger role to play in the wars to come. Joining the ‘Magnificent Seven’ on the hunt for a way to stop the Night King and his army of the dead (more on that later) seems suitably significant. But it’s great to see Gendry back in the game, and great to see how four years out has effected him – no longer resentfully going along with the BS that’s happening around him, he now actively wants to be part of the fight against the dead, even if that fight teams him up with those who betrayed him.
Season 7 has proven to be one big character reunion after another, and ‘Eastwatch’ is no different. Jorah’s reunion with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is impactful just as Dany has finally accepted the man from Bear Island back into her life. But no sooner has he arrived on Dragonstone than he departs again with Jon, Gendry and Davos as part of Jon’s plan to capture a wight as proof of the White Walkers’ existence. After reaching the titular Night’s Watch stronghold, just beyond which the Night King is (according to another one of Bran’s terrifically creepy visions) mustering his army of the dead, we are introduced to the motley team of old faces who must put aside their differences and band together against the common enemy.
Gendry is furious with Thoros and Beric for giving him up to Melisandre; Tormund distrusts Jorah, whose father was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch before he was killed in a mutiny back in Season 3; nobody very much likes the Hound; and in the middle of it all is Jon, once again acting as conciliator between men who hate each other. It’s a terrific scene, and not just because it ends with the goosebump-inducing shot of Westeros’ seven deadliest warriors striding out past the Wall to kill some White Walkers: credit must go to director Matt Shakman and writer Dave Hill for scripting and shooting the gut-wrenchingly tense standoff between big characters who want each other dead but want the real enemy dead even more.
Because it’s the real enemy who are causing this expedition to go ahead in the first place. After finally convincing one Queen to listen last episode (with the help of prehistoric obsidian carvings), Jon must now convince Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) that the threat posed by the Night King is of far greater importance than whoever sits on the Iron Throne. For her part, Cersei looks surprisingly up for an armistice with the ‘Dragon Queen’ (to deal with the threat from beyond the Wall should it be proved real), even if that’s largely in part to do with witnessing the devastation caused by a dragon in combat and appreciating that, with all three dragons still alive, the war is as good as lost. Being clever with an armistice is the best way for the Lannister twins to hold on to power, and it’s great to see Cersei – who has been hell-bent on destroying Daenerys until now – realise that trying to win the war through military might is perhaps not her best play.
The greater pleasure from Jon & Dany’s bargaining with Cersei however comes as they send Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to parley with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and as we discover that Cersei is slowly going mad to the extent that she’s willing to spy on her own twin brother. These are two fantastic scenes carried by the actors’ performances, with Dinklage standing out in particular, hankering back to the terrific “trial by combat” monologue he gave in Season 4’s ‘The Laws of Gods and Men’, though both Coster-Waldau and Headey must also be commended.
As if all that wasn’t enough, ‘Eastwatch’ also dropped some massive hints about Jon Snow’s true parentage. First was him being the only person other than Daenerys to touch Drogon and live (seriously though, how ballsy must you have to be to even attempt that?). We know that dragons are naturally more inclined towards those with Targaryen blood, so could this be hinting at a deeper connection between Jon and the dragons?
Also, did anyone else notice Gilly just casually dropping the game-changing hint about Jon possibly not being a bastard? Because as if this episode wasn’t chock-full of past becoming present and powering the massive war machine ever forward, we also needed the information that a “crown Prince Raggar” (see: Rhaegar Targaryan, older sister to Daenerys and heir to the throne before being killed in Robert’s Rebellion) secretly annulled his marriage to Elia Martell. To marry someone new. In Dorne. Where Lyanna Stark was. Who shortly thereafter gave birth to Jon Snow, who Ned Stark raised as his own. Which in essence means Jon Snow may not be a Snow at all, but a Targaryen with an even greater claim to the thrown than Daenerys. Of course, Sam dismisses this information (in hilarious – if frustrating – fashion I might add), as he has no clue what Rhaegar means in the context of Jon, but it’s a brilliantly satisfying (if shocking) moment for those who like to speculate and theorise about everything from the true motives of the White Walkers to whether or not one of the late King Tommen’s cats would rule the Seven Kingdoms.
Sticking with Sam for a second while I’m thinking about him, it’s good that we have some solid confirmation that years are passing on the show, beyond the actors simply looking older. Little Sam has now grown into a toddler, and Sam mentions meeting Bran “years ago.” It may be subtle, but in a show where a character can flit from Slaver’s Bay to Dorne and back again in a single episode (I’m looking at you, ‘The Winds of Winter‘), it’s nice for the characters to at least acknowledge the passing of serious time since the start of the series.
On a different note, it’s fascinating to watch Tyrion’s loyalty to Daenerys tested as they spar over what to do with the surviving Lannister troops from last week’s episode, particularly those who do not submit to the Dragon Queen. Should they be given mercy and locked up, at the expense of looking weak, or should they be executed, at the risk of potentially sliding towards the use of ever more force? Daenerys is slightly terrifying in her role as judge, jury and executioner (how cold was that “dracarys”?), and we get more quality conversation between Tyrion and Varys (two characters who have always played well off each other on the screen) as they debate Dany’s potential slide towards madness. In a show that often feels like it prides spectacle over substance, it’s enjoyable to watch it explore the complexities of this new Westeros conflict.
Finally, I want to talk about Littlefinger. For the majority of Season 7 he’s seemed a little, well, weak – the reemergence of Bran and Arya has clearly blindsided him, whilst Dany’s invasion of Westeros and the arrival of winter haven’t much helped either. Last episode he was left clearly shaken by Bran’s prophetic knowledge. He’s basically just not been doing much scheming, or much else – until now. Masterfully playing off Arya’s hubris, he leads her in to discovering a scroll – written by Sansa way back in Season 1 – urging then-King in the North Rob Stark to bend the knee to Joffrey. Sansa was forced to write the message, but Arya is not to know that, and given the brilliantly tense scene between the two ladies of Winterfell earlier in the episode setting up conflict between the sisters, you can imagine how she will react to Sansa’s apparent betrayal. Littlefinger thrives on chaos, and driving apart Sansa and Arya will achieve just that. Things seem to be falling the way of Petyr Baelish, which is good news for those who didn’t want to see him just executed in some Sansa revenge plot, and at the very least, it is very fun watching him actually do something.
I’ve not even touched on everything but by now I’m rambling hard. Seriously, just go watch ‘Eastwatch’, watch it again, and watch it a third time, just to absorb all the plot and admire the acting. With little to no action, we still have one of the most enthralling and engaging Thrones episode to date as there is simply so much going on: there is no let up with the meaningful reunions, surprising swerves and cunning curveballs just yet. In the process, we learned a lot about the past and set up one hell of an adventure for next week. If this is the result of reducing a season from 10 episodes to just seven, it certainly has my approval.
Game of Thrones returns next Monday at 2am on Sky Atlantic.