After last week’s dark and disorienting battle that imagined “The Walking Dead” marching to battle toward another network, it was worth questioning how much “Game of Thrones” had left. (And yes, if you haven’t watched the latest episode, many spoilers lie ahead.)
To recap: Last week the fight for humanity’s future had been won, and a species-level threat that for multiple seasons was demonstrated as large enough to the render the show’s titular concerns irrelevant was vanquished with one thrust of a Valyrian steel dagger. Burn the dead, rearrange the game pieces and let’s clear our throats and relax before the last fight in King’s Landing, shall we?
On one hand, yes. But like Arya leaping from nowhere to kill the Night King, the show had a few surprises.
The ultimate takeaway is the opening of the question of just how sure everyone remains that would-be queen Daenerys Targaryen — the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and all that — really is the right person for the job. Is the last move in this “Game” to be the journey of a liberator and presumptive righteous leader who breaks bad into a mass-murdering Mad Queen?
In part, the question arose after Jon and Dany continued their conversation about his real parentage, and the fact the former bastard son of Ned Stark was actually her nephew, Aegon Targaryen.
After some victory wine was enjoyed by Winterfell’s survivors following massive funeral pyres that included Theon, Jorah and Beric, Dany approached Jon and at first behaved as if nothing had changed, including a few romantic gestures that may be fine for the Targaryens but in the North is still incest. Jon resisted, but pledged that she was his queen and he had no interest in the throne. However, despite Dany’s sternly worded wishes, Jon still felt that out of loyalty he should tell his family who he really is. They can keep a secret, right? This is no big deal.
All together now: You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Inevitably, Jon told Sansa and Arya — actually, tasked Bran with telling them, because that story is evidently still the extent of Bran’s time-traveling powers — and in the span of one conversation and a faraway look over Winterfell, Sansa soon told Tyrion, who has a bit of a reputation as a talker.
As Sansa surely knew given her time with the master secret-spiller Littlefinger, Tyrion eventually told Varys, and at last gave King’s Landing’s Master of Whispers something new to whisper about. “It’s not a secret anymore,” Varys confirmed to Tyrion in recounting how many people now knew of Jon’s claim to the throne, “It’s information.”
With Daenerys behaving more erratically — more on that in a moment — Varys was soon ready to throw his loyalty behind Jon, regardless of his not wanting the Iron Throne. Varys argued that anyone’s interest in ruling maybe should be a disqualification from doing so, which is a fair point. Tyrion, however, remained loyal to his queen, which again leaves us wondering just how clever the former most clever mind in Westeros really is.
Because this episode did not find Daenerys sounding like the liberator she was once. She eyed Jon warily in seeing him draw kingly accolades from Tormund over the feast at Winterfell before rushing their depleted (if not entirely traumatized) troops toward King’s Landing, and she was ambushed by a waiting Euron Greyjoy as her fleet made its way toward Dragonstone.
Euron merrily shot down her dragon Rhaegar, which now leaves only her beloved Drogon, who for reasons only he, Daenerys and the showrunners know, did not quickly transform the Greyjoy fleet into brisket after barely dodging Qyburn’s giant crossbow as well. Dany immediately wanted to rain death on the citizens of King’s Landing, arguing that she would not be kept from her destiny, which was “freeing the world of tyrants, whatever the cost.” This probably won’t be remembered as her Westerosi Gettysburg Address.
But with Varys likely already writing up campaign speeches for Jon’s claim to the throne, Daenerys’ strategic sense took another beating around King’s Landing.
While she acquiesced to Varys and Tyrion and did not raze the city to avenge her fallen dragon, she somehow kept Drogon parked while pointlessly asking for Cersei’s surrender and the release of Missandei, who was taken prisoner in Euron’s ambush. The terms were simple: Cersei was to surrender and Drogon wouldn’t burn the city down, while Cersei asked for Dany’s surrender or she would execute Missandei. Guess who won’t be going to the beach with Grey Worm?
It’s a bit of a logic puzzle why Daenerys wouldn’t keep her dragon airborne, as she had during her “negotiation” with the slave masters to the East a few seasons back. That would’ve made the threat more immediate to Cersei — always her sole interest in the matter — and maybe the last shot of Sunday’s episode would not have been a furious Daenerys leaving without her newly deceased friend and likely bound toward earning her tyrant’s wings.
Given that Miguel Sapochnik, director of last Sunday’s “Long Night” is also on duty next week, a big battle for King’s Landing awaits. Inevitable as that always was, it’s a shame to consider the approach of another episode length-fight. Action-packed as they are, these sprawling, spectacle-rich experiences aren’t where “Game of Thrones” has been at its best.
At 78 minutes, this episode approached last week’s running time, and the bulk of it was filled with the sort of palace intrigue and character dynamics that made the show more than the sum of its dragons. In the episode’s other standout development, Jaime and Brienne finally, if fleetingly, became a couple after a few rounds of “Truth or Dare” over Dornish wine.
Complete with romantic lighting and later well-wishes for his happiness from Tyrion (coupled with height jokes), their coming together after their long-held connection was a tender, hopeful development that even found Jaime planning to stay in Winterfell and complete his transformation to hero. However, this was quickly undone as he heard the news of Euron’s attack.
“You think I’m a good man?” he later asked a tearful Brienne as he recounted his history of bad deeds before riding south toward his sister. “She’s hateful and so am I.” We’ll see.
Elsewhere, Sam and the still-alive Gilly headed north with Tormund and Ghost, Jon marched for King’s Landing and Arya rejected a delirious proposal from the newly minted Lord Gendry Baratheon of Storm’s End (one of Daenerys’ less-tyrannical moments). “That’s not me,” she said before riding south with The Hound as they looked to address “unfinished business.” For him, this could mean the long-awaited Clegane Bowl with his brother the Mountain, while she may yet add one more eye color to her roster of victims. Tellingly, neither said they expected to return North.
Additionally, both Lannister brothers met their would-be assassin Bronn, who only asked for the apparently still-vacant kingdom of Highgarden to not finish the job. Jaime resisted, calling Bronn a cutthroat who was unfit for the honor, and the durable mercenary dismissed such pomp with a political theory seminar from the end of his crossbow. “Kill a few hundred, they make you a Lord,” he said. “Kill a few thousand, they make you a king.”
Still, it felt strange that Jaime knew Cersei had hired someone to kill him and yet still opted to rejoin her. But maybe he is the volonqar after all.
Opening up new questions heading into another long-promised battle, the episode marked a welcome shift in focus that Tyrion tidily summarized in the early moments after having beaten the Army of the Dead: “We may have defeated them,” he warned, “but we still have us to contend with.”