(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows.)
At its core, Game of Thrones is a show about a world full of people with history fetishes; whether obsessed with lineage, importance, or knowledge of events, just about every important character in Westeros is consumed by the legacies of themselves, their homes, and their shared realm. Their allegiance to history, of course, is both their savior and their downfall; as old allegiances die off, and traditionalist ways are brushed aside by the generational change in houses, the families of Westeros stand to consume each other, driven mad by the complexities of their histories, and the eventual inability of anyone to display the honor and righteous (if sometimes thick-headed) allegiance to the noble/violent/suicidal/ridiculously ornate customs of their ancestors. Ironically enough, however, it is the history of Westeros that contains the truths and information Westeros needs to save itself, a fact “Eastwatch” proves time and time again in a series of wildly effective callback scenes and table setting moments.
In An Hour Marked With Big Reveals, Game of Thrones Looks Inward
History even plays an important role in the opening sequence: Randyll and Dickon’s allegiance to the supposed honor of their homes (defending a genocidial maniac, in another ironic turn) costs them their lives, another house victim to their silly dedication to the supposed values of honorable men. Even Randyll hopes the old ways will die with his generation, but his son insists on following suit, proving that those who stay aligned with the old ways are those that will be relegated to dust on the footnotes of history (in this case, literally reduced to dust by Drogon).
As Dany leaves Samwell as the last man in charge of the family name, Tyrion is forced to come to terms with the actions of the woman he’s sworn to loyally advise; is she just like her father, setting the tracks for history to repeat itself as she burns all of her enemies alive in search of absolute loyalty? While most of “Eastwatch” focuses on the larger tidbits of information passed between characters, perhaps the most interesting moments come in these quieter, more explorative moments in between, the recurring theme of characters challenging the assumptions of their ancestors, and deciding that a different way – one that doesn’t come with being lit on fire by a fucking dragon – is a better way. Dany’s sworn to always give people a choice during her intended reign; that is something many of the free people in Westeros have never been afforded, shackled down by their leaders, their parents, and their history deciding for them who they would be. Be it Tyrion, Jon, Brienne, Dany, or Arya, the characters who reject their supposed destinies and search for their own, more nuanced path in the world, are those that manage to (mostly) stay alive; while characters like Gendry prove that while their various lineages will always be a part of them in some way, their opportunity to break the chains of history stands to be their lasting legacy on Westeros.
History, of course, is not something to be completely ignored, as Gilly so naively points out to an angry Sam in one of the most important reveals of the series. Found amongst an old maester’s notes about his bowel movements is note of a secret marriage between Rhaegar and Lyanna, confirming that Jon Snow is indeed not a bastard of Ned Stark, but a rightful heir to the throne held by the Mad King before Westeros burned and Robert and Ned took King’s Landing. While the obvious notion is to assume this means Jon is the rightful heir to the throne, remember the lessons Game of Thrones has tried to impart the entire series; to change the world, one must not reject who they once were, but learn from it to build a better future. Jon has said time and time again he has no interest in being a king; thrust into the role after being brought back from the dead, The One Dude Who Can Touch Dragons refuses to act like a traditional king, in just about every sense of the word except fashion sense and weapon choice. What if Jon rejects his claim (just as Maester Aemon did decades ago; it’s funny to think he’s Jon’s grandfather!), offering a middle finger to history, and the world driven crazy by the game of thrones their fathers and grandfathers played?
I’m not here to make predictions, of course, but the idea is an interesting one: with so much attention paid to lineage throughout the series, how family defines and corrupts, protects and consumes generations of people, the entire run of Game of Thrones has been in self-reflection of its world’s own history. “Eastwatch” doesn’t shy away from that, embedding these little observations and possibilities for redefinition, from the death of Randyll and Dickon, to the throwaway observation Gilly reads in a dusty old book. But with the Night Army marching south to the Wall (Bran gets a good look at them with his ravens, the episode’s most beautiful sequence), Game of Thrones offers a strong reminder that the lessons of history are those to be learned, but not always rejected wholesale; and that’s where the episode’s most divisive bit of story comes into play.
The conversation between Dany, Tyrion, Jon, and the rest of the strategists in Dragonstone is a tough one to construct; as a byproduct of this, the plan to retrieve a White Walker and bring them south of the wall feels a bit undercooked, for how integral it is to the heart of the upcoming conflict. The plan to bring home a White Walker as proof to Cersei that wars between Queens is but a child’s game is a dangerous one, placing a handful of the best warriors in the world in the same suicide squad, a men with such complex relationships with each other, an entire 40-minute episode of them yelling insults and historical facts at each other couldn’t untangle them. The negotiations to initiate this ragtag brotherhood traveling beyond the Wall offer well-laid out arguments; but the reality of how reckless the plan is, isn’t quite given the weight it deserves. Their conversations are so tied to the politicking of Westeros, they don’t quite convey just how ridiculous an idea it is to send a dozen men into a massive blizzard filled with a dead army, to snipe away a single undead soldier, ninja-style. This is a mission that is likely to get a number of important characters killed, and “Eastwatch” whips from suggestion to action in a disturbingly quick fashion for the show.
It’s a small, and perhaps necessary flaw, but it stands out amongst a group of scenes that mostly convey the emotional weight and thematic depth with great subtlety, like Jon’s wordless greeting of Drogon, or Gilly’s hilariously innocent reading of the old maester’s texts. Jon’s willingness to once again abandon Winterfell may have dire consequences, as Littlefinger plots to pit Sansa against Arya with his usual level of wickedness: a concern barely addressed as Littlefinger’s chess game with the Stark family enters its endgame. Rather, Jon’s decision and subsequent bro-gathering plays the noble, heroic quest angle, and glosses over some of the difficult choices which would give the final scenes of the episode the narrative weight they deserve; Jon is putting his home and alliances at risk to try and procure a single, live body from a massive, ever-increasing army of the dead. That he’s doing it in an attempt to unite the realm under a single purpose is certainly given its due, but ultimately, “Eastwatch” doesn’t translate the anxiety of that moment into the larger context of that decision – and in an hour that is otherwise a mastery of its carefully honed, extremely expensive craft, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
So Jon pets a dragon, Littlefinger plays Arya like a funky bass line, and Gilly lets loose the biggest secret in modern Westeros; that would be enough major moments to fill an entire hour, but those moments are interspersed with other important, and wonderfully delivered, sequences. Samwell trying to convince the maesters of the impending danger to the realm is a fascinating one, yet another moment that serves as silent, effective callbacks to previous seasons: for the entire series, Sam has revered the constancy of the citadel, how it is the keeper of knowledge and guider of culture. He felt that pursuit of knowledge was a bravery in its own, bravery to be backed up with action when neeed: be it killing a White Walker or saving Gilly from a crazy family, Samwell took action when the world demanded it, willing to sacrifice his life in pursuit of honesty and truth. The maesters, however, are more concerned with their place in the intellectual hierarchy than being responsible for saving the world; Sam’s words fall on mostly deaf ears, weak promises of following up on his claims and Jon’s letter to appease a talented, if troublesome young student.
That dismissal spurns Sam’s departure from Old Town; and again, Game of Thrones brilliantly lays out its thematic ideas with the narrative decisions it makes. Samwell takes whats important from history – the knowledge – and leaves the rest in the crusty old home it belongs in; why hide the information to save the world under lock and key, left to be lost to the dust (and silver fish) of history? Knowledge is power, kids, and Samwell’s headed north to try and help save the world; in one fell swoop, Sam rejects the passive approach to affecting history the maesters of the Citadel take, and unknowingly sets out to redefine the legacy of his own family, a noble group to aligned with the old world to survive in the dance of fire and ice to come.
And how could we forget about old Cersei, who is trying herself to betray her own prophecy, revealing to Jaime that she is once again pregnant with his child. She doesn’t give a a shit about telling the world who the father is, either, which throws Jaime right back on the wheel Dany talks about destroying; he’s going to go down with the ship damnit, slaven to his lesser self as long as remains in close proximity to his increasingly desperate, unstable sister lover. Still trying to hold out hope, Cersei spends much of her time in this episode trying to justify why she shouldn’t come to terms of surrender, holding onto hope that she can defeat the prophecy, by having a child, killing Tyrion (so he can’t kill her, the final revelation of her fortune), and defeating a woman who could burn her entire army down without placing a foot on the ground of a battle field.
Oh, how history deludes us into thinking we have changed, or are smarter than those of the past; as we’ve unfortunately learned once again this weekend in America, the lessons we take from history can be as dangerous as they are enlightening and hopeful. The reasons wars are fought (and how they are won) erode as time passes, leaving only the complications of the aftermath for people who never fought in them. Are we beholden to the ways of the past, or can we truly change and come together to save us from ourselves? This is the question at the heart of Game of Thrones, and one “Eastwatch” challenges each one of its characters in, in very profound, if understated ways. Another hour that will be remembered for its big moments and reveals, “Eastwatch” is a a true showcase of the show’s intricate relationship with its own mythology, catalyzing major moments and entire plots around challenging the notions of history, without sacrificing the meaningful character work layered over the intricate, difficult questions it asks about individuals and society. Can you believe there’s only eight episodes left (and that motherfuckin’ Gendry is back)???
- Jon’s message to Dany is the same Arthur Dayne had for young Ned Stark: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.”
- What’s that note Littlefinger has? I would imagine it is the note Cersei forced Sansa to write after she was taken prisoner following her father’s death.
- Gendry has a hammer, just like his father; but unlike his father, he’s quite in shape. Another wonderful dichotomy of the themes of the episode.
- Cersei’s not above threatening Jaime; “Never betray me again.” Warning bells, anyone?
- Fermented crab meat sounds fucking disgusting.
- what the fuck are you up to, Qyburn?
- “If chains are an option, more people will choose them.” Valid point.
- “Nothing fucks you harder than time.”
- Bronn and Dickon both take very different paths to early retirement in this episode.
- Dany almost gets in a question about the “taking a knife in the heart” – but hey wait, look over here!
- I love how Joffrey is still a major point of conversation on this show, between so many characters. What a fucking little shit, who I almost miss having around. (Not really, I don’t. He was awful. I’d watch him die again, though!)