Warning: Spoilers ahead.
What do Game of Thrones characters do when we're not watching them on television? Do they pull the levers of pinball machines, check their inbox of ravens, or paint miniature figurines in their basements? If "Eastwatch," the fifth episode of the show's lean seventh season is any indication, their extra-curricular activities include spelunking in dungeons, grooming their beards, drinking, and forging giant fucking war hammers. If this is a downtime episode, its only downtime in the sense that we're setting the stage for a huge battle instead of fighting one.
Not the Word I Was Thinking Of
As the episode opens, Jaime and Bronn recover from their last shellacking, in which Daenerys incinerated the grain rations she should have used to feed her Dothraki army. Meanwhile, Daenerys stands with Drogon atop a rock, handing down commandments like Moses. But instead of outlining a pathway to salvation, she offers punishment, which Dickon and daddy Prick-on eagerly accept, choosing death by dragon before dishonor.
Tyrion is uncomfortable with his queen's new penchant for vengeance and tells Varys as much back at Dragonstone. But for every naysayer against fire and blood, there is a willing convert. The latest recruits include Jorah, who regards Daenerys's most recent booty-call, Jon Snow, with a wary and accepting eye. Lord Friendzone is used to this kind of thing and recognizes a brother-in-arms when he sees one. So does Drogon, who sniffs Jon like a mastiff and seems to accept him as one of us. We know that this is because Jon is the rightwise heir to both the Stark and Targaryen dynasties, but he is mercifully free of such hubris and probably assumes is sniffing him because of some stray direwolf dander. Lovely CGI in this scene, as we see all the spikes on the dragon's mane tense in greeting to the King in the North. What isn't special effects, though, is the chemistry between Jon and Daenerys, whose love story is more subtle than we might have expected this late in the show.
Still, the finer points of dragon-grooming make for odd flirtation: "They're beautiful, aren't they?" Daenerys asks. "Wasn't the word I was thinking of," he confesses. But there's good, news too, as Jon learns by raven that Bran and Arya are still alive, which changes the game considerably. With Tyrion's backing, he asks Daenerys to permit a mission North, to prove once and for all that climate change is real and that the White Walkers are steadily marching toward the land of the living. She agrees, under duress, because now they have an alternative to endless war. Now, there's something worth fighting for.
Trust in a Stranger
Jaime returns to King's Landing and brings Cersei up to date regarding Tyrion's innocence in the death of their son Joffrey. Not that it matters. Cersei vows destruction of her enemies, but we sense early in this episode that Qyburn is tending not only to his queen's appetites, but also for the child in her womb. She's murdering for two now. In Winterfell, Bran takes possession of a flock of ravens and flies them directly into the face of the Night King, who bats them away.
At the Citadel, the maesters of Westeros hold council and decide to do nothing: "Prophecies of doom are never in short supply, especially when winter comes." Sam urges that they listen to the tidings of the ravens and send aid to Winterfell. But this hoary association of wizened character actors are ill-disposed to heed this jumped-up, medieval Bart Simpson, tasked with writing "I will not supply plot exposition without proof" a hundred times on the blackboard.
Poor lad, he doesn't even know that his brother and father have just been dragon'd, and still he sulks while Gilly reads to him from what appears to be the Harper's Index. Steps in the Citadel: 15,782. Windows in the Great Sept of Baelor: None, they exploded. And the secret, rightwise king of all Westeros, heir to Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen? No time of that, Sam says, and hurries off to the mainland, because he is "tired of reading about the achievements of better men." He steals a look at that round gold thing from the credits, swipes all the Citadel's best books, and then heads off. I wonder which ones I would take? Maybe, since I'm feeling coastal, The Waves, Treasure Island, and The Sea, The Sea? But I wouldn't, of course. Those are library books. They belong in the library.
Nothing Fucks You Harder Than Time
This episode, more than most, is concerned with uniting characters who in a more peaceful time would never have had occasion to become allies. But that's what life is about, and it's the main purpose of stories. Not that it's always easy to see through superficial differences, like patricide.
"The last time, I was here," Tyron says, after being smuggled into King's Landing by Davos, "I killed my father with a crossbow." "The last time I was here," replies Davos, "you killed my son with wildfire." Awkward. But both men are here on missions of reconnaissance. Tyrion meets his brother, Jaime, in the crypt of the Red Keep and asks him to talk some sense into their sister. This is another scene that ought to be forced. Instead, it reads as real, painful, and earned thanks to the bitter love between the brothers who fate has made enemies. Even if Jaime denies it, they still relate because they share the same blood and the same good sense.
Davos's mission is far more fun, as he has come to recruit long lost character Gendry, whom we have not seen in three and a half seasons. But Robert Baratheon's bastard Gendry (who, if we're keeping count, is technically the next in the line of kingly succession, not that he seems eager to throw his hat in the crowded ring of would-be regents) is nothing if not game. Throwing caution to the wind, he beats two city guards to death with his cool war hammer, refuses Davos's advice that he pretend to be somebody named "Clovis," and introduces himself to Tyrion and Jon as the bastard-blacksmith of King's Landing. (There is also a comedy bit about fermented crab. Now we know what they served at the wrap party.) Maybe next time, don't pick a name like "Clovis," which even in a fantasy world full of Neds and Kevans sounds like a pocket-protector-wearing unicycler with a collection of microbes. May I suggest, perhaps, my own fantasy name, Sasha GrassyKnoll? (It's your first pet and the street you grew up on, right? Or am I thinking of something else?)
"How Can You Think Such a Horrible Thing?"
I love sibling rivalry as much as the next medievalist, but this is some bullshit of a subplot at Winterfell, where we're supposed to buy that Arya suspects Sansa of treachery in Jon's absence. Give me a break. Who, at this critical juncture, doesn't see through Littlefinger's machinations, as he crouches in doorways, glowering like the cut-rate Cromwell he's become (although, as Tyrion reminds us, no one glowers like Jorah)? And yet there does appear to be a conspiracy afoot, as Lord Royce, Lord Glover, and Maester Wolkan—who, interestingly, seems to come with the castle, as he was master to the Boltons before their usurpation—make their allegiance to Sansa clear and are later caught in the hallways, exchanging rumors and letters with Lord Baelish. We can forgive Arya for still doubting her sister's immaturity. She doesn't know her like we do.
"If I don't return, at least you won't have to won't have to deal with the King in the North any more," says Jon, as he bids Daenerys farewell and goes wight-hunting, "I've grown used to him," she replies. I mean, barf. But, again, we're getting shit done, and suddenly we have a fellowship, because when Jon, Jorah, Davos, and Gendry land at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea (which we're introduced to in the opening credits, where it's always a distinct thrill to have a new graphic). There they are met by beard-of-the-century award-winner Tormund Giantsbane (who asks if they brought "the big woman," because apparently we all dream of being rescued from danger by gigantic women, unless it's just me). They also connect with our plot-ordained warriors three, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound. There's every reason for these characters to distrust one another, as Gendry points out. But we've all been through a lot together, and we simply don't have time for petty rivalries. "It doesn't matter what we think our reasons are," Thoros tells us. "There's a greater purpose at work. And we serve it together, whether we know it or not." And just like that, we're off to fight the White Walkers, beyond the Wall, where "safety is never a permanent state of affairs," in the company of the seven-est samurai ever to test their metal against the cold of the grave.
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions , the Culture Trip , the New York Times, and the New Republic.