It’s been a while since we got a bridge-building, board-rearranging, old-school episode of Game of Thrones. Given how compressed this season has been (and how willing the writers suddenly are to ignore previously established rules of travel time and information flow), it seemed possible we simply wouldn’t get one—that, apart from a slow premiere, late-period Thrones was going to be all action, all the time. “Eastwatch” proves this isn’t the case. Even a turbocharged episode of Thrones occasionally has to hit pause and spend an hour getting people from point A to point B.
To be clear, “Eastwatch” is uneventful only by the ridiculously skewed standards of a show where the reunion of nearly every surviving member of the series’ central family was rendered almost a footnote by a massive CGI dragon battle. Quite a bit happens during this hour; in fact, one of its major flaws is being so overstuffed and relatively unfocused that momentous occasions simply don’t get the chance to land. Most notably and hilariously, the apparent confirmation that Jon Snow is not a Snow at all—in truth a proper Targaryen—is airdropped into the story in spectacularly awkward fashion: Gilly stumbles on the revelation that Rhaegar set aside his first wife and remarried in secret to a woman who was presumably Lyanna Stark in a book that Sam just has lying around their shared living quarters. No one on screen absorbs the tremendous meaning of that fact or even realizes that something very important has just bubbled to the surface. Instead, those hurried lines of dialogue feel forced in for the viewer’s benefit, then immediately checked off in favor of a thousand other things on the show’s to-do list.
While Thrones showing its work is forgivable when it comes to raw plot—Jon’s parentage, after all, is important mostly because it gives him a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne in the long run—it has a more palpably disappointing effect on major characters. Jaime and Tyrion’s reunion, particularly after a battle overseen by the latter that nearly killed the former, should be a wrenchingly emotional affair—and it is, with Tyrion reminding Jaime that their father was a monster who unleashed that monstrosity on only one of his children. But that reminder of Jaime’s golden-boy privilege isn’t given the room to breathe that it should have been, and there is so much left unsaid between the two brothers in their hastily arranged meeting. Besides, that meeting has a more utilitarian purpose: to ferry a (massively convoluted and ill-advised) proposal from one queen to another. By episode’s end, both Lannister men are once again ensconced in their respective camps, with Tyrion’s in-and-out day trip to King’s Landing a practical success but a character-building bust.
Their faceoff is one of a litany of developments in “Eastwatch” that should be major, and likely would have on any of Thrones’ earlier seasons, but instead feel minor. Cersei is pregnant! Gendry is back! Sam’s peaced out of maester school! Littlefinger is up to his old tricks again! Perhaps those parts don’t quite add up to a whole because the episode itself isn’t as cohesive as some of its immediate predecessors. “The Queen’s Justice” used a series of battles to wind up to Olenna Tyrell’s perfectly nasty goodbye; “The Spoils of War” neatly cleaved in two, with the Starks filling up the first half and the Battle We’re Definitely Not Calling the Loot Train Attack taking over the second. Instead, “Eastwatch” spreads itself to the literal ends of the continent, from the Citadel in the south to the Wall in the north, without a proper climax unto itself. Which is fine! Again, these kind of process episodes are typically par for the Westerosi course. The card-shuffling simply feels out of place now because we’ve grown accustomed to operating at maximum capacity.
Tellingly, “Eastwatch” doesn’t even refer to the setting for much of the action; instead, it’s the destination all that pipe-laying is building up to. Bran sees the army of the dead marching south via some warging, and by the next scene, the maesters have heard all about it. Gendry might be of use in the wars to come, and by the time the credits roll, he’s been picked up from King’s Landing and assimilated into Jon’s crew, an immediate bond that’s almost as shortchanged as the Lannisters’ ruptured one. (When Davos finds him in Flea Bottom, Gendry says he’s ready for something, but he doesn’t know what it is. Could he have sensed that he’s a minor character on an epic TV show?!) Jon decides he needs to go to the command post—which, as the opening credits remind us, is half a continent up from Dragonstone—and lo and behold, by episode’s end, he’s there, along with Tormund, Beric, Gendry, Jorah Mormont (he’s back!), and the Hound. The brooding, glowering Avengers have assembled.
We won’t see the outcome of this ad hoc raiding party until at least next week; for now, we’ll have to settle for their determined march into the unknown. Perhaps it’s fitting that “Eastwatch” also features the return of Petyr Baelish to full-on scheming form—if any of Game of Thrones’ characters know how to play the long game, reminding the audience at home of the potential payoff in doing so, it’s him. Even though “Eastwatch” is in many ways a classic midseason Thrones episode, it’s worth reiterating the well-established truth that this show has traditionally not been fond of standalone installments and instead favors a slow and steady build-up, even if it’s still an accelerated version of that build-up. Like Thrones’ characters, we’re dealing with an entirely different mode of engagement than we’re used to. It’s going to take us a while to learn the new rules.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.