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The Calm Before the Battle

With the White Walkers headed toward Winterfell, Sunday night’s episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ was all about reunions, sendoffs, and people talking in rooms—to varying results

HBO/Ringer illustration

The second episode of Game of Thrones final season consists of a single type of scene, repeated over and over, in different permutations and tones, until the hour is up. In its way, the chapter is a version of the infamous bottle episodes that have punctuated this sprawling show, tightening the action to a single location and slowing the pace to almost real time. Unlike its predecessors, however, the episode’s focus isn’t a battle; it’s the windup to one. The hour doesn’t advance the larger plot in any meaningful way. Apart from Jon and Dany’s fateful conversation in the crypt and a single master planning meeting, the status quo remains mostly unchanged. A broad synopsis is even, on its face, downright boring: As our heroes—the “anti-” qualifier is long gone for them, even Jaime—wait for the other icicle to drop, they talk.

But contrary to its reputation for epic scale, “people talking in rooms” is the kind of scene Game of Thrones does best. Think of Olenna and Tywin negotiating the terms of their alliance, or Tyrion explaining what he and Jon have in common, or Jaime and Brienne cementing their unexpected friendship in a hot tub. Not only do the hours before the Battle of Winterfell concentrate this specialty, they also attempt to deliver on nothing less than the promise of serialized television. Few other mediums have the ability to show the culmination of years of shared history between its various players, because few have the real estate to depict that history as it accumulates. Game of Thrones spent seven seasons weaving an intricate web of intense, conflicted, often violent relationships among its constellation of characters. Now that most of them are finally in one place, it’s time to take that tension and unleash it like so many of Arya’s arrows. (Arya also released a different kind of tension; more on that later.)

To better streamline the story and convey anticipation, Cersei and her machinations are left offscreen, though her betrayal looms large on everyone’s minds. Funnily enough, the current occupant of the Iron Throne’s absence barely even registers. After all, nearly every other protagonist of note is cooped up in the Stark family homestead: both her brothers; her rival; her rival’s nephew-boyfriend-maybe-nemesis; her erstwhile protégé; and many, many others who would classify themselves as her enemies. While they wait for the call to action that predictably comes just before the closing credits, these unlikely allies proceed to hash out what’s brought them together—and what continues, despite the enormous stakes bearing down on them in undead droves, to keep them apart.

Taken as a whole, the results are neither a crushing letdown nor an unambiguous triumph. Like so much of late-period Thrones, they’re a mixed bag, and one indicative of the challenges in bringing such an unwieldy narrative to a timely, comprehensive close. This starts with time, the bane of the epic’s latter seasons. As the episode progresses, one starts to notice that no confrontation, no matter how long-awaited or fraught with psychological nuance, plays out in more than 60 to 90 seconds. The effect is not dissimilar to Downton Abbey, another tale of aristocrats and commoners playing off one another in close quarters: Conversation may be all that happens, but there’s so much conversation to be had!

Despite this universal constraint, some reunions and first-time encounters play better than others. Much like Sansa’s tense discussions with Jon last week, her sit-down with Daenerys retains the pragmatism that has marked this series from the start, and that Sansa herself came by the hard way in previous seasons. Dany attempts to play the girl-power card to no avail; no alumna of Cersei Lannister’s Antifeminism 101 would have any time for gender-based solidarity. More remarkably, Sansa pushes past Dany’s appeal to their common enemy as well. She’s shrewd enough to know that surviving the Great War means an inevitable lesser one, unless the North’s independence is secured in advance. For her part, Dany underestimates her fellow ruler, then refuses to negotiate with her. Sansa proves herself more savvy to the long game, and Thrones resists the temptation to collapse key distinctions so the writers can clear the board for a final showdown.

Yet the show’s refreshing aversion to girl power doesn’t extend to all its characters. (The less said of the Cockney Lyanna Mormont who wants to fight with the grown-ups, the better.) Brienne and Jaime’s unorthodox kinship serves a practical purpose, as her vouching for his honor prevents all but certain execution by a vengeful pair of former enemies. Still, both his offer to serve under her command and an impromptu fireside knighting ceremony play much more pat than such a signature connection deserves. Not helping matters is the presence of Tormund, whose once-impromptu attraction to the warrior has long since outlived its use as a bit, and who otherwise serves as straightforward comic relief. Even on their own, though, the Jaime-Brienne scenes have strong whiffs of the wish fulfillment Thrones built a following on strenuously avoiding.

More ambiguous is the sudden, urgent pairing of Arya and Gendry. Some fans have pointed out that this coupling has arguably been foreshadowed since the first pages of the book. Still, their sex scene initially seems abrupt; these two characters haven’t seen one another for five seasons, and the audience has witnessed only a handful of their interactions in a single episode since. But eventually, I found myself coming around to Arya’s eerily stoic approach to her first-ever sexual experience. Like many tomboy types, Arya hasn’t been given a chance to develop or demonstrate that side of herself. I’m grateful that Game of Thrones both made space for it and did so in a way that seems in keeping with her character: charmingly blunt and disarmingly detached from her own actions. The couple doesn’t seem like a great romance. It also doesn’t seem like it should.

Such is the density of players now sequestered at Winterfell that cataloging every combination is a near-impossible task. There’s even a meta crack at how overwhelming the effect is, as the Hound snorts he “might as well be at a bloody wedding.” (Take it from someone who’s been in the vicinity of a very bloody wedding indeed.) How nice, then, that small moments like Jorah’s encounter with his diminutive cousin manage to shine. Lyanna may be a meme, but she’s also managed to establish herself as an uncommonly principled warrior in just a handful of scenes. Also lovely were Sam’s handoff of Heartsbane—the object of much concern at this website—and the Hound’s gruffly respectful sit-down with Beric. None of these mini-scenes are belabored, and all seem like the result of real evolution. Remember that Jorah was once an informant without honor, and that the last person the Hound would want to spend his final hours with is the beneficiary of a fire god.

Many of these conversations include explicit calls for the viewer to do just that: remember. “I wish Father were here,” Tyrion says to Jaime. “I would love to see the look on his face when he realized his two sons were about to die defending Winterfell.” Brienne relates for Sansa’s benefit the full story of how Jaime lost his hand. Most directly of all, Sam asks his brothers in black to “think back to where we started.” In the midst of such organic sparks of camaraderie, these pleas can be grating. When Game of Thrones is firing on all cylinders, they’re also unnecessary. We don’t need to be told what’s transpired between these people, because we can see it on their faces. Thrones doesn’t have to force the moment, but when an episode is made up of nothing except moments, it just might be inevitable.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.