One of the greatest plays ever written about war is Shakespeare’s Henry V. The eponymous monarch invades France, believing he has an ancestral right to the throne. Though his army is small and far from home, they have success at Harfleur (site of the famous “Once more unto the breach…” speech) and move up the French coast. The French army surround the English at Agincourt, and a battle will happen the next morning. Act IV begins with the English army’s camp the night before the battle. Henry wanders, disguised, through his army to see what his soldiers are thinking and feeling before the battle. His men are nervous, but ready, although they freely admit they do not know if the king’s cause is just or if they will win on the morrow. Scene two then shows the French camp the night before the battle and their confidence that they will win. What is remarkable about the act is that Shakespeare shows soldiers the night before battle – nervous, afraid, excited, and simply waiting in each other’s company. They all, French and English alike, seem so human.
I thought of this play while watching “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” another night-before-the-battle narrative which featured no violence, nor any of the about-time reunions of the premiere episode. We saw no White Walkers, no Night King’s army. Instead, this is the calm before the storm. A beautiful, quiet night before we most likely say goodbye to a number of folks that we would rather not. This was an episode of banter and quiet truths, of people thinking they should eat, drink, and be merry (and experience sex), for tomorrow we will most likely die.
The overarching theme of the episode comes from an early line of Jaime’s. He finally approaches Bran, in the godswood, under the heart tree. Jaime apologizes for pushing him out the window back in season one. “You weren’t sorry then,” Bran tells him, “You were protecting your family.” “I’m not that person anymore,” Jaime tells him. This idea, that one is no longer the person one was, that one has been changed by circumstance and experience, is at the heart of this episode. Indeed, Jaime, Tyrion, Brienne, Podrick, Tormund, and Ser Davos sit at a fireplace in Winterfell drinking, and they realize at one point or another all of them have been at war with the Stark family and now here they were, ready to give their lives to defend the North and the Starks. None of them were the same individuals viewers were introduced to in season one (or whichever season they were introduced). Arya, Sansa, Dany, Tyrion, Theon, the Hound, Tormund, Edd, and all of the others are not the same people anymore. They are survivors, as noted when Edd, Jon, and Sam came together as the only surviving members of the Night’s Watch. Out of the eight Starks that began the series, only four are alive, and one isn’t even a Stark any more (and in some ways never was). “Jon Snow” is no longer that person any more – he is Aegon Targaryen.
Speaking of which, he finally told Daenerys (his aunt), and she is having a lot of issues with this knowledge. But we’ll get to that later.
We do begin the episode with a series of confrontations. Daenerys and Sansa are not happy to see Jaime. He must prove his commitment to the cause. Brienne vouches for him, calling him a man of honor. “You would fight beside him?” Sansa asks Brienne. “I would.” Good enough for Sansa. Dany is also unhappy with Tyrion. “It appears your sister lied to me,” she states, her displeasure clear. “She lied to me, as well,” he weakly offers. By the end of the scene, you can see him mentally updating his resume in expectation of having to look for another job.
Jaime may not be the same person anymore, but everyone has his number. In front of Daenerys’ entire court, Jaime defends his record. “The things we do for love…” Bran intones. Mic drop. Damn. Later, when telling his brother that Cersei has “always been good at using the truth to tell lies,” Tyrion also won’t let Jaime get away with it: “You’ve always known exactly what she was and you loved her anyway.” The truth hurts.
What these confrontations lead to, however, is a larger theme of forgiveness in this episode, based not just on utility (We need everyone we can get for the coming battle.), but also because we are all not the same people we were in season one. Tyrion has made mistakes, and Dany wants to fire him. Of all people, Jorah argues for his retention. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he tells Dany. “He owns his and learns from them.” Not only does she forgive and keep him, she instructs him not to fight. While Tyrion sees this initially as an affront – he was, after all, the mastermind of victory at the Battle of the Blackwater - she tells him it is no insult. He is too important to risk. They will need him after. She clearly means it; he acquiesces.
But here’s the problem: When Jaime tells Bran he wants a better world afterwards, Bran responds, “How do you know there is an afterwards?” When the three-eyed raven starts dropping hints that everything might end – listen to him. Indeed, the episode’s other great concern is “afterwards.” One: What if there isn’t one, and the Night King wins? Two (and far more problematic): What if the living win. Sansa asks Daenerys, “What happens afterwards?” Dany: “I take the iron throne.” Sansa: “What about the north?” They are interrupted, but it is clear this is a huge point of contention. Daenerys wants to be queen of the seven kingdoms. Sansa wants her to be queen of the six kingdoms and the north gets to be on its own. This immovable object meets irresistible force. Yet, there is another problem on the table.
As noted above, Jon tells his aunt to start calling him Aegon. She accuses him of making it up, saying the only other people who know are his brother and best friend. “You’d have a claim to the iron throne,” she tells him and seems not at all happy about that. No fun dragon-riding date this time around. She begins to show signs that maybe the Mother of Dragons has a little of the mad King in her after all. The afterwards might get very nasty, indeed.
I must confess, though, one of my absolute favorite moments in an episode of great character moments (Seriously, cast – thank the writers – everybody got a chance to simply be the character and have a shot at simply being human. GREAT episode. And now let’s start saying goodbye. C’mon, you know next week will be a slaughter no matter what happens!) was when Jaime approached Brienne of Tarth and simply said, “I’m not the fighter I used to be, but I’d be honored to serve under your command, if you’ll have me.” Brienne has all the feels at once and then accepts. Without a word, you see her confused, then flattered, then excited, then uncertain, then accepting and quite pleased. This is why I think Gwendoline Christie was WASTED as Phasma. You don’t take a performer of this level of talent and stick her in shiny stormtrooper armor. She is one of the most underrated performers in GoT, and every moment she is onscreen in this and every episode is a delight. (I didn’t even know I felt this way until I wrote this, but it is true.) (BTW: second favorite moment: Tyrion to Tormund: “Would you like a drink?” Tormund to Tyrion: “Brought my own.” Holds up a giant horn, chugs while everyone watches fascinated. “I killed a giant when I was ten,” he brags, “then I climbed into bed with his wife.” She thought he was a giant baby and breast fed him for a month. I love this guy!)
Even Arya gets in on the action. She runs into the Hound. “You never used to shut up,” he reminds her. “I guess I’ve changed,” she responds. Arya is not that person anymore, and based on my Twitter feed, fans do not like the person she became in this episode. She doesn’t want to die without knowing what sex is like, so she more or less demands Gendry to sleep with her, and he is happy (if nervous) to comply. I thought it was very much in keeping with her character and the occasion, but the folks on Twitter seem to think this this was a poor choice for the writers. She also had a lovely callback earlier on when Gendry, Twitter-like, seemed to think she was still a child and that she was not ready to fight the coming army: “This is different,” he mansplains to her, “This is death. You want to know what they look like? They look like death.” Arya smiles, a colder smile than the winter that has come. “I know death. He has many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.”
The title of this episode is an interesting one. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" is the name of the prequel volume – three novellas about Ser Duncan the Tall set ninety years before the events of Game of Thrones. In this HBO episode, the title directly refers to Lady Brienne of Tarth, now Ser Brienne of Tarth, knighted by Ser Jaime Lannister, on the night before the Battle of Winterfell. But is also refers to Ser Jaime Lannister, also a knight of the seven kingdoms, who finally is fighting for the seven kingdoms and not his sister or his family. Jaime is not the person he was anymore – he is not the Kingslayer – he is now, once more, simply a knight of the seven kingdoms, about to defend those seven from the Night King.
We end with the approach of the White Walkers’ army. Tyrion, very Two Towers-seque, stands on the battlements. Everyone else gets ready. Next week, “afterwards” begins. This will not be the same show, nor we the same audience anymore. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting my hitting pillow out and will be doing some serious damage to it next week I think. It’s going to be epic and hard to watch – make the Red Wedding look like a happy party. See you afterwards, true believers.