Let’s talk about that battle.
Have you caught your breath yet?
When Games of Thrones does a big battle, it generally gives us a little warning first. In the week leading up to their debuts, Season Two’s Battle of Blackwater, Season Four’s Battle of Castle Black, and Season Six’s Battle of the Bastards were hyped by HBO as three of the biggest, most epic battle scenes in Game of Thrones (and television) history.
This was something different: swift and shocking and awe-inspiring. Like the Lannister soldiers who were unlucky enough to fall victim to Daenerys’ devastating combination of a whooping Dothraki army and a goddamned fire-breathing dragon, we were all caught off-guard by the force of Daenerys’ sudden retaliatory strike after her setbacks against the Greyjoys and the Lannisters. As this week’s episode ends, the Lannister army is either dead or scattered, with no supplies, and with its commander unconscious and sinking deep underwater. In return, the Lannisters managed a single nonlethal blow against a single dragon.
Massive victory or not, Daenerys’ attack went against the advice of Tyrion, her Queen’s Hand, who has consistently pitched a more measured approach in her quest for the Iron Throne. If Tyrion was right, Daenerys’ victory may come at a high cost, as the people of Westeros recoil in horror at the havoc wreaked by her foreign-born army and her terrifying, otherworldly dragons. Game of Thrones has always been interested in long-term consequences for those who cut corners for a short-term victory. If this Massacre on the Reach is anything like the “resurrection” of Khal Drogo, or the Red Wedding, or the burning of Shireen Baratheon, Daenerys—who has always prided herself on the love of her people—may come to regret reintroducing herself to Westeros as a merciless dragon-rider.
Because, let’s not forget, this isn’t an invasion; it’s a homecoming. We’ve been seeing a lot of these long-awaited reunions this season—and like Daenerys’ fraught return to Westeros, none of them are going particularly well. For the first time since the Game of Thrones pilot, all of Ned Stark’s legitimate heirs are in the same location—and in their ancestral home of Winterfell, no less. Catelyn once said there must always be a Stark in Winterfell. Now there are three.
But this isn’t the joyous reunion some might have expected. In a sign of just how much time had passed—and how much both she and Winterfell have changed—Arya Stark is initially turned away at the castle’s gates after misidentifying both the maester and the master-at-arms. (She asks for Luwin and Rodrik Cassel, who each died so long ago that it was Theon Greyjoy who was holding Winterfell at the time.)
And when Sansa and Arya actually come face-to-face in the crypts of Winterfell, I’m surprised they recognize each other at all. Even the stone face on Ned’s tomb doesn’t look right to Arya. “It should have been carved by somebody who knew his face,” she reflects, as if a cold piece of rock could ever capture the fullness of her father as she remembers him.
Of course, Arya can change her face anytime she chooses. Sansa may not possess the same power, but she’s certainly been transformed by the full weight of her experience since she and Arya were separated in King’s Landing. Sansa and Arya were never the closest of Stark siblings anyway, and the gulf has only widened in their separation; it’s hard to imagine how either could begin to appreciate what her sister has endured and overcome in the many years they’ve spent apart, though trauma is as good a bonding agent as any.
And then there’s Bran, who is barely even a human being anymore. Bran, weirdly enough, seems to know everything about what everyone has experienced—but the raw information is so overwhelming (and ultimately, deadening) that he lacks the empathy to do anything but passively recount what he knows. His reunion with his sisters—for the first time since the very beginning Game of Thrones—is a cold one, and he shrugs off the names of the people who died for him along the way as if they were strangers.
As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran’s concerns are now bigger than the relationships he formed in his young life. His “memories” date back to the earliest days of Westerosi history—the very same period of time that Jon Snow and Daenerys discuss in a cave on Dragonstone. (Neither he nor Daenerys have realized it yet, but his arrival last week was another kind of reunion: the first time two Targaryens have been in the same room together since Khal Drogo dumped a bowl of molten gold onto Viserys’ head.) This week, as Jon mines the dragonglass that will prove essential in the coming war against the White Walkers, he discovers cave drawings depicting men and the Children of the Forest banding together against their common threat so many thousands of years ago. “We need to do the same if we’re going to survive, because the enemy is real. It’s always been real,” Jon says.
And he’s right! We know he’s right, because we’ve seen it. But in yet another brutal and fractious period in Westerosi history, putting aside those differences going to be easier said than done. Jon—who literally just made the case that even the most justified enmities can be put aside in the face of a common foe—can barely stop himself from beating Theon to death when he arrives on the beach at Dragonstone.
As Game of Thrones races toward its finale, this is one of the biggest questions left to answer. Is this ultimately a story in which the “heroes” and “villains” will save themselves, and each other, by overcoming their baser instincts and working together? Or is it a story in which the “heroes” and “villains” fail to overcome their baser instincts, and doom themselves as a result?
My assumption has always been the former, because Game of Thrones—despite the ruthless efficiency with which it dispatches beloved characters—has always maintained a barely-concealed sentimental streak. Other than the parts where a dragon showed up to light dozens of dudes on fire (come on, I’m only human), my favorite parts of this week’s episode were the moments when living characters quietly carried on the torches of the dead. The Stark children hold their reunion in the crypt and next to the Heart Tree, respectively—two places that Ned and his ancestors held sacred. At long last, Brienne of Tarth gets the satisfaction of fulfilling her vow to Catelyn Stark as she watches over the Stark girls, safe and sound at Winterfell. Arya, for her part, demonstrates the lessons she drew from teachers as varied as Syrio Forel, The Hound, and Jaqen H’ghar as she squares off against Brienne in trial combat. Even Davos gets the chance to briefly carries over a lesson learned from Stannis Baratheon, the doomed king he served so faithfully, when he quietly corrects Jon Snow’s grammar.
Is this ultimately a story in which the “heroes” and “villains” will save themselves by overcoming their baser instincts? Or is it a story in which they fail to, and doom themselves as a result?
These little touches are marks of love, or at least of loyalty, to the dead but not forgotten. These are people with stakes in more than just their own selfish futures, and it’s hard to believe that Game of Thrones would render all of that moot in a single wave of White Walker nihilism.
But for now, even the biggest conflicts are inherently personal, and inherently painful for everyone involved. In all the chaos of that last battle, it’s easy to overlook that the final scene of the episode is yet another long-delayed reunion—though Tyrion is the only one who realizes it. Tyrion watches helplessly as his brother Jaime makes a doomed charge at Daenerys and her dragon, saved only by the last-second intervention of Bronn—a sellsword who passed seamlessly from the employ of one Lannister brother to another after his initial, life-changing encounter with Tyrion on the road to the Vale.
The last time Tyrion and Jaime saw each other was in Season Four, when Jaime let Tyrion out of a cell in King’s Landing. “I suppose this is goodbye,” said Tyrion, thanking Jaime for saving his life as they embraced for what they both assumed would be the last time they ever laid eyes on each other.
And now, years later, Tyrion sits above the battlefield as Daenerys’ most trusted advisor, clearly aware of the very particular circumstances that have led both brothers to this point. Each of the Lannister brothers is sworn to a very different queen for a very different reason. Tyrion is on the cusp of a triumphant victory he strenuously argued against; Jaime, still sinking to the bottom of a lake on the Reach, is on the cusp of death for a futile, idiotic act of selfless courage. If they ever come face-to-face for a proper reunion, I can’t imagine what they’ll say.
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