“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” isn’t the tightest episode of Game of Thrones ever aired. Nor is it the most thrilling, or the saddest, or the most visually accomplished. For a season with six episodes it feels oddly like it’s marking time, running out the clock on the last hours of the human race with paint-by-numbers scenes like Arya (Maisie Williams) exchanging gruff hellos with Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) feeding soup to orphans. But when it does work, when it digs its fingers into the living tissue of human connection and yanks at the things we hold closest to our hearts, it really sings.
In the face of death what do we hold on to, and what do we let fall away? Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) bestows a knighthood on his friend Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) in defiance of Westerosi gender roles and centuries of martial tradition. Sansa (Sophie Turner) lets her icy composure crack when her foster brother Theon (Alfie Allen) offers her his sword, pulling him into her arms and crying against his shoulder. Ancestral swords are given away, old grudges released, new love affairs kindled. If there’s too much empty chatter and not enough raw emotion, there’s also Arya and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) in a hot and hungry sex scene, and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) exposing her own ugly, brittle inability to change while trying to mend fences with Sansa.
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The Calm Before the Storm
Many of the episode’s problems stem from the decision to position its entire time frame before the upcoming battle with the dead. There’s only so much soul-searching and somber gazing from the ramparts one can take before it all kind of runs together, and the wire-taut anticipation the show summoned in earlier battle episodes like “Blackwater” is in short supply here. Most everything feels surface level, skimming from character to character in order to get us to the one-hour mark with every face accounted for. It’s not so much that any of it is bad, really, as that it all feels like a wasted opportunity. Better staging, fewer scenes, and it could have been something special, something that justified our spending this much time in anticipation.
The long dark night of the soul stuff isn’t totally without merit, though. The simple fact of the show’s imminent ending makes the coming battle inherently tense, an all but guaranteed period on the lives of many people we’ve come to love over the years. Podrick’s (Daniel Portman) song about Jenny of Oldstones and her ghostly lovers is fittingly sad and lonely. The aforementioned sex scene between Arya and her childhood friend Gendry is tender and desperate, Arya betraying in her shy desire for the blacksmith a last hint of the nervous teenager she still is behind her mask of cool, measured deadliness. The tension these moments of human vulnerability generate is enough to keep the rest of it afloat.
The End of the World
The episode’s visual isolation of its characters is one of its better touches, from the opening shot of Jaime standing alone before the entire court to Daenerys’s mechanically rigid release of Sansa’s hand after their conversation sours over the North’s claim to independence. The progressively larger fireside chat, too, may be friendly and calm, but Winterfell’s empty great hall still yawns around its slight circle of firelight like the vast sea of dead gathering outside its walls. Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) conversation with Jaime in the Godswood takes place against an almost totally white backdrop, the weirwood tree’s red leaves fluttering ominously overhead. These images do more than any half-assed conversation about facing death to make it feel like the episode is headed toward mortal peril.
With the dead just squeaking in before the cut to credits, Daenerys is the threat with the most weight and presence. Even before her tense conversation with Jon (Kit Harington) in Winterfell’s crypts she spends most of the hour nursing old vendettas and blaming others for her own misfortunes. When she learns the truth of Jon’s parentage and the illegitimacy of her own claim to the Iron Throne it puts a visible crack in her identity and reminds us that no right to rule is anything but varying degrees of megalomania. The law isn’t what matters to Daenerys any more than it was what mattered to the monstrous King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) or his drunken, wife-beating father King Robert (Mark Addy). What matters are the stories her brother whispered in her ear when they were children, stories of revenge and rule and restoration, and the sense of violent entitlement they nurtured.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is too thinly plotted, too emotionally unadventurous to build with real horror or suspense toward next week’s clash. But while it spends too much time checking boxes, in its gorgeous sex scene and heartfelt, tear-jerking moments like Brienne’s knighting it finds flashes of a better world, one worth fighting to preserve, and in Daenerys’s fixed and desperate denial of Jon’s revelation, in the deadly cold that kills her smile when she pulls away from Sansa, it finds the chains of greed and power binding Westeros to the sinking weight of its own past.