Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5 Recap: “Eastwatch”

When a man and his son, defeated in battle, refuse to kneel and are burned alive, who is responsible? When their hair catches fire and the stench of their burning flesh rises up from the blaze, who has done it? When their bodies collapse into ash, who made that fate into reality? The dragon, we can all agree, is blameless, only following its nature. The queen is surely responsible for forcing these men to choose between death and dishonor. There, clarity ends. What about the advisors who failed to sway her from this gruesome choice? The soldiers who fight to support her? The knights who guard her person? Daenerys (Emelia Clarke) speaks of breaking the wheel that grinds Westeros beneath its rim, but from where do the spokes of that wheel radiate if not the crown perched on her silver hair? To serve her is to be complicit in her tyranny.

It’s Varys’s (Conleth Hill) perspective on the matter we should listen to. His account of learning how to excuse his own part in the Mad King’s reign of fire is as crushing as anything the show has delivered, a self-loathing monologue about how easy it is to dodge responsibility when the world around you seems indelibly corrupt. In our capitalist hellscape, dependant on literal slavery in the form of prison labor and its dressed-up cousin, the sweatshop, it’s a sentiment with which we should all find time to sit. How do we account for ourselves or stay true to our senses of morality in a society so thoroughly infused with wanton violence? There are no easy answers.

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Burned Away

The sight of the blasted and carbonized wasteland left behind by Drogon’s rampage is all the more crushing in light of the moments of genuine beauty that leaven “Eastwatch’s” darker undertones. Daenerys’s reunion with ser Jorah (Iain Glenn) is enough to melt even the hardest heart as the worn and world-weary knight, cast out by his queen and ravaged by plague, is made whole by her forgiving embrace. Theirs is the show’s longest-lasting onscreen relationship, and its improbable salvation is a true moment of grace. Still, what makes Game of Thrones a great show rather than a good one is its refusal to allow us to sit in comfort with that joy. Just moments before, we learned what it means to serve Daenerys without question.

Likewise Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) complicated and uncomfortable position between his sister and his brother. As always, the show refuses to allow us just to hate the man and his rotten sister and be done with it. Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime’s relationship is undoubtedly diseased, but in Jaime’s expression of disbelieving hope at the idea of being openly acknowledged as the father of his sister’s new child (though whether she’s really pregnant or just trying to bind him to her more tightly is, I think, a matter for debate) is the kind of vulnerability it’s hard not to empathize with. These two people have lived their lives on a knife’s edge for decades, and now the prospect of a public life tolerated by the court and the kingdom is within their grasp. They may have climbed a hill of the dead to get there, but whom amongst us hasn’t dreamed of finally allowing our secret shame into the open and finding ourselves accepted rather than mocked?

In Winterfell, the Northern lords grow uneasy in Jon’s (Kit Harington) absence and press Sansa (Sophie Turner) to take up his throne. Arya (Maisie Williams), sensing Sansa’s genuine desire to do so behind her public demurral, needles her sister cruelly and suggests beheading a few agitators to cement Jon’s rule. The conflict between the sisters, and Littlefinger’s (Aiden Gillen) gamesmanship with a forged scroll claiming Sansa informed on their father Eddard (Sean Bean), who was himself an attempted usurper, is another unfortunate reminder of how their adventures have damaged them, leaving them incapable of trust.

The Stark girls are still carrying their scars. Sansa’s admonishment against beheadings as a form of self-satisfaction certainly rings more than a little false in the wake of her revenge against Ramsay, a singular indicator of just how wounded her ability to differentiate between right and wrong has become. The North seems headed for another tragic bloodbath born of misunderstanding, a bold statement showing that the baser instincts of women in power can be as dangerous as those of men.

The Seven Sers

The final sequence of “Eastwatch” is the kind of pure, starry-eyed fanservice one might more reasonably expect from action anime. If you’d told me last week that Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, Gendry, Jon Snow, the Hound, Tormund Giantsbane, and Jorah Mormont were going North of the Wall to capture a wight and use it to convince Cersei and Dany to enter a temporary alliance and march their troops to the defense of the living, I’d have rolled my eyes, but fuck me if I wasn’t bouncing in my seat when it became apparent what was happening. This is payoff for seven seasons of the sprawling, slow-moving storytelling critics used to harp on before they switched to complaining about the show going too quickly and eliding too many details, and it rules. Watching seven men we’ve spent years connecting to march into the icy jaws of death, bound to the world behind them by only the frailest thread of hope, is the kind of stomach-plummeting thrill you can only deliver when you’ve set the board as well as Benioff and Weiss have done.

Jon’s brief moment of bonding with Drogon is another moment of pure cinematic wonder as the great horror rushes toward the King in the North only to pause and sniff at him like the world’s biggest and most dangerous housecat. Just as Viserion and Rhaegal did with Tyrion (and for those of you in the know, evidence points to the fact that the Mad King raped Tyrion’s mother Joanna), Drogon senses Jon’s Targaryen blood. The swirl of prophecy and power that has moved through the show since its earliest episodes has finally begun to take on a fixed shape.

With the Night King on the march and the Seven Kingdoms poised on the brink of destruction, every moment of tenderness and every horrifying vista of death and violence seem all the harder to bear. Now the show is poised to bring its entire cast north to the Wall, an unprecedented condensation of the physical space over which its stories are told, and all of that tangled web of love, lies, pain, and cruelty will, one way or another, unravel.