- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND DRAGONS … AND SOILED PANTS
You have to hand it to Jon Snow (Kit Harrington).
Against near-unanimous advice from his bannermen and his sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) – who got the keys to Winterfell, and the even more-obsessive attention of Lord Petry Baelish (Aidan Gillen) in her brother’s absence and shut up thereafter – and trusting only his instincts, which to be fair, have been damn good to this point, Jon Snow, King of the North, went south to Dragonstone to meet with the would-be occupier of the Iron Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke).
What drove a man who’d spent his life dodging almost every figurative bullet that came his way, including a fairly-conclusive but not terminal case of death, to leave the relative safety of Winterfell – bearing in mind the White Walkers are on their way en masse so safe is an extremely relative concept – and meet with the daughter of the Mad King who had, ahem, put to death some of Jon’s Stark relatives?
Why good old pragmatism and the sense that, when undead push comes to still alive shove, that Westeros will need all the help it can get to survive the great enemy bearing down on it.
In an action-packed episode where a whole lot of able, well-placed and aspirational people sank to some pretty petty behaviour as they kept rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic that is the Seven Kingdoms now that winter, and the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) have arrived, Jon Snow put his own interests aside for the greater good of his homeland.
And what did all this selflessness garner him?
Well, at first, not all that much, thank you very much.
Daenerys engaged in a swaggering pissing contest, asserting her right to just about everything including the kitchen sink, by virtue of her supposedly unassailable claim to the throne, a claim Jon Snow rather bravely pointed out was based on a whole lot of self-belief, three great big dragons and not much else.
OK so the dragons were a pretty big calling card, and an argument ender par excellence but that didn’t stop him asserting his right to not bow the knee, to not pledge fealty and to not play Daenerys’ “But I am the Queen dammit! I have flying lizards what ho!” game.
Granted it’s a pretty compelling game when the dragons swoop low overhead – only Jon Snow and Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) dropped to the ground, a little embarrassing considering no one else did; but god bless Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) he admitted, if it was a little white lie, that the rest of them wanted to – but not necessarily a game-changing and one that depends very much on Daenerys staying alive and in control (not guaranteed as Tyrion pointed out when one arrow can end her).
Once all the posturing was out of the way, and Tyrion had stepped in to argue, rather convincingly as always – he is, he admits, rather good at talking, and like everyone who’s good at something, likes to do it as often as possible – that it to Daenerys that it might not be in her interests to play the Divine Destiny card quite so hard, and to Jon Snow that he might want to accede a demand or two, The would-be Queen and the King of the North got on reasonably OK.
Which, to be fair, meant a grudging acknowledgement that Daenerys might kinda sorta possibly have a little teeny-weeny bit of a claim to the throne (but don’t get ahead of yourself) and Jon Snow could mine all the Dragonheart (obsidian) he needs to kill the zombies – which only Tyrion actually believes exist – as long as he did it quickly and got the hell out of the way.
It wasn’t the easiest of asks by Jon Snow – “Give me stuff to kill zombies what ho!” – since it equated to a modern day pitch somewhat along the lines of “Hey, there are Yetis, the Loch Ness Monster and sundry other mythical beasties coming to eat you!” but Jon Snow argued it, Daenerys went along with it, and that’s about where everyone landed at that point.
Daenerys, of course, was convinced through much of the episode that she was going to triumph come what may, but the loss of her Dornish/Iron Islands fleet storming towards a hoped-for glorious siege of King’s Landing, and the rather all-too-easy taking of the Lannisters stronghold Casterly Rock by the Unsullied – all while Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) set fire to their ships and Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) took the Tyrellian redoubt Highgarden and killed off Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) who left one zinger of a parting oneliner – rather took the, ahem, wind out of her sails.
She isn’t down for the count of course – she has way too much self-belief for that and in a speech to Jon Snow that was one of the high points of the episode, made it abundantly clear why she needed it all, and then some – but short of burning the place to the ground, her options had narrowed quite substantially. (Yeah, yeah if she believed Jon Snow’s tales of zombies and goblins oh my!, she’d know her options were already boiling down to not much at all but she doesn’t and so that’s not even a factor.)
Back at King’s Landing, where plotting was infantile, vengeful, and hideously damn effective, it became patently obvious why Daenerys was having such a hard time of realising her “Dammit I’m Queens Manifest Destiny.
As Olenna Tyrell observed, who knew a thing or two about keeping tight hold of the reins of power, Cersei had found the line in the sand that most people in power wouldn’t cross, and merrily skipped across it with the kind of gleeful abandon that would make a hardline autocrat blush; it wasn’t hard to see where her son, the ex-king, had acquired his nastily brutish tendencies.
In fact, Cersei seems intent on leaving his naive cruelty in the dust, seeing off a challenge by the Iron Bank of Braavos, and poisoning Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), the daughter of Dorne’s Ellaria (Indira Varma), with a potion so potent and yet long-acting that mother would watch daughter succumb, die and rot while they sat chained across from each other in a rancid, but well-lit (the better to see vengeance play out) jail cell.
Cersei’s flamboyantly melodramatic but hideously cruel act of vengeance for her daughter’s death at Ellaria’s hands was shocking but it was part of a long pattern of doing what it necessary to get ahead and stay ahead, the kin of willful abuse of power that history has shown time and again works well in the shortterm but does not make for long, enduring dynasties.
Still, as Daenerys showed, no one is thinking longterm here, and as long as no one believes in magic, dragons (OK, maybe a little bit) and White Walkers, the great game of ultimately useless realpolitik will continue until the last living person is a snow-flecked shambling member of the Night King’s undead.
The shining light of great humanity once again belonged to the lovely, selfless Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) who cured Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and got punished, though praised too, by the Grand Maester (Jim Broadbent) for his troubles.
Ah well he saved a life while everyone else was taking some so points to him for holding on to his humanity while most of the rest of Westeros lost theirs in ways large and small; may the White Walkers spare him!
- In the next episode, “The Spoils of War”, which leads you to suspect no one is playing peaceful and kum ba yah-ish just yet, if at all, there’s gold, dragons, well-worn looks and, yep, no more clever plans …
And here’s a Game of Thrones virgin explaining what this episode really means. It’s brilliantly entertaining, and actually oddly illuminating (source: Laughing Squid)