"They'll bend the knee, or I'll destroy them." Sound familiar?
No, it's not the very similar dialogue spoken by Daenerys Targaryen near the beginning og tonight's rich and rewarding Game of Thrones episode ""Eastwatch." These were the words of Stannis Baratheon, rightful heir to the Iron Throne – before he murdered his brother, burned his daughter alive, saw his army slaughtered and died at the business end of a Valyrian steel sword.
Compare and contrast his remark with what Dany tells the Lannister forces she captured after last week's brutal battle. "I offer you a choice," says the Dragon Queen. "Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse, and die." Based on everything she's said and done so far, she really does intend to put an end to the wanton cruelty of the ruling class. There's just one catch: She has to be the one remaining member of said class. In American mythology, the idea of "Live Free or Die" is seen as an exhortation to independence, in opposition to the tyranny of others. For the Khaleesi, however, it's an order. You can either join her and fight for freedom, or be incinerated by one of her three flying Godzillas. (No wonder Tyrion and Varys need a good stiff drink after the battle.)
The uncomfortable question tonight's episode forces its viewers to ask – doubly so, in light of this weekend's outbreak of literal fascist-induced violence – is whether, or when, such extreme measures are called for. Dany sees her personal quest for power as a wider societal struggle: She is the Breaker of Chains; as such she has a moral claim to the Iron Throne as well as a biological one. Certainly no one would argue that she's an inferior candidate compared to Queen Cersei, whose sole interests are: preserving herself; protecting her increasingly small circle of allies; and punishing her increasingly wide circle of enemies.
But Game of Thrones, in the form of writer Dave Hill and director Matt Shakman, trusts its audience enough to leave any questions we may have on such matters unsettled. For every Jon Snow, who clearly believes the Mother of Dragons has the moral high ground (bent knee of not), there's a Tyrion or a Varys who can't help but be horrified at her methods. This duality is reflected as far as Winterfell, where Sansa, whose history of trauma and true grit has made her into one of the story's most sympathetic characters, struggles to find a balance between her loyalty to her brother and the desires of his restless bannermen. If you were a Lord who had to select between Stark and Snow, who would you choose?
Such irresolvable questions make for an emotionally and mentally taxing episode. The remarkable speed at which characters like Davos Seaworth can now travel from Dragonstone to King's Landing to the Wall; the increasingly prominent presence of Dany's dragons – at least one of whom is now so large that he looks more like a geographical feature than a living animal; and the infernal forces of the Night King all add to that "holyshitholyshitholyshit" feeling."
But for all the awe-inspiring imagery and white-knuckle tension, this is still a show that allows its actors to do the storytelling. There were almost too many intimate moments to list, but seven hells, we'll try: There's the way Lord Randyll Tarly reached out to hold his son Dickon's arm, one last act of fatherly love before their fiery execution. There's the tears in Jon Snow's eyes as he touched Dany's dragon, moved by its power. There's the more or less open attraction these two rulers now have for another, visible to everyone from Tyrion to Jorah Mormont whenever the regents exchange so much as a glance. There's the eerie, dead-eyed look Cersei shoots Jaime when he tells her he met with their little brother, and their embrace when the Queen tells the Kinglsayer she's pregnant. There's the villainous smirk of Littlefinger as he makes his moves, contrasted against the bright-eyed self-confidence of Arya Stark as she works to uncover them. And there's the mix of regret and rage on Samwell Tarly's face as he departs the Citadel, sacrificing his dreams for the greater good.
(By the way, Sam: When Gilly tells you that a maester annulled the marriage of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen so he could marry someone else in a secret ceremony in the same kingdom where Jon was born [cough, cough], you might want to listen!)
If there's a bridge to be found between the massive political forces at work and these smaller, more personal connections, it's in the episode's closing sequence. The assembly of Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, Tormund Giantsbane, Gendry, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr and Sandor Clegane – and their transformation into the anti-zombie Magnificent Seven – is simply a smaller version of what the Mother of Dragons and the King in the North hope to do on a larger scale. Seeing this dream team of Westerosi tough guys walk off into the frozen no man's land beyond the Wall is epic fantasy at its most heroic.
But it's also more than that. The crimes and betrayals these men have committed don't matter at all compared to the menace that is the army of the dead.The mystically minded Beric has it right when he says that no matter their beliefs or their reason for fighting, they're all on the same side, for the same reason: the common struggle of humanity against the forces that would destroy us all. Solidarity forever – their union makes them strong.
Previously: Fire Walk With Me
Watch below: Rob Sheffield revisits 'Game of Thrones' most gamechanging moments – from the Battle of the Bastards to the reddest wedding of them all.