Brienne of Tarth hesitates. Normally she’s a woman of action. But when offered the chance to officially become what she’s truly been all along — a knight — the warrior just freezes. It’s like she’s waiting for the trap to be sprung, for one last cruel joke at her expense after a lifetime of mockery.
But Jaime Lannister is dead serious on making his brother Tyrion‘s drunken slip of the tongue—calling her “Ser Brienne” — into a reality. It means something to him, too. He’s spent a lifetime dragging his knighthood through the mud despite his “Golden Lion” reputation. Now he can bestow the honor on someone who truly deserves it. Finally, she walks over to him, as their comrades stand to bear witness to the occasion. “Arise, Brienne of Tarth,” Jaime says. “A knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”
Tormund Giantsbane starts the applause. Tyrion toasts to her name. And for perhaps the first time in the history of Game of Thrones, the lady smiles. If your eyes were dry by the end of that scene, please make sure they aren’t also ice-blue. Because you may well be dead already.
Taking its title from this scene, tonight’s episode — “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” — is GoT at its best. In a way, it makes good on the promise of last week’s season premiere, which tended toward the cheery, wish-fulfillment side of this calm-before-the-storm section of the story. Yes, there’s even less action this week than last, and no screaming burning zombie children either. But writer Bryan Cogman and director David Nutter, both of them series veterans, dig into the show’s rich library of character relationships, find the heartwrenching stuff at the center of each and put it on display time and time again.
In terms of plot, it’s a pretty strict re-run of the premiere: Everyone’s gathering together in Winterfell to make a stand against the Night King and his army. Yet there are a few memorable differences and developments. Jon Snow‘s direwolf Ghost makes his long-awaited return in lieu of dragon-riding scenes. Bran Stark reveals the enemy is coming straight for him to wipe out the collective memory stored in his psychic brain, but does not reveal to the court that Jaime tried to kill him way back when. (Isaac Hempstead Wright is doing genuinely chilling work as the Three-Eyed Raven beneath all that meme-worthy creeping.) Daenerys learns her boyfriend is actually Aegon VI Targaryen, rightful king and, ah, her nephew. In the end, the dead and their demonic overlords arrive on their proverbial pale horses.
But that’s not even half the story of this episode. The hour plays out like a hybrid of last week’s reunion-heavy episode and “Blackwater,” the instant-classic battle episode from Season Two. That one began with long quiet scenes of fatalistic camaraderie between people who knew they were about to march into a meat grinder. No one here has any time for bullshit anymore. The emotions are raw and real.
One of those emotions, perhaps not surprisingly given the last-night-on-earth vibe, is lust. In the form of Tormund and his crush on Brienne, it’s played for laughs: In a misguided attempt to impress her, he tells the story of how he earned the name “Giantsbane” by killing a giant when he was 10 … then spending three months suckling at the breast of the dead titan’s wife, who thought he was a baby. The looks of bewilderment and disgust on the faces of everyone in earshot are straight out of The Golden Girls‘ Dorothy Zbornak’s repertoire of reactions to Rose Nylund’s Saint Olaf stories.
Arya and her long-lost crush Gendry, however, are not joking around when they finally get together. The Starks’ lone wolf is determined not to die without knowing what it’s like to have sex, so she enlists Robert Baratheon’s bastard to show her. In the process, she explicitly contrasts herself with Melisandre, who forced herself on the blacksmith in a ploy to get his royal blood for a spell. “I’m not the Red Woman,” Arya says after removing layer after layer of clothes. “Take your own bloody pants off.” It’s one of the sexier sex scenes the show has seen since the similarly staged hookup between her brother — er, cousin — Jon and his wildling girlfriend Ygritte in that grotto way back when.
It also makes for a powerful parallel with her sister Sansa and Theon Greyjoy, who returns to Winterfell to fight for the people he once betrayed. Lady Stark spends most of the episode calling shots, like granting Jaime a reprieve that Daenerys can’t overrule without looking vindictive. Later, she warily warms up to the Dragon Queen’s offer of friendship before cooling it down again by demanding independence for the North if and when the war against the dead is won.
But when she sees Theon? She runs to him, tears of joy in her eyes, and holds him close. They both survived horrific sexual violence at the hands of the same abuser, Ramsay Bolton. Alone among all the people still living in Westeros, only they can truly understand what an achievement it is to still be alive and fighting for the greater good after all that horror.
It’s another take-your-breath-away moment in an episode full of them. There’s the fireside chat between Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne and a host of the show’s most lovable characters; the Night’s Watch reunion between Jon, Sam and “Dolorous” Edd Tollett; Davos Seaworth and the resilient wildling Gilly join together to keep a war-torn little girl out of harm’s way.
But how many more of these humane connections are left to us given the existential threat on the horizon? At one point, Bran tells Jaime he kept him alive because he needs him for the fight against the dead. The Kingslayer asks him, half-jokingly, what he plans to do afterwards. “How do you know there is an afterwards?” Bran asks in response. It’s the question of the hour — and of our era.
Previously: The Return of the King