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‘Game of Thrones’ Close-Up: The Knighting of Brienne of Tarth

Alan Sepinwall breaks down last night’s episode — and sings Gwendoline Christie’s praises as her warrior is finally given the royal treatment

Game of thrones Brienne of Tarth

"Arise, Brienne of Tarth, a knight of the Seven Kingdoms." Gwendoline Christie in 'Game of Thrones.'

HBO

A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for this week’s episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” coming up.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” picks up exactly where “Winterfell” left off — spiritually, if not chronologically. Jaime Lannister, having bravely (or foolishly, depending on your perspective) ridden into Winterfell, is brought to account for his many sins. Dany still resents him for murdering her father (a genocidal madman, but still). Sansa recalls the actions Jaime took against her own family, and Bran even quotes the line (“The things we do for love”) Jaime uttered before throwing him out a window and kicking off nearly every non-White Walker plot development of the series. Even Tyrion, long his brother’s defender (and vice versa), can’t do much of a job of it this time in the wake of the mortifying discovery that Cersei has lied to them all about pledging her army to fight against the Night King. Everyone is mad at the Kingslayer, most with good reason, but nobody seems to know what to do about him, on the off-chance that he’s telling the truth about wanting to join the fight for the living.

And then Brienne of Tarth steps up to vouch for her old traveling companion, and all is right with the world again.

Game of Thrones Recap: Tonight’s the Knight

This isn’t the moment we’re really here to talk about today, but it sets up the overwhelmingly powerful scene that gives “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” its title. It’s a reminder that Brienne and Jaime memorably traveled together for most of GoT‘s third season, but also that the giantess from the Sapphire Isle has crossed paths with so many of the people in that room, earning their respect, admiration and trust along the way. She can stand up for Jaime in this moment not only because she has seen his true and honorable heart, but because she’s about the only one in the room capable of cutting through the rancor. When Brienne of Tarth speaks, people listen.

There are roles on Game of Thrones that could in theory have been filled by many fine actors. And there are ones where the field was limited by a key physical detail. We’re lucky that Peter Dinklage had the charisma and verbal dexterity to bring George R.R. Martin’s beloved imp to life. And on the other end of the height spectrum, we’re luckier than we may sometimes realize that Gwendoline Christie (who had a far thinner resume than Dinklage when she joined the cast) has been able to do the same for Brienne. It’s a tricky part, because in spite of her impressive size and fighting acumen, Brienne is such an understated character. She’s a woman warrior in a culture that tends to laugh at such a concept. She can never entirely kick loose the idea that she should feel ashamed to be this homely(*), unconventional creature who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. She works very hard to keep her feelings hidden, to conceal how much she might want certain things — or people — and just tries to live up to a code of honor that would make Ned Stark proud.

(*) This is as much a credit to Christie’s performance as it is to the makeup team’s work. You can put as much dirt on a fashion model’s face as you want, but if she doesn’t carry herself like someone with no confidence about (or interest in) her physical appearance, the illusion shatters quickly, and it becomes, “Why, without your Valyrian steel sword … you’re beautiful!”

Yet despite Brienne’s intense, practiced level of reserve, Christie’s chemistry level with her scene partners is invariably off the charts. On a series that loves to separate its sprawling cast down to pairs, and to mix and match them whenever possible, Brienne and Jaime are easily the most memorable, most electric duo. And she’s nearly as good with others: all of the Stark women at various points, Podrick, the Hound, Margaery Tyrell, etc. Had Brienne and Bronn spent even slightly more time in one another’s company, it would be hard to care about anyone else on the show, so brightly would Jaime’s two favorite swordfighters shine together. It’s been a perfect marriage of actress and role, which in turn has led to so many perfect spiritual marriages between Brienne and the many people she’s fought for or against.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is, like “Winterfell” before it, a chance for old friends to reunite and share some final joy before the Night King swaggers in and kills so many of them. It’s even more emotionally potent than the premiere, though. Most of the introductions and logistics have already been taken care of, and now everyone assumes they’ll be dead within a day. So it’s really all about feelings and comradeship at this juncture, whether Sansa wrapping Theon in a hug for coming back to defend Winterfell or Arya seducing Gendry so she can know what sex feels like before death shows her its final face. Every scene is bursting with feeling, from Davos being reminded of Stannis’ murdered daughter by the little girl who wants to fight, to Sam giving Jorah his family’s Valyrian steel sword as an acknowledgment of the way Jeor Mormont was a better father figure to him than his actual dad. For all that we love GoT‘s spectacle, those huge battle scenes mean nothing if we don’t care about the people living and dying through them, and writer Bryan Cogman seemed determined to remind us why we should still care about so many of the people huddled up in this castle to enjoy a drink before the war.

But one scene towered above all those other splendid ones, in the way the episode’s title character towers over all but a handful of the show’s other figures. Because Brienne is so pure of heart, and because Christie is so pure of talent, both were perfectly situated to accept and then reflect back all the love that was apparent throughout this installment.

As the Lannister brothers laugh ruefully at the idea that they’re about to die defending the home of a man their father so strongly disliked, Brienne and her squire Pod enter, looking for a warm place to spend the long, cold night. Soon, Davos is there, followed by Tormund, who mistakenly thinks the way to the heart of “the big woman,” as he calls her earlier, is to boast of his own link to giants and show that he can still drink like he’s suckling on a giantess’ bosom. But if Brienne mostly keeps her feelings hidden, she can never entirely conceal her disdain for the ginger wildling, just as she can never fully hide how smitten she remains of Jaime Lannister. It’s a love triangle only in the mind of Tormund (and many ‘shippers, to whom I apologize in advance of your emails), but the preening competition between these two men has an unexpectedly gorgeous payoff.

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Tormund wonders why she is Lady Brienne and not Ser Brienne. Our heroine, conditioned to lie to herself and others about the things she wants but cannot have, insists she never wanted to buck tradition and become a knight. Tormund boasts that were he to somehow become king, he’d knight her ten times over, which prompts Jaime to realize that a king is unnecessary, because, “Any knight can make another knight.” What follows is perhaps the most unabashedly joyful and sincere moment that this cruel, black-hearted series has ever given us. The camera pans over to Podrick, who can openly root for his mentor when she still can’t allow herself to believe in her dream even as Jaime is standing there and offering it to her. But she stands, and then she kneels, and he slowly and softly recites the necessary words to complete the ceremony:

“In the name of the warrior, I charge you to be brave. In the name of the father, I charge you to be just. In the name of the mother, I charge you to defend the innocent. Arise, Brienne of Tarth, a knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s tender delivery of the speech to this woman he has come to love on nearly every level would be powerful enough on its own. But what really sells it is the expression on Christie’s face as he’s finishing it. Because here, even after the ceremony has been performed and the wish has been made real, Ser Brienne of Tarth still only allows herself a half-grin. It’s only after Tormund and Pod are applauding and Tyrion is chanting her new title that she finally gives herself over to the moment and allows a full, proper and dazzling smile to conquer her famously stony face.

In an episode where Arya has sex, while Missandei and Grey Worm kiss and plan to retire to the beach together, no moment or gesture could possibly be as romantic as this one. Brienne likely wouldn’t have minded had Ser Jaime invited her into one of the castle’s beds, but this is the kind of love she craved even more. A Lannister always pays his debts, and Jaime repaid, with compound interest, the spiritual one he has owed Brienne since she put him on the path to being a far better man than he began the series as. Recency bias is a dangerous thing, but this instantly felt like it belongs on any list of the best Game of Thrones scenes ever. (At minimum, it would bump out the Brienne/Jaime scene I already chose for my own list.)

Of course, it’s a beautiful gesture, as so many of this week’s scenes were, because death is so close to Winterfell, and everyone knows it. Of the six people sitting around that fire, odds are maybe two will survive the coming battle. And knowing the way that fiction in general, and this show in particular, functions, Ser Brienne seems especially primed for a gloriously heroic death. It would be a nice subversion of expectations for her to survive both this battle and the one to come against Cersei, and to have to figure out what to do with herself in a time of peace. But if she goes down trying to swing Oathkeeper against the Night King, she will have first gotten the kind of happy ending that seemed impossible for most of her life.

An episode this great is more, frankly, than I had hoped for after GoT‘s sluggish recent seasons. In another superb scene, Bran and Sam talk about the Night King’s desire to erase this world and all memory of it, and the idea that death is about forgetting, and about being forgotten. However the remaining four episodes go, we’ll always have the memory of Brienne of Tarth kneeling by firelight, having the dream whose name she could never speak fulfilled by the man for whom she felt a love she could never acknowledge.

Previously: Arya and the Hound

 

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