TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.5 “Eastwatch”

Game of Thrones Eastwatch

An episode about stepping back from the fire, and allowing the heat to spread somewhere else.

Southron Ambitions

Structurally, this is one of the more interesting installments the show has managed so far. Several episodes have marked time as they moved pieces around in preparation for a set-piece. Various others have cranked up the tension turn by turn until it’s released in a flurry of violence or – well, let’s be honest; it’s almost always violence.

What “Eastwatch ” does, unusually, is to engage with both these approaches simultaneously, paralleling one whilst inverting the other. The ways in which the episode puts things into place for Bladeapalooza (feat. Hammer Time) are fairly obvious. What’s much more interesting is the degree to which the War of Two Queens has to be backpedalled to allow it to happen.

The process begins from the very first shot, as Jaime and Bronn surface some distance from the smoking remains of the Lannister column, and decide to keep going. It’s hardly surprising the two of them would pull back after the Battle of the Roseroad, of course. They did lose, after all, and badly. They can probably still smell the deliciously charred flesh of the men they were kidding around with the day before.

The withdrawal of everybody’s favourite anti-heroes is just the beginning, though.  Cersei likewise steps back from the line, agreeing to at least the principle of an armistice. This is slightly more surprising given the eldest Lannister’s recent blood-lust, but ultimately it’s not hard to understand either. Her family just lost their only army in the field, and Dany’s forces are loose in the one part of the country from where reinforcements might be forthcoming – though having suffered four military defeats in the last five years, there can’t be too many men of fighting age left in the Westerlands in any case. As Cersei notes, they have the money to hire mercenaries (making the fall of Highgarden because the Tyrells can’t fight or whatever even stupider in retrospect, by the way), but it’ll take time to get through the necessary job interviews. A ceasefire offers Cersei far more than it does Daenerys.

So the real surprise here is Dany’s choice to stand down from her all-out war footing. It’s so surprising, in fact, that even the episode itself seems caught flat-footed. We’re all set up for a story-line about how Tyrion has to strive to curb his queen’s worst excesses, and suddenly she takes a step back essentially unprompted so that Operation: Corpse Swipe can go ahead. The effect is so wrenching I’m expecting TV ads to show up any day now offering legal support for the whiplash injuries the episode caused. John Cleese will probably be in them.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important for Daenerys’ reputation going forward that she packs it in with burning to death anyone who won’t swear fealty. POWs are a thing, Dany. Just ask Jaime. I know he wasn’t exactly delighted by all the time he spent tied to a stake marinading in his own filth, but for sure it’s worth broaching as an alternative to turning one’s cloak or dying in white-hot agony. A captured lord is one you can exchange hostages for, or come to an accommodation with, or even eventually turn to your cause. A dead lord is a statement to your enemies that they can keep their honour or their lives when they come up against the Dragonqueen, but not both. It’s a demonstration that her foes have no reason to keep alive any of her men that they defeat. I wonder how Missandei feels about giving the Lannisters an excuse to execute any Unsullied they manage to capture.

And that isn’t even the worst of it. I don’t actually care all that much that Lord Brexit and his idiot son get reduced to piles of carbon. When you’re backing a mass-murderer who stole control of your country because at least she was born there, you lose my sympathy entirely. What appalls me is Dany giving the defeated Lannister troops the same choice. Those poor exhausted foot soldiers just watched men they’d served with for years die screaming – men they may have known from the same village, who may have married their sister or helped fix their roof or joined them nicking apples from the orchards of a local petty lord.  And now the person who killed their friends wants their promise that they’ll fight for her? In a campaign in which she plans to conquer their own homeland? So what, it’s attack their own hamlets and holdfasts and market towns and fishing villages, or die in unimaginable pain? This is what Dany thinks constitutes breaking the wheel? Please. She’s just Aegon without his reserve air-force.

(Yeah, yeah, I know, OR IS SHE? At this point the show isn’t so much over-egging the pudding as sprinkling raisins on an omelette.)

So the sudden stepping back from her earlier deployment of fire and blood is most welcome, in theory. In practice, the left turn the episode has to pull halfway through to get us there gives the whole affair a cut-and-shut feel, like we missed one episode at least between the Varys’ two appearances here. Like I say, structurally this is an interesting approach. It’s not however one the writers have succeeded in making flow with any smoothness.

There’s another problem too, which is that this new focus basically leaves Dany leafing through magazines in the waiting room on Dragonstone whilst Jon goes and has all the fun.

States Of Transition

With the combatants in the south pressing pause on their war, everyone and everything is either looking or heading north. Presumably this includes Sam, now that he’s dropped out of Uni of Westeros, Oldtown Campus. He does seem to be developing some rather sticky fingers, doesn’t he? Apparently any time he doesn’t get the reception he wants it’s an excuse for a spot of burglary.

Not that it’s hard to understand his annoyance. Asking for clarification in messages small enough for ravens to carry is a transparent delaying tactic, especially since Wolkan can’t actually prove zombies exist by describing them in more detail. But that’s departmental meetings for you. There’s little more wretchedly useless than an academic who’s decided they’ve already acquired enough data to figure out how the world works, and all subsequent info challenging their model of reality can therefore be ignored.

So it’s probably for the best that Sam’s calling time on his undergraduate experience. Especially since he seems to be picking up bad habits from the academic staff. It can’t be coincidence that in the same episode where Sam concludes he’s entirely had enough of the grand-maesters overwriting his contributions with self-absorbed pontificating, he tramples over Gilly almost revealing the royal heritage of his best friend with his self-absorbed pontificating about self-absorbed pontificating. It’s definitely time to go.

(Speaking of Jon, I’ll just note in passing that the deaths of Randyll and Rickon would have made Samwell the new Lord Tarly, except for all those pesky Night’s Watch vows. If only he knew a king that could release him from his oath…)

It isn’t just Sam, Gilly, and Jon’s ambassadorial mission that are returning north, though. In accordance with the bait-and-switch the episode is pulling, the spirit of conflict itself has flown back up the Kingsroad like it’s Littlefinger’s magic horse. This suggests a possibly rather interesting structure to the whole season, with the first episode being an exercise in reminders and groundwork, then there being three episodes apiece on the conflicts in first the south and then the north. Fire and ice, in other words. If that’s what’s happening, it’s a nice little idea. It also sets us up for a northern-focused finale, which will presumably be undercut when Cersei betrays everyone by restarting the southern war and/or takes Dany and her deputation prisoner in episode seven. There’s absolutely no way to make a Cersei double-cross surprising at this point (that ship sailed more than half a decade ago), but ratcheting up the stakes in the north might serve to make the timing of such a move a little unexpected. That’s all you can really do with Cersei’s scheming at this point, really.

Speaking of which, man. Tyrion is dropping the ball pretty damn hard this week, isn’t he? Having admitted he can’t even out-think Jaime, he’s betting everything on the idea his sister will see an army of the dead invading the north as an existential threat, as opposed to a timely opportunity. This is a tremendously dodgy assumption based both on Cersei’s previous behaviour – she doesn’t care at all about long-term threats, and indeed she often brings them on herself with her desperate scrabbles for short-term gain – and her personality. Cersei doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself and Jaime. A continent-killing horror like the White Walkers means nothing to her up to the point it threatens her personally.  Oh, she’ll fight them once she needs to, because otherwise they’ll be taking away lands she thinks belong to her. But expecting her to have any kind of visceral reaction to the sheer wrongness of the army of the dead, and the accompanying risk of unprecedented misery and death for the people of the north, is a gargantuan misjudgement.

Mind you, there’s something rather powerfully tragic in the idea that after all this time, Tyrion still can’t quite bring himself to clock just how terrifyingly callous and cruel his sister is. It’s one more thing he shares with his brother.

Look North

Conflict returning to the north means that after two episodes in which Winterfell has been a place of peace and reunion, the party is most definitely over. I have mixed feelings as to the results of dramatically retooling the castle to be all about plots and sneakiness and yelling.

On the positive side, it’s good to see Littlefinger returning to his scheming ways. I’m still of the opinion that his time is almost up, but if that’s true, it’s far more satisfying that it happens because he overextends himself and is finally caught out, rather than simply spending his last days simpering over Sansa until she’s finally had enough and deals with the problem. Also, whilst it’s obviously hard to tell what precisely Littlefinger’s game is right now (did he simply catch Arya sneaking into his room, or did he lure her there?), we can make some educated guesses. It seems fairly likely Littlefinger is trying to undermine Jon so Sansa can take control, hence his conversations with Lords Glover and Royce, and his acquisition of the one message in Winterfell we know of that might, if made public, weaken Sansa’s position. I’m not sure where the woman in the stables fits in (another attempt on Bran’s life?), but what little evidence we have would seem to support this theory.

The problem is that this scheme makes Lord Glover look like an idiot (seriously, is that dude never happy unless he’s reneging on his oaths of fealty?), which then makes Sansa look even more like an idiot for not smacking him down harder after his nonsensical complaint, and finally turns Arya into some kind of Platonic ideal of idiocy when she accuses Sansa of humouring Jon’s detractors out of the desire to become queen. As others have pointed out, this makes absolutely zero sense.  Arya was raised by Ned and Catelyn Stark – she understands the basics of feudal politics and the responsibilities that come with being the Warden of the North (even if Sansa hasn’t officially taken that title). She knows – or should know – that it makes sense for Lady Stark to move into the chambers of the last Lord and Lady Stark. This is about projecting power and a sense of continuity, not how nice Sansa’s crib now is. And whilst I suppose Arya is technically right that Sansa always wanted to be queen (or at least she jumped at the chance when it was dangled before her in the show’s very first episode), it was never the power that attracted her, but the romance.

All of which means Arya’s objections fall very wide of the mark, and the scene in Sansa’s chambers just screams conflict for the sake of it. I suppose one could see it as evidence of how much damage Arya has suffered since the Lannisters took the Tower of the Hand six years earlier. Just because she wants to be a Stark again doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll find it easy. The one part of this scene that rang true was her suggesting they enforce loyalty through executions; solving problems through murder is simply what she does. Still, there are ways to make that point which don’t require her to totally misread every single aspect of the current political situation. This scene combined with the possibility of Littlefinger having arranged for Arya to find that message has led many to conclude he intends to play the sisters off against each other, much as he seemed to be trying with Sansa and Jon. I don’t actually think that’s a terribly difficult thing to imagine Littlefinger trying, actually, but the suggestion here that he might actually enjoy some success in the attempt is tremendously aggravating. Put simply: the Stark sisters should be entirely past this.

With Winterfell dealt with, we can finally march further north still, to the little castle of Eastwatch-By-The-Sea. Plenty of people have done the “D and D do D&D” joke already, pointing out that as adventures go, this is a pretty poorly written one. I actually think the bigger problem is party composition. Letting your PCs pick six tanks and a healer is just flat-out irresponsible. You’re stealing from a necromancer, guys. Sure you don’t want a rogue or a mage along for the ride? OK, Bran’s the only wizard they have and he’s a long way away in Winterfell (though since the show has given up on the idea that travel takes time, I’m sure he could have come along if he’d wanted), but dudes. You want to find a wight and smuggle it out under the Night King’s nose. Are you positive you want to leave the master smuggler back home? I know you’re going for a whole Magnificent Seven vibe (though more like seven chilblained brothers AMIRITE), but come on.  Kurosawa was a genius at film-making, but he never claimed authority on the practicalities of military unit composition or the associated integers.

(It is nice though that the party comprises representatives of four of the seven kingdoms, the lands beyond the Wall, and a man from Essos. That’s a nicely broad coalition, for a bunch of white guys. Shame they won’t all make it back. Thoros is dead almost for sure – he’s too powerful to keep around. I’m not offering good odds on Dondarrion, either. Gendry might want to watch his back, too.)

Not that I blame Davos for wanting no part of this obvious stupidity – he’s the NPC who’s too experienced and smart to want anything to do with the party’s reckless antics. He’s already done his part, by trying to save Gendry, and look how that turned out. It must be hard for him to see the young man risking his life beyond the Wall, when all Davos had wanted for him was to work in the forge of a castle directly in the path of an invasion by necromantic ice demons and their hordes of shambling murderous corpses. No wonder he’s down on himself right now. He might even be questioning his formidable smuggling skills after his last trip out got Kevin Eldon killed.

( I really want to know more about that guy’s story, by the way. From boorish comic actor in Braavos to Goldcloak coastguard. That’s gotta be an interesting tale. Ah well. Much too late now).

So where does that leave us? Basically with a very long buildup to a very little show. Structurally it checks out, but the time it takes to arrive at Eastwatch and the basic silliness of what we get once we do makes the choice of episode title seem not just misjudged, but some distance along the route to trolling. The concept works, but the execution falls flat, especially since Jon’s mission north is in service to a larger plan that will quite obviously fail entirely. I’ve no doubt that “Beyond The Wall” is going to be a sublime slice of TV spectacle, but like the Battle of the Roseroad before it, the scaffolding used to set it up is disturbingly unsteady.

Score: 3/5

GS Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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