Game of Thrones season 7 episode 5: All the reasons why Eastwatch's final scene feels significant
Game of Thrones season 7 episode 5 — Eastwatch — had an important place in the show, narrative-wise. Between the fiery battle that ended episode 4 (the loot train attack) and the big action scenes that will mark episode 6 (Jon et al taking on some White Walkers), Eastwatch did some much needed place-setting, and acts as a palate cleanser between two dramatically different fight sequences.
There were of course, the near-reveals that pepper each episode of Game of Thrones as it approaches story's end: Gilly reading out to Sam of an annulment granted to a Prince 'Ragger' (who we know is Rhaegar) so he could wed another woman in Dorne; Jon petting Drogon — yet another arrow in the quiver that's meant to prove his Targaryen parentage.
There was some reckoning of who stands where in the battle to control the Iron Throne: Dany may have shown off what she is capable of achieving if she brings her dragons into the mix, but battle of Tumbleton was not a terribly crucial victory for her. At this point, her losses in war still surpass Cersei's — all Dany destroyed with the loot train attack was the Reach's grain (which will be needed by everyone, no matter which side they're on, once winter reaches the South) and the Tarlys, who weren't terribly important to the scheme of things. What the skirmish has achieved, is get Cersei to agree (on the surface of it) to an armistice while Dany engages with the pressing matter of the white walkers.
What else in Eastwatch was important? For that, we need to look at how it concluded.
At the very end of the episode, we see seven brave men set out beyond the Wall to capture a white walker. The end game is to bring it to King's Landing to convince Cersei (and everyone else who needs convincing — like those querulous old maesters at the Citadel) that the threat of the Long Night is real, and that it requires their immediate attention.
The seven include Jon Snow, Ser Jorah Mormont, Gendry (who've travelled up from Dragonstone), Tormund (who had taken charge of Eastwatch) and the Hound, Ser Beric Dondarrion and Thoros the Priest (who've been travelling in the northerly direction to serve the Lord of Light — at least the latter two — and were held at Eastwatch by Tormund when they attempted to cross the Wall).
There's been quite some response to this motley crew setting out beyond the Wall, including: Why aren't they wearing hats in sub-zero conditions? How do they honestly hope to capture a white walker from the entire army that's marching along with the Night King (and which they very well know of, thanks to Bran's vision?). Funnier reactions have included comparing the group to the crew from The Magnificent Seven.
'Seven', incidentally, is a number that crops up time and again in GoTverse, fiction and real life.
There are the seven deadly sins, the seven days of the week, seven continents. Mathematically, seven is the smallest 'happy number', while the number of random/disparate objects a human brain can recognise instantly, is seven. The Magnificent Seven, who Jon and company are being compared to, were inspired by Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In GoTverse, one of the major religions is called the Faith of the Seven. Westeros itself comprises seven kingdoms, and A Song of Ice and Fire will be complete in seven volumes (or at least such is the hope).
So the number of Jon's company feels significant.
It also feels significant for subscribing to a fantasy fiction trope — that of the small group of the righteous embarking on a quest to bring down a larger evil.
As one of the best known (and certainly most successful) writers of the fantasy genre of this generation, George RR Martin has offered a study in contrasts to the great who came before him — JRR Tolkien.
Superficially, the writers share much in common — all those 'Rs' in their names (Raymond Richard for Martin, Ronald Reuel for Tolkien), the genre (high fantasy) they're giants of, their strong anti-war sentiments, their painstaking attention to world-building, and if we really want to stretch the point, the casting of Sean Bean in the screen adaptations of both their classics, as well as the presence of faithful sidekicks named Sam!
Both their best known works are also considered to be inspired by real life historical events: Tolkien served in the British Army during World War I and while Lord of the Rings being an allegory for either of the World Wars has been debunked, his experiences in the Battle of Somme certainly influenced his writing of it. With GRRM, there are more direct allusions drawn. Westeros may be a fantasy continent, but it does seem modelled on medieval England — notably the War of the Roses part of its history. As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, GRRM never glorifies the war sequences in ASOIAF, humanising (where possible) the ordinary foot-soldier.
One could also draw parallels between the Targaryens' dragons and the role of aerial warfare during World War I. In this light, Maester Qyburn's ballista/crossbow (or 'scorpion', as it's referred to) is nothing more than an anti-aircraft gun. (And the scene of Bronn shooting at Drogon from it, during the battle of Tumbleton as depicted in Game of Thrones season 7 episode 4, certainly lends credence to that imagery.)
And then there are the references to climate change GRRM's woven into the story.
Despite their similarities, however, the greatest works of Tolkien and GRRM are also very different.
Some of these have been pointed out by GRRM himself — for instance, he's far more interested in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life than Tolkien's sweeping epic was. So where Tolkien might write of Aragorn ruling wisely and well for 500 years, GRRM would get into what are the kinds of things such a rule might involve: Dany, for all intents and purposes, is a 'good' queen (when contrasted with Cersei, certainly), but she barely manages to hold on to power in Mereen. The entire section of the books and the TV series that sees her traverse from Qarth to Mereen is all about her confronting the reality of what it means to rule. Similarly, Jon is chosen to be King in the North — but the same people who chose him constantly question his decisions.
The crux of the difference between Lord of the Rings and ASOIAF (or Game of Thrones) is in how they view good and evil. In LOTR, the forces of evil emanate from one source: Sauron; his minions are recognisably dreadful — the Orcs; corruption shows itself quickly: Saruman, Smeagol/Gollum, and to a certain extent, Denethor II. Even Boromir's transgression to the dark side is quickly rectified with a heroic sacrifice.
With GRRM, the distinction between good and bad isn't as clear: Take the case of Jaime Lannister, for instance, who (as we've mentioned in a previous column) has undergone quite the redemptive journey. Or Theon Greyjoy, who can be courageous, and cowardly. Or Dany, who is positioned as a heroine, but feels no compunction in sentencing dissenters to become dragon toast. Ramsay and Joffrey are perhaps the only two dyed-in-the-wool sadists the series has presented, most other characters fall along the spectrum of grey. The greater battle too — between the Forces of Light versus the Forces of Darkness — has a morally ambiguous tone: Wasn't Shireen burnt at a stake to appease the Lord of Light?
If Tolkien's LOTR was aspirational in a sense (of what mankind could be), then GRRM's ASOIAF is more about what mankind is (mostly rubbish, but sometimes, surprisingly brilliant).
Tolkien changed high fantasy fiction in a way he couldn't have foreseen. Pretty much every writer who has come after him, has been consciously or otherwise influenced by him, even in aspects like setting up tales as trilogies.
GRRM has gone a different way from Tolkien for the most part — which is why Jon and his gang of underdogs setting off beyond the Wall to battle an evil force infinitely stronger than themselves (as envisaged by GoT's showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff) seems like such a 'Fellowship of the Rings' moment.
[Of course, Tolkien's Fellowship had more than seven members (nine in all, including Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry), but we're guessing they'd find a lot to bond over with Jon and company in their seemingly impossible endeavour.]
Game of Thrones has rarely set up this motley-band-of-misfits-heading-off-an-adventure trope before — people usually journey/fulfill missions in pairs (think Brienne/Pod, Brienne/Jaime, Bronn/Jaime, Bronn/Tyrion, Tyrion/Jorah, Arya/The Hound, Jorah/Daario, Sansa/Theon, Yara/Theon). Even when there is a large group travelling — it is only a couple of characters, at best three, who usually take centrestage.
Apart from doffing its hat to a Tolkien-ian trope, that final scene also had a crucial bit of dialogue from Jon.
As Eastwatch's visitors and inmates begin to squabble (Gendry with Thoros and Beric Dondarrion for selling him to Melisandre; Tormund with Jorah Mormont for being the son of the former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch) and the prospect of them unifying to fight against the white walkers seems dim, Jon reminds them that there's something powerful that binds them: the fact that they're breathing.
That one observation holds out the possibility of many more (difficult-seeming) alliances being struck up on Game of Thrones' upcoming episodes. And while this may most certainly not come to pass — oh, what we'd give to see Cersei face down the Night King.