Game of Thrones season 8 episode 2 review: With death at their doorstep, Jaime, Jon et al hold us spellbound
Over its hitherto seven season run, some of the best Game of Thrones episodes have been those that depicted the hours before a battle. Season 8's episode 2 delivers — and how!
Over its hitherto seven season run, some of the best Game of Thrones episodes have been those that depicted the hours before a battle:
King's Landing, rallying the night before the Battle of Blackwater Bay. The men of the Night's Watch, preparing to fight and die at their posts before the charge of Mance Rayder's Wildlings. Stannis Baratheon's sadly depleted army marching to its slaughter at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. The Starks and Wildlings, riding to take back Winterfell from Bolton hands.
The battles themselves are sumptuous action pieces, but it is in these hours before dawn, that we see the human cost of war… moments of quiet courage even more than amid the blood and gore of the battlefield itself.
Game of Thrones’ season 8 episode 2 delivers — and how. (Read a full recap of the episode here.)
Winterfell is now readying for a war like no other: Ser Davos and Gilly oversee food and shelter for the many hundreds of Northerners who have poured into the castle walls. Brienne supervises the training of the fighting men. Sansa shores up defences. Arya practices with her weapons. Jon, Daenerys and the others consult on strategy. Lovers make pledges. Brothers share stories. Friends gather round a fire. A man prays before the tombs of his family. And a squire sings a haunting song.
War makes for strange bedfellows and none more so than this motley crew that has gathered at Winterfell. As Tyrion remarks — looking round a room that has his brother Jaime, Brienne, Pod, Tormund and Ser Davos — all of them have at one time or another, fought against the Starks. And yet, here they all are, fighting under a common banner and cause, at Winterfell.
Elsewhere in Winterfell are other former “foes”, now allies: the Hound, Theon. And outside Winterfell: death.
The emotional sucker-punch of this episode begins with its very first scene: Daenerys confronting Jaime about murdering her father, and Sansa charging him with attacking hers on the streets of King's Landing. Jaime rebuts their accusations with the simple — “We were at war”. Brienne then speaks up for him as a man of honour, and this helps the others to accept Jaime into the fold — for the moment.
But the bad news that Jaime has brought with him — Cersei's betrayal of the promise made during the parley at the Dragonpit, and her newly reinforced army (thanks to the Golden Company sellswords) — drives a wedge between Daenerys and Tyrion. It is only Jorah's intercession on Tyrion's behalf that helps mend fences between Tyrion and Dany — and later, Dany and Sansa!
The Sansa-Daenerys conversation is everything one hoped it would be (here's a column on why two of Westeros’ most powerful women should be friends): they acknowledge each other's strengths, their concern for Jon — and the fact that the North's ultimate fate is going to be a sticking point.
Another conversation that was everything one hoped it would be: when Jon tells Daenerys about his true identity. It had all of the emotional heft the previous episode's big reveal (Sam blurting it all out to Jon) lacked, and occurred in the same place — the Winterfell crypts. Jon has been distant with her ever since he found out the truth about his paternity, but when Daenerys comes to him as he stands by Lyanna's tomb, he lays the truth before her. It's a natural progression of Daenerys wondering how her brother Rhaegar — of whom everyone spoke so highly — could have raped Lyanna Stark. Jon then tells her it wasn't rape, but love, and marriage that led to the birth of a son — himself. Daenerys is shaken — not least because she recognises that as the last male Targaryen, Jon aka Aegon is the heir to the Iron Throne.
Beyond a king and queen, however, it is their allies who prove to be the ones to watch.
Tyrion, for instance, gets to do more than make eunuch jokes at Varys’ expense. He has wry exchanges with Jaime about their family — what their father would have thought of his sons dying to protect Winterfell, whether or not Cersei spoke the truth about her pregnancy. He leads the vigil by the fireside as Ser Davos, Jaime, Brienne, Pod and Tormund gather around it. Tormund misguidedly attempts to woo Brienne with tales of killing his first giant at 10 and growing up on a giantess’ milk, but Brienne is gloriously happy at being named a knight by Jaime — in a scene that will count among the most poignant we've seen.
Brienne— who is as unwavering in her loyalty as perhaps Ned Stark himself — is so compelling to watch in action (exhibit A: that brutal, bone shattering combat with the Hound in the Vale), but in this moment of emotion, she is spellbinding. The smile on her face reflects everything the moment means to her: of being recognised as a warrior, of fulfilling her destiny.
It is a scene in which Gwendoline Christie shines, as do Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage, proving yet again why they're among the finest actors in this cast. Kristofer Hivju as Tormund provides the few moments of laughter in an otherwise tense episode.
A bittersweet throwback occurs when Jon stands with Sam on the Winterfell ramparts and they are joined by Edd. Surprise, surprise — who should also stand beside them, but Ghost! [Fans have long wondered, as Ghost must have himself, why Jon's direwolf hasn't been by his side in some of the story's most crucial moments of late, and perhaps this is a sign of his continued presence to come. We couldn't be more thankful, although the nonchalance with which Ghost has been slid into the scene does rob us of a striking reunion sequence with Jon.] Edd completes the Castle Black throwback by declaring: “And now our watch begins” and the men remember their fallen comrades Pyp and Grenn, making the same vow to each other that they did before the battle with the Wildlings: that whoever is left will burn the others’ bodies.
Also in this episode, we see both Stark sisters find companionship (if not love): Arya and Gendry discuss weaponry, death — and sex — before falling into bed with each other (fulfilling the wishes of all those Arya-Gendry shippers, among whose numbers this writer does not count herself). And Sansa, after a tearful reunion with Theon (who she parted from in the snowy lands beyond Winterfell, subsequent to their desperate dash from Ramsay), exchanges a look of deep understanding with him. They say nothing and yet that gaze says so much. Having suffered at the hands of others, it would be wonderful if Sansa and Theon were to find some measure of happiness. It's not a pairing we would have predicted, but at this time, it feels right.
Game of Thrones plays to its strengths in this episode, and never more so than when it meditates on the nature of life and death. Philosophies of power and politics, life and death abound throughout the series, but here, we finally see a sort of conclusion to it. Bran (who fortunately gets to do a whole lot more than merely stare at people) articulates the answer to a question we've long had in our minds: What is the Night King's endgame?
“He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory,” he tells the others quietly, before offering himself up as bait to induce the Night King to attack them in the open (thereby giving the others possibly a chance to slay him).
Sam replies: “That's what death is, isn't it? Forgetting.”
It's a moment that has some real world overtones in how the Jews would maintain diaries of the worst of the Nazi atrocities. The Third Reich tried to destroy all evidence of its crimes but the diaries lived on, and spoke of what had been done during the Holocaust, in words that no one could hide from or deny.
It's also a moment that's a stunning reminder of why Game of Thrones is the phenomenon it is. (A timely reminder too, considering the somewhat patchy quality of season 7 and the questionable merit of 'Winterfell’, the season 8 premiere.) War — in one form or another — comes for us all. Death comes for us all. All we can do, as Brienne says, is (live and) die with honour.
View the Game of Thrones season 8 episode 2 trailer here:
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