BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Game of Thrones: Arya Stark’s Sexual Awakening Before the Battle of Winterfell
Our favorite warriors and strategists had plenty to get off their chests as they readied for war against the Night King and his army of the undead. [Warning: Spoilers]
Game of Thrones’ final hour with characters whose stories we know will soon end is one of the series’ best in years. “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is as romantic, reflective, intimate and, yes, as horny as the end of the world should be. It delivers merciful moments of connection and closure, each pitched to a satisfying note of catharsis, not sappiness. Little of it advances the show’s endgame in any major way—we learn Winterfell’s plan of attack against the Night King, and Jon confesses his Targaryen lineage to Dany—but the episode isn’t a swan song either. Instead, “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is a kind of victory lap, a muted celebration of what this show does best and the finely-shaded relationships and shared histories of its characters.
The hour delivers on promises I consider more urgent than revealing who’ll sit in a chair or die in the next battle, closing a few of the emotional arcs the series needs for a satisfying end. It gives Arya the room to act on her first crush (and boy does she), grants Brienne the external validation she’d learned to stop craving, allows the Hound a gruff moment to express paternal affection for Arya, and brings Sansa and Theon together, a meaningful reunion between the only two people who come close to understanding the other’s trauma. The episode walks a fine line between gratification and wish fulfillment, and wobbles at points along the way. But in its best moments, it’s electric, underscoring why we care what happens to these people at all.
Jaime Faces a Hostile Winterfell
Most of the episode unfolds in small conversational pairings of two or three—except for Jaime’s entrance to the Great Hall of Winterfell. He faces a tough crowd there of people he’s either personally maimed or plotted with his family to kill. On top of that, he brings news that Cersei’s army isn’t marching anywhere. But it isn’t his interactions with former enemies that make this scene crackle with such fascinating tension—it’s Daenerys’ fraught, ever-shifting relationships with everyone in the room. (Even so, shout-out to how instantly Bran’s callback to what Jaime said just before he pushed him out a window seven seasons ago—“The things we do for love”—smothers the room into silence. With apologies to Tormund, Bran is the funniest character on this show.)
Dany sits front and center as she questions Jaime, positioning herself as a buffer between Sansa and Jon. The gesture is useless, though—Jon is barely present (until he spoke, I’d forgotten he was even in the room), has no idea his girlfriend expects him to agree with her, and finally mumbles approval of Sansa’s decision to let Jaime stay after Brienne vouches for him. It’s one of two consecutive hits to the Mother of Dragons’ pride; Tyrion’s failure to detect that Cersei is playing them prompts a white-hot look of fury, too. Though to be fair, it’s hard to blame her. She lost Highgarden and Olenna Tyrell to Jaime, along with the Sand Snakes and Yara’s ships to Euron and Cersei, because of Tyrion’s miscalculations.
Jaime’s presence at Winterfell recalls the Starks walking into the viper’s nest of King’s Landing in season one, an irony Tyrion can’t help but point out: “I wish father were here,” he tells Jaime. “I would love to see the look on his face when he realized his two sons were about to die defending Winterfell.” It’s one of many instances in this episode of characters reminiscing and inviting us to do the same—to marvel at the dense tapestry of relationships and histories that brought everyone here. Tyrion quotes one of his own lines, the one about how he’d like to die, which he first delivered in season one. Former Night’s Watch brothers Sam, Dolorous Edd, and Jon Snow ask us to “think back on where we started.” Brienne recounts how Jaime lost his hand defending her. Bran reflects on how that day in the tower changed both him and Jaime. Theon vows to redeem himself for betraying Winterfell when Bran and Rickon were the only Starks in it. The Hound remembers how much Arya used to talk.
And Daenerys brings up the Lannisters’ sins against her family, and her own history of surviving a brutally sexist world, in an attempt to bond with Sansa. That trip down memory lane doesn’t go as planned.
Sansa Sees Through Daenerys’ Sister Act
With Jon essentially ghosting Dany after learning she’s his aunt, the Targaryen queen pulls out every stop to create a mirage of sisterhood with Sansa in an attempt to exert influence over her. She prompts Sansa to sit with her, leans in conspiratorially, rests a hand on her arm, and draws parallels between them both as leaders among people who don’t trust women to rule. Inconveniently for Dany, though, Sansa has a better eye than anyone for power-hungry queens manipulating the bonds of femininity. (Remember Cersei’s many confessions to her “little dove” in season two about the miseries of being a woman at court.)
Sansa has survived dozens of confrontations with tyrants in part by mirroring what they want to see and telling them what they want to hear. Dany, meanwhile, believes herself an underdog even now; it’s a crucial part of the myth she’s constructed about her destiny. It’s why she suggests that she, not Jon, is the one being manipulated by love—she calls this his war and reframes her support as some love-addled act of kindness.
Sansa’s response to that carries a recognizable echo of her megalomaniac-defusing instincts: “I should have thanked you the moment you arrived,” she tells her. “That was a mistake.” But this isn’t like facing Cersei in the Red Keep as an 11-year-old. Dany carries herself like a queen trying to reason with an unruly subject, but at Winterfell, Sansa’s word carries more weight and she can afford to be direct. When Daenerys tells her (so matter-of-factly!) that after the battle she’ll “take the Iron Throne,” Sansa puts the North’s M.O. in stronger terms than Jon ever has: “We said we’d never bow to anyone else ever again. What about the North?”
Dany recoils with suppressed rage but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t have to—we know she wants absolute power, or none at all.
Ser Brienne of Tarth, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
This episode is dedicated to small moments that remind us of what every character still fights for (and, as with Sansa and Dany, the tensions still driving them apart). But the hour’s most gratifying scenes belong to Arya and Brienne, as each indulges a side of herself that life as a warrior never left room for.
The warmth of a fireplace in a hall at Winterfell attracts a motley group including Davos, Tormund, Jaime, Tyrion, Brienne and her squire Pod (whose many mysterious gifts include a beautiful singing voice, it turns out). Tyrion accidentally calls Brienne “Ser,” the honorific for a knight, then remembers she is only a “lady” since women can’t be knighted. It’s a thin excuse for what’s about to happen, but a welcome one; what follows brims with more genuine emotion than any scene in at least a season.
Brienne’s time on the road with Jaime in Season 3 revealed a side of the Kingslayer that no one less honorable than the Lady of Tarth could have inspired. Brienne proved herself Jaime’s equal in their first sword fight on a bridge, and held his begrudging respect from then on. He lost his hand to Bolton men for tricking them into leaving her alone when they intended to rape her—the first act of heroism we ever saw from Jaime. And the more time he spent with her, the more inclined he became to emulate her.
It was to her that Jaime confessed he’d killed the Mad King not as a betrayal, but to protect the people of King’s Landing. It was her commitment to her oath to protect Catelyn Stark’s children that inspired him to keep his own promise, and moved him to give her new armor and his Valyrian steel sword. Even her words to him at the Dragonpit last season, “fuck loyalty,” seem to have helped him cast off the bonds to his family, leave Cersei, and fight for the living. Brienne was always the catalyst for Jaime’s redemption—so it’s especially meaningful when he offers to knight Brienne himself.
Brienne hardly needs the title; she’s acted according to a code of honor more faithfully than any actual knight. That she’s been denied it for so long is just one more injustice she’s had to endure because she’s a woman—one more luxury she’s taught herself never to expect. “I don’t even want to be a knight,” she tells Tormund, a line she’s likely repeated to herself a thousand times. She scoffs when Jaime proposes knighting her then and there, but only for a moment before a glimmer of uncertain hope crosses her face. As with Tormund’s affections (which seem to have become his entire reason to exist), she doesn’t quite know what to do with the offer. She’s not used to being offered anything.
When she kneels before Jaime then, it’s significant as her own acknowledgement that she is owed this. When Jaime recites the knights’ vows, it’s external validation that she may not have needed, but deserves more than most. Jaime and Brienne’s complicated feelings for each other might have culminated in a kiss or a kind word at some point. But a scene dedicated to validating her talent and declaring her an equal in front of a room of supportive, clapping friends? That’s far more satisfying—and hotter, too.
Arya Gets Her Man
Being holed up in a firelit castle hours before the Night King descends would have an understandably erotic effect on its inhabitants, though few probably expected Arya to be the one to act on it. She spends the episode eyeing Gendry’s sweaty biceps as he pounds out dragonglass weapons, then throws questions about his sexual history at him faster than she can nail daggers into the wall behind him. It’s their usual, specific type of flirtatious banter at first—until she straight-up just tells him she’d like to find out what sex is like before the end of the world.
Arya, as HBO helpfully pointed out in a tweet before the episode aired, is 18 years old by this point in the show. She’s in control of the situation from beginning to end, making it a surprisingly healthy anomaly in a show once known for gratuitous, outlandish, often degrading sex. That she handles it all with the same confidence and curious detachment she regards everything with these days adds an endearing note. Gendry never stood a chance.
He also gifts her the custom weapon she asked for in the last episode: a dragonglass spear with a detachable handle that looks like a projectile. She’ll need it now that the Night King’s army stands just outside Winterfell—and the last hour of peace before war is upon them.
Bran Reveals What the Night King Wants
All we’ve been able to parse about the Night King’s intentions until now is that he plans to plunge the world into darkness and destroy everything in his way. In this episode, thanks to Bran, we get a little more clarity about why.
Bran tells the leaders of Winterfell’s resistance that he is the Night King’s real target. Their foe’s real goal is not only to destroy humanity, but to “erase the world” and all memory of its past and present. As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran is the world’s memory—a living record of history more vivid and comprehensive than books or stories. (As Sam tells him, “If I wanted to erase the world, I’d start with you.”) Knowing what the Night King wants doesn’t give Winterfell much of an advantage, but it does grant some strategic direction. Bran plans to sit in the Godswood and wait for the Night King to find him through the mark he left on Bran’s arm when the two met in a vision.
If it works and Team Winterfell kills the Night King, every wight he’s ever turned will fall in battle, too. But if Bran dies, more will be lost to the world than just the youngest Stark.