A long-lost character returns to Game of Thrones in an exposition-heavy episode that effectively stages the final run of season 7 nonetheless.
In the ever-perceptive words of Ser Davos Seaworth to none other than Gendry, the long-lost Baratheon, "Bad things are coming." In one way or another that's been a constant refrain for many on Game of Thrones. House Stark turned it into a meteorological catchphrase that also served as a trenchant warning for the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. But embracing an apocalyptic advisory as your House Words is (fittingly) a little like the boy who cried wolf, and what's left of the Starks must shout above the din of Dany's war with the Lannisters to remind everyone winter has come, and brought with it many, many bad things.
But as far as holding the attention of the people of Westeros, unseen threats to the north are no match for the devastation wrought by Dany's army and the fire-breathing dragon she brought to a sword fight. There's a very real queen on the Iron Throne commanding a very real army led by her brother, and the attention Cersei garners might be the real threat facing Westeros as the series continues its two-season run to the end.
Time is a precious commodity on Game of Thrones, and unless you're the Three-Eyed Raven it's impossible to see beyond the here and now and understand that it's quickly running out. While Jon's mining dragonglass and Dany's fire-roasting Cersei's troops and supply trains, the White Walkers are on their way south of the Wall, presumably to where the Hound foresaw them arriving in his vision from the season premiere. What with pirate battles and army-destroying dragons on the loose, it's almost as though D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are using spectacle to engross the audience in much the same way their fictional characters are helplessly enthralled by their own proximity to it. And now, as 'Eastwatch' gets underway, it seems another spectacle is ready to set foot in Westeros.
The slow, methodical march of the White Walkers is perhaps the only good thing to come of their inevitable arrival. Bearing in mind they're dead, and are in no real hurry, it's understandable the Night King would take his sweet time getting to the Wall, much less finding a way around or through it. What with all the questions this penultimate season has raised about what's to come and the intentions of the characters that have lived long enough to see House Stark's words come true, the inescapability of the dead's arrival has worked in the shortened season's favor, lending each episode a sense of urgency that Game of Thrones hasn't necessarily been known for in the previous six seasons.
The truncated nature of the season means there's a lot of information to be delivered in 'Eastwatch', as following the usual progression of typical season-long formula, next week's episode is set to be something spectacular, in the vein of 'Blackwater' or 'Battle of the Bastards'. But even with the narrative's accelerated pace at their disposal, Weiss and Benioff must still perform their due diligence in building toward the events of next week's wintery installment by putting Jon Snow on a collision course with the enemy he fears the most, and saddling him with the unenviable task of obtaining the proof required to turn everyone's attention toward the north. And what better way to do that than to give a member of the undead an audience with the queen?
As much as 'Eastwatch' is about getting the pieces in place for the season's end, there's a noticeable through-line wherein several characters come to grips with the reality of their situation and, for some, how the time for decisive action is now. Pulled from what would have been a watery grave, Jamie is hit with the realization that his and Cersei's war against Dany and her dragons is unwinnable on the battlefield. He's seen the proof firsthand and it provides him with a moment of clarity that carries through in his surreptitious meeting with Tyrion. The immediacy of their respective situations takes precedence over more trivial matters like, you know, Tyrion murdering their father. Having seen what he's seen, the Kingslayer is inclined to hear his brother out.
Trust is a difficult thing to come by in Westeros and there are some who are right to be skeptical about the information, and in more than one case, direct visual evidence, put before them. Unfortunately for Sansa, fickle Northerners and the threat of starvation take a backseat to the duplicity of Littlefinger. After witnessing Arya's skill with the dagger he gifted to Bran, Petyr Baelish has taken to manipulating tensions between the Stark sisters by planting the note Sansa wrote Robb under duress soon after Ned lost his head. The manipulation is effective because Arya has changed so much since she last saw her sister, but remains unaware the degree to which Sansa is no longer the selfish girl she was when she left Winterfell.
As with the truth behind Jon's brief, non-threatening moment with "glorious beast" Drogon, Benioff and Weiss are cashing in several seasons worth of story by making the audience sit with information their characters don't have. At this point, that information is the sort that will determine the outcome of the series, making the Bran, the one person capable of speaking truths to everyone. The only question is: will those who need to hear the truth listen? As Samwell learned, the maesters in the Citadel are like everyone else: they're not about to take a broken boy (or Sam) they've never met at his word; they need visual confirmation of the horrors being described to them. Like everyone else, seeing is believing, but when it comes to an enemy like the White Walkers, getting close enough for confirmation means you're already in serious trouble.
In the end, 'Eastwatch' delivers the goods when it comes to setting up the season's endgame, giving various characters the kind of momentum necessary to bring the story to a head. With reunions aplenty, Jon assembles an unlikely team of warriors to venture beyond the Wall and gather the evidence necessary to put the war for the Iron Throne on the backburner while the Night's King is dealt with. For all the moving pieces Weiss and Benioff have on the board, 'Eastwatch' demonstrates just how well those pieces are being managed.
Elsewhere in Westeros:
Game of Thrones season 6 has given audiences one big reunion after another. In 'Eastwatch', Jorah finally finds his way back to his Khaleesi, and the moment feels weightier than when each of the Stark children all found their way back to Winterfell. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time we've seen Jorah in the company of Dany, and all that he's (repeatedly) done to stay and get back into her good graces.
Jorah's return sets up a fascinating love triangle with the third corner being mostly oblivious to it all. Jon is so devoted to stopping the Night King he doesn't seem to notice they way Dany looks at him, or the way Jorah looked at her looking at him.
As smart as Sam is, he'd do well to listen to Gilly once in a while. Again, Weiss and Benioff encourage the viewer to yell at their screen as information the audience knows slips by the characters unnoticed.
"Nothing f***s you harder than time." The Onion Knight truly has a way with words.
With all that's on their plates, the writers still have time to make an in joke about Gendry "still rowing" all this time.
Is Cersei really pregnant or is she just playing Jamie?
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Helen Sloan & Macall B. Polay/HBO