Game of Thrones' latest episode was - somewhat surprisingly - the best episode of the show in years. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” doesn’t occupy a significant place in the Game of Thrones episode schedule. It’s not a premiere, it’s not a finale, it’s not the famed penultimate episode of the season. It’s not particularly oversized, nor does it feature paradigm-shifting events the likes of which we saw in “Baelor,” “The Rains of Castamere” and “The Winds of Winter.” There’s no reason it should feel as significant as it did, but it will still go down as one of the best episodes of the entire series, exhibiting quality content the likes of which we haven’t seen in years.
At first, as the series has progressed, it largely got better with age, but after it outpaced George R.R. Martin’s considerable source material, Game of Thrones lost a bit of the complexity and subtlety that governed its early seasons. It also took more liberties with the adaptation, many of which weren’t wholeheartedly embraced by fans. The elimination of Lady Stoneheart, the drastic redesign of the House of Black and White and Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay Bolton proved divisive among fans and signaled to some that the series’ end wasn’t going to live up to the hype.
But “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” proved that Game of Thrones is more than equipped to finish this series on a deeply satisfying note that doesn’t need dragons and death to create something utterly transcendent. Ultimately the bounty of excellence this week felt like an embarrassment of riches. It was a steady stream of incredibly loaded confrontations and conversations, and one that exercised sentimentality very judiciously. There are too many moments to highlight individually, but it’s worth noting that Jaime Lannister quietly and simply knighting Brienne of Tarth in front of an audience of six will go down as one of the most resonant moments in the series’ history.
It was payoff combined with delicacy that elevated this episode to such great heights. While Game of Thrones fans will be glued to their screens next week as the Battle of Winterfell unfolds, fans haven’t invested their time and attention just to see the Night King defeated. They’ve invested to see Jaime Lannister come to terms with his own legacy, to see Brienne of Tarth accepted by her peers, to see the Stark sisters exercise the agency that was denied them for so long and to see three brothers in black start their watch one last time. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” chose to use the premise of a final night on Earth to subtly resolve character arcs that have been churning for nearly a decade, and the result was one of the more deeply satisfying hours of television the series has ever produced.
Also, for a series that has diverged - perhaps wildly - from its source material, Game of Thrones managed to insert homages to Martin’s novels at the deepest level. Bryan Cogman, the series’ resident keeper of lore, wrote the episode, and his deep knowledge of Martin’s work shows in his episode title and the choice have Pod sing “Jenny of Oldstones” over a montage of everyone at Winterfell preparing for what might be their final battle. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is also the title of the collected Dunk and Egg novellas about Ser Duncan the Tall, a hedge knight who finds himself kingsguard to Dany’s great-grandfather, Aegon the Unlikely. Ser Duncan is likely an ancestor of Brienne’s and his journey mirrors hers in many ways. "Jenny of Oldstones", meanwhile, is a song with roots in a tragic event that ended the lives of both Dunc and Egg in a massive fire. Its use is eerie, bittersweet foreshadowing of the certain tragedy looming as the Night King and his army approach, not to mention making for one the deepest cuts back to the source material. Considering the show’s finale could potentially be the only resolution fans of the books will get, details like Jenny’s song go a long way toward reinforcing what's been at times a tenuous connection to Martin's work.
The implications of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” aren’t all great – nearly everyone getting some kind of bow tied on their arcs eliminates a lot of plot armor when there wasn’t a lot to begin with. The showrunners and cast have been promising for months that the final season would be bittersweet with a capital Dead, and next week’s battle promises to leave considerable wreckage in its path. But if this episode is indicative of how seriously the final season of Game of Thrones will take its legacy, this week’s quiet series of conversations and revelations could point to even more truly spectacular work in the four episodes left.
Game of Thrones continues on Sundays at 9pm on HBO.