“Dragonstone” kicked off the penultimate season of Game of Thrones by tying many different cords of far-reaching storylines ever closer together. For the first time in the series, all of the remaining main characters are in Westeros. With only twelve episodes of our beloved series left between seasons 7 and 8, “Dragonstone” feels like it set in motion several of the events that will factor heavily into the end of the series.
In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.
“Blood of My Blood,” the sixth episode of Season 6, several characters make important reunions with family that will drive the narrative in the final episodes of the season. Beyond the Wall, Bran reunites with his long-lost uncle, Benjen Stark, who promises to help him in his role as the new Three-Eyed Raven; when the White Walkers come south, he says, Bran must be ready for them. Sam briefly gets together with his family and decides to take Heartsbane—the family’s Valyrian Steel sword, a rare weapon needed to kill White Walkers—to spite his abusive father.
Tommen rejoins with his queen, Margaery, who manipulates him into accepting a pact with the Faith. In Braavos, Arya reunites with her past identity, embracing her family’s history and its moral code. No longer No One, Arya Stark braces herself for the blow-back from the Faceless Men. Edmure Tully, Catelyn’s brother and longtime prisoner of the Freys (ever since his Red Wedding), prepares to be sent back to his home at Riverrun as a political hostage. Finally, Daenerys reunites with Drogon and rallies her bloodriders to her cause: the invasion of Westeros.
Power and control are the prizes awarded in this game of thrones. However, in the wake of Robert Baratheon’s death, no one has held onto the actual authority to wield that power unchallenged. In “The Gift,” the authority of many characters comes into question as they lose some of the control they worked so hard to acquire.
There are mutterings of dissent at the Wall as Jon Snow readies to bring all of the wildlings south to settle in the land known as The Gift. Sansa is once again stripped of much of her control, locked away and abused by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. Stannis is losing men and beasts to the advancing winter and is unwilling to sacrifice for a greater assurance of victory. Daenerys struggles to control an insurrection against her authority by marrying into the local ruling elite and agreeing to reopen the fighting pits. Jaime cannot convince his daughter, Myrcella, to return to King’s Landing, and Lady Olenna is surprised how little authority she has over the High Sparrow. Worst of all, Cersei has given up all of her authority to the Faith Militant, assuming that she could control them. In the end, only Littlefinger may be left smiling in the chaos.
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” – Littlefinger – Season 3, Episode 6
Growing up can be tough. Young adults crave independence and control, but rarely have the skills they need to claim it. Game of Thrones is, among many things, a tale of coming of age. Many of the characters start as children or adolescents, but there is little room in this world for the innocence of youth.
For most, childhood is wrested from them suddenly. Sansa and Arya witness the beheading of their father and then live through the eventual murder of their entire family. Daenerys’s late brother, Viserys, sells her in marriage to Khal Drogo in exchange for an army. Jon Snow, feeling like an outsider, impulsively joins up with one of the biggest bands of outcasts in Westeros, the Night’s Watch, pledging himself for life to an ascetic military order.
All of these young people have struggled, to varying degrees of success, to learn the tools that they need to survive in the adult world they were thrust into.
This season has proven to be a reckoning for the children who remain: as Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow, it is time to “kill the boy and let the man be born.” A few episodes ago, Arya had to cast off the symbols of her childhood in order to enter the House of Black and White. This week, “Kill the Boy” furthers the coming of age theme when Jon Snow takes a controversial, but critical stand as Lord Commander. Sansa, embedded deep in enemy territory, works in more subtle ways to stop being a “bystander to tragedy” and avenge her family. And across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys sheds some youthful naivety and shows her strength as queen.
In the penultimate episode of Season 4, a historically bloody chapter in every season thus far, “The Watchers on the Wall” features the long-awaited battle between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. Like the ninth episode of the second season (“Blackwater”), this one focuses solely on one location, culminating in an epic battle sequence that takes place over the course of a single night.
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins… I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
But this episode is more than just a well-choreographed and well-shot action film. It makes us care about characters whose names we could never quite remember, like Pyp and Grenn, and characters we may have actively disliked, like Ser Alliser Thorne. It ruminates on duty, love, leadership, and masculinity, all while delivering intensely fun visual spectacles (like the giant arrow piercing the man over the Wall or the huge scythe shaving the climbers off the Wall).
It’s amazing that no one else on the continent knows that this battle is taking place, since there is so much at stake for them should a hundred thousand wildlings succeed in breaching the Wall. As the oath says, “I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” The men of the Night’s Watch fulfill their duty in spectacular fashion– for now.
In one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, aptly titled “The Mountain and the Viper,”Game of Thrones takes another look at the power of families. “Family, honor, all that horseshit. It’s all you lords and ladies ever talk about,” the Hound says to Arya. What he doesn’t acknowledge is the overwhelming affect that families have– not only on the course of events in Westeros, but also over the individuals within.
For starters, Gilly’s very life is spared because Ygritte finds her with baby Sam in her arms and takes pity. Grey Worm and Missandei, who never had an opportunity to really know their own families, are beginning to cultivate a relationship and find comfort in each other. For Ramsay Snow, the bastard of Roose Bolton, it means so much to be officially acknowledged as a Bolton: heir to the North, but more importantly, a legitimate member of the family. Theon uses his family name to invade and influence the otherwise-impregnable Moat Cailin and the immovable Greyjoy forces stationed within. Sansa reveals her family name in order to gain the confidence and compassion of the powerful lords of the Vale, but later sheds the Stark name in order to take on a new identity that is all her own. Tyrion and Jaime bond as brothers right before the trial by combat, and Oberyn Martell fights bravely because he demands justice– not for Tyrion, but for his sister. In the game of thrones, family is an important, ever-present source of power.