‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: Fire and Hope Amid Shifting Alliances and Dilemmas

Game of Thrones Season 7
Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

SPOILER ALERT: Do not keep reading unless you’ve seen “Game of Thrones” Season 7 Episode 5, titled “Eastwatch.”

Here’s a pitch: “Ocean’s 11,” but instead of a heist at a casino, a bunch of bearded guys swipe an undead warrior from behind the frosty Wall.

That’s the ending of the substantial and satisfying “Eastwatch,” an episode in which alliances once again formed and broke apart, potential allies found each other and chickens came home to roost.

Or dragons. Dragons came home to roost. Dragons are frightening. Unless you’re Jon Snow. (Hey, King in the North, no matter how cute it is, you are not allowed to take home a dragon as a pet.)

Fans who are aware of the truth of Jon’s parentage got two more bits of information about that in this episode: Gilly found a reference to the annulment and secret marriage of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. According to clues the show has dropped in the past, the prince wed Lyanna Stark, who gave birth to Jon and gave him to Ned Stark to raise. All of this — long the subject of fervent fan speculation — was revealed in a vision that Bran Stark had during the previous season.

But an even more powerful clue about Jon’s family ties came when he got up close and personal with one of Daenerys’ dragons on that Dragonstone cliff-top. The beast landed right in front of the King in the North, who looked awed and deeply moved. He even touched the animal, who, like Jon, seemed to sense a special affinity between them. He even closed his giant eye in a moment of quiet pleasure as Jon stroked his scaly hide.

Daenerys was also fascinated by this meeting, though of course, she didn’t quite know what to make of Jon’s relative comfort around an enormous fire-breathing creature who could reduce him to cinders without even breaking a sweat. 

It was a wonderfully rendered scene — kudos to both Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, who, during production, are probably looking at crew members waving around inanimate props where a dragon should be. But they sold that encounter, not to mention the two rulers’ budding friendship. Jon did not bend the knee, nor did she force him to do so, or make him stay on her island. But they parted ways understanding each other a little better, if not fully realizing how closely they appear to be related. 

All over the episode, the central questions of “Game of Thrones” — who gets to rule, was the might of the powerful justly gained, and is it being fairly deployed — got another series of workouts. There were no final answers, nor should there be, when the questions go to the heart of the show’s themes about the use of force and when it’s justified. But the actors’ faces did a wonderful job of reflecting the ambiguity and difficulty of the answers to those questions. If “Eastwatch” was not the literal barn-burner that “The Spoils of War” was, it was highly watchable, even though it was mainly concerned with moving pieces around the board and setting up the final part of the season. 

Dany may have chosen not to roast cities and castles in her first foray into Westeros, but you’d have a hard time telling the Tarley family that she’d make the perfect queen. Peter Dinklage’s face is one of the treasures of “Game of Thrones” — as impressive as any dragon, but without the scales — and this week and last, it reflected the fully justified inner tumult of the Hand of the Queen. As he stood on that hill next to Dany as she made the decision to kill the Tarleys, he was likely pondering the question many viewers may have had: If the alternative to “loyalty” is death, does that loyalty have a true, steadfast foundation? Or is it merely oppression by another name?

Tyrion and Varys compared ethical dilemmas in a quiet shared scene (and any time Dinklage and Conleth Hill are in the same room, it’s a reason to rejoice). But when “Game of Thrones” offers up low-key dialogue-driven interludes, they’re often quite gripping. Is it morally defensible, as Varys asks, to be merely adjacent to rulers who who kill their subjects? If said ruler thinks the reason for killing those people is  justified, must his or her servants always agree? Is silence the right play in that situation — or scheming to replace the ruler (or influence his or her thinking)? 

Sansa and Arya considered the same question back in Winterfell. Lady Stark could force others to bend to her will, but the citizens of the North believe in “working together” — even if it means Sansa has to deal with complaints, and must dutifully hold together fractious old and new alliances. Arya, schooled in a much more savage way of living, now believes force is always right and has no time for anything but black-and-white decisions. Given the chance, Arya would likely kill either Cersei or Daenerys, but is Arya’s worldview all that different from theirs?

In any event, Arya is not likely to care much about Littlefinger’s scheming: She may well just take him out in order to eliminate a potential threat to her sister, or to the North in general. Knowing Littlefinger, however, he’ll find a way either neutralize Arya or otherwise avoid ending up skewered on the pointy end of her sword. He seems determined to drive the sisters apart, and though that seems unlikely, it’s unwise to count him out. Like Davos Seaforth (and many of the other characters left in this saga), Littlefinger’s a survivor. 

When not throwing ethical quandaries at its characters, the episode took time for a few humorous asides (like many “Game of Thrones” fans, Davos wondered if perhaps Gendry had been rowing a boat all this time). He was not, and the former blacksmith gladly jumped at the chance to confront dead men north of the wall. (Sidebar: Does that army march particularly slowly? Do they go in giant circles? Because it’s taken them a long time to get anywhere of any real importance. But hey, I won’t elaborate on that complaint, for fear that the Night King will find and fillet me.)

Another lighter moment — well, as light as “Game of Thrones” gets these days — Cersei told her brother that she’s pregnant with their child. Ick, on one level. But speaking of wonderful, wordless performances, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was truly impressive, taking Jaime’s reaction fromstunned shock to unexpected joy with subtle grace. Not much looks hopeful to Jaime at this juncture — watching most of your army reduced to dust by a dragon will put a damper on your week — but he has hope, if only a slender and very small one.

The unlikely array of men going beyond the wall may not have much in the way of resources or even time; their voluntary alliance is all they’ve got. They’re not an army as much as they are a motley collection of dudes who don’t like each other very much. It’s a freezing, unforgiving wasteland they’re heading into, but at least they have each other. There is a spark of hope in the alliance among these men, who include Tormund, Jon Snow, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Gendry and Jorah Mormont, among others.

They’re exiles, princes, kings, bastards, maniacal believers, killers, soldiers. They’re all those things, and they’re also just people — tired, cold, stubborn people. All of them just want to stay alive, and are willing to put aside everything else to focus on a wild, unlikely solution to their common dilemma.

Our world may be a pretty grim place these days, but there may be hope yet for Westeros.