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Game of Thrones season 7: (Spoiler)’s return, that letter, and that dragon-petting, explained

Here’s how “Eastwatch” called back to earlier episodes.

Helen Sloan / HBO
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode five, “Eastwatch.”

After the spectacular dragon battle of “The Spoils of War,” this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Eastwatch,” paused to take a breath and set things up for what looks to be the show’s next big conflict.

But amongst Jon Snow’s departure for a mission beyond the Wall with a motley crew of supporting characters and Tyrion Lannister’s attempt to arrange a summit between Queen Daenerys and Queen Cersei, we saw intriguing developments in several of the series’ long-running subplots.

We got another hint that Jon Snow’s father is a Targaryen — something Game of Thrones has heavily implied but never outright confirmed, and something that certainly puts an ickier sheen on all of those Jon/Dany flirtation scenes.

Meanwhile, another royal bastard — Gendry, son of the late King Robert Baratheon — popped up again. We last saw Gendry all the way back in season three, and “Eastwatch” reunited him not only with Davos (who saved his life from Stannis in that season), but the Brotherhood without Banners (who handed him over to Stannis in the first place).

Finally, Littlefinger seems to have a plan to sow chaos among the Stark sisters, and that plan involves an old letter signed by Sansa. And it’s pretty clear what the letter is, if we think all the way back to season one.

Here’s some more background and context that help explain each of these subplot developments.

Jon Snow pets a dragon — in yet another hint that he’s a Targaryen

Let’s start off with one scene that could prove enormously consequential to the series: Jon Snow actually petted one of Dany’s dragons, and ... it went great! The dragon seemed to rather like Jon.

This should be no surprise to avid consumers of Game of Thrones fan theories, since the leading theory on Jon Snow’s mysterious parentage has long been that he is not actually Ned Stark’s son but is instead the child of Ned’s late sister Lyanna Stark and Dany’s late older brother Rhaegar Targaryen.

This theory was apparently confirmed in the season six finale, in which Bran saw a vision flashing back to when Ned discovered that his sister Lyanna, who he thought was Rhaegar’s prisoner, had just given birth to a baby boy. There are still some loose ends (Lyanna whispered something in Ned’s ear that we couldn’t make out), but the dramatic smash-cut from a close-up of the baby’s face to one of the adult Jon Snow’s face was obvious.

If Jon is indeed a Targaryen, Drogon’s friendliness toward him in this episode makes a whole lot of sense: George R.R. Martin’s books establish that the dragons naturally seem drawn to people with Targaryen blood. This could even foreshadow Jon riding one of Dany’s dragons at some point, since two of them are still conspicuously riderless.

And it also adds an uncomfortable subtext to the increasingly common scenes in which Jon and Dany flirt with each other. Dany is Rhaegar’s younger sister, which would make her Jon’s aunt. So the two are on a slow-motion trajectory toward incest, and they don’t yet realize it.

Finally, there was one more scene with potential implications for Jon that sure seemed interesting. Down in Oldtown, Gilly was reading through some old records and read that a Prince “Ragger” secretly had his marriage annulled in Dorne, so he could marry someone else. Sam blows past this, but if Gilly was in fact trying to read the word “Rhaegar” it would have enormous implications.

Fans of the books have long speculated that Rhaegar might have secretly married Lyanna ... which, if true, would therefore make Jon not only a Targaryen but a legitimate Targaryen (rather than a bastard). In fact, it would make Jon the rightful heir to the Targaryen throne — as the Crown Prince’s son, he’d even be ahead of Dany in the line of succession. (Though lines of succession don’t seem to matter much in Westeros these days.)

Gendry has returned. Here’s a reminder of his backstory.

Remember me? It’s been a while.

Meanwhile, during Tyrion and Davos’s excursion into King’s Landing, the show reintroduced a long-missing character — Gendry, played by Joe Dempsie — and positioned him to play a major role in the plot going forward.

We were first introduced to Gendry midway through season one. While Ned Stark was investigating King’s Landing’s various mysteries, he was introduced to Gendry, a seemingly unremarkable blacksmith’s apprentice. Ned soon discerned that Gendry was in fact a bastard son of King Robert Baratheon (a fact Gendry remained unaware of).

After Robert’s death and the ascension of Prince Joffrey to the throne, Gendry was warned that he wasn’t safe and that he should leave the city. He joined a traveling party that was recruiting men for the Night’s Watch — a party that included an incognito Arya Stark. (As well as Hot Pie.)

Gendry and Arya went through a lot together and bonded, sending shippers’ hearts a-flutter despite Arya’s then-young age. They were attacked by Lannister forces and taken prisoner in season two. They eventually escaped (with the help of Arya’s favorite Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar), but by the beginning of season three, they were prisoners again, this time of the Brotherhood Without Banners.

Led by Beric Dondarrion and the red priest Thoros of Myr, the Brotherhood was an outlaw group that professed to fight for the people of Westeros. And at first, Gendry liked what they were selling, and volunteered to join the group.

But it turned out the Brotherhood also served another master: the Lord of Light, the god they believed was responsible for Beric’s multiple resurrections from the dead. So when another servant of that god — Melisandre — showed up and said she needed Gendry, Beric and Thoros handed him right over.

After finally telling the boy about his royal father and bringing him to Dragonstone, Melisandre made clear that she had big plans for Gendry: She wanted to burn him alive as part of a magical ritual she hoped would change Stannis Baratheon’s fortunes in the war. But the good-hearted Davos Seaworth stepped in, defying his king to smuggle Gendry out of the castle, sending him off in a rowboat at the end of season three.

Three and a half seasons later, Gendry is back. Since we last saw him, he’s apparently been living a placid life as a blacksmith in King’s Landing. But as we saw in “Eastwatch,” he was ready and willing to abandon that life, first to follow Davos out of the city, and then to join Jon Snow on an important mission north of the Wall. There, he met his old nemeses in the Brotherhood once again. And he now wields a hammer as his weapon of choice, like his father.

We’re still waiting for Gendry’s all-important reunion with Arya. However, his sudden reappearance is a reminder that the Game of Thrones showrunners have forgotten little, and they’re eager to tie up loose ends from earlier seasons as they head toward their finale.

What that mysterious Littlefinger letter seems to be

Think back to this scene in season one.

Finally, up in Winterfell, Sansa and Arya’s heartwarming reunion last week is now a thing of the past, as tensions are on the rise between the two sisters — tensions that Littlefinger seems to be planning to exacerbate.

Arya saw the wily schemer obtaining an old letter of some sort written by Sansa. Then, when Littlefinger left his room, Arya broke in and found the letter — and seemed quite disturbed by its contents. And then, when she left, we saw Littlefinger hiding and watching her, suggesting that he wanted her to find the letter all along.

We only saw the letter for a second onscreen, but through the magic of modern technology, here’s what (part of) it says:

The few phrases we can make out here — “swear fealty to King Joffrey” and “tried to steal his throne” — make it clear just what this is. It’s a letter Sansa sent to her family under duress, and partially at Littlefinger’s own urging, while she and Ned were Cersei’s prisoners back in season one.

The exact text of the letter was never read on screen back then, but the gist appeared to be that Ned had been arrested for treason and that the Starks should come to King’s Landing and swear their loyalty to Joffrey.

When the Starks did receive it back in season one, they quickly dismissed it as being Cersei’s words and not Sansa’s own. But Arya isn’t aware of all this backstory, and seeing this letter could worsen the doubts she already has about her sister’s ambitions.