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Game of Thrones season 7, episode 5: 6 winners and 6 losers from “Eastwatch”

Everybody’s a winner in this episode — but everybody’s a loser, too.

Game of Thrones
Daenerys and Jon aren’t quite super best pals, but you can tell they’re close.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“Eastwatch” is a curious episode of television, because it mostly functions as a brand new season premiere. Call it the first episode of Game of Thrones, season 7A.

With most of the conflicts that have defined the season so far largely thrown into relief by last week’s cataclysmic battle, the show now has to come up with some new ones. That means “Eastwatch” is yet another table-setting episode of Game of Thrones (though one with quite a few fun moments and scenes), but also one where the storytelling keeps setting up quests and goals that should be easily resolved but can’t be because the season has a few more episodes in it.

Don’t get me wrong. Jon capturing a wight in order to convince Cersei that the army of the dead is a real thing isn’t going to be easy. But in terms of the show’s storytelling, there aren’t a lot of stops along the way from “Jon heads North” and “Jon captures a wight.” So this episode is mostly taken up with setting this plan — and a handful of others — in motion, while also mopping up the last few bits of last week’s battle.

That leaves behind a slightly more ruminative episode than the others we’ve seen this season, one that returns to some of the “cost of warfare” moments from the season premiere (that the show has mostly dropped). It takes its time, instead of galloping forward, full tilt, and that’s the right call at this point in the season. Everybody could use a breather.

That in mind, here are six winners and six losers who made “Eastwatch” a mild comedown from “The Spoils of War.”

Winner: #TeamDany, for hoarding basically all of the good characters

Game of Thrones
Like Varys! Hi, Varys!

Things are starting to look mighty sparse on the other side of the lines in the war for the Seven Kingdoms.

Daenerys doesn’t just have Tyrion and Varys on her side. No, now she has Jorah back, with Jon and Davos as fairly strong allies. Add in Gendry (Gendry!) and some of the folks Jon hooks up with in Eastwatch (who will presumably join this side when the time comes), and you have a bounty of riches.

Back in King’s Landing, there’s who? Jaime and Cersei? Bronn’s taken his leave, and Qyburn is mostly muttering to himself these days. Gregor’s not much of a conversationalist. The Cersei story has gotten so empty of non-Lannister characters that I was honestly surprised to see that Fleabottom apparently still has people living in it. I half suspected the entire city had been abandoned.

Now, granted, Dany has gained all of these allies because she’s shifted her focus (somewhat suddenly, I might add) to the Army of the Dead, which placates Jon and ropes in some of the hangers-on who head North with him.

But I have to admit that I thought the series was doing something with the idea that she’d gotten a little power hungry, before the second half of the episode abruptly shifted to Daenerys Targaryen: Team Mom. Maybe we’ll get an earnest accounting of her weak points in the weeks to come. Game of Thrones keeps tiptoeing up to examining her, then backing off. Some week, it will have to plunge over the cliff. A boy can dream!

Loser: Gendry’s character development, for happening entirely off-screen

Don’t get me wrong. Seeing Gendry again was a lot of fun.

But seeing him again only highlighted how it felt 100 percent arbitrary that he’s the guy who’s apparently going to help Jon capture the wight he needs to make a difference. The show tried to play up some of the parallels between these two guys and their fathers (or, rather, the man Jon thinks is his father), but it felt a little unearned because we were suddenly seeing Gendry again.

The last time we saw him, he was rowing away (something Davos notes, in a cheeky nod to fan memes involving the character), headed off into mystery, and now we find out he’s just been in King’s Landing all this time, training to become a great hero? I mean, I guess. But it feels like a cheat when you consider just how closely we’ve followed all of the other characters over these years. At least he has a giant hammer.

Winner: Kit Harington, for nicely underplaying a huge moment

I spent most of the first five seasons of Game of Thrones rolling my eyes at Kit Harington, who took an already bland character and seemed to flatten him out even further. Yes, Jon Snow — the honorable bastard and secret king — was the closest thing this series had to a fantasy cliché. But it often felt like the primary weapon in Harington’s arsenal was “looking handsome.”

Credit where it’s due, then: He’s been really, really good in the sixth and seventh seasons. His return from the dead has given him a singular focus on wiping out the army of the dead, and he’s gotten several big speeches and moments that he’s mostly delivered upon.

In “Eastwatch,” his biggest moment is entirely wordless. He reaches up to stroke Dany’s dragon, something only a person with Targaryen blood should be able to do. Harington’s hand trembles, ever so slightly. He seems like he’s about to throw up. But then, he reaches out. He touches the great beast. You can see in his eyes, deep down, the knowledge that something larger than himself is happening. It’s nicely acted.

Loser: Sam, for missing a series altering piece of information that just falls into his lap

Sam, giving up on being a Maester after being mistreated by the Arch-Maester and feeling full of guff about having to work his way up the ladder, abandons the Citadel in this episode, in favor of going off to become a great man. It’s really too bad he didn’t hear the whole thing Gilly said about Rhaegar’s marriage being annulled so he could marry some other woman. I can’t think of why that might be important.

Winner: Cersei, for scheming her way to another day alive

Game of Thrones
Cersei’s got this. Or so she thinks.

By all rights, Cersei should be approaching the end. She has money, sure, but that money can’t buy mercenaries who can take on three dragons and an army of Dothraki. She’s lost all of her allies. She doesn’t have food. Even Jaime seems like he’s growing more and more skeptical of her, to the degree where he’s meeting with Tyrion right under her nose. (She knows about it, of course.)

On the other hand, Cersei always finds a new ace in the hole. This time, it’s the revelation that she’s pregnant (or, at least, that she says she is). And while Cersei is fated to lose all of her children (and knows this), the pregnancy is all she needs to get Jaime right back in line with her vision of a Seven Kingdoms ruled by Cersei.

What’s more, she clearly realizes that the request for help in fighting the Army of the Dead is just a way for her to buy some time and figure out a better way to get rid of Dany, perhaps even in a way that keeps her own hands clean. Cersei is pretty clearly cornered at this point in the series, and I find it hard to believe she won’t prove her own undoing. But every single shot of the queen in this episode shows her brain whirring, Lena Headey’s eyes darting about as she considers just which of the ropes dangled in front of her might lead to survival and which lead to disaster. At this point, Cersei wins every time she makes it to a new episode, so good for her.

Loser: Jaime, for getting played all over the place

Literally every single Lannister sibling had some great stuff to play with in this episode, so let’s hit the other two in quick succession.

First we have Jaime, who handily survives last week’s near-drowning thanks to his good buddy Bronn, then promptly gets tricked by Bronn into meeting with Tyrion. And even though he’s not exactly inclined to listen to what Tyrion has to say, he pretty quickly changes his mind once he talks to his brother — at which point Cersei runs roughshod over whatever personal constitution he has with her little pregnancy reveal.

One of the things that’s always been beautiful about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance is how he plays Jaime’s knowledge that he’s just not as smart as either of his siblings. Sure, he’s not an idiot, but he knows that he’s powerless to withstand either Tyrion or Cersei when they really want him to do something. And yet he keeps falling for their schemes, over and over again. Jaime seems completely lost at this point in the series. He’s the one character who could take decisive action to end the war — probably by killing his sister — but also the one character who would never do that.

Loser: Tyrion’s conscience, for slowly surfacing at inopportune times

Game of Thrones
Tyrion sees the world of waste his queen leaves behind.

The episode’s early sections feature Tyrion’s slow stroll around the battlefield, looking over the charred remains of the Lannister army. You can almost see the part of his brain that’s shouting, over and over, “These people used to be on your side. They didn’t deserve this.”

And it’s true. If there’s one theme season seven has best introduced (albeit fitfully so), it’s the idea that this gigantic war has mostly caused horrible pain and suffering for too many people. Tyrion, who really did seem to hope Dany could take Westeros while lifting as few fingers as possible, now sees that there was never any way to achieve that goal without burning a lot of his former comrades alive, and that most of those former comrades were just normal, everyday men who probably didn’t deserve to be roasted.

This only becomes more apparent as he watches Dany burn the few survivors who won’t bend the knee to her, or later, when Gendry is forced to bash two guards in the head when they try to apprehend Tyrion. In this war, all of these people are just doing their jobs, and Tyrion doing his job will mean lots and lots of death. He can never keep his hands clean, and that weight is only growing on his soul.

Loser: House Tarly, for (mostly) being dead

Game of Thrones
TFW ur best hope is Sam.

Sam is still out there, and one presumes once the series ends, he and Gilly will take over the throne his father hoped he’d never sit on. But if you’re a Tarly loyalist at this point, you’re probably pretty worried about your future. RIP, Randyll and Dickon.

Winner: Aidan Gillen, for finally getting something to play this season

Aidan Gillen, who plays Littlefinger, has always been one of the show’s slyest performers, which has made this season’s choice to largely maroon him in a storyline where he watches other things happen from above. Isn’t this the guy who’s always scheming to achieve some other end? What’s his endgame here? Is it just to marry Sansa?

Yeah, that’s probably his endgame, but “Eastwatch” reveals he’s not going to get to that point without sowing some chaos along the way. Whatever he’s up to, it involves looking through Maester Luwin’s old scrolls — and/or setting up Arya to think that’s what he’s doing — and paying off lots of informants.

And the coup de grace here is that he knows Arya is onto him but seemingly doesn’t care (or he’s setting a trap for her). Gillen is always more fun when he’s plotting than when he’s watching, and this episode is proof positive of that.

Winner: Arya, for acquiring a new target

There was some debate about this in the Vox Game of Thrones Slack room, since, after all, Arya doesn’t know that Littlefinger knows that she knows. But I would argue she doesn’t need to know that. All she needs to know is that Littlefinger is up to no good, so she can justify killing him at some point in the next two episodes. Arya hasn’t bumped anybody off in a while. Her killin’ fingers must be getting itchy.

Loser: Sansa, for not having any clue what to do with her power fantasies

Most of the Northern bannermen are increasingly souring on the absent Jon, while growing more and more fond of the very present Sansa. It’s enough to introduce fantasies of taking over the throne in any young woman’s head.

But Sansa’s a good sister, so she mostly sits there and smiles and defends Jon’s decisions, even when you can tell she doesn’t agree with them. Arya knows her sister well enough to know that the temptation of becoming a ruler is right there, clanging away in her cerebellum, trying to make itself heard. And with every word Arya speaks, Sophie Turner’s smile grows tighter and tighter and tighter. Yes, she must think, I would be a great queen.

Not yet, though. For now, she’s still playing along with her (presumed) brother and play-acting at being her parents by moving into their chambers. At some point, you’d figure this would boil over — but not now.

Winner: Sales of Dungeons & Dragons modules, because that final sequence is going to move some units

Game of Thrones
The party assembles!

As I watched the great gate of Eastwatch open, admitting Jon and his party north of the Wall, all I could think was, Man, I wish I had some people to play D&D with right now.

Game of Thrones isn’t really a series that goes in for the sort of small-party questing that defines a lot of other fantasy literature (think, for instance, of the famed fellowship in the Lord of the Rings that sets off toward Mordor). It’s, instead, interested in the reality of grimy, awful battle, in what it would be like to be part of a gigantic medieval war with no signs of ceasing. It deconstructs fantasy most of the time — which makes it all the more satisfying when it leans heavily into those tropes.

So, yes, I want to see Jon, the Hound, and all their pals head north to do battle with the Army of the Dead. I want to see Jon and the Night King face off again. But perhaps even more critically, I want to act this story out around a table with some friends. Some storytelling tropes are tired, but others are tried and true. A small party against overwhelming odds, with a seemingly impossible goal? More please!

Other winners: Jim Broadbent, for giving his all to a pretty pointless character; Gilly, because nobody listens to her; the Night King, who loves nothing more than people talking about him; Bronn, who knows that dragons are too much for him, man; Bran, for doing whatever it is he does, because it’s clearly working; the Wall, for standing for thousands and thousands of years.

Other losers: Dickon Tarly, for being introduced just to get killed; kissing, because the only people doing it are Jaime and Cersei and that’s surprising to me at this point; HBO, which probably wishes it had more than two episodes left; the Wall, for almost certainly coming down later this season, thanks to everybody talking about how long it’s stood without crumbling; your humble reviewer, for no longer having a dedicated D&D group.