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8 winners and 4 losers from Game of Thrones’ terrific “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Winners: Brienne! Chiaroscuro lighting! The audience! Losers: Whatever that Sansa and Dany scene was.

Game of Thrones
Tyrion and Jaime drink to their health — and their almost certain death.
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.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is the sort of episode that first made me fall in love with Game of Thrones.

It contains plenty of clunky scenes, and it’s remarkable how little we know about how the Jon and Dany alliance plans to fight the Night King. But the core of the episode is a bunch of beloved characters spending one last, long night together, before the White Walkers arrive to possibly turn them into ice zombies.

The whole thing takes place in and around Winterfell, over what amounts to a 12-hour period, and you can almost feel writer Bryan Cogman and director David Nutter thrilling to the prospect of only having to service this one specific window of time in these characters’ lives, before they get stuck in yet another giant battle.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” reminded me that what got viewers hooked on Game of Thrones wasn’t the spectacle or the battles. It wasn’t even the crazy twists or the political intrigue. It was how the show’s collection of characters felt just a little like real people living through massive, life-changing events. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was a marked improvement over the season eight premiere and the kind of episode that Game of Thrones needed to have before it descends into the chaos of the impending war with the Night King.

So the episode overall was a winner. But let’s break out some other winners and losers from within the episode itself.

Winner: Death

If there’s a central theme of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” it’s that death is coming for us all, but also, more specifically, for the hardy band of warriors gathered at Winterfell.

The White Walkers have always been a little paltry in terms of metaphor. They can stand in for climate change or for evil or for whatever you want, but they’re not really characters so much as an overwhelming force. I’ve always assumed that George R.R. Martin will ultimately find a way to undercut the one-size-fits-all, generically evil nature of the White Walkers in his books, but the show, seeing how little time is left (just four more episodes after this one!), goes all in on making the White Walkers stand in for death itself.

It works so much better than I ever would have expected it to. From Sam musing on the way that the White Walkers’ desire to wipe humankind from the map parallels the way death makes us forget (and causes us to be forgotten) to the constant refrains of “We’re all going to die here!” from just about everybody, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” zeroes in on who these characters are, who they were, and where they’re going, as the world seemingly draws to a close.

My favorite scene in this regard felt like what happens at a wedding reception when guests start to peel off from the main party and go hang out by the hotel pool with a few drinks. Except here, the characters were peeling off from the long overnight wait for the Night King to arrive in favor of sitting by a crackling fire. (They still had a few drinks.)

It’s a scene that occasionally brings up the specter of death directly (mostly when Tyrion can’t seem to let go that this little group of people is going to die fighting to save Winterfell when they’ve all battled the Starks at one time or another), but it’s largely an indirect reflection on this idea. When you know your hours are probably limited, what are you going to do with those last few hours? Who are you going to spend them with? Well...

Winner: Ser Brienne

Game of Thrones
We did it, everybody.
Helen Sloan/HBO

The “Knight” of the episode’s title turns out to be Brienne, who has in all her time on the series never been knighted, because that’s not something women can do in the Seven Kingdoms. She plays it off as though she doesn’t care much, but the more Tormund goes on about how he would knight her 10 times if he could, the more you can see in Gwendoline Christie’s eyes how much it gets to Brienne that she probably should be a knight, dangit.

And then Jaime says, oh, hey, cool power I have — I can just knight anybody I want, and he proceeds to do just that, inducting Brienne into the Seven Kingdoms’ order. And if she somehow survives with a few of these other folks alongside her, is anybody really going to strip her of the title? (Okay, yeah, “stripping Brienne of her title” is definitely in Cersei’s wheelhouse.)

Brienne’s knighting — and her teary, smiling reaction to it — is the episode’s high point, and it’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a TV show nearing its end. We’ve lived with both Brienne and Jaime, together and separately, for so long that this moment has real depth to it.

And even if I question the idea that everybody else in the room would be so ready to applaud for her, I’ll allow it on the grounds of all of the characters standing in for the audience.

But that’s not all! Brienne is also pretty high up the chain of command in the coming battle, she seems to be the only person who’s put thought into military strategy on the entire show, and Jaime says he’ll be happy to serve under her. Brienne is one of Game of Thrones’ few characters whose moral muddle is mostly untainted by one dark act or another, so it’s nice to see that recognized by somebody.

Winner: Jaime

For somebody who started this episode on trial for his life, Jaime actually had a pretty great time of things throughout the hour (which all but guarantees he’s gonna die next week, huh?).

He saw Brienne again for the first time in years. He more or less reconciled with Tyrion. He convinced Dany not to kill him. He even kinda sorta worked things out with Bran, whom he pushed out a window and paralyzed so long ago. (That the clip from Game of Thrones’ pilot of Jaime pushing Bran out the tower window turned up in the “Previously on” segment just might have been my favorite thing about this episode.)

Is everything coming up Jaime? Not just yet. But for a character who’s sometimes felt a little stranded in recent seasons, trapped in a toxic, codependent relationship with his sister that Game of Thrones struggled to find new facets of, it’s nice to have at least one episode where the character is back at his best.

Winner: Jaime/Brienne shippers

Yeah, baby, there’s a love match coming to town! Jaime and Brienne 4eva!

(Also, do you remember how Jaime said he wanted to die in the arms of the woman he loved in season five? It seems pretty obvious where this one is going.)

Loser: Tormund/Brienne shippers

Look, I love Tormund, especially when he boasts that a giant raised him as her baby for three months(!), but he can’t knight just whomever he wants, which really puts him a couple of steps behind Jaime. (That said, Tormund seems more likely to survive the next episode, so remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint, buddy.)

Winner: Arya/Gendry shippers

Game of Thrones
So this is happening.

Apparently a lot of people have been shipping Arya and Gendry all this time, hoping the two would bump into each other again and hook up. And this is the one potential love connection that Game of Thrones decides to pay off in this episode, as Arya loses her virginity to Robert Baratheon’s bastard son. (Wild how he’s still bombing around, right?)

Arya and Gendry have never been my pairing of choice on the show — it sorta feels like Arya should hook up with, like, a personification of death or something — and Nutter’s directorial choices seemed all but destined to send concerned and/or titillated viewers racing to Google to see how old Maisie Williams is. (Which Google Trends informs me they did. Great! Well, I can play that game: “Arya Game of Thrones how old?” Actress Maisie Williams was born April 15, 1997, and just turned 22.)

But, hey, good for these two crazy kids. And now if they both survive the coming battle, the aftermath could be really awkward for them, which could be fun.

Loser: That scene with Daenerys and Sansa trying to find common ground

Cogman’s script for this episode is lyrical and melancholy, which is exactly the right balance for a story about a bunch of people confronting their deaths. But at the same time, it’s got this one leaden scene early on, when Dany and Sansa sit down to chat about their complicated family situations, then spend most of the conversation summarizing the plot of Game of Thrones to one another.

Do I understand this? In the pure sense of “here’s what the scene was trying to accomplish,” sure. Sansa and Dany have just met, and trying to find common ground is a smart way for Dany to win over a very skeptical ally. And Emilia Clarke and Sophie Turner have a brittle chemistry that feels like it could lead somewhere interesting.

But in execution, the scene was a dead end for whatever momentum the episode had built to that point. It felt, briefly, like it was going to suggest that Sansa and Dany had buried the hatchet, completely improbably, before Sansa asked Dany what she’s going to do about the North, which has vowed independence, once the war is over. (Dany gently removed her hand from atop Sansa’s.) It was an okay payoff, but probably not worth such a long scene of exposition to get there.

What’s more, the rest of the episode for these two characters wasn’t much better. Dany found out that Jon might have a more legitimate claim to the throne than she does, and she had to deal with the whole “Tyrion and Jorah both want to be the Hand, and they’re both in love with me, but it’s all in the subtext, so I can’t possibly know that” thing.

And then Sansa seems like she’s being set up for some sort of romantic thing with Theon, which, what? I don’t actually think Game of Thrones will go there, but still, that brief shot where the two of them stare all moony-eyed at each other has me very worried.

Winner: Chiaroscuro lighting

Game of Thrones
Sansa and Daenerys in the half-lit shadows.
Helen Sloan/HBO

I complain a lot about the lighting on Game of Thrones. It’s a popular pastime among those of us who watch TV professionally, as well as many people who don’t. The show is so frequently so dim that viewers can’t possibly make out what’s going on.

But you know what? David Nutter and cinematographer David Franco did a solid job in giving this episode an eerie and wintry feel without burying it in shadows.

Chiaroscuro lighting — which dramatically highlights the contrast between darkness and light — has become all the rage in television these days because it’s an easy way to convey the feeling of “prestige” without having to actually work to tell a good story (here’s me complaining about this trend as seen on the show Ozark).

And so shows have buried their scenes in darkness and shadow, rather than trying to highlight the difference between dark and light, in the way that, say, legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis did in the Godfather movies.

The popularity of this lighting technique in recent years is probably directly attributable to Game of Thrones, where the show’s “we exist before electric light” construct at least gives it a defense for an aesthetic that so many other shows aping its look can’t possibly hope to justify. But even Game of Thrones has sometimes felt as though its characters are being swallowed up in darkness.

Imagine my surprise, then, that “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was full of scenes where the contrast between light and dark wasn’t just handled well, but often very subtly. And most of those scenes also featured realistic reasons for why the lighting was the way it was, as when that roaring fire all of the characters gathered around in the episode’s best scene provided most of the light.

Game of Thrones sometimes seems dark for the sake of being dark, but “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was such an exemplary episode that the rest of television could do worse to look to it as an example. There, it seemed to say, that’s how you do it. And, yes, if Game of Thrones wins a cinematography Emmy for this episode, well ... I’d be fine with that.

Loser: Military tactics

Look: I didn’t really want to see an episode where the characters broke down their battle plans for the coming war, because that sounds boring. (One prominent dissenter: Vox’s own Matt Yglesias, who seemed perturbed on Twitter that the episode didn’t feature more strategizing.) I don’t know that I even needed a full scene of that.

But it would have been nice to see some evidence that these folks have a plan for what to do next beyond Brienne’s vague gestures toward a rise that might give the forces of the living a tactical advantage, and Bran suggesting he would be really great bait for the Night King. (Mad Max saying “That’s bait” dot gif.)

(By the way, if Game of Thrones pulls the old “you only have to defeat the leader to defeat the horde” thing from way too many other sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories by having the Night King’s death lead to the death of all White Walkers, I will scream.)

This is perhaps best summed up by a scene where Davos serves soup to a bunch of soldiers. Remember how the season premiere had a fleeting moment where Sansa asked how the army was going to be fed? Did you ever imagine the answer would be, “Davos is going to serve them soup”? This is just a further example of how Game of Thrones has largely given up on creating a politically sustainable alternate reality in favor of going for the easiest possible explanations.

It didn’t even look like good soup. (Okay, that’s almost certainly the point.)

Winner: Emotional strategizing

Game of Thrones
See, that’s how we know Jaime will be able to die in Brienne’s arms, thus fulfilling the foreshadowing!
Helen Sloan/HBO

But I have to push back against the idea that “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” would have been improved by scenes featuring lots of military strategizing. Look at how the show spent most of the episode clarifying which characters are going to be where when the battle arrives.

This is standard “first act of a war movie” stuff, but it’s standard because it works. We want to know Jaime will be with Brienne, and Jorah will have Sam’s Valyrian steel sword, and Gilly will be down in the crypts. The show isn’t really preparing us for the physical reality of this battle, but it is preparing us for its emotional reality, letting us know whom we need to worry about when, and letting us feel the echoes of long-past events like Jorah being exiled from the Seven Kingdoms and his own family. (He has a very sweet scene in this episode with tiny Lyanna Mormont, who is the ruler of his house now.)

This is in keeping with Game of Thrones’ modus operandi. By and large, its military tactics are hogwash and make next to no sense if you think about them for five seconds. But it’s so good at underlining the emotional stakes of its battles that we find ourselves nodding along anyway. It doesn’t exactly excel at the thing where you understand why either side won or lost, but it does excel at making sure you know who is doing what and when.

There’s a montage late in the episode, set to Podrick’s performance of a lovely, lonesome song, and it flashes over several shots of characters essentially waiting to die. In some places, it’s almost a direct lift of a similar moment in the movie Titanic, and that’s another movie where you get the most high-level explanation possible of why the ship is sinking, so you can simply let go and watch as the characters dash around the boat, barely evading death in heart-rending fashion.

Bet you didn’t think we’d be comparing Game of Thrones to Titanic this season, huh?

Loser: The season premiere, “Winterfell”

By and large, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” repeats the plot points and character beats of “Winterfell,” sometimes note for note.

Somebody else finds out Jon is really Aegon Targaryen, but this time, it’s Daenerys learning the news from Jon. Characters are reunited. Schemes are hatched. Theon just kind of turns up in places, and it’s always really odd.

And because “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is such a good episode, “Winterfell” feels a little more disappointing in comparison — and I was already pretty disappointed in it! “Knight” has the soulfulness that “Winterfell” failed to achieve, thanks to its compressed “basically one long afternoon and night” timeframe and the way it keeps forcing characters together to talk about their feelings. And then it ends with a terrific promise of all-out war next week.

It would be one thing if “Winterfell” had been disappointing but dramatically different from “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” TV shows need table-setting episodes, after all, especially shows with as many pieces to place on the table as Game of Thrones. But I’m not sure this final season needed two table-setting episodes in a row, with such strikingly similar plot points. And then once it produced them, it probably wasn’t helped by having one of the episodes be so much better than the other.

“Winterfell” briefly made me worry that Game of Thrones might botch this last run of episodes. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” has now raised my hopes high enough that I’ll probably end up disappointed. But I do wish these first two hours hadn’t felt like two reiterations of the same basic idea, one that animates so many last stands in fantasy literature: Here we all are, yet again, at the end of things.

Winner: Cersei

She’s not even in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” but I said last week that she’ll always be a winner, and I always keep my word.

Also, everybody just sort of realizes that they’re not going to have a great plan for defeating Cersei’s army should they somehow survive the battle with the Night King and Cersei’s apparently hypnotic power to briefly make Tyrion think she had changed her ways almost led to his dismissal from Dany’s service.

Even when she’s not in the episode, she’s my favorite character. Hooray for Cersei! [The crowd cheers.]