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(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we’ll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

After last week’s fireworks, Game of Thrones settled down just bit for “Eastwatch,” an hour dedicated to maneuvering all of the vital players into the right positions for another round of fireworks next week. But unlike other “table setting” episodes of past seasons, the unrelenting pace of season 7 applies to even the chapters where everyone is taking a breath.

Resetting the Table

As longtime viewers know, Game of Thrones takes its time to set up its dominoes before it topples them. But the wait is always worth it. The series doesn’t so much knock the dominoes down as it smashes them with a warhammer, grinding them into dust and leaving a great big mess to be cleaned up for those who survived. The table setting episodes that follow the show’s grandest moments are a requirement – someone has to sort through the wreckage, the characters need to take a breather to see what to do next, and the show’s producers need a less expensive hour so they can save money for the next major event.

“Eastwatch” is a classic table setting episode, an hour in which everyone stands around so they can talk about what went down last week in hushed whispers while maneuvering into place for next week’s action. But since this is Game of Thrones season 7, it was a table setting episode operating in fast forward. Characters collided and met at a speed that boggles the mind and the cast continued to reveal that they had found a way to pause the game and select “fast travel” rather than trudge across the continent. I’ve written about this season’s faster pace before and I continue to have mixed feelings about it…but in the case of “Eastwatch,” there’s no denying that it made what could have been a filler episode into something a little more exhilarating.

Take the arrival of Jorah Mormont on Dragonstone, for instance. In a previous, slower season, this would have been a grand event, possibly the defining moment of an entire episode. Here, in an hour so full of reunions and reveals and thrilling team-ups, it’s Just Another Thing That Happens. Yet, this Just Another Thing That Happens is as thrilling and emotional and exciting as anything else! But it’s minor enough in the grand scheme that I’m talking about it here rather than devoting an section to it below. Jorah Mormont is reunited with his Queen after having his incurable disease healed by the best friend of the (supposed) bastard whose father exiled him from Westeros in the first place and it’s still the least exciting thing to happen in the episode.

Yeah, “Eastwatch” is resetting the board and getting us ready for the next episode, but it’s doing so at a pace that demands each and every scene to be vital and alive with character and drama and purpose. Game of Thrones has traded logic for the sense of being thrillingly alive in a way it has never been before. It’s a trade-off that has proven divisive amongst fans, but you can’t argue with the results – this is a “breather” episode so packed with incident that doesn’t even allow for a two-minute restroom break.

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House Tarly Roasting on an Open Fire

After a string of catastrophes at the hands of the more subtle and scheming Lannisters, Daenerys Targaryen finally entered the war last week and brought down devastation unlike anything we have ever seen on this show. The handful of soldiers who did survive found themselves facing a choice: bend the knee for their new dragon queen or die. After suffering various military humiliations at the hands of Euron Greyjoy and Jaime Lannister, the Mother of Dragons is done messing around. It’s time for business. It’s time for fire and blood.

Most of the surviving Lannister forces ultimately bow before their conqueror. How could they not? Think back to the season premiere, when Arya shared a meal with a crew of Lannister troops. Remember that they weren’t die-hards committed to a cause – they were just young men looking for wages, fighting because it was a job and pledged to their lords only because of where they happened to reside. The kings and queens may fight for something (whether it be themselves or a grander idea), but these guys? The ones getting decimated by Dothraki and roasted by dragons because a bunch of powerful people want to sit on the fancy chair? They’re going to do what it takes to survive.

Except for Randyll Tarly. When we first met Samwell’s father last season, he lived up to the stories told about him back in the first season: he was tough, relentless, unforgiving, cold, and cruel. However, the aspects that made him a terrible father make him the ideal bannerman. He’s not going to bend or break so easily. And why should he? He’s not some peasant elevated by a set of red and gold armor. He’s the head of a noble House – a mid-tier house to be sure, but a House that holds its fair share of sway. He stands for something. He stands for Westeros. And he’s not going to bend the knee for a foreign invader who is only here because she thinks she deserves the seat that was (rightfully, let’s remember) taken from her family.

Call Randyll Tarly stupid. Call him stubborn. Call him arrogant or cold or short-sighted. But let’s also call him committed and fearless and loyal. When Daenerys roasts him alive with Drogon’s flames, he dies doing what he is convinced is the right thing. There’s something noble about that, even if the guy being noble in his final moments is a real son of a bitch. Unfortunately, poor Dickon Tarly, Samwell’s younger brother and, by all accounts, a pretty decent guy, volunteers to join his father rather than bow to a new leader and save House Tarly from oblivion. In their final moments, let’s add one more adjective to this doomed duo: selfish. There is now a widow at the top of House Tarly and a young girl is now missing a father and a brother. With Sam committed to the Night’s Watch, another House may have just crumbled. Whether their sacrifice was the noble choice or a poor one…well, let’s leave that one to the history books.

In any case, there was one man opposed to the whole “murder the heads of the House Tarly with a dragon” plan, and that was Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys’ Hand of the Queen. In “Eastwatch,” we see the crafty advisor realize that his advice is easily ignored and the resulting bloodbath has echoes of the Mad King, whose obsession with burning his enemies alive ignited Robert’s Rebellion in the first place. In one of the episode’s most sobering scenes, Tyrion and Varys share some wine in the Dragonstone throne room and ponder what it means to serve someone unafraid of committing atrocities. Varys, never one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, lets his guard down: he served the Mad King and justified his role as just following orders. The blood wasn’t on his hands, but it’s certainly on his mind now. Daenerys is young. She’s full of fury and rage, almost all of it justified. And while those are powerful tools, they must be wielded responsibly. Tyrion must learn from Varys’ example – to stand by and watch without complaint is the same as shouting “Dracarys” yourself.

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