'Game Of Thrones' Review: 'Eastwatch' Resets The Bloodstained Chessboard

(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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Samwell's New Mission (AKA Samwell Ignores Gilly's Super-Important Revelation)

Samwell Tarly still hasn't learned that his father and brother have been burnt alive by Jon Snow's new buddy (that's going to be an awkward conversation), but he is pretty sick and tired of life at the Citadel. Instead of learning how to defeat White Walkers, he's transcribing old scrolls and changing deadpans and being on the receiving end of skeptical maesters who think his talk of the impending undead invasion is nothing but nonsense. So he's done. He's had enough. He packs a wagon, puts on his old Night's Watch uniform, steals a few vital books from the library, and sets out with Gilly and the baby to where he'll actually be useful. Where his knowledge can actually save the day. Does this mean Dragonstone, Winterfell, or Eastwatch?

Let's dwell on Sam for a moment. For a guy who was introduced as being craven, a guy literally kicked out of his home by a cruel father who offered him death or the Night's Watch, he's really stepped up. In this patriarchal and medieval society, Sam is a round peg who will never fit the square pegs required for lords and leaders and heroes. He's sweet and sensitive and smart, a man who only needed the right guidance and the right set of responsibilities to firm up his backbone. Randyll Tarly, with his narrow vision, cannot see what we see: the committed boyfriend, the loving adoptive father, the skilled advisor, and the kind of guy who doesn't lead with courage but can summon it under the right circumstances. Samwell Tarly is probably the worst lead character in George R.R. Martin's books, a character whose chapters are nothing but piss and shit and sweat and whining, but the series has transformed him into something lacking in just about every corner of the show – a genuinely good person who leads with kindness.

But Sam is also a guy and he does the most guy thing imaginable in "Eastwatch." When Gilly reads about Prince Rhaegar getting his marriage annulled in Dorne, accidentally stumbling across the truth about Jon Snow's parentage, he dismisses her so he can wallow in his own frustration and anger. Sorry, Gilly. I'm sure millions of the show's female viewers can relate.

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A Brother, a Sister, and One Creepy Pregnancy

Last week, we saw things we had never seen on Game of Thrones before: a dragon frying legions of Lannister soldiers, Dothraki soldiers stampeding over the Westerosi countryside, Bronn looking legitimately afraid for his life. And all of this was not lost on Jaime Lannister, who escaped from the battle by the skin of his teeth (and only because the endlessly reliable Bronn pushed him out of the frying pan and into the dark, murky river).

So when Jaime, the experienced soldier and killer who has endured his fair share of tortures and mutilations, has to trudge home to tell his queen/sister/lover that he doesn't think they can win this war, it's a big deal. Of course, he also comes bearing the news that the late Olenna Tyrell confessed to killing their oldest son, so it's not what you'd call a fun conversation. This is a Jaime we've rarely seen: desperate, fearful, and entirely unsure of himself. The last time we saw him this shaken, he had just had his hand chopped off and he was confessing his darkest secrets to Brienne in a hot bath.

As grotesque as their relationship is, there is no doubt that Jaime is deeply in love with his sister. It's wrong, but it comes from an honest place, built on feelings that run deep within him. It's icky, but at least it's an honest kind of icky. Jaime is a complex guy driven by pretty straightforward motivations. He pushes children out of towers for love. He murders his own cousin for love. He leads armies for love. He's honest with his queen about their chances in this war for love. If not for all of the incest and murder, Jaime could be a...pretty okay guy? Maybe? Kind of? Sort of?

But Cersei has always known how to play her twin brother like a fiddle and that's why her big reveal, that she's pregnant with their fourth child, can't help but feel like a ploy. Her lover and general and partner in domination was wavering...how else do you get him to stop talking about surrender and recommit him to the cause? Simple. You give him something to fight for. Of course, I could be wrong. Cersei could be pregnant. But the timing feels awfully convenient and a fake pregnancy is such a Cersei move. As she tells Jaime, they'll fight Daenerys where they're strongest – off the battlefield, in the political trenches, where a sharp mind can outmaneuver a dragon. This is the war the Lannisters fight best and it's very likely Cersei has opened up a new front against her own brother.

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The Former Smuggler and the Dead King's Bastard

The last time we saw Gendry, the bastard son of King Robert Baratheon was rowing away from Dragonstone, escaping with his life after Davos freed him from Melisandre's clutches. Fans have spent the past four years joking about him, wondering if he was still rowing, possibly lost forever. So when Davos tracks Gendry down on the Street of Steel, where he is once again working as a blacksmith, his dialogue reads like a little wink, the showrunners' way of saying "Yeah, we knew you were wondering about him."

Gendry's return is a little convenient, but there's no denying that it's good to see him again (and eagle-eyed fans probably had his "surprise" return spoiled by actor Joe Dempsie's name in the opening credits). As we sprint to the finish line, Game of Thrones seems determined to tie up as many loose ends as possible, to converge as many storylines as possible, to stitch all of the dangling threads into a handful of tight storylines. The return of Gendry has the potential to feel like fan fiction, but "Eastwatch" sells it. It sells it by making his return the result of Davos genuinely caring about this kid and wanting to take him under his wing. It sells it by allowing him to form an instant connection to Jon, two bastards united by the fact that their families have fought and died together for years. With every noteworthy Baratheon dead and House Stark still reeling from the events of the past six seasons, the Gendry/Jon alliance is a powerful spark of flame in the winter. Allegiances don't die. They just take a break until the penultimate season forces everyone together again.

Anyway, it's all worth it because every scene with Davos and Gendry is a hoot. From the beach scene where the former smuggler's bribes and fermented crab plans fail spectacularly (forcing Gendry to smash in some Gold Cloak faces in a move that would have made his father proud) to the Onion Knight sarcastically noting that no one listens to him despite the fact that he's managed to live to a ripe old age in the deadly land of Westeros, these two bring out the best in one another. Hopefully, Gendry hasn't returned just so he can die in next episode's journey beyond the wall. I feel like he and Jon have a lot to talk about. And I feel like Davos could use a son to replace the one Tyrion blew up at Blackwater.

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Two Brothers, Both Alike in Dignity (or Lack Thereof)

Before Bronn was Jaime's right-hand thug, he belonged to Tyrion. So who better to arrange a clandestine meeting between the two Lannister brothers, who were, once upon a time, the best of buddies? However, the days of these two getting along swimmingly are long gone. That's what patricide and actively assisting a foreign invader in a war against your family's military will do to a friendship. Still, Jaime is the more reasonable of the two Lannisters residing in King's Landing and the only one who will let Tyrion speak before ordering him chopped in half. So while their conversation is civil, it's, well, fraught.

Their meeting exists solely to set up a future plot line, one that should further entangle Game of Thrones' surviving characters and tie the few remaining plot threads together. Tyrion wants Jaime to know that the dead are coming and that Jon Snow intends to bring an intact specimen to King's Landing to prove that there are bigger things afoot than the current war. It's a lot to swallow (even Tyrion is skeptical), but it plants a few seeds. The rebuilding of the bond between two brothers torn apart. Cersei's growing distrust of Bronn. The suggestion that the crown will soon have to start taking the stories of doom and gloom from the north a little more seriously. But above all, it's just good to see Nikolaj-Coster Waldau and Peter Dinklage in the same room again. They've always had a fine chemistry and have always reminded us that the often monstrous Lannisters have souls. Tattered, filthy souls, but souls nonetheless.

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Arya v Littlefinger: Dawn of Skulking

What happens when a deadly assassin goes head-to-head in a game of scheming with the craftiest manipulator in all of Westeros? Unfortunately, the latter gets exactly what he wants.

Things could be going better at Winterfell. While Sansa is doing a fine job of keeping the Stark bannermen in line, they're none-too-happy that their leader is still off at Dragonstone. It's tense and frustrating and Arya demands to know why her older sister, the Lady of Winterfell, isn't sticking up for their absent king. We know what Sansa knows: that she's playing the long and careful game, easing herself through tumultuous situations rather than making mistakes she won't live to regret. It's a lesson she learned the hard way: from being around Cersei, from being present for her father's death, and by trusting Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish a little too much.

But Arya, rightfully suspicious of just about anything and everything after her experiences in Westeros and Essos, starts playing detective. She notices Littlefinger having a series of meetings, exchanging little bags of gold for whispers. She notices him accept a message from Winterfell's maester. So she does what any pint-sized rogue with an interest in protecting her family would do: she picks Littlefinger's bedroom door lock, finds the message hidden away in his mattress, and finds what he's been hiding.

Of course, Littlefigner watches all of this from the shadows, a smile on his face. He meant for her to discover what she's discovered. He read the youngest Stark girl like a book, understood what she's become, and let her play right into his hands. Arya may be a dagger, but Littlefinger is a whisper in the ear. He's gravity. He's a stiff breeze. He's everything and anything that can affect the actual direction of a dagger. Even this late in the show, our leads have yet to understand the most important lesson of them all: Littlefinger is always three steps ahead of you. And he's happy to burn everything to ground and start over if it means a victory. The only thing, the only person, that ever actually mattered to him had her throat cut at the Red Wedding. The rest is collateral damage. The rest can be written off.

But what does that note say? Internet sleuths have already figured it out, but fans with long memories may recall exactly what this is all about (and consider this a spoiler if you want the revelation to arrive as intended in a future episode). As you may recall, Sansa was forced to write a letter to Robb Stark many seasons ago, informing him of Eddard's "betrayal" and telling him that he must come to King's Landing to bend the knee. Written under duress, the letter speaks fondly of the Lannisters, refers to Ned's traitorous ways, and is pretty much the kind of message a terrified young hostage would be forced to write by her captors. But Arya doesn't know this. She's been out in the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, for years. Littlefinger knows that a divided House Stark is a House Stark he can control...and he may have just turned the two Stark girls against each other.

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An Armistice in the Face of the Apocalypse

For years, Game of Thrones fans have wondered when someone would take one big step back from the conflict, notice that there is a literal zombie army marching toward Westeros, and say, "Hey, maybe we should stop stabbing each other in the back and deal with this." Jon Snow, finally in a position of real authority, was the first to say it out loud. And now, he's got Daenerys siding with him. And wouldn't you know it? Even Cersei is interested in this little armistice, even if her reasons have less to do with saving the realm and more to do with taking advantage of an armistice to get a little sneaky and find an upper hand.

Daenerys' newfound trust in the King in the North doesn't extend to lending him a dragon or an army, but it does extend far enough to let him return to the north with one of her most trusted men on a dangerous mission to prove that this threat is real. But seeds of a something more are definitely blossoming between the Dragon Queen and her secret nephew (that's still a weird thing to write). Jon Snow got up close and personal with Drogon and didn't even flinch. We could say that's because he's a secret half-Targaryen, but it's also because Jon, the most direct, bold, and brave character on the show, really has seen it all. Jon Snow has faced zombies, white walkers, massive Wildling armies, and even death itself. Jon Snow is done being surprised by anything.

And who knows? Maybe that's exactly what Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen wants in a king (and that's before you recall that Targaryens always wed Targaryens, making them a match made in a totally creepy heaven).

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The Magnificent Seven

Very little of "Eastwatch" actually takes place at Eastwatch, a Night's Watch castle that has been criminally undermanned and unmaintained for years. However, the title is appropriate because it's where everyone is going, the location that the entire episode builds toward. It is at Eastwatch that Jon Snow and his ragtag band will venture beyond the Wall. It is at Eastwatch where a small team of unlikely allies will try to press pause on a war by proving that there really is an undead invasion threatening every living thing in Westeros. To see the line-up of characters venturing beyond the Wall is to understand why the show had to move so quickly this season and why "Eastwatch" is so jam-packed with reunions and meetings and impossible travel times.

There's Jon Snow, the King in the North and one of the few men to have faced a White Walker and lived to tell the tale. There's Jorah Mormont, the aging but loyal knight who was exiled from the north years ago and now returns in the name of Daenerys Targaryen. There's Tormund Giantsbane, the unlikely leader of the Free Folk who must now return to his former stomping grounds alongside the men he once considered enemies. There's Gendry, the final Baratheon who, warhammer in hand, represents the legacy of the late King Robert. There's Sandor "The Hound" Clegane, the tormented murderer and monster whose scarred face masks a wounded soul craving redemption. There's Beric Dondarrion, the leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners whose many resurrections have transformed him into a walking embodiment of his god's power. And finally, there's Thoros of Myr, the red priest and drunkard whose unlikely magical abilities made Beric the man he is today...and may have revealed the Hound's true purpose.

I mention this line-up in detail because Game of Thrones has gone full "men-on-a-mission" movie and this is nothing short of delightful. You know the template. A group of people, usually soldiers or warriors, from different backgrounds with different skill sets find themselves thrown together for a common cause, despite having little in common and despite the resentments and grudges lurking just underneath the surface. It's a common template for war movies, but it's certainly not uncommon in fantasy. Just look to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Hell, just look to any Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

It may have taken some leaps in time and logic to bring these men together for this mission, but as they trek into the icy wastes at the end of "Eastwatch," it all feels worth it. These are characters we never thought we'd see sharing the screen, let alone embarking on a mission together. I'm anxious to see them come together or fall apart. I'm anxious to see them succeed or fail. Only one thing is certain: not all of them are coming home alive.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister and Conleth Hill as Varys

The Players

Technically, Daenerys is still standing on the top of the heap this week. She's winning the war, the Lannisters have been routed, and House Tarly has been reduced to two piles of ashes. Cersei may have a plan, she may be plotting to fight back in true Lannister fashion by stabbing the Mother of Dragons where and when she least expects it, but she's been knocked on her ass. No question.

When it comes to to subtler victories, Littlefinger is also a big winner this week, having engaged in step one of Operation: Tear the Stark Sisters Apart. The north is a fragile place right now: the King is on a deadly mission, the Lady of Winterfell is facing angry lords, the rightful heir is drifting in and out of psychic head trips, and the newly-returned youngest daughter is a living weapon. No one is in a better position to scoop it all up.

But only one character truly shifted the continent this week: Jon Snow. While the other leaders of Westeros remain skeptical of his stories of Night Kings and wights and armies of the dead, he finally got them to listen. He convinced Daenerys to let him leave Dragonstone and allowed Jorah to join him. His words encouraged an armistice between all parties, which, whether it happens or not, is something. House Stark has never been good at navigating the tangled web that is Game of Thrones, but in "Eastwatch," Jon Snow raised Longclaw and cut through the knot entirely.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Jon Snow