3.5 out of 5 stars

The seventh season continues its furious pace, which is pleasurable for the sheer amount of notable events that are happening without much filler, but slightly peculiar because it’s like we’re seeing an abridged version of the show based on a few pages of George R.R Martin’s notes. One wonders if, in hindsight, season 6 and 7 will come to be seen as oddly-paced misjudgements, once the undoubtedly deeper and richer novels are available to be read. It would be a shame if that happens, but there’s admittedly no way around it because HBO can’t put Game of Thrones on hold indefinitely. Still, the show is taking full advantage of the complex history we’ve seen play out over the years, both onscreen and in legend, no matter how hectic the juggling act becomes as characters and events are thrown together into new configurations.

On the Roseroad

A good example of why shows like Game of Thrones benefit from weekly broadcast was the opening shot of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Walder) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) emerging from the water of Blackwater Rush, very much alive after their brushes with death by dragon breath and drowning. We’ve had a whole week to stew on the idea of Jaime having died, or that the wider world would believe he’s dead for awhile, but no. He’s immediately back in play, and the cliffhanger of “The Spoils of War” would have been much less enjoyable if one could instantly access the next episode. Admittedly, that’s exactly how everyone will watch once the show is only ever available on streaming and DVD once it’s over.

It’s clear to both men that Cersei (Lena Headey) has no chance, if Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) chooses to unleash the power of all three dragons, after getting first-hand experience what just the one can do. This is something Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) also knows, but he’s in more of a quandary given his position as a Lannister who’s sworn fealty to the “foreign invader”. He doesn’t want to see his brother Jaime come to harm, but seems genuinely against Dany leaning too much on her dragons to instil fear into the minds of those she wants to rule.

This was perfectly demonstrated in the scene where Dany gave a speech to the survivors of the loot train attack, with the enormous Drogon perched on a hill behind her, urging them to “bend the knee” (her new catchphrase), or face immediate execution in a fireball. Most of the Lannister men duly dropped to their knees, others followed once the dragon let out a guttural roar, and by the time Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner) and his son Dickon (Tom Hopper) had been immolated for standing behind tyrannical Queen Cersei because she’s a native Westerosi, everyone was on the ground. But Tyrion’s feelings on the matter are likely to prove correct. Dany’s getting some much-needed wins in this battle thanks to her dragons, but she’s starting to rule by fear, executing prisoners in the same barbaric way her ‘Mad King’ father once did. It’s 50/50 whether or not Daenerys is going to end up being a terrible ruler, who started off with good intentions, but Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill) are right to be concerned.

At Winterfell

Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) did some reconnaissance by ‘warging’ into the minds of a flock of ravens, flying beyond the wall to locate the army of the dead and the White Walkers, and there was an interesting moment when the Night King glances up at the birds and in so doing seemed to cut the psychic link. It made me wonder if this was just a dramatic flourish, or if it’s meant as a sign the Night King has some form of protection against Bran, perhaps because this new ‘Three-Eyed Raven’ bears his ‘mark’ after being touched. It would certainly balance things out if Bran wasn’t the all-seeing, all-knowing being his predecessor was, because of that early mistake letting the Night King touch him during a vision trip.

Season 7’s been moving much faster than usual, by virtue of having less episodes to play with, and you sometimes get the feeling certain moments aren’t being given enough breathing room to feel earned. Arya (Maisie Williams) witnessing some Lords suggesting that Sansa (Sophie Turner) should be ruler of the North, merely because Jon Snow (Kit Harington) decided to head South to make an alliance with Daenerys, is one such moment. It just seemed a bit odd to me. There are valid reasons Sansa should really have been hailed the hero, by calling the Knights of the Vale into battle to help defeat Ramsay Bolton, but we haven’t been given enough of a feeling this is an unspoken opinion beginning to gain some traction. I understand why it’s happening like this, but it does sometimes feel like the show would ordinarily have spent two or three episodes on Arya slowly beginning to sense the misgivings of the folk at Winterfell.

Still, I like the idea that Arya is loyal to Jon and has suspicions that Sansa wants to take control of the North from their half-brother. Even better is Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) crafty plan to drive a wedge between the Stark sisters, by allowing her to see him receiving an old raven scroll from Maester Wolkan, which she broken into his chamber to find and read. There are lots of links back to the early seasons happening this year (a common tactic of TV shows reaching their end), and this particular scroll is the message Sansa sent to her mother asking her family to swear fealty to King Joffrey after Ned Stark’s execution. Sansa wrote it under duress, when she was easy to push around by Cersei, but Arya isn’t to know this, and it plays into her feelings that Sansa isn’t the wonderful older sister she used to know.

Littlefinger’s plan seems fairly clear now: he wants Arya and Sansa to fall out, perhaps resulting in Arya’s expulsion, and for Sansa to become the ‘Lady of Winterfell’ at the cost of Jon Snow’s claim to power. One imagines he wants to become her husband, as she’s the next best thing to his beloved Catelyn Stark (Sansa’s mother), but that’s going to be harder to achieve. Sansa seems quite aware that Littlefinger is devious and isn’t likely to go along with much he suggests, but I’m sure he has a way to convince her marriage is a politically savvy way of ensuring her position.

In Oldtown

It was a surprise to see Sam (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) leave Oldtown this episode, considering all the time and effort it’s taken for them to reach this point. But I can’t say I blame poor Sam. The man can grab a book off a shelf and cure greyscale with an overnight treatment, but the maesters still have him running errands. Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) is a nice man, but even he continues to underestimate Sam, and this episode also made it clear the maesters take news from Bran Stark that an army of the dead is advancing on the Wall with a barrel of salt. It’s easy to understand why they would think it’s probably a trick, but no less frustrating, and when Sam’s making it clear that he’s seen White Walkers and that the tales are true… why aren’t they listening? Ebrose does ask for clarity from Maester Wolkan at Winterfell, but it’s too late now. Sam has decided to leave the Citadel after taking some manuscripts (which will likely hold the key to defeating the Night King), and the Oldtown subplot appears to be over before it really began.

However, one throwaway moment has huge consequences for the show going forward. Gilly read a passage in a book from a septon who wrote that the Mad King’s son, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, annulled his marriage to Elia Martell and secretly remarried in Dorne. We know that he must have married Ned Stark’s sister, the mother of Jon Snow, so this means Jon has a proven claim to the Iron Throne as a bonafide Targaryen prince. The “prince who was promised”? Not only that, but it’s a claim that eclipses that of Danerys, as the Mad King’s granddaughter. So we’re left wondering what will happen when this fact becomes public knowledge. Will Jon want the Iron Throne? Will Dany allow him to take it, if and when she claims it back from Cersei?

On Dragonstone

As if to further underline Jon’s secret lineage as a Targaryen prince, there was a fun scene where he was able to touch Drogon on the nose, which surprised Dany. Does she know that Tyrion was also able to do this? (There’s another theory that Tyrion’s “whore” mother was actually a Targaryen, too, of course.) It’s perhaps a bit silly that a dragon can sense Targaryen’s in this way, but we’ll let that slide. But if Dany doesn’t believe Bran about who Jon’s father is, maybe he’ll come to prove he’s a Targaryen by also being fireproof?

Jorah (Iain Glen) also returned, which was a touching moment when he was presented to Dany by some Dothraki. He’s easily the most loyal of Dany’s followers, who’s proven his devotion time and time again, and their relationship is actually one of my favourites. But, in another symptom of the show rushing through the story, no sooner had Jorah arrived he was volunteering for a mission beyond the Wall. The plan? To persuade Cersei to give up the Iron Throne, and instead join them in defeating the army of the dead, by capturing a wight and taking it to King’s Landing as proof that Bran and Jon’s dire warnings are true. It’s an interesting idea, but one wonders why flying a dragon beyond the wall to grab a wight in its talons isn’t being suggested? And it seemed strange to me that they’re happy to take a big risk and form a union with Cersei to defeat a common enemy, when defeating her would remove any uncertainties.

In King’s Landing

As expected, Jaime informed Cersei that Tyrion wasn’t responsible for poisoning their son Joffrey, which she wasn’t very pleased about. It seems she rather enjoyed being able to focus all her hatred onto Tyrion for that crime, but now there’s proof father Tywin was just being malicious by putting his son on trial and letting the real culprit, Olenna Tyrell, get away with murder.

I didn’t expect the meeting of Tyrion and Jaime to happen so quickly, or relatively easily, with Davos (Liam Cunningham) using his knowledge as a smuggler to sneak Tyrion back into King’s Landing to meet with his brother in the cellars of the Red Keep. And how did they get word to Bronn about any of this, who was happy to lead Jaime down there without his knowledge? It seemed like the writers just needed a shortcut. Still, Jaime’s delivered the message to Cersei about the army of the dead and the proof that’s going to be delivered, and in true Cersei style she’s happy to go along with the pretence of a truce in order to stab Daenerys in the back when the opportunity presents itself. It’ll be frustrating if she pulls off this plan, as it’s such an obvious deception, so hopefully Dany and her advisors will know to keep their eye on Cersei and not trust a word she says… until the Night King is defeated and they can resume battle.

In a little twist I didn’t see coming, Cersei also announced her pregnancy and intention to tell the truth about her brother Jaime being the father. Of course, we know there’s a prophecy that Cersei will lose all of her children (which came true, but is now technically unfulfilled), and that she’ll be killed by her “little brother” (which she thinks refers to dwarf Tyrion, but could possibly be Jaime in a desperate act to end his sister’s tyranny at the cost of his own unborn child). We’ll have to wait and see, but I know where my money is…

And after years of curiosity from fans, we finally caught up with Gendry Baratheon (Joe Dempsie), last seen being sent away in a rowing boat by Davos to escape Melissandre’s black magic at Dragonstone. “I thought you might still be rowing” joked Davos, which is actually a meta-joke inspired by a tweet actor Dempsie made to that effect last season. Casual viewers may not even remember Gendry, as it’s being so long since he was on the show, but his return is either tying up a loose end, or they have a greater plan in mind for Robert Baratheon’s bastard son. After Gendry returned to Dragonstone with Davos and Tyrion, he met Jon Snow and the bastard sons of Ned Stark (although not really) and Robert Baratheon seem to have a good rapport together. Gendry has a claim to the Iron Throne, as the son of the man who took it from the Mad King in battle, but I doubt he wants it. Also worth noting that Gendry’s warhammer is made of Valyrian steel, which will prove very useful in combat with the White Walkers.

At Eastwatch-by-the-Sea

Finally, we arrive at the location that gave this episode its title. There seems to be a lot of insanely fast travelling around Westeros this season, which is understandable but a little confusing. The army of the dead seem to be taking forever to reach the Wall, when they were once right on Bran Stark’s back, and in this time other characters are flitting between Winterfell, Dragonstone, King’s Landing and the Wall in no time at all!

Anyway, it seems we now have a fun situation where Jon, Davos, Gendry and Jorah have arrived at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to meet up with Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and form an alliance with the Brotherhood Without Banners and the Hound (Rory McCann). There are some interesting historical ties with some of these characters, who have had dealings in the past, but all seem to know they share the same destiny together beyond the Wall. I’m enjoying the dawning realisation that these people should put aside their differences, and are now going on a boy’s own adventure together into enemy territory.