There are four more episodes to come before Game of Thrones airs its series finale, but I feel confident in stating that we've witnessed the HBO drama's finest hour. For my money, the best episode of the HBO drama is the most recent installment, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms." In fact, I think it's valid to compare it to one of the best ever episodes of Mad Men, "The Suitcase."
Both hours were what TV critics pray to see: The culmination of years of work spent getting to know truly specific characters as well as their dilemmas and their emotional lives. And this is one of those times that the larger scale of Game of Thronesworked in its favor.
In "The Suitcase," one of the greatest episodes of any TV show ever, there was a tight and extraordinarily fruitful focus on one relationship. Through a rollercoaster of a day shared by Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), viewers experienced an incredible range psychological states and fraught and funny moments: Friends squabbling and laughing, co-workers commiserating, a stressed boss yelling at an understandably resentful underling, and finally two human beings who've seen each other at their lowest moments and care about each other deeply anyway.
I wouldn't put "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" in quite the same category as that classic Mad Men installment, but the fact that the hours have a lot in common is very much a mark in the HBO show's favor. It's also a little surprising. I don't have a long personal list of "Best Game of Thrones Episodes," because the show's often pretty amorphous and sprawling. Given how many places and people a typical episode has to deal with, most episodes — even the good ones — come across as more a collection of stuff than a carefully curated hour with a strong and clear theme. "A Knight of Seven Kingdoms" was different: It absolutely did not feel like one slice of a 10-hour movie. It was its own rich and intimate thing.
Thanks to the show's large ensemble, we saw the episode's ideas about redemption and connection play out among an array of varied characters, most of whom we've come to love or at least like. And like many of the best episodes of TV, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" didn't just tell an involving story with people we care about, it restated and dove deeply into the show's core questions. Are compromise and growth possible? Should good people even bother trying to fight a constant tide of evil? What do you prioritize when presented with conflicting loyalties? Should you just give in to the darkness in your fight to survive, or is it possible to believe in even a battered form of hope?
It's not a spoiler to say that Westeros will not survive as it was, no matter what happens in the enormous battles to come. But by learning as much as they have — by demonstrating that people can change — the episode kept alive the idea that Westeros is worth saving, possibly (though I won't shed a tear for the racist and sexist characters that bite the dust).
Sometimes Game of Thrones is a little too binary for my taste, but in "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," it allowed for a middle ground between its "you win or you die" options, which have been best exemplified by sweet, naive Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and heartless, power-obsessed Cersei (Lena Headey). But maybe there's another way: Combine the best qualities of the people around that fireside — Tyrion's (Peter Dinklage) cleverness, Davos' (Liam Cunningham) practicality, Brienne's (Gwendoline Christie) steadfast courage, Tormund's (Kristofer Hivju) unpretentious directness, Podrick's (Daniel Portman) reliable empathy, and Jaime's (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) ability to disown his previous arrogance and cruelty — and you have a roadmap to what a new Westeros could be. If anyone survives the clash to come, if enough people remember that that true strength is not simply a matter of deploying brute force, maybe there's hope for this benighted land yet.
Of course, Game of Thrones, like Mad Men and so many other prestige dramas before it, is more interested in the redemption of a privileged man than the patience of a put-upon woman. But that doesn't make the Jaime-Brienne relationship, as brought to life by Nikolai Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie, any less fascinating on screen. When the story began, Jaime asked for too much from the world — and got it. Brienne, on the other hand, steeled herself to not want almost anything, but she got even less than that.
But that power dynamic, like so many others in Westeros, has been reversed. Just as Don Draper learned a lot from his former secretary, Jaime realized just being in a room with Brienne was a gift he probably didn't deserve.
In this episode, Jaime (among other formerly swaggering men) was the supplicant. And if rejected, he would have left, or accepted his death. If Sansa (Sophie Turner) had told Theon (Alfie Allen) to leave, he would have. No rage, no tantrums. How weird and yet welcome it was to see their arrogance replaced by humility — and the script by Bryan Cogman strongly indicated that, if Westeros is to survive, that kind of mature, considered behavior should become the norm, not the exception.
Think about how utterly bizarre the episode's central scene would have seemed seven or eight years ago: A Wildling (Tormund) made a suggestion that a Lannister who'd abandoned his noble family endorsed, as another Lannister (one who serves a Targaryen) looked on. Tormund's wild and utterly sensible idea: What if status was determined by an actual meritocracy? Sitting with those who no longer considered themselves his betters, his idea was met with zero resistance. Jaime, the former golden boy of Westeros, proudly knighted a woman — one whom just about everyone dumped on in the early seasons of the show.
By that quiet fireside, we saw how far everyone had traveled — not just geographically. The men and women gathered at Winterfell have begun to learn from each other. A few of them can almost trust each other (at least some of the time). But more than that, many of the characters — most of them men — have learned that power unaccompanied by humility is often a toxic force in society. Sam (John Bradley) talked to Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) about having learned from his father what it was to be a man. Part of what Sam and others have learned is that it's fine to give away what doesn't work for you, whether it's a sword or the idea of that all power must be enforced by constant oppression.
Jaime not only not didn't insult Brienne, he asked if he could serve under her. He opened himself up to rejection and ridicule; he was sincere, which is simply not done in the world of the Lannisters. Jorah made tentative suggestions to Dany (Emilia Clarke), the woman whom every man used to feel free to lecture at length. The Hound (Rory McCann) couldn't tell Arya (Maisie Williams) how much she means to him, but asking her to talk to him was as close as he could ever come.
And then there was Tormund himself. He supplies welcome comic relief (and his devotion to Brienne walks a fine line between funny and creepy). But he — one of the "lowest" people in the original Westeros social order — has never had a problem recognizing the quality of Brienne's fighting or the depth of her character. Jaime could learn a thing or two from men like Tormund and women like Brienne. And Jaime has.
We often laud Game of Thrones' battle episodes, which are undeniably engaging, but this hour was, to me, far more powerful and moving than any explosion or "big death." TV often uses death as a cheap escape hatch, rather than have characters do the hard work that change requires. But the core of "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" involved characters displaying their personal growth, their willingness to discard old ways of thinking, and their willingness to be vulnerable and honest.
Tyrion acknowledged his missteps. Jaime apologized to Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), knowing full well any words he said would be inadequate. Sansa and Dany aired out differences of opinions without deciding they had to go to war right then and there (they might, but they both know making some kind of deal will be better for their people, if they survive). Theon and Jaime weren't the only ones who wanted to atone for their past mistakes; even Davos tried to help out however he could. If all he could do was serve soup, he'd do it.
And if Jaime had to listen to several characters list just a few of his serious crimes, he'd listen. His face and body language seemed to say that if one of the people confronting him decided to lop off his head, it would be no more than he deserved. You can't change and truly atone until you listen and learn, and that's the path Jaime took. He's a far cry from the entitled, Bran-throwing jerk we met in the first season.
The one person who hasn't changed much is Brienne, who has always expected to be ridiculed, misunderstood, and marginalized, and who tries her best to do the right thing anyway. She's not a perfect person — let your employee have a drink already! — but she's been true to herself from day one. She didn't try to be more like the heedless noblemen of the arrogant Westeros elite. These men, over time, have tried to become more like her.
And the thing that makes Jaime's gratitude toward her an absolute heart-melter is that he knows — he really knows — that he will never deserve her mercy or her friendship. But he's grateful for both.
There are no doubt many memorable scenes and moments to come in the next few weeks. But this kind of thing represents Game of Thrones at its best. When it gets small and leans into everything we've come to know about conflicted characters and what they've been through, those moments are actually huge and enormously moving. As Brienne and Jaime looked at each other while he knighted her, they truly saw each other in their souls (and the whole thing was better than sex, which Game of Thrones often gets wrong anyway). Even in bizarre or terrifying circumstances, connection was possible. "A thing like that," as Pete Campbell might say.
It's hard to know if anything any of us have done in life makes any difference. It's hard to trust people, and it can be excruciating to hope that your openness or willingness to change might lead to a better life and not just pain and embarrassment. It was hard for Brienne to walk over to Jaime and kneel before him. I've re-watched that moment so many times because Christie's performance is simply phenomenal. Brienne wanted to hope Jaime's offer was real, and yet she didn't dare hope. Did she? You can see all of those feelings of doubt, resolve, and pride play over her face. Even as part of her wondered if this was one more cruel joke from a world — and a man — who had once thought of her as a ridiculous nobody, she put her faith in what would happen next. And this time, she was right to hope.
Jaime truly saw her in that moment, and she saw him, just as Tyrion can see his brother clearly, and Sansa perceives the penitent man that has emerged from the wreckage of Theon's life. Peggy put her hand on Don Draper's hand in "The Suitcase" to tell him that she saw him, and that she would stay.
In those moments, those people — in Westeros and on Madison Avenue — were not the sum of their worst actions. They were choosing to reveal themselves to each other, in all their flailing misery and unexpected glory, and thus give their lives meaning, at least until the next disaster.
"We're all going to die," Tormund said. "But at least we're going to die together."
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.
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