HBO’s Game of Thrones

Everything Happens Too Late To Matter in Game of Thrones Season 8

The well-worn trope of characters facing their possible last night alive borders on cliché—so much so that a character saying anything to the effect of “this could be our last night on earth” is barely even subtext for suggesting a sexual liaison. This trope is nearly always used to bring simmering plot points to a boil and challenge long-established elements of the status quo. The last night on earth is a last chance, a culmination, a high point. Not so on this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” Here, the episode works to show viewers that it is far, far too late for the climaxes and resolutions offered to hold any lasting meaning.

This is accomplished in numerous ways—perhaps most notably through the use of the haunting “Jenny’s Song” to suffuse melancholy and woe into all of its proceedings. Jenny of Oldstones, the subject of Podrick’s (and Florence + The Machine’s) song, is a complicated and tragic figure from George R.R. Martin’s novels. She is best known as Westeros’ answer to Wallis Simpson, the commoner for whom a Targaryen prince abdicated the throne. She is long dead by the time of the books, but her song is used to mark moments of somber reflection in the text. The song is less interested in her love story than it is in her status as a (possible) survivor of the tragedy of Summerhall. In brief, the tragedy of Summerhall was a conflagration that destroyed the Targaryen Winter Palace and killed not only Jenny’s husband (Duncan Targaryen), but a whole host of other Targaryens and their retainers, ending the golden age of the dynasty and paving the way for the Mad King to ascend to the throne. In “danc[ing] with her ghosts” “high in the hall of the kings who are gone,” Jenny of Oldstones is an object lesson in what happens when you outlive your own story. She is mired in the past, clinging to undoubtedly worthy things that are, unfortunately, too long gone to make a difference.

And that sentiment runs through all of the second episode of this final season of Game of Thrones. Everywhere, people attempt to do the right thing and everywhere they find that it is (mostly) too late for it to matter. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is as close to a “bottle episode” as Game of Thrones gets, with the action taking place entirely within the walls of Winterfell, where almost all of the surviving cast is trapped, awaiting the Night King’s siege.

This is perhaps clearest in Jaime Lannister’s scenes. Jaime has come to Winterfell to do the right thing and seek absolution for his past transgressions but finds that they cannot be absolved. Brienne can vouch for his honor, but he is still the man who maimed Bran, who murdered King Aerys, who followed Cersei until it was far too late. He comes to Bran to apologize only to find that Bran is no longer around to forgive him. The Three-Eyed Raven does not forget, does not forgive, only offers the cold comfort that Jaime could not have acted otherwise. It is too late for forgiveness. What would it matter now, anyway?

The episode is a series of climactic, long-awaited moments—but instead of being played for thrills and satisfaction, they play out against a backdrop of melancholy and desperation. Moments we’ve waited years for are finally transpiring, but they’ve arrived too late to do anything but remind us of how much they have lost in being tardy.

Viewers have been shipping Arya and Gendry since the second season. But now, with both old enough to take control of their sexual desires, the moment is not the culmination of long-simmering romantic tension, but a passionless and mechanical exploration—Arya ticks something off her list with all the joyless FOMO that revenge has previously given her. It may not be too late for her to embrace her sexuality (and, certainly, there is nothing wrong with her doing so), but it is too late for her and Gendry to achieve anything but a parody of the romantic closeness viewers had hoped for. Before parting the last time, Arya told Gendry that she could be his family. Now, Arya is no one. She has no family and Gendry can’t be anything more to her than a means to an end.

Elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms Breakfast Club, Brienne finally gets the knighthood she has always wanted and always deserved. It is the emotional highlight for which the episode is named and it’s poignant and perfect. But it also highlights just how far past the point of her knighthood mattering we currently are, in terms of the story. True to Martin’s novels, Jaime lets the assembled drinking buddies know that any knight can bestow knighthood on another. It is what the Lady of Tarth has always deserved, but it is also a far cry from what we might have wanted for her on the show. Brienne exists, in part, so that we might recognize the cruelty of Westerosi misogyny that prevents women from becoming knights. Renly accepts her services into his Kingsguard, but does not change tradition or otherwise recognize that Brienne is deserving of knighthood, that she may be one of many strong women who should be eligible for the honor. Catelyn and Jaime both accept her services as retainer but similarly do not see a need to alter the status quo. It is only at the eleventh hour, in a room full of people who fully expect to die, that Brienne is given the title she deserves. It should not be discounted as a personally important moment, but it has been robbed of its radical potential to modernize Westeros. Even Jaime’s justification is phrased as a kind of fluke. If any knight can make another knight, then the tradition itself is arbitrary. Brienne’s knighthood both fails to change Westeros as a whole and exposes the arbitrariness of knighthood itself. What use are chivalric traditions worth so late in the game?

Jorah gave up the right to wield his family sword—something he tells Jon he has made his peace with after the king-who-abdicated-the-North tries to return Longclaw to him in last season’s penultimate episode. Sam attempts to set that to rights by giving Jorah his own family blade, Heartsbane of House Tarly, in recognition of the old knight’s superior martial prowess and the bond forged between the two disappointing heirs at the Citadel. It is another lovely gesture, but one that has come too late for any real reckoning. Neither Jorah nor Sam have a chance to make peace with their respective fathers. They stand as two orphaned sons seeking one another’s validation and approval, too late to have proved their worth to the parents who have overshadowed their entire lives.

This is not to say that any of these plot points are meaningless to the viewer. Arya taking control of her sexual agency, Brienne achieving her life’s goal, and Jorah and Sam trying to put their family legacies to better use are all moments worthy of being filmed and experienced by the show’s audience. It’s refreshing to see a series that has made increasingly less time for small, affecting character moments spend an entire hour of its final season dealing with these kinds of interactions almost exclusively. But in selecting “Jenny’s Song” as its anthem, the show also seems invested in underscoring the ultimate futility of those moments. Jenny’s ghosts are always ghosts. Their names get forgotten eventually. No amount of dancing will restore the Targaryen dynasty to its once-peaceful (however briefly) glory days.

As compelling as the let’s-fight-on-the-side-of-the-living argument continues to be on a basic primal level, it is hard to see the fight as one for anything than the furthering of Jenny’s sad dance. Sam speaks to this—in a moment that may be a little too on the nose, perhaps—when he explains to the assembled cast: “That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting? Being forgotten? If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals.”  There is a powerful sentiment in there about how stories and memory are what keep humanity going. But it is undercut in being a response to Bran telling us that he, as the Three-Eyed Raven, is the repository of all memory in the world. As stated above, Bran is all but dead. He is no longer a person so much as a symbol of human history. Fighting to save memory and stories has its own kind of futility. And that’s before we get around to addressing the Dragon in the room…

The Night King is a terrifying figure without clear motive or personality. He is an extinction event. But he is not the only one interested in erasing stories or memories. Daenerys, in these last two seasons has made it clear that she is uninterested in preserving Westerosi history. She claims she wants to break the wheel and end dynastic struggle—but, in doing so, she erases the legacy of what came before. Jaime Lannister is many things: a man of honor, a man without honor, a child-maimer, a man in love with his sister. In the opening scene Dany reduces him to merely the man who murdered her father. She refuses to take nuance or context into account, or concede that there are other sides of his history that might be meaningful. Similarly, until Jorah intervenes, she sees Tyrion only as a broken piece on the game board, not able to effectively advance her cause. Dany attempts to win over Sansa by claiming that they are the same: two women who rule effectively despite the misogyny of their people. But this entreaty breaks down as soon as Sansa voices the history of her people: Dany cannot accept the sovereignty of the North, the story of its rebellion and triumph. Sam claims that the assembled players are fighting to preserve the memories and stories of Westeros, but in reality they are caught between an icy erasure at the Night King’s hands and a fiery revisionism by the Mother of Dragons.

So all that is left are ghosts with which to dance. Those dances may be sweet; we may “never want to leave,” just like Jenny of Oldstones. But the song is a sad one in the end. Which brings us to what was, for me, the most profound, poignant, and sob-inducing moment of this quiet, reflective episode. Midway through Podrick’s song, the camera pans down to Sansa and Theon sharing a hot meal and staring at one another poignantly across a table. The deep history of trauma they share is one that I wish they could overcome together in a world in which they had more time. As it stands, it is not just too late for the two of them to do something meaningful… it is too late for meaning to be established at all. Their intimacy unfolded at the end of Season Five where, both victims of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, they chose to leap from Winterfell’s parapets hand in hand. Their relationship is one of choosing probable death with the chance of escape over a lifetime of horror and abuse. As the Long Night descends on Winterfell, they eat together in silence. They might have been lovers. They might have been close siblings. They might have been friends. They might have simply been survivors together. But it’s too late to explore that now—they are both Jenny of Oldstones. They are both ghosts. And it is both completely satisfying, and completely insufficient, that this dance is all they have.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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