The dead are coming. In his review of episode 2, series 8, Stephen Kelly looks at how the inhabitants of Winterfell deal with the existential dread that knowledge brings.

Warning: contains spoilers about episode 2 of series 8.

Game of Thrones’ final series opened last week with an episode that felt like a child lining up all of their action figures – getting everyone into place and all the talky bits out of the way so the show is free to smash its toys together. This week, for the most part, continues that work (tying up loose threads, reuniting old comrades, setting up future conflicts) but with the added twist of existential dread. For the dead are coming – and it is time for one last song before the dawn.

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Measured, meticulous and charged with emotion, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a perfect example of what makes Game of Thrones the pop culture phenomenon that it is. And it provides a stark contrast to the plot-heavy hyper-pace of the series before. It is an episode where everything and nothing happens – less concerned with spectacle and more interested in the potential for people to change.

Cue the arrival in Winterfell of Jaime Lannister, who opens the episode by facing up to the crimes of his past – of killing Daenerys’ father, of waging war against the Starks and of course, pushing Bran out of that famous window. It’s a frosty meeting – especially after Jaime reveals to Sansa, Daenerys and Jon that his sister Cersei has inevitably betrayed them. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is magnificent in this episode, and his Jaime practically radiates with shame. He is a man at war with himself, who seeks forgiveness as much as he seeks punishment. His later meeting with Bran – now no longer Bran, of course, but a meme on wheels – illustrates it astutely.

“I’m not that person anymore,” Jaime says. “You still would be,” Bran replies, “if you hadn’t pushed me out of that window.”

Sansa is operating on a different plane of reality

No one is who they used to be. The Hound has found something to fight for that isn’t himself. Theon has realised who his real family are. Tyrion has grown beyond being a ‘whoremonger’. Arya and Gendry are – to say the very least – no longer children, with the pair’s sex scene proving to be just one great moment in an episode full of them.

Perhaps the most obvious and fascinating change, however, is Sansa, who is revealing herself as the embodiment of author George RR Martin’s idea that ruling is not a simple case of finding a rightful heir. To quote the man himself, in reference to The Lord of the Rings, “Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” Just take Sansa’s point last week about whether there will be enough food to feed the armies, or her passive-aggressive showdown with Daenerys on the sovereignty of the North after the war. Compared to ‘rightful rulers’ Jon Snow and Daenerys (who we’ll get to shortly), Sansa is operating on a different plane of reality.

Change is not the only theme of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – there is also the spectre of the end. Tormund Giantsbane and the remnants of the Night’s Watch bring news that the Night King –riding fittingly on a pale horse – and his armies will arrive in the morning. And thus, it’s highly likely that this is their last night in Westeros – the only question left is how they spend it.

Death is coming and nothing matters. Death is coming and everything matters

For some – like the aforementioned Arya and Gendry – the answer is lust. Tormund’s tragicomic pursuit of Brienne of Tarth enters its most surreal stage, as the Wildling – chaos at its most gentle –tries to impress her with a story of how he was raised at the teat of a giant. But mostly the prospect of death is a chance for everyone to talk, to drink, to sing. In scenes that recalled those that preceded The Battle of the Blackwater, veteran writer Bryan Cogman uses the characters’ last night to delve into the raw honest heart of things.

Hence why the title scene – in which Jaime, after realising he has the power to do so, finally makes a knight of Brienne – is so wonderfully moving. She thinks it’s a joke at first, another one of his insults and humiliations. But Jaime is not that person anymore. Unsheathing his sword, he dubs her Ser Brienne of Tarth – a knight more worthy of the honour than he ever was – and Gwendoline Christie’s face explodes with pride and joy. It goes against tradition, but who cares? Death is coming and nothing matters. Death is coming and everything matters.

And so it’s time to end on a song: Podrick Payne, not content with being Westeros’ resident sex god, reveals that he can sing a haunting tune over a montage of characters getting ready for battle (à la Pippin in The Return of the King). The song, sung by Florence and the Machine over the end credits, is called Jenny of Oldstones, and refers to a story from the books that is far too complicated to get into here. But the gist is that it involves the prophecy of The Prince Who Was Promised – speculated to be Jon Snow – and a Targaryen who gives up his claim to the throne for love.

It doesn’t seem like too much of a coincidence that the following scene is between Daenerys and Jon himself, who reveals the truth about his Targaryen parentage. It doesn’t go down well. Not because this means that Jon has been inadvertently sleeping with his aunt – incest is low priority, apparently – but because of Jon’s superior claim to the Iron Throne. Daenerys’ incredulous reaction hints at conflict to come. The song suggests that Jon could give up his claim for his love of Daenerys, but songs are songs. The more likely scenario is that Daenerys – power-hungry and mad with entitlement – kills Jon in a future battle.

One thing’s for sure: their squabbling about who sits on a fancy chair sure does look myopic in the face of the White Walkers outside Winterfell’s walls.

★★★★★ 

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