I have previously observed—here, and here—that episodes written by Dave Hill tend to lack the thematic coherence that characterizes the rest of Game of Thrones. So while I don't flatter myself that the GOT writing staff is even aware of my existence—let alone takes my criticisms to heart—I was nonetheless pleased to see that Hill's latest effort, "Eastwatch," has one of the clearest and most consistent throughlines of any episode we've had in a while.
"Eastwatch" is something of a table-setting episode—moving everyone into place for the (no-doubt eventful) final episodes of the season. But, in the process, Hill manages to weave a thread that's all about family: more specifically, it's about how fathers live in their children, for better or worse.
This is an old, old theme for Game of Thrones, but one that is very appropriate to revisit here in the show's final stretches. We've talked a lot over the years about this show as a study of the transfer of power and responsibility from one generation to the next. (In retrospect, this focus should have been evident from the moment of Robert Baratheon's death, which was the event that really set the larger plot in motion. But it became unmistakable near the end of Season One, when the unexpected death of Ned, our apparent hero, firmly passed the protagonist's torch from the father to his children.)
Now, one of the questions at the heart of Game of Thrones is still whether it is really possible for the next generation of leaders to—as Dany has said repeatedly, and says again here—leave the world a better place than they found it.
"She's not her father."
Let us begin with the father we never really knew: King Aerys, of House Targaryen, Second of His Name. We glimpsed the Mad King briefly in "Blood of My Blood"—screaming "Burn them all!" in one of Bran's visions—but otherwise we know of him only from the stories, and the stories are almost entirely horrific. Way back in the third episode of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister recounted to Ned how Ned's father and brother, Rickard and Brandon Stark, died screaming in the Throne Room of the Red Keep:
"It must be strange for you, coming into this room. I was standing right here when it happened. He was very brave, your brother. Your father too. They didn't deserve to die like that. Nobody deserves to die like that…Five hundred men just stood there and watched. All the great knights of the Seven Kingdoms. You think anyone said a word, lifted a finger? No, Lord Stark. Five hundred men and this room was silent as a crypt. Except for the screams, of course, and the Mad King laughing. And later, when I watched the Mad King die, I remembered him laughing as your father burned. It felt like justice."
And, in "Kissed by Fire," Jaime spoke of Aerys to Brienne, while explaining how he came by the title "Kingslayer":
"You've heard of wildfire?…The Mad King was obsessed with it. He loved to watch people burn, the way their skin blackened and blistered and melted off their bones. He burned lords he didn't like. He burned Hands who disobeyed him. He burned anyone who was against him. Before long, half the country was against him. Aerys saw traitors everywhere. So he had his pyromancer place caches of wildfire all over the city…'Burn them all,' he said. 'Burn them in their homes. Burn them in their beds.' Tell me, if your precious Renly commanded you to kill your own father and stand by while thousands of men, women, and children burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then? First, I killed the pyromancer. And then when the king turned to flee, I drove my sword into his back. 'Burn them all,' he kept saying. 'Burn them all.' I don't think he expected to die. He … he meant to… burn with the rest of us and rise again, reborn as a dragon to turn his enemies to ash. I slit his throat to make sure that didn't happen."
One of the lessons of Game of Thrones is that it is futile to look for the original sin in any story: as we discussed recently, the cycle of revenge is eternal, and every atrocity is both born from, and breeds, another. Nonetheless, for our purposes, the stories of the Mad King constitute the undramatized prologue to Game of Thrones. Aerys II was the last Targaryen king, the end of the dynasty that united the Seven Kingdoms and ruled Westeros for three centuries. His son, Prince Rhaegar, "abducted" Lyanna Stark; when Rickard and Brandon confronted the Mad King about this, they were accused of treason and cruelly executed. These two events united the other great houses against the Targaryens, and led to the rebellion that put Robert Baratheon on the throne.
The history and politics were more complicated than that—and the show hasn't felt the need to explore them—but my point is that this was the moment when the Westeros we know came into being, roughly 17 years before Game of Thrones begins. This is the history—and the crimes—from which our characters have been moving since the beginning.
But is history repeating itself? There is unmistakable symmetry everywhere we look now, ripples of history manifesting themselves in the new generation. When Jon declared his intention to meet Dany in "Stormborn," everyone—especially Sansa—cautioned that he might be following in the doomed footsteps of his uncle and grandfather: to be burned to death before a Targaryen ruler. When he did meet her, he refused to bend the knee, which—from her perspective—meant he was in open rebellion against the throne, just as his father had been 17 years earlier. (The show has not delved into the details of what is now called "Robert's Rebellion," but it was really Ned who started it, after the murders of Rickard and Brandon.)
And, as we discussed, it was impossible to miss the symmetry last week, when Jaime Lannister tried to stab Daenerys in the back, just as he had done to her father 17 years earlier. From his perspective—as his men screamed in flames around him—he saw just another mad Targaryen ruler, determined to "burn them all."
"My father was an evil man," Dany acknowledged to Jon, just a few episodes ago. "On behalf of House Targaryen, I ask your forgiveness for crimes he committed against your family, and I ask you not to judge a daughter by the sins of her father." But how can we avoid the comparisons when Dany seems determined to follow in her father's footsteps?
Randyll Tarly is an evil man, but Dany doesn't know that when she burns him and his son alive, just as her father burned Rickard and Brandon Stark. What she says to all of the captured Lannister forces is exactly what she said to Jon when she met him: "Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it." And what Randyll says to her is basically what Jon said in return: I don't know you, you're not my queen, and my people will not accept me committing them to serve you. If Dany had burned Jon Snow alive—and the thought absolutely crossed her mind—would that have been justified? And would we have expected Jon to behave any differently than Randyll and Dickon do here?
"You will not trade your honor for your life," Dany observes. "I respect that." Randyll is Old School Westerosi—the generation of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon—and adherence to honor is one of the pillars upon which the old power structure of the Seven Kingdoms stand. (Tyrion points out that Randyll was sworn to serve Olenna, too, but that's a poor argument: as many people have pointed out over the years in Game of Thrones, there are so many allegiances that it is almost impossible to honor them all. "No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another," as Jaime said once.) When I see Randyll defy Dany here—and when I see Dickon stubbornly join him—I hear Ned Stark saying "Our ways are the old ways." It is centuries of tradition and honor standing up to the young outsider who wants to sweep a way of life away.
This is all, morally and ethically, incredibly complicated. We agree with Dany's goals about "breaking the wheel," and we know how all of those old traditions that Randyll stands for have institutionalized inequalities and oppression. We know that the status quo has to change. But Dany is going about it the wrong way: in fact, she is—forgive the ironic pun—fighting fire with fire. She's making claims to the throne based on the very entrenched power structures she claims to want to overthrow, and she is fighting her war according to the same rules of engagement used by the people she's fighting. "I, Daenerys of House Targaryen, First of My Name, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons, sentence you to die," she proclaims. It is noteworthy that she does not invoke her other titles—the ones based on her Westerosi heredity—but otherwise she is following the Old School script: she is playing the game on its own terms, the way it has always been played.
This is not how Dany can win. This is not how Dany has ever won: as Missandei reminded us recently, everyone who follows Dany follows her because they want to, because they believe in her. Simple force cannot win her the throne. Playing by the old rules is no way to usher in a new age. (There is an ironic component to the argument Dany and Tyrion have about executing the Tarlys. Usually, Tyrion's role is to explain how things are done in Westeros, but here Dany is the one arguing strict adherence to Westerosi tradition.) So far, Daenerys Targaryen is not changing Westeros: Westeros is changing Daenerys Targaryen. She's not breaking the wheel: she's simply taking her father's place atop it.
Make no mistake, these issues are central to Game of Thrones at this point. Remember how Jaime defended Cersei recently: "But after we've won, and there's no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they'll wring their hands over the way she built it?" (Dany, later, makes a similar argument to Jon: "We both want to help people. We can only help them from a position of strength. Sometimes strength is terrible.") That is the kind of rationalization that people always make to justify the crimes of rulers, and it's the kind of rationalization Tyrion is struggling—and failing—to make now, in order to justify both Dany's actions and his own continued support of her.
"All rulers demand their people bend the knee," he says—lamely—to Varys. "That's why they're rulers." But Varys—who perhaps hoped he had finally found a ruler who was different—isn't having it. ("What else could she do?" Tyrion asks him. "Not burn him alive alongside his son?" Varys suggests, as an alternative course of action.) Varys has served too many kings he didn't believe in, and he's tired of it, and he's no longer able to justify their cruelty, even as a means to an end. "That's what I used to tell myself about her father," he observes, when Tyrion says that he can't make Dany's decisions for her. Every time the Mad King burned someone alive, Varys told himself, "I'm not the one doing it."
But Varys suggests now that he can't live with those sorts of rationalizations anymore: as we've discussed already this season, the days of blind loyalty are over, and individual morality it more important than allegiance and "honor." And we can't help but wonder how much longer Tyrion will be able to live with it. Remember, Tyrion's father also served Aerys Targaryen: Tywin was the Hand of the Mad King's Hand, just as Tyrion is Hand of the Dragon Queen. Is all of this just history repeating itself from one generation to the next? "She's not her father," Tyrion insists—in part because he wants to believe it, and in part because he wants to believe that he is not his father.
"Father would be proud."
So let's talk about Tywin Lannister, through the lens of his three children. Tywin has been dead for two and a half seasons, but he is still very much a dominating presence in the lives of his children: all of them are still living in his shadow, as demonstrated by the repeated references all three of them make to him this week.
"Last time I was here, I killed my father with a crossbow," Tyrion says jokingly, as he and Davos smuggle themselves ashore the beach at King's Landing. "Last time I was here, you killed my son with wildfire," Davos says, just as lightly—but it's a barbed, poignant comment, especially with the mood Tyrion is in right now. It's a reminder that Dany is not the only one who has burned people alive: Tyrion did it himself, serving as Hand to yet another Mad King, Joffrey Baratheon. As we discussed at the time, Tyrion had arguably noble, humane reasons: he was fighting to save the lives of his family members—including his young niece and nephew—and all the other innocent citizens of King's Landing. But there's no denying that he was also fighting to preserve the status quo: whether he liked it or not, he was defending Joffrey's rule, and the family name and house, and the Lannisters' stranglehold on power. Tyrion was on the wrong side of that war, and he killed thousands of people—probably as many people as Dany killed last week—in the name of Tywin Lannister.
Tywin was a peculiar type of monster: unlike most of the others on Game of Thrones—Joffrey, Ramsay, Walder Frey, et al—Tywin was smart, and disciplined, and logical. He did not act out of passion, or rage, or pettiness. He did many cruel things, but he did them for practical reasons, not out of any insensate cruelty inherent to his nature. (His treatment of Tyrion is the one arguable exception to this: we'll talk about that in a minute.) Reasonable, witty, and completely charming when he wanted to be, Tywin cut a distinguished, respectable, and almost admirable figure. I'm sure he never thought of himself as a bad guy, and I suspect there are fans who would argue whether Tywin was actually a monster at all.
But let's be clear: Tywin was evil. In fact, if Game of Thrones has an intrinsic morality—and I certainly believe it does—Tywin might just be the perfect personification of everything that stands in opposition to that morality. (Certainly, whenever I talk about "Old School" Westeros—by which I mean everything that needs to change—I am thinking of Tywin Lannister.) For the very things that made Tywin such an effective commander are the very things that made him a monster: his ruthlessly practical worldview, his cold logic and reason, his utter lack of even basic emotions, let alone empathy. Tywin—at least when we knew him—was an utterly loveless man.
When I discussed "Mhysa," the Season Three finale, I talked a lot about the concept of "family," and what it meant for different characters. To Tywin, as I said then, family was not an assemblage of individuals at all: it was a corporation, a brand, a nation-state to be protected at all costs, even—or especially—at the expense of its individual members. "The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first," he told Tyrion. He cared about his children as extensions of the family brand, but—as he proved time and time again—he cared nothing for their happiness.
And, I believe, Tywin hated the same way. Tyrion says so this week, justifying his actions to Jaime. "He didn't hate me because of anything I did," Tyrion says. "He hated me because of what I am: the little monster sent to punish him." Tyrion was a blemish on the family's public face, an insult to the institution that was the only thing Tywin really cared about. He admitted he wanted to kill Tyrion at birth, but the rules of society—which were indistinguishable from his own rules—did not allow him to do so. (Civilized men did not butcher their own children, and Tyrion was born into the nation-state of Lannisters, with certain inalienable rights. "Men's laws give you the right to wear my name and display my colors," he once told Tyrion, "because I can not prove that you are not mine.") And so he tolerated Tyrion's existence, nursed a slow burning resentment, and waited until killing him could be an institutional act, according to the accepted laws of society, instead of a personal one. Nothing was ever personal for Tywin Lannister: not even his hatred of his own son.
(Because someone will point it out, I will acknowledge that there have been hints that Tywin's hatred of Tyrion stemmed from something personal and human: his love for his wife, who died giving birth to Tyrion. This is Cersei's reason for hating her brother as well, but I never bought it from Tywin: if he genuinely loved Joanna Lannister, she was certainly the last person he ever truly cared for.)
"We have to fight her like Father would have," Cersei says to Jaime this week. By this point, Tyrion has already wryly complimented Jaime for fighting like "Father" would: "You made me look like a complete fool," Tyrion says, about the debacle of Castle Rock. "Abandoned the family home, completely unsentimental. Father would be proud." Fighting like Tywin means fighting without sentimentality, without passion, without emotion.
But the comment is interesting coming from Cersei, for Cersei has never fought like Tywin: as we've observed before, her manipulations have always been very personal, to a fault. She rose to power on a wave of emotions, by letting her passions, hatreds, and jealousies determine her (often reckless) actions. ("I do things because they feel good," she admitted, after she'd burned most of her enemies in a conflagration that would have made the Mad King envious.)
But it's a slightly different Cersei that emerges this week. Near the beginning of this episode, she is unwilling to compromise: when Jaime tells her that the war against Dany is unwinnable, she still refuses to sue for peace. ("So we fight and die, or we submit and die," she says. "I know my choice.")
But she has changed her tune by the end of the episode, suddenly willing to hear Dany's proposal. "I've come to believe than an accommodation with the Dragon Queen could be in our immediate interest," she says. She is thinking about a long game now, of the kind Tywin was so good at playing: put your personal feelings aside, forge alliances with people (even if you hate them), and do what's good for the strength of the House in the long run.
And the difference is that she now has a House to protect: Cersei is pregnant with Jaime's child. We ended last season talking about how the deaths of all her children had given Cersei free rein to be a vengeful monster, and we began this season talking about Cersei's feeling liberated from any concern of dynasties. ("A dynasty for us, then," she told Jaime. "We're the last Lannisters, the last ones who count.")
But the prospect of a new child changes the math. The old school politics of the Seven Kingdoms were always about solidifying power in family dynasties, and, now that Cersei sees a new beginning for House Lannister, she is channeling her inner Tywin.
"Our fathers trusted each other. Why shouldn't we?"
Everywhere we look in this episode we see echoes of fathers in their children. Sam doesn't even know his father and brother are dead—the Arch-Maester can't bring himself to tell him—but he channels his father's words when he decides to leave the Citadel. "Your nose buried in books," Randyll sneered at his gentle son last season. "Spending your life reading about the achievements of better men." Now, faced with the maddening inaction of the Maesters, and the prospect of spending his entire life documenting bowel movements, Sam decides to get into the fight. "I'm tired of reading about the achievements of better men," he says. The last heir of House Tarly grabs the books and his father's sword, and sets off to save the world.
And then there's Gendry, last seen more than three seasons ago. (Davos drops a meta-reference to a thousand internet memes when he says, "I thought you might still be rowing.") Though they only knew each other briefly, Davos became a surrogate father figure to Gendry when they met at Dragonstone in Season Three: they were kindred spirits, just two kids from Flea Bottom. It was Davos, in fact, who treated Gendry like family, and chastised Stannis—the boy's uncle—for not doing so. Stannis was a commander like Tywin: he had no time for emotions or sentiment, just a ruthlessly practical approach to power at the expense of individual lives. ("What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?" Stannis asked him. "Everything," Davos replied, embodying one of the central themes of Game of Thrones: without consideration for the value of individual lives, the kingdom isn't worth a damn. That's the problem with Dany's current approach, and the answer to Jaime's question about whether anyone should wring their hands about how a kingdom is built.)
So there is a symbolic father-son relationship between Davos and Gendry. (For the record—just to keep count of the many paternal references in "Eastwatch"—Davos also drops a mention of his own father: "As my father used to say, it's better to be a coward for a minute than dead for the rest of your life.")
But Gendry's real father was Robert Baratheon. In fact—if I understand my Westerosi Laws of Heredity correctly—he is, though a bastard, the rightful head of House Baratheon now, and (technically) heir to the throne, since bastards can inherit if all the legitimate children are dead. (Nerdy fun-fact: Robert's own extremely thin claim to the throne was based on one of his ancestors allegedly being the bastard brother of Aegon the Conquerer.)
But, of course, there is no House Baratheon any more—like the Reynes and the Tyrells and the Tarlys, that great house has been erased from existence—and no one cares about the Baratheon claim to the throne. (Cersei has seemingly forgotten that her last name is actually Baratheon, and she says this week that her child will officially, openly acknowledged as Jaime's child: a Lannister.)
So what does it matter that Gendry is Robert's son? It matters because of what we've been discussing all season: individual motives, and personal—not political—allegiances. He hates the Lannisters because they killed his father, and tried to kill him. He is willing to join Jon Snow—a man he has never met, about whom he knows nothing—simply because their fathers were the best of friends. "Our fathers trusted each other," Gendry says. "Why shouldn't we?" These two bastard sons have a connection passed down from their fathers: they grew up on the stories of their fathers' friendship, and that's enough. Ned joined Robert on a mad adventure, and now Gendry joins Jon in another one, armed—like his father—with a war-hammer instead of a sword.
Westeros has always been a patrilineal society—with power passing from father to son, according to strict laws and rules of allegiance—and almost every major event and dispute we have discussed over six and a half seasons of Game of Thrones has been about preserving that. (Halfway through Season One, Ned uncovered the truth that the king's heirs were not really his heirs, and that set the fabric of this world unraveling.) But it is not simply the patriarchy itself that is the problem: it's also everything that goes with it. It is the dehumanization, the othering, the oppression of women, the prioritization of houses and allegiances over individuality and emotion.
These are the things that must change, if the current generation is not to repeat all the same mistakes of the past, and perpetuate all the same destructive and divisive patterns. The fact that the current war is happening between two queens does not, in itself, change the equation—not if Cersei is channeling her inner Tywin, and Dany is taking her lessons from the Mad King.
It's an interesting irony that it's the all male posse Jon assembles to go fight the White Walkers that is actually changing the formula. It's a strange group of men—noblemen and bastards, Night's Watch and wildlings, brigands and priests—many of whom have been (or should be) at war with one another. But they are able to take what is good from the lessons they learned from their fathers: the decency, the compassion, the empathy, the friendship. (We know nothing about the families of Tormund, Beric, or Thoros, but otherwise we have represented here the influences of Eddard Stark, and Robert Baratheon, Jeor Mormont, and even the Hound's surrogate father figure, Brother Ray.) "Here we all are, at the edge of the world, at the same moment, heading in the same direction, for the same reason," Beric observes. What matters is not family names or ancient loyalties, but the cause of humanity. "We serve it together, whether we know it or not."
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It was probably inevitable that I would, at some point this summer, fall almost a full week behind on my reviews. (My apologies: the wheels came off the wagon this week.) Even now I'd like to spend a few more days on this, but, as I write this, I have less than two hours before another episode airs.
- In my rush to finish, I have skipped over the daughters this week: Sansa and Arya. But they definitely fit in with the overall theme of "Eastwatch." Ned's death is still the defining moment of Arya Stark's life, and now Littlefinger—the man responsible for that death—is using the memory of the father to manufacture a conflict between the daughters. I promise, I'll discuss this at the length it deserves when next we see them.
- I also skipped over two important scenes that echo the theme of fathers in less obvious ways. Sam—having a temper tantrum—completely misses Gilly's discovery of the fact that Rhaegar Targaryen married Lyanna Stark. Jon is not only not a bastard—though it's been the single defining fact of his life—he is in fact the rightful heir to the throne according to the laws of gods and men. And, while no one else knows this, Drogon seems to know exactly who he is. (There's a fantastic shot of the dragon's eye—while Jon is petting him like a puppy—in which I swear you can see recognition, and even affection.)
- Speaking of Jon—and the problems of affection and ambiguous parentage—it is obvious now, if it wasn't before, that Dany is in love with her nephew. The way she looks at him, and speaks to him, is pretty unmistakable. (In an episode largely about the connections between parents and children: Dany and her children are on the same page.)
- Poor Jorah: I'd feel bad for him, if Dany hadn't always seen him as more of a father figure than a lover, and if I expected him to return from Eastwatch alive. (I don't. As it stands, I'm pretty sure his entire purpose now is to die—probably saving Jon—and to give Dany a personal stake in the fight against the White Walkers.)
- I know the next episode has leaked, so I am cautious about making predictions. (Either I'm wrong and I sound like an idiot, or I'm right and you suspect me of viewing it—which I haven't.) But it has always bothered me that Beric Dondarrion has the goddamned flaming sword that Melisandre has been blathering about for five seasons. Now it will make sense, assuming Beric dies beyond the wall, and Jon—the Prince Who Was Promised—picks it up.
- I did like the sweet moment between Tyrion and Jorah. "You may not believe it, but I've missed you, Mormont," Tyrion says. "Nobody glowers quite like you. Not even Grey Worm."
- I love Davos: he's my choice for a father figure, and I'm glad he stayed behind when the Magnificent Seven went through the wall. "Yeah, nobody mind me," he grumbles, upon hearing Jon's (admittedly stupid) plan. "All I've ever done is live to a ripe old age." Also: "Nothing fucks you harder than time."
- It is a stupid plan. We'll see how it goes next week, but this episode tries (futilely) to defer criticism by seeming to go out of its way to acknowledge that it's a stupid plan. ("Isn't it your job to talk him out of stupid fucking ideas like this?" Tormund asks Davos.) It's another example of Benioff and Weiss clumsily making do without Martin's roadmap, and we're all going to pretend it doesn't bother us.
- And, as always, I love Bronn: "Listen to me, cunt," he tells Jaime. "'Til I get what I'm owed, a dragon don't get to kill you. You don't get to kill you. Only I get to kill you." And, after seeing Dany in action, this is just a good general policy: "Dragons is where our partnership ends."