One last Watch, one last Wall, one Last Night- how a group of people came together to form the final Watch
In the eleventh hour, on the eve of a night that may never end, Game of Thrones delivered one of the best episodes in its history. Going against a seven-season grain, there was no bloodshed. No gratuitous sex. And next to no CGI. Instead, audiences were gifted with a treasure trove of small, nuanced, incredibly beautiful character moments. Like the viewers who adore them, the characters gathered around the last fire of the world. Just a little more time together, just one more night, before the end.
The result was perfection for viewers. It wasn’t far off for the characters either, who, as one, came together to experience not only major moments in their lives, but to form one final Watch.
Three men stand on a wall. Together, they look north. They remember how they have always stood together facing that way, and how others that once stood also fell. One of them, Eddison Tollett, remarks “And now our watch begins.” For Edd, Samwell Tarly, and Jon Snow their watch started long ago. But now, for so many others, it begins.
With the army of the dead now covering the area up to the true Wall it can truly be said that all roads lead to Winterfell. Roads of betrayal, roads of honour. Roads of murder and passion. Roads of Baratheon, Greyjoy, and Lannister.
Episode 1 ‘Winterfell’ showed the castle as we first knew it: a home. Full of reunion hugs and dragon races. Episode 2 ‘A knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ shows Winterfell as its first purpose: a battleground. Now there are trenches, trebuchets and dragonglass-infused spikes on the parapets. Now we have warriors and commanders, leaders and thinkers. Now we have almost all the characters of Westeros come to make a stand. Together.
And it is together that matters. Game of Thrones tells a tale of countless factions. Endless names and sigils, with loyalty lines all but invisible. For years we’ve watched these characters fight each other, work together and betray each other all over again. But not here. Not now. For this battle, there is only one option, and it is togetherness.
Thankfully, that doesn’t seem lost on our characters. To begin the episode there is some light bickering over twenty-year old murders and what is considered ‘right’ in the name of war, but the Starks collectively remind us that none of that is important now. There is only the battle. Only the watch.
The rest of the episode doesn’t waste time in showing us what’s at stakes. Whether it be soldiers training in the fields or little farm girls asking to fight, this is the ultimate, for everyone. All the factions and alliances and houses have all melted down into two. Dead or alive. Tormund sums it up perfectly: “Everyone not here fights for him now”
As one final night closes in, with the time for planning and bravado done, we see how characters from a hundred different backgrounds, who’ve walked a thousand different paths, came to share the same watch. No scene shows us half so well as the fireplace. First are the Lannisters, those who waged literal war against the Starks, and technically won. Next are Brienne and Podrick, a woman who once served Renly and then dedicated herself to the Starks, and a boy who once squired for their enemy. Davos Seaworth never raised a hand to the northerners, but he served a king who would have tried eventually. And Tormund Giantsbane once fought against not just Jon Snow but the entire Seven Kingdoms, when he fell upon the Wall.
Tyrion notes that despite all this they sit in the Stark castle on perhaps their final night, but he is limited to a single room. The castle is full of others just like them, who’ve hopped along a horde of paths only to find themselves where the story began. Sandor Clegane was there, and now he is again after a life of Lannister servitude, self-imposed exile, and the stubborn care of a little girl. Beric Dondarrion, a man who has visited death itself, is with him. Missandei and Grey Worm have come from almost a world away, following the exploits of dragons. Jorah Mormont did so for even longer than they, dwelling on his crimes of both old and new, before dedicating his life to a queen. And Theon Greyjoy once took the castle in which he now stands. Theon Greyjoy, who defeated young Bran Stark, who got Winterfell put to the torch, who suffered some of his worst torture inside those walls…even he returned. To do a duty, to serve the Starks, and to protect humanity.
Game of Thrones has been criticised in recent years for the downplay of small, nuanced character moments, which gave the earlier seasons the majority of their strength. With the rise of CGI and big set action pieces some of that had fallen by the wayside. With the announcement of just six episodes for Season 8 many were concerned about even less time for this character focus. There is so much to fit in, plot wise, after all.
Instead, we were rewarded not just by the gathering and joint purpose of these characters, but by being allowed to witness huge, key moments in their lives. Theon is a prime example. All the mistakes Theon made, all the pain he caused as he sought a family. All the pain he himself suffered. Theon had the chance to walk away and stay safe with Yara. Instead he returned to Winterfell. He first asked Sansa if he could have the honour of fighting for her and was accepted. Then he asked Bran, the boy whose life he ruined, if he could guard him in the godswood. Again, accepted. Theon walks ever closer to redemption.
Some are smaller, more reminders than life-changing. Davos was undoubtedly reminded of poor Shireen and the innocents he fights for. Gilly is acting not just as mother to Little Sam but the children of Winterfell. Sam as a coward is a distant memory as he demands to fight amongst the others. Sansa backs down to no one, not even a dragon queen, in her defence of the north she won.
But some are so large, so long awaited that one cannot help but feel the emotions pour through their screen. We were already treated to an Arya-Sandor reunion in ‘Winterfell’, but now we get a second. Naturally, Sandor is drinking alone on a wall rather than join the party around the fireplace. Ever the loners, Arya finds her way there also. She questions why Sandor is at Winterfell, reminds him he’s never done anything for anyone other than himself. Almost as if she is trying to convince herself more than anyone else. After all, this is the man who killed Mycah, who lived on her list for years, and who she left to die. Arya’s insistence gives Sandor the opportunity to reply with “I fought for you.”
Anyone who has watched more than a minute of Sandor footage will be able to ascertain how much of a huge thing it is for him to admit this kind of emotion. He has spent years resisting anything remotely disguised as positive, and even since his turn-around and re-entry to the story, simply doesn’t say things of this nature. To admit this to Arya should not only resonate deeply with her, but with viewers given how popular the Arya/Sandor pairing was. He is a fan-favourite, an incredibly complex character, and Arya is the defining feature of his change.
Arya is perhaps the ‘biggest’ character to have one of these moments in an episode that leans away from the Jon/Daenerys dynamic. Not only does she have the conversation with Sandor, but she visits Gendry again and again. The guise is about a weapon, which she gains. But the crest is that Arya, who many worried had lost her humanity, showed us she is still human after all when she breaks her mould and tells Gendry she wants to experience love before death comes. To see these two characters, separated for so long, come back together and admit their feelings, was beyond heart-warming.
Jorah Mormont’s time for love has gone, but season 8 has given us a Jorah wanting to do honour by his past, and not just to Daenerys. In episode 1 he ensured Samwell Tarly was rewarded for saving his life at the citadel. Early on in episode 2 he both fights Tyrion’s corner and makes sure Dany talks to Sansa, but his crowning moment comes nearer the end. First we see him trying to protect the remnants of his house (and he cannot be blamed for failing when facing Lyanna Mormont), but when he is gifted the sword Heartsbane by Sam, we see Jorah reaching back through time, to the father and family he left behind. When Jorah takes Heartsbane he tells Sam he will use it to “Protect the realms of men”. All of Winterfell has gathered to become the Night’s Watch for one last time, but for Jorah it is even more profound. He lost a family Valyrian steel sword sword. Now he has one again, and he is going to use it as his Lord Commander father did. For protection. Finally, he is doing right by Jeor’s memory.
Undoubtedly, the moment of the night belonged to Brienne of Tarth. Though it meant almost as much to Jaime Lannister. These two were enemies, captives, friends, enemies again and friends again. They’ve come from trying to kill each other on a bridge to Brienne vouching for Jaime’s honour in the opening of the episode. Jaime repays the favour by asking to serve under Brienne in the coming battle, a request that clearly meant the world to Brienne, given Jaime’s former arrogance and belittlement of her. These two have done so much for each other, but no act equals Jaime offering to knight Brienne, right there in front of the fire.
Identity and gender are so key for Brienne. She has been denied so much because of her sex, including the title of knight despite being far more deserving of it than any other character. When Jaime first makes the suggestion Brienne naturally dusts it off. She is used to not getting what she deserves, and clearly wary of being mocked again. It’s an understandable reaction. But with the help of Tormund you can see her start to believe. She kneels, and is knighted. She rises, and as the applause begins we actually see Brienne, who wears armour far thicker than leather and mail, let it all go and truly smile. Pride and happiness ooze off her, and there isn’t a dry eye left in the universe. Every single viewer surely shared the same goosebumps at an experience that meant so, so much to one of our favourites. Many of Jaime’s noblest moments are tied to Brienne, but none more so than this. At his height Jaime was the knight, the absolute blueprint. In Brienne he sees what a true knight actually is, and makes sure it is known. It is his single greatest act in twenty years.
And finally, of course, is Podrick. The awkward squire who now fights like any other knight and feels confident enough to sing in a room full of those who far outrank him.
Before the night comes, Samwell Tarly gives an eerily beautiful description of death essentially being the act of forgetting. Either knowingly or unknowingly, Sam describes the horror that is about to descend upon Winterfell. We are given an episode showing us the very best of characters we love. Yet we all know that so many are going to fall. Many will not receive the ‘glory’ death they deserve. They will fall, be walked over, and the battle will continue. For some, it will be worse than that. For some, they will come back as wights, will forget the rich tapestry of life that Thrones has shown us, and suffer the abhorrent death that Samwell describes.
‘A knight of the seven kingdoms’, then, is a love letter. A love letter to these characters that we’ve watched grow and fight. We’ve watched them suffer unimaginable pains, seen them claw their way back up, inch by inch. But in this final hour not only have we seen huge moments in their arcs, final glimpses of honour, glory or humanity, we’ve seen them be human. In this final night, with death on the doorstep, we see these people seek each other out. It begins with two brothers in front of a fire. They are joined by a pair, then an old man, then a wildling. Arya and Gendry join together. Sam sleeps beside Gilly and her child. Sansa eats with Theon. Even the ever-alone Sandor shares a drink with Beric. As Podrick sings, they very much do not want to leave.
These people want companionship in their final hours before the end. They want friends. They want a final fire. They want a reminder of everything they are fighting for.
They got it. And so did we.