To be honest, 60 minutes spent zooming through the army of the dead would’ve been enough for me.
The story of A Song Of Ice And Fire and Game Of Thrones is that of a frog in water, as the characters barely take notice as the temperature is being raised (or in this case, lowered) a degree a time. All the political machinations that provide the bulk of the show’s intrigue take place under the shadow of the coming apocalypse. From the very beginning, the story starts with undeniable evidence that the end is coming ... which is promptly silenced by our hero so that the game of thrones can begin. And now winter is here.
But it’s still only a taste. The now-empowered Northerners can’t decide what exactly to do about the approach of winter’s deadliest inhabitants. Meanwhile to the south, Sam remembers what Stannis told him—err, I mean, learns all on his own—that Dragonstone is full of the obsidian needed to kill White Walkers. Daenerys Targaryen finally arrives at that very island ... although for her, it’s not a motherlode of dragonglass, but home, home at last.
My favorite moments in GoT tend to be ones that unearth the small-scale human movements inside the spectacle, and that’s especially important at this point in the story, when the show is knitting together all its storylines and communicating what it feels like to go through the end of the world. “Dragonstone” succeeded at this when it relied on its visuals, especially so when conveying Dany’s heart-swelling return without dialogue or getting across Sam’s lowly position in the Citadel through an expertly edited barrage of exceedingly vile bedpans.
The facial acting is particularly strong throughout, like when Arya slowly realizes that Ed Sheeran and those Lannister soldiers aren’t going to kill her and she half re-learns how to let her guard down. That the place-setting is considerably less satisfying in some of the dialogue driven plot-centric scenes, particularly at Winterfell (where Sansa is flip-flopping wildly and publicly, Jon’s re-incorporating treasonous houses with barely any effort, both are regressing, and Tormund needs to learn to let it go), and at King’s Landing (where Jaime—Jaime!—skips right past the wildfire and Euron fails at his one job, which is escalating the scale and stakes of the villainy), is further evidence that the show is at its worst when it’s attending to the plot and best when it’s zooming in on pure character moments.
The heart of this episode, read on those terms, was heading north with Beric, Thoros, and Sandor, as they rode north (into the rapidly zombifying mist), ready to fight and die to save the world. Beric Dondarrion used to be a callow tourney knight, living for naught but showing off to the crowd. That man died, and when he was reborn, he told his men that their duty was to the realm, rather than its government, and they were to fight for the people against anyone oppressing them.
So while Beric lost the superficial trappings of the true knight, with every death leaving a mark on his once-pristine appearance, he unlocked the true meaning of his vows: “I charge you to be brave, I charge you to be just, I charge you to defend the young and innocent.” Nothing in there about serving kings and lords, about cutting down starving peasants as they riot, about making sure your armor flashes prettily in the sun.
Quite the opposite, in fact: the vows of knighthood empower you to enforce justice against the powerful in the name of the powerless. That Beric has to be an outlaw to do it condemns the system around him, the one that knighted the monstrous Gregor Clegane and unleashed him on the Riverlands. Robin Hood’s the obvious reference point, but there’s also GRRM the comic nerd working in the idea of superheroes as knights errant, as Beric can only keep pulling his David-against-Goliath routine thanks to Thoros and the Red God, who make him something other than human. This is where Beric’s story delves into the costs of being the hero: he really has died, every time, and he’s lost some of himself, every time.
“Best not to dwell on it.”
“Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favorite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros?”
Beric’s torment alludes to Frodo’s as the One Ring slowly leeches away his identity:
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing—no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”
So what gives the old Robin Hood trope life again is that the story lets you know how hard it is to be that guy. You’ll have to make sacrifices, you’ll often be confused and lost and hurt, and you won’t always look like a badass while you do it. The songs lied to you about how easy it would be. But what isn’t a lie is the cause being fought for. So if you’re still up for it: bend your knee and say your words, and arise a knight, no matter your birth, because knighthood is about what’s inside you.
Which is what makes Beric such a perfect traveling companion for Sandor “no-longer-the-Hound” Clegane. For him, the sight of his tormentor being rewarded and empowered was enough to make him give up on humanity, full stop. The vows of knighthood are lies, designed to cover up what knights really are: swords working for the system. Sandor may kill, but at least he’s honest about it, and is just trying to survive rather than do something fancy like be a true knight or save the world. That mindset is what led him to rob those peasants who had taken him in, whose bodies he finds in “Dragonstone.”
But what makes his story so powerful is that this worldview is challenged by the Stark sisters, who argue that knighthood is something else:
She found his massive shoulder with her hand. “He [Gregor] was no true knight,” she whispered to him.
It’s easy to dismiss that line from Sansa as naive, but in retrospect (especially after we meet Brienne, the truest of knights even though she’s not actually a knight), what she’s saying is that being a true knight is about your values, not the “ser” in front of your name. It is this lesson that Sandor feels stir within himself in this episode, as the Gravedigger seeks to somehow make up for what the Hound did.
As every fan of the books noticed immediately on Sunday night, this was a direct allusion to a silent monk Brienne stumbles across in her travels through the Riverlands, who is maybe/probably/definitely Sandor. The Brother Ray scenes last season covered this part of Sandor’s story (more or less), but the power of having Sandor’s return to the story smuggled into Brienne’s POV is that she, too, is struggling with being a true knight. What does it mean to keep your vows when The System won’t even let you swear them officially? How do you keep going if you fail (which Brienne does in the books) in your mission? For Brienne, the answer is clear: even as the world ends and the crows feast, do the right thing. “No chance, and no choice.”
The show finds a similar catharsis with Beric as the mirror instead of Brienne: Sandor has found some measure of peace. It won’t bring the dead back, any more than Arya’s family will come back because she found some humanity in some common Lannister soldiers (and also Ed Sheeran). But that spark is what gets you through the winter: a dream of spring.