Let’s start with the big picture. I’m seeing lots of comments online that this is the episode when Game of Thrones became conventional fantasy fiction (this sharp piece from The Ringer is one example), and that may well be right. To some extent it was inevitable. After all, the show has featured white walkers from the pilot episode and dragons from the end of the first season. A collision was always coming. It’s hard for supernatural beings to fight and for the show to retain its Wars of the Roses–style grounded grittiness.
But if this is the episode where Game of Thrones became Lord of the Rings, it did it well – in two separate ways. First, the fight on the ice was as epic and gripping as good fantasy fiction can be (yes, I’m ignoring the implausible way they got there), and the emergence of the Night King as even more powerful than we previously understood puts him on the path to Sauron-level malevolence and might. The cinematography was as stunning as always. I have to continually remind myself that I’m watching television, not a $200 million summer blockbuster.
Second, this was one the few times we actually witnessed Lord of the Rings-style virtue. Jorah Mormont’s contrition in the face of his past sins was one of the more powerful depictions of true repentance that I’ve seen in a long time. The truly penitent man doesn’t just feel sorrow for his wrongs, he accepts that those wrongs have enduring consequences and absorbs that reality as part of his penance. When Jorah refused his family’s sword, I saw a man who’d been truly redeemed. It was a potent moment.
But the show isn’t quite Lord of the Rings yet (in fact, I suspect it will rediscover its roots in the finale), and the interplay between Sansa and Arya was every bit as frustrating and sinister as classic GoT can be. At this point, I’m concerned that Jon could return to Winterfell on a dragon’s back only to find one sister standing over the dead body of another — with Littlefinger smirking in the shadows. In fact, exactly that kind of horror would be the crowning sorrow for a Stark family that’s been betrayed at every turn. Betraying each other would be the final — and worst — twist of the knife.
Finally, it seems that if Dany is going to remain the “breaker of chains,” then it will be Jon — not Tyrion — who will keep her on the right path. He is a hero worthy of her admiration. He obviously has her heart. It will be fascinating to see what happens when she realizes that she was holding the hand of a trueborn Targaryen — her nephew, no less. His decision to bend the knee may forestall an immediate power struggle, but will it blunt her paranoia? Time will tell, and the Mad Queen scenario, sadly, is still in play.