Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones’ “Eastwatch” episode came bearing the gift of reunions. It was the latest round of important meet-ups in a season already packed with homecomings, but the power of those encounters is wearing thin.
Anticipation for some of these scenes has been building literally for years. Gendry hasn’t been seen since 2013, when Davos sent him off in a rowboat to escape death by blood sacrifice. And yet, his return to the show is sandwiched in with Tyrion’s meeting with his brother Jaime for the first time since Tyrion killed their father, and Daenerys reuniting with her old friend / traitor Jorah, who she thought had died of greyscale. In past seasons, major personal encounters like these would have been the sort of fan-service to savor. Instead, they’ve become rapidly ticked-off plot points in an accelerated season. They feel strategic, rather than emotional. The pace is comically speedy, fit to be set to the Benny Hill theme.
Davos, at least, spends a little time catching up with Gendry, who’s working as a blacksmith in King’s Landing. And the episode dribbles out little bits of their freshly changed relationship, as Gendry establishes his impatience and independence, proves his capacity for violence, meets Jon Snow, and joins the current A-team lineup.
But the Lannister brothers have a surprisingly bland talk, considering that, in the last episode, Tyrion watched Drogon nearly torch Jaime, and Jamie just found out for certain that Tyrion didn’t murder Joffrey. There’s a lot to talk about there, and they don’t even hint at it. There’s also the matter of Jaime freeing Tyrion, and Tyrion subsequently murdering their father Tywin. Jamie is still steamed about it, but he shrugs it off within seconds. There’s no nuance to their long-awaited reunion; it’s short and to the point. Dany and Jorah’s encounter plays the same way, though at least he gets a hug out of it. And he’s brought back just in time to head out with Jon and company, in what will surely be a suicide mission for some.
As the show enters endgame territory, the stakes for the action are rising — Daenerys can now kill hundreds of men with just a word to her dragon, the White Walker army is nearing the Wall, and the final face-off for the Iron Throne is approaching. But at the same time, the stakes for the characters are lowering drastically. Dwindling plotlines make crucial characters more impervious to death than they’ve ever been. (Consider the un-Game of Thrones-like safety of Jaime’s recent brush with fatal burning, drowning, or both.) Characters are aligning for the war against the living and the dead, resulting in all-star lineups gathering together from all over the world. Near the episode’s end, Jon once again meets The Hound, and Gendry comes face-to-face with the men who once sold him, and then they all go fetch-questing together, in one of the most D&D-like plot points the show has had to date.
“Eastwatch” is packed with these moments, and it takes time to relish none of them. Season 7 as a whole has turned this into a trend. Consider the Stark reunions, plural, in which Bran and Arya both returned to Winterfell. The Stark children have been separated for years, and their homecomings should be the payoff fans have been waiting for. Yet these long-desired moments are oddly bereft of feeling, marked by one-sided hugs, constrained dialogue, and the faintest touch of reminiscing. Bran may be devoid of emotions by now, but neither the audience nor the show’s creators are.
Game of Thrones couldn’t keep up its plodding, stretched-out rhythm forever. And with the writers and showrunners out of George R.R. Martin books to adapt, they seem to be cutting to the chase, skipping the character-establishing scenes that make his work memorable. But the writers have yet to find the balance between a story that moves at a thrilling clip, and one where the actions carry satisfying weight. The show has never been just about its face-offs and fights. It’s been about the human cost of war, and the emotion behind the action. With all this rushing around, who has time to care?