One Year On: ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’

The Longest Night
11 min readApr 21, 2020

It’s been exactly a year since ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ aired on HBO. Let’s have a look at how Game of Thrones faced and embraced its end.

Theon and Sansa eat on the eve of the battle with the Army of the Dead.

Remember when this episode leaked? Huh, what a night.

Brandon Stark waits in the Winterfell godswood.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (se08, ep02)

Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: Bryan Cogman
Original broadcast: April 21st, 2019

Across its 73 episodes, Game of Thrones was many things. Brutal, shocking, brutally shocking, frustrating, immersive, ruthless, tense, complex, upsetting. But never in its eight years before ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ aired had it ever been so beautiful. With beloved characters bracing themselves to face the Army of the Dead (and, in the process, their own mortality), they choose not to flee southward. Instead, they sit within the walls of Winterfell, ready to embrace the end for the greater good. Without ever raising a fist, the characters get ready to fight for each other. Penned by series stalwart Bryan Cogman, this is an hour dedicated to both character and audience — a chance to sit by the fire and reminisce in each other’s company, right before it all ends. There might be four episodes still remaining, but this is the series’ true goodbye. Cogman, a principal member of the writing staff since the first season, brings Winterfell to life in what could very well be its final hours. Despite the impending doom coming for each of its characters, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ leans heavily on a sense of union and optimism to forge an emotional farewell and offer a worthy tribute to everyone who has a stake in the series. It’s time to stare death in the face and sing it the sweetest songs we know — get your tissues ready for an all-time classic.

The most captivating aspect of ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ is how each character reacts differently to the same circumstances. There’s no way for them to deny what’s coming for them because the Army of the Dead have set the deadline (“before the sun comes up tomorrow”); they have no control over their destiny and believe this night to be their last. It’s not about delaying the inevitable anymore, it’s about seizing whatever they can with the time they have remaining. So how do they seize this final night? Well, some choose to huddle around a fire to talk and sing; some choose to discover new feelings and try new experiences; some choose to form new friendships or patch up old ones; some choose to hold their loved ones close; some choose to pick this moment to acknowledge the value of their companions; some choose optimism and hope while others resign themselves to death; some choose to outline their military strategy or (crucially in Daenerys’ case) focus exclusively on the political fallout in event of an improbable victory. Pure humanity is the silver lining of unavoidable tragedy, and Cogman’s script relies on memory to unearth it. As Sam says, it’s memory that makes us human. Game of Thrones built its name on political scheming and underhanded betrayals, so it’s profoundly cathartic to watch it embrace the end while wearing its heart on its sleeve. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ is unafraid to be beautiful, to be tender, and to fill our hearts up.

Its most beautiful and tender sequence suitably plays out in front of a roaring fire, as Tyrion and Jaime are joined by Podrick, Davos, Tormund, and, crucially, Lady Brienne, to drink their final moments away. The scene opens with a lighthearted chuckle, as Tormund first provides the audience with his remarkable backstory, before Tyrion lists the number of battles they’ve all inexplicably survived. It then graciously spins on a dime and transitions into a piece of tear-jerking theatre. As proceedings continue, it becomes clear that the role of women in Westerosi society, specifically the honourable determination of Brienne of Tarth, needs to be addressed before the dead arrive. If women are to join the fight against the dead, why can’t they be knighted? And if they can be knighted, why not have Brienne be the first? And if Brienne is to be the first, why shouldn’t it be Jaime to hand out the honours? In the resulting ceremony, several threads tie together so subtly and gracefully that it’s impossible to fight back the tears. I did warn you about those tissues.

Brienne vouches for Jaime in the great hall at Winterfell.

It might not be immediately apparent, but the place of women in Westerosi society changes forever in this moment as well. Treated like second-class citizens and denied basic human rights since the start, women in Westeros have always had very limited options (and that’s being generous). To gain any leverage they either had to take matters into their own hands or hope the men around them could recognise their potential. After spending years doing so much of the former, Brienne is finally rewarded with the latter. Tormund baulks at any tradition that wouldn’t see Brienne knighted, before Jaime officiates. Ramin Djawadi expertly withholds the full string set in the score until Brienne rises to her feet, tears in her eyes and a smile from ear to ear. It’s a moment of crowning glory not just for her, but also for the women she will surely knight as the head of Bran Stark’s kingsguard. It’s not complete yet, but this represents something of a culmination of the journey women have endured on this show — that Brienne would now be recognised for her abilities by her male contemporaries is the sign of a chapter of history closing. By receiving this knighthood, Brienne makes history by becoming the first woman to ever hold such a title, and there really is nobody more deserving.

But most importantly, it’s the moment Brienne finally believes in herself enough to be surrounded by men and still stand with broad shoulders, accepting the respect she’s earned. Whenever I watch her bursting with pride here, I think back to the story she once told to Podrick back in season 5, about how she came to serve in Renly Baratheon’s kingsguard. Once a young girl, her father Selywn Tarth threw an extravagant ball to find a suitor for his daughter, only for every young man in attendance to laugh at the “lumbering beast” she apparently was. And now look at her, once again finding herself in a room surrounded by men, only on this occasion they’re cheering her on and applauding her achievements while she stares into the eyes of a man who genuinely loves her back. As we all now know, Brienne’s long and difficult journey with Jaime has a heartbreaking epilogue after ‘The Long Night’, but her long and difficult story as an individual culminates beautifully here, and her search for personal autonomy comes to a close on a note so perfect that it’s deservedly made into the centrepiece of the episode. Not only that, but it’s perhaps the most beloved scene of the entire final season.

It should be said, though, that not everything about this episode is beautiful and heartwarming. Death is coming, after all. There’s one character in particular whose journey in the final season holds all of the show’s final clues: Arya Stark. She starts the episode with a bullish confidence, bragging to a smitten Gendry that she, after years of training to be an assassin, “knows death” and is “looking forward” to the ensuing battle. Gendry warns her that she’s never faced anything like this — that they’re not fighting “death”, but fighting “Death”. His pleas fall on deaf ears. But as night descends and Death draws closer, Arya is significantly more subdued as she silently drinks with the Hound, who even remarks that his former travelling companion is unusually quiet. “Guess I’ve changed,” is all she can muster in response. When Beric joins them, Arya skulks off to find Gendry. The two have sex, with Arya clearly desperate to feel something raw and human in her final moments — and who better to receive those feelings from than the person she feels closest to? However, her expression in the aftermath, as Podrick’s rendition of “Jenny of Oldstones” plays in the background, is one that’s completely absent of emotion. She was eager, in the face of Death, to take control of her emotions and feel something human after enduring years of trauma. But her journey has broken her, turning her into a robotic being that’s only capable of exacting revenge. Nothing else fulfils her anymore. As we’ll explore in later editions, that’s the story of the final season: characters failing to recover from the effects of war and abuse. Arya is the heart of this final season.

A character who has just about managed to recover as much of himself as he possibly can is Theon, who reunites with Sansa in yet another emotional peak for the episode. Returning from rescuing Yara (who now holds the Iron Islands in Daenerys’ name), Theon has returned to defend the castle he once stole from the Starks. It’s worth remembering in this moment that Theon and Sansa’s relationship is exclusive to the show. As an audience, we cry in this moment because we can’t forget the torture they suffered at Ramsay’s hands — a decision the showrunners can call their own. The silent expressions the two share in the episode’s closing montage speak a thousand words — neither of them will ever be fully healed, but any recovery they do make will be because of each other. The same goes for Davos and Gilly, who both silently recall their individual relationships with Shireen Baratheon after encountering a girl with a similar facial injury — which also acts as a symbol for the permanent damage inflicted by a continent rife with war. And the same also goes for the former members of the Night’s Watch, who once journeyed north of the Wall with hundreds of brothers but are now just three men and a direwolf. A lot’s changed since Jon’s arrival at Castle Black.

The Hound and Arya share a drink together.

What each of the episode’s smaller storylines explain is that memory is often a double-edged sword — as humans, it’s both comforting and distressing to be constantly aware of the experiences we’ve lived through. During the war council, as the strategy to lure the Night King into the godswood is explained, Sam philosophises that without the ability to remember, men would be little more than animals. After all, the Night King’s intention is to look into the eyes of the Three-Eyed-Raven (his maker) and then kill him, erasing the world’s entire memory in the same move; if there are no memories to rely on, any evidence of human life can be completely destroyed. He doesn’t just bring an endless night, he brings total emptiness, complete absence, a vacuum. He brings the possibility of humanity being completely forgotten. When two opposing armies fight for territory or gold, there are at least corpses left strewn across the battlefield (or people there to document the outcome), preserving the signs that history took place. Those corpses are buried under the earth, where they could contribute to vegetation. But if the Army of the Dead wins at Winterfell, there will be nothing left at all. Complete silence.

The idea that memory makes us human isn’t too dissimilar to themes explored in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Denis Villeneuve’s sequel Blade Runner 2049 (or even Pixar’s Coco for that matter). But bringing these thoughts into such stark focus on the eve of yet another battle reminds our heroes that memory’s role in humanity also causes a great deal of pain. Sure, memory makes us human, but memory also plays a role in prolonging trauma. So is it humanity’s lot in life to suffer? And if it is, isn’t that an incredibly pessimistic way to approach life? Ordinarily, yes, but perhaps not in the face of Death. In order to preserve humanity, our heroes will have to take ownership of their suffering and utilise it. When the Night King rolls into town, the united armies of the living won’t just be fighting to win the battle — they’ll be fighting to preserve everything that memory represents about the best and worst of humanity. As Game of Thrones has often shown, the human race is capable of so many horrendous things, but the war against the Night King briefly reminds these characters that humanity might deserve a chance to learn from its mistakes. With the rest of the final season in mind, this episode is heart-breaking for a number of reasons — there’s no race like humanity for undermining the chances it has to improve, it seems. But for now we’ll bask in the optimism ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ beautifully communicates, and live with the hope that an improbable victory over the dead might well bring about a change.


Story: A
Delivery: A-
Overall: A-

Stray observations

— One character who doesn’t join in with the camaraderie is Daenerys, who is initially disappointed with the outcome of Jaime’s trial and chastises Tyrion for Cersei’s lies about the Lannister army riding north. As every character around her confronts the possibility that this might be it, she first tries to secure the North from Sansa via a polite conversation that starts off promisingly but soon turns frosty, and she decides to keep Tyrion in the crypts during The Long Night because she knows she’ll need him afterwards. She might be in the North at present, about to take on the Army of the Dead, but her eyes are still fixed on King’s Landing. For everyone else, this is the end of days (Sansa puts aside personal beef with Jaime for the greater good, Dany doesn’t commit); for Daenerys, this is a necessary step on her way to the Iron Throne.

— Speaking of the Iron Throne, I’m not sure if Jon could have picked a worse time to tell Dany the truth about his Targaryen lineage. I mean, read the room! Regardless, Dany’s devastated. Her life’s work goes up in smoke because her star-crossed lover has turned out to be her nephew, who now has a better claim to her most cherished prize, the chair she was raised to believe was hers. It’s hard not to sympathise with her here really, but we’ll get into that more as the season progresses. Believe me, there’s a lot more analysis of Daenerys yet to come.

— Sam gives Heartsbane to Jorah. Nice to see that sword has a place in the final season after all, considering we saw it maybe once in the whole of season 7?

— Tyrion spends time with Jaime in this episode. His conversations with Jaime are refreshingly frank and honest, with Jaime even going so far as to casually state in front of Tyrion that he was “sleeping with his sister”. Tyrion has always known that, but still, to hear it come out of Jaime’s mouth like that was surprising. Tyrion tries to understand Jaime’s point of view on Cersei, remarking that Jaime “always knew” exactly how awful Cersei was but continued to love her all the same. A quote that, with complete hindsight, feels sadly prophetic.

— Tyrion also spends time with Bran this week. He’s eager to learn of Bran’s story. We never see it because the scene cuts away, but Tyrion’s interest in Bran is hard to ignore.