As the Night King’s army draws close to Winterfell, our heroes snatch some quality time with old friends, seeking love and cherishing memories. Spoilers follow, of course.
Podrick Payne may be the legendary cocksmith of King’s Landing, but this week we discovered he’s got a lovely singing voice, too. (Maybe that’s his secret with the ladies.) As everyone at Winterfell awaits the imminent army of the dead, Tyrion calls for a song, and Podrick obliges with ‘Jenny of Oldstones’:
“High in the halls of the kings who are gone
Jenny danced with her ghosts
The ones she had lost and the ones she had found
And the ones who had loved her the most”
Performed by Florence and the Machine over the end credits, the song is an elegy to evanescence: the way that life, and even memory, struggles to hold on to “the things we do for love”. But like the North, Bran remembers. He reminds the newly arrived Jaime Lannister of his fateful line, in front of everyone, but keeps their shared secret from Daenerys and Sansa; after all, Jaime did give Bran the push he needed to become the Three-Eyed Raven.
Later, Bran tells the Winterfell defenders that in the battle to come he must act as bait for the Night King, who’s targeting Bran because of his greenseeing abilities: “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.”
“That’s what death is, isn’t it?” Sam muses. “Forgetting. Being forgotten.”
Speaking of ships, some viewers have felt that this episode showed Game of Thrones wallowing in fanservice as it nears the end of its run. But when death is coming, you reach for life! You gather dear people around you and pursue your true desires. You luxuriate in wine, ale, soup and memories, sharing songs and stories — even if they are deeply awkward tales of being suckled by a giantess! Will they reminisce over you?
So let’s roll our eyeballs back like Bran, and head into the memory of the Seven Kingdoms. Jenny of Oldstones was a mysterious woman who claimed to be descended from House Mudd, the lost royal dynasty of the First Men (“the kings who are gone”), and lived in the ruins of their castle in the Riverlands, known now only as Oldstones (“They spun her around on the damp old stones”).
Jenny won the heart of Daenerys’ great-uncle, Prince Duncan Targaryen, who renounced his claim to the Iron Throne to marry her, leaving his brother Jaehaerys to inherit. A woods witch whom Jenny had brought to court told Jaehaerys that a prophesied saviour, the Prince That Was Promised, would be born to Jaehaerys’s kids — that is, to Daenerys’s parents. (Could Dany be this incredibly inbred saviour? Last season Missandei did point out that High Valyrian nouns have no gender.)
Duncan’s marriage to Jenny enraged Ser Lyonel Baratheon, to whose daughter Duncan had been betrothed. Declaring himself the Storm King, Lyonel rose up in a brief, bloody rebellion against the crown, and was placated only when King Aegon offered his youngest daughter Rhaelle to Lyonel’s son — that is, Robert, Stannis and Renly’s grandfather. (It’s from this Targaryen marriage that the Baratheons got their royal claim.)
Back in season three, Catelyn Stark begged her son Robb to reconsider his politically disastrous love for Talisa Maegyr, citing her own arranged marriage to Ned: “Love didn’t just happen to us; we built it slowly over the years, stone by stone.” (In the books, Catelyn and Robb were actually camped at the ruins of Oldstones when she gave him this warning.)
Yes, ‘Jenny of Oldstones’ is a warning. Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark spurned arranged marriages to follow their hearts, and produced Jon Snow, whose superior claim to the Iron Throne he disclosed to Daenerys at possibly the worst moment, in classic Ned Stark fashion. Ned sparked the War of the Five Kings by telling Cersei he knew about her forbidden love, much as Rhaegar and Lyanna’s forbidden love sparked Robert Baratheon’s fateful rebellion.
Now, Jon threatens the fragile coalition he’s built inside Winterfell’s walls. What rash choices might Dany make during the battle, now she knows Jon stands in the way of the goal she’s chased her whole life? Does she really love Jon, as she assured his skeptical sister Sansa?
Sansa is right to distrust erotic love; she has so much first-hand experience of trauma and betrayal. But as in the song, her sorrow and pain seem to spin away upon the return of her fellow survivor Theon, who’s haunted so much of Sansa’s past. At the end of season five, Sansa and Theon took a leap of faith together from Winterfell’s walls. And Theon was ready to die for Sansa as Ramsay Bolton’s hounds pursued them, until Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne rescued them both. That’s love.
Brienne is at heart a traditionalist. She pursued knighthood — and the associated honour, loyalty and sublimated eroticism of courtly love — because it was the most traditional path open to a woman like her within a misogynist society. This is why it means so much to be dubbed a knight by the man she loves. Kneeling at his feet, his eyes locked with hers. His sword resting on her shoulders. (His sister, who rumbled Brienne back at Joffrey’s wedding, safely in King’s Landing.)
Brienne’s desire for Jaime — and for Renly Baratheon before him — merges with the moral passion of oaths made and kept. Their famous bath scene in season three was sexy because he granted her the boon of learning his secret honour when all around him thought him an oathbreaker. Jaime loves Brienne, too, in a way he can’t explain — remember the longing look he cast at her home island when he was on his way to Dorne?
(Speaking of Islands of Longing, there is basically no way Grey Worm and Missandei will set foot on the warm, peaceful sands of Naath together. Naath is like Shell Beach in Dark City, like the island in The Island, like Hawaii in The Running Man, like Norfolk in Never Let Me Go, like the Florida Keys in 12 Monkeys. It’s a place that gives false hope to people who’ve been exploited by opaque systems.)
Into this delicate spider-web of yearning blunders Tormund, guzzling from his horn of ale. It is such a shame that Tormund can never overcome Brienne’s deep-seated traditionalism, because he wants her for the very reasons she’s been outcast by courtly Westerosi society. North of the Wall — as in old Valyria — warriors aren’t determined by gender. Tormund isn’t afraid to say he wants the “big woman”… but it’s touching to see him bluster when faced with his golden-handed rival.
Down at Gendry’s forge, things are heating up as Arya pumps him for intel about the enemy. “You want to know what they’re like?” Gendry says. “Death, that’s what they’re like.”
“I know Death,” Arya replies coolly, throwing dragonglass knives like a carnie. “He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.”
In season one, when Arya was learning to water-dance with ghosts, Syrio Forel told her there is only one thing we say to Death: “Not today.” And no offence to Lord Beric and the Hound, but she’s not spending her final hours with those two miserable old shits. It’s hammertime with Gendry, and she never knew there was a love like this before.
Yep, it’s one of the most anticipated hookups since Jon and Dany… yet Twitter was still feeling weird about it. Why? It’s plain old misogyny to treat a male character’s sexual initiation as a coming-of-age milestone — as with the previously virginal Podrick, Jon, Sam, and even poor Tommen — but to worry about exploitation when it’s a girl. Despite her round face and doe eyes, Maisie Williams is 22 now, and Arya is 18. She speaks with the authority of adulthood, and certainly kills with it. She doesn’t dress to reveal her woman’s body… but Gendry sees it, all right.
And the look he gives her is full of awe. It’s like the look Jaime gave Brienne in the bath, and Jon Snow gave Ygritte in the hot-spring cave. It’s the gaze of men who have met their match. And unlike Melisandre’s brand of seduction, which weaponises men’s desire against them, these are encounters between equals, with no agenda but shared pleasure. Game of Thrones’ rape scenes get so much attention that it’s good to remember the show sometimes gets this stuff right.
As Simple Minds sang at the end of The Breakfast Club, “Don’t you forget about me.” And the refrain of ‘Jenny of Oldstones’ yearns to dwell in memory: “She never wanted to leave, never wanted to leave.” Did Jon Snow think tonight of Ygritte, his own warrior woman, who told him, “I don’t ever want to leave this cave”?
But she did, and he lost her. This series must leave. And next episode, some — perhaps a great many — of its characters will dance among the ghosts.