Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season seven, episode five. Do not read on unless you have watched.
Remember the bad old days of sexposition? All that naked flesh cynically deployed in the background – or even foreground – to sugar the presumably bitter pill of Westeros world-building? Sexposition was the stick used to beat Game of Thrones in the show’s early running, and it always felt like some HBO executive hedging their bets: if we’re going to let these fantasy characters discuss the detailed history, weirdly messed up seasons and absurdly tangled royal lineage of some made-up quasi-medieval continent, best throw in some titillation to stop bored viewers tuning out.
Fast-forward to season seven and it is a very different story. No need for writhing concubines or fluffy handcuffs: we are all locked in. It doesn’t even matter that every character is now sporting leather armour that covers 90% of their body. This breakneck-paced season has offered a different kind of eye candy: blockbuster-beating action, lusty sea battles, crafty castle sackings, terrifying dragons in full vengeful flight. For a large percentage of viewers, though, there’s a comparable thrill to piecing together the breadcrumbs of the show’s deep plotting. To successfully decode the fractured history of Westeros feels like a gateway to foreseeing its ultimate fate, looming just a season away.
Which is why Eastwatch – an episode required to brush away the smouldering remains of the spectacular Loot Train Attack before resetting the board for the season’s climactic double-whammy – arguably had its headline moment overshadowed by a maester’s chickenscratch on a dusty scroll. The much-anticipated return of Gendry (Joe Dempsie) was an open secret. The showrunners, perhaps feeling guilty for making Dempsie a benchwarmer for three seasons, bent over backwards to make his comeback cool. Get ready, they seemed to be saying, because here comes the hot smelter.
It was Davos who waved Gendry off in a rowboat, and it was Davos who located him again in a Fleabottom smithy. With his new badass buzzcut, the doughty blacksmith with royal blood coursing through his muscular arms was shown to be mission-ready, scooping up his Jason Bourne-style go-bag before the grouchy smuggler had even finished his recruitment pitch and expertly donking two King’s Landing watchmen with a customised warhammer. He even got do some manly you’re-a-bastard, I’m-a-bastard bonding with Jon Snow. Everything about Gendry’s return seemed intended to signal that This Guy And His Rad Hammer Are A Big Deal.
And yet. The moments that really got the blood pumping were more subtle. Jon’s ability to fondle Drogon’s muzzle without being turned to charcoal was a scene played without dialogue, perhaps to allow viewers space to squee over this latest confirmation that the King in the North has more than a little dragon-taming Targaryen DNA in him. Then there was dedicated student Gilly who, amid the papyrus graveyard of the Citadel, happened across the equivalent of a footnote in the small ads section of the local paper. Here, suddenly, was a glimmer of proof that Rhaeger, son of the Mad King, had annulled his previous marriage before his son Jon Snow was born, giving him by far the strongest claim to the Iron Throne.
That renegade maester Samwell was too busy seething over the short-sightedness of his elders to clock the importance of this was hardly the point. It was there for the viewer, another breadcrumb to ponder, another piece of evidence to index, another link to add to our personal maester’s chain of how we think it will all end. Instead of loitering in Littlefinger’s bawdy houses, we are walking patiently through our personal mind palaces, obsessing over historical marginalia. Impressively, Game of Thrones has made maesters of us all.
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