Usually the big battle in a Game of Thrones season falls toward the end of the season, often in the penultimate episode, but this year, it is clear the big battle is coming in the front half, as we spend all of the second episode teeing up the Battle of Winterfell. The episode speeds through Jaime Lannister’s “trial”, and everyone gets in their not-goodbyes as the White Walkers inexorably bear down on Winterfell. As much as I enjoy a good campfire song and Bran’s new role as the Orin of Westeros, the meat of this episode really comes in two scenes, both involving the women of Winterfell. As Lainey said, the women know more, and this week, they put their knowledge into action.
The biggest confrontation is not Jon and Daenerys in the crypt, but Sansa and Daenerys attempting to come to some kind of understanding. The closer Daenerys gets to the Iron Throne, the more her entitlement comes out. In Essos, she was a conqueror who had to earn her position and justify her rule, but Westeros is her home turf, and she considers the Iron Throne her birthright, and that entitlement shows in the way she expects everyone in Westeros to just bend the knee because she arrived, even though to most of Westeros, she is a foreigner. Sansa, on the other hand, has dug in her heels about the independence of the North, and why shouldn’t she? The North rallied around her and helped her get her home back. In the North, she is safe (now). It’s her home, and she wants to protect it as an independent kingdom, because she understands the power and security that comes from that.
As Daenerys says, Sansa and Dany should be friends and allies—they have a lot in common and are, sort of, working to the same goal. But at the end of the day, Sansa has no reason to bend the knee to Daenerys. Unlike Jon, she is not in love with Dany, the dragons seem to her more a burden than a benefit, and she doesn’t give a f-ck about the Iron Throne. Sansa presents to Daenerys a conundrum—how are you going to win my loyalty, when the only thing I want from you means the failure of your dream? An independent North means Daenerys won’t be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Can she settle for a partial victory to make peace with Sansa? This harkens back to Sam’s point about what Daenerys is willing to sacrifice for her people. It’s not a problem for today, there is a much bigger fight right in front of them, but eventually, even if Jon does not challenge Daenerys’ claim, she is going to have to decide what her victory in Westeros really looks like.
And then there is Arya, who, in the language of action movies, probably signed her death warrant by getting it on the night before a battle. (Never confess your love or your intent to retire right before a fight.) By sleeping with Gendry, she fulfills Robert Baratheon’s long-ago plan to unite the Starks and Baratheons through marriage, but she also takes back another piece of Arya Stark from A Girl. Arya trained in the house of the Many-Faced God, a death deity in the world of Thrones. To truly serve him, she had to give up everything, even her identity, to become Faceless. She couldn’t quite do that, clinging to Needle and her list, but the biggest piece of herself Arya has reclaimed is the piece that believes in life.
Sleeping with Gendry isn’t just about paying off season-one foreshadowing or satisfying shippers, it’s Arya choosing life, not death. She isn’t just answering Robert Baratheon, she is also answering Syrio Forel: “What do we say to the god of death?” For seven seasons, Arya inched closer and closer to the god of the death. But in this episode, she finally says, “Not today.” Maybe Arya dies in the Battle of Winterfell, but even if she does, she does not die as a servant of death. Arya has two paths, one as A Girl and one as Arya Stark. She has chosen, finally, the path of Arya Stark. If she dies, it’s only because Arya Stark lived. And if she lives, Arya has a wide-open future of her own making.
The women of Winterfell have choices to make. They have all lived through loss before, and some of them will live through loss again. What defines them, though, are not those losses, but the choices they make when faced with the inexorable conclusion of their story. “What happens after?” Sansa asks Daenerys. The battle is before them, but the choices they make for after—if there is an after—will define them.