This season, we have seen more callbacks and shouts than ever before. That’s not surprising given that it’s time the pieces were put together. But of all the past pieces coming back, the one most interesting to me was the call to Tywin Lannister’s old statement to his children. “The lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of the sheep.” Tywin lived a life free of concern for those he deemed lesser than himself — which covered pretty much everyone in Westeros. He managed this via ruthless maneuvering and positioning his enemies into situations where they felt they had little to no choice in their actions. He would present them with a choice, when in reality, there really was no choice to take but the one he had deemed mandatory. We see much of this happen in this episode.
For starters, we have Daenerys Targaryen giving the remains of the Lannister army the chance to bend the knee and swear fealty to her — or die. In the presence of Drogon, she appears to give them a clear choice and most take it. Most, but not Lord Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill. Though he has just switched allegiances from his liege lords, the Tyrells, to the Lannisters, he finds bending the knee to a girl from far away lands too much. He refuses to bow and follow Dany and, despite the protestations of Tyrion, Dany follows through with her threat. Lord Randyll and his son, Dickon, pay for their refusal with their lives. This appears to cow the rest of the resistant forces into bending the knee. Not much of a choice.
Nor, does it seem, does Queen Cersei see a choice in her alternatives. Despite the pleas for peace from Jaime, she sees only two alternatives: fight and die or surrender and die. Jaime, for his part, was saved from Drogon’s fire by Bronn, who could not believe that he had dared charged at the Dragon Queen. But Jaime saw no choice in the matter, like his sister. It was flee and die later or take his chance to stop her right then and there, even if it meant his death. These choices do not appear appeasing but to Cersei but she accepts that she must fight for her life if she’s to have any chance to keep it. Her life and that of her unborn son growing within her. Given that she just learned that Lady Olenna was the true murderer of Joffrey, she is desperate to find a way to bring this new life she and her brother have created unto the world. So when Tyrion arrives with an offer for an armistice from Dany, she’s willing to take it in order to buy time for her next move. It’s why she lets him enter and leave King’s Landing unharmed.
And why is Tyrion bringing an offer of armistice? To give Jon Snow, the King in the North, a chance to range beyond Eastwatch by the Sea and capture one of the wights that mindlessly follow the Night King’s commands to prove to Queen Cersei that their claims of an Army of the Dead are true. Without that proof, Cersei and Dany won’t ever give each other the chance to unite their armies against the Night King and the White Walkers. Jon, as one of the few men to have ranged into the north beyond The Wall and lived, has the experience and the know-how of how to fight against the White Walkers and their minions. He might be King in the North but he sees no choice in his going — he must lead this expedition no matter the cost.
He won’t be going alone though. The newly-returned Jorah Mormont and Gendry Waters arrive in King’s Landing not soon before he’s set to depart and agree to join the King in the North in his daring ranging. Ser Jorah does it for the sake of the Dragon Queen — in whose service he’s always wanted to be — while Gendry — found by Ser Davos back at his forge in King’s Landing — appears eager to join forces with the bastard son of his father’s best friend. Gendry has spent his time training himself in using a warhammer, King Robert Baratheon’s old weapon of choice, and manages to show his skill with it in saving Tyrion from corrupt Gold Cloaks. They will also be joined by Tormund Giantsbane, the Brotherhood Without Banners and Sandor Clegane, the Hound. All of them brought by different reasons. All of them holding grudges of different kinds against others — Gendry against the Brotherhood, Tormund against Jorah — and yet united in a purpose that they seem unable to choose against.
As Jon travels north, Littlefinger is looking to sow distrust in his home. He notices the disagreements between the Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya, and how Sansa is rising in the estimation of the lords encamped at Winterfell. This causes seeds of doubt to grow inside Arya’s mind. She knows the kind of girl her sister was and how she saw herself as better than everyone else. So Littlefinger deceives Arya into finding the old raven message Sansa sent to Robb, telling her their father was a traitor and he needed to go to King’s Landing to bend the knee. Knowing Arya and how fiercely she holds her love for her father and her siblings, Littlefinger is hoping that the young assassin will not be able to see the deception in the letter nor the meaning behind them that Cersei Lannister put into Sansa’s writings. Littlefinger, so far on the outs with most of the new power structure, is looking for a way to fashion a new choice for the lords of the North: one where either Sansa is Queen and he’s behind her or where Arya and Sansa are dead and the North is in chaos.
A similar chaos though may claim The Reach. The former breadbasket of the Seven Kingdoms, stripped by the Lannisters before Daenerys burned much of their gains has seen the end of both their lords and their immediate successors in the Tyrells and the Tarlys. Well, one Tarly does remain: Samwell. He tries to make the archmaesters see the truth in Bran’s message about the White Walkers. He even provides them with an avenue for impacting the course of the war: by confirming the truth of the message to the high lords and ladies of Westeros. Instead of seeing it as a choice between doing something and doing nothing, the archmaesters instead see it as the foolish notions of a boy who has lost much in the War of the Five Kings. And dismiss it.
So Sam makes the choice that seems right to him: he takes the scrolls and books he thinks will best give him a clue as to how to defeat the White Walkers and leaves the Citadel with Gilly and baby Sam in tow. He abandons the order that was set to him by his Lord Commander to become the Night’s Watch next maester and decides to go for parts unknown with his trove of knowledge, the woman he loves and her child and his house’s ancient Valyrian steel sword, Heartsbane. What will happen if he returns to Horn Hill? Archmaester Ebrose chose to not reveal his father’s and brother’s fates to Sam. Will he find his mother and sister, those family members closest to him, in desperate need of him? By the vows he swore to the Old Gods, he’s a Man of the Night’s Watch, sworn to renounce all claims, lands, titles and inheritance.
More importantly though, to consider, is did he bring the book Gilly was reading from Archmaester Maynard which spoke of a secret annulment and new marriage by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen? The implications of a new marriage pact by Rhaegar, should he have married Lyanna Stark, are numerous. Would Sam choose to reveal them? Would he do so to help bring forth a new candidate to the Iron Throne for the good of the Realm or to hurt the woman who just burned his brother and father alive? Every one of these characters thinks they have choices in the way the story goes, but most of the time, they are reacting to what others have done. In that way, like Tywin Lannister used to do, they are presented with only one course of action and no real choice at all.