“Game of Thrones” leaned hard into fan service—and it totally worked

“Rise, Ser Brienne of Tarth.”
“Rise, Ser Brienne of Tarth.”
Image: HBO
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Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones proved that sometimes pandering to fans can still serve a story well.

Indulging every whim of a fandom—no matter how ridiculous or unjustified—is usually a sign that a TV series has gone off the rails. Shows that become beholden to their most rabid watchers rarely figure out a way to make its storytelling feel organic and earned. But in its eighth and final season, Game of Thrones showed that it’s possible to do just that, by staying true to who the characters really are.

The second of the HBO show’s final six episodes, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” is comprised entirely of long-awaited character reunions and interactions. Almost every scene had already been conjured up on Reddit and Twitter dream boards: Jamie Lannister apologizing to Bran Stark years after he pushed him out of a tower window; Theon Greyjoy returning to Winterfell to tearfully reunite with the Starks; Brienne of Tarth having her heroism recognized with a richly deserved knighthood. The fans, essentially, wrote this episode.

That’s usually a recipe for disaster. But last night, each of these moments felt true because they exemplified what’s most fascinating about these fictional men and women. Jamie Lannister has grown more than anyone on Game of Thrones—his apology to Bran encapsulated an eight-season arc in which he went from an entitled asshat to a penitent, self-aware ally. Theon, meanwhile, deserved a happy homecoming more than anyone. After his own descent into asshattery, he was punished with unspeakable brutality, reduced to the status of a groveling slave, and only then found his own agency and sense of honor. His reunion with Sansa could be a fresh start for them both, after their shared trauma.

And Brienne’s belated honor—well, that was simply one of the show’s greatest moments ever. Did the scene of her knighting drive the plot forward? Not remotely. But was it honest and heartfelt and utterly earned? Absolutely:

As the characters’ likely imminent deaths approached (in the form of the Night King and his undead army of White Walkers), there were so many other enjoyable moments: fan-favorite Lady Mormont wishing “good fortune” to her cousin Jorah; Arya deciding she wasn’t going to die without experiencing sex (on her terms); Jamie and Tyrion Lannister sharing a brotherly moment; Tormund’s delightfully outlandish story of how he got the nickname “Giantsbane.”

These scenes worked on two different levels. First, they seemed like actual things people might do if they thought the world were about to end. Second, they were probably the last times that many of these actors got to perform together. They gave these relationships genuine endings. That sense of finality made each interaction truthful, even if they were initially dreamt up by—or concocted to please—the fans.

With just four more episodes left (and a huge, record-breaking battle to come), the remainder of the final season of Game of Thrones will surely gallop past these quieter, tender character moments, into big-budget action and plot twists. But for 60 minutes, at least, the biggest show in the world got really small, put all our favorite characters into rooms together, and reminded us why we liked this story in the first place.