The premiere of Game of Thrones penultimate season was mostly spent arranging the pieces for the endgame bid for the Iron Throne of Westeros. Dany arrives at Dragonstone, Cersei enlists Euron Greyjoy and his Iron Fleet, and Jon Snow attempts to fully unify a North that has been fractured ever since Robb Stark beheaded Rickard Karstark. Yet juxtaposed amidst all the strategic maneuvering were two strikingly human moments.
Fresh off her Frey revengocide at the twins, Arya is traveling south — ostensibly on her way to continue her Tarantino-esque revenge tour of Westeros at the King’s Landing. Along the road she encounters Ser Ed of House Sheeran and his not quite A-team of Lannister soldiers. 1
Ill-fated chance encounters of enemy bannermen are not a new occurrence on Game of Thrones. From the offset, the meeting feels fated to end in bloody fashion. Early on Arya eyes the pile of Lannister swords — likely too far out of reach for Ser Ed and his companions to stand a chance against perhaps the most lethal of the remaining Starks. Yet as the smalltalk around the campfire continues, what at first seemed like tragic prelude to a Lannister massacre morphs into something else entirely.
First, a homely young Lannister soldier offers Arya the first bite of roast rabbit. The soldiers then begin wistfully reminiscing of home and family — the young soldier longing to rejoin his fisherman father at sea and another soldier craving to reunite with his wife and the newborn child he’s never met. The talk of home and family clearly strike a chord with Arya, who has been long separated from both.
Ultimately blackberry wine is shared rather than blood spilled — a rare moment of humanity between supposed foes amidst the unremitting brutality of Westeros. Given the degree of division and hatred in our own society the moment also resonates on another level beyond the screen. It’s easy to hate a banner and the relatively anonymous men and women who ally with it. It’s much harder to hate a human being once you sit down and start listening to them.
While Arya heads south, Sandor Clegane is heading north alongside the Brotherhood Without Banners. Along their way they encounter a seemingly deserted farmhouse, now covered in snow and ice — the very same house where a farmer and his daughter took in the Hound and Arya for a night only to be beaten and robbed by the younger Clegane brother. Despite Sandor’s protests, Beric insists on spending the night.
Once they enter the Hound sees exactly what he expected to see — the frozen remains of the farmer and his daughter, huddled in the corner. Though left unspoken, his thoughts are readily apparent. He knows that by robbing the farmer he had stolen not only his silver but the only chance he and his daughter stood of surviving the winter.
Later that night Thoros of Myr awakens to find Clegane burying the farmer and his daughter.2 Despite all his hard rhetoric about killers and the weak not surviving winter, when forced to return and face the reality of good but “weak” people dying, even Clegane is overcome with guilt.
The board has been set and the pieces are about to begin moving as we enter the final acts of Game of Thrones. Yet, amidst all the would be kings and queens, the show occasionally pauses to spend a moment with the common folk of Westeros. These moments of humanity, more than all the infamous “tits and blood”, elevate Game of Thrones above the fantasy genre. Dragons versus Ice Zombies may be inevitable, but when it does the stakes of Westeros’ survival will feel a lot more real having met not only the living legends but the everyday humans that call it home.