Tyrion saying, “let’s stay a bit longer” is a mood – perhaps the bittersweet mood that permeates each Sunday. It’s the Final Season, with 4 episodes left, and it’s the eve of what’s promised to be the biggest battle, like, ever. Meaning everyone at Winterfell is about experience their version of the Thanos Snapture, where half of them are likely to fall fighting the Night King’s army. Somehow, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” turns this reflective doom and gloom into the show’s most compelling hour in what feels like has been a thousand leagues. 69 episodes in (ayyyy) it’s surprisingly easy to forgo the doomsday plot for a minute and cozy up to the fireplace alongside our favorite characters. I’m with Tyrion; I just wish it wasn’t time to go.
If there wasn’t time to breathe throughout Season 7’s breakneck plotting pace, then Season 8’s 2nd episode allows us to ease up on the gas for a solid 50-minutes. It is tremendously felt— so much so that Game of Thrones has started to resemble its old self again: Tyrion graced with actual compelling lines this time around, a general reminder that no one is safe, and a looming battle that the showrunners are actively taking the time to build towards.
This methodical driving of anticipation harkens back to the show’s former methodical pacing that seemed but a memory. Think Jaime and Brienne’s leisurely pace towards King’s Landing in Season 3 – an arc and destination that took all of Season 3 to achieve. Perhaps we never took the time to appreciate how that slowness allowed characters to be themselves rather than plot devices.
With “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Game of Thrones forces itself to a halt using a common TV trope known as the “Bottle episode.” The concept is deceptively simple: a single set of characters in a single space for a single episode. What started as a budget restriction on a TV show became a curiosity point for the writer’s room. In that regard, previous GoT episodes like “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall” don’t count; those were battle episodes.
A brief rundown of my favorite bottle episodes and their keen storytelling appeal. One that readily comes to mind is Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” in which a pesky insect seems to get the better of Walt and Jesse as they’re confined to the lab – their actions toward each other a stand-in for the mounting tensions and secrets between them – becoming a deeper, existential thought bubble on mortality. Director Rian Johnson (perhaps the most overqualified TV director) gets to have his cake and eat it too, saving AMC’s soaring production costs but still delivering a whirlwind and necessary chapter to Walt’s moral plunge.
The very nature of the bottle episode was its filler/throwaway appeal. Skip it and you’ll save the showrunners the embarrassment of letting their budget constraints get the best of them. And yet, as bottle episodes have taken structure in virtually any season of a given series, that seems less likely the case—more so it’s a chance at a slow-burn characterization offering viewers a reprieve from the A-plot of the series.
Yes, even Friends has taken a stab at the bottle episode. “The One Where No One Is Ready” (which could also double as GoT’s episode title) features Ross struggling to get everyone ready on time, and in this contained setup we get to experience more of them because they have nothing else to do on paper except be themselves, frantic, quippy and all.
Parks and Recreation’s “Ron and Leslie” is another bottle episode that forces Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope to quash their rivalry – something that wouldn’t have been the focus elsewhere because so much is in motion. After all, this was during Parks and Rec’s final season. And what a relief it was to finally get context and to get closure. I can imagine a handful of scenarios in which Game of Thrones could’ve used a bottle episode or two, but it’s fitting that we manage to get one near its end.
There are still SO MANY loose ends, so many characters whose journeys need to be concluded before the bells come tolling. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is as close as Game of Thrones is ever going to get to a bottle episode. It is still the most lavishly produced television show, and the sheer size of its cast still makes the episode feel gigantic. But the trope is nonetheless still present. All our heroes confined to one locale. Plotting takes the bench, and characters finally – in the midst of all this White Walkers and dragons and dragonglass and Three-Eye Raven talk – get to be.
The most notable progression is that between Jaime and Brienne. Jaime might’ve had a spectacular Season 7, but Brienne had little, if nothing at all to do. Here, she testifies to the honor of a man who, as much as he may have started by dishonoring her, has had a hand in forging the knight she’d go on to become.
When Jaime elects not to take command of the Winterfell guard but to instead serve under hers, it caps off their relationship, finally. When he goes on to literally knight her later in the episode, Brienne’s arc reaches self-actualization (Podrick bearing witness) which puts forward the possibility she’s going to die. Theirs is perhaps the most restrained love story in the show, one not built on traditional romance, but defined by their hard-won admiration for the other.
Jaime and Tyrion’s arc, too, achieves forward progression. Finally, after a surprise meeting in Season 7 that was hardly felt, they finally have time to chat as treasonous brothers. It’s amazing how much the show is able to accomplish story-wise when the A-plot of the Night King and the White Walkers take the backside.
Theon rejoins Winterfell, completing the symmetry of not only having helped Sansa escape, but also redeeming himself for taking the castle from a pre Three-Eyed Raven Bran prior. Both Jaime and Theon have brought harm upon House Stark in their own ways, and here they are on the battlements. In any other show, that would read as lazy writing, seen as wildly out of character. In Game of Thrones it’s not only true to their characters, it’s how you complete a redemption arc. Nonetheless, it means Theon is definitely going to die. (Ramsay words still loom large over his destiny: “If you think this has a happy ending, then you haven’t been paying attention.”)
Davos, too, gets a quiet moment serving bowls of brown, in which he meets a familiar little girl – a symmetry that also puts forth the possibility that he might die. The episode even caps off the journeys of the last remaining Night’s Watch brothers. Standing on the walls of Winterfell, they’ve come a long way from Castle Back, which Sam pointedly makes a note of— meaning one of them. is going. to die.
Like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones uses the bottle episode as a direct portal to characters’ conscience; their ruminations on mortality, their journeys so far, or the profound purpose in which the Night King and the White Walkers have unduly bestowed upon otherwise meaningless lives. Dolorous Edd getting one last jab at Samwell, Arya getting one in before the war, Tormund shooting his shots with Brienne, or Bran being Bran; “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” ties up loose ends, seals characters fates, while driving mad anticipation for a sustained battle of undead mayhem that frankly none of us are ready for.
I truly wish we could go on staring into the fire and pondering aloud what may or may not lie ahead of them. But, as Varys bleakly noted in the final season opener – a stark contrast to Tyrion’s plea by the fireplace: “Nothing lasts.”