All The Best Cowboys Are Heading North Of The Wall

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All Westerns are set at the end of the world. In most of the genre’s staples, the specific reasons why this particular gunslinger is in this particular town fighting this particular scoundrel quickly fade away. Stories of discovery and exploration take place in unforgiving environments, places where anyone can become a new person. Riding away into the sunset has become the stock image for a happy ending, but there’s a bittersweet edge to that iconic tableau: Our heroes are dissolving into the sun, baked away like everything else out here on the frontier.

Of course, the way classic Westerns frame the West as an empty space beyond civilization for white people to explore is politically charged. It took decades before the genre began wrestling with the question of how, exactly, the West became “empty.” Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have always advanced metatextual critiques on the tropes of the fantasy genre, and with the way they each skewer (sometimes literally) their knights in shining armor are an obvious subversion of the genre. Both works also contain elements of the Western and commentaries on that genre too, as the colonizing frontiersmen (the Night’s Watch and the entire feudal system that supports it) and the indigenous peoples (the wildlings, or the Free Folk, depending on who you ask) work their way to a fitful strained alliance in the face of an inhuman nightmare that threatens them all, as if Custer and the Lakota had to team up against an army of zombies spilling out of Canada.


The idea is that the colonizers should’ve recognized the colonized as their fellow humans who deserve to be respected and not wiped off the face of the Earth—the white walkers exist to make that commonality clear by contrast. What was subtext in the books has become blatant in the visually-driven show; it’s impossible to watch “Eastwatch” and not see the Western influence in Sandor Clegane’s clothes, in Beric Dondarrion’s words, in the image of (magnificent) seven men stepping beyond the border. All that’s changed is the cardinal direction. One can almost hear Beric whispering to Jon: Go North, young man.

A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones make for perfect modern Westerns because they reframe the existential hope at the genre’s core. George R.R. Martin’s story is built around the idea that while The System may not embody the values it pretends to, individuals still can, and Game of Thrones find a stubborn hope in that idea of self-reinvention the same way many Westerns do. Beric drops a monologue in “Eastwatch” about that very hope, even in the face of a literal frozen hell world. It’s a bittersweet stand, especially when the same logic can be used by the show’s worst villains: Cersei, too, thinks of herself as raging against the dying of the light. “We fight and die or submit and die, I know my choice.” The end is here. The apocalypse has been hanging over Season 7 of Game of Thrones, presumably before emerging whole, fangs glistening, in Season 8. Notice that Jamie, perhaps the cockiest gun in Westeros, faced down Daenerys’s flying apocalypse machine last episode and emerged broken and robbed of his will to keep fighting.


There’s also a more purely hopeful flip side to all this in “Eastwatch,” and it rests with Davos Seaworth, one of the best characters in Martin’s books. In this latest episode, Davos is the rueful old cowboy to Gendry’s eager young gunslinger, reluctant to get the kid involved while also recognizing that he saved the kid for exactly the purpose of getting him involved. Davos wandering the Street of Steel and bribing some guards got my heart fluttering, because while I’m enjoying the show’s converging narrative arcs, it lost something when it started smashing a heap of different plotlines together. Davos has become a somewhat generic advisor figure over the last couple of seasons, so it was thrilling to be reminded of where he comes from. Davos rose from the bottom to the top, a nobody from Flea Bottom who became Hand of the King out of merit and loyalty. Even as he rubbed elbows with kings and sorcerers, Davos never forgot where he came from, which has inspired the best decisions in terms he’s made with his unexpected political power. It’s that side of him that came to the fore on Sunday night.

Game of Thrones is peerless at these intimate character moments, and it unfortunately falls short when it tries to tie those moments into the big picture. After the very sweet and realistic reunion between the Stark sisters, it was extremely disappointing to see the show fall back on forced contrivance to create a dispute between Arya and Sansa. Arya suddenly became a blank-eyed murder robot urging Sansa to cut off lords’ heads, mocking her big sister for enjoying possessions as if Arya herself hadn’t invested her heart and soul in castle-forged Winterfell steel. She might be a world-class assassin now, but her unkillable Stark identity is what made her leave the House of Black And White even as she was ascending to Faceless Man-hood.

I’m on board with estrangement and awkward dynamics given how long they’ve been apart, but tying that into Littlefinger’s scheming felt very forced. By now, there’s no sound dramatic reason for Petyr Baelish to still be around; it seems increasingly likely that he’s going to be dead at this point in the books, and unlike with Beric (who explicitly is dead by this point in the books), the showrunners and writers aren’t doing a good job of keeping him compelling. It’s not even clear what his position in Winterfell actually is or why Sansa bothers keeping him around, especially when this episode makes clear that the knights of the Vale—did they swear to Jon? Is he King of North and the Vale? It would be nice to know these things!—are loyal to Sansa, not Littlefinger. We all know that Sansa’s going to turn on him. We all know that he’s going to be dead by the end of the season. We all know this doesn’t matter much when compared with the army of the dead. There isn’t the same kind of narrative grounding there is with Davos and Gendry in King’s Landing, or with the magnificent seven at Eastwatch.

Here they are, at the end of the world, after all their transformations: a smuggler, then a knight, then a Hand, now a smuggler again; a king’s bastard, now a smith; a lord’s bastard (a prince’s, really, but Jon doesn’t know it yet), then Lord Commander, now a king; a priest who didn’t believe in his own god, but now does, thanks to the man he brought back to life; a man whose soul is burnt away, who will die fanning the embers anyway; an ex-knight whose brother shoved his face into the fire, formerly selfish but now prepared to give his life protecting humanity’s fragile flickering flame against the ice demons who would snuff it out. After all, that’s what gunslingers do, what true knights do.