Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
As depressing as it has been to watch Game of Thrones come unraveled over the course of season 8 like a poorly wrapped ball of yarn, first in the murky and blurry Battle of Winterfell and then in the poorly characterized devolution of Daenerys into “the mad queen,” we should acknowledge that the season has contained a few brief, shining moments of joy. These moments haven’t exactly come along often—not nearly often enough, anyway—but here and there, they’ve made their poignant presence felt.
We still have one episode to go, the series denouement in which someone must surely bring the newly insane Daenerys to task for literally choosing to roast the civilians of King’s Landing alive for no good reason. But regardless of what happens Sunday night, we feel fairly certain that when all is said and done, there won’t be a finer, more satisfying moment in season 8 than when we watched Brienne of Tarth finally given her due in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” In a season when little went right, it stands as one of the few scenes that was perfectly calculated for maximum emotional impact.
Indeed, the entire “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” episode will probably be one of the show’s last to age well, or be well remembered. The setup and soul-searching before the (ultimately disappointing) showdown between the living and the army of the dead gave us some final conversations and exchanges between many of the show’s beloved primary and ancillary characters, in addition to assembling an all-time great lineup for fireside drinks. To think, we got all the following in one room, imbibing together: Tormund, Davos, Tyrion, Brienne, Podrick and Jaime. Never has the show put together a more eclectically enjoyable roundtable of personalities.
As the drinks flow and the conversation turns toward celebrating the deeds of valor performed by each person present in front of the fire, it’s Tyrion who accidentally calls attention to the Westerosi glass ceiling for women warriors—although they might rarely be accepted into the service of a lord, there are no female knights of the realm. Tormund, who hails from beyond the Wall, unsurprisingly scoffs at such a notion—among the free folk, anyone can earn the title of a warrior. Brienne demurs, almost automatically—she’s been raised her entire life to respect the traditions and social niceties of Westerosi society/family and uphold them as best she can. “I don’t even want to be a knight,” she maintains, an awfully convenient desire to be free from in a society where such aspirations aren’t allowed. She glances at loyal squire Podrick, who seems almost disappointed in her for not pressing a claim she has surely earned—that, or he’s disgusted to be part of a system that would never properly recognize someone like Brienne.
... but what if the rules could be changed? If not now, on the potential eve of destruction, then when? What exactly is going through Jaime’s head, when he points out that “you don’t need a king” to make a knight?
Truly, it’s a lovely scene, with some beautifully nuanced acting by Gwendoline Christie in particular. There’s an internal clash that happens here, a tug-of-war in emotions written on her face from the moment that Jaime even suggests this idea. So many tiny resolutions are born and die, in the space of moments, that it bears deeper analysis.
When Jaime requests that Brienne stand up from her chair and kneel, her first instinct is to once again demur, but to do so with a world-weary and mirthless smile. Why? Because she’s afraid, and she’s trying to protect herself. Brienne doesn’t easily place her trust in people, especially men. Certainly, she doesn’t trust in the depth of Jaime Lannister’s personality changes, even though she’s developed both respect and admiration of him over time—maybe even attraction or love. Still, she can’t help but think back to the vain, arrogant man she dragged through the mud toward King’s Landing years earlier, and she won’t let herself believe that Jaime is being serious. So she shields herself in a smile and a tacit refusal of the initial offer—the physical equivalent of again stressing she “doesn’t want to be a knight.” After all, if she claims not to want the title, no one can withhold it from her. She’ll be protected from embarrassment.
We must remember that Brienne is sadly accustomed to a lifetime of cruel jokes at her expense. As in the story she tells Podrick in season 5, men have often feigned interest in her in order to make her the butt of a joke, likely in protection of their own fragile masculinity—she’s bigger and stronger than the majority of them. Only one man (Renly Baratheon) has ever lived up to Brienne’s ideals for how a true gentleman should behave, and he was obviously unable to return her love in the way she really wanted. In Jaime’s offer of knighthood, then, Brienne again suspects the world of being ready to pull the rug out from under her. The thought is paralyzing.
Jaime, however, persists. He’s spent enough time with Brienne to know that she genuinely values the creed and code by which a knight lives. Certainly, she believes in the ideals of knighthood much more strongly than Jaime does himself. And so he asks: “Do you want to be a knight, or not?”
The smile drops off Brienne’s face. Now she has to grapple with her desire for real. She glances toward a stone-faced Podrick, who seems to nod ever so slightly. She glances back at Jaime, whose eyes are practically begging her to accept the honor. Finally, she rises.
The others in the room immediately seem to realize that something momentous is happening. No one speaks, but they all lay down their cups. Tyrion stands to face the action. So does Tormund. The room is deathly quiet. Jaime’s fingers nervously re-position themselves on the pommel of his sword. For Brienne, something she dreamed of but never expected has suddenly become very real, with no time to emotionally prepare. Before she can even come to terms with what’s happening, she’s been knighted.
Everyone reacts in their own way. Tormund is amusingly overjoyed, his awe of Brienne having been taken one step further. Tyrion seizes on the morale and camaraderie-building effects of such a moment, hoping that this sense of fellowship will carry them to victory over the dead. Podrick, who also believes in knightly chivalry more than most, is beaming with pride. There’s not a dry eye in the house, and that’s before you get THIS.
I mean really ... when else on Game of Thrones do you ever see someone make a face that can only be described as a reflection of pure, unalloyed joy? Not “a sinister smile with secret intent,” or “a pained smile to put a happy face on repressed sorrow,” but REAL joy? In eight seasons, we’ve only had the briefest of glimpses of any character experiencing this kind of moment of happiness.
And ultimately, what makes it such a satisfying moment for the audience is our knowledge that really, nobody deserves this kind of honor more than Brienne. It’s only amplified by the fact that we’ve seen so many bad examples of knighthood. The likes of Meryn Trant and Janos Slynt were “knights,” and they were crappy knights indeed. Jaime himself is, by and large, a bad example of a knight, warriors “expected to be brave and just, and to defend the innocent, the weak, and women.” Sure, he once saved the citizens of King’s Landing from the insanity of The Mad King, but his love for his sister blinds him from acting after she literally achieves what the Mad King was attempting to do, using a cache of Wildfire to destroy the Sept of Baelor, killing thousands of innocents in the process. His oaths always take a backseat to personal attachment, in the end.
Brienne, on the other hand, is a paragon of what a Westerosi knight’s virtue is supposed to look like in action, to the extent that it’s a little on the unrealistic side at times, if we’re being honest. She’s more rigidly focused on valor and honor than any rational person could ever really be in our own world, fully devoted to living up to a code of ethics, conduct and honor that is naively idealistic in its very vows. But in its own way, that’s also one of the things that makes Brienne human—one of her weaknesses has regularly been her devotion to honor over practicality. Her sense of justice and fair play have often been contrasted with Jaime’s more flexible nature, as when she argued with him about sparing a peasant and letting him continue on the road in season 3, rather than killing him to prevent them from being recognized. It’s this act of mercy that leads to the pair’s capture by Bolton troops, and ultimately to the loss of Jaime’s hand. All because Brienne behaved as a “true knight” would.
Being a knight, then, is ultimately about as much an honor as you make of it. To Brienne, it’s a validation of everything she believes about justice, love and duty—and an indicator that this humble warrior woman should be welcome and valued in any company.
If the title of “knight” couldn’t be bestowed upon the likes of Brienne of Tarth, the title would cease to have any value. No one embodies it more fittingly than her.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.