Game of Thrones is running out of time.
With only two episodes remaining before its eighth and final season draws to a permanent close, an epic’s worth of unresolved plot still lingers. As we left things at the end of the fourth episode on Sunday, the extant Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei Lannister, has sealed herself in the Red Keep at King’s Landing behind an army of Gold Company mercenaries and a suite of dragon-slaying ballistas; the insurgent/would-be heir apparent, Daenerys Stormborn, is seething with rage at the gates after the decapitation of her counsellor and friend, Missandei, and is meanwhile arousing doubt in her suddenly tentatively loyal subjects. Varys and Tyrion, co-advisers to this presumptive leader, have been having serious arguments about the merits of treason, musing on the wisdom of a possible coup; and Jon Snow, née Aegon Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, continues to repudiate the title seemingly every other citizen of the realm would prefer him to take.
And still, with all this to deal with, they found time last night to drink.
In the wake of the destruction of the Night King and the army of the dead at the hands of Arya Stark — the culmination of a show’s worth of storytelling and a standalone feature’s worth of action, realized at the very last possible moment before every character of consequence was butchered by a sieging cabal of sword-wielding zombies — the whole of Winterfell gathered in the Great Hall and summarily got pissed. Roughly the first 45 minutes of the episode was devoted entirely to this sodden denouement: After leaving the north in ruins and the world in gratified shock, we rejoin our heroes for what seems like a pleasant eternity of carousing, tipsy hookups and some awe-inspiring chugging of wine.
There was of course much brutality and carnage to come — this is still Game of Thrones, and still the fourth episode of the final half-dozen. But it was a relief to enjoy a few moments of happy, high-spirited camaraderie before we wandered southward and found, as we should probably have anticipated, the usual Thrones misery, betrayal and grief; this time in the form of another murdered dragon (shot down by oversize crossbow courtesy of Euron Greyjoy, currently the only character we know anything at all about in the entire enemy fleet) and poor Missandei, beheaded by the Mountain as a pointless demonstration of Cersei’s ongoing brutishness. We had ample occasion to be miserable by the end of the episode. So it was all the more welcome that the show found the time, too, to let us have cheer and drink.
Perhaps it was simply the sensation of being able to breathe again for a minute after the sustained mouth-agape thrill of the previous episode’s battle, but for some reason happy hour in the dining room seemed more exuberantly satisfying than a bit of booze-swilling this late in the game has any right to be. Tyrion, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth and faithful but silent squire Podrick knocked back mouthful after mouthful during another bout of the dwarf’s most beloved drinking game, which as usual doubled as a chance for last-minute character development (as virgins abound, at least temporarily) and a number of characteristically delightful quips. Tormund Giantsbane, of whom we so recently learned too much about the origin of his surname, pulled the classic move of drunk best-men everywhere, loose-toungedly boasting of his friend and compatriot Jon Snow’s accomplishments while sloshing wine around in a thirty-foot radius.
Daenerys, not exactly known for cutting loose, brooded over her increasingly dim leadership prospects, though still added to the overall merriment by conferring on Baratheon bastard Gendry the much-deserved title of Lord of Storm’s End — a promotion which boosted the young man’s confidence to the point of proposing to the realm’s most lethal assassin. At a table by himself meanwhile, contributing to the brooding quota, sat the Hound, as capable of imbibing as anyone, if as miserable as ever; it was a testament to the strange spirit of celebration that he wound up chatting with Sansa, hardly in the best mood herself but quite willing to share the hard truths that come with a night of heavy communal drinking. All in all, it was about what you would expect of a great party.
Much as the second episode of the season did the Game of Thrones ethos right by pausing before the battle to enjoy some peace and reflection, the fourth gave us an appreciated dose of one quality this show has as crucial to its brilliance as spectacular action: an understanding of the power of booze. The fact is, Thrones has always been as much a show about drinking as it has been a show about fate or power, and since the beginning it’s taken the time necessary to establish that wine and ale, for the men and women of the Seven Kingdoms, are as indispensable to life as the right despot on the Iron Throne. There is a reason that Tyrion’s most enduring piece of wisdom revolves around the idea: “I drink, and I know things,” he tells Missandei soberly (or rather not).
What Game of Thrones has always made abundantly clear — and what it took pains to remind us last night — is that the drinking is as important to him as the knowing.