Category Archives: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 7 “The Dragon and the Wolf”

[Better late than never.]

My biggest prediction about “The Dragon and the Wolf” was that it would be boring, and that turned out to be largely correct. Sure, some things happened, and a couple of those things were somewhat unexpected, but the show’s generally awful writing and failure to effectively build consistent characters with understandable motivations makes it difficult to care deeply about any of what happens on screen. It’s an action-light episode, which doesn’t help, and even the moments that should provide the greatest catharsis after years of build-up don’t. It’s an altogether disappointing end to a season that has turned out to be one long slog of nonsensical plot points, poorly conceived battles and silly character beats.

**Spoilers ahead!** Continue reading Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 7 “The Dragon and the Wolf”

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 6 “Beyond the Wall”

This penultimate episode of season seven continues the storytelling trends that we’ve already seen in the last five episodes, and it manages to be boring, to boot. After last week’s constant jumping around between characters and storylines, which all seemed to be increasingly spread apart from each other, “Beyond the Wall” is all about bringing storylines back together (with the season finale looking to do so even more). Unfortunately, the show continues to be plagued by the same pacing issues and the same bizarre character work that has been emblematic of the season so far. If I didn’t know it was in earnest, I’d think “Beyond the Wall” was a cruel, absurdist experiment to see how far audiences are willing to follow this show as it descends into complete nonsense.

However, Benioff and Weiss still profess to be writing this pablum in good faith, so let’s dig in.

**Spoilers below, obv.**

At Winterfell

We’ll start at Winterfell, with Sansa and Arya, though the episode doesn’t begin with their story. The other two major storylines in “Beyond the Wall” are intertwined enough to make them worth looking at together, but this one is self-contained and almost entirely separate from anything else that happened this week. It’s also profoundly stupid and deeply, infuriatingly misogynistic, just an absolute quagmire of hot garbage from start to finish.

So, last week Arya found the letter that Sansa wrote way back in season one asking her mother and brother to come to King’s Landing and bend the knee to then-King Joffrey Baratheon, and it wasn’t clear exactly what Arya might (or even could) do with it, since it was pretty clear at the time that it was written under heavy duress by a traumatized child being kept as a prisoner and being lied to by her captors. Everyone who read the note at the time basically agreed that Cersei had dictated it to Sansa and that Sansa shouldn’t be blamed for cooperating under the circumstances. Now, to be fair, Arya wasn’t in on any of those conversations, and her own memory of Sansa at the time was of Sansa standing with Cersei while Joffrey gave the order to have Ned Stark beheaded, and that’s something that could be fodder for conflict between the sisters. However, that’s only an aside in this week’s storyline, which is almost entirely focused on Arya’s general hatred of and resentment towards Sansa and more specifically on Arya’s grievance over this note and Arya’s threats of violence towards her sister. It’s nonsensical, and there’s not an honest motivation or compelling emotional beat in the whole episode.

It’s not hard to imagine that Arya and Sansa’s different experiences along their wildly divergent paths over the last several seasons of the show might set them up for conflict. The two girls have extremely different temperaments and skill sets, and it makes sense that they would have disagreements among themselves on how to deal with their current situation. However, the story being shown on screen doesn’t suggest any understanding on the part of the show’s writers of girls, sibling rivalry, normal human interactions or even just basic logic. Instead, all this episode’s so-called drama at Winterfell is a boring, tedious rehash of the show’s longstanding commitment to pitting women against each other at every turn while devaluing and vilifying femininity, often in hopelessly sophomoric fashion.

First up, we get Arya confronting Sansa with the letter and blaming Sansa for their father’s death. When Sansa protests that she was a child and frightened and that she thought cooperating would help Ned, Arya taunts her for being “stupid” enough to believe the Lannisters and mocking her with comparisons to Lyanna Mormont. But the whole “not trusting Lannisters” thing only makes sense at all with the benefit of hindsight; while obviously smooth political operators, and with the taint of Jaime’s kingslaying on the family, the Lannisters haven’t, prior to this generation, had a reputation as particularly devious. Indeed, the popularity of the saying “a Lannister always pays his debt” suggests that Lannisters are in fact generally viewed as trustworthy, even if not always as forthright. Certainly, they are no less untrustworthy than any of the other great houses of the Seven Kingdoms, and Sansa, as a sheltered child with romantic ideals, can’t reasonably be called “stupid” for believing them—especially when Cersei herself was acting in good(-ish) faith with Sansa; Joffrey’s decision to execute Ned Stark surprised his mother as well, and this impolitic action was even the reason Tywin sent Tyrion to King’s Landing to act as Hand of the King in Tywin’s stead. And on the note of Sansa being sheltered, it’s equally ridiculous to compare Sansa to Lyanna Mormont. Lyanna Mormont has been the opposite of sheltered, in many ways, and is much worldlier than Sansa was at that age, largely because Lyanna has never had the same privileges of wealth and station and intact nuclear family that Sansa had. As a result, Lyanna has also never had to endure the misfortunes and hardship Sansa did; she’s had different challenges to face just like Arya has had different challenges, and this is the thing that Benioff and Weiss don’t seem to grasp. Sansa, Arya and Lyanna are three different individuals with different upbringings, skills and hardships, and it’s both absurd and wildly unfair for them to be pitted against each other in this way.

From a more practical standpoint, what exactly is Arya’s motivation here? Her strongest grievance against Sansa seems to be less related to their father’s death or even to Arya’s suspicions that Sansa could be disloyal to Jon Snow. Instead, it’s Arya’s perception of Sansa as weak and girly that comes up again and again in their conversations and from which Arya’s other resentments stem. Several times now, Arya has mentioned Sansa’s “pretty dresses,” and she’s been straightforward in accusing Sansa of greed, materialism and shallowness, projecting these qualities onto Sansa as possible motivations for Sansa to betray her family every chance she gets. Arya isn’t attacking Sansa’s actions, none of which realistically suggest any kind of malfeasance on Sansa’s part (in fact, literally the opposite); she’s attacking Sansa as a woman, assigning to Sansa negative qualities and motivations based on misogynistic stereotypes of the type of conventionally feminine woman Sansa is. There’s never been any inkling of Sansa as the shallow, frivolous, image-obsessed, devious, grasping figure Arya imagines, and there’s literally no evidence of it on screen at any point in seven seasons of the show, and yet all of this contrived conflict treats Arya’s accusations as if they have more weight than the spiteful, petty imaginings of a traumatized girl dealing with her own survivor’s guilt and cruelly lashing out at the sister she never was very close with to begin with.

In the end, Arya doesn’t make any specific demands on Sansa, even when Arya finds Sansa snooping around her chambers (where Sansa finds a bag of comically terrible severed face props). In a well-written story, it would be clear what Arya wants from her sister, even if all Arya wants is to punish Sansa for her perceived wrongs. Here, though, there’s no telling. Arya’s driving motivation for years has been revenge, symbolized by her list of names even as many of those characters have died while she was off training, so it was moderately surprising when Arya turned north instead of heading to King’s Landing to kill Cersei. The show has completely squandered all the potential of this turn of events, though, and much of that is because there’s no longer any obvious motive for anything Arya does. Arya’s suspicion of Sansa is so unfounded as to be almost deranged, but even if that wasn’t the case Arya’s lack of conditions for Sansa to meet makes this situation especially untenable and puts Sansa in the position of becoming rather justifiably paranoid about her sister’s intentions, which ends up leaving Sansa vulnerable to manipulation by Littlefinger, who has engineered this whole thing. For someone who is very quick to judge others for their stupidity, Arya sure has lapped up every bit of what Littlefinger has fed her.

This storyline finishes out the episode with Sansa sending Brienne away to serve as her representative in King’s Landing (although it’s also implied, poorly, that Sansa sends Brienne away out of a sense of self-preservation, believing that Brienne could side with Arya over her) and Arya threatening to cut Sansa’s face off and wear it.

At Dragonstone

Daenerys likes Tyrion because he’s not a Hero, which is mildly insulting, but he magnanimously gets what she’s trying to say. They talk a little bit about power and ethics, which ends with Tyrion calling Daenerys impulsive (she’s demonstrably not, in most situations) and then badgering her about the succession, even though she hasn’t even successfully won the Iron Throne yet. It’s a new low of paternalistic, sexist condescension from Tyrion, no matter how much the show tries to portray Daenerys as paranoid and irrational.

North of the Wall

Jon and company spend half the episode trudging through the snow and the other half fighting an extremely ill-conceived battle against zombies on a frozen lake while they wait for Gendry to send a text raven to Daenerys for help. These conversations, like all conversations on this show, are a mix of boring, bafflingly silly, and offensively bad, so I’m just going to list them here.

  1. Gendry complains to Tormund and Jon about the cold and asks how they stay warm. Fighting and fucking, apparently, according to Tormund, who them makes a rape joke implying that Gendry might not be safe, which is a great way for the show to treat a character who has already been actually sexually assaulted.
  2. Tormund criticizes Jon’s unwillingness to bend the knee to Daenerys, comparing it to Mance Rayder’s refusal to kneel to Stannis and pointing out that Mance got a lot of people killed. These aren’t exactly the same thing, but okay.
  3. Gendry is still mad at the Brotherhood Without Banners for selling him to Melisandre, who sexually assaulted him and wanted to kill him. Sandor Clegane totally dismisses Gendry’s anger and trauma and tells him to quit “whinging.”
  4. Jon and Jorah talk about their respective dads and daddy issues. Jon tries to give Longclaw to Jorah, but Jorah refuses because he feels unworthy. Jorah’s assertion that it should belong to Jon and Jon’s children reads as Jorah endorsing Jon’s relationship with Daenerys. Thank goodness Jon and Daenerys have Jorah’s blessing.
  5. Tormund and Sandor talk about Brienne. It’s gross, and it takes a weird homophobic turn partway through.
  6. Beric tells Jon that Jon doesn’t look like Ned Stark, which might be the dumbest thing said in this episode. Jon looking like a Stark—resembling Ned, to start with, and Arya, but also his mother Lyanna Stark—is a genuinely significant thing that is mentioned over and over again in the books. It did get somewhat short shrift in the show, but this is the first time it’s been so completely dismissed. Jon and Beric go on to have a talk about faith and purpose and the value of fighting for life even though the enemy is death and you’ll always lose. This conversation could have worked in a better show, but here it comes off as a little too serious and self-righteous.
  7. As the snow thickens and visibility gets worse, the group is attacked by a zombie polar bear. Some redshirts die and Thoros is injured. The whole thing would have been cooler if it was easier to see what was happening. Just because the characters are experiencing low visibility doesn’t mean the audience should as well. Not really a conversation, but just as meaningless as the conversations that surround it.
  8. Jorah and Thoros talk about some battle on Pyke where Thoros committed some act of drunken heroism. I think this might have been mentioned once before on the show, or maybe I just remember hearing about it in the books, but there’s no reason for this conversation to take place at all. I guess it shows that Thoros’s injury isn’t doing so great.

Eventually the weather clears up a little, and the group sees a small group of zombies with one of the Others marching through a narrow space between hills and decide this is there chance to catch a zombie. This goes alright at first, and they discover (albeit too conveniently) that killing one of the Others destroys all the zombies they have personally animated. They end up catching their zombie, since it’s the last one left after killing the Other, but not before it shrieks loud enough to wake the dead, or at least to draw the whole rest of the army of the dead down on them. Gendry is sent back to Eastwatch to send a raven to Dragonstone for help, even though it feels as if the group had been marching for days north of the Wall, Gendry doesn’t know his way around, and a raven would take at least several more days to get to Dragonstone and Dany would take some time as well to get back north, even on dragonback. The show has always played fast and loose with travel times, and there’s a certain amount of fudging the numbers that is acceptable for plot convenience or thematic reasons, but this is laughably awful.

While they wait for Daenerys to rescue them, Jon and company run across a frozen lake and are momentarily saved from the zombie horde when the ice starts to crack and about a three-foot line of water appears in almost a perfect circle around a large rock in the middle of the lake. Apparently, zombies can’t jump, so they all stop in a ring, trapping Jon and company in the middle of the lake, where they hunker down to wait for morning and, hopefully, Daenerys. Thoros dies in the night and is unceremoniously burned, which is disappointing since there are no other major human character deaths this episode. It’s not that I’m anxious for anyone else to die (and there is one brief moment in the fighting where it seems like Tormund might be in real danger), but this all still feels very low stakes for the main characters, especially with redshirts dropping like flies. Thoros’s death just isn’t enough to make the situation feel really dangerous or impactful. He’s not a big enough character, we weren’t attached enough to him, and in the moment it’s treated as no big deal.

Once there’s full light, or at least as close to full light as this poorly lit monstrosity of a show ever gets, the Hound starts tossing rocks at the zombies, and that’s about when they realize that the ice has refrozen during the night and start charging the group on the rock. They fight valiantly, the last redshirt or two die in the battle, Tormund almost gets ripped in half, and they realize that they’re completely surrounded and trapped in a moment that hilariously seems as if Jon Snow is truly only just now noticing this fact. And that’s when Daenerys ex machina happens. Although Tyrion warned her against it, Daenerys brings all three of her dragons North in order to rescue Jon Snow. Only she doesn’t manage to rescue Jon, just the rest of the men, and she’s forced to flee on Drogon after the Night King uses an ice spear to take down one of the other dragons, Viserion. Jon is left to fight his way out of the situation on his own, though he is in turn saved by his uncle Benjen, who appears almost magically and certainly too-fortuitously. Jon eventually makes it back to Eastwatch, where Daenerys has been waiting for him, and they have the first interaction where even a glimmer of true mutual attraction or affection is apparent between the two of them. However, even that moment is cut short as Daenerys quickly exits the scene as soon as she has an emotion, and Jon is left alone as they travel south towards King’s Landing.

The episode ends back north of the Wall, where the Night King has a bunch of zombies pulling on chains to drag Viserion out of the frozen lake so he can get turned into an ice zombie dragon. It’s meant to be ominously foreboding, but it’s honestly just silly and predictable.

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 5 “Eastwatch”

After the excitement of last week, it was too much to hope for this episode to maintain that same level of energy, and, indeed, “Eastwatch” is the first episode of the season so far that was actually boring. While there are a lot of things happening in this episode, they all tend to run together into a giant, messy series of generally ill-conceived scenes that make up a plot that’s both increasingly convoluted and wildly (and occasionally hilariously) stupid.

On a more irritatingly personal level, this ridiculous lack of structure is starting to make it difficult to figure out how to organize these recap/review posts. The last few weeks, I managed to get things loosely grouped under setting headings, but there’s enough character movement and enough crossover between storylines in “Eastwatch” that this is no longer an effective organizational method. Instead, this recap is going to follow each of the focal/POV characters of the episode. I’ll be talking about it more in depth in the individual sections, but something that’s been fascinating and frustrating to observe this season has been the way in which—in a complete reversal of last season’s “women on top” philosophy—nearly every female character in the show has now been reduced to a character in the story of the male characters. Every episode this season has worked to systematically reorient all the most important stories around men, and it’s really obvious in “Eastwatch” just how much that has been at the expense of women (you know, if it wasn’t obvious to you already, obv).

**Spoilers ahoy!**

Jaime Lannister, Bronn and Cersei

Jaime has always been part of the show’s main cast, and he ought to have one of the more compelling character arcs if the show had followed the books more closely. Unfortunately, even as he’s emerging as one of the most important characters in season seven—to the point that Cersei is now mostly relegated to being a secondary character in Jaime’s story—Jaime is increasingly a character that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Previous avenues of growth and character development and sources of narrative tension in his story have been abandoned, and it’s not at all clear what the show is going for with him this season, but with the amount of screen time he’s getting and the number of scenes from his point of view, it’s obvious that Jaime is important. For some reason.

“Eastwatch” opens with Jaime and Bronn having escaped from the main battle by, I guess, swimming down and across the river they fell into when Bronn rescued Jaime at the end of last week’s episode. As unlikely it might seem if you think about the weight of their clothing and armor and their lung capacity and the amount of distance they’re supposed to have traveled downriver, they’re not too out of breath to have a chat. After two seasons of the show’s writers not really knowing what to do with Bronn, he’s playing a bigger role this year as something of a, well, not a conscience, but some kind of voice of reason or something for Jaime, who is as much in need of a voice of reason as ever. This might work better if the show had done a better job of developing this pair’s friendship over time, but having been neglected for so long, this relationship feels hollow, and the character beats in this episode are without the true depth that would have come from that more thorough development. Also, it’s patently silly to have Bronn inform Jaime that “dragons are where our partnership ends” literally moments after Bronn threw himself in front of a dragon to save Jaime’s life.

Nearly as absurd as Jaime’s relationship with Bronn is his relationship with Cersei. The big reveal this week is that she’s pregnant, and this is a game-changing turn of events for the Lannisters. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t manage to really sell us on the impact of it, either personally or politically for these characters. In the books and in much of the middle seasons of the show, the story of Cersei and Jaime’s relationship has been a story of the deterioration of an unhealthy codependency, and it seemed at the end of season six, when Jaime returned just in time to watch, stone-faced, as Cersei was crowned queen after Tommen’s suicide, that this conflict was finally coming to a head. Instead of furthering that compelling storyline, this season has walked back pretty much all the Jaime-Cersei conflict in favor of treating their relationship like nothing so much as a forbidden romance, framing them as star-crossed lovers fighting against an unjust world that threatens to tear them apart instead of continuing to explore the parallels between Cersei and the Mad King, the strain that puts on her relationship with Jaime, and Jaime’s internal conflict as he has to choose between his beloved sister and his honor as a knight. The show has struggled since at least season four to properly deal with this storyline, but this year the Cersei-Jaime story has finally been entirely stripped of its major conflict, robbed of its thematic value and reduced to a tawdry incestuous-for-shock-value romance in which both Cersei and Jaime have transformed into characters that it’s basically impossible to root for.

Sidenote: I guess they’re just forgetting about that whole three children prophecy thing that Cersei’s been obsessed with and living her whole life by, huh?

Tyrion Lannister, his feelings and Daenerys

Since Tyrion’s story connected with Daenerys’s, it’s been more and more his story than hers, and this week took that shift to a new level as it showed the aftermath of last week’s battle completely from Tyrion’s point of view and then gave him a lot more screen time to process his feelings and day drink/plot with Varys about how to control Daenerys. I’m not sure there are really words adequate to convey how infuriating it is to see Tyrion’s hypocrisy and self-righteousness exalted like this over and over again in the show, and always, these days, at Daenerys’s expense. Tyrion, who unleashed wildfire on Stannis’s fleet in “Blackwater” (something we’re explicitly, albeit weirdly jokingly, reminded of by Davos later in the episode), is undone by the devastation wrought by dragon fire and the Dothraki and consumed with guilt or shame or maybe just upset by the realities of war. It’s hard to tell, frankly, because this season has an awful problem with failing to adequately convey character motivations.

Regardless of what we’re supposed to understand about Tyrion’s post-battle state of mind, the show is at some pains to portray Daenerys as a potential villain here. She burns Randyll and Dickon Tarly when they refuse to bend the knee, and one could write a whole essay just on whether or not that was their choice or an act of tyranny on her part, but the truth is that the answer to that question is outside the scope of what can effectively be explored in a world like Westeros. Tyrion and Varys, during their day drinking conversation, both seem to believe that they are the right advisers to make Daenerys into a good ruler, but it’s not clear what that would look like. Though Varys, in particular, fancies himself a sort of voice and defender of the common people, both of these men are supporting a destabilizing revolution that will, nonetheless, only affect a change in the head of the monarchy. What they are advancing isn’t the kind of sweeping and sustainable societal and governmental change that will produce the positive outcomes they claim to desire; it’s a simple (albeit fiery and bloody) regime change.

This is highlighted best in the single moment of the episode that is Dany’s alone, where she’s standing in front of Drogon and gives a nonsensical speech about how she’s come to Westeros to “break the wheel” that has been oppressing the rich and the poor and that only benefits “the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” It’s the stupidest, most tone deaf “we are the 99% and All Lives Matter” speech I’ve ever seen on television, and it’s not how anything works. Now, I increasingly suspect that Daenerys is not one of Westeros’s endgame leaders, seeing as how her story is mostly no longer her story anymore and seeing how the show seems to be priming the audience to want Jon Snow as king (though they could still surprise me and have Jon marry his aunt and rule jointly), but the way this whole conflict is playing out is ridiculous. While the use of monarchical governmental systems in fantasy can be useful for examining what the qualities of a good monarch might be, this is a perfect example of how the fantastical monarchy is a poor framework for examining complex real-world political and ethical ideas. Daenerys may frame herself as a liberator, but her use of force (and this would be true even without the dragons, which are perhaps best understood as a metaphor for nuclear or other weapons of mass destructions) eliminates any meaningful power of choice among her subjects. She gives the Lannister army survivors and the Tarlys the option of obedience or death, but that’s not an unconstrained choice of the kind that is necessary for true freedom.

Tyrion and Varys seem to recognize this, but their solution is both shortsighted and self-serving. They still intend that Daenerys will sit on the Iron Throne, but safely controlled by themselves. They do stop (just) short of calling Daenerys hysterical, but the ugly sexist and grossly paternalistic undertones of this narrative—in which two men plot to install Daenerys as a puppet queen under their control—just get more unpleasant all the time. There’s a certain pragmatism to this idea of how a fantasy monarchy might work—a flawed monarch influenced by others towards a better way of ruling—but there’s no evidence that either Tyrion or Varys is a true representative of the people of Westeros. Indeed, Tyrion’s motives are muddled with his daddy issues and still-split loyalties, both of which come up in his conversation with Jaime, though none of that conversation is as affecting as it would be if the show hadn’t inexplicably ignored the fate of Tyrion’s first wife, Tysha, and Jaime’s role in that debacle. If Tyrion’s motivation to support Daenerys is personal, as vengeance against his family and others he thinks have wronged him, then he’s no great champion of the people. If Tyrion’s motivation is more selfless than that, there’s very little evidence of it.

Meanwhile, there’s really no accounting for Varys’s seeming passion for helping the people of Westeros. He’s foreign, childless and without property in the country; though he’s addressed sometimes as Lord Varys, he doesn’t hold any traditional title or lands, and his position isn’t hereditary. He could just be a remarkably nice guy, but there’s little evidence of that, either. He seems to personally gain and lose very little with the change in leadership in Westeros, and his actions—low key fomenting (or at least contributing to fomenting) the wars that have devastated the country—are rather at odds with his claims to desire stability. And on that note, what constitutes “stability” in this situation? Can any monarch, even with the best possible advisers and policies, provide meaningful and sustainable peace and stability to a nation that still uses a feudal system? It’s some kind of nonsensical Bernie Bro bullshit to believe that’s the case, which is pretty much in line with everything we know about this show and its writers at this point, but that doesn’t make this entire situation any less laughably absurd.

Jon Snow, Drogon and Ser Friendzone

Listen, I want to pet a dragon as much as the next person who was first drawn to the genre by great dragon-riding heroes (Kitiara Uth’Matar and Lessa of Pern, in my case), so there’s something magical about a woman riding a beautifully animated dragon. There’s even something magical about that dragon having a moment with a bastard boy who’s secretly a prince, though the show plays all of these tropes completely straight in a way its source material never did. Completely out of context and uncritically, the scene where Jon gets to pet Drogon is a great moment, and it’s proof that Game of Thrones is still capable of producing those every now and then. In context, it’s still a mess. Jon and Daenerys have no chemistry, for all that the show runners insist that there’s a romance brewing between them, and their dialogue is robotic and nonsensical. Ser Jorah’s return is boring and under-emotional, and the suggestion that this could create a love triangle—at least I think that’s what we’re supposed to get from the shot of Jon’s dismayed (I think that’s what that expression is supposed to be) face while Dany greets Jorah—is stupid. Jon’s decision to go back north of the Wall and Jorah’s decision to go with him in order to catch a white walker to show to Cersei is even stupider. Worse, after several episodes of escalating action, switching back to a cold war situation between Daenerys and the Lannisters is extremely anticlimactic.

Bran’s Ravens, the Citadel’s Response, and Sam and Gilly

At Winterfell, Bran is using ravens to do some reconnaissance to remind the viewer of the vastness of the army of the dead. It would be scarier if the army of the dead wasn’t as slow as molasses. Everyone else on this show can traverse continents in the blink of an eye, but these guys have been slowly shambling south for years. Bran sends ravens to the Citadel, where the highest ranking maesters in the world decide to do nothing with the news, even though the Archmaester himself has met Samwell Tarly and believed his stories about what’s north of the Wall. Sam witnesses the maesters’ inaction firsthand and in a fit of frustration decides he’s going to leave the Citadel and return to the Wall to help his friends there. In the midst of Sam’s snit, Gilly discovers the biggest secret in Westeros, just written down in some random maester’s journal: Rhaegar had his marriage to Elia of Dorne annulled and married someone else (Lyanna Stark, obviously) the same day.

Here’s the thing, though. Do the writers of this show even know what an annulment is? As far as I know, there’s no mention of annulment in any of the show’s source material, at least not by that name, and it doesn’t make sense here for Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia to have been annulled at all. For one thing, there are no grounds for an annulment; by the time in question, Rhaegar and Elia had been married for several years, and she’d given birth to two children, one of them a son, so the marriage was neither unconsummated or infertile and not even without a male heir. For another thing, setting aside Elia would almost certainly have been an unwise political move if the Targaryens were relying on Dorne to support them during Robert’s Rebellion. Finally, the Targaryens are canonically polygamous as it suits them, so there would be no legal or religious conflict in Rhaegar simply taking Lyanna as a second wife if that was what he wanted to do. Also, maesters aren’t religious figures in Westeros; they’re teachers and doctors and advisers to secular leaders, so why would a maester perform either a marriage or an annulment?

None of this even matters, though, since Sam was too busy talking over and ignoring Gilly to hear her. Because of course he was. Naturally, this is played for laughs instead of pointed out in the text as Sam being an asshole.

Davos and Gendry

The big news before this episode aired was that Gendry was coming back, and he did. When Davos has to “smuggle” Tyrion into King’s Landing (In broad daylight! On a deserted beach! Within sight of the walls of the city!) for a meeting with Jaime, Davos takes a side trip to the Street of Steel, where he finds Gendry working at a forge, again in broad daylight, completely openly as if there never were gold cloaks hunting down and murdering all of Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Not only is Gendry right there and easily found, he’s also already packed and ready to go with Davos more than a little too enthusiastically. Gendry’s apparently turned into some kind of Robert Baratheon superfan while he was gone, even crafting himself a beautiful Baratheon-themed war hammer, because it makes total sense for an orphaned boy to idolize his deadbeat dad who practically bankrupted seven kingdoms. Davos wisely counsels Gendry to keep his parentage on the down-low, but literally the first thing Gendry says to Jon when they meet is basically, “I’m Robert Baratheon’s bastard. Let’s be best friends since our dads were.”

This might be the single worst-written development in the show to date, and it’s a shame because there is potential in this situation to elicit a genuine emotional investment and reaction from the audience if they had developed this friendship over time and worked in symbols like Gendry’s Baratheon hammer in a subtler manner with a more impactful reveal of Gendry’s parentage and the connection between the two young men. Instead, every bit of symbology is forcefully spoonfed to the audience in scenes that almost literally tell us how we’re supposed to feel about what we’re seeing. It’s stupid, and it’s insulting, and it’s a shamefully missed opportunity. A better show with better writers and less desire to rush to the end of things would have let Jon and Gendry connect first over their shared experiences as bastards, allowed their friendship to grow over some time, and then revealed Gendry’s hammer and parentage in a key moment, perhaps having him rescue Jon or perform some heroic deed in Jon’s service.

Instead we get Jon and Gendry as insta-bros, and they’re all going north together to find a white walker for Cersei because what could possibly go wrong?

Arya at Winterfell

This week’s Winterfell storyline is mostly about Arya. Sansa is busily working, still, to maintain the coalition between the Northern Lords and the Lords of the Vale, all of whom are starting to get pretty pissed off that the man they proclaimed King in the North has gone south for specious reasons instead of staying in the North and ruling them like they wanted. To keep the peace, Sansa is doing the politic thing and listening to the various Lords’ concerns and trying to smooth ruffled feathers while still being explicitly—in very clear words—supportive of Jon and clear that she is only acting in her brother’s place. This isn’t good enough for Arya, however, who accuses Sansa straight to her face of being materialistic (for using their parents’ old rooms, which Sansa was encouraged by Jon to do) and of trying to usurp Jon’s position. Sansa patiently explains that this isn’t the case, pointing out that it’s her job to listen to these crusty old dude’s complaints, but Arya suggests that maybe they should be murdering dissidents, or at least Sansa would be if she really loved Jon and supported him as King in the North. Poor Sansa looks pretty put upon, since she’s stuck dealing with unhappy Lords all day and her siblings all went on journeys and came back as total assholes, but the way this scene is framed, one gets the distinct feeling that we’re supposed to think that, even if Arya isn’t totally right, she does have kind of a point. Even though Arya’s accusations are just, factually, one hundred percent without merit. There’s literally no evidence that Sansa has any designs on Jon’s throne at all, and there’s every evidence that Sansa is doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing: holding down the fort until her brother gets back. Even Arya’s accusation that Sansa is thinking about what would happen if Jon didn’t come back doesn’t make much sense. Of course Sansa must be thinking about that, at least a little bit. That’s a wise thing to be thinking about and a distinct possibility that it’s worth having a plan in place to deal with, just in case. That Arya (and the show) are trying so hard to paint this as a sign of disloyalty in Sansa is ridiculous.

Later in the episode, we find Arya snooping around Winterfell, mostly following Littlefinger, who, it quickly becomes obvious, is almost certainly manipulating Arya in order to, I guess, sow discord between the newly reunited Stark siblings. We find out that Arya has picked up some spying skills from somewhere—What can’t Arya do?—as she follows Littlefinger around the castle, eventually going into his room and finding a piece of information that he left there for her to find. We know he left it for her on purpose because he is watching her the whole time and because this show has, apparently, zero interest in building any suspense or tension about anything at all anymore. The thing that Arya finds is Sansa’s letter from season two, the one that Cersei dictated to her when she was a prisoner of the Lannisters and in which Sansa implores her brother to come to King’s Landing and pledge fealty to Joffrey. It’s not clear what Littlefinger means to accomplish by leaking this information to Arya, and we don’t find out this week. Is Arya supposed to be angry that Sansa was coerced as a child into writing this letter? Is she going to be upset because she thinks Sansa was hiding it, even though that letter had pretty much no effect on anything and even Robb and Catelyn knew when they received it that it was Cersei’s words? Will Arya use this information against Sansa to try and paint her as a Lannister loyalist and end up fracturing the increasingly fragile accord between the Northern and Vale Lords? All these ideas are terrible, which probably makes them all about equally likely. Goodness knows, Arya isn’t going to talk to Sansa like a reasonable adult or anything, because that’s not how this show rolls.

Eastwatch

For being the title of the episode and everything, Eastwatch plays a tiny part in the hour’s proceedings, and we don’t actually make it there until the very end when Jon, Davos, Jorah and Gendry show up. Tormund is surprised and skeptical of the capture a white walker plan, but he has news as well. Thoros, Beric and the Hound made it to Eastwatch and are convinced it’s their destiny to go beyond the Wall. After some obligatory and very perfunctory posturing—Gendry is still mad at Beric and Thoros, no one trusts each other, and the Hound wants to just get going—Davos decides to stay behind at Eastwatch while the rest of the men go forth to catch a zombie. Ostensibly, this is because Davos is too old and not a fighter, but I’m pretty sure it’s so that the group—Jon, Tormund, Jorah, Gendry, Beric, Thoros, Sandor—can be compared to the Magnificent Seven. Next episode, we find out how this awful plan pans out. Whee!

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 4 “The Spoils of War”

This week, we’re back to inoffensively bad with “The Spoils of War.” It’s by far the most entertaining episode of the season so far, if only because we finally get to see some of the dragon fire action that we’ve been waiting seven years for, but the rest of the episode is still a mix of silly dialogue, baffling emotional beats, and just generally poor writing. The visual effects, specifically for Drogon, balance some of this out, but “The Spoils of War” is still by no means a triumph of craft.

Spoilers ahead, natch.

In the Reach, Part 1

“The Spoils of War” is bookended with scenes taking place in the Reach (basically the lands near Highgarden and between there and King’s Landing), and in the first one Bronn is back, and he has lines again (!) as he helps Jaime oversee the looting of Highgarden. Jaime gives Bronn a huge bag of gold—nice job, show, on at least trying to convey just how heavy gold is—but Bronn wants to know where his castle is. You know, the one he was promised back in like season three. He points out that Highgarden is currently free, but Jaime responds with, basically, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” to which Bronn replies, essentially, “I’ll take my chances, rich boy.” Then, Bronn gets a little critical of Cersei, which makes Jaime uncomfortable, or maybe pissed off or something. It’s hard to tell, because what even is Jaime’s relationship with his sister, right? It might even just be that he’s offended at Bronn getting above his station since Jaime quickly seizes the first opportunity to reassert his power over Bronn. Randyll Tarly wants to flog some of the stragglers at the end of the wagon train or whatever, because it’s important that we know what a bad guy he is, so Jaime commands Bronn, kind of rudely, to go make sure Lord Tarly at least gives people a warning before flogging them.

In King’s Landing

Our only King’s Landing scene this week involves Cersei day drinking and being flattered by Mark Gatiss, the name of whose character I cannot for the life of me remember. Not that it matters, because Mark Gatiss is just playing Mycroft Holmes. His flattery of Cersei reads as incredibly insincere, and it’s delivered with Gatiss’s omnipresent smirk, but at the same time the tone of the scene still seems to suggest that we, the audience, are intended to see Cersei as competent—a strong ruler with a string of wins, a new powerful ally and strong prospects—as opposed to evil and foolish. Honestly, at this point, either way could work, but it would be nice if the show’s writers would just pick one conception of Cersei and be consistent with it.

Bran at Winterfell

We first see Bran this week being wooed by Petyr Baelish, who still has the Valyrian steel dagger that, in a way, started this whole mess. Littlefinger gifts the dagger to Bran, who asks if Littlefinger knows who the dagger belonged to (nope, at least ostensibly) and then freaks Littlefinger out by repeating part of the “chaos is a ladder” speech from season three. Littlefinger’s perpetual creeping on every Stark child he can get his hands on is getting tiresome, but it seems likely that the primary function of this short scene is to reintroduce this dagger into the narrative. In the books, the dagger is supposed to have been given to the assassin by Joffrey, but it had originally belonged to Littlefinger himself, for all that he claims no knowledge of it here. Considering the amount of attention paid to the dagger in this episode, however, it seems like this is being set up to be a significant mystery of the season. It just seems like too little, too late. Joffrey is long dead, and it seems silly for Bran to toy with Littlefinger if he knows the dagger was his, especially since Bran has come back from the wall devoid of any human feelings or passion. If that’s truly the case, then it’s genuinely out of character for Bran to be manipulating in that fashion.

Speaking of Bran being devoid of human feelings, the very next scene finds Meera Reed popping in to say goodbye to Bran before she leaves to go back to her family, presumably because this character has been tortured enough and the show is trying to pare down its cast. Generously, we could interpret this scene as further confirmation of how Bran was changed by his time beyond the Wall and his new role as the Three-Eyed Raven. The truth is that he’s not Bran Stark now—“not really, not anymore.” Poor Meera is heartbroken, having lost her brother, Hodor and Bran’s dire wolf Summer along the way, but Bran himself has nothing to say to her aside from a simple, not-very-heartfelt “thank you.” In keeping with the show’s long tradition of abusing this poor woman and denying her any kind of joy, hope or satisfaction in her fictionalized life, Meera leaves unhappy, and Bran doesn’t give a shit.

Neither of these Bran scenes are particularly interesting, and there’s no new information conveyed in either of them, so it’s not clear what their function is supposed to be. Again, generously, I suppose the Littlefinger scene could be interpreted as establishing or escalating some narrative tension; Littlefinger is so predatory towards the Stark children, and he has been trying and failing to cultivate each of them as… something, I guess? At this point, I don’t even know what his big picture plan is, and I’m not sure he knows, either, anymore. The Meera scene was just a sad, perfunctory tying up of a loose end, and I feel like we should probably just be happy she didn’t get the Osha or Ros treatment. Meera never got to be a dynamic character in her own right, and most of her time was spent selflessly sacrificing and suffering to protect and aid Bran, only to go completely unappreciated for it in the end. If anything, I’m glad for the actress to be done with this mess so she can hopefully move on to bigger and better things than this garbage show.

Arya at Winterfell

Confusingly, our first shot of Arya this week comes right after Meera left Bran, so it’s not obvious at first what we’re seeing. Initially, I thought the lone rider looking over Winterfell from a distance was Meera taking her leave of the place, and I only realized my mistake after it cut to the next scene where Arya has inexplicably ditched her horse and come the rest of the way to Winterfell on foot. It’s not a huge deal, and I may even be in a minority of people who had this problem with this scene transition, but Arya’s grey horse looks very different from behind than it does from the side, so I didn’t find it instantly recognizable, and two dark-haired girls from kind of far away, on horseback, from the rear, wearing vaguely similar-looking clothing (darkish, ratty and mismatched) are easy to mistake. As a consequence, Arya’s homecoming didn’t have the emotional impact it might have had if this transition had been clearer.

This lack of initial emotional impact is compounded by having the first people Arya encounters at Winterfell be a pair of rather bumbling asshole guards who don’t want to let her in at all—weird, since it seemed last week that the castle was being prepared to accept refugees from all over the North—and then waste some time arguing over which of them is going to tell Lady Sansa, during which time Arya slips away from them. At first it seems as if Arya may have changed her mind about Winterfell after all, which would have been an interesting and unexpected choice in keeping with the theme introduced in this scene that Winterfell has changed and is no longer a place that Arya recognizes or that recognizes or welcomes her. Considering that just last week she was planning to go to King’s Landing and kill Cersei, this wouldn’t be entirely out of character, and it would have been an interesting subversion of viewer expectations. In a show that used to be much touted (though unfairly, in my opinion) for these sort of twists, it would have been a nice change of pace after seasons of adhering to hackneyed genre tropes and pedestrian storytelling conventions.

However, as soon as Sansa hears that Arya is back, she knows exactly where Arya has gone—the crypts, where Sansa easily finds her, standing in front of their father’s statue. Sansa’s realization and joy when learning that Arya had come home was a surprisingly emotional moment, but their actual physical reunion in the crypt didn’t quite stick the emotional landing. To the degree that this reunion did capture something of the awkwardness of the Stark sisters, who never were very close or had much in common, coming back together, it’s a testament to the skill of the actors, who are close friends in real life. Their conversation is somewhat short, complicated by time and distance and the gulf of experience that now separates them as much as they ever were before, and it would have been nice to see them have either a little more intimacy and vulnerability or to see them fully commit to playing up the strangeness of their new roles and their discomfort with each other after so many years apart.

Things get even weirder and more awkward when Sansa takes Arya to see Bran in the godswood. Bran is still positively robotic, and he passes on the Valyrian steel dagger to Arya, which highlights the significance of the item for the second time in this episode. Arya seems somewhat discomfited by Bran’s oddness, but we quickly move along after this so that we can see the Stark children (or, rather, young adults) being observed as they go back inside. Brienne and Podrick are happy to see the children reunited, but Littlefinger is inscrutably creepy. The audience, as well, is invited to observe the Starks together, but there’s such an emotional flatness and deadness to the scene that one has to wonder what the point is. Are we supposed to feel happy that they’re back together, in their home? Are we supposed to be apprehensive about what the future holds for them? Should we be focusing on the mysteries of their pasts? Should we be reading the seeds of conflict in the tenuousness and tentativeness of their connections with each other? Who knows?

At Dragonstone, Part 1

Missandei and Daenerys are having some girl talk about Grey Worm, one snippet of which per season is (I guess) what passes for a depiction of female friendship on this show, when they’re interrupted by Jon Snow, who has something very important to show Daenerys. He’s found the dragonglass under Dragonstone, and he wants her to see it before he destroys it, which is kind of sweet, but it’s so dark in the cave that it’s hard to see how pretty it’s supposed to be. Having watched the scene twice now on different screens, I still have to mostly use my imagination to guess what a mountain full of obsidian looks like under all the gloom that makes of about 75% of the Game of Thrones aesthetic.

The main event, however, and (fortunately) better lit, is a deeper part of the cave where Jon has found a bunch of cave art/paintings left there by the Children of the Forest and depicting how the Children and the First Men fought together against the Night King and the army of the dead. Hilariously, there are several different anachronistic art styles on the walls of the cave, from simple pictographs and mystical-looking abstract designs to the relatively realistic sketches of the Night King, complete with inlaid blue gems for his eyes. It’s profoundly silly and jarring, especially with the “reveal” of the final image of the Night King done so dramatically. The silliness doesn’t stop there. Daenerys, it turns out, is willing to come help Jon deal with the North’s zombie problem, but only if he, personally, will bend the knee to her, and he, absurdly, continues to refuse out of whatever misguided principle is supposed to be guiding him. He’s not even swayed by Daenerys’s dead-eyed attempt to sexily walk towards him and intimidate him with her hotness, though Benioff and Weiss insist in the Inside the Episode featurette that this is Jon and Daenerys starting to be attracted to each other.

Fortunately, we’re all rescued from this nonsense by Tyrion and Varys arriving with some bad news about how things went at Casterly Rock. Daenerys rages a little and threatens to take her dragons right now and burn down the Red Keep in King’s Landing, which is honestly not the worst idea anyone’s had this season, but Tyrion and Jon talk her down from this idea. Also, even though Tyrion’s plans have literally all failed, spectacularly, this season, it still feels like we’re intended to think Daenerys is an unreasonably monster for being angry at him. Sure, the suggestion that he might be working to undermine her because he’s secretly still promoting his family’s interests seems cruel, but it’s the kind of theory Tyrion or Varys might think up themselves, and Tyrion couldn’t be much more successful at fucking things up for Dany if he was trying. Her anger and her desire to use the dragons is framed as irrational in contrast to Tyrion’s contriteness and Jon’s calmness, and no one on the beach in this discussion is on Dany’s side. Her anger and frustration are fully justified and her suspicions aren’t entirely illogical in light of the evidence she has, which is that Tyrion’s plans have gotten her allies killed, her ships burned, and the Unsullied hopelessly separated from her with only a strategically unimportant (though symbolically valuable to Tyrion—hmmmm…) castle to show for it.

Brienne at Winterfell

Back at Winterfell, Brienne is still “training” Podrick by beating up on him and giving him curt, unhelpful and contradictory criticism. He hasn’t improved much since the last time we saw this going on. That’s okay, though, because Arya pops up, in a brand new snazzy costume, because she wants to train with Brienne. This could have been an interesting bonding moment for these two women, and in the ensuing sparring scene we get glimmers of what might have been that intent, but we quickly cut away to Sansa and Littlefinger, who are observing the proceedings. I have no idea what feeling Sansa is supposed to be having here, but she makes a weird unhappy face and walks away as if maybe she’s jealous of Arya bonding with Brienne. But she also might be alarmed at how Arya has changed. Or she could be worried and paranoid about something. Or she could be sad and reflecting on her own lack of martial skill. Or she could have painful gas and need to rush inside to a chamber pot just in case. There’s truly no way to know, just based on what is put on screen here.

The worst thing about this scene, though, incoherent character motivations aside, is that when Brienne asks Arya who taught her to fight, Arya replies “No One.” Has she forgotten Syrio Forel?! I think I’m going to choose to believe that Sansa is angry at Arya’s failure to give credit where its due.

At Dragonstone, Part 2

Back at Dragonstone, Jon and Davos are having a boys’ talk that mirrors Missandei and Dany’s discussion earlier. Jon is definitely not interested in Daenerys (but obviously really is, or would be if he had any discernible emotions), but Davos definitely ships it. The two men run into Missandei, around whom Davos is still very weird, and we all get to learn together what a bastard is and how in Naath, there’s no such thing as a bastard because they have no marriage there. Nice. Right as Missandei has shifted into telling Davos and Jon the gospel of Daenerys—though “the queen we chose” rings a little false when that queen bought many of her subjects, subdued some through war and impressed the rest with the threat of dragonfire—Theon makes it back to Dragonstone.

Things are weird between Theon and Jon, who tells Theon, “What you did for [Sansa] is the only reason I’m not killing you.” This actually seems like a totally good reason not to murder someone, especially someone like Theon, who’s already faced so much cosmic justice for his crimes, so I don’t get why Jon is so aggressive about it. It just smacks of faux, exaggerated drama when there’s so many other things Jon could be worrying about. In any case, Theon has come back to Dragonstone hoping that Daenerys will help him rescue Yara, but Daenerys is already gone. Dramatic pause.

In the Reach, Part 2

Somewhere between Highgarden and King’s Landing, Jaime and Bronn are still supervising the wagon train carrying gold and food to King’s Landing. Somehow, the fighting at Highgarden was Dickon’s first battle ever, even though he’s, what, like thirty-five? Whatever. My favorite* thing about this scene is when Jaime pulls his “calling Dickon by the wrong name” power move and then Bronn giggles like a schoolboy about Dickon’s name having “dick” in it. Hurray for toxic masculinity, which is also extremely stupid. Jaime and Bronn aren’t completely awful to Dickon when they get into talking about battle, and they do seem to care (in an appropriately masculine way, of course) about Dickon’s psychological health after the trauma of battle, but they don’t spend much actual time on this because they can hear the rumble of distant hoofbeats and the screams of Daenerys’s Dothraki riders. Oh, shit!

I have so many questions about this turn of events—How many boats does Dany still have? How did she move an army with no one noticing? How did they know where they needed to go to engage the Lannisters’ main force? Since they’re just teleporting around, why didn’t they try to get there before the gold was all inside the gates of King’s Landing? Why is Tyrion watching from the top of a hill, and why isn’t he on horseback in case he needs to make a quick getaway? Why does Dany have Drogon destroy so much food if she’s so concerned about the plight of the common people? Why does Dany think she’s going to single-handedly yank a huge barbed ballista bolt out of Drogon’s shoulder?—but I know none of these questions will ever be answered by the show. In fact, I’m certain that I have, just in this paragraph, put far more thought into it than the show’s writers did.

All in all, this lengthy battle sequence is entertaining to watch, however, so long as you don’t think about any of it at all. It’s nice, after all these years, to finally get the payoff of seeing a jet-sized dragon burninating some stuff, and the effects department went all out with the pyrotechnics. The way they’re filming Dany on Drogon’s back now looks a lot better than it did back when she flew him out of the pit in Meereen, so I didn’t feel like I was flashing back to The Neverending Story and Bastian’s ride on Falcor this time around. There were three horses running loose after the fighting starts, who I’m pretty sure are the best actors in the episode. Bronn’s horse gets its leg chopped off, which some viewers have said is gratuitous, but I disagree, though I thought it was slightly gratuitous when there was a longish shot of a guy later on with his face burning off. Bronn survives, which was good because I’ve gotten surprisingly invested in this dude’s future; if he doesn’t get his castle in the end, I’m gonna riot. Jaime heroically tries to ride down and spear a small, distracted woman, which is probably about the max level of fighting skill and chivalry we should expect from him at this point, I guess. Bronn rescues Jaime from his Leeroy Jenkins moment, they fall in the river, and roll credits.

I mean, it’s all fine. It’s the sort of big, expensive, absurdly-silly-if-you-think-about-it-for-half-a-second spectacle that has become characteristic of these later seasons of the show. If I have one major complaint about this battle, it’s that it doesn’t have any truly unifying aesthetic. Parts of the battle feel about on par with stuff out of Excalibur, other parts are a little more Braveheart, while still others seem more influenced by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a battle that doesn’t know if it wants to be gritty and realistic, dark and dramatic, or heightened and fantastical, and the overall effect ends up being sort of sheepish, as if the sequence itself is apologizing for how silly it is. It’s a pretty obvious case of a director who had many influences (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but didn’t have the skill or vision to distill those influences into a cohesive whole. Also obvious is that HBO is willing to spend a shitload of money on this stuff without asking too many questions, and the lack of financial oversight or restrictions may also contribute to the bloated, confused mess they’re putting on screen. Sure, it’s got plenty of entertainment value, but that only goes so far. It’s fun, but it’s not good.

*Least favorite.

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 3 “The Queen’s Justice”

After all these years of watching Game of Thrones and its steady slide into the shitter, I increasingly find that my problems with it are less and less to do with its atrocious treatment of women and people of color. Instead, I find myself getting stuck on the sheer nonsensical awfulness of the show’s plot and characters and the obvious contempt with which Game of Thrones’ writers view their audience. Sure, the show has some good production values; there’s nothing else quite like it on television, and we’d all love to believe that it represents a watershed moment in the legitimacy of fantasy fiction in television and film, only the first vanguard in a movement that’s going to spawn well-made adaptations of all our favorite books with dragons on the covers. However, all I can ask at this point is: “At what cost?”

The first couple episodes of season seven managed to be more or less inoffensively bad, but “The Queen’s Justice,” when it’s not rushing headlong into and through what must surely be the silliest war the Seven Kingdoms have ever seen, sees the inevitable return of the show’s obsession with humiliating its women. You know, when it’s not unjustly and/or ridiculously vilifying them, pitting them against each other or portraying them as cold, emasculating shrews towards every man in their lives. Except for Daenerys, who has simply been turned into an emotionless power-hungry fembot. Whee! #WomenOnTop!

Spoilers ahoy!

At Dragonstone

I joked to my partner before the episode started that Jon Snow was definitely going to teleport straight to Dragonstone this week, but I didn’t expect that to be literally the first scene of the episode. It was.

Jon and Davos are met on the beach by Tyrion, who rather bafflingly introduces Missandei to them as Daenerys’s most trusted advisor even though we haven’t seen her exchange more than a handful of words with Daenerys since probably season four. The real head scratcher in this scene, however, is Ser Davos’s attempts to engage in small talk with Missandei. He leads with “Where are you from?” and it’s downhill from there, with Davos finally turning to Jon and telling him that “this place has changed.” It would be easier to be more generous about the meaning of that statement if the camera didn’t spend so much time focusing on the ominously silent Dothraki men who disarmed the northerners and on Missandei herself being the impetus for Davos’s assessment, but one can’t help but hear in that “this place has changed” a discomfort with the new demographics of the place. It can’t be any less civilized than when Stannis and Melisandre were burning people by the dozens on Dragonstone’s beaches, surely. It’s a moment that’s played for humor, but it comes off as Davos being awkwardly racist in a way that’s the opposite of endearing in a character that has been treated so much as one of the few unequivocally decent people in the world of the show.

Predictably, because it’s exactly the sort of contrivance this show relies on almost exclusively to create what passes for drama in Westeros, Jon and Daenerys’s first meeting doesn’t go very well for either of them. Jon refuses to pledge his allegiance to Daenerys or to give up his title as King in the North, even though he stupidly abandoned that position and its associated responsibilities to go on a long and risky journey to meet Daenerys in person, knowing that she would expect him to bend the knee when he arrived. Daenerys, for her part, pouts prettily, delivers a heaping helping of historical exposition, and alternates between insisting that she’s the Rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms™—based entirely on her Targaryen name, though even she admits that her father was an evil man and an unfit ruler—and being blatantly threatening toward Jon. The worst part of all this is that it’s deeply boring; it solves nothing and advances no plot. It could serve as character portraiture, comparing and contrasting the two rulers, but that would require that Jon and Daenerys have more than 0.5 character traits each.

Instead, we’re treated to bogus posturing and what seems intended to be verbal power games before they’re interrupted by Daenerys’s receipt of some bad news.

A later scene at Dragonstone finds both Jon and Tyrion brooding on the cliffs outside the castle, and this is a dull and unnecessarily roundabout way to get to the actual point of Jon’s visit to Dragonstone. Tyrion points out that Jon’s being unreasonable by asking Daenerys to help him in the North when she’s still dealing with Cersei, which, okay? I guess? Jon actually hadn’t asked Daenerys for anything yet, just told her about the Night King and the Army of the Dead. In any case, Jon finally tells Tyrion about the dragonglass under Dragonstone, and Tyrion advises Daenerys to give it to Jon, since she didn’t know or care about it anyway. It might be wise advice, but none of this is at all exciting or even very interesting. The short scene where Daenerys tells Jon that he can have the dragonglass was a great opportunity for letting these two characters—widely considered to be this story’s endgame rulers and a likely couple—forge some kind of deeper connection with each other or even just display an inkling of chemistry, but Daenerys is chilly and condescending while Jon is laconic and distracted. Earlier in the episode, Melisandre explicitly referred to this pair as “ice and fire” (as in A Song of Ice and Fire), but there’s remarkably little of the reaction or spark that one would normally expect between those opposites. Frankly, it’s a relief when their scenes are over.

In King’s Landing

Our first scene in King’s Landing this week is Euron marching Yara, Ellaria and Tyene through the streets of the city to the cheers of the adoring populace. He gifts Ellaria and Tyene to Cersei, who agrees to marry him “when the war is won.” Euron is then is vulgarly insulting to Jaime and demeaning to Cersei, but the more interesting thing about this scene is what it says about the way the show’s writers see the common people.

After being completely disappeared for last season’s final episode, the ordinary people of the city seem none the worse for wear after Cersei blew up the Sept of Baelor, killing most of the court and destroying the center of religious life in the realm. Indeed, the jeering crowds that are used to humiliate Ellaria, Tyene and Yara seem much the same as the ones that watched Cersei’s walk of shame back in season five or that mindlessly consumed the beheading of Ned Stark in season one. Though surely most of the nobles and persons of importance in the King’s Landing were killed in the Sept and there were few people at her coronation, Cersei’s throne room is now once again packed with people as Euron arrives with his gift. Common people in Game of Thrones are routinely treated as props for the stories of their ruling class, with the population of King’s Landing (and Meereen and Dragonstone and Castle Black and every other place) periodically waxing and waning as convenient to the point trying to be conveyed by the show, but the point mostly seems to be that the common people are ignorant, brutish and easily led. If there was any doubt about this, Euron’s explicit statement to that effect and the approving tone with which that nihilistic assessment is depicted ought to lay it to rest.

Cersei’s punishment of Ellaria and Tyene is a very on the nose kind of narrative justice, but there’s not much satisfaction in watching the last two Sand women getting their comeuppance when their original offense was so absurd to begin with. None of the Dornish saga dreamed up for the show ever made much sense, and Ellaria’s murder of Myrcella was little more than a cheap way of eliminating a character the show’s writers viewed as a loose end. Similarly, Cersei’s vengeance against Ellaria and Tyene feels more like an administrative task than anything else. It’s not as perfunctorily accomplished as last week’s disposal of Obara and Nym, but it’s just as soulless and emotionally devoid of meaning. Cersei has been so villainized in the narrative that her expressions of grief and pain ring false, Ellaria’s motivation for killing Myrcella was never even remotely sympathetic, and the relationship between Ellaria and Tyene was never developed enough for Cersei’s cruelty to hit home with the audience the way it ought. This show has always had a tendency to tell the audience how they’re supposed to feel rather than showing us a compelling story that earns our investment and care or giving us consistently-written characters that we can naturally feel for, and this is an exemplary scene of how bad things have gotten.

At Winterfell

Sansa is settling well into her new leadership role and seems to be competently overseeing preparations for the long winter and the war to come. Just as she’s getting an absurd lecture from Littlefinger—“fight every battle everywhere…”—her brother Bran arrives home. Though the show has been suggesting that Sansa might be a power-hungry harpy out to steal Winterfell and the North from Jon Snow, she’s immediately overjoyed to see Bran and immediately tells him that he’s the Lord of Winterfell, almost as if she’s not a power-hungry harpy at all. Bran, however, doesn’t want to be Lord of anything because he has to be the Three-Eyed Raven now, and he has a message for Jon Snow. Sansa sensibly asks Bran some questions about what happened to him and what this Three-Eyed Raven stuff means, but Bran just treats her like she’s stupid, doesn’t explain anything (“It’s difficult to explain,” he repeats several times about things that aren’t very difficult to explain at all.), and eventually drives her away from him when he brings up what a pretty night it was when she was getting raped by Ramsay Bolton.

In Oldtown

Although Jorah was only given one night to put his affairs in order before being shipped off to the ruins of Valyria to live out his days with the stone men, he’s managed to have all his greyscale cut off and grown back weeks’ worth of new, pink skin overnight. Archmaester Jim Broadbent is surprised, but he’s fine with just letting Jorah leave right away, pronouncing him cured and sending him off just like that. So Jorah’s off to find his way back to Daenerys, and Sam’s reward is not being immediately expelled from the Citadel. Thrilling.

Casterly Rock and Highgarden

The episode wraps up with some war stuff. Grey Worm and his men make it to Casterly Rock, which they find lightly defended and easy to subdue when they sneak in through the sewers, only to look out from their newly-conquered ramparts and see that Euron Greyjoy and his fleet have teleported there (seriously—King’s Landing is on the opposite side of the continent from Casterly Rock) ahead of them to lay a trap and destroy the ships that brought the Unsullied to the Lannister castle. Meanwhile, Jaime also teleported from King’s Landing to Casterly Rock and has taken the bulk of the Lannister army south to Highgarden, which he captures easily. Jaime’s decision to take Highgarden, whose lands are responsible for feeding much of southern Westeros and whose full coffers are desperately needed to pay off some of the crown’s debts, at least makes some sense. Casterly Rock may be a symbolic victory for Daenerys—or, more likely, for Tyrion—but its strategic value is minimal, and with the loss of their ships the Unsullied are trapped inside the castle with no provisions and only one option if they want to reunite with the rest of their forces: marching, on foot, overland through hostile territory.

Sadly, since one area in which the show has excelled in recent years has been in its battle scenes, the vast majority of the action at both Casterly Rock and Highgarden happens offscreen. Instead of epic battles, we get to listen to Tyrion and Jaime mansplain their plans to Daenerys and Olenna, respectively, which truly diminishes the moments. Of these two conversations, the one between Jaime and Olenna is far more interesting, mostly because once Jaime stops spilling all his plans to her Olenna has some confessions and advice for him—namely that Cersei is going to destroy him. Jaime doesn’t care, however; he loves Cersei, and though the show has hinted for years at the toxicity of the twins’ codependent relationship and at Jaime’s growing discontent with his sister’s ambitions and policies, he is firmly on Team Cersei now, for better or worse apparently. He’s magnanimously vetoed some of Cersei’s more creative ideas on how to deal with the elderly Tyrell matron—he’ll just poison Olenna instead of more brutally murdering an old woman whose entire family was murdered by his sister—which I guess is supposed to make us feel bad for him when Olenna wins their little tête-à-tête after all. Once she’s downed all of Jaime’s poison, Olenna mocks him to his face about Joffrey’s death and tells him to make sure Cersei knows it was Olenna who poisoned their son.

What can I say? Olenna is a problematic fave.

Miscellany:

  • Jon’s reaction when Drogon flies over him was genuinely funny.
  • There’s a short Varys and Melisandre scene tucked into the beginning of the episode that’s well-written enough that it feels out of place in this show. I’m curious about Melisandre’s trip to Volantis, though; is she going for a particular reason, or is this just a convenient way to explain the character’s absence until she shows back up later? Either way, she prophesies that both she and Varys will die in Westeros.
  • Theon is fished out of the sea by one of the few Greyjoy ships to have survived the battle with Euron’s fleet. Judging from the trailer for next week’s episode, it looks like he’ll be doing something involving landing a boat on a beach and rushing up on shore, but it’s hard to say what. If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll be leading some kind of abortive attempt to rescue Yara that will get both Greyjoy siblings killed at last.
  • Cersei has gotten pretty ballsy about openly banging her brother now that she’s Queen. I’m sure this will have no repercussions whatsoever.
  • Why would the Iron Bank of Braavos, one of the Free Cities and founded by escaped slaves (both the city and the bank), have major investments in the slave trade?

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 2 “Stormborn”

After a surprisingly enjoyable season premiere, Game of Thrones is back in form this week with “Stormborn,” an episode full enough of the show’s worst failings to more than make up for its predecessor’s relative inoffensiveness. There are a couple of decent scenes tucked in here, but it’s an overall disaster of deeply silly dialogue, baffling character motivations, ridiculous plot developments, a seemingly complete lack of understanding of (or commitment to) setting on the part of everyone involved in making the show, and a hilariously awful sea battle sequence to top it all off. I was not nearly drunk enough for this shit last night, and watching it entirely sober today did not improve the experience.

**Spoilers ahead, obviously.**

At Dragonstone

The episode opens in classic Game of Thrones fashion with a weather shot that’s so dark and gloomy it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, but that’s okay because the answer to what’s going on at Dragonstone is “not much.” After reintroducing the place last week with a gorgeously melancholy tour of the inexplicably empty greater Dragonstone area, this episode finds Daenerys already itching to get out of there, dully intoning, “I always thought this would be a homecoming. It doesn’t feel like home.” The thing is, it’s not clear what we’re supposed to be feeling here. Dany’s return to Dragonstone was the opposite of triumphant, what with the place being completely abandoned (which makes no sense, but whatevs), but it was quietly impactful and succeeded in communicating something approaching the ambivalence and apprehension Daenerys might feel at returning to the land of her birth. With no dialogue, however, it was easy enough to project onto the sequence a whole lot of feeling that in hindsight was likely not justified. At the very least, anything communicated by last week’s Dragonstone sequence is undercut by Dany’s impatience here.

Much of the Dany/Dragonstone material in “Stormborn” is dedicated to discussing the upcoming war against Cersei and the Lannisters, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense that none of this was planned in advance. While it’s not obvious in the show, Dragonstone isn’t far from King’s Landing, which makes it an unlikely staging place for the type of long and slow war Daenerys is envisioning. As Tyrion explains—because of course he does—they’re going to besiege King’s Landing using Westerosi troops from Highgarden (never mind that Olenna has no legitimate claim there; in a society that practices male primogeniture like Westeros does, the deaths of her son and grandson would have created a succession crisis and opened the lordship up to claims from more distant male relatives and ambitious lords) and Dorne (where Ellaria also has no legitimate claim to leadership) while for some reason sending the Dothraki and Unsullied to the other side of the continent to capture Casterly Rock, a place so irrelevant to the plot and strategically unimportant to anything that it hasn’t managed to be seen on screen even once in six seasons of the show (or on page in five novels). It’s a nonsense plan that will take months (at least!) to enact and completely sacrifice any element of surprise they might have been able to leverage to their advantage, all while Cersei’s new ally Euron has a fleet of a thousand ships basically a stone’s throw away from Dragonstone.

When the Dragonstone crew isn’t laying out one of the worst game plans in history, there’s time for Daenerys to randomly interrogate and chastise Varys for his past actions before coming to her service, for Melisandre to show up to preach the gospel of Jon Snow, and for Olenna and Dany to have some girl bonding time. The Varys conversation starts off well enough, addressing a major issue that’s been glossed over for a full season. Sure, Daenerys ought to have questioned Varys before now about his complicity with her father and Robert Baratheon and his early support of her brother, but better late than never I suppose. It’s too bad it’s ruined by Emilia Clarke’s deadpan delivery of every line, followed up by an equally deadpan threat to burn Varys alive if he ever betrays her. Dany’s interactions with Melisandre and Olenna are marred by a similarly robotic performance, which only works to compound the other problems with these scenes: the inexplicable orgy of Jon Snow love and Olenna’s bizarre lack of self-awareness, respectively. And this is without even commenting on the ways in which Dany’s authority is constantly undermined by Tyrion and the ways in which she increasingly functions as his puppet (even literally repeating Tyrion’s rhetoric at one point).

In the books (I swear I’m trying not to compare!), much of Daenerys’s journey and character growth have to do with internal conflict, but none of that comes across in the show. While some gestures are made that suggest the show’s writers have at least read the source material (like how Dany’s pensive walk through Dragonstone suggested her ambivalent feelings about the place and the concept of “home”), Dany’s dialogue is poorly written, she’s constantly deferring to her male advisors, and she moves and talks like a fucking fembot. This wooden delivery of bad lines is characteristic of other major characters on the show (I’m looking at you, Jon Snow), it’s especially pronounced in Daenerys, and I am increasingly certain that it’s entirely on purpose. Dany’s break-up with Daario last year seems intended to have been a major turning point for the character, and she’s now so completely emotionally shut down that it’s basically impossible to understand what she might be thinking at any given time. I’m pretty sure that this is what Benioff and Weiss think is the ideal of female empowerment: a broken soulless husk of a woman, capable of no emotions except vague magnanimity and ill-justified desire for vengeance. (#FEMINISM, #WOMENONTOP).

Missandei and Grey Worm

If there is a high point of “Stormborn,” it’s the consummation of Missandei and Grey Worm’s relationship when Missandei comes to say goodbye to him before he leaves for Casterly Rock. Jacob Anderson and Nathalie Emmanuel have a nice chemistry, and their characters’ relationship has been seeded over the last season in a way that few things on this show ever are. By comparison to all the other nonsense that happens in this episode, this scene feels wonderfully organic. It also helps that Missandei’s nudity is shot with a minimal amount of camera leering. While it’s not a flawless scene (What even is Grey Worm’s accent?), it’s a nice payoff on a relationship that many fans of the show have been rooting for.

At Winterfell

We arrive at Winterfell this week at the same time as Tyrion’s message to Jon Snow does, which should be weeks later than the events of last week’s episode but which feels like pretty much the same afternoon. Jon and Sansa have a nice talk about how cool Tyrion is, and Davos points out that Daenerys’s dragons could be useful for dealing with their imminent ice zombie problem, but Jon initially refuses to entertain the idea of actually travelling to Dragonstone. This changes when he receives another message, this time from Sam Tarly, who sends word about the mountain of dragonglass that lays beneath Dragonstone. It’s now imperative that Jon leave ASAP to meet Daenerys himself—because “only a king will convince her” for some reason—even though the other Northern and Vale Lords and Sansa all think this is a terrible idea. In any case, Jon is leaving, and, after giving a speech about how he never wanted to be king in the first place so the other lords only have themselves to blame for Jon’s bad decisions since they practically made him do it, he’s leaving Sansa in charge while he’s gone. But not before roughing up Littlefinger, who follows Jon down to the crypt beneath the castle to try and talk to him about… something? Basically, Littlefinger starts off talking about how much he loved Catelyn Stark, then moves on to needling Jon about how Cat never liked her husband’s bastard child, and then makes a gross creepy remark about Sansa. For a guy who is supposed to be a master manipulator, Littlefinger sure doesn’t seem capable of keeping his foot out of his mouth by not saying exactly the most awful things he can think up at any given moment.

At King’s Landing

Cersei is still Queen in King’s Landing, and she’s called together the remaining loyal-ish lords from the parts of the Seven Kingdoms that are still at least nominally under control of the crown for a sort of white nationalist rally where she threatens them with the specter of Daenerys’s foreign hordes coming to destroy them all. Because the several years of wars that have already wrecked the country under Lannister rule were no big deal, but an army of brown guys is what the people of the Seven Kingdoms should really be afraid of. Jaime is completely recovered from whatever misgivings he might ever have had about his sister being Queen, and he’s game to spout the same white nationalist rhetoric in order to try and convince Randyll Tarly to join the Lannister, well, not cause, but something like that.

This is an exceptionally lazy writing decision that feels calculated to capitalize on real-world current events for ratings without actually being a meaningful commentary on those real-world events. It’s not edgy or insightful, and it doesn’t have any foundation in any of the political or cultural dynamics the show has shown us so far. It’s possible to infer or assume white supremacy from the demographics of Westerosi nobility, but the in-world explanation for the overwhelming whiteness of Westeros is simply that it’s a remarkably homogenous place and the ugliness of sentiment that Cersei and Jaime use here to try and sway the lords to their side reflects a sort of xenophobia and hate that hasn’t been expressed before now in the world of the show. Rather than a part of coherent worldbuilding, the decision to have Cersei and Jaime go full-on white nationalist feels like a cheap shorthand to paint them as definite villains, which is jarring after six seasons of pretending as if this is a show about moral ambiguity and the grayness of these characters. It could be that the writers don’t consider white nationalism to be unambiguously evil, and I don’t think we can rule that out as a possibility, but that doesn’t make any of this any less problematic.

At Oldtown

Last week it looked like Jorah was being kept prisoner at the Citadel in a sort of asylum for those who have greyscale. This week we learn that he’s only kind of a prisoner and there because he was hoping to find some treatment for his well-known incurable and deadly affliction. Archmaester Broadbent examines him nonetheless, but the prognosis isn’t good; Jorah may live another ten or twenty years with the disease, but it’s only a matter of months before he’ll lose his mind. If Jorah was a poor, the Archmaester would ship him off to Valyria right away, but since Jorah is a knight he’s got a whole extra day to get his affairs in order and—**looks meaningfully at sword**—stuff. This is convenient, since Sam recognizes Jorah’s name and decides he must find a way to save him. Sam uses the extra hours to research a potential cure that he is definitely going to try even though the Archmaester says it won’t work, and he shows up to Jorah’s room in the middle of the night to cut away all the greyscale skin and apply a kind of medicated ointment. Considering that a solid quarter of Jorah’s body is covered with the disease and there are no antibiotics in Westeros, this seems like a horrible idea, but it’s mostly just boring. The most notable thing about any of this sequence is that the medical gross-out of Sam cutting away the greyscale transitions into a shot of someone digging into a bowl of food, which is probably the most viscerally disgusting thing this show has ever done. It was truly vile.

Arya

I almost added “Arya runs into Hot Pie again” to my list of Season 7 predictions as a joke, but I thought better of it because I genuinely considered it too absurdly silly to happen and too obvious as a joke to be more than groanworthy.

In this episode, Arya runs into Hot Pie again.

And Hot Pie is better informed about current events in Westeros than literally every other character on the show. Somehow, Arya managed to be in a castle full of scheming Freys and then have dinner with a group of Lannister soldiers and then travel some more towards King’s Landing without even once hearing any news from the North. Okay.

Obviously, Arya turns her horse Northward as soon as she learns that Jon is now the King and ruling from Winterfell. Before she teleports the rest of the way there to find out that Jon is gone and Sansa is in charge, Arya meets her dire wolf, Nymeria, in the woods. After a tense moment of Arya asking Nymeria to come with her, Nymeria doesn’t say anything (because she’s a wolf, natch) and just turns around and goes back into the woods. This was surprisingly effective—like, I legit cried a little and not just because I was two thirds of my way through a bottle of wine—but then Arya says, “That’s not you,” as Nymeria leaves, and it’s a somewhat baffling line until you hear the showrunners’ explanation for it in the supplementary material after the credits roll.

So, back in season one, there’s a scene where Ned Stark is blue-skying for Arya what her life as a great lady might be like, and Arya responds to him, “No. That’s not me.” And this line to Nymeria is supposed to echo that. Because Arya couldn’t be tamed into a lady, an identity that she was ill-suited for at best, and Nymeria isn’t supposed to be a wild wolf, even though she’s literally a wild animal, and Arya knows Nymeria’s true soul or something. It’s a specious justification for the line, which is just different enough from the original to not quite be a recognizable reference without it needing to be explained. In the moment, it’s just baffling and somewhat ruins the poignancy of the moment as one is forced to wrack one’s brains trying to figure out what Arya is even talking about.

At Sea

The beginning of the end of “Stormborn” starts off with the Sand Snakes bickering amongst themselves about who gets to murder which of their various enemies when they get to King’s Landing, which makes me wonder if these women know what a siege is. We then get a scene of Ellaria and Yara drinking together with Theon, which quickly devolves into Ellaria trying to seduce Yara because two bisexual women can’t possibly be in a room together without being overcome by lust. Ellaria is trying to coax Theon into an incestuous threesome when they find themselves under attack. Yara runs out of to the deck of the ship, where we find out that it’s the middle of the night, and everything is completely black so it takes a few moments to figure out that Euron has already caught up with his errant niece and nephew.

What ensues is one of the worst, most poorly lit, deeply silly and extremely boring battle sequences on the show to date. Euron arrives being theatrically crazy. There’s fire falling from the sky and destroying everything, although it never manages to provide enough illumination for a decently-lit shot of the action. Obara and Nym are both killed with their own weapons. Ellaria and Tyene are captured. Euron himself manages to subdue Yara. Theon supposedly has the opportunity to try and save his sister, but he instead drops his weapon and leaps into the ocean in such a perfunctory way that it’s every bit as unintentionally hilarious as Tommen’s suicide last season. The episode ends with Euron’s ship sailing away into the night while Theon watches, floating on a piece of wreckage in the wake of the carnage.

I’m not sure which part of this sequence I hate most, but the random total incompetence of all the female characters is probably the worst thing about it. There’s so much else that’s wrong here, though. How did Euron even find them? It’s possible that he could have caught up with them if he knew where they were, but there’s no way he would have known. Why would Euron wantonly destroy the whole fleet instead of capturing the ships? The Ironborn (and Euron in particular) are basically pirates, and ships are expensive. Plus, the Ironborn tend to follow strength, so it seems likely that many of the ships’ crews would transfer their loyalty to Euron if given half a chance once he’d captured Yara. Or, if Euron has a thousand ships and Cersei has a dragon-killing weapon, why don’t they just head straight to Dragonstone to wipe Daenerys out immediately?

Don’t answer that.

Miscellany:

  • Also lazy: Cersei getting to shoot a huge crossbow. It’s a heavy-handed and far too on the nose callback to Joffrey’s crossbow obsession.
  • Where is Ghost?

Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 7, Episode 1 “Dragonstone”

After the total shitshow that was season six (and seasons four and five) of Game of Thrones, my expectations heading into last night’s premiere were low. I ended up being pleasantly (-ish) surprised. There are some Game of Thrones storylines that are well beyond salvaging at this point, and I’ll get to those soon enough, but there’s also some decent writing in “Dragonstone.” If some of the episode’s more emotional moments only work in isolation, divorced from the context of the previous several seasons, I’m feeling magnanimous enough halfway through this garbage year to be forgiving of some of the show’s sins in the interest of being able to enjoy it with a bottle of wine each week.

**Spoilers ahead, natch.**

Arya Stark

It seems like it’s been a while since Game of Thrones used a cold open, but they did for this season. We begin the episode with what appears to be Walder Frey addressing a room full of his nearest and dearest male relatives and quickly turns into, well, whatever a bloodbath is when it’s done with poison. Because—surprise!—that’s not Walder Frey! It’s Arya in disguise, which anyone who watched even just the last episode of season six will guess by the time Walder’s face appears on screen, so I’m not entirely certain who is supposed to be surprised by any of what happens in this scene.

David Bradley, in one last turn as the Frey patriarch, looks like he’s having the time of his life playing Arya-as-Walder, and his dialogue is clever enough, but it relies too heavily on uninspired wordplay (“Leave one wolf alive…”) and overused catchphrases (“The North remembers,” “Winter came…”). Visually, the whole thing recalls the Red Wedding, but this was already true of Arya’s original murder of Lord Walder last year. It’s a scene that feels mostly redundant, covering thematic and visual ground that the show tread in literally the last episode, but it’s nevertheless an entertaining scene to watch, with an overall feel to it that suggests something designed by committee to be crowd-pleasing for exactly the crowd of people who are still watching this terrible show.

Similarly, Arya’s second scene, later in the hour, feels calculated to achieve broad appeal, down to its Ed Sheeran cameo as a singing Lannister soldier, one of a group of men that Arya meets in order to learn a lesson about remembering the humanity of her enemies or something. On the one hand, such a lesson would be consistent with the themes of the episode’s Jon and Sansa material. On the other hand, it’s so totally at odds with the celebratory tone of the Frey massacre scene that it’s hard to imagine that any such lesson is what is intended. That said, it’s pretty par for the course on this show to frame a hate- and vengeance-fueled mass murder as a girl power moment and then undercut it within half an hour.

Bran Stark

Directly after the opening credits, we get an update on the Night King and the army of the dead that’s marching south to the Wall and the Seven Kingdoms. After lasting a good twenty seconds too long (not helped by the trouble my television had processing all the mist and snow effects), this turns out to be another vision of Bran’s. He and Meera (who is much the worse for wear) have finally made it to the Wall, where they’re met by a suspicious Dolorous Edd who questions whether they’re Wildlings—I’m not sure why this matters since the Wildlings are allies of the Night’s Watch now—and then is bizarrely easily convinced of Bran’s identity after Bran tells Edd’s fortune—even though Bran Stark has been presumed dead for all this while and there’s no reason for Edd to know that Bran now has psychic powers. It’s a strange, short scene that seems intended to be tense but lacks any legitimate source of the intended tension, so it feels more like a perfunctorily executed update scene about characters who almost certainly will have little of import to do until later in the season.

At Winterfell

Jon is settling into his new role as King in the North, and he’s full of ideas and commands and sweeping social reforms. First on his checklist is to find a way to get more dragonglass for making weapons to fight the White Walkers that he sees as the most immediate concern faced by the people of the North. He asks Tormund and the Wildlings to garrison the castles along the Wall, starting with Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Because Jon is Super Feminist™, he also wants to ensure that all the Northfolk are being trained to fight and defend themselves, and he’s backed up by Lyanna Mormont, whose only discernable personality traits are supporting Jon Snow and sternly talking down to men old enough to be her grandfather.

Last, Jon must figure out what to do about the castles and lands left leaderless after the deaths of the lords who sided with the Boltons last season, and he apparently forgot to prepare that part of his presentation. When he hesitates over how to handle the situation, Sansa suggests that the Umber and Karstark holdings be given as rewards to some of the lords who remained true to the Starks, which elicits cheers from the room. Jon’s not Super Feminist™ enough to defer to his sister, however, and he doesn’t believe in punishing children for the sins of their fathers, so he makes actual children Alys Karstark and Ned Umber publicly declare their allegiance to House Stark. This would be fine if Jon had just decisively done this to begin with, but his uncertainty left room for suggestions, which Sansa gave.

It also makes no sense that the Northern and Vale lords would so quickly shift from supporting Sansa’s idea to unquestioningly supporting Jon’s decision, and this, combined with Jon’s dressing down of his sister afterwards, ends up feeling like a contrived public humiliation for Sansa. She spoke up—and perhaps it was the wrong timing on her part, but Jon hadn’t consulted her prior to his meeting and didn’t seem to know what he was doing during the meeting—only to be immediately shut down by Jon and then inexplicably ignored by a roomful of people who agreed with her moments before. To add insult to injury, the writers have put an additional obsequious speech in her mouth where—after just having publicly disagreed with Jon about a major policy matter, largely in an attempt to cover for Jon’s own ineptitude—Sansa praises Jon’s leadership abilities.

It’s weird, and it’s an obvious ploy to humiliate Sansa to the show’s audience as well, only topped by Jon going on to accuse Sansa of admiring Cersei about a minute later. The seeds of a real conflict between Jon and Sansa are already growing, which is about what I expected coming into the season, but I’m somewhat surprised at how decisively the audience is being led to take Jon’s side, especially when he’s so clearly in the wrong. Jon isn’t a confident leader, and he seems out of his depth already, but he’s also baldly sexist in his refusal to even consider taking advice from Sansa, scoffing at the idea straight to her face. So Super Feminist™ of him.

Fortunately, this is all the Jon we see this week, though we return to Winterfell later in the episode for brief updates with Brienne, Tormund, Podrick, Sansa and Littlefinger. Brienne is “training” Podrick, mostly, it seems, by brutally hitting him, but she’s distracted by Tormund leering at her. Sansa is watching this when Littlefinger comes over to try and conspire with her, but Sansa shuts him down relatively quickly. Still, Sansa defends Littlefinger’s presence to Brienne a moment later, citing the man’s usefulness and their indebtedness to him after his support helped win back Winterfell. Okay.

At King’s Landing

Cersei and Jaime have a boring talk while walking all over an unfinished painting of Westeros. It’s a rather on the nose bit of symbolism, and the conversation isn’t particularly illuminating. They are sort of talking strategy, but things are looking pretty bleak for the Lannisters. They have enemies on all sides (described by Cersei in colorfully misogynistic terms), and the arrival of winter doesn’t improve things for their military forces, who depend on other parts of the Seven Kingdoms for supplies, which will presumably not be forthcoming now that Cersei has destabilized the whole country by killing most of its leaders and pissing off the rest. The biggest piece of information to come out of this whole talk is that Cersei has no idea what a “dynasty” is.

What Cersei does have, however, is a new ally: Euron Greyjoy, who slouches into the throne room looking like a refugee from circa 2000 Hot Topic. He’s brought a thousand ships—which is a lot (the Spanish Armada, for example, was only 130 ships in 1588)—and a proposal for Cersei. Even though the Lannisters surely need Euron and his impossibly enormous fleet of ships far more than he needs them, Cersei refuses the proposal until Euron has proven his loyalty. He promises to leave and return to her with a gift; I’m guessing the gift will be people, likely Tyrion or the Sand Snakes if Euron can catch them.

In Oldtown

Though Sam was sent to Oldtown to train to replace Maester Aemon at Castle Black, it’s not clear what his training consists of other than a sort of humiliating and profoundly dull general-purpose drudgery. There’s a whole sequence of what is obviously some time passing with Sam spending his days cleaning chamber pots, serving food and shelving books. Some time is spent with the Archmaester, played by Jim Broadbent, who gives Sam a fatalistic speech about how they at the Citadel are the world’s memory and that the world isn’t going to end because of the White Walkers. In the end, Sam decides to steal a key to the restricted area of the library so he can study up on the White Walkers and dragonglass. He stays up late one night to go through the books he’s stolen, and he helpfully finds a very simple map that indicates a whole mountain of dragonglass underneath Dragonstone. Thank goodness. We wouldn’t want finding this information to be genuinely challenging or suspenseful or anything.

In the Riverlands

In the best-written segment of the episode (and it’s genuinely excellent), Sandor Clegane and the Brotherhood Without Banners are traveling north through the Riverlands when they stop at the night at the home of the man and child Clegane robbed a couple seasons ago. Sandor tries to urge them on, to go past the house, which is obviously now abandoned—no livestock, no smoke from the chimney—but it’s getting dark and the other men want shelter. While I don’t think we’ll be seeing a true redemption arc for Sandor Clegane, we are seeing him having real, compelling and sustainable character growth. His attempts to externalize his guilt and shame by insulting and arguing with Beric and Thoros are unsuccessful, and instead Clegane ends up having a bona fide religious experience when he finally agrees to look into the flames in the hearth and sees a vision of the army of the dead heading towards Eastwatch. This makes me doubly certain that we won’t be seeing any Cleganebowl this season, and it certainly raises the odds of this group dying tragically in the upcoming war against ice zombies.

Sandor burying the man and child whose deaths he’s somewhat responsible for was nicely done. While I’m still by no means a great fan of the Hound, I like that he did this small act of kindness. It also feels notable that the moment wasn’t ruined by the writers’ cynical streak. Sandor’s eulogy for the man and girl—“I’m sorry you’re dead; you deserved better”—is simple and heartfelt, and Thoros’s helping Sandor finish isn’t played for laughs or marred by any argument between the two men. It’s a sad, quiet moment that’s allowed to just exist in the show as a short bit of earnest and powerful thematic commentary in a show that is otherwise devoid of any sincere meaning.

Daenerys

Daenerys and company have arrived at Dragonstone, where we get a lengthy sequence of Daenerys discovering and exploring her birthplace in silence as her entourage hangs back respectfully. It’s almost too much, to be honest, and the whole thing goes on just shy of too long before Daenerys arrives in the map room, lovingly caresses the length of the table best known as the place where Stannis banged Melisandre that one time, and then turns to her advisors to say, “Shall we begin?” as if they haven’t started their invasion already. I liked this sequence in spite of myself. It’s almost silly in its self-importance, but Dragonstone is stunning and we get to see Daenerys’s dragons wheeling overhead looking as beautiful and impressive as they ever have. As ridiculous a line as “Shall we begin?” is, it’s also full of promise, and I enjoyed this episode enough that I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. After a somewhat slow start to the season, hopefully the pace will pick up next week.

Miscellany:

  • Why is Arbor Gold a red wine?
  • Why is Alys Karstark a redhead? I’m sure it’s because they’re supposed to be Stark cousins, but Sansa got her hair from her Southron mother; it’s not just a trait that all Stark relations have.
  • Arya is going to try and kill Cersei, exactly as I predicted.
  • Jorah is in a cell at the Citadel, and his greyscale has progressed. He’s still obsessed with Daenerys, though.
  • How is Dragonstone so completely empty, though? Stannis didn’t literally take every man, woman and child with him when he went, right? The big, empty space makes for a neat image, sure, but there’s no way everyone would be gone like this.
  • I am actually slightly alarmed by how many of my predictions for the season are already coming true.