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.**
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.