This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 2
Well that picked up steam, didn’t it?
Last week, I speculated that the season premiere was the last breath of the old model—a farewell to arms for the more leisurely and frankly novelistic pacing Game of Thrones is famous for. Tonight, it looks like I just wasn’t whistling “The Dornishman’s Wife.” In a scant 60 minutes, we saw the conceivable end of the Dornish subplot (praise the Seven!), the collapse, of the good Greyjoys, and a whole lot of racing toward epic battles and even more epic alliances. Seriously, are their shippers for Jon/Dany yet? Maybe they’d go by the name Jany or Donaerys? In any event, the dragon and direwolf will meet. (Oh and the direwolves!)
So yes, tonight’s Game of Thrones had a lot going on in it. And as a whole, it felt bold and fresh as the tonal style changed… although they don’t seem to have quite found their complete footing in it. Throughout the confident but speedy episode, it slowly dawned on this writer that it strode its narrative track less like an hour of television than it did an hour of a third act setup in a movie. If this were a traditional mainstream Hollywood movie, “Stormborn” plays like the quick-moving table-setting that usually occurs after Harvey Dent got toasted or Agent Coulson got put on ice. It is a curiosity then if the rest of season 7 will play like that—and if season 8 will then be six weeks of the proverbial Hulk picking up Tom Hiddleston and swinging him like the intentional meme generator that he is?
In any event, there was a lot of great stuff in tonight’s episode, and even more to unpack, starting with where we left off last week: Daenerys and all the Queen’s Men (and Women) standing around the most epic Dungeons & Dragons board ever conceived.
And as a tip of the hat to the writers and actors, this sequence is so good that it is easy to forget that this is a conversation or two that probably should have occurred well before they departed Meereen. Certainly, it could have been conducted during the weeks-long crossing of the Narrow Sea, but I suppose Dany and her entourage just spent the whole maritime voyage staring dramatically toward the horizon.
So here we are and it is enjoyable to see Varys sing for his supper. I always liked Varys, if for no other reason than Conleth Hill and Peter Dinklage have the kind of chemistry that most buddy comedies yearn for. Genuinely, the happiest ending this series could have is these two blokes walking off into a foggy (dragon) runway, talking about conjuring up some phony passports to begin their next adventure fighting against the Nazis. Even so, Varys has technically betrayed two kings at this point and played a handy role in the assassination attempt on Daenerys’ life.
Hence why it was so satisfying to see him be put on the hot seat. These are the scenes where Emilia Clarke is at her best. She can play regal, authoritarian, and aggrieved, but through her frequently moist eyes, there is a projection of compassion and empathy that always endears. It’s why after all these years, she remains the only real good choice to rule the Seven Kingdoms once this fire and ice business is kaput. But the intriguing takeaway from the scene is that I am starting to feel fairly certain they are foreshadowing that the end of this series will not be any one ruler on the Iron Throne.
When faced with a seat so hot that it was a dragon’s breath away from being real fire, Varys revealed his true loyalty is not with any one crown or monarch, but with the people they lord it over. In essence, he reveals himself to have the ideals of a senator from Vermont and the work ethic of an FBI director being pestered with demands of loyalty oaths. And he is right that those in power should not reward incompetence with loyalty. And lucky for this fictional world, Dany is such a leader where she sees the value in professional expertise over sycophantic groveling (dare to dream, amirite?).
However, what Varys is suggesting is actually anathema to the ruling class of any feudal model. I suspect this indicates Daenerys’ endgame will be quite a bit different from sitting on an Iron Throne. While there is no version of this story where she gives up her crown, I could see her founding the series’ first parliament. Seven Hells, Varys would make a very good Prime Minister, albeit Daenerys would be more Elizabeth I in this scenario than Elizabeth II. And I suspect he will bring up just such a point in season 8, as this episode already setup that she expects him to give her a reality check when the need arises. And it will.
In any event, his admission of populism saves his neck, and Dany is soon planning her already-should-have-been-finished war strategy with her entire team. And in all honesty, I think Tyrion is giving the Silver Queen poor advice. While Tyrion is correct in stipulating that the best way to counter Cersei’s inevitable jingoism campaign against the “foreign hordes” is by having the Tyrells and Dornish lead the siege on King’s Landing, methinks he is scheming too much like a Lannister who’s spent much of his life in King’s Landing. He even masterminded a brilliant defense of the city in one of the series’ very best episodes.
His aim to use the Dothraki and Unsullied against Casterly Rock is couched in a personal vendetta. If daddy refused to ever give me the Rock, I’ll take it with those he would deem as comparable to dwarfs, bastards, and broken things. It is a good strategy to starve the finances of the capital, and it hurts his sister in the most personal of ways, but chaining the dragons is a major flaw.
Having Westerosi families leading the most public aspect of the war is wise, but the sooner the dragons are unleashed, the sooner the war ends. To quote General William Sherman as he set Atlanta and much of the South ablaze during the American Civil War, “War is Hell.” Oh sure, to this day Georgians and South Carolinians alike might spit on you if your name is Sherman—but that is because they remember the lesson.
Sherman made sure the South didn’t rise again, and unleashing dragonfire on Cersei’s armies (particularly if they are not within the city) would be the quickest way to victory. Sparing the innocents within the walls is one thing, but last we checked, the Lannister army is in the Riverlands. Even if it’s winter, I bet it’s still a lovely time of year for a barbecue. Daenerys is going to regret chaining the dragons at the war’s outset.
But for however long Dany keeps the dragons off the chessboard, Cersei Lannister’s hand is seemingly being trumped up by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss here. The Game of Thrones creators are right to keep Lena Headey at the forefront, but hearing about how they’re “working on a solution” to the dragons is akin to pretending that the first nuclear blast over Hiroshima is a fluke. Just keep on keepin’ on.
Sure, there is a scene of Qyburn unveiling to Cersei a weapon to stop the dragons, but if these hellions are the same creatures we heard about crushing entire armies in an afternoon, and roasting hundreds of thousands of men alive during Aegon the Conqueror’s Big Year, I don’t care how large your crossbow is. It really doesn’t look all that different than the standard medieval weaponry used to combat siege towers.
This subplot mostly resembles a pretense by the writers, or a delusion of the capital’s defenses who are making a bid for better drama. It’s even reminiscent of when boxing publicists would pretend non-Frazier or George Foreman challengers had a shot at knocking out Muhammad Ali. Come fight night, even Chuck Wepner was able to put the champ on his back for half-a-second… but that just made him angrier in the end.
Overall, the most intriguing part of this sequence was seeing Jaime Lannister turn Randyll Tarly against his liege lord in Highgarden. Randyll makes a big speech about not wanting to align with the masterminds of the Red Wedding, but he doth protest too much. Already, he is in the Red Keep answering Cersei’s call even though this new Iron Queen just cooked his previous liege lord Mace Tyrell (not to mention the much-missed Queen Margaery Tyrell in what also amounts to an act of treason) in 50 shades of green. He already made up his mind before he got on that horse to leave Horn Hill where his allegiances stand.
And he was right to on a certain level. It isn’t the cries of patriotism against Dothraki or Unsullied that sway him (although it could be quite useful propaganda for the “small folk” whom Daenerys and Varys hope to save from Trumpian incompetency). Nay, what turns Randyll Tarly’s head is the promise of the title “Warden of the South” after the war is over. Not too shabby, even though he’ll get to wear that credentials while roasting in the belly of one to three dragons.
Tyrion’s advice proved more prudent in attempting an alliance with the King in the North. While the expediency with which this is occurring might border on fan service, I understand that if Benioff and Weiss really want to conclude this in a mere 11 more episodes, it makes sense to move at what I will now refer to as “third act pace.” And in this turn of events, it worked fairly well.
Jon Snow receives a raven from Dragonstone asking for a meeting. That should be treated as a bit suspect, and Sansa is right on one count: Daenerys will not let the King in the North leave without his bending the knee. Not unless his pleas about White Walkers and ice zombies actually sway her (she does ride dragons, after all).
Still, Jon Snow is of course wise to at least take the risk, not least of all because television logic dictates they won’t kill him off this season. Beyond that though, the North doesn’t have the weapons to win the war. Dragons can smoke the Wights, and a conveniently ample supply of Dragonglass in cold storage that can slaughter the White Walkers. This is their one and best hope of winning the inevitable battle to come with the Night King.
And tellingly, the only reason Sansa quit arguing with him on this point is when he revealed he would leave Winterfell in her hands. It’s also illuminating that the Northern lords only sided with Sansa once Jon was making the most sense about needing the weapons on Dragonstone. Do they actually believe in Jon Snow’s stories of White Walkers? Given they bent the knee to him, I’d assume they do, but then again they still call him Jon Snow. If he’s their king, surely it’s time to put a Stark on the end of his name? And they scoff at the idea of needing Dragonglass. I am not convinced that he has the full support of the Northern Houses in regard to the walking dead.
And that might be to Littlefinger’s advantage. We see him whispering in Jon’s ear at his most Luciferian. Admittedly, I even had to stifle a laugh when Littlefinger hissed he liked Ned Stark in his own way. I’m sure he liked him most when he saw his head rotting on a spike. And whether Ned is Jon’s legitimate papa or not, it is an obviously intentional echo that Jon Snow pushes Littlefinger against the crypt’s wall like Ned did outside of a brothel. In both cases, it is because they assumed this pervy perv was perving on their redheaded lady, albeit in Jon’s case it is his sister. And to be fair, I’m not sure what game Littlefinger was playing in trying to ingratiate himself with Jon by reveling in his leering of Jon’s little sister.
But then again, Littlefinger wants Jon dead, even if he hasn’t said it. And now that Jon is going to Dragonstone (and potentially doom), maybe he’s wagering that Jon’s opinion of him is irrelevant. Or more accurately, it was just him testing to see if Jon really is his father’s son. In which case, like Ned before him, the best use he has for Petyr Baelish is as a corpse.
So as Jon rides south toward Dragonstone and the ultimate crossing of Fire and Ice—this meeting really has been inevitable since the very first episode of Game of Thrones—Littlefinger appears to think he has Winterfell and Sansa to himself.
However, Sansa is about to get some unexpected company…
Truly, how great will it be when Arya arrives in Winterfell expecting to find Jon and instead comes into the embrace of Sansa? Personally, I hope the series does not play up their estrangement too much, because they have way more in common now than they ever did before. Either way, it will likely be the scene to beat next week.
In the meantime, Arya has two fascinating reunions tonight. The first is the rather shocking reveal that she went out of her way on the King’s Road to cross paths with Hot Pie yet again. I write that because at first her despondent look at Hot Pie while making grim, Hound-esque jokes about her baking skills, made it seem as though she didn’t want Hot Pie’s company. But she does; it’s just that the House of Black and White, as well as her killing spree at the Twins, has hardened her more than most likely realized.
She’s been flirting with walking over the edge into oblivion ever since season 2 and the birth of her little “prayer.” But it was her humanity that kept her soul intact enough to not kill the Hound, to not let the Faceless Men wipe away her identity, that made it seem like she’ll never become quite a pure sociopath.
But in the scene with Hot Pie, she looked as dead-eyed as a shell shocked soldier from the First World War asked to make small talk at the pub. She’s still Arya, or Hot Pie’s “Arry,” but the girl who even after her first few kills could still lead a Triumvirate of Badassery with Hot Pie and Gendry, is gone. Hot Pie finally realizes, perhaps for the first time, that Arya really is a girl. But she is closer to having no identity here than she ever appeared to at the House of Black and White.
It’s bittersweet medicine that she traveled out of her way to see an old friend, but only so far as to pat him on the shoulder while eating a meal. Yet what came afterward was infinitely worse. Hot Pie gives her wonderful news. Jon Snow is alive and King in the North, and she is going home. Finally.
Everything that has happened to her next crystallized more than any other scene her entire journey—and it involved Nymeria. Yes, the long, long, long awaited union of Arya and the direwolf she White Fang’d in the very second episode of Game of Thrones finally came, but it was decidedly un-Disney like. Alone in the wood and snow, she would have made easy pickings for the wolf pack Nymeria has been dominating for years (and only book readers were aware of existing before tonight).
Unsurprisingly, after a vague number of years alone in the woods and likely chowing down on a few wary travelers as alone in the world as Arya, Nymeria no longer wishes to be a beloved pet. And terribly, Arya understands. When she says, “That’s not you,” the show obviously nods to Arya telling her father in season 1 that a life of castles and marriage, and children is not for her.
It never should have been if that’s not what she wanted, but the life she has now is also not her… or it shouldn’t have been. Watching Nymeria recall Arya but then reverse-White Fang her owner just brought home how crushing Arya’s entire life has been. Everyone leaves. First it was Ned and his head, but then Yoren also left, and then Hot Pie, then Gendry, and then finally Robb and Catelyn before she even got to see their faces again. Even the Hound left by getting his ass kicked. Now Nymeria too leaves her. When last we saw Arya traveling through Westeros, she always had a band of supporters, or even a protector like the Hound. In season 7 she’s self-sufficient and needs no savior, but how much is there left to save?
She is alone in the woods, and feels completely abandoned again, even by the family dog. This scene is Arya’s life in vignette, and it is a crushing one. Maisie Williams also crushes it in the scene, showing all the sorrow, anguish, and emptiness be moved by something deep and broken on the inside through the rest of her body. Her seeing Hot Pie was her being ecstatic, or at least the closest in the way to such an emotion she could rally. Now that part of her died just a little more.
She may finally step foot in Winterfell again next week, or the week after that, but it remains a mystery whether she’ll ever actually go home.
Also on the side of those doomed to never quite get what they want out of life is Jorah Mormont. In fact, this is probably an understatement when we cut back to him in the Citadel rotting away like a cross between Edward Norton as Baldwin IV and Jeff Goldblum as The Fly. The greyscale is severe and Maester Broadbent is ready to wash his hands of him.
But Samwell Tarly knew a Mormont well, and more or less saves the poor bugger. Is this traditional TV plotting? Yes. Would George R.R. Martin ever resort to this kind of twist? Unlikely. Did I love the sequence? You bet your decomposing hand I did.
There is just something so rewarding about seeing Samwell Tarly rush into his chosen field of battle. We saw him actually kill a few blokes in season 4, but this is really Sam’s wheelhouse and shows how far he’s truly come. He doesn’t hesitate for a second when he discovers a procedure that might save the life of the son of the late Lord Commander Mormont. And for a man who could barely stand the sight of blood once upon a time, he doesn’t shy away from the grisly work of essentially skinning Jorah Mormont alive.
Assuming Jorah doesn’t die from blood loss, and that this procedure mixed well with the Deus Ex Machina ointment, this bit of torture porn will actually have a happy ending for its victim. And in a series short on so many such twists, it’ll be well earned. Who knows maybe Jorah can even get a cool new costume like Norton in Kingdom of Heaven that distracts from the fact that he is basically all torn ligaments?
Between Jon going on a collision course toward Dany, Arya heading home and being briefly reunited with Nymeria, and Sam saving Jorah, “Stormborn” already is stuffed to the gills with major moments that some book fans have been waiting more than 20 years for.
But it’s not done! That early third act pace just keeps trucking, because the episode ends in a “major” battle between the good Greyjoys and the bad Greyjoys. But I put the word “major” in quotation marks, because the scene feels pretty rushed and downright disappointing by the time it is over.
Rather than being a moment of exhilaration of when worlds collide like “Hardome,” which also was unexpected since Jon has still never faced the Night King in the books, the scene was fairly perfunctory. Naval battles have always challenged filmmakers, and this one felt just as weak as many others from the past. Essentially playing like a slightly less gory version of the excesses from Starz’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand, swords clash, and heads cave in. We even are finally blessedly free of two of the Sand Snakes (see you in The Defenders, Miss Henwick!). But even as the hour’s finale understandably hurries the Dornish subplot off-screen, (hopefully forever), it still is missing something.
It probably doesn’t help the only characters well developed in the sequence are Theon and Yara, so the rest of it is just noise, but even the Siblings Greyjoy have an ending that doesn’t quite stick its splashy landing. I am heartbroken for Theon who obviously is still suffering from extreme PTSD when he sees his uncle holding Yara hostage. He knows that if she couldn’t defeat Euron, then he is almost certainly doomed. And if the past seasons have shown anything, it’s that Theon isn’t exactly Robb or Jon when it comes to the big moments of courage.
Yet he found his steel for Sansa and couldn’t for Yara. What that says about Theon, and perhaps elucidating where his loyalties truly lie between the Starks and the Greyjoys, is profound. But the moment strangely had little dramatic underpinning to it. Whereas the Nymeria and Jon scenes benefitted from the new tone and pace, this felt inadequate for such a big moment. And when Theon jumps overboard, it’s almost like all the character work for him is going with him. I understand why he jumped, but I didn’t feel I was there with him when he took the plunge. Like Yara, we just kind of watched it with disgusted pity.
This is not the end of Theon or Yara’s subplots, but combining the Dornish and Greyjoy storylines did not exactly lead lead to wildfire-like explosions. There are striking visuals, like Nymeria Sand hanging from her own whip off the bow of a burning ship. But the ending was itself a bit of a flameout for an otherwise strong episode.
Ultimately, “Stormborn” is still better than anything else currently on television, or pretty much for all of 2018 at this rate. But compared to last week and Game of Thrones’ high standard, it was also a bit wobbly at times as it finds its sea legs for the “endgame” phase. Given the remarkably shrinking number of new episodes though, they will hopefully iron out the kinks soon, because I want to be lost in a sea of emotion when Arya finally reaches Winterfell, or Jon and Tyrion at last catch up, as opposed to floating in the waters that poor, poor Theon is now swamped in.
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