Winter Is Here: “Game of Thrones” returns with an endgame in motion
Over the past six seasons (for which you can read my recaps here), Game of Thrones has tried, to varying degrees of success, to strike a balance between unrelenting forward progression—mostly action-centered, around battles, dragons, and White Walkers—and a thoughtful awareness of how actions that happened generations and years ago are essential to understanding what comes next. This kind of dual-minded storytelling is at its most noticeable in “Dragonstone,” the seventh season premiere, the beginning of the penultimate season, the first chapter of what we can definitively consider The End. After so many warnings, winter is here. The white raven has been sent. The Citadel has spoken. And sweet summer children—well, who knows how many of them will live to see the next summer? Or if there will even be one at all?
“Dragonstone” is spotted throughout with moments that force an examination of the past and a reminder of characters long since gone. Jon Snow and Sansa Stark speak of their father Ned, beheaded all the way back in season one, and brother Robb, murdered by the Freys, Boltons, and Lannisters at the Red Wedding. Arya Stark mentions Robb’s pregnant wife, Talisa, before she poisons “every Frey who means a damn thing.” Jon’s memories of ill treatment at the hands of Sansa’s and Arya’s mother, Catelyn Tully, come to the surface when he tells Sansa “I will not punish a son for his father’s sins.” When Meera Reed introduces herself to Dolorous Edd at the Wall, what is unspoken is that she is the only companion Bran Stark has left—her brother Jojen and Bran’s protector Hodor have both been killed by White Walkers and wights, as was the Three-Eyed Raven.
Jaime Lannister chastises twin sister Cersei about their dead children, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen; in a cameo, Ed Sheeran sings a song about Shae, the whore Tyrion Lannister loved and murdered when he found her in bed with his father, Tywin, who he also then murdered; the Hound Sandor Clegane is confronted with the corpses of a father and daughter he effectively left to die when he stole from them; Euron Greyjoy boasts about the brother he murdered, Balon, the father of Theon and Yara Greyjoy; Daenerys Targaryen, returning to her family seat at Dragonstone, must confront the infamousness of her father the Mad King Aerys as she attempts to reclaim the Iron Throne. Practically every forward action in “Dragonstone” is haunted by something that came before; no family, no hero, no villain is exempt. It’s only fitting that Game of Thrones starts off season seven acknowledging this much interior complexity for its characters, even as they still do dumb shit (Jon and Sansa, STOP SQUABBLING) and seem stuck in certain situations beyond their control (good to know Citadel training is so primarily poop-focused).
Game of Thrones has always had a problem—or perhaps disregard for—cohesive timelines, and “Dragonstone” is no different. How much time has passed since the sixth season finale, “The Winds of Winter”? For some subplots, it’s only days (Arya, while wearing Walder Frey’s face, mentions that it’s their second feast in a “fortnight”), whereas for others, it seems far longer (it had to take weeks, if not months, for Euron Greyjoy to build a new fleet to replace the ships Theon and Yara stole when they made their alliance with Dany). Nevertheless, there are two diverging concerns here: Northerners, including Jon and Sansa at Winterfell, Edd and Bran at the Wall, and Sandor and the Brotherhood Without Banners on their way to the Wall, are consumed with the upcoming war against the Night’s King (I absolutely will not call him the Night King, as the show so stupidly insists on doing), whereas down South in King’s Landing, Cersei is obsessed with solidifying her power in the face of a unified threat from Dany and the allied Greyjoys, Martells, and Tyrells.
“I’m the queen of the Seven Kingdoms,” Cersei tells Jaime, but he corrects her with “three kingdoms at best.” Cersei may dream of a dynasty for them, but it’s clear they’re finally getting what they wanted in the worst way—the only two Lannisters who matter in the world, left alone in what seems to be an empty castle in a city overflowing with shit, surrounded by enemies and false friends. The end is near for House Lannister, and maybe we’re beginning to see the Valonqar prophecy, that a little brother would kill Cersei. Maybe it’s not Tyrion, but Jaime, whose “Cersei, what the fuck did you do?” face is working overtime these days. He was a Kingslayer once—why not a Queenslayer, too?
Sibling power struggles apply to the Starks as well, even if Jon and Sansa don’t know they’re really cousins (R+L=J!). What is Sansa’s motivation here? She’s been shaped by Cersei and the creep-creeping Petyr Baelish more than she would like to admit; Jon points out to her the things that Ned hid from his daughters, but it’s Catelyn’s frosty treatment of Jon that seems to resurface in Sansa as she questions his judgment and undermines his priorities. She clearly knows what Littlefinger wants from her—Sansa’s tone of disgust when speaking with Brienne is unmistakable—and I wonder what that pairing will produce in the future. Cersei is without the network of spies coordinated by Littlefinger and Varys; could Sansa send the former to King’s Landing to spy for them? Would Sansa betray Jon? There are already secrets and lies between the two, and each are making mistakes. Never forget how Sansa treated Jon back when Ned and Catelyn were alive—as if the bastard was below her in every way. Dynamics like that don’t ever really change.
And finally, there’s Dany, returning from Slaver’s Bay—I wouldn’t necessarily say triumphantly, given the chaos she left behind—with an army of allies in tow to fight for her birthright. The woman who was sold by brother Viserys into a marriage she was too young to want, forced to adapt to new cultures that trafficked in sexism and classism, and who nurtured the only children she would ever have, the dragons who brought magic back into the world—it’s easy to root for Dany as the hero we all think should end up on the Iron Throne. She’s sitting on an island full of dragonglass, she’s the fire to counteract the Night’s King’s ice, it all syncs up. But as Sandor said to Beric Dondarrion, “There’s no divine justice, you dumb cunt.” In a world where everyone wants vengeance, is there room for justice?
That’s the question I think Game of Thrones will be tackling this shortened season, and it’s finally time for some answers. See you mid-season—we'll do this again four episodes in, and at the end of the season, too.
Odds and ends:
+ I know that everyone has been quoting Arya’s lines “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe” and, of course, “When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North remembers, tell them winter came for House Frey,” but something she said earlier stuck with me: How she murmured “Yes, yes … cheer,” when the Freys were all congratulating each other on the Red Wedding. It was the sinister, mocking tone of that line that resonated most for me.
+ A storm is blowing in with the Night’s King and his army, and oh yeah, they have three giants. I guess that wildling song Ygritte used to sing, “I am the last of the giants,” doesn’t apply to the undead.
+ ALL OF THE BLESSINGS upon Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, the best child in all of Westeros: “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me … and I don’t need your permission to defend the North.” Sit DOWN, Lord Glover.
+ Sansa did some annoying things this episode, but I think every women in the world felt a kinship with her when she replied “Would that be so terrible?” to Jon’s “How should I be smarter—by listening to you?”
+ OH HELLO, EURON GREYJOY POST-MAKEOVER. Motherfucker is fine as hell now, like a mall-goth Pacey Witter. I am down. Also, “Here I am, with 1,000 ships and two good hands,” may have been the best line of the episode.
+ Jim Broadbent is a welcome addition to this cast. Welcome, Jim Broadbent.
+ Every so often, the writing gets a bit anachronistic, and I think Sandor’s barb to Thoros of Myr falls into that category: “You think you’re fooling anyone with that topknot?” felt too modern-casual to me. But his whole storyline this episode, and his conversations with Thoros and Beric both (“It’s my fucking luck I end up with a band of fire worshippers”) reminded me how much I missed the Brotherhood Without Banners.
+ Reminder: Thoros, Beric, and the Hound are all on Arya’s kill list, along with Cersei, the Mountain, and Melisandre.
+ “Has she come yet? The Dragon Queen. Daenerys Stormborn.” Way to give me chills, Jorah Mormont.
+ Oh, and most importantly: WHERE THE FUCK IS GENDRY?