Game of Thrones is back for its penultimate season, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I put my hair in a topknot to hide my bald spot…
“Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore.” –Jon Snow
Between the lateness and briefness of this season, and the way that the season six finale worked overtime to consolidate plotlines — killing off a ton of extraneous characters in the Sept of Baelor bombing, having Dany’s multi-national alliance finally set sail for Westeros — I wondered if “Dragonstone” might represent a new, brisker manner of storytelling for Game of Thrones. There’s not much time left, most of the cannon fodder’s gone, and all the characters are drawing close together. If ever there was a time for Benioff and Weiss to make like Baby Driver and floor the accelerator(*), this would be it, right?
(*) Most likely with Ed Sheeran blasting from their iPod.
Instead, “Dragonstone” was… an episode of Game of Thrones, paced and (with one exception) edited like nearly every episode before it: 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, characters traveling from Point A to Point B, learning scraps of information and building alliances, as slowly and steadily as before. The episode’s bookended by two relatively big events, first with Arya poisoning all the remaining male Freys, then with the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Builder of Sandcastles finally making landfall on Westeros, albeit in the eponymous remote outpost that Stannis once called home. Dany’s arrival comes very late in the hour, and features only one line of dialogue that marks the whole episode for the glorified prologue that it is: “Shall we begin?”
But this is how GoT works: small movements at the start of each season setting up big movements at the end. “The Winds of Winter” — the opening King’s Landing sequence in particular — seemed a big departure from the way past episodes had been assembled, but it still fit the overall pattern of dominoes falling that we’d seen late in every previous year. An utter transformation in style for a premiere at this late date would have been interesting, but it’s also not surprising that Benioff and Weiss would kick things off the way they usually do. And if “Dragonstone” was familiar in its structure and pacing, it was also for the most part a very satisfying return to the world of Westeros, resetting the chess board as the endgame draws perilously close.
While a lot of the hour advanced stories incrementally — Sansa jostling for a seat at the table even as she recognizes that Jon is really good at this leadership thing, Cersei pondering a team-up with Euron Greyjoy, Sam figuring out that Dragonstone has a mountain of dragonglass on hand — the episode wisely opened with something relatively grand. What at first seemed like it might be a flashback to Walder Frey scheming in life quickly revealed itself to be Arya perpetrating her biggest assassination yet, cutting down all the remaining Freys in the same place where they murdered her mother, oldest brother, and pregnant sister-in-law. Even that’s essentially a restating of material from the previous finale — more died here, but they were all anonymous for our purposes, whereas stabbing Walder Frey after tricking him into eating pies baked with the remains of his own sons had much greater impact — but a sick and satisfying enough joke to kick off the new year and throw us back into that theme song.
Dany making landfall at Dragonstone rather than going straight for King’s Landing is another way to stall the inevitable(*), since Cersei’s very vulnerable right now and Dany’s navy plus her dragons would probably be enough to conquer the whole country right then and there. But the groundwork’s been laid in the past about Dragonstone being an ancestral Targaryen seat of power, and Sam’s discovery about the dragonstone reserves there not only makes sense, but turns Stannis’ old home into one of the most important locales in the entire series. Suddenly, it matters who holds onto that place — and could soon force a meeting between Aunt Dany and nephew Jon — while having Dany arrive there first allows the show to make a big deal out of her return to the nation she hasn’t seen since childhood, without having it be overlooked because she’s in the midst of barking orders to the Unsullied and her dragons. The show doesn’t have much time left before the war with the Night King has to explode, but the character arcs are just as important as advancing the story along. This was a big moment for Dany, and the show needed to dwell on it.
(*) Come to think of it, “Staller of the Inevitable” would fit nicely in Dany’s list of titles, no?
Dany’s arrival at Dragonstone was cued in part by a glimpse of Viserys in the previouslies, the first time I can recall seeing his smug face in years, and “Dragonstone” as a whole demonstrated a long institutional memory. The Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners arrive at the farmhouse he and Arya visited in season four’s “Breaker of Chains,” and the Hound — who at the time stole from the farmer and his daughter because he assumed they would die with or without that extra money — feels guilt at seeing their corpses. Arya of course avenges the murders from “The Rains of Castamere,” and when Sam tries to convince the Citadel’s Arch Maester (played by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent) of the urgency of learning how to fight the White Walkers, the old man replies by listing a series of events throughout Westeros history — many of them referenced throughout the series, like Robert’s Rebellion — that also seemed like they would bring about the end of the world, until they didn’t.
But other characters seem much less concerned with the past than the future. Jon forgives the children of the traitorous Karstark and Umber houses not only because they’re not to blame for the deeds of their parents, but because the North needs every ally it can get in preparation for the war with the Night King. Jon can at times be just as stupid as the other men in his family — a stupidity that Sansa at least is blessedly aware of, and tries to warn him against here — but he’s also one of the few characters on the show wise enough to recognize that virtually every conflict we’ve seen in previous seasons is utterly meaningless compared to the threat posed by the White Walkers and their zombie army (now featuring zombie giants people). Jon’s insistence on looking forward, not back, is surprisingly shared by Cersei, who refuses to indulge her brother’s insistence on mourning the last of their dead children, because all she can see is some circumstance by which she might succeed in taking out threats from the north, south, and west. Jaime looks at her like he may have to put down another mad monarch before all is through, but for the moment, her grasp on the Iron Throne and the kingdom it represents is stronger than I would have expected a few hours before the premiere began.
So, no, Dany didn’t conquer her old country within the span of the same hour that war with the Night King began, Arya reunited with her remaining siblings, Jon and Dany discovered the nature of their relationship, and Jorah the Andal (currently locked away in one of the Citadel’s cells) discovered the cure for greyscale. But after over a year away, it’s nice to be reminded of most of the players and where they stand, and to spend some entertaining time with them along the way.
Some other thoughts:
* Game of Thrones has featured cameos by modern musicians before — Sigur Ros played Joffrey’s wedding, for instance — but never as blatantly as Ed Sheeran playing one of the friendly, singing Lannister soldiers whom Arya encounters on her way from The Twins to King’s Landing. Sheeran at least has the look of someone you might encounter while riding through the Riverlands, but we’ll have to see if this was just the excuse for him to debut a GoT-style song or if meeting kind strangers in Cersei’s employ might wind up softening a character like Arya who is very hard-edged at the moment.
* Your Game of Thrones map report: for the first time ever, the map doesn’t swing by Essos, since no significant characters are still there. The logistics of building the map also means that for the first time ever, the map doesn’t stop in the location Dany’s near, with Dragonstone popping up second, in between King’s Landing and The Twins. Meanwhile, Old Town gets the anchor position for this week, proving that even an old show can learn new map tricks.
* The one notable deviation from the show’s usual editing style: the montage of Sam’s menial duties as low man on the Citadel totem pole, where the various images of food being served and bedpans being cleaned kept cycling together faster and faster, like one of those Preacher sequences where you see that Hell is just having to live the worst moment of your life over and over again.
* A quirk of timing meant that “Dragonstone” opened with Arya pulling off a vintage Mission: Impossible-style mask trick on the same night when original M:I master of disguise Martin Landau passed away. Unlike the great Rollin Hand, Arya’s working with Faceless Man magic, which is apparently how her height can change dramatically right along with her face.
* Lady Mormont continues to be a joyous addition to the show late in the game, here cowing the other Stark bannermen in support of Jon’s order to start training girls over 10 as well as boys, given how desperately the North will need bodies to fight the White Walkers. For a long time, I thought I would be happiest if the series ended with Tyrion in charge somehow. Now, I may be Team Lyanna.
* Brienne is now fully part of House Stark, even wearing a wolf cloak during that meeting of bannermen. She remains miraculously impervious to the charm of Tormund and his eyebrow, though. We’ll see how long that lasts — or if they even spend much more time together, given that he’s due to take the Wildlings off to defend the same castle that the Hound foresees the NIght King’s army trying to attack (perhaps as a way to go around the Wall rather than through it).
* While the zombies are heading east, Bran and Meera got to go due south, more or less, to Castle Black, which brings another tightening of character groupings. Bran’s been of on his own show-within-a-show for a very long time now, so it’ll be good to have him more directly tied to the narrative, even if the only other notable character still at Castle Black is Edd.
That’s it for tonight. I’ll be doing an Instagram Live on Monday at 11 a.m. Eastern on Uproxx’s feed, and will be discussing “Dragonstone” with Brian Grubb on tomorrow’s installment of the TV Avalanche podcast. No screeners this year, so reviews will, like this one, get done late Sunday nights.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org