Once in a while, I like to give some attention to an overlooked, little-known series like this one…
The biggest TV show in the world – maybe ever, depending on how you measure it – is back. And we’re surely in the home stretch now. While this seventh is no longer the final season as originally announced, it is a short one – only 7 episodes, with the eight season scheduled for only 6. The books have been well and truly left behind now, and pretty much all of us are in the same boat (is that Gendry I see next to us, perpetually rowing?). None of us know what’s coming, most of it is likely to be different from what eventually happens in George R.R. Martin’s books, and in the end that’s probably for the best. Game of Thrones as television really needs to be judged as an independent entity for better or worse (mostly better), and it’s never been easier to do that.
“Dragonstone” stands up pretty well as an episode, and as a season-opener, though given the brevity of the season it must shoulder a heavier load than its predecessors. As most of these premieres have been it’s a table-setter, though there are certainly a share of headline moments. We begin with what I believe is only Game of Thrones’ second cold-open ever, which is the conclusion to Arya’s revenge against the Frey’s. Though it manifests very differently, both Stark daughters are in a battle to retain their humanity against the damage the world has done to them. Blameless though they are for that and true as Sansa’s statements about their father’s mistakes may be, the essential decency he represented should not be dismissed too easily. It’s the only thing (well – and Ed Sheeran) tethering either Arya or Sansa against the tide of darkness pulling at them now.
“Dragonstone” begins, in fact, with check-ins for all four surviving Stark children (we’ll still call Jon that for now – he’s a half-brother anyway). Bran and Meera arrive at Castle Black, where Dolorous Edd welcomes them with suspicion but still ultimately welcomes them. There’s a wonderful montage of the white walkers emerging from the mist on their inexorable march south, poor old Wun Wun among their number now (can Hodor be far behind?). Meanwhile Jon is presiding over the Northern court, planning the trials ahead, as Sansa veritably seethes with resentment as she sits next to him – and not always in silence.
This is an interesting and difficult situation brewing, because while Sansa is right that she has expertise in areas Jon lacks, he’s right in that for her to openly question him in front of his bannermen is a very bad idea. Is it fair? No – but he is, in fact, now the King of the North. The place for these debates is behind closed doors, if for no other reason than that witnessing them gives Littlefinger the encouragement to continue plotting to set the siblings against each other. The most troubling debate comes over the fate of the traitorous Karstark and Umber families, because both Jon and Sansa have valid perspectives here. What Sansa is asking for is justice (from her perspective) – but Jon doesn’t have the luxury of giving it with the dangers he knows are coming.
Of Euron and Cersei’s proposed alliance, I think the best that can be said is that it demonstrates just how isolated Cersei’s madness has made her. Euron with his history of treachery is a poor ally indeed, but Jamie is right that Cersei has systematically pissed off everyone better – with so few willing to stand with her of their own will, her only recourse will be to attack those too weak to defend themselves. The growing schism between Cersei and Jamie is a major thread to watch this season – his horror over her reaction to Tommen’s death was plain to see, and certainly justified.
Meanwhile, very significant chunks of the episode are given over to a couple of theoretically secondary characters, starting with Samwell. I could have done without the whole comic bedpan montage, but the point is made – Sam is not doing what he went to the Citadel to do. Fortunately the Arch-Maester (played by the peerless Jim Broadbent, adding yet another towering actor to this cast) is no fool – he’s a man of science and reason, and reason tells him that Sam is telling the truth about the horrors he’s seen north of the Wall. But believing it and acting on it with urgency are two different things, and for now Sam must resort to illicit filching of relevant texts – one of which tells him that a mountain of dragonglass hides underground at Dragonstone. Sam later has a run-in with a prisoner – one who, it is assumed, has come to the Citadel in search of a cure for an incurable disease…
The other secondary character who features prominently here is The Hound, which is always welcome. And that he’s now teamed up with Beric Dondarrion is a true joy, because Richard Dormer is a giant even among GoT’s cast of behemoths (as is Rory McCann). Even as good people have wrestled to maintain their humanity or died for their decency, Sandor Clegane has struggled onward – sneering, angry, violent, but with a core of kindness buried deep within him, rudderless for a time but but now somehow sailing closer to the wind of virtue than ever. This entire sequence is the best of the episode, in my view – Sandor conquering his fears to stare into the fire (where his skepticism of the Lord of Light’s powers will surely be tested), then later going out into the snow to bury the father and daughter who he robbed during his travels with Arya. Sandor and Thoros shoveling the frozen ground as the snow swirled around them was a powerful and terrible image – yet still oddly hopeful.
Ending episodes with Daenerys is so old hat by now that it’s become a cliche. But at least she’s back in Westeros now – back at the place of her birth in fact. Dragonstone, abandoned by Stannis and sitting cold and desolate against the raging seas, a fitting place for the Queen of nothing to begin her quest to become Queen of the known world. It’s almost a given that her elder
brother nephew awaits her in the North, the ice to her fire, though neither knows it yet – and even absent that rather crucial element of their relationship, how Daenerys and the King of the North decide to deal with each other is one of the crucial questions underpinning this season of Game of Thrones. There seems to be a great deal of mutual interest here – and with Dragonstone sitting atop a huge pile of the very material Jon needs to defend Westeros against a threat greater than any human one either he or Daenerys faces (including each other), that’s more true than it’s ever been.