When this season of Game of Thrones was being discussed by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (and most of the cast) they made it sound as if it were going to be an action shitstorm of epic proportions. We wouldn’t be able to turn our heads fast enough to keep up with all the eventfulness they were going to pack into its shortened 7 episode length.
Well, after two episodes I’m kind of surprised by how talky it is. I like talky Game of Thrones (when actors are your greatest strength, dialogue is a good strategy), and we’re certainly seeing meetings we haven’t seen before (or for a long time) left and right. But there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of event, truth be told, and we’re already down to five episodes left. Is that going to be enough time for all the work this season has ahead of it?
Basically, this episode is built around three royal council rooms, with a couple of lone wolves connecting them. Of course we have Daenerys, still coming to terms with what kind of queen she’d like to be. Her grilling of Varys may be the strongest part of the episode – not for her part in it, but his. Varys’ steadfast refusal to bend the knee if worship is perfectly in-character. At this point I’ve pretty much come to believe him when he says his allegiance is to the realm, and more specifically to its common people. Unlike Tyrion – who’s undeniably clever and one of Westeros’ more long-thinking nobles – Varys has lived the life of a commoner. He’s been abused and spat upon and sold as chattel. Daenerys could do far worse than to give his counsel good heed.
Tyrion’s remark that Dany shouldn’t want to be the “Queen of Ashes” is the line of the episode (it’s so good she she steals it herself later), but it doesn’t do much for the segments of Daenerys’ coalition that are in this for revenge. Olenna Tyrell and Ellaria Sand are preaching the opposing gospel – namely that only be terror can Daenerys ever inspire loyalty. Their problem is that she’s seen the limits of that approach in the East. Tyrion has lamped out the Lannister strategy – to recall the horrors of the mad king and paint this as a foreign invasion – and nothing would prove their point better than her dragons laying waste to a King’s Landing besieged by an army of Dothraki “savages” and the Unsullied. His plan makes much more sense, if you ask me.
Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime are taking the pragmatic approach of doing just what Tyrion suggested they would. To be fair it’s not as if they have much choice – Cersei is universally loathed, and can only cling to power by convincing her remaining bannermen that a greater threat exists for all of them. Going after Highgarden with its wealth of the Tyrells makes sense – just as much sense as Tyrion’s plan to take Casterly Rock with the Unsullied. It’s fitting that Jaime should focus on Sam’s vile father as his chief lackey – he and Cersei deserve each other. There’s a part of Jaime though, surely, that hates the company Cersei’s mad brutality now forces him to keep.
The thread connecting Dragonstone and Winterfell is the mutual respect and affection Tyrion on Jon share for each other after their trip to The Wall (even Sansa now admits that Tyrion was always good to her). What those two also share, of course, is a belief that the army of the dead represents the ultimate threat to Westeros. And given that Sam’s raven arrives just a few days after Daenerys’ invitation to “bend the knee”, the timing seems fortuitous to say the least. Sansa may disapprove of Jon leaving the North in a time of crisis, and the hatred for both the Targeryns and Lannisters among the northern lords is understandably intense. But as always it falls to Jon to argue for the more difficult and painful choice – and it usually comes back to the fact that he’s seen what the white walkers are, and those arguing against him have not.
The lone wolves that bridge these three settings are Samwell and Arya. For Sam, his sad fate seems to be to star in a series of unfunny gross-out montages that feel totally out of place. As ever, though, he displays great courage in his quiet way – risking both greyscale and expulsion from the Citadel (or worse) to try and apply an ancient and banned cure (which was teased last week if you looked at Sam’s books closely). He does so out of a sense of gratitude to Jorah’s father, of course – but also because there’s a great kindness in Sam. Having taken on Jorah’s cure and given Daenerys and Jon something to talk about, Sam has already established his importance to the season in spades.
As to Arya, she’s still very much a little girl lost, though she does re-acquaint with a couple of important friends. It was great to see good old Hot Pie, who hasn’t changed a bit. The metaphor runs thick for Arya in this episode, and the news Hot Pie tells her – that Jon Snow has won the Battle of the Bastards and taken Winterfell – literally takes her to a crossroads in her life. Does he continue her pilgrimage of revenge, heading to King’s Landing to kill Cersei? Or does she turn to the north, and reunite with some small remnant of her family after all this time?
Perhaps Arya’s choice – to go home – augers well that she might still be saved from the darkness which calls out to her. My God, how can you not feel for her, not having seen any of her family for so long? But the other reunion is a more foreboding one for Arya’a character – in the woods on the way back to Winterfell, she runs into no less than Nymeria herself. Nymeria initially doesn’t recognize her, amd even when she does, rejects her – lets her live, yes, but declines Arya’s invitation to go home. It’s as if these two are looking in a mirror, really – neither of them is what they were before everything went to Hell. And Nymeria’s actions suggest that they never will be again – both have changed too much, lost too much, to ever return to their old lives. Arya returning home is a good thing, but I fear her homecoming won’t be the one she expects – and that runs deeper than just the absence of Jon.
Finally, as if to allay the deficit of violence and spectacle, we have Euron attacking and savaging Yara and Theon’s fleet – on the way to Dorne to pick up and ferry the Dornish army to besiege King’s Landing. Anything involving the Sand sisters and their mother is inherently a debacle, a harsh reminder of this adaptation’s most comprehensive failure. But the special effects are good (as always) and we do get a rather poignant moment in the end. After an impressive orgy of gore, Euron has seized Yara and invites Theon to try and take her back – and his response is to dive into the ocean and save himself. He’d have died otherwise, of course – but it’s a rather sad turn for poor, dismal old Theon, who’s still broken inside from what Ramsay Bolton did him. Perhaps there’s another opportunity at redemption out there for him somewhere (he earned it in his final hours with Sansa) but it will clearly start from a very, very dark place.