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.