A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as friends don’t pay…
“If you want the Iron Throne, take it.” -Yara
The loudest objections to last week’s premiere tended to be about Dany’s decision not to proceed straight to King’s Landing, rather than passing Go/Dragonstone and collecting $200/counsel from her many allies. This seemed both bad tactics — Dany has already seen one fleet burned out from under her, and now she’s going to risk stranding her combined forces on an island rather than on Westeros proper? — and yet another delaying tactic on a show that’s employed dozens of them over the years.
“Stormborn” attempts to make the argument that the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Sculptor of Vases has sound logic behind her slow roll into the continent of her birth, and that Game of Thrones does as well. When Dany gathers together her allies — all of them either women or mutilated men, forever underestimated just like their Khaleesi — she and Tyrion both insist that while they could have easily burned Cersei’s forces to the ground, all of King’s Landing would have gone along with them, and that the true way to win the Iron Throne involves forging alliances with the many lords and ladies who have tired of capricious, violent Lannister rule, all while starving out Cersei’s forces. The queen and her Hand both make their cases well, but the moment the room is cleared out, Lady Olenna — perhaps the character whose wisdom is most to be trusted, and not just because she’s played by Dame Diana Rigg — suggests Dany is getting bad advice from her cleverest ally, and that she needs to “be a dragon” in order to get this done.
For much of the hour, “Stormborn” seems to be on Tyrion’s side. It’s a much more eventful episode than “Dragonstone,” with most of those events involving the forging or rejecting of alliances in preparation for the wars to come. Cersei goes full Make Westeros Great Again in appealing to the xenophobia of all the lords whose loyalty can still be swayed, and it appears to have worked on Sam’s father, at least(*). Ravens from Tyrion and Sam combine to make Jon Snow realize that he has to go to Dragonstone to recruit Dany as both an ally and a supplier of dragonglass for the war with the Night King, and Melisandre will be there to help him convince her. Jon also has to assuage the fears of his many allies — Lady Mormont siding against him for once — on taking this trip, and he places Sansa in charge, much to the pleasure of Littlefinger.
(*) And while Cersei is trying to hold onto as much manpower as she can, Qyburn appears to have brought the concept of anti-aircraft weaponry to Westeros. The dragons tend to weight the odds too heavily in Dany’s favor (they are to her military what Harry Potter is to the rest of the Gryffindor quidditch team), so the show needs to at least create the illusion of their vulnerability for the outcome to not seem inevitable. Will Qyburn’s crossbow artillery actually take out all three dragons? I would tend to doubt it. But they also can’t just swoop in, burn everyone, and save the day unscathed again.
Arya hears the good news about Jon’s current standing from Hot Pie — Hot Pie! — and isn’t so far gone on her mission of vengeance that she ignores it, instead turning her horse around and heading north for her brother and their home. And when her long-lost direwolf Nymeria (last seen running away from potential execution waaaaaaaaay back in the series’ second episode) rejects Arya’s plea of being family again and following her to Winterfell, it doesn’t break her resolve, but doubles it; “That’s not you,” she says to herself while smiling(*). She has been off in the wilderness, learning how to kill, but she still remembers who she is deep down, and is heading towards what will turn out to be her sister’s arms.
(*) Other characters dominate the action more this week than Arya, but Maisie Williams does a lot with her scant screen time. The very adult, no-nonsense Arya who runs into Hot Pie scarcely resembles the girl he once knew (and not just because she was pretending to be a boy back then), and then the transition on her face from grief at losing Nymeria again to confidence that her own choice was the right one was just lovely. UPDATE: Having thought about it (and chatted with a few colleagues), it’s entirely possible I read “It’s not you” backwards, and the moment is Arya realizing that she’s no longer the girl who had that pet and can go back to Winterfell, but a Faceless (Wo)man who must continue on the path towards killing Cersei, no matter the personal/familial cost. We’ll see next week.
If most of “Stormborn” is saying that alliance-building has much more long-term value than shows of force, the episode’s violent climax suggests Dany would’ve been better off turning King’s Landing into ash and figuring out what to do next.
Instead, the one using fire as a weapon is Euron Greyjoy, whose fleet ambushes and ruins Yara’s, wrecking yet another one of Dany’s navies, killing off many of her allies (with the would-be queens of Dorne and the Iron Islands both taken prisoner by Euron), and potentially stranding Dany’s remaining forces (including the aquaphobic Dothraki) on her family’s ancestral island home.
Not great, Bob.
Yet if Euron revealed Dany and Tyrion for being less-than-brilliant tacticians, the sneak attack itself was a welcome bit of spectacle after most of the season to this point had just been debates in rooms. It was less thrilling on the whole than some of the show’s other epic battle sequences, in part because the deliberately chaotic nature of the attack — under cover of night and fog, fire fire and ash and sparks raining down on the ships, and with two different groups of similarly-clad Ironborn sailors trying to tear each other to pieces — wasn’t as easy to follow as, say, the Night King’s assault on Hardhome. But the image of this deranged pirate king(*) crashing down onto Yarra’s ship from atop a gangplank with its own set of fangs was stunning, and Theon suffering another moment of weakness — whether genuine cowardice or simply a recognition that fighting Euron would have resulted in his own death as well as Yarra’s, whereas diving into the water created the possibility of one or both of them surviving to fight another day — rather than having his inevitable hero’s moment a nice example of Thrones knowing which tropes to subvert, and when.
(*) Credit where it’s due: based on his drab appearances last season, I never would have imagined myself enjoying Euron’s presence, but the creative team and Pilou Asbæk have very strongly course-corrected. He may look (to borrow a line from my podcast partner), “like if Pacey from Dawson’s Creek had an older brother who was way into Staind at one point but now denies it,” but he’s been vastly more entertaining across these two episodes than we had any right to expect based on his introduction.
I don’t expect Dany to remain stranded on Dragonstone for long. She can always climb on Drogon’s back, after all, and now Jon and Davos are heading to see her. And once she makes it to landfall, hopefully she’ll be more inclined to listen to whatever remaining allies encourage her to stop messing around and just burn whomever she can to the ground, while she still can.
Some other thoughts:
* On the one hand, it’s a nice touch for Sam to risk his own life in an attempt to save Commander Mormont’s son as a way to repay the old man. On the other, I hope there turns out to be more to this secret and obscure greyscale remedy than just “cut off all the infected tissue.”
* Sam’s tribute to Jeor was one of several satisfying trips deep into the series’ history tonight, along with Dany running down the many previous rulers and would-be rulers Varys has supported and then betrayed, Tyrion signing his message to Jon with a quote from their trip to the Wall, and Littlefinger recalling when he returned Ned’s remains to Catelyn. Bryan Cogman’s been with this show for a long time (he’s the only writer other than Benioff & Weiss with a script in every season), and like Dany and many other characters, he has a long memory.
* Also, some nice locale-to-locale transitions this time out, like the disgusting greyscale puss leading nicely into an image of the food being served at the inn where Arya reunites with Hot Pie, and then in turn Arya choosing to ride north right before we see an overhead shot of the map Jon is studying at Arya’s destination.
* This week in the credits map: though Yarra’s fleet is sailing to Dorne when it’s attacked by Euron’s, this week’s map addition isn’t Dorne, but the Pyke. Whether that’s to symbolize the war between the Greyjoys, or because it’s too difficult to draw a computerized path that features both Dorne and Oldtown, I don’t know. With the Unsullied heading for Casterley Rock — much-discussed but never seen on the show before — I have hopes it’ll wind up in the credits before all is said and done.
* Between Theon’s apparent cowardice, Varys’ moment of understanding with his Khaleesi, and Grey Worm making love to Missandei the only way he can — in a tender scene that I suspect will be the last one those two characters share — this was definitely a big week to be a Game of Thrones eunuch.
* RIP to most, and possibly all, of the Sand Snakes. (It was hard to make out which one was impaled on the ship in the closing scene with Theon in the water — and it seemed like one of them may have just been taken prisoner along with Ellaria — but whichever two were played by Keshia Castle-Hughes and Jessica Henwick are for sure dead.) For whatever hype the Snakes got prior to their arrival, they were a pretty consistent snooze. Their deaths were fitting to their tenure: one minute arguing over who gets to kill bosses like Cersei and the Mountain, the next being easily dispatched by a jobber like Euron Greyjoy.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org