Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Brandon Nowalk’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.
“None of you have seen the army of the dead.”
Jon Snow is right: None of the Northern lords who have placed their trust in him as their King In The North have seen the wights or the White Walkers. They have just heard about them, and Jon argues in this pivotal moment of leadership that they don’t properly understand the gravity of this threat. They worry that he is abandoning them by trusting Tyrion Lannister and sailing to Dragonstone to meet with Daenerys Targaryen, but he knows that it is one of the only potential paths to victory.
Jon is one of few characters who has a long view of the events of Game Of Thrones thus far. As viewers—and readers—we have the ability to see the big picture, knowing what’s happening in every corner of this story. We know the threat beyond the Wall is greater than any threat in Westeros, and even know that Jon should trust Tyrion given his kind words about his former traveling companion to his queen. But the Northern lords don’t know this in the same way that we do, much as no one but Bran knows that Jon is Dany’s nephew, and much like Arya Stark had no idea that the Starks had retaken Winterfell.
Arya’s realization is the pivotal moment in the episode, as it reminds us that news spreads slowly and unevenly: while Arya would have learned about Cersei becoming queen at the Twins, news of the Battle Of The Bastards had not traveled farther south, for some reason or another. Her scene with Hot Pie is a sequel to last week’s scene with the Lannister traveling party: She goes into the discussion set on a particular task and wary of any type of kindness (from even a former friend in this case), but then she experiences a feeling of connection to home or family that she had forgotten. When she encounters Nymeria later in the episode, she tells her she’s “finally” going home to Winterfell, and that distance has never just been geographical: It has also been mental, and we see that switch flip when Hot Pie reminds her what she was riding toward when she first came to the inn at the crossroads years before. In an episode where many characters are being faced with decisions about how best to move forward, Arya’s decision to turn north was the most powerful, and a continuation of what seems like the most emotionally resonant storyline of the season thus far.
For most of the episode, “Stormborn” was a subtle extension of last week’s storytelling: If “Dragonstone” mapped out the various players, this week forced the players themselves to look at that map and make important decisions about their next steps. And as they seek to solidify their alliances, they rely on the myths of the past, delving into the type of storytelling that Jon used in order to win over the Northern lords. Cersei tries to turn the Tyrell bannermen against Olenna by vilifying Dany’s army, and framing them as foreign invaders, which Tyrion anticipates in choosing to send the Unsullied to Casterly Rock instead. And when Jaime confronts Randyll Tarly about his allegiances, Tarly reminds Jaime of how his family’s actions—the destruction of the Sept of Baelor, the Red Wedding—make them a complicated ally even for someone like Tarly who is more than willing to serve the crown above all else. Until we reach the final scene, the episode’s primary function seems to be reminding the characters in the show that a lot has happened in the past six seasons, and retelling those stories from different perspectives to remind us how there are always going to be varied interpretations.
This doubles as exposition to the audience, of course. Back in season one, I wrote how the show used sex as a way to make historical info dumps more exciting—it became a whole thing—but we are now at a point where exposition can also be deeply meaningful for these characters. Dany’s confrontation with Varys is a thorough retelling of his arc, reading like the Wiki pages that detail the character’s history as a servant of the Crown both before and after Robert’s Rebellion. It’s a refresher on a character that is an important architect in this conflict, but also speaks to Dany’s authority over her inner circle, as well as the ways she intends to learn from the mistakes of the past as she plots out the right course of action to overtake Westeros. We see something similar when Littlefinger reminds us of his relationship with Catelyn when visiting Jon in the crypts beneath Winterfell—there’s exposition there, but it’s also a chance to show Jon’s opinion of Littlefinger, and give us a clearer view of how Varys’ rival architect is positioning himself by comparison. Not only is the history we haven’t seen more important than ever in the wake of the storylines converging, but the history of the show itself is now a rich text in its own right, able to be leveraged in key moments to remind us just how absurd that journey has been when looked at as a whole.
For the most part, the episode fits into this pattern of reflective moments designed to allow characters to make crucial decisions, which as noted follows up nicely on last week’s “lay of the land” foundation. This goes for Sam committing himself to curing Jorah after learning that he is Lord Commander Mormont’s son, and it even goes for Melisandre learning from her past—she seemed very much aware of the mistakes of Stannis—in an effort to bring Jon and Dany together. But there are two scenes that deviate from this, in dramatically different ways.
The first is Missandei’s scene with Grey Worm, which is striking in its isolation from the other stories. It is an effect of Dany’s decision to follow Tyrion’s advice and send the Unsullied to war, yes, but it lingers on the impact this has on a burgeoning relationship. The terms of Grey Worm and Missandei’s connection are not really transformed by the scene: they share an emotional bond complicated by his castration and their respective enslavement, and this scene simply extends their moment of intimacy. But as with last week, the rest of the episode is moving at an almost breathless pace, and it was strange to see the scene spend so much time showcasing their encounter when time has seemed so precious.
There’s an argument to be made that it was about wanting there to be some element of sex and nudity, but I’d argue it’s primarily about emphasizing how distinct the Unsullied are from traditional armies. This is what would happen when men all over Westeros went to war: when Ned Stark was riding to King’s Landing with Robert, he and Catelyn would have shared a night like this one. But for the Unsullied (who Dany has never really “sent into war” in this fashion), they’ve never experienced the “weakness” that such emotional goodbyes imply, and have been separated from emotion in general. While we don’t literally see the scars of his castration, Jacob Anderson does a fantastic job selling his embarrassment in his eyes as Missandei undresses him, and to see that wash away is a graceful and poignant note in the show’s investment in how the slaves that Dany freed in Essos are navigating their freedom. It is a rare part of this season that has felt like a climax—pun unintended until I wrote it and now it’s definitely intended—as opposed to rising action (okay, I didn’t notice this pun until I was editing, so it really wasn’t intended), possibly the last significant scene we’ll see between the two characters.
The second scene that deviates from the rest of the episode is the final one, which delivers the first big action set piece of the season when you might not be expecting it. It would not be uncommon to send the Greyjoy and Dornish characters off to Sunspear and just not revisit them for a while, but once we return to the ship it feels off: we get time with the Sand Snakes, and we see Ellaria make a move on Yara, and it all feels very low stakes until it’s not. When Euron arrives in full fiery swashbuckler mode, it turns into an impressive spectacle, as we see two of the Sand Snakes die at the hands of their own weapons (the only character details that they ever really managed to attach to them) and Yara and Ellaria both end up hostages of Cersei’s would-be suitor. It’s the first scene this season that has really featured “action,” understood here not just as sword fights and seafaring combat but also simply characters following through on a plan instead of just making one.
But while there is a clear aftermath for Dany’s war given the hostages that have been taken and the challenge of potentially losing both Pyke and Dorne as allies, the main development here is for Theon, who jumps overboard rather than fight for his sister’s life. Much as Anderson sells his shame without saying a word, Alfie Allen sells Theon’s fear without needing to communicate it. In that moment, Theon is reliving his own story, watching the playback as he sees his life ripped away from him by a gruesome man not unlike Euron, and reacting out of self-survival and self-pity by flinging himself overboard instead of becoming prisoner yet again. But while it hearkens back to his cowardly origins both before and after Reek, Theon has still come a long way, and what this development did was unhinge his arc from that of Daenerys or his sister: now, whatever Theon has gone through is something he has to reckon with alone washed up on shore somewhere between Dragonstone and Dorne, creating another solitary journey to self-discovery that mirrors Arya’s and provides another avenue for narrative closure down the line.
The archmaester tells Sam at a certain point that he is writing the history of the current wars following Robert’s death—Sam tells him he needs a pithier title, but in truth there are two larger problems with such a history. The first is that while the maesters attempt to present themselves as being “outside” of power and objective viewpoints, they carry their own subjectivities, as we see when the archmaester underestimates the threat of the White Walkers (and thus likely wouldn’t even be thinking about them as part of those wars). The second, however, is far simpler: we don’t fully understand what these wars represent until they are over. As much as we have seen six seasons of dramatic tension, and I can sit back as a viewer and piece together themes and ideas that unite the disparate storylines, there are still 11 episodes that will reshape the meaning of these events, and shape the history in question.
And in this way, “Stormborn” is a chance for us to see how the show’s writers—in this case the show’s expert on the mythology of the books, Bryan Cogman—are thinking about that history at this crucial junction. And for the most part, history matters deeply here and elsewhere, and continues to resonate: lots of memories are unearthed here, and it’s clear that the weight of those six seasons of storytelling is going to drive decision-making in the final act of the show. But at the same time, some of the history will fade away: Arya’s reunion with Nymeria was not about returning to their partnership as girl and wolf, as some—myself included—might have hoped, but rather about Arya realizing that Nymeria is no longer “her direwolf” in the same way. They’ve both changed, much as everyone has changed, and the more characters gain perspective on that the more they will be able to determine their respective paths forward. Arya chose Winterfell, and Theon chose to run away, but their journeys are not over yet, even if the finish line—whatever that constitutes—gets closer with each passing week.
- If you’re looking for more on the Nymeria scene, EW—as always—has the exclusive postmortem to clarify what is a bit of a confusing scene if you initially take Arya’s words literally. Also, as always, commenters and the internet are piecing together the callback to Arya saying “it’s not me” when discussing courtly life with her father back in season one—I admittedly wouldn’t have caught this, but it’s the kind of line you can put in knowing that fans will pull it out and give it meaning, without having to use flashbacks or a “previously on” clip to activate it.
- A little too convenient for Missandei to step in with an “Actually” retranslation to lay out the question of “Is Dany or Jon the Prince That Was Promised?”, but I think it’s a nice way of again using our sense of history against us: we’ve possibly never questioned that translation, and thus have always perceived it in one way that has now shifted.
- Was I the only one who got super nervous that after Sam said the Archmaester needed a catchier title he was going to say “How about Game Of Thrones?” It’s still implied, I think, but if he’d actually said it I would have died a little inside.
- I had the pleasure of watching this episode with my friend David Chen, co-host of A Cast of Kings among other TV recap podcasts, and I have to say that the scene of Sam removing the greyscale from Jorah was much more fun when you’re watching other people squirm. (We also did a Periscope reaction to the episode you can find here.)
- Speaking of which: the editing experimentation continues, here cutting from Sam’s surgery to the pie at the inn at the crossroads, as well as from Missandei’s orgasm to a very forceful grasp of a book at the Citadel. It’s proving a fun way to add levity to the proceedings, here from director Mark Mylod.
- Although Dany has clearly chosen to follow Tyrion’s advice, it was great to get a scene between her and Olenna—I would argue that Olenna’s survival is in part because she was never actually a queen or in a position of power, and was thus more readily able to be ruthless without consequence, but it’s still a devil on Dany’s shoulder about how the dragons should be deployed.
- Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I sort of expected something other than a giant crossbow in terms of a dragon strategy (especially given that the Dragon Horn exists in the books). How would you aim it? How long does it take to reload? How many do they have? How mobile is it? Qyburn’s demonstration was evocative, but let’s talk logistics of mass production, friend.
- Speaking of Qyburn, when David and I were discussing this on Periscope, one of the commenters noted that Jorah might become equivalent to The Mountain following Sam’s surgery, and it made me realize that Sam and Qyburn are two sides of the same coin: both are rejecting the conservative maesters, but Qyburn did it for the sake of curiosity and cruelty, whereas Sam is trying to save the realm.
- Obviously, Davos is going to run into Melisandre at Dragonstone, which should prove an intriguing confrontation given the likely remnants of Shireen that remain there.
- In wrestling terms, I appreciated the final scene using the Sand Snakes as jobbers to elevate Euron to another level of villainy: to this point, he hasn’t done a whole lot, and I think the Sand Snakes—while never substantive or effective in the larger context of the show—were at least recognizable enough to give Euron’s attacks a bit of bite.
- I sort of feel like Jon can’t get access to the dragonglass on Dragonstone to make all these weapons, as it would render the importance of the Valyrian Steel weapons that the show has carefully marked out (Heartsbane, Oathkeeper, etc.) less meaningful.
- The biggest question I had in this episode as a book reader: has the show spoiled George’s plans for the Nymeria reunion? I think it’s an effective reveal, but let’s face it: it’s also a reveal that means they don’t have to worry about this bloody wolf in all of Arya’s scenes moving forward, which has proven to be a huge burden. I don’t think it’s a “cheat,” but I do wonder if George’s freedom in the books would have the two together.