Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
Hell of a surprise in the seventh season premiere of Game Of Thrones. Arya Stark, fresh off a nigh Cersei-level ambush of the Frey household, comes upon a small campfire surrounded by fresh-faced red cloaks. It’s an autumnal scene in a wintry episode, colored leaves on the ground, bare trees, a melody wandering through the woods. Arya’s naturally wary. She approaches like she’s sizing them up. Five boys. Unarmed. A pile of swords over there. Ed Sheeran is there, but that’s not even the surprise. They insist on offering her first crack at the small meal they’ve prepared. They ask if she’s of drinking age, and then watch her take a swig of wine. One of them repeats a wholesome lesson in hospitality from his mother as she eyes their stuff. And then, just when everything seems calm, we cut away. That’s it. That’s the surprise. Nobody takes advantage of anyone else. The show’s adolescent realpolitik melts into genuine kindness for the first time in years. It’s the best scene where nothing happens in the entire show.
Unfortunately, nothing much happens in the rest of the episode either. It gets to the point where a montage is devoted to establishing Sam’s monotony at Oldtown. Changing bedpans, gagging from the smell, slopping soup, repeat, making sure to match cut from the diarrhea to the soup. At last some editorial innovation and it’s in service of a joke for 12-year-olds. It’s accomplished enough to make you gag.
Sam’s trying to read the special books behind the counter, the ones you can’t check out and take home. If this were a classical drama, that would be a subplot of the episode, the goal Sam overcomes various obstacles to get. But Game Of Thrones nowadays is mostly exposition. Whole scenes contain no subtext, and the dialogue’s main function is to establish things straightforwardly: history, goals, worldview. It’s written like dueling status updates. In a typical two-hander, the archmaester lays out his view, and that of Oldtown in general: Things don’t change.
That’s the ribbon running through “Dragonstone.” It’s an episode of characters returning to their own pasts as different people. They can retrench like Cersei, back on her bullshit, I mean, warpath. Or they can adapt, like The Hound. Neither way necessarily ensures success, but we know the archmaester isn’t unequivocally right. We’ve seen dragons reborn and armies of the undead. I wouldn’t be so sure that Wall will stand forever.
The main dilemma in the North this episode is what to do with the ancestral houses of the traitorous Umbers and Karstarks. Sansa argues they be given to loyalists. Jon rules they remain with their families, as they have for centuries. From her classic Cersei hairdo, Sansa is being played as the devil to Jon’s angel, the Cersei to his Ned. Both are dangerous positions, but the current Lord Umber and Lady Karstark are children, something like fresh slates for their families, so Jon probably makes the right call. But purely as a matter of principle, it’s a fair question. Sansa’s worried that Jon has the same Achilles heel as the man who raised him.
Sure enough, when Jon appeals to centuries-old tradition binding the families of the north together, it comes off as good-hearted but short-sighted. Look around, Jon. It’s a new day. Queens rule the continent. They might rule the North, too, if tradition hadn’t made room for a bastard king. At a certain point, adhering to tradition becomes a failure to adapt. It traps people in the same deepening grooves of history their parents died in.
That’s why Dany means to break the wheel. The final scene of the episode is her homecoming, a ceremony so dead Stannis would approve. It starts off vivid enough, with Dany taking her first steps on Westeros, letting the sand fall through her fingers. But a practically solo sequence of Dany walking through her old empty house without saying anything for minutes on end is, let’s say, a lot to ask of Emilia Clarke. She’s back at Dragonstone to reclaim her birthright, the seven or so kingdoms. If this were a few years ago, she’d be just like Cersei, pure entitlement. That’s certainly why she’s on this course to begin with. But she’s changed. Now she wants to make the world a better, more equal place than when she found it, though just how equal remains to be seen.
The old haunt that defines “Dragonstone” isn’t Dragonstone, though. It’s the house of that peasant father who took in the Hound and Arya, fed them, and gave them a good night’s sleep only to be robbed. In the present, the Brotherhood Without Banners happens upon the man’s house. The Hound’s afraid to go in. Maybe he’s afraid the occupants will tell on him, but Beric points out that there’s no smoke in the chimney or livestock in the yard, so it’s probably deserted. It’s not. Inside are the decaying corpses of the farmer and his little girl, in bed together with a knife on the floor. Beric CSIs that they were starving to death, so the man ended the suffering for both of them. And they might not have wound up that way if they hadn’t met the Hound.
It’s like a private, small-scale reenactment of “Deaths-head Revisited,” a Twilight Zone where a Nazi returns to a concentration camp and is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Sometimes the Hound is too easy, all punchlines that scab over an increasingly tender heart. But Rory McCann has a way of fleshing the man out, uniting the vicious bastard and the soul searching for redemption. He’s hilarious and heart-wrenching, as good with words as with weapons, and episodes like this reveal him to be as close to a secret weapon as the show has left. When Stannis sees something in the fire, it’s delusion. When the Hound does, it’s scarily real.
In the middle of the night, snow falling all around, the Hound digs the family a grave. We didn’t need this episode to know the Hound has changed. Even if we hadn’t seen his relationship with Arya start to work its magic on him, the Hound’s time with the septon who saved him shows how far he’s come from the Lannisters’ attack dog. But, without getting too catholic school about it, redemption takes confession and atonement for wrongdoing, not just a general vow to try to do better in the future. Here the Hound is facing up to his wrongs, feeling genuine remorse, and trying to do what he can to make it up to the family, giving them a proper burial and funeral in the sight of the gods. It’s a beautiful scene, all the more so because the Hound can’t remember the full prayer. Beric’s right when he says the Hound is a soldier. But the Hound has grown from his experiences, learned some measure of compassion and fraternity and faith. Maybe they won’t serve him any better than his old values, but he’s not stuck dying for some rich kid anymore and he’s not robbing the poor just to get by.
That’s what it looks like Arya’s planning to do at the campfire. For much of the scene, she’s weighing her options. She could take those guys. She could get to them before they got their swords, and she could swipe their gold and their meal. It would be something like what the Hound did to those peasants. At the time Arya was upset at him for it. But now Arya’s a cold-blooded killer.
After all, the season begins with, what else, a blood-letting. Plucky old Walder Frey gathers his family for a feast and toasts to their massacre of the Stark family. He compliments their bravery in stabbing a pregnant woman and her fetus to death. As every last Frey man swigs their special wine, Walder hypes the cunning it took to invite guests into your home and ambush them. But then things take a turn, the men starting to keel over as Walder seems to admonish them for leaving certain threads hanging. At last the room is empty but for Arya Stark, holding Walder Frey’s face, and a couple girls she leaves alive to spread the legend. “Winter came for House Frey.”
It’s the most eventful scene of the episode, a spooky story set in a baroque dungeon artfully cluttered with candelabras and corpses. Arya walks out smiling. It’s never the mustache-twirling kind of villain smile either. She’s always appropriately solemn on these occasions. But she can’t repress a certain satisfaction in vengeance.
So why not rob these red cloaks? Serves em right for letting their guard down. Isn’t that the unwritten law of the land? If someone gets one up on you, you deserve it for letting them? Somewhere along the way, the boys’ bonhomie breaks through. It rekindles the old Arya. Not enough to discourage her from her hit list in favor of reuniting with her family. But enough that she can enjoy the kindness of strangers for maybe the first time since she met those peasants.
Ordinarily, Game Of Thrones would punish her for being so stupidly trusting. It’s well past time to try something new.
- “Dragonstone” is written by creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
- This is the review for newbies, that is, viewers who have not read the books the series is based on. As I understand it, we’re well past the general narrative of the five released books, but there’s so much information in them and differences in terms of emphasis and theme that book-readers still have plenty of advantages to sussing out where the show is headed. As such, we wanted to make sure there were still reviews for those whose only information about the show comes from the show itself.
- I was worried Essos would stick around in the credits, but we might finally be free. Goodbye, Essos! Hello, Oldtown!
- With the castles on the Wall practically unmanned, the wildlings are headed to Eastwatch By The Sea. Tormund growls, “Looks like we’re the Night’s Watch now.”
- Speaking of the Wall, Dolorous Edd welcomes Meera and Bran back through. That’s pretty much it, but it does dispel at least one theory I heard having to do with Bran being marked by the white walker and coming up against the spells on the wall to keep the white walkers out.
- Davos should teach Sansa and Jon about the small council, where political differences can be hashed out in private.
- Sansa warns Jon about the threat Cersei poses, which she believes is at least as strong as that of the white walkers. “Everyone who’s ever crossed her she’s found a way to murder.” Jon’s taken aback. “You almost sound as if you admire her.” Sansa is circumspect. “I learned a great deal from her.”
- Cersei and Jaime debate strategy on the map of Westeros the queen is having painted in the courtyard. Scenes like this are the show’s bread and butter, but the unmotivated stage blocking and the frosty interaction lets this one down. But then we get moments like when Cersei insists she’s queen of the seven kingdoms, and Jaime replies, “Three kingdoms at best.”
- Euron Greyjoy shows up at King’s Landing to show off his leather pants and also ask for Cersei’s hand in marriage. “Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to grow up and marry the most beautiful woman in the world. So here I am, with a thousand ships and two good hands.” It almost sounds like the kind of chivalrous poem Sansa would have swooned over as a child. Except we know what kind of people Cersei and Euron are. Anyway, Cersei doesn’t trust Euron, so he promises to return with a great gift to prove his intentions. Guesses?
- Sam learns there’s a mountain of dragonglass beneath Dragonstone, news which he sends to Jon. Perfect timing. Jon can go meet his aunt.
- One day Sam is collecting dishes and/or bedpans from what look like prisoners, when suddenly a hand reaches out, and with the unmistakable voice of Ser Jorah Mormont, the man inside asks if the dragon queen has arrived yet. Not sure how he got both to Oldtown and locked up so quickly, but I’m pretty sure Game Of Thrones considers geography an illusion now.
- The Hound: “It’s my fucking luck I end up with a bunch of fire-worshipers.” Beric: “Aye, it almost seems like divine justice.”