TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.01 “Dragonstone”

Game of Thrones Dragonstone

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones season 7 episode 1 below.

 

 

The thing about a hard winter is that it freezes everything. The thing about this winter, the hardest in a thousand years, is that it threatens to freeze everything just at the moment when it all needs to change.

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As you’d expect from the opener to a season that’s been teased for so long as the point where the White Walkers finally become the White Arrivals, “Dragonstone” is an episode about what needs to happen before our enemies in the north reach the Wall, and what the consequences are if it doesn’t.

Accordingly, warnings and consequences are both recurring themes here, and in particular how both those things can necessitate a rethink about who the real enemy is. This is perhaps most obviously seen in Sandor Clegane’s return to the farm he robbed three seasons earlier, to find its inhabitants have killed themselves rather than face the winter without money to survive. So that’s consequences covered, then. There’s also a warning from the flames, however, which would seem like an unusually direct port from the world of high fantasy, were it not for the fact of the Hound’s raging pyrophobia. Clegane stands just inches away from the fatal consequences of what he has done whilst receiving a warning telling him what he needs to do next, and that warning is given to him by a fire god. The Lord of Light’s message delivery system alone must make him one of Sandor’s very least favourite deities, and it’s not like he’s ever been a fan of any of them. R’hllor might not be the kind of enemy he’s particularly interested in, given he can’t take an axe to their torsos, but he must count as a foe nonetheless.

Or at least, he used to. The battlegrounds have shifted. The fear that things might get too hot will not long survive this winter.

Her List Of Enemies Grows Thin

That’s just the most clear-cut example, though. These ideas are baked into “Dragonstone” like villainous gits in a pie, right from the start. Apparently the decision to use the Red Feasting as the season’s cold open came late into the process of putting the episode together. The scene found itself promoted in the running order because of how well David Bradley played the transition from Frey to Stark (and he certainly sells it), and because of the obvious power of Arya’s line that “Winter came for House Frey”.

Arya’s wine-tasting session functions both as a double-edged warning – the Starks are once again on the rise, but so too is the Night’s King – and as a similarly two-edged exploration of consequences (so that’s four edges, for those keeping count). The mass poisoning is clearly the fallout of the Frey’s breathtaking treachery, as Waldarya is good enough to spell out for the increasingly confused and nauseous inhabitants of the Twins. But this rapidly becomes about the consequences for Arya herself. As she learns when stumbling backstage during Ed Sheeran and the Lannister Guardsman’s tour of the Riverlands (“This next one goes out to all the kids in the front that our mates orphaned!”), not everyone who works for her enemies is necessarily a bad person. How many of the Freys she forced to vomit up their own internal organs truly deserved death? How many just did as they were told because they were loyal to their fathers? How many cheered on Walder Frey because they were terrified to step out of line? I’m not saying that would render them free of blame (“I was only obeying Dad’s orders!”), or that Arya is required to forgive them. I’m just saying I don’t think being a man with the surname Frey is automatically a crime punishable by liquified innards.

Arya left the House of Black and White because she couldn’t bear the idea of murdering people who didn’t deserve to die, but by placing her among sympathetic Lannister soldiers she’s forced to consider the possibility she’s done exactly that. Williams, as you’d expect, does exceptional work here. You can see the conflict in her as she keeps trying to turn down the generosity of her hosts so as to make it easier to keep hating them, only for them to become ever nicer in response and unwittingly feed into her shame spiral. For six seasons Arya has been learning variations on the same lesson, over and over – everyone you thought you could trust will let you down. Everyone is worse than you think they are. The closest she’s come before now to a revelation in the opposite direction was her travels with the Hound. Even that story-line though focused on him being more complicated than the simple villain she had imagined him as, rather than him actually being better than she thought (as we’re reminded this very episode). This is her first realisation that the genuinely good can serve the genuinely terrible, and for many complex reasons. Up until now every person Arya has deliberately killed has been either a murderer or a gleeful accessory to same, including the four Freys she’d butchered before the start of this episode. Now, she can no longer be sure this is true, and the weight of that is clearly difficult to bear.

She gives her warning, but the consequences of how she’s done it hit her before the episode ends. She learns her definition of who the enemy is needs to change.

Death By Northern Exposure

Back in the castle where Ayra was born, her elder sister is coming at the same issue from a rather different direction. Sansa apparently has absolutely no problem with killing people who might well be innocent of the crimes of their patriarchs. Oh sure, she’s prettied it up as just taking those people’s homes. With winter here and their houses cursed as traitors, though, death would still be the most likely consequence for the Umbers and Karstarks should Jon sign up to what Sansa is demanding.

There’s an awful lot going on in this scene and the one that follows it, and it needs careful unpacking, because I’m quite sure Sansa’s loud objections will have led to a fresh wave of hatred for her engulfing the internet. I mean, she really is undermining Jon’s authority (presumably) mere days after he’s won it. Isn’t she?

Well, sort of. Actually, no, let’s not be coy. The answer is yes, she is. I’m not entirely comfortable with the gender split in what I’m about to say, but Sansa genuinely doesn’t get to question Jon in public the way Lords Glover and Royce do. Sansa is the last Stark anyone can be sure is still alive, the only true-born member of a dynasty that stretches back over millennia. Her directly challenging the King in the North’s decisions carries with it a danger that simply isn’t present when a minor Northern house or an ally from the Vale does the same. Royce might take sufficient umbrage that he takes the Vale’s forces home. Glover could possibly persuade some of the other houses who stayed neutral during Jon’s brief war with Ramsay that they had the right idea staying out of all this. Both of those would weaken Jon, though since Royce would have to outwit Littlefinger and Glover explain why he abandoned a fight a tweenage girl was entirely up, they’re perhaps not particularly likely scenarios in any case. Either way, though, it is only Sansa that has the capacity to plunge the North into a second civil war.

But of course that’s only part of the story. In theory, Sansa’s need to restrain herself in public shouldn’t actually matter all that much, because as Jon’s half-sister and the Lady of Winterfell she should have enough private access to the King that she can lay into those parts of his plans she dislikes before anyone else even knows they exist. And yet clearly she isn’t being offered that opportunity. This is the crux of their argument on the battlements after the public meeting. The two of them are yelling past each other, with Jon angry that Sansa can’t tell the difference between private advice and public disagreement and Sansa frustrated because Jon keeps brushing her off behind closed doors. It’s true we don’t actually see the latter here, but the implication is certainly there. After all, we saw Jon do the exact same thing the night before the Battle of the Bastards. If nothing else, the sheer ridiculousness of the false dichotomy put forward during the discussion in the Great Hall – either leave both Houses Umber and Karstark unpunished or essentially erase them – suggests there’s not been any discussion of the matter until that moment.

It’s worth noting that just as a matter of feudal politics Sansa is absolutely right. There needs to be some kind of action taken here beyond noting the ringleaders of the anti-Stark forces are dead. People need more motivation to fight alongside the White Wolf than knowing that if you die, it’ll be the other side that killed you. There has to be a better reason for not rebelling than the risk of dying in battle – that’s exactly the risk Jon is asking his bannermen to take anyway.

My issue is with Sansa’s maximalist solution – especially since both Smalljon Umber and Harald Karkstark only led their respective houses because more senior family members were killed fighting for Robb Stark, making the idea of judging a family for its dead leaders rather more complicated than she’s making out. A more measured response would be to force these houses to give up some of their lands to loyalist families, and/or to require they send hostages to Winterfell in the same way Balon Greyjoy had to a decade earlier.  In fact, the youth of the new Lord Umber and Lady Karstark would lend very well to them becoming wards of the King until they came of age, and loyalist castellans could be appointed at Last Hearth and Karhold to keep everything quiet until they came of age.

My point is that while I quibble over the specifics, Sansa is genuinely onto something with her objections to Jon’s grasp of realpolitik. It’s her reference to Ned and Robb that really cuts deep, though. Two men betrayed by people they knew were untrustworthy, but believed had been given what they wanted. Ned paid Littlefinger with Cat’s future approval (and probably, indirectly, gold); Robb paid Lord Frey with his own uncle. Both had a knife to their throat – or in their belly – by the end of the day. And now Jon wants to pay the Umbers and the Karstarks with promises of protection against a mythical enemy for those members of both families not already dead fighting alongside his half-brother, or actually killed by Jon and his forces.  You can see why Sansa would be concerned. You can see how the offer might seem more insult than insurance. You can see how the consequences pile atop consequences, like a barricade of bodies on an icy battlefield.

And then there’s Cersei. Baelish and Bolton held the blades that took down successive Lords of Winterfell, but it was the lions of Casterly Rock who bankrolled their treachery. Yet no sooner has Sansa reminded Jon of what happened to the last two Starks to go up against House Lannister, she sees him dismiss the newly crowned Queen of Westeros as an irrelevance.

As always when this show is at its best, though, neither side here is wrong. In fact, they represent the pulls in opposite directions that will likely define this season – a focus on what the warnings for the future require versus an awareness of what past consequences demand. Jon can only focus on the need for everyone to forget the past – to sever themselves from their consequences – in order to provide a united front against the Night’s Watch. He brings only the warning from this point on.

(In this, actually, he echoes his younger brother, who hundreds of leagues to the north brings a warning of his own to the Night’s Watch. Note how Bran responds to Edd asking how he can believe the newcomers are who they say they are. He makes no attempt to prove their identities. He simply points out that Edd has seen what is coming, and in doing so asks the fundamental question: who could the two of them possibly be for it to be reasonable to deny them the chance to escape what follows their tracks in the snow? How can they possibly be the enemy compared to what is coming?)

Sansa, on the other hand, refuses to forget the consequences of what has taken place so far.  She knows the enemy of your enemy isn’t automatically your friend, especially when they were your enemy first. The problem with insisting the past no longer be prologue is you leave yourself open to be blindsided by the people who don’t share the sentiment. Fans have been asking for years (decades, really, if you include those of us who’ve read the books) how this story’s bewilderingly complex maelstrom of political maneuvering and ambitious backstabbing driven by hundreds of characters powerful and petty could possibly survive an extinction-level event like the White Walkers. The answer, Sansa suggests, is that it will continue turning simply because there are some people who cannot play the game any other way. The simple fact that the rules need to change – that the world needs to change – if humanity is to survive does not mean everyone will accept the new ordinances. There are those who will not only refuse to trade short-term political goals for the long-term survival of the species, but will actively take advantage of those distracted by the struggle for survival to carve out a slightly bigger empire to rule in the days left to the world.

Put another way, there are those, like Cersei, who will continue to ignore the warnings. There are those, like Cersei, who will simply refuse to accept or even to see the consequences of their own actions.

“The Map Is Not The Territory”

Let’s pay a visit on the First of Her Name, then. Because: wow. Has there ever been a person in fictional or actual history more totally blind to the consequences of her own actions than the current ruler of the “seven” kingdoms?

We could talk about how ludicrous it is for Cersei to rage over the Dornish coup without recognising it stems from a trial by combat she forced Tyrion into calling, and a war crime her family spent two decades pointedly ignoring. We could discuss the plain ridiculousness of Cersei railing against the lands above the Neck declaring itself an independent kingdom once more, given she had the previous Warden of the North thrown in jail to hide the fact she’d cuckolded the king and installed a bastard on the Iron Throne  (note by the way how she has apparently learned everything about the current political situation in the north and yet still completely missed or ignored the warnings those tidings bring with them). We could even boggle at the new queen calling Olenna Tyrell a traitor because she’s declared the Reach in rebellion after Cersei imprisoned both Olenna’s grandchildren, and then murdered them along with her son.

We don’t actually need to, though, because somehow Cersei has managed to to divorce herself from her own actions so completely she’ll blithely tell Tommen’s father their son’s suicide following her murdering his beloved wife was an act of betrayal. Seriously, President Trump would be astonished at Cersei’s ability to make everything about her.

(And that’s to say nothing of her laying into Jaime. With the amount of brass in her neck it takes to fling their father’s death at Jaime’s feet after she drove their last living child to suicide, Cersei could supply a colliery band with sufficient tubas to blast “The Rains of Castamere” into low orbit.)

With current reality so completely set against her, though, we shouldn’t be surprised Cersei has retreated entirely into history and fiction. The former is demonstrated by her new play-mat. The whole of the Seven Kingdoms in miniature, spread out before her like Aegon the Conquerer’s table on Dragonstone. An entire continent for her to seize, just as Aegon did three hundred years before.

Except, when you look at the Painted Table (as Dany is kind enough to let us do at the end of the episode), you start to notice the differences. The dragon is in the details, or at least his success was. The table is carved from wood, designed to be model as much as map. It has weight. It has depth. It’s something you sit down in front of to ponder the lands it represents. Somewhere you gather your thoughts, and consider how to build the future. A focal point for planning.

And Cersei doesn’t plan anymore. I’m not sure she ever did, really, so much as show real talent at improvising to achieve short-term success. Cersei is a survivor, not a conqueror. She has no interest in building anything, she just wants to burn down everything that isn’t hers. To avenge as many slights as she can until old age takes her. Her brand new map isn’t about studying the continent, it’s about looming over it. About persuading herself that the lie of her new titles is real. This won’t be the room where she makes plans. It will be the room where she festers.

That’s history covered; let’s move on to fiction. Because what else could you call the belief that (some of) the Greyjoys of all people are going to be the allies that turn the tide of battle?

A brief summary of the state of play. Right now five kingdoms are all in outright revolt, and the Lannister hold on the Riverlands is precarious at best. As far as I know, the Mallisters and Blackwoods are still in open rebellion, Edmure Tully no longer has to do Lord Frey’s bidding out of fear for his child’s safety, and the Lannister army sent to keep the peace seems to be rather reliant on green boys to do its scouting- hardly a sign of a strong force. The Stormlands have been quiet for a while, but their loyalty has always been to the Baratheons, to the point where Loras Tyrell had to dress up as Renly to persuade any of them to turn against Stannis at the Blackwater. With Tommen dead, whatever residual loyalty they had to the Iron Throne is likewise deceased – the regime post-Robert was always de facto a Lannister one, but now that’s true de jure too. Some might back Highgarden given their recent alliance, and the fact the Tyrell military is the largest one in Westeros these days. Others might see an opportunity in the sudden arrival of a brand-new Targaryen, who at this point is not only the closet living relative to the last dragonking, but to Robert Baratheon as well.  At best, those that stay loyal to King’s Landing are going to be desperate for reinforcements as Dany begins her sweep westwards, further sapping what little military might she has remaining.

That leaves Cersei the Crownlands – which I’m not sure the show has ever even bothered to mention beyond House Stokeworth, mainly because they’re very much a minor power in the books – and the Westerlands, exhausted after the near-disastrous war against Robb Stark. Just as with King’s Landing, the lands loyal to Casterly Rock are pinned in by enemies, with the fractious Riverlands to the east and the outraged Reach to the south. In short, Cersei’s land borders are extremely long, and she’s managed to make enemies of those on the other side of every single mile of them.

So what does she do? She asks a kinslayer and habitual rebel to King’s Landing to discuss him offering her his ships.

It might sound like I’m being snide. Having Euron Greyjoy onside at present is genuinely useful to Cersei. An alliance with the Iron Isles forces the North and the Reach – maybe even Dorne – to fortify their coastlines, giving them fewer men to cast into Lannister territory. It also, in theory, means the Westerlands don’t need to worry about the Iron Fleet reaving along their own shores. The ability to contest Daenerys’ terrifyingly large armada is also of obvious value.

But it’s a delaying tactic, nothing more. They need ships, but they need men more, and the Iron Islands don’t have nearly enough.

The problem is that Euron knows all that. He knows the Ironborn are lethal on water but mediocre at best on land, hence the dismal failure of Balon and Theon’s various attempts to seize the north. He’s well aware that he can’t save the Iron Throne, and that even if he somehow could, Cersei would show no gratitude – the death of three Tyrells in an explosion of wildfire makes that obvious enough. And whilst the defection of his nephew and niece means that his list of foes at least intersects with Cersei’s, he also knows the Queen can’t actually give him any support towards defeating their half of the Iron Fleet at sea. The only thing she can offer him is official independence for the Iron Islands, but he has that in practice in any case.

So what exactly does Euron want out of this alliance? The queen’s hand in marriage? Really? That’s what he’ll tie himself to a sinking ship for? To wed a woman viewed as past her prime and publicly humiliated besides, who only avoided becoming a grandmother by imprisoning and exploding her daughter-in-law before she could get pregnant? A woman rumored to have first cuckolded and then murdered her last husband?

I’m not saying it’s impossible – and for sure I’m not saying it’s unbelievable any man would be into a mother-of-three in her forties. I’m just saying appealing to Cersei’s vanity is about the most obvious route possible for someone looking to screw her over, and that would seem by far to be the most likely course Euron is sailing here, simply out of habit if nothing else.

Even if we set aside the warnings from the north, it’s amazing how totally deaf Cersei is to the alarm bells that ring louder every time Greyjoy opens his mouth. She’s as oblivious to warnings as she is to consequences, unless they come in on a very specific and narrow set of frequencies, the one’s she’s always been tuned into. Cersei is doing the same thing she always does; recruiting untrustworthy allies for short-term gain whilst fully intending to betray them immediately afterwards. She can’t, or won’t, change her game.

That’s going to come back to bite her. Queen Cersei seems almost congenitally incapable of learning. Those who’ve watched her moves over the last six seasons are unlikely to have the same problem.

Ivory Towers, Wooden Bedpans

Westward now, to poor, poor Sam. And I thought my undergrad days were tough. Sam the Slayer came to Oldtown with the love of his life, a magic sword, and the blood and ice of cannibals and monsters on his ink-stained hands. Now, though, he’s been reduced to running a courier’s service for Iain Glen’s diseased poo. Watching this episode over breakfast turned out to be a big mistake.

But there is at least a point to all those sloshing chamber-pots. Archmaester Ebrose’s response to Sam’s proposal directly links to the question of what needs to change in the wake of the Night King’s return, making the strength of his case for inaction thematically important here. Everyone else refusing to panic about the White Walkers is doing so because they don’t believe they’re real, or at least don’t believe they’ve returned. Ebrose is different, which allows him to offer pretty much the strongest case possible for insisting upon maintaining the status quo.

Ultimately, Ebrose makes a pretty decent fist of it, at least at first glance. Certainly, he offers up a fairly good speech, as you’d expect from someone who’s clambered so far up the Citadel’s ladder. Here’s the thing, though – and there’s no delicate way to put this. The montage immediately preceding the autopsy scene makes it very clear that Sam’s time in the Citadel is being wasted on accepting an unending torrent of his superiors’ crap.

There is some narrow sense in the archmaester’s argument. A maester’s job is an important one, so half-assing their training for the sake of expediency is likely to end up being counterproductive. The problem lies in the two assumptions that cleaning bedpans, serving food or replacing library books constitutes training, and even if it did, that  Sam needs to be treated the same as every other initiate. How long was he Maester Aemon’s personal assistant? Months, at the very least. Sam ranks among the foremost experts on White Walkers in the entire world. For sure he’s the only person in Westeros to have both studied them academically and faced them in the field. Benching him until he scrubs his thousandth bedpan (and I think it was Abigail Nussbaum who noted on Twitter that this is a damn good way to start a cholera epidemic) is self-evidently ridiculous.

But then what can we expect someone who has gained his power from climbing up a specific structure to do, other than insist it’s vital that structure remain intact and unchanged? Perhaps this is what makes King Jon so different; he spent his formative years close enough to the top of a feudal hierarchy to understand how they function and can be made use of, but set far enough apart from it to not mistake what they are as being all they can be. Ebrose, in comparison, is more concerned about damage to the Citadel’s traditional approach than he is damage to the Seven Kingdoms and its people. It’s not that he doesn’t hear the warnings, it’s that they’re drowned out by others far closer, so close that their obvious smallness doesn’t seem to register. The catastrophic consequences of inaction are ignored in favour of fretting over the far more minor problems that acting hastily might theoretically create.

The result is an argument which is callous to the point of sadism. Ebrose’s point about the Seven Kingdoms having survived everything that’s been thrown at them before isn’t just terrible because that’s obviously only true until it isn’t (I could just as easily argue I’ll never die because I survived multiple potentially fatal medical issues as a baby). It’s terrible because of the level of abstraction involved. We’re supposed to believe that as long as the land survives, the number of people who die in any given conflict don’t actually matter. Sam wants access to the restricted section so that he can save lives. The archmaester refuses him because he doesn’t think the White Walkers will manage to slaughter their way as far south as Oldtown. So long as the consequences don’t affect him directly, he’s content to remain indifferent.

So Sam does what he has to, and breaks in to get at the books he needs. He at least is clearly changing in the ways the coming storm requires. Sure, he’s already stolen his father’s sword, but it’s not like his father didn’t loathe him already. Here, Sam is risking his future as a maester in order to actually act as a maester, since no-one around him seems to have any intention of doing the same.

The Last Lonely House

Which leads us to the link to Dragonstone, and thereby Daenerys. The idea of obsidian deposits under the dragonlords’ first castle west of Essos is clearly set-up for later in the season, and potentially the meeting at long last of the last two Targaryens.

It’s also the second time the castle has been mentioned in the episode (and the third reference, if you count the parallel with Cersei’s new art installation), cementing its importance in the ongoing narrative. This, obviously, is hardly surprising – Dragonstone was the Targaryens’ first foothold on Westeros, and with Dany’s arrival it has become such once again. There’s a sense in which the whole show can now be divided between those episodes before Daenerys seized the painted table, and those after.

This is presumably why the season opener is named after her newest residence, given that otherwise it’s an anomaly in terms of episodes with places as titles. If we exclude “The Nightlands” as a religious reference and treat “Baelor” as an object/person, this is the sixth episode to be named after a place (as oppose to titles containing a place, like say “The Ghost of Harrenhal”).  Of the five that came before, two were about major battles, and two more were about a major character struggling to pass through a barrier in order to either enter or leave the place being referenced (including Dany herself in “Garden of Bones”). Even the odd one out (“The Kingsroad”, which is probably more usefully considered as a process than a location anyway) was in its own way about the difficulties in reaching one’s destination without cost.

Compare these episode with “Dragonstone”, which is named after a castle Dany literally just strolls into without so much as a cross word aimed at her. She pauses to drink in her ancestral home, but that’s the only delay the process of reclaiming it requires. The place is utterly unguarded. Utterly empty. It’s not even difficult enough to be considered a gimme. As far as this particular conquest is concerned, 90% of success really was showing up, and the other 10% consisted of not falling from the cliffs in the climb to the keep.  This is an episode named after a location not because in the difficulty involved in reaching or defending or evacuating or escaping or surviving it. It has the name it does because of how totally it changes what is going to happen next.

Because of the consequences that are coming.

Of course, for all that both Dragonstone and “Dragonstone” are clearly pivotal for where we’re going, there’s absolutely no sign Queen Daenerys is any more conscious of where the real war lies than is Queen Cersei (though she does have a much better excuse for the fact). And with Dany in possession of thousands of elite soldiers, tens of thousands of savage cavalry, one of the smartest men the show has offered us as her Hand, and a trio of actual live fire-breathing dragons, the fate of Westeros and probably the world is going to hinge entirely on whether she decides the White Walkers are a greater priority than the five and a half kingdoms that haven’t yet agreed to support her.

Who will send her the warning, and what will the consequences be? How quickly will she be able to change her view of who the enemy is?

I guess we have six episodes left in which to find out.

Score: 4/5

GS ReviewerRic Crossman

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