TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.2 “Stormborn”

Game of Thrones Stormborn

Spoilers ahoy! You have been warned. Below be krakens.

 

Episode two of Game of Thrones’ seventh year begins with Daenerys Stormborn standing in the Stormlands watching a storm. Then things get stormy.

The most observant among you may be detecting a theme.

I kid. Actually I rather like those episodes that are so inescapably upfront with their subtext that I don’t have to put much effort into figuring out what’s going on beneath the surface. Storms are everywhere here, whether literal thunder-and-lightning jobbies, an incoming deluge of fire arrows, or just Daenerys deciding she’s finally had enough of Varys’ obsequiousness/treachery cycle. Plus, there’s that small matter of the “coming storm” threatening to extinguish humanity, as Littlefinger helpfully reminds us.

It’s true that for most of the episode things are rather peaceful. By kicking off with the violent weather of Blackwater Bay, though,  and ending with a brine-soaked battle as Euron destroys his niece’s fleet, we’re reminded once again that we’re passing through the eye of the storm.  This is a calm that comes not through peace, but through tension. Westeros is being pulled in multiple directions, and sooner or later one side will pull hard enough to drag the Seven Kingdoms back into the maelstrom of war. Euron’s attack may well have brought about that very possibility, actually – it’s hard to commit to a long-term siege of a port city when your enemy has clear naval superiority. [1]

Despite all that, however, it isn’t the storms that are of most relevance in “Stormborn”. It’s what’s being born in their shadow. This is an episode centered on the forging (or attempted forging) of alliances in order to survive what is coming, whilst there is still time to do it. By the time the credits roll, of course, it’s entirely possible that this time may already be up.

Development Goals

The central pillar in all this is Dany and her nascent coalition, hence Tyrion reminding us “Stormborn” is a reference to the queen herself. The Mother of Dragons starts small here, though, focusing her attentions on a single employee’s performance review.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Dany grilling Varys comes out of nowhere. I disagree. First of all, it fits in perfectly with the progression of her focus during the episode. You can’t start building alliances with other houses if you’ve not got your own in order. More than that, though, if Varys doesn’t give Dany the right answers, her plan is to burn him alive. That is not a disciplinary procedure you commence from the deck of a wooden ship.

Plot logic aside, the resulting back and forth is pretty gripping. It also gives Varys one of his best moments to date as he straight-up tells Daenerys he doesn’t give the slightest damn who claims the right to be in charge. He respects power only so far as its being applied to help those in need. In essence, he makes it clear he’s attached himself to Dany’s entourage not as her subject, but as a potential ally. Dany gives as well as she gets, too, snarkily jabbing at Varys’ belief that he alone should decide who’s ruling well, and then squaring the apparent circle by suggesting the only solution: honest dialogue. It’s a reminder that Daenerys heritage is actually totally irrelevant. Her claim to rule is the most persuasive because she’s pretty much the best candidate for the job we’ve seen so far. As always, I don’t believe the job should exist at all, and I think if Varys wants to be a revolutionary he could do much better than just cycle through claimants to the throne. That’s not the game being played, though, and he’s not the first radical who failed to think big enough. At least he’s doing something.

Except then there’s that reference to Viserys. Varys’s support for the Mad King’s unbearable son sticks out like the bolt in a dragonslayer ballista. Dany is absolutely right to fling that in his face when he shifts gear into self-righteousness. How can Varys get pompous about the need to depose bad rulers so their replacements can treat the smallfolk better when he was plotting to crown Viserys? Dany’s elder brother wasn’t just an awful candidate for king, he was a self-evidently awful one. There is absolutely zero chance that Illyrio didn’t recognise this, and while I suppose it’s possible he was lying to Varys throughout their little conspiracy, there’s absolutely no evidence of that. Besides, Varys’ defence here isn’t that he didn’t know how hideous Viserys was, it’s that he had no other option but a young woman he knew nothing about.

It’s only a brief moment in the scene, sure. That doesn’t stop it doing a lot of damage. Because it degrades who Varys is. This is supposed to be a man who is willing to engineer bloody civil wars with a cost measurable in the megadeaths because he truly believes it’s a price worth paying to install a just monarch.  An arch utilitarian, in other words. That’s a dicey proposition on the best of days, but at least he’s clearly someone who genuinely wants the best outcome possible and has a defensible idea of what that is. We don’t have to believe the ends justify the means to recognise those ends as valid.

This new, utterly unimproved Varys is something very different, though. Here we have someone who will throw the realm into violent chaos simply to remove someone he dislikes, irrespective of who is going to replace them. Instead of identifying a better future and concluding it’s worth the horrendous cost to get it, this Varys is in the business of just overthrowing every ruler that shows up, assuming an acceptable will just eventually stumble along. There’s no actual plan for a better future here. There’s just a man rolling the dice again and again, hoping for a double six while paying for every throw with tens of thousands of lives. It’s channel surfing with a body count.

(This is what happens when you simplify the narrative of your source material without paying enough attention, I guess. I won’t say too much for those who plan to read/finish the books some day, but Varys and Illyrio don’t support Viserys in the novels because they hope he will become king. They’re weaving a rather more complicated scheme. Just about every aspect of that/their plot has been dropped for the show, however. In truth, I can actually see more than a few upsides to doing so, but the damage it’s done to Varys – one of the few people in the Seven Kingdoms whose politics I can at least partially identify with – is very unfortunate.)

Women At War

Let’s not dwell on what doesn’t work here, though. Instead, we’ll move on. Once an accord has been struck with Varys, it’s time for the wider alliance to be hashed out.

It is genuinely thrilling for me to watch the last scion of the most powerful families in Westerosi history reach out to the foremost houses of three of the Seven Kingdoms, and to suddenly realise that every person with the final say over their own forces is a woman. Yes, Tyrion also gets to speak, but only as an extension of the Queen’s will. Even then Olenna Tyrell is explicit in her recommendation to Dany that she ignore him as much as possible. Dragonstone is once again base of operations to the only surviving member of a great Westerosi house that once held the Iron Throne and aims to do so once more. The days of men calling the shots on this rain-slicked little island, though, are very much over.

What’s even more satisfying is the fact that this is a more general trend, both in the episode and in the season so far. It’s not just the alliance of Queen Daenerys, Ellaria Sand, and Ladies Greyjoy and Tyrell that showcases how women are on the rise in both Westerosi political circles and the show itself. Dany’s board meeting finds a reflection in Cersei’s attempt to peel away a gaggle of Tyrell bannermen (which I admit suggests her plan to hold King’s Landing is a better one than I’d assumed last week). Whilst Dany discusses with her female allies how to proceed, though – or pretends to, at least; I’m pretty sure she’s made her mind up – Cersei simply orates at the men in front of her, using Qyburn as her press secretary once the business of speechifying is wrapped up. This is delicious not just because of the amusing trope inversion – here women are consulted and men are lectured to – but because it also perfectly captures the difference between the two Queens.

This two-pronged approach is what makes the alliance-building scenes in the episode work so well. The point being made about the need to put women in charge – if for no other reason than the menfolk stuffed things up so badly they all got themselves killed – isn’t made at the expense of political complexities or individual characterisation. It’s working alongside it, building off of it. Westeros under these women is still messy. Politics is still messy. Those in power can still be utterly terrible human beings (I’m looking at you, Ellaria). Gender equality isn’t a panacea – Cersei is fanning the flames of racism like she can use it to set fire to her daughter-in-law again – it is simply a moral necessity.

The chance to watch powerful but flawed women succeed and fail and scheme save the day in line with who they are as people is a tremendously exciting one. With two queens on the board already, and Sansa essentially being promoted to one here, and with both episode titles so far (and the next) referencing women or their actions, there’s a clear drive here to explore the consequences of what happens when women rise up to the top of a patriarchal society and finally get their chance to rule.

The Only Stark In Winterfell

Since I mentioned her above, though, let’s return to the Lady of Winterfell, and the second round of Sansa vs Jon, aka Battle of the Blockheads. Actually, I’m even more on Sansa’s side this time than I was last week, because after their last public fight she specifically got him to admit she can question his decisions and asked explicitly that he listen to her more. And yet just a few days later here we are, with Jon not only announcing his decisions to his followers without consulting her, but telling her one thing in private before saying the opposite in public. It’s no wonder she’s furious. And whilst that in itself doesn’t actually justify her accusing him of “abandoning the North” in front of so many people – that’s about the worst accusation you could throw at a northern king, as well as being clearly untrue and thus a profoundly stupid thing to say – I can forgive the line as simply inelegant set-up for Jon announcing she’ll control the kingdom whilst he’s gone.

(Oh, and who is it that brings the warnings from the north to Dragonstone, by the way, thereby both throwing Sansa into power and engineering one of the most desperately anticipated meetings between two characters in the show’s history? Why, it’s the Red Woman!)

I am so stoked for this, my peeps! After six years and change, Sansa is finally in charge. So many interesting possibilities just opened up. So many chewy questions just got raised. Will she honour Jon’s wishes to not chuck the Umbers and Karstarks out of their castles? Who will she choose as a military advisor with Jon gone? How much more of Littlefinger’s sliming will she tolerate before she asks Lord Royce whether hypothetically he’d stay on at Winterfell with his army if somehow Petyr Baelish slipped on an icy battlement and fell forward onto the same dagger eight or nine times? And how hard will I find it to avoid sobbing into my breakfast [2] once Arya finally returns home? [3]

Actually, the second and third of those questions might prove related. Sansa’s best choice for a military advisor is probably Lord Royce himself. Lord Glover’s battlefield experience seems limited to knowing how to avoid them, and Lyanna Mormont’s glorious fearlessness and ridiculous faith in the superiority of her own men (“Every man from Bear Island fights with the strength of ten mainlanders”) rather argues against relying on her for sober-minded advice on how best to maintain a defensive line. That leaves the leader of the Vale’s military forces as pretty much the only viable candidate we’re aware of.

So why not lean into that? Promote Royce to a kind of unofficial hand to the unofficial queen. Secure his loyalty with flattery – “Your’s will be the strong will and strong arm that keeps Westeros safe while my brother is gone!” – and perks for a post-war Vale. Promise to put in a good word for him with Robyn Arryn once he returns home. Hell, dangle the possibility of marriage in front of him, now that Ramsay is dead. You could even offer his heirs castles in the north, too (also neatly answering the first question above too, though there’d be fallout in promising Last Hearth and Karhold to Vale-dwellers rather than northerners).

There’s any number of ways Sansa can get Royce onside, in other words, and once that’s done Littlefinger can be thrown into a dungeon to start planning his exceedingly clever last words. I rather think it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens, actually – Littlefinger doesn’t seem to recognise the danger in trying to play Sansa and Jon off each other (or at least play Sansa off of Jon). He’s convinced the Starks will turn out to be as fractious as the Baratheons and the Lannisters were, because he doesn’t actually understand their family dynamic. More precisely, he sees loyalty as foolishness, and prides himself too much that he’s imparted all his glorious, indispensable wisdom to her that she could still be so stupid.  Even worse, he’s finally back in his original blind-spot. Littlefinger excels in the role of being the only person who can get you what you want, whether that’s an escape route or a well-bribed police force or a dynastic alliance or a job as a whore. Sometimes he delivers, sometimes he betrays you, but with the exception of failing to find Arya Stark (which to be fair was a ludicrously difficult ask), he rarely fails in getting what he wanted from the deal.

The problem is that he doesn’t have anything left that Sansa wants, so long as he doesn’t try and drag the Vale knights back home. He knows his stick is pretty small and flimsy, so he’s going all in on the carrot. But in doing so he’s trying to impress Sansa, rather than be indispensable to her. And he’s terrible at impressing women, as Brandon or Catelyn Stark could both tell you. When Littlefinger aims to be more about making himself desirable rather than making someone else desperate, everything collapses.

The moment Sansa demonstrates the ongoing truth of this is likely to be one of the most cathartic the series has managed to date.

Featuring Furious Rufus Hound

Not everybody is doing badly with their come-ons as Littlefinger, of course. It’s almost unbearably sweet to see Missandei and Grey Worm finally confess and act upon their feelings for each other – and a wee bit of gynocentric satisfaction isn’t out of keeping with the rest of the episode, either. It’s nice to see Game of Thrones finally push back against the constant assumption of its characters that a woman could have no use for a eunuch. Another patriarchal norm slain.

Alas, things go rather less well for Yara and Ellaria. The scenes on Yara’s flagship start off well enough, with the Sand Snakes arguing over which of them gets to slay each of their respective enemies, and the show serving up perhaps its least exploitative all-woman seduction to date. We even have Theon admitting he’s alright with Ellaria using him as a waiter. This is a ship on which the women are in charge, and even though they’re not perfect that’s OK, in an episode in which the women are in charge, and even though they’re not perfect that’s OK.

And then Euron Greyjoy crashes onto the deck, screams “WELL AXE-TUALLY!”, and everything goes to hell.

I don’t have a lot to say about the actual execution of the episode’s final scene. It’s astonishingly well done – dark and brutal and lurching just like you’d imagine a night-fight on a stormy sea would be. Really though, the fact that the direction is brilliant is probably the least interesting thing to be said here.

First of all, there’s the hurried clearing of two of the Sand Snakes off the board here, with the third quite possibly sent off to meet her death at the hands of Queen Cersei.  I can’t quite bring myself to be upset by this implicit confession that the show failed to make these characters work. Like Prince Doran, the Sand Snakes had tremendous potential and were among the strongest elements of the recent novels’ much-maligned Dornish plot-line. Also like Doran, though, the writers have so comprehensibly failed to even try to make these characters work that it’s almost a relief to not have to be disappointed by them anymore. Even if that does mean two more non-white characters with massive potential have been utterly wasted by this damn show.

At least Obara and Nym finally get the chance to show off their combat skills here, though – no more going down to men missing their sword-hand or stabbing teenage boys in the back of the head. The two of them almost manage to take down Euron Greyjoy, no mean feat considering how terrifying this guy is – even wounded he effortlessly beats Yara, having already hewed his way through two thirds of her crew. No wonder Theon flings himself into the water rather than charge at him. Again, this is both a fine character moment and an underlining of the larger theme. It makes total sense that Theon’s history of abuse would interact with his complicated history with Yara and his desperate need for approval from a Greyjoy patriarch, thereby causing a short-circuit. But it also proves Ellaria’s ealier point; ultimately Theon was no use to his sister as a protector.

Because of course he wasn’t. This is an episode about women in ascension. You don’t chuck all that away by suggesting Lady Greyjoy needed her brother all along. The ability to rend this theme in two is reserved for Euron himself, a presence so terrifyingly powerful even the bedrock theme of “Stormborn” cannot survive his attack.

And yet even Euron isn’t exactly a free agent. If he’s to be believed, he too is simply working in the service of a more powerful woman.  He’s broken the rebel Greyjoy fleet for her, and now he has two prisoners to deliver to her – assuming he doesn’t decide he only really needs to hand over one.

Either way, this is simply one more step towards watching a woman demonstrate and apply her power.

Time now to face the queen’s justice.

[1] Just for the record, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that siege warfare is a the humane alternative to dragon strike. If anything, it’s the exact opposite. When you besiege a city and supplies of food start running low, it isn’t the the high lords and ladies who are going to starve to death first.  If the choice is between immiserating and even killing hundreds of thousands of commoners or setting fire to the Red Keep, I know which one I’d consider the lesser crime. Then again, I think as a culture we’re entirely too comfortable with the idea that airstrikes are somehow surgically precise and free of collateral casualties, so maybe I should be grateful for what we get here.

[2] Once again I profoundly regret watching this episode over breakfast, and once again it’s entirely Samwell Tarly’s fault. As the only storyline in the whole episode which only features men, however, I shall say no more about it – even the frustratingly cheap way a cure for greyscale is dropped into the mix here.

[3] That’s another woman-centered storyline in this episode, by the way. Or perhaps I can be permitted to call it “female-centric”, since the show goes out of its way to balance out Hot Pie’s rather sweet return with a cameo from Nymeria. Given what I’ve already said about the episode’s focus on powerful women as individuals, I rather like that Arya proposes an alliance of her own here, and that Nymeria turns her down because it simply isn’t who she is.

Score: 4/5

Geek Syndicate reviewer: Ric Crossman

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