Game of Thrones Season 7: Stormborn
It’s been said by many characters, in many words, all the way back to Robert Baratheon in the second episode of Game of Thrones. “There’s a war coming, Ned,” said the first king we were introduced to, and that presentiment has shadowed everything. Even in the heat of the War of the Five Kings, even during the chaotic scramble for the leavings which followed, we knew that all of this was lead-up — that the real wars, as everyone in Westeros has started saying, were yet to come. Now they’re here, in the person of Daenerys Targaryen and in the chill of winter, and “Stormborn” has the ambitious, unenviable task of clearly delineating the sides, stakes, and maneuvers of a new continental war.
The countless warring factions of earlier seasons have coalesced into three dominant states, whose approach to one another formed the spine of the episode. The Queen of the South, consolidating temporal power against her manifold enemies; the King in the North, overwhelmingly focused on a more important conflict, even to his detriment; and the Queen from the East, weighing her military advantages against her moral obligation to the people she claims — and the whispers of a war more important than the one she’s come to start.
Game of Thrones has laid out a predictable path, where Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, urged on by their respective courts of “everyone the audience likes,” join forces to topple Cersei from the Iron Throne and give battle to the White Walkers. It’s not entirely the show’s own fault, as for all George R.R. Martin’s subversions, his epic fantasy story has a certain form to follow. But still, the combination of overwhelming force, ethical superiority, and prophetic murmurings is such that in order to forestall the obvious, Thrones has some serious narrative twists and turns to undertake. Where “Dragonstone” was able to luxuriate in tone-setting melancholy, and was all the stronger for it, “Stormborn” bulled through the awkward and necessary work of Plot.
The roadblocks in Jon Snow’s path were the simplest and most effective. It’s sensible for the North & Vale, scarred as they were by Mad King Aerys, to unite against the idea of a Targaryen restoration; for her part, Daenerys is unlikely to crown herself Queen of the Five Kingdoms. (Four? Does the King In the North still claim the Riverlands? It’s a mess out here.) And while one could see the heavy hand of Plot Necessity in Jon’s stubborn decision to go to Dragonstone, the underlying logic was there — Jon doesn’t want to be king. If he ever did, it was burned out of him by the fires of his resurrection; like Beric Dondarrion, he came back “a little less,” and the Jon that remains is even more singularly focused on the War for the Dawn than he was when that myopia cost him his life. Thrones has struggled to portray the toll exacted by Jon’s death and rebirth, but a Jon resentful of the distractions of his office and driven to obsession by the threat of the Night King makes for both a strong character and an appropriately difficult ally.
Complicating Daenerys’s invasion was, on its surface, less successful. The premise that she’s holding back her full force in order to be greeted as a liberator was sound, but the execution, via Tyrion Lannister’s grand strategy, was wanting. Tyrion’s proposal was riddled with flaws and half-measures, from sparing the population of King’s Landing from invasion by starving them into submission, to the byzantine and fatal maneuvers of the Greyjoy fleet and Dornish army. As discussed last week, Thrones generally forgoes the minutiae of logistics to focus on narrative, and that’s usually a strength. But in a scene dedicated to showing off Tyrion’s bonafides as general and counselor, the incoherence of his strategy was fairly egregious.
Hope lies in Daenerys’s other conversations. If the campaign planning on Dragonstone was wanting, the character beats were stellar, particularly Varys’s encounter with the queen he so casually nudged across the chessboard seven seasons past. Emilia Clarke is normally at her best when inhabiting Dany the person, but toe-to-toe with Conleth Hill’s impassioned, guiltless Varys, she rose to the occasion and personified the steely, slightly ominous majesty of the Dragon Queen. (Don’t miss that threat to burn him alive, because Varys certainly didn’t.) Yet the most important scene was her brief exchange with Olenna Tyrell, who urged her to disregard the wisdom of her counselors and trust her own instincts. This might indicate that Tyrion’s tactical failure wasn’t just Thrones awkawrdly stacking the deck, but a deliberate choice to portray the Hand as overwhelmed by the contradictory demands of simultaneously conquering a continental empire and earning the affection of its people. Further episodes will bear that out.
The trick of impeding Daenerys’s victory may lie with tilting the odds in the other direction. Cersei Lannister’s recruitment of all the most unpleasant people in Westeros may not have the weight of audience sympathy, but it’s simple and believable. Noted Shithead Randyll Tarly was played like a fiddle by Jaime, whose continued complicity in his sister’s reign is at least providing us with some excellent character work as he cynically employs that Lannister charm. And while Qyburn’s anti-dragon artillery is an unfortunate echo of the Black Arrow of the disastrous Hobbit movies, the test run on Balerion’s skull was a great touch, one more magnificent, singular monument of Westerosi history casually destroyed in Cersei’s climb to power.
And then there’s Cersei’s most successful maneuver to date, in winding up Euron Greyjoy and letting him loose. Maybe I should have twigged to this earlier, but after seeing Euron leap howling off the deck of the Silence with axe in hand, his characterization finally makes sense. He’s a composite of Euron and Victarion Greyjoy, the elder brother’s cunning and malevolence stapled to the younger’s straightforward brutality. So let us mourn, one last time, the absence of Eldritch Horror Euron, whose arrival as an out-of-context sorcerous threat would have been particularly useful here; in lieu of, say, a magically summoned storm, we had Tyrion’s unnecessarily baroque strategy, and the younger Greyjoy siblings both forgetting about the threat of their vengeful uncle and failing to notice the approach of his numerous, heavily-armed ships.
The battle scene was disjointed but largely effective, charged with the sudden terror of an unexpected, savage enemy, and paying more than lip service to the lingering effects of trauma. Theon hasn’t had much to do this season, but Alfie Allen is a master of doing more with less, and the echo of Reek’s ordeal was a sharp scene that hopefully presages more to come. Pour one out for the Sand Snakes, whose final scene of bloodthirsty bickering sadly failed to distinguish from the material they’d been saddled with all along. Ellaria and Yara fared better, turning what could have been tacky HBO-brand fanservice into a genuinely funny scene. If better days don’t lie ahead for the characters, their actors, at least, may have something more significant to sink their teeth into when Euron conveys them to his new queen’s court.
“Stormborn” had its share of effective quieter moments as well. Sam Tarly’s fit of courage, attacking a terminal case of Fantasy Harlequin Icthyosis with a borrowed toolkit, a bowl of obsidian paste, and a handle of Captain Morgan; the consummation of Grey Worm and Missandei’s relationship, an affecting, erotic step for a storyline I erroneously judged as futile wheel-spinning back when it began; Melisandre’s return to the scene, encumbering the court of Dragonstone with a prophetic obligation befitting Daenerys’s growing legend. And of course, the continuing story of Arya Stark.
After the incoherent mess that was her sojourn in Braavos, it’s startling to realize how quickly Arya has returned to the emotional core of the show. Or maybe not — the early books revolved around Arya’s travels through war-torn Westeros, using her as a lens to show how the wars of the highborn affect the commons, and her own emotional state mirrors the trauma caused by violence and upheaval. Like Bran, she’s a Fisher King figure, suffering as the land suffers, but broken inside rather than out. The story of Arya in Braavos wasn’t about Terminator-esque chase scenes, stick beatings, or even achieving magical disguise powers; it was about her struggle to reclaim her identity.
So to see that story’s resumption was a melancholy joy, taking the form of a reckoning with everything Arya’s lost. After watching her reunion with Hot Pie, it’s hard not to conclude that both the Arya Starks we saw in “Dragonstone,” the grim wraith of the Twins and the wary but friendly traveler who shared a drink with Ed Sheeran, were masks. The real Arya is the sharp, graceless diner at the Crossroads Inn, doing the bare minimum to avoid confessing to murders past and future, keeping a safe distance from one of her only surviving friends.
Or maybe not, suggests “Stormborn.” Maybe the real Arya is still in the North, beside her sister and brother, underfoot at Winterfell. Maybe she’s in the brief spark of connection with Nymeria, a moment as affecting as any Thrones has produced. As with Theon’s relapse to Reek earlier, Arya’s encounter with her long-lost wolf was a reminder that the effects of trauma linger, no matter how strong or brave the survivor. Her turn north was only the first step of many, with no guarantee of success (because, after all, this is still Game of Thrones). But the fleeting appearance of Nymeria, and the memory of Ned Stark’s words to her, are more hope than she’s had in years.