Monday, July 17, 2017

REVIEW: 'Game of Thrones' - Jon and Cersei Look to the Future While Arya Acts on the Past in 'Dragonstone'

HBO's Game of Thrones - Episode 7.01 "Dragonstone"

Jon organizes the defense of the North. Cersei tries to even the odds. Daenerys comes home.

For years now, I've been saying that I needed to catch up on Game of Thrones. Whenever it was time to do Best of Year lists or Emmy predictions, I would have to make a note that I had not seen the show yet. Every year I was hoping to get to it. But by the time the new season started airing, I had missed the boat once again. It would be another year of episodes to get caught up on and the task seemed more and more daunting. This year required a longer hiatus for the show because of the production demands with winter finally arriving in Westeros. I didn't use that time wisely to plan out a huge binge to catch up on the series. I still hadn't seen a single episode a month ago. But I put in the effort to watch all six previous seasons in order to do coverage of the show this year. It's something I wanted to do because I felt like I was missing out on something that was really important to this era in the medium. Game of Thrones can be a very divisive show. As I made my way through the seasons, I could understand those criticisms while also having them compounded over a shorter period of time. I don't know if my issues with it will be more prominent this year because I'm viewing the show on a week-to-week basis instead of at my own pace. But I am interested in finding out.

Moreover, the show is in its end game right now. "Dragonstone" kicks off the penultimate season of the show. Plus, these final two seasons are abbreviated as well. The seasons will no longer feature 10 episodes. Season 7 will only have seven while Season 8, I believe, will only have six. So, there's not a whole lot of time left in this universe. As such, the show needs to focus on its long simmering conflicts. All of the stories that have woven in and out of the main narrative are finally hitting their big climatic moments. After years of careful planning, it is all coming to fruition. The characters' hopes and desires will either succeed of fail based on all of the work they've done over the past six years. It's been a fascinating journey for all of them. This show has long since rid itself of traditional heroes and villains. Yes, there have still been some incredibly one-note bad guys who can really bring the narrative down. But the end of Season 6 did such a phenomenal job in eliminating all of the unnecessary characters from the narrative. Ramsay Bolton was killed at the Battle of the Bastards while Cersei finally got the power she wanted by using the Wildfire to destroy the Great Sept and all of her enemies. And now, everything is largely looking forward to the future. There can be no more dwelling on the past. Winter has arrived and soon everything will change for all of the characters.

Of course, "Dragonstone" kicks off with an epic reminder of where the show ended last season and the great importance of its own rich history. At first, it's strange to see Walder Frey once more addressing his family knowing that Arya killed him in the previous finale. It's clear that something more is going on. That something is actually Arya wearing Walder Frey's face in order to wipe out every other man in his house. This is her getting her vengeance for the Red Wedding. It's a strong moment of strength that shows just how far Arya has come. She is able to use other people's faces but she isn't a girl with no name. She is still Arya Stark. She is still enacting her revenge on all of the people who have wronged her family. Her tactics are now much more subtle and lethal. But of course, that carries the weight of her becoming just like the people she wants to kill. In her quest for these skills, her humanity has been ever dwindling. It's still nice to see her laugh along with a group of soldiers she meets on her way back to King's Landing. But it also feels like a face she needs to wear in order to blend in. No one takes her seriously about her assertion to kill the Queen. It's the truth and she delivers it in such a cold way that proves she's a dangerous wildcard in the overall narrative. Everyone is looking at the big picture and how they can best survive the coming wars. Meanwhile, Arya is just one person with her own agenda and is already making swift progress with her goals.

Arya's one time traveling companion, The Hound, is also forced to reckon with the past as it converges with his new path forward. The Hound is an unwilling traveling companion of the Brotherhood Without Borders. They are a group going wherever the Lord of Light tells them to. They aren't trying to understand what their God's plan is for them. They just know that everything is happening for a reason. The Hound still hasn't accepted any of that. But it is fascinating to see him have to remember the time when he cruelly killed a family after they took him and Arya in simply because he believed they wouldn't survive winter. And now, he is filled with remorse. He feels the urgency to bury their bodies and make peace with the fact that they deserved better. He's a character in the midst of a transformation at the moment. He didn't need to return to the show after Arya left him behind to die in Season 4. But he is back. He's been saved for a reason. That reason may have to do with the vision he sees of the Night King attacking The Wall where it meets the Ocean to the East. It's a vision that gives this group its purpose for the season. They seem destined to head to the Wall to help with the fight. It should just be fascinating to see how much of this The Hound is willing to accept. He's not a religious man yet. He doesn't truly believe in something greater than this world. But he's now experienced things that are changing him. Changing him in unexpected ways that could prove quite interesting in his journey to the North.

Meanwhile, there are other characters who can only worry about the future at the moment. Jon realizes that he can't dwell on the war that has just ended because the great war is still upon them. Winter has arrived and the Night King is marching on the Wall. Bran has a vision that reveals the Night King now has giants as White Walkers. That's a chilling sight that proves just how serious this war is going to be. The White Walkers have always been presented as the greatest enemy on this show. It's been a very slow journey for them. But the long night has fallen on Westeros and the Night King is preparing to strike. Jon is aware of that and knows that the North has to unite. He can't punish the houses that sided with the Boltons. Nor can he afford to send troops to the southern border to battle Cersei. Halfway across the world, Sam is doing his best to become a maester quickly and get access to the books that could hold the key to defeating the White Walkers. The timing of him leaving the Wall to go to Oldtown is questionable. The war is imminent. He doesn't have the time to become a full on maester. Everyone else in the south refuses to take him seriously. They haven't experienced this war to come just yet. They will eventually once winter hits the entire continent. But right now, Sam has to steal books and try to get a message to Jon telling him that there is a ton of dragonglass on Dragonstone just waiting to be mined. That is an expositional part of the story while also setting up something that will prove to be very crucial in the end game.

Worrying about the future and the enemies from all sides is Cersei's justification as well for not mourning the death of her third and final child, Tommen. She had a major role in his death. He only killed himself because of the monstrosity on display in Cersei's latest heinous act. She could quite possibly becoming a mad ruler herself. Jaime looked on her with fear during her coronation. And now, he continues to worry about his sister/lover. She isn't grieving. She has lost so much in her life. But she's talking about ruling and creating a dynasty that will reign for a thousand generations. She's a little delusional because she and Jaime are the only surviving members of House Lannister. The rest are either dead or aligned themselves with their enemies. It's the two of them left standing. They've always been strong together. But now, Cersei may be transforming into someone whom Jaime doesn't recognize. She wants to align herself with an untrustworthy ally in Euron Greyjoy. He arrives in King's Landing with his new and improved fleet. There are plenty of reasons not to trust the new ruler of the Iron Islands. And yet, Cersei understands that she needs allies right now. Euron is so far the only person coming forward to join her in this war. She's facing a war on all fronts. The enemies to the north are distracted by the Night King. But the armies of Dragonstone, Dorne and Highgarden cover King's Landing from all sides and could lead to a very short reign for Queen Cersei.

Of course, there's still a certain amount of stalling going on throughout "Dragonstone" as well. The sixth season finale ended with Daenerys finally sailing to Westeros to reclaim her birthright on top of the Iron Throne. With her entire fleet and three dragons, she could easily wipe out Cersei and her forces right now. She has the allies and the strength to do so. But the show is waiting a little bit before that inevitable confrontation. Instead, Daenerys and her forces land in Dragonstone. It's the final sequence of the hour and it gives the episode its name. It's a powerful sequence to watch as well. As such, it justifies all the stalling that needs to happen because of it. Daenerys lands in Dragonstone, the ancestral home of her family. It's a near wordless sequence as she and her allies explore the empty island. It's beautiful to look at. It's both familiar and foreign to the audience as well. It's a location that has been seen many times over the years because of Stannis' forces gathering there. But it all carries so much more weight once Daenerys returns and claims her rightful place in this castle. It makes the final phrase ready to begin this war so empowering. Daenerys and Tyrion have proven to be a great character pairing. They have the knowledge and skills to truly topple this world. Now, they just need to enact the plan to make that a reality. They have their base. And now, they need to figure out when, where and how to strike.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Dragonstone" was written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
  • Only a few episodes of Game of Thrones have done a scene before heading into the opening credits. But this one more than justifies that with that phenomenal sequence of Arya taking out the remaining members of House Frey. It's such a fist-pumping way to go into the credits and embrace that the show is back for a new season.
  • Sansa acknowledges that Jon has a true knack for being a leader. And yet, she also isn't afraid to speak up and let her opinions be known even though they clash with his and could undermine him in front of the other lords and ladies. She's had plenty of experiences in this world too. Jon may know the White Walkers but Sansa knows Cersei. Fighting both could divide the remaining Starks. Or they could find a way to unify as well.
  • Littlefinger is still lurking around Winterfell too trying to get Sansa to marry him and finally become happy. Littlefinger will do whatever is in his own self interest. But Sansa now knows what he wants. Aligning with him is dangerous but it's also necessary at the moment too as the Army of the Vale allowed her and Jon to take back Winterfell. 
  • Bran seems destined to finally reunite with the other members of his family this season too. He has been off in his own story for a long time now. It's a story that has dwindled with characters too. So, it needed the fresh additions of the people at Castle Black to seem truly important again. Of course, Bran's vision of the Night King and his army is absolutely terrifying as well.
  • Tormund continues to stare at Brienne which is really unnerving to her. It's creepy even though it's suppose to play almost as unrequited romance. Of course, he doesn't seem destined for this world for much longer. He's leaving to man the castle along the Wall that the Hound's vision in the fire says will get attacked soon.
  • Ed Sheeran pops up for some reason. He sings in the woods and Arya stumbles upon him. That's about it. It's a very strange scene because he isn't really that important at all. It's just random and almost completely pointless.
  • This is the first time the opening credits map doesn't head to Essos at all because no characters are currently there. Everyone is now in Westeros. That allows for the addition of the Oldtown animation at the end. That makes it clear that whatever Sam learns there will prove to be very important to Jon and the rest of the characters up north.