This week’s episode exemplified what I’ve found most frustrating with the show since they went off book, and that’s the feeling that they’re just checking plot points off a list instead of doing the work with the characters and the story to make them meaningful and important. There were several moments in this episode that felt like a let-down because of the lack of history or build up to them, and several other that just felt clearly done in order to draw out the inevitable arc of the season. The stakes all feel downgraded as we’re pushing everything towards the endgame of Dany conquers Westeros and the the War for the Dawn. We’re missing a lot of mythology and lore that should make the outcomes feel less certain and I’m torn between saying they should introduce it so we get some actual stakes and feeling like if they backtracked and introduced it NOW it would feel like a cheap feint at drama that hasn’t been earned. So if you did not find this episode to be one long, frustrating experiment in story telling as bullet points then this is probably not the place for you.
PROBLEM THE FIRST, we head to Dragonstone so that Daenerys can thoroughly interrogate Varys as to his intentions and what his allegiance is. This is not the worst conversation on the show, but it feels out of place. Varys tracked her down in Meereen to offer his services, and then was on a ship with her for like a month or so getting from Meereen to Dragonstone. She didn’t feel like this was an important conversation to have on the way? To settle somewhere privately where all her new allies don’t sit around making “awwwwwwwkwwwaaaarrrrrddddd” faces at each other? Anyway, this weird conversation is interrupted by news that Melisandre is there and seeking an audience and hey, remember that time that Varys swore he’d never work with sorcerers or those who practice dark magic? Because he apparently doesn’t, his only objection seems to be that she “served the wrong king” and that’s OK these days. Anyway, Daenerys is going to send for Jon Snow on the advice of Melisandre (who avoids mentioning that she brought the guy back from the dead) and Tyrion, though she does say she intends to have him bend the knee.
And here we are with Jon! He’s received a raven from Tyrion summoning him to Dragonstone with lots of vague threats about what Cersei will do to the Seven Kingdoms and the “all cripples are bastards in their father’s eyes” to let Jon know it’s really him. Jon and Sansa discuss Tyrion and their impressions of him in a private council with Davos which seems like a really great idea that we’re all going to forget about basically immediately for drama reasons. Both Sansa and Jon agree that they found Tyrion trustworthy, but they’re not as sure about these Targaryen types in a moment that will be funny in retrospect. Maybe. Eventually. Who knows. Anyway, Jon won’t go to Dragonstone because his days of foolishly risking his life on wild chances are over and he is a mature and steady King these days. For the next 20 minutes.
Cersei is in King’s Landing being a big old hypocrite and doing her best impression of someone who’s not a husk of a human being while talking about the “horrors” of Aerys while conveniently ignoring that she set a fire straight out of his wet dreams. But she’s trying to convince the loyal lords of Westeros to stand with her against this foreign invasion and three extremely large dragons that is, as Randyll Tarly points out, exactly the sort of thing that conquered and united Westeros in the first place. After Cersei resists ending with openly threatening all those gathered before her, Jaime chases down Randyll Tarly to try and flatter him to their side. This is a good move, because all indications are that Randyll Tarly is one massive asshole as a father but actually a really good general. One thing he’s not? A politician. Jaime seems to completely flummox the dude when he points out that at this point he can’t be loyal to both Olenna AND the Iron Throne even though he’s sworn himself to both. Still, points to Jaime for a solid effort at actually building their military strength.
Meanwhile, Cersei remains oblivious to what she should actually be doing and is wandering around the basement with Qyburn so he can dramatically reveal… a really big crossbow. No, like, BIGGER than that. He demonstrates the crossbow’s efficacy against dragons by having Cersei fire it at the skull of Balerion the Dread and it is a very impressive weapon against a dry dragon skull that’s been decaying for a couple hundred years, that does not have a protective layer of dragonhide on it, and is sitting conveniently still and close without trying to burn anyone to death. What I’m saying is that unless someone digs up a Lord of the Dale I’m not worried about that thing and I’m almost insulted that they’re trying it. Maybe that chucklefuck Qyburn can trip over the dragonbinder horn in the basement one day, it’d feel less ridiculous than getting worried about that big crossbow.
Back on Dragonstone we get another round table that lets us know that Daenerys does not intend to take King’s Landing by force. I don’t mind this generally, it shows that she’s learned from her experience in Essos that conquering is easy, ruling is harder. Also after Cersei burned down the Sept it might be good PR for Dany to establish herself as “The Queen who HASN’T burned down part of your capital city.” However, it also feels a bit like an invented reason for her to hold back her forces so that trouble can arise and disrupt her plans. But we do learn that Tyrion is aware that Ellaria and her daughters killed Myrcella, and no one likes her they just want her army, which she and Yara will go fetch. But Tyrion will have his day, as he’s going to use the Unsullied to take Casterly Rock. I’m not mad at this plan, it’s great from a strategic point of view and has the potential to set up a really interesting conflict between Tyrion and Jaime. After laying all this out, Dany asks to speak to Olenna alone and says she knows that Olenna hates Cersei more than she has any great affection for Daenerys, but it’s cool. Olenna basically admits it, but counsels her against too much caution, saying that the lords of Westeros are sheep and she’s a dragon. “Be a dragon.” It’s not the first time that Daenerys has gotten that advice and it’s going to be interesting to see if she does a full turn into her worse Targaryen tendencies eventually. She seems to be working hard to hold them back, but if she doesn’t get what she wants when she wants it I have no doubt that she’ll reevaluate.
There have been mixed reactions to this scene of Missandei and Grey Worm and my feeling is that it’s a not great scene that scrapes by thanks to the effort of the actors. I believe the longing that these two have for each other. I believe that it’s hard for them to want this kind of intimacy, and even harder to act on it. I kept thinking of the line about why the Unsullied would visit brothels, “some of them just like to be held.” But at the same time, I think that the way this scene unfolds is unsatisfying and makes the viewer focus on the sexual aspect of the encounter rather than the larger feeling of trust, vulnerability, and intimacy. I also feel like it’s cliche to comment on, but man does this not feel great as far as how that trip to Casterly Rock is gonna go for Grey Worm.
We finally get a good look at how far the greyscale has dug into Jorah and it’s pretty far. Almost all the way across his chest and up his neck. It seems to miraculously stop at his waistband, or at least that’s what we’ll all believe for the sake of Iain Glen’s dignity. Sam finally figures out who Jorah is and decides that the best way to honor the memory of Lord Commander Mormont is to flay his son alive. To save him! Obviously. I am positive that this treatment will be successful, because this show is not the kind of dark to let Sam basically torture a man to death trying to help him, even if it is a show gross enough to cut from sores oozing pus to a guy digging into a chicken pot pie. And we will never find out why the Wildlings were so terrified of greyscale because of course we won’t.
Back to the food, Arya has made her way to the Inn at the Crossroads where Hot Pie is there to give her cooking tips and vital, plot advancing information. Never change, Hot Pie. On this show, hearing important news over a hot dinner from a friendly face is always a delight. In this case, Arya learns that the Boltons have been run out of Winterfell by none other than Jon Snow, and her plans to head straight for King’s Landing to get her tiny little hands around Cersei’s neck take a backseat to going home. I think it’s our last moment when she could have chosen to be No One, and instead she chooses to be Arya. While on the way, we get the final confirmation of her identity when Nymeria’s wolfpack surrounds her, and Arya gets a chance to see what her wolf has become. I wanted this to be a great moment, but without the deeper context of the wolf dreams and Arya’s ongoing connection to Nymeria even as she was in Braavos it’s a bit lacking. The acknowledgement that Nymeria still exists is nice, but since Arya’s killed all the Freys and Cersei killed most of the other Lannisters, I don’t think we’ll get much more than this. I am very ready to be wrong, though.
Jon gets another raven, this time from Sam letting him know about the dragonglass on Dragonstone. And despite the fact that he was just doing SO WELL with talking to Sansa in private about the previous note from Tyrion he decides to read all this out in front of the whole crowd of Northern generals and make his decision about whether to go to Dragonstone and leave her in charge in the middle of that same room. Buddy, I know you like your dramatic speeches, but you could have done her the courtesy of at least a heads up sotto voce that you were handing her an entire REGION before you let every surviving dude with a beard in the North know. Also could have saved her the embarrassment of trying to speak up against your dumb plan in front of everyone before you announced that the North was hers. I know people are getting upset with Sansa for speaking up against Jon in public again, but this is 100% on King inda Norf II for making a sensible decision with her, and then going against that decision in front of a giant crowd. And, you know, deciding to throw himself at obvious danger because Jon Snow is nothing if not careless with his own life even on the second go round despite of (or perhaps because of?) his responsibilities to others.
Littlefinger follows Jon down to the crypt to visit Ned’s tomb, and apparently Ned’s bones actually reached Winterfell in the show. I’m gonna pour one out here for Barbrey Dustin, who was a right bitch but a really INTERESTING right bitch that we never got to meet on screen. It was nice having a more nuanced take on how the rest of the North felt about the Stark family historically, that wasn’t wrapped up in hero worship or literal villains who flayed their enemies alive. Littlefinger is definitely trying to weasel his way into Jon’s debt, and Jon is having none of it. Still missing: anyone telling Jon about his actual parentage, which means we’re getting less and less time to watch him mentally process that literally his ENTIRE IDENTITY is not what he thought it was. Gonna be really frustrating to watch him get over that in like 90 seconds at some point. Littlefinger’s claws aren’t finding much purchase here at Winterfell, and I wonder how long he intends to stick around. If his weakness for Sansa is so great that he will continue to snivel rather than seeking out a new position of power. But at this point, where else would he go? Cersei would consider him a traitor and probably have him executed immediately, Daenerys has Varys who would sell Littlefinger out IMMEDIATELY rather than work with him again. It does look like he’s painted himself into a bit of a corner in the North, and Jon leaving him alone with Sansa is probably not great news since he’s going to go full court press on her again. Although both Arya and Bran are on their way to Winterfell right now also, and perhaps having more of her siblings around will remind Sansa, as heard in the promos, that “when the lone wolf dies, the pack survives.”
And finally, we reach a big sea battle that was probably meant to be really exciting but instead is super confusing and mostly anti-climactic. One of the problems with the set up for this season is that we’re asked to be invested in a lot of characters who haven’t been developed in a way that we feel any investment in them. The Sand Snakes are high on that list. I don’t care about the TV Sand Snakes. I don’t even care about Ellaria after her heel turn following Oberyn’s death. I do care about Theon, and by extension Yara, but their men? Euron and his men? They are virtually meaningless. This is how you end up with a big fiery, bloody battle with a lot of deaths that have less emotional resonance than Theon’s twitches as he watches his men have their tongues cut out. So we lose Obara and Nymeria Sand. It appears that Yara, Ellaria, and Tyene are headed back to King’s Landing as “gifts” to Cersei and I am not looking forward to seeing how they’re treated by Euron’s men along the way. Dany gets another snag in her plans as she will have to regroup without the Dornish or Yara’s fleet. But the only thing in this scene that felt like a real consequence was Theon’s inability to come to his sister’s aid as his own demons take him over and he throws himself into the sea rather than face another psychopath, and the prospect of more torture and mutilation. And there he drifts, as he watches The Silence glide by decorated with dead Dornish women. At least there will be someone to let Dany know who to kill.