Monday, July 17, 2017

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 1, “Dragonstone”

“Shall we begin?”

Daenerys’s question at the end of the first episode of this season of Game of Thrones is an apt one, as last season made it clear that we are now beginning the end game for this series, the broad outlines of which seem more or less clear: Daenerys and Cersei will go to war; Daenerys will likely win (as Jaime speculates); Daenerys will then ally with Jon and Sansa, and all of our remaining protagonists will focus their efforts on defeating the Night King and his army of undead. The order of events might change, and there might be a few surprises along the way, but this seems like the shape of what's to come, more or less, in the wake of Cersei eliminating all of her rivals in King’s Landing last season. The fun of it will be in seeing just how (or if) all of this comes to pass. So yes, Dany, let us begin.

This story has so many compelling and well-written characters to service in so many different locations that sometimes watching an episode can feel like getting only a few bites of a delicious dish before it’s taken away and replaced by another, leaving you always wanting a little more of everything you taste. Call it an embarrassment of riches: there have been many episodes where I’ve thought to myself at a scene’s conclusion, “That was the best scene in the episode,” only to think the exact same thing after the next scene, and the next after that.

Tonight’s was one such episode, which starts with Arya’s continued vengeance upon house Frey. This was a satisfying scene, as I was a bit underwhelmed with Arya’s assassination of Walder Frey at the end of last season. While it was sweet revenge, it didn’t pack the same traumatic wallop of the Red Wedding. This scene corrects this imbalance, as she wipes out the entire house Frey in one fell swoop, and gives a deliciously spiteful speech explaining to them their folly at leaving a Stark alive to carry out vengeance, all while wearing the face of their leader. The Count of Monte Cristo never had it so good. The icy calm on her face as she gives Frey’s child-widow her message about the north remembering is a thing of beauty.

The next impressive pair of scenes concerns the other Starks of note (sorry Bran). Jon and Sansa hold council with the northerners and prepare for the coming onslaught of undead. It was satisfying to finally have someone who is sufficiently weary of the impending nightmare in a position of true power. Jon’s preparations were like a salve to a festering wound, desperately needed for a long time.

However, this scene also makes clear the path to new discord: a potential for a rift between Jon and Sansa. Their argument about whether to cast out the Umbers and Karstarks from the ranks of northern leaders was a good one. Each has a fair point, and each argues their case well. Sansa seems to win this argument, judging by the sounds the other northerners make as they debate, but Jon ultimately puts down his foot. Significantly, both Davos and Littlefinger take note of the rift, Davos with stoic concern, Littlefinger with a churlish grin, like an angel and a devil poised on the shoulders of Jon and Sansa.

The next scene puts a pin in their conflict: Jon pleads with Sansa to stop undermining him, which prompts Sansa to make the “stupid Ned Stark” meme a part of the show itself, telling Jon what we’ve all wanted to say to a Stark leader for a long time: don’t be an idiot like Robb and Ned or you’ll end up dead too. Hell, Jon's blindness to what was happening around him already got him killed once. Listen to Sansa!

Jon and Sansa perform a delicate dance between between antagonism and affection here. Jon -- still thick -- doesn’t want to listen to Sansa’s wise counsel, and looks askance at Sansa’s warnings about Cersei, yet there is real warmth between them when Sansa tells Jon he’s the least like Joffrey of anyone she’s ever known, and compliments him on his leadership. I strongly hope that the series doesn't lean too far in the direction of Jon and Sansa mistrusting one another. They’ve simply been through too much with far less reliable allies for it to feel plausible that they’ll reach Stannis-Renly levels of animosity. Perhaps this is how Littlefinger’s story plays out: he miscalculates their rift, tries to drive a wedge between them, but is crushed by their trust in one another. His later scene with Sansa certainly seems to imply that he's trying to widen the gap between the two.

The episode cuts from one pair of ruling siblings to another in Cersei and Jaime. The setting is impressive, with the two standing on a giant painting of Westeros (and in a deliberate bit of staging, Cersei begins the scene standing at the Neck, considered the entryway to the north). The map is also appropriate, as this is basically a place-setting scene, meant to remind us of a ton of exposition as we head into the season. Cersei tells Jaime things each of them already know (the Lannisters are in a poor position for the oncoming war with Daenerys, with no worthwhile allies), although Jaime makes it interesting in his reaction to Cersei’s insistence that Tyrion killed Joffrey. Jaime knows better.

Sam, meanwhile, is toiling away in the Citadel, a lowly initiate consigned to re-shelving books, emptying and cleaning bedpans, and ladling soup. A wonderful montage sequence edits together all of these activities in quick succession, driving home their monotony and wretchedness. I’d enjoy an entire episode set in the Citadel, as the setting is ripe with potential for sly commentary on academic institutions. Even the décor contributes: books and maesters are laden with chains (the weight of knowledge bears heavily on those who preserve it), and the most precious knowledge is kept behind locked doors.

Given the urgency of the threat represented by the Night King, Sam’s subordination to the rhythms of the Citadel seem particularly foolish, but his scene with archmaester Ebrose is effective at giving us the Citadel’s reasoning. The maesters take the long view: Westeros has encountered countless crises for thousands of years, and each time, people thought the world would end, but it never does. The Wall lives through it all, and winters always end. Sam’s plight, while it might seem urgent to him, is no different from any of the countless others the maesters have studied throughout history. It too shall pass. His speech is so effective, in fact, that I actually found myself feeling that it lowered somewhat the stakes of the coming conflict.

However, his speech is also hopelessly obtuse; Westeros survived those crises because people reacted to them, rather than going on with business as usual. Thankfully, his speech is not effective for Sam, who realizes that the only way he’s going to be able to help Jon is if he sneaks into the forbidden area and steals useful books for himself. Doing so pays dividends immediately, as he discovers Dragonstone sits atop a rich dragon glass (or obsidian) deposit, the substance that kills white walkers. I always love any piece of media that makes research exciting.

The episode concludes with our first glimpse of Daenerys and her coterie as she majestically makes landfall at Dragonstone. How uncanny it must be for Dany to arrive in Westeros and be greeted by a magnificent, empty castle that seems purposefully designed for her and her dragons. Even the dragons seem at home here, circling around the castle like they know it's their ancestral home, with plenty of places for them to perch and roost. She must feel as if Westeros is simply waiting for her to rule it.

The nearly wordless sequence of her arrival has a series of nice moments: Dany bends down to touch the Westerosi ground with her hand; Dany unceremoniously pulls down a Baratheon banner; Dany stares at a nifty-looking dragon glass throne, likely thinking to herself that this is not the throne she wants to sit in. Finally, she comes to stand at the head of the Westeros-shaped table around which Stannis so often convened meetings, mirroring the earlier scene in which Cersei stood on her map of Westeros. The board is set. Let the end game begin.

Other thoughts:

- This show is bursting at the seams with great characters. Lyanna Mormont, for instance, nearly steals the scene of the northerner’s preparations when she climbs down the throat of another northerner for suggesting that women and girls shouldn’t fight alongside men. I’m fairly certain I could watch an entire episode about her and not miss the other characters. The same goes for Tormund and Bronn. Also, wouldn't you love a "day in the life" episode about the Mountain?

- The music on this series is phenomenal. Each house has a particular motif associated with it, each of which can be played for sweeping grandeur or quiet intimacy, and each is appropriate to its house. The Stark motif, for instance, is wistful and nostalgic (clearest here when Jon swears in the new Umbers and Karstarks), while the Targaryen motif is soaring and triumphant (Dany’s dragons approach Dragonstone).

- For fuck’s sake, Jon, listen to Sansa.

- When Euron arrives with an offer of alliance for Cersei, Jaime and Euron get in some good digs at one another, with Euron behaving satisfyingly slimily and Jaime imperious, but my favorite part of this scene is when Euron takes a few steps up the dais, only to stop cold when the Mountain moves toward him. If the Mountain was scary-looking in his golden kingsguard armor, he’s absolutely terrifying in this new all-black ensemble. He’s like a medieval Darth Vader, but with the Terminator's stoicism.

- We get a mercifully short scene of Bran entering Castle Black. Glad to see the show avoiding long scenes in locations where there isn’t much story to tell (and there hasn’t been a lot of story for Bran in a long time, even though the Hodor episode last season was particularly good).

- We get but a few brief glimpses of the epic romance between Brienne and Tormund. Lusty Tormund and mortified Brienne are always a winning combination. More please!

-Points awarded to Euron Greyjoy for the most contemporary-looking outfit ever worn by a character on this show. He looks like an enforcer for Hector Salamanca on Better Call Saul.*

*Update: I was trying to come up with a clever and accurate comparison, but Uproxx's Brian Grubb has outdone everyone with a comprehensive list of what Euron looks like.

- There’s some nice tension in the scene where Arya eats with a group of Lannister soldiers. The point of view shots of Arya looking at the soldiers' weapons made me uneasy, as did the disquiet on her face and her tensely gripping her sword hilt, but thankfully this particular group of Lannisters is the first decent ones to ever exist in Westeros. Arya herself can’t quite seem to believe how nice they are. Maybe Ed Sheeran helped.

- For a second, I thought Thoros of Myr was going to resurrect the corpses of the man and girl that the Hound and the Brotherhood without Banners find at the farmhouse, ala the books’ Lady Stoneheart. Still, the scene nicely continues the achingly slow reformation of Sandor Clegane, even if it went on a bit too long and was too concerned with other things aside from his remorse. I'm not sure we needed to see him have a vision in the fire in order to shore up his commitment to the Brotherhood, although I like that he remains as endearingly surly as ever. His vision also confirms Jon’s guess that the undead are marching toward Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

- We also finally catch up with Jorah Mormont. Apparently his search for a greyscale cure landed him in the Citadel’s medical ward, where the disease has gone unchecked – the skin on his arm is largely stone. It would make him a fierce warrior if it didn't also drive him insane, although for now it seems that his hope for Daenerys's return is keeping him from total lunacy.

- It’s been a while since I’ve done weekly recaps for a series, but considering how much I enjoy this show, I think it will be fun to cover the remainder of the episodes. So, if you like reading what I have to say, then you can look forward to weekly recaps this summer.

No comments:

Post a Comment