Monday, July 24, 2017

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 2, “Stormborn”

“Stormborn” begins, appropriately enough, with Daenerys and company observing a storm on the Narrow Sea. Dany has two scenes in this episode, and each check important boxes that smooth the way for subsequent action. The first important task is to shore up Varys’s loyalty. Their confrontation here is a product of good writing. One of the reasons we like Dany so much -- aside from her dragons, her empowerment, her being fireproof, her humanitarianism, and her rags-to-riches underdog story -- is that she’s smart (for a Game of Thrones leader). She’s cautious and savvy, listens to advice, and routinely ferrets out and counteracts the plans of those who would do her harm. So considering Varys's past, of course she would be suspicious of his loyalty rather than just blindly accept the alliances he arranged with Dorne and Highgarden.

Dany has a wonderfully roundabout way of springing a logic trap on Varys, trying to get him to agree with her that his loyalty is useless if he routinely betrays his rulers.* However, as we know, Varys is nothing if not a calculating tactician, and he realizes that honesty is the best choice for saving his life here. He gives her an impassioned and convincing speech about his true motivations, and successfully reframes his decision to support Dany as an asset rather than a liability.

* Both Varys and Tyrion can see where Dany is headed well before she arrives. There’s danger in her voice that raises the hairs on the backs of everyone’s necks, as indicated by the look on Tyrion’s face. It’s a wonderfully played scene by all three of the participants, but Peter Dinklage is particularly great here, considering he contributes much of his part wordlessly. 

Another important box that Dany’s scenes check: Melisandre arrives, and she and Tyrion sing Jon’s praises well enough to convince Dany to invite him to Dragonstone, which is a plot development we all knew was coming, one way or another, given their common enemies and Sam’s discovery of the dragon glass underneath the castle. But perhaps most importantly, we’re given a reason for Daenerys to land at Dragonstone rather than attacking King’s Landing directly.

Some critics who are wary of Thrones' sometimes slow pace had hoped it would proceed faster this near to the end, but I am not one of them. I thought it made sense that after a long sea journey, Daenerys would want to rest her troops for battle, especially the Dothraki, who are terrified of the ocean. However, here we’re given another reason: she doesn’t want to begin her reign by wantonly murdering the people she intends to rule. King’s Landing will not become another Harrenhal (the giant castle, destroyed by dragons, which we saw briefly a few seasons ago when Arya was acting as Tywin’s servant).

Thus despite the council of all three of her major Westerosi allies -- Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand, and Olenna Tyrell -- Daenerys insists on laying siege to King’s Landing and starving out Cersei while she simultaneously annihilates Casterly Rock. It’s a strategy that eventually wins their approval, but Olenna’s words of advice -- be your badass dragon queen self and go on the attack -- prove wise by the end of the episode, when Euron attacks and decimates Yara’s fleet. Olenna isn’t always right -- when she last left Margaery in King’s Landing, she seemed to expect to see her granddaughter alive again -- but she’s always the smartest person in the room, and is proven smart here one again.

Losing the Greyjoys and possibly the Sands as allies doesn’t put Daenerys on equal footing with Cersei (Dany still has her dragons, her armies, the Tyrells, and soon the Starks, perhaps), but it does scotch her plan to lay siege to King’s Landing. You cannot besiege a coastal city if you have no navy. From a narrative standpoint, this development makes sense: Dany simply had too big an advantage over Cersei to solicit much suspense from their conflict. Making them more evenly matched makes the outcome of their battle less certain, and heightening the possibility of undesirable outcomes is key to any suspenseful situation.

The loss of Yara's fleet also gave us a nice battle sequence marginally reminiscent of “Blackwater.” It turns out that when he’s not playing bass in his shitty nineties cover band, Euron is actually a pretty good pirate. He catches Yara with her pants down (almost literally), kills two of the sand snakes (R.I.P. spear sand snake and whip sand snake, I knew not your names) and takes the rest hostage. It was a nice, action-filled button on the episode, one that also allowed Theon to once again let down someone who trusted him.

I’m torn between pitying Theon for his PTSD, and condemning him for his cowardice. And while I’m marginally curious about where he goes from here, I’m also concerned that spending more time with him would simply repeat previous story beats, as we’ve already seen him go through a redemption arc in helping Sansa escape from Ramsay. Perhaps it would be fitting to leave him like this, floating adrift amidst the wreckage of those who actually possess the courage and principles he’s only ever pretended to have.

Arya also has a nice set of scenes in this episode, ones that illustrate how far she’s come since leaving King’s Landing. When she runs into her old friend Hot Pie, he’s shocked to see her, but also taken aback by her now stiff demeanor. He draws explicit attention to her change by asking what happened to her, a question that implies both “since I last saw you,” and “to make you so driven and humorless.” She stares at him and changes the subject, but Hot Pie breaks through to her when he drops the bomb that Jon is now the ruler of Winterfell.

Arya is now presented with a choice: she can continue her mission of vengeance and death, or she can return home again to be with her remaining family. At this point, I was certain she was going to plod ahead to King's Landing. As her reunion with Hot Pie demonstrates, Arya’s traumatic experiences have hardened her so much that she can hardly take any pleasure in being reunited with an old friend, thus it’s hard to see her finding much comfort in returning home. Accordingly, I was surprised by her turn northward, despite the sweeping nostalgia of the Stark musical motif doing its damnedest to make this seem like a plausible decision.

However, while on the road north, she encounters Nymeria, her long lost direwolf. The direwolves are like animal versions of their human masters, taking on the characteristics of the various Stark children (and their fates are often paralleled with their masters): Grey Wind (Robb) was a fighter, as is Ghost (Jon); Shaggydog (Rickon) was almost feral, Lady (Sansa) was prim and proper, while Nymeria had somewhat of a wild streak, but knew right from wrong. 

As slightly magical creatures, the direwolves are also capable of a higher order of communication with their masters than ordinary pets. For instance, Ghost always seems to know and understand more than would an ordinary dog. Thus when Arya invites Nymeria to travel north with her and resume their childhood kinship, we’re to take it that Nymeria understands Arya’s offer. When Nymeria rejects it, Ayra herself realizes that neither of them are little girls for whom returning home will provide any sense of comfort; it is no longer in Nymeria’s nature to be around humans, just as it is no longer in Arya’s nature to return home. It’s a bittersweet moment for Arya, but also a reassuring one, as she seems satisfied at having become a person capable of executing what she couldn’t as a child: justice (or revenge). I strongly suspect that Arya’s next appearance will be in King’s Landing.*

* UPDATE: Interestingly, other critics seem to have made a different inference about Arya's mental state here, taking her "That's not you" to mean that Arya is rejecting Nymeria's wildness, and intends to keep heading north. I suppose we'll find out which inference is more accurate next week. Either way, good on Game of Thrones for creating such an ambiguous yet still psychologically rich situation.

Like in "Dragonstone," Jon and Sansa’s scenes again put a pin in the “stupid Stark” motif by having characters openly discuss the best course of action in response to Daenerys’s invitation. And like last week, both Jon and Sansa each have a point in arguing the pros and cons, with the northerners siding with Sansa against Jon. You really have to question your decision when even Lyanna Mormont disagrees with you. This was an enjoyable scene for how it makes this show’s history come alive, with references to what the Mad King did to their grandfather. Left unspoken here is what happened to Ned when he answered Robert’s summons.

Jon gives yet another rousing (and convincing) speech, and placates the northerners and Sansa by leaving her in charge until he returns, which is a fitting compromise, given the northerners’ general agreement with Sansa in these past two episodes. It’s also a compromise that seems to suit Littlefinger’s plans: a shadow of a grin crosses his face when Jon tells Sansa to rule while he’s gone. Doubtless he’ll see this as an opportunity for himself: perhaps a taste of power will turn Sansa into someone he can better manipulate.

Even though Jon and Sansa left their father out of their debate, Ned’s fate weighs heavily Jon's his mind, as we next see him stare long and hard at Ned’s tomb. His face screams, “Please don’t let this be my 'stupid Ned Stark’ moment.” Jon’s reverie is interrupted by Littlefinger, who tries to placate Jon by spinning half-truths about being saddened by Ned’s death (recall that he’s the one who held a knife to Ned’s throat when Ned foolishly thought Littlefinger and ally in Ned’s thwarted coup).

In a fitting inverse parallel to Varys’s earlier scene with Daenerys, Littlefinger’s placations fail to achieve their effect, and where Varys’s truths saved his life, Littlefinger’s half-truths imperil his. He tells Jon he loves Sansa, and Jon responds like a true Stark, stupidly threatening the life of someone with the power and motivation to have him killed, or to make things difficult for him at the very least.*

* The paralleling of Varys and Littlefinger is fitting because Varys and Littlefinger were long ago established as the show’s two opposing political masterminds. Also, while we heard Varys's true motivations earlier in this episode, who the hell knows what Littlefinger’s end game is. It’s clear he wants something from Sansa, and might even perhaps feel something for her, but whatever it is, I doubt it’s love.

Also, what bug crawled up Jon’s ass about Littlefinger? We certainly know that Littlefinger is an untrustworthy schemer, but does Jon have any reason to be this hostile toward him? Or am I forgetting something? Perhaps Sansa has told Jon about Littlefinger’s lust for her. Or Littlefinger leaving her with Ramsay. Or perhaps Jon can spot a skunk when he sees one, prior evidence to the contrary. It feels like we’re missing a scene that would better set up this interaction.

Finally, this week’s episode also shows once again why Game of Thrones is one of the more stylistically rewarding shows on television. This week features a pattern in scene transitions, which are sometimes edited to create connections between them. With so many characters involved in so many plots in so many different places, touches like these provide a little connectivity, even if only superficially. The first occurs at the end of Jaime’s attempt to recruit Randyll Tarly to fighting for the Lannisters rather than the Tyrells. Jaime flatters him by stating, “I can think of no better man that Randyll Tarly,” and we cut immediately to Sam, Randyll's son, whom we know is a much better man.

Later, the transition from Missandei and Grey Worm’s sex scene to the Citadel makes it seem as if Missandei is clutching the bed’s headboard, when really it’s just Archmaester Ebrose pulling a book off a shelf.
Something similar happens when Sam slices off Jorah’s infected skin, an extreme close-up of which is matched to a shot of man digging into a creamy pie. Combined with the feces/soup editing during the Citdael montage from last week, it seems as though the editors are determined to turn off viewers from food forever.

Other thoughts:

- The beginning of this episode is extremely reminiscent of the beginning of Citizen Kane: a gloomy night time setting where we gradually approach closer to an enormous castle, a lone light burning in one of the windows (hard to see in this frame grab, but it's there). None of the rest of this episode matched the film, but this sure as hell did.

- Nice to see that Melisandre has learned something of a lesson about interpreting prophecy. She’s much more conservative in her response to Daenerys’s question about a prophecy's meaning than she ever was when Stannis would ask her similar questions or need reassurances. However, siding with Dany and reviving Jon has not done enough to redeem Melisandre for burning Shireen to death. She's still comfortably in the category of characters I would not mind seeing dead before the series ends.

- It was also nice to see Jon looking to Sansa for advice and taking it seriously a week after she implored him to listen to her and not be a stupid Stark. He doesn’t follow it, but at least he takes it.

- We know Randyll Tarly to be a cruel and vicious man through his treatment of Sam, so I was disappointed to see him reign in his cruelty when listing reasons for why he should not trust the Lannisters. Couldn't he have tossed “Kingslayer” in there, for old times' sake? In describing Daenerys’s armies, Jaime seems to win him over by appealing to his racism and elitism, which would obviously tickle a privileged asshole like Randyll.

- It’s always satisfying to see previously independent plotlines come together after so many years, and it’s something I expect we’ll be seeing more and more of as the show heads toward a climax and conclusion (next week, for instance, Dany finally meets a Stark... or her nephew, really), but here we get another small dose of it in the Citadel when Sam realizes who Jorah is, and instantly has sympathy for him.

- Like the destruction of Yara’s fleet, Qyburn’s giant, dragon-piercing crossbow is another device meant to increase the suspense by evening the odds between Cersei and Daenerys. It’s a particularly nerve-wracking one too, as it’s always stressful to watch characters hatch plans to harm Dany’s dragons. Not only are they relatively innocent creatures, but they are beautiful and majestic (and magical too -- like the direwolves, there have been many suggestions that the dragons possess a higher order of intelligence). However, it’s not arbitrary that Danaerys has three of them: from a tactical standpoint she can afford to lose one or two in a tragedy or military defeat, and from a dramaturgical standpoint, we get to experience the great pathos of her loss without sacrificing her ability to win out in the end. Thus I have long suspected that she’ll lose at least one of her dragons at some point, and ever since the show passed where the books left off, I get anxious any time they roar into battle.

- Speaking of which, this kind of suspense is not something I felt for the first five and half seasons. As a reader of the books, I’ve approached the show with a comparative mindset, but being in uncharted territory has put me in suspense over the future. Something similar can be said of the show’s ability to surprise me, as with Arya’s initial decision to turn north and then her reunion with Nymeria. The show has deviated from the books in enough places that it has been able to achieve the occasional surprise in previous seasons, but it has much more power to do so now.

- This week in great musical motifs: when Qyburn shows Cersei his weapon to defeat Dany’s dragons, we get a reprisal of the motif we heard at the end of last season, when Cersei executed her plan to take out all of her rivals in King’s Landing. This is Cersei’s scheming motif, I suppose.

- I enjoyed the airing of dirty laundry between Tyrion and Ellaria. Once again, this series never forgets its own history, to our benefit.

- The scene between Grey Worm and Missandei fulfills this week’s sex and nudity quotient. While it is a nice culmination of their tender love story, I was bugged that they didn’t shut the door before moving to the bed. Even if they don't care about privacy, Dragonstone has to be drafty, right?

- A few suggestion for alternative titles for Archmaester Ebrose’s “A Chronicle of the Wars Following the Death of King Robert The First”:
- “The War of the Five Kings” (the actual in-fiction title characters use to refer to this period)
- “A Clash of Kings” (George R. R. Martin liked this one)
- “Too Many Kings!”
- “Kingslayin’: A Lannister Family Story”
- “Bad Time to Be a Stark in King’s Landing”
- “Kings: They Be Dyin’”
- “No One Wants You to Be King, Stannis”

- I like Ebrose, obtuseness and all. His mentorship of Sam makes him one of the few people to recognize Sam’s talents, and he has a gentle way of humbling Sam without embarrassing him, suggesting that Sam has more to learn.

- I don’t think Jorah has ever worn a clean set of clothes in his entire tenure on this show.

- If Hot Pie resurfaces here, surely Gendry must follow next, right?

- What use was Yara as Dany’s ally if she was so easily outmaneuvered by Euron? I’d like a little more detail here about why Yara’s fleet was so easily bested. This disaster makes her seem nearly as incompetent and deluded as Theon.

- With such a wide-ranging story, sometimes it can be hard for this show to suggest parallels or contrasts within an episode, but this one does it twice, once with Varys and Littlefinger, and then again with Jon and Cersei. We see Jon’s modesty in that his "throne" is simply a seat behind a table in large hall, and when he speaks to his lords, he does so as first among peers, standing while they sit. This is sharply contrasted with the pomposity of the southerners: Cersei sits while her lords stand; the Iron Throne is on a raised dais, and Cersei speaks to her lords as their superior. We don't really need any more reasons to prefer the Starks over the Lannisters at this point, but subtle touches like this further support our allegiances by speaking to widespread Western cultural values about egalitarianism and leadership.

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