If you were complaining that not much happened in the premiere, “Stormborn” should address that. There was significant movement on every front, complete with the deaths of some familiar, if not popular, characters. With the cast whittled down – a relative measure to be sure, but this season has removed an entire continent from the map, only a single Tyrell left standing and the Martell/Sand contingent on the verge of joining Houses Baratheon, Bolton and Frey in the dirt – there are simply less storylines to cut between. Which means that plenty can happen even as the show continues to find room for leisurely scenes of eunuch loving, pie baking tips, musing on long-dead Robert’s relation to the legacy of the even longer-dead Targaryens, and dire wolf reunions that don’t have any immediate narrative payoff. Only at the Citadel does it feel like anything is moving in a hurry, where Sam is breaking major rules to flay Jorah with kindness the night after he met him.
That surgery takes us back to Arya with a nauseating jump cut that may have put me off pot pies for the forseeable future (the show’s increasing infatuation with gross-out humor is puzzling for how it seems to have popped up so suddenly in its old age). After Hot Pie gives her a hot take on the Battle Of The Bastards, she decides to defer her quest to murder Cersei to go north and reunite with her family. But in a scene heavy with foreshadowing, she encounters her long-lost wolf, now grown to terrifying dimensions and leading a pack of predators. Nymeria declines Arya’s invitation to be an inside wolf again, a decision that Arya understands even as it saddens her. Arya’s own time in the wilderness has probably likewise left her unable to ever truly settle down and be a lady of Winterfell again. I have thought for awhile that she may be a goner once her vengeance is complete, and indeed, I will be chewing my nails at any scene with her in the finale’s denouement, just waiting for some friendly face to be removed to show Jaqen's red mane, there to end her abuse of her Faceless powers. But seeing her acceptance of Nymeria’s place at the head of this ersatz pack got me thinking for the first time that maybe her end is to lead whatever form the Brotherhood Without Banners takes when the wars of winter are done.
|Shut up, just let me have this one|
In any case, Arya is not the only gal giving Cersei a reprieve this week. Dany unveils her plan to break the Lannister hold on Westeros in relatively bloodless fashion, to the chagrin of her more vengeful allies. This is a narrative necessity, as we required some sort of explanation to justify the decision to park at Dragonstone instead of burning King’s Landing outright. She knows she could win quickly and easily, but she also knows that quick victories in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen did not result in any Happily Ever After scenario for Slaver's Bay. And in that light, it’s not actually a bad plan. From the perspective of a ruler aware that the core of her military strength lies in terrifying firebeasts and foreign hordes that cannot exactly be deployed with a light touch, she understands that relying on them only strengthens her enemies’ xenophobic rallying cries. But its drawbacks become quickly apparent, as it allows time for Qyburn to craft anti-aircraft ballistae, Jaime to sway Tyrell bannermen to support the crown against the foreign invaders (“the Dothraki, they’re not sending their best…”), and Euron to destroy half Dany’s fleet and capture two of her would-be heads of the seven queendoms. And bringing the Reek back out of Theon in the process.
|"I..uh..think I left my wallet...in the ocean...brb.."|
But the drawbacks for Dany’s military designs are benefits for TV drama. The tricky thing about making drama about intelligent characters is that bad decisions are more fruitful as story fertilizer than airtight stratagems. This is an especially thorny issue for this show, with how many allegedly brilliant schemers are incorporated in its complex series of gears within gears. The decision to defer a direct attack needs to be a mistake, because it needs to allow for Cersei to bolster the rather weak position where she started the season, and become a credible threat to Dany’s progress. Without that, there is no drama. But when the decisions required to create drama become too stupid, it hurts the credibility of the “hero” side (see: Sansa hiding a larger army from Jon while yelling at him to wait for a larger army, a decision so indefensibly dumb that the show opted for a sheepish apology rather than any real attempt to justify it). The strategizing scenes in “Stormborn”, of which there are several and will never not give me a nerd boner, are stronger because they thread the needle of showing how smart people could plausibly make decisions with disastrous results, for reasons better than the script requiring those results.
Dany’s questioning of Varys is a great opening in this regard, as it allows her to demonstrate some cleverness before we get to those bad decisions. It gives Conleth Hill a chance to speak more plainly than usual, spitting some fire back at the Dragon Queen. But it also shows her to be more aware of potential threats and pitfalls than I may have previously thought. She begins the interrogation by noting that he was instrumental in bringing Dorne and Olenna into her fold, which underlines why she would pick just now to start asking the tough questions, without beating us over the head with it. The short term value of his assistance was too great to pass up, but now that the pieces are mostly in place she is weighing how much trust she can put in him longer term. This dilemma mirrors what Sansa is going through with Littlefinger, but I can’t imagine Baelish even attempting honesty about his myriad betrayals, much less the populist, pro-peasant angle. Instead, he tries sidling up to Jon, only to find him no more pliable than Ned, getting the exact same chokehold in the crypts that he got outside his brothel way back in the first season.
|Like father, like so-...no, wait, not actually son. So...secret nephew? But I thought |
we decided he was Dany's nephew., so... not cousin...shit, I had a chart for this...
Unfortunately, Jon is also seemingly intent on repeating the mistakes of his forebears, as he is waltzing into the seat of Targaryen power to make demands of them, a move that Sansa points out led to Ned’s father getting burnt alive and Robert’s Rebellion kicking off. Of course, should things go south at the meeting on Dragonstone, all may be surprised to find that Jon does not burn as easily, given his own dragon blood. In the meantime his new vassals are no more impressed with his decisions than Dany’s southern allies are with hers, grumbling at his decision to leave the North the moment he conquered it, even if he does leave a Stark in Winterfell, with two more unknowingly on the way. My guess is that he misses Arya (since she is coming up from the southwest and he is heading southeast) on the road, but does encounter the Brotherhood. And then…
Damn, is it next week yet?
- Lots of callbacks to earlier seasons here – Varys’s role in supporting Dany’s brother and her assassination attempt, Tyrion and Jon’s time as travel companions, Nymeria and Arya recalling her own rejection of her father’s vision of domesticity for her, lots of musing about Robert’s rule, Jon throttling Littlefinger. Also Arya’s time with Hot Pie and Sansa’s with Tyrion come up in significant ways. The series sense of history has always been one of its greatest assets (it’s sort of the key to the entire fantasy genre, really), but with this episode a lot of the history being referenced was things we’ve actually witnessed. Which is neat.
- It’s obviously not going anywhere now that the Dornish have been made redundant, but I’m glad the show took the moment to let the tension between Tyrion and Ellaria flare up. Of course there would be hard feelings between them after the deaths of Oberyn and Myrcella, and internal tensions liven up those scenes of Dany ironing out exactly how she will eventually, inevitably take the throne.
- I kind of skipped over the entire attack sequence, but it actually kind of upset me. I don’t know why exactly, since I basically called it going down like this last week and I’m generally not squeamish about the show’s violence. But watching Euron just bash the faces and murder 2-3 women in a row put me off more than even greyscale surgery. In general, I think I prefer the show not take it easier on its female fighters than the men, but there was something about the inherently gendered nature of the violence that made it hard for me to appreciate the other merits of the scene, such as how it was clearing some of the most useless, unloved characters from the deck or the completely over-the-top spectacle of Euron dropping, alone and screaming, onto a burning ship on fanged gangplank. And the implications for Yara, Ellaria and Tyene getting captured by the rapiest group of rapers in a nation where rape is practically the national sport aren't any better (nor are their prospects any better once they are delivered to Cersei). I'm a bit surprised not to have seen much in the way of online backlash for the sheer quantity of brutality toward women today. Maybe everyone with the vigor to give it a good thinkpiecing checked out back when Ramsay still held sway over what felt like half the show.
|Half-Assed Moralizin' is, once again, brought to you by Papa John|
- The actor who plays Randyll Tarly is a great piece of casting. When he talks I feel like I’m being lectured by a British granite quarry. It makes enough of an impression that it took me awhile to remember that tonight was only his second scene ever on the show.
- While the Jon stepping out of a blaze of (either sacrificial or dragon) fire is too good a dramatic reveal of his heritage for me to dismiss entirely, cutting against it is that he did conspicuously burn his hand when defending Commander Mormont from the wight attack back in the first season. But since it’s magic juju anyway, you can handwave it away by saying he was still more Stark back then and it took becoming king to awaken his dragon or whatever.
- Yohn Royce’s continuing presence and deference to Jon confuses me. I gather that the Vale supports the North’s independence, but certainly they don’t consider themselves part of his kingdom?
Death Watch: While I don’t think Thoros and Beric are long for the world once the Hound is in the orbit of more important characters, Ellaria and her captured daughter are the easy bets. I shudder to think what Cersei will do with the women who murdered her daughter. I think Cersei will want to extend Ellaria’s suffering, but I can’t imagine killing her daughter in front of her won’t be a part of that. I’d say the best Tyene “bad poosi” Sand can hope for is that her old frenemy Bronn is moved to smuggle her some poison in her cell, in a mirror of the “favor” she did him back in Dornish jail. Otherwise…things are going to get nasty, even for this show.