Some of the initial online reactions to “Dragonstone” have complained of “table setting”, which loosely translates to not enough action. And I won't deny that is what it was. The entire hour does culminate with the lead character literally standing at the head of a table and delivering her only line of the episode, “shall we begin?” For those of us obsessed enough to have committed every tidbit of Targaryen backstory to memory, to have plumbed the History And Lore featurettes from the video releases or even (shudder) cracked the books, the episode's title announced that it wouldn’t be speeding the main storyline along. I do understand how that could feel almost like taunting to those who feel they have waited patiently for dragons to grow and winter to come for 6 years now. What I don’t understand is not realizing at this point that the table in this “table setting” is the show. It’s in the title, frequently referenced in the dialogue, and in the floor map Cersei has commissioned to mirror that elaborate Risk board at Dragonstone. And while I want to get to the fireworks factory as much as anyone, I can’t pretend to be mad when I’ve been away from this board for so long, and the pieces are all being their best selves.
Well, give or take a Cersei. The only bum note of the episode (I'm still not entirely sure who Ed Sheeran is, so I can't even say he bothered me) was her blasé attitude about the deaths of her children in her otherwise solid scene with Jaime on the map mural. I totally buy that she would be in denial about her role in it all and simply shutting out her grief to focus on her remaining ambitions and enemies. On paper, all that tracks, but something about the performance is just a touch off. It seems like when she is talking about building an empire for the two of them, she is treating it like a line to convince Jaime, when she should be trying to convince herself as well. It’s a fine line to be sure, but the kind Headey has walked adeptly dozens of times throughout the series, so I’m inclined to chalk it up to a brief lapse on the directorial side.
|"No, seriously...you're the guy who does the Christmas duet albums, right?"|
Regardless, if the Lannister siblings’ emotional beats were a little off, their tactical discussion laid out the situation clearly and with handy visual aids for those that fast forward the opening credits. And it led to a character who was vastly improved via quality direction in Euron Greyjoy. Last year, I found the actor who to be one of the few casting bum notes in the entire series (shortlist including Shae and the original Daario). But this week, he was suddenly, vastly improved. He seemed to have lost weight, trimmed his facial hair, is dressed in loose, stylish leather instead of bulky grey rags, and the writing and blocking of his one scene allows him to swagger. And if there is one thing a pirate king should have, it’s swagger. His proposal to ally with the Lannisters surprised none of us obsessives (who sussed out long ago that Cersei would need to gather allies immediately to make this a fight, and her pickings were slim), but his promise to bring her a gift to prove his bona fides introduces some intriguing possibilities. Does he mean to bring her Tyrion? The head of a dragon? A live dragon, somehow? I have seen all possibilities bandied about, but my money is on something more prosaic, which is to perform a quick hit and run to burn Dany’s fleet while it is still anchored at Dragonstone. This, as Jaime reminds us, was his signature move back when the Greyjoys were rebelling against Robert. Of course, the Lannisters didn’t have multiple flying deathlizards to chase the ships away, so the “run” part of the equation may be a bit stickier than last time.
Cersei’s has to pin her hopes on this long shot because the Lannisters have lost their last moderately powerful allies in the Freys, as Arya’s opening power play sweeps that multitudinous family completely from the board. It's a move so ballsy that the queen would, if she understood the details, probably applaud it in spite of herself. It seems like it should kind of be a retread of last year’s surprise merking of Old Walder, but it works an OldGodsDamn treat for a couple reasons. For starters, it takes a beat longer to register what is really afoot because on the rare occasions the show has used flashbacks, it mostly positioned them at the top of episodes. It barely even rises to the level of a misdirect, but just those extra few moments make an enormous difference compared to having it be obvious what's happening from the sequence’s opening frame. It allows us in the audience to feel like we connected the dots ourselves, and to let those feelings of self-congratulation mingle with the giddy anticipation of what is to come. Which giddiness is still strong, because the Red Wedding was so traumatic that I was still excited to see it avenged a third time over. And finally, her capper is perfectly badass – “Tell them The North Remembers. Tell them Winter Came For House Frey.” I can just hear the capital letters in her speech, and I love it when the Starks characterize themselves as Winter.
Arya then follows up this moment of absolute badassery with one of disarming normality and goodwill. She is more shaken by meeting a group of men that aren’t interested in raping and killing her than by murdering an entire extended family, because it's just been that kind of 3-4 years for her. She sits down eager for the Lannister men to give her a reason to get homicidal, but is taken aback to find that despite wearing Cersei’s colors, they’re just some alright dudes that would rather be fishing. It doesn’t make her immediately change her plans to assassinate the queen, but it does cause her to briefly question some of the callousness she picked up from people like the Hound, who himself is having even graver doubts about the lessons he taught her.
|About the importance of subtlety, for instance|
I would have said that, with the end in sight, spending a sizeable chunk of the episode on The Hound revisiting the site of his most seemingly-pointless interlude from 3 years ago would be a frustrating waste of time. But the actors playing Sandor, Thoros, and Beric have such easy gravitas that watching them snipe at each other and ruminate on the destinies they know in their bones they don’t deserve were some of the strongest scenes in a premiere that didn’t really have a weak one. And Rory McCann just knocks his internal crisis out of the park, letting pain and regret seep through, even as his dialogue remains mostly glib, caustic one-liners. Last year, I viewed the Hound’s revival as something a mistake; his few scenes not good or novel enough to make up for the loss of viewer trust that comes with such narrative take-backsies. These scenes were better, even somewhat redeeming what I had previously found to be the character’s most boring, repetitive scenes.
On the flip side, for a series whose biggest flaw has always been a tendency to let its best characters languish in such repetitive environs for seasons on end (Dany in Meereen, Arya in Braavos, the early seasons of Jon at the Wall), it seems strange to suggest that it should have planted Sam at the Citadel earlier on. With the show winding down entire plotlines over the last year and waving goodbye to major locations like Meereen and the Wall, the rapidly rapid-izing nature of the plot did not seem to leave Sam the space to do the time-intensive exploration and study that seemed to be required of him. Or at least not to do it in time to travel back across a continent and put it to use. But credit where it is due, the show did a fine job of employing a bit more overt stylization than usual in the escalating montage of him pouring slop and scouring chamberpots. The repetition made the point about the drudgery of his work, even as the rapidly rapid-izing intercutting gave the sequence an energy that the subject matter would otherwise lack. This would still be faint praise, as Sam has never been a favorite of mine, but his scenes also got a kick from a fine turn by Jim Broadbent as the archmaester (not sure if that is higher or lower than the late Pycelle’s rank of grandmaester) and the encounter with a significantly deteriorated Jorah Mormont. I had been predicting the two would meet here since last year, but it was still exciting to realize just what shot from the trailers was about to come up, and it gives the entire plotline a sense of purpose that can’t come from fancy editing alone.
Last but not least, we turn to the North, where we pick up right where last season left off. Jon’s first acts as king are immediately unpopular with his new vassals, including Sansa, but he does a better job quelling the dissent than he did with the Watch (thought things would have been different there if he had a right hand as indomitable as Lil’ Lady Mormont). The tension between Jon and Sansa is much more palatable than last year, as while I still ultimately agree with him, her counterpoint is not based in abject, suicidal stupidity. She makes a solid point that pardoning the Umbers and Karstarks forgoes the opportunity to reward those that actually kept faith when things were at their bleakest. But I still find the exigent circumstances he cites compelling. As far as he is concerned, they are still at war even with the Boltons eliminated, and that doesn’t leave any time to carve up lands, reoccupy fortresses and distribute favors. He needs the entire North marching as one, even if Sansa is right that he is ignoring the threats to the south (much less east). She concedes the point, but still gets plenty of strong moments, demonstrating a clear eye of her family’s shortcomings and her “allies” ulterior motives. Her dismissal of Littlefinger in particular is one of the character’s best lines.
|Seriously, it's like you can never tell if this guy is about to start|
jacking it, or he just finished. But you know it's one or the other.
Which was the order of the day. Part of it may have been just eagerness to return to Westeros after so long away, but it really seemed that “Dragonstone” was displaying all these characters at their best, even as it mostly just expounded on the same situations where “The Winds Of Winter” left them. Jon was at his most regal. Sansa was at her sharpest. Arya was at her awesomest. The Hound was at his soulful-est. Sam was at his most interesting. Lil’ Mormont at her fiercest. Even Euron came to play. And to here Dany tell it, we have not even begun yet.
Is it next week yet?
SUBPLOT REPORT CARD:
King's Landin': B+ (Small touch I liked: Cersei has turned all the Kingsguard’s golden armor to the mourning black she is wearing.)
A Girl Is Arya Stark: A (Other small touch I like: Arya’s hesitation to take a bite of rabbit, as she is still holding out hope the soldiers will try some shit, but sharing food with them invokes the guest rights that she just finished punishing the Freys for violating.)
The Citadel: B (Medium touch I like: Broadbent’s articulation of the Citadel’s role in elevating men above the level of beasts – “can’t remember any meal but the last, can’t see past any but the next”. I promise not to force modern day political commentary into every one of these reviews, but given the particularly anti-intellectual moment we’re living in, this small moment struck a chord.)
Wargin': B (Large touch I like: ZOMBIE GIANTS. We have seen shots of the army of the dead marching indeterminately for 5 years now. It should be a maddening self-parody at this point, but…ZOMBIE GIANTS. Come on. I’m not made of stone.)
Dragonstone: B (It's more a tease than even an appetizer, but a fairly effective one.)
The North: A
Season Morghulis: House Frey.
Death Watch: The toughest part of this is always trying to figure out which subplots just won’t show up at all next week. It seems like Tormund has been given a death sentence by being sent to be the only named character at ground zero for the White Walker invasion. But I’m going to go with a Sand Snake, since we didn’t check in with them at all this week, and we have a superfluous number of them to thin out when Euron comes to burn Dany’s fleet. The problem is they’re so interchangeable that it hardly matters which one you pick, but I’ll say Nymeria (the one with the whip).
Map Watch!: While I beamed with delight when I realized that the opening feast was not a flashback, and for ZOMBIE GIANTS, my single greatest moment of relief came when the credits excised Essos in its entirety, indicating that we would not be spending any time watching Daario cock up the rule of Slaver’s Bay or whatever. Meanwhile, Oldtown makes it on the board, as we get presumably our last appearance by the folding bridges of The Twins. It seems likely that it will be replaced by Eastwatch By The Sea for at least a week or two, and maybe Casterly Rock at some point?
The has been Map Watch, the most wholly pointless subsection of an already pointless exercise.