We’re delivering our Game of Thrones recaps in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. These articles will contain spoilers through the episode under discussion. This week, Peter Fenzel tackles “Dragonstone” (Season 7, Episode 1).
Game of Thrones leaps into Season 7 with both feet, murdering a roomful of loose ends, as it must. With only two shortened seasons left, and the extant source material exhausted, it’s time for the pilots in coach to answer the alarmed summons from the cockpit and bring this baby in for a landing.
Of course, a show this big turns toward its destination like a jumbo jet in the Mid-Atlantic: We can see the arc, but not the runway. The cold open teases the easy satisfaction of mass murder (a familiar feeling from the end of Season 6), but pairs it with a foreboding reminder of how hard it can be to permanently solve anything:
“You should have ripped them out, root and stem,” Arya Stark tells a room of Freys before they drop dead from her poison. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe.”
And she rips her face off like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible! And the best theme song on TV today plays! And we… slow down to set up the playing pieces for this season.
Hey, we’re not at the Battle for the Dawn just yet. Everyone who would rule the Seven Kingdoms, or even survive the winter, it turns out, still has unfinished business.
Living Wolves and Unsafe Sheep
It turns out Arya isn’t the only lone wolf left behind by the savagery of Seasons 1–6. Unpulled weeds sprout in every corner of Westeros, and each with an annoyed gardener.
In the snows of the far North, the Night King and his army of the dead (including a blue-eyed zombie giant!) approach in a cloud of cold and death. But the magical, paraplegic Bran Stark and the faithful Meera Reed have escaped to trouble him another day. They reach the Wall and at least temporary safety.
At Winterfell, newly minted King in the North Jon Snow must decide the fate of House Umber and House Karstark, who sided with Ramsay Bolton in last season’s “Battle of the Bastards.” Sansa advises pulling the weed: seizing the young heirs’ lands and titles, and replacing them with proven loyalists. Jon is merciful; he won’t blame the kids for their parents’ crimes and reinstates them.
And Sansa finds her own unpulled weed in Littlefinger—former Master of Coin, always scoundrel—who seeks to turn her against her brother with a transparently manipulative sneer. The real question is whether Jon and Sansa are family and allies, or each other’s biggest unsolved problems.
In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister revels in her power as monarch. Her brother and incestuous lover Jaime hammers on their precarious political and military isolation, but the imperious queen instead seethes at her brother Tyrion’s past betrayals. Once in the King’s Landing dungeons, facing death for the murder of Cersei’s son Joffrey, Tyrion is now not only free, but backing an invasion fleet come to cast her down. She no doubt wishes she could have pulled that weed when she had the chance.
Euron Greyjoy, the sinister pirate king at the head of the Iron Fleet, bemoans the survival of his niece and nephew, Yara and Theon Greyjoy, as he seeks an alliance with Cersei and her hand in marriage. Cersei demurs, but Euron makes a grand promise of a vague present that will change her mind. (The obvious guess is Tyrion. We will see how obvious the show wants to be this season when the time comes.)
And, writhing in an Oldtown sanitarium, we find Ser Jorah Mormont still alive. The once-handsome knight, now a cast off loose end, suffers from rapidly advancing Greyscale, a chronic and deadly illness that combines leprosy and rabies, which he caught in Season 6. He’s still asking after Daenerys, whom he once served and might serve again, if he finds a cure.
Yes, winter has come, circumstances are dire, war continues to consume the continent. The army of the dead march on the Realms of Men (and of women, the Badass Lady Mormont reminds us). But even confronting massive existential threat, everyone still has that one missed spot, that, no matter how hard they scrub, just won’t go away.
Amid it all, Sam Tarly labors in the Citadel, where he has gone to join the order of Maesters, the monkish academics and wizardish doctors of Westeros. There, we are treated to the episode’s greatest stylistic indulgence: a montage of such bombast and visceral disgust that it could only have been made after the show broke free of its charge to adapt existing work.
For Sam cleans bedpans. He cleans toilets. He retches, near vomiting. He serves stew. He eats it. He retches. He cleans bedpans and toilets. Retches. Stew. Toilet. Retch. Bedpan. Vomit. Stew. Retch. Bang. Clank. Retch. Jump cut. Ad nauseam, ad infinitum. His routine of service, consumption, and waste disposal congeals into a cacophonous and disgusting universal truth: Food is just shit you haven’t eaten yet.
Sam also meets a delightful dissector of human bodies (played by Jim Broadbent of Moulin Rouge and so much else), the only man he’s met “south of the Twins” who comes to believe the White Walkers are real. And he endeavors upon some Hogwarts-quality shenanigans.
Young Tarly steals a book from a forbidden library section that leads him to tactical realizations about the White Walkers (namely, that the dragonglass mountain at Dragonstone may prove to be humanity’s arsenal, as the White Walkers are vulnerable to weapons made of the stuff). He also gets a glimpse of an astronomical book that seems to explain the irregularity of the world’s seasons, but neither he nor we get a good enough look at it to glean the details.
And still, the more critical truth seems to be that his dinner looks like the feces of the elderly. So many of today’s characters are so focused on the one thing they want to fix. Perhaps they miss that war, like institutional gruel, is a garbage-in/garbage-out situation.
Dolorous Ed Explains It All
The episode does seem to pull apart a bit, perhaps because a second theme runs through so much of it in parallel to the first. Yes, there’s the perhaps-misguided urge to have killed everyone one had a chance to kill when one had that chance. But there’s also the wisdom that passes between Bran Stark and Dolorous Ed at the Wall.
When Bran and Meera arrive at the gate, Meera tells their names to Ed, now the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Ed, reasonably, asks how he can know for sure that they are who they say. Bran counters with a list of Ed’s experiences, which he has seen using his ability to access the magical network of weirwoods. While from an objective sense this raises more questions than answers (How did Bran know these things, and why would Bran knowing these things prove he is Bran?), in the currency of this episode, his access to Ed’s experiences grant him authority and authenticity in asserting who he is.
Game of Thrones often trades in questions of identity, with greater or lesser success. This week, it’s “experiences prove who you are.” This is quite a bit more concrete and comfortable than many of the show’s stances on self, befitting a show that is picking up its pace on the way to resolution.
We hear Euron and Jaime vie for the right to define each other by telling the story of their experiences during the Greyjoy Rebellion. We hear Lady Mormont redefine the narrative of what it means to be a woman in Westeros while integrating the North’s armed forces.
And we hear similar from Tormund, the red-haired wildling chieftan, as he redefines himself as the Night’s Watch when he accepts the charge of defending their castles. He also defines Podrick Payne as “a lucky man,” despite his immediate misfortune of being dumped on his face, for the experience of being beaten about by Lady Brienne (which Tormund no doubt envies on both a level of personal respect, and, of course, cheeky carnality).
Honest Wage for Honest Work
Along with Sam’s adventures in sanitation, these themes: wishing you could get rid of everything you left behind (but you can’t), and defining yourself through your experience, come together in two extended sequences. They share opposite sides of a very specific callback.
In Season 4, episode 3, Arya Stark and the Hound were traveling together through the Riverlands. They had just witnessed the Red Wedding and the murder of Arya’s mother and brother. The Hound wanted to ransom Arya to Lysa Arryn, her aunt in the Vale, while Arya wanted something else, eventually making her way to Braavos to join the Faceless Men guild of assassins. But in this moment of uncertainty, they came across a possible alternative, which they turned down.
In a small house, the pair found hospitality with a humble farmer and his daughter Sally. The farmer was a religious man, a devout follower of the Faith of the Seven. It’s the same religion that backed the fanatical group of face-scarring theocrats who blew up in green fire at the end of Season 6, but in a different, more tempered, less shame-oriented formulation.
This farmer offered the Hound and Arya food; prayed over the meal; bemoaned the sacrilege of the Red Wedding, where guess protected by customs of hospitality were murdered by their host; and offered the Hound, and, by extension, Arya, board and some pay in silver if they would stay with him and Sally, work on the farm, and protect the household from bandits during the winter: “Honest wage for honest work.” The Hound accepted the offer over dinner.
In the morning, the Hound beat the farmer, robbed him of his silver, and left with Arya, claiming the small family would not survive the winter anyway, as the farmer could not protect himself.
Here, in Season 7, the Hound arrives with the Brotherhood without Banners (worshipers of the Lord of Light, R’hllor, including Beric Dondarrion, a man raised from the dead on multiple occasions by some sort of fire magic) at the same house where he left the farmer and Sally alone. They find skeletal remains of the pair, who apparently died of suicide, encouraged by starvation.
For the Hound, this is both business he left unfinished, and an experience that potentially defines who he is. Since he has changed so much since season 4, he feels the need to repudiate it. He buries their bodies (he should probably burn them because of the approaching army of the dead and the fire cultists he is traveling with, but whatever), and he attempts to say a prayer over the grave.
He gets through only the first line before he forgets the words, but it’s the same prayer the farmer said over the meal back in Season 4. The prayer still seems relevant to the troubles facing the characters today. Here’s the full prayer from Season 4, with the Hound providing the last line:
We ask the Father to judge us with mercy, accepting our human frailty.
We as the Mother to bless our crops, so we may feed ourselves and all who come to our door.
We ask the Warrior to give us courage in these days of strife and turmoil.
We ask the Maiden to protect Sally’s virtue and keep her from the clutches of depravity.
We ask the Smith to strengthen our hands and our backs, so we may finish the work required of us.
We ask the Crone to guide us on our journey from darkness to darkness.
And we ask the Stranger not to kill us in our beds tonight for no damn reason at all.
The Hound’s visit is a powerful mini-story on its own, deeper and more engaged with truth than most of the episode. The Hound seeing a vision of the approach of the army of the dead is more like the rest of the show, which is taking a Summer Slam Battle Royale in the Steel Cage approach to Westerosi politics. For what it is, I don’t mind at all. Still, it’s nice to see the other side.
Your Heart Is So Cold
In the other story Arya happens on a contingent of Lannister men in the countryside, led by a conspicuous cameo by soul-pop sensation Ed Sheeran. Sheeran sings a song about “hands of gold,” either about Tyrion Lannister murdering his lover Shae with the Hand of the King’s hand-shaped lapel pin, or Jaime Lannister’s golden hand since his return from captivity, or both. It’s a new song. A lot has changed since Arya was last here.
Arya refuses several offers from the men to eat with them. Keen observers might notice that by refusing their offer of food, she is refusing to engage with them in a custom of hospitality, like the custom of guest right that Walder Frey violated when he killed her brother in Season 3, or the custom of hospitality that she and the Hound enjoyed, and then betrayed, at the farmer’s house in Season 4.
There’s a point of tension until Arya takes the first bite of food that she very well might want to murder all these guys. Once she eats, because of her history and experience, it’s clear they’ll survive the episode at least. Though Ed Sheeran’s long-term prospects in Westeros are about on par with what they were in “Don’t.”
Arya’s declaration at the beginning of the episode has reversed. Then, it was right and proper to kill all your enemies and leave no survivors. These men are her enemy, she even tells them she’s going to kill their queen, though they laugh it off. Now, leaving them alive marks some hope of a more hopeful change in her character.
A Real Fixer Upper
And this brings us to Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryan, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons, the biggest unpulled weed in a whole world full of unpulled weeds.
At the end of the episode, Daenerys finally arrives at Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of her family, the launching point of her ancestors’ invasion of the continent of Westeros. She feels the sand, experiencing her landfall, making it real. She looks serious, experienced, tempered, but appropriately cautious and solemn.
We cut past the part where she climbs hundreds if not thousands of feet of stone stairs in high-heeled boots.
Then, Daenerys pulls her own final weed, a lonely banner for the previous occupant, Stannis Baratheon, who held that castle during his brother’s reign and used it to plot his own invasion. Finally, we arrive at the table of Aegon the Conqueror.
Aegon built this table to symbolize that the “Seven Kingdoms” were naturally one Kingdom, and he was the King who would rule them all. Aegon knew how to frame a narrative.
Walking in the room, Daenerys finds the table, where Stannis had sex with Melisandre way back in Season 2 (ew, don’t touch it, Daenerys). It is next to a grand open-aired vista, which seems like a bad idea if you plan on setting up a bunch of models on it that would get blown over by the wind.
But all this is beside the point, which is that Daenerys’s squad, including her inner circle Tyrion Lannister, her interpreter and attache Missandei, Varys the spymaster, and Grey Worm, leader of the Unsullied, her highly-trained contingent of devoted eunuch spearmen, are ready to finally launch her long-awaited second conquest.
Daenerys is the one who was left behind. Westeros was what she left behind. She claims here the experience of her house as proof of who she is, but brings her own experience as well. No doubt the two conflict, but not in this moment.
Still, in an episode that started with so much declarative certainty, and that moved through so much trepidation and regret, it is fitting we end on not a statement, but a question.
Shall we begin?