A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
As the ashes from the destruction of the Sept of Baelor were still settling upon the smoldering cobblestones of King’s Landing, white ravens had been sent from the Citadel of Oldtown to signify that winter was indeed here. This table-setting yet excellent premiere episode of the series’s penultimate season has taken that declaration of meteorological fact and crafted it into a motif, signaling the inevitability of the great war Jon Snow (Kit Harington) understandably cannot speak enough about. That motif manifests itself most visibly in the landscape, as the harsh cold has slowly traversed from the Lands of Always Winter and down into the northern reaches of the Riverlands. The farms that once stood amidst a glistening greenery of the summer descended into a fiery brimstone of war and as the aristocrats settled back into their stone edifices, the brimstone gave way to sheets of snow and whispers of frigid winds. The farms collapsed, the people starve, and the aristocrats within their edifices turned their weapons towards one another. In doing so, they largely managed to spectacularly ignore the greatest threat the winds of winter promised and at this stage in the story, most of them continue to do so.
The primary theme of “Dragonstone” is concerned with the internal conflicts that arise when the circumstances of one’s ideals clash with the reality that is on such portent display. The larger conflict of the White Walkers inevitably descending upon Westeros is arguably the most obvious utilization of that theme. As Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) wryly notes to Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), seemingly everyone south of the Twins is either ignorant of the risk or unwilling to believe that it could be anywhere near as portent as those calling for action believe it to be. Even Archmaester Ebrose, who seems to believe Samwell’s urgency, is unable to grasp the entirety of the problem at hand, believing instead that this winter is much the same as every other one. It will end, he believes, as all other winters have ended and nothing more. The Wall, he wryly notes, has stood for all of written memory and the written memory is what the Citadel knows.
For Samwell, this is a frustrating awakening from his dreams. Throughout his fairly abusive childhood, he could never become the warrior his father wanted and afraid of imminent death, he was forced to turn to the Night’s Watch. Yet that was also a realm on its own that was a warrior’s domain in theory and in a verisimilitude of practice. Night after tormenting day, Samwell dreamt of the Citadel, the vast tower of learning where the world’s greatest library was illuminated by golden astrolabes. He dreamt of its ancient arches and corridors where maesters would walk, steeped in the traditions of learning and an unabashed pursuit of the academic arts. He is pained by his menial tasks as he would much rather be learning, but he is far more pained to experience what Qyburn (Anton Lesser) had mentioned several times throughout the series: that the jaded elite of the Citadel are a barrier to progress. Samwell’s only recourse is to break the rules, which he does and with Gilly and Little Sam by his side, discovers evidence of what Stannis had spoken of at Castle Black: that there is a mountain of dragonglass right beneath the castle Daenerys has just reclaimed as her own.
“Dragonstone” opens, however, not on the ancestral castle of the Targaryen Dynasty but in a hall of a man who became infamous for his lack of loyalty. Walder Frey (David Bradley) was never one to have his ideal world clash with an ugly reality because that ugly reality served his purposes just fine. He let others do his dirty work for him and he reaped the menial rewards until Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) slit his throat with relish. Here Arya goes one step further, donning Walder’s face and using the magic of the Faceless Men to deliver one last trick against House Frey. She poisons all of the men, delivering a scathing indictment on their despicable lack of mortal fortitude as they choke and start crumbling amidst the gorgeous candelabras. In one fell swoop, Arya wiped out House Frey, but critically speared the women Walder had so roundly abused from suffering the same fate. Winter had come for House Frey and Arya had been more than happy to deliver it.
Arya, much like her sister Sansa (Sophie Turner), has become a hardened and cynical woman, which is why her coming across the only decent band of men in the woods in all of Westeros is so critical. The scene was included in part to make their inevitable deaths more touching as the Lannisters go to war, but it was necessary for Arya to connect to her pre-mass murdering self When they offer her a warm fire, a rabbit, and wine, she expected that they would try to harm her. She sizes them up, looking keenly at their weaponry before realizing that they were just a band of men who weren’t interested in hurting her at all. She relaxes her guard slightly, finding another hearth of humanity on her route to complete her mission of killing Cersei (Lena Headey).
As Arya single-handedly fulfills the death quota for the opening episode, Sansa finds herself frustrated with Jon’s leadership and feeling slightly embittered that he was placed on the throne of Winterfell instead of herself. The opening conflict arises from Jon wanting to not punish the Karstarks and Umbers for their treason by taking away their castles, while Sansa argues that a system that doesn’t punish traitors and reward loyalists is a system that rests entirely upon a foolhardy sense of honor and that it simply has no chance of lasting. What, she argues, is the incentive for families to stay loyal in the future? She has a point, even if Jon’s argument that Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) and Alys Karstark (Megan Parkinson) should not be punished for the sins of their respective fathers has its own merits. While the conversation between the two of them is tactless, it keeps the complexities of Game Of Thrones well and alive, complexities that in recent seasons have at times been swept aside for narrative convenience.
Jon grew up emulating the father and brother he always wanted to be his own and what he learned from the both of them was the importance of honor. Honor meant understanding and acting upon the vitality of keeping one’s words, of always placing justice in the forefront no matter what the circumstance may be. Tradition was important, the old ways were vital, assuming the best intentions of others was what kept honor alive. That’s an understandable perspective, but blindly beholding one’s self to it lost Ned (Sean Bean) and Robb (Richard Madden) their heads, as Sansa bluntly points out. Honor without intelligence is nothing but foolishness and from her perspective, more foolishness was something the Starks simply could not afford.
Sansa’s point of view arises from her having suffered and learned from far different hands than Jon’s. King’s Landing, after all, was not the Night’s Watch. Surviving in that cesspool of a city required a significant amount of political skills and considering how many people died in the capital over the course of the series, it is impressive that Sansa managed to not just survive past her betrothal to Joffrey, but observe and learn. Learning from Littlefinger (Aiden Gillan) in the Eyrie further honed those skills before she was thrown in the lion’s den with the Boltons. Sansa has indeed learned a great deal from Cersei, shaped by cleverness, savviness, and political machinations and brutality. Those who blindly espoused honor and loyalty in her experience met a brutal end. In Jon she sees the same types of mistakes that brought the Starks down in the first place and she is determined for the remaining members of the family to avoid the same fate.
Cersei herself is overseeing the construction of a map on the floor of a courtyard in King’s Landing. She looks over the continent of Westeros from the Neck, noting all the enemies the Lannisters have surrounding them, no thanks to her own actions. Daenerys and Tyrion are to the East, complete with an army and an armada. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are to the South. The Tyrells are to the West. The Starks are to the North with a new king at the helm. Jaime notes that Cersei doesn’t understand the catastrophic nature of their circumstance, pressing her to comprehend that she at best has a hold over three kingdoms, which in and of itself is suspect considering that the Freys no longer exist. Cersei objects that she does indeed comprehend the danger that they are in, that they are certainly dead if they lose. But she no longer has her children, or empathy, and she is now simply out for power for power’s sake. If that means feeding Euron Greyjoy’s (Pilou Asbæk) delusions of marrying her and joining the Iron Throne, so be it.
The Hound (Rory McCann) finds a journey of emotional catharsis in a surprising sequence that calls back to one of the most sharply cutting scenes of season four. Him along with the Brotherhood Without Banners arrive at an abandoned farm, usual for the Riverlands, but this particular abandoned farm happened to be the one he had robbed. The Hound had reasoned that the farmer and his daughter were likely to starve, a logical conclusion given their circumstances, but nevertheless Arya was thoroughly indignant that he was taking away the last, meager resources they had at their disposal. Her indignation rings loud and clear in the shot where the Hound sees the skeleton of the farmer and his daughter in the corner. As Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) notes, it appeared that the farmer stabbed his daughter and himself out of mercy, to spare themselves the misery of suffocating even further. Moved by an intense remorse for his actions, he digs a grave and buries their skeletons with the assistance of Thoros (Paul Kaye). It isn’t much, but as far as symbolic moments are concerned, it means much more than such moments often do. He can’t remember the prayers but his faith may be rekindled in another way, pun intended. The Hound, on the egging of Beric and Thoros, looks deeply into the fire and sees a vision from the Lord of Light. He sees ice, a mountain that looks like an arrowhead, and the dead marching past.
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds a mountain of her own, at last returning to the ancestral Targaryen stronghold of Dragonstone. The dragons fly gracefully over the towers as a small boat carrying Daenerys and her advisors comes to shore. Ramin Djawadi’s billowing score removes any necessity for dialogue, leaving the weight of carrying this sequence upon Emilia’s visage, which is more than up to the task at hand. She steps onto the shore, carrying the entire weight of her life and dynasty with her. Daenerys had believed throughout her entire life that this was home, that at some point her Viserys (Harry Lloyd) would return here to begin the rightful conquest of their home. Her brother was gone and Daenerys became bogged down in Essos, embracing her savior complex and losing her identity. She gained it back and now she’s back home, but she is, unlike many of the characters in this series, aware of the complexities that arrive with her rule. She knows what her dream is but she is also aware of the reality of what it means for her to back home with an army, armada, and dragons. She is going to be greeted as a liberator and a conqueror and it remains to be seen if she can navigate those treacherous paths to reclaim her seat for the Iron Throne. For now, she symbolically eschews promptly sitting upon the throne at Dragonstone and walks straight into the war room. Her fingers grace the edges of that famed map table and as she looks down upon Westeros from the northern end of the table, she takes a moment to glance towards Tyrion. “Shall we begin?” she asks resolutely and the drum beats of war begin beating in the background. The great game is on.
+I’m naming my future daughter Arya. I don’t know what that says about me nor do I particularly care.
+I will rewatch the opening scene forever.
+Deborah Riley should add another Emmy to her repertoire. The production design is impeccable.
+“Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.”
+“Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”
+“I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me. And I don’t need your permission to defend the North.” Put Lyanna Mormont on the throne instantly.
+“No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’m assuming it’s something clever.”
+“I’m going to kill the queen.”
+Oh, Jorah. Poor, poor Jorah
+My god, Dragonstone is GORGEOUS. I would take that throne over the Iron Throne any day.
+THE LEATHER. I AM SO HERE FOR ALL OF THIS LEATHER.
+It’s crazy, isn’t it, seeing Daenerys home at last?
-The Citadel montage was a little too long
-That’s a lot of ships for Euron, isn’t it? I mean, really.
Episode Title: Dragonstone
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed by: Jeremy Podeswa
Image Courtesy: HBO
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