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Game of Thrones 7.02 Review – ‘Stormborn’

July 24, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Game of Thrones 7.02 Review – ‘Stormborn’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s season episode of Game of Thrones.]

Game of Thrones is riding high as it starts its seventh season, but the waters are still somewhat treacherous. In short — pun intended — David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a crisis of real estate. There’s a lot of storyline left in the show and only twelve episodes (eleven now that we’re done with this week) to put it into. Where previous seasons were allowed to carefully move pieces around the board and put them in strategic positions before delivering the big moments, that isn’t as much of an option and there is a risk of the series becoming too chaotic and reliant on big moments, shocking plot twists and major deaths to the point of burning the audience out.

That’s why “Stormborn” is such a balm of an episode for those who needed soothing regarding that potential itch. In the second episode of the season, the writing team reminds us that they have a particularly strong handle on exactly how to escalate a show’s conflict and tension. There’s a fine line between crawling along and rushing ahead, and “Stormborn” hits that pacing sweet spot, delivering some awe-inspiring moments while still setting things up nicely for the many big moments yet to come.

The title of this episode refers to Daenerys Targaryen of course, and the alias she’s been referred to throughout the series by other characters. While the Mother of Dragons gets quite a bit more screen time this week than she did last episode, it’s relevant that the title uses her sobriquet that is intended to impress because even when she’s not on the screen this week, her shadow looms large over most of the scenes. Daenerys’ arrival is a momentous event, and Benioff and Weiss give it the impact that it deserves. Everyone is reacting to the arrival of Dany and her army because they should; it is the arrival of the first major player in the war for the Iron Throne in quite a while, and it arrives just as the whole thing had been winnowed down to two or three (depending on whether you consider Greyjoy) contenders.

Dany’s arrival serves as a sort of narrative barometer to see where everyone’s mindsets are. In King’s Landing, Cersei uses Daenerys as the bogeyman leading an army of foreign devils in order to unite the fractious nobility under her rule. I’m not going to lie; it’s tempting to discuss this plot development in context of the contemporary subtext (see: Brexit, ISIS, the US travel ban, etc.) But the actions here have more of a universal subtext that defies the current political climate. Politics 101 tells you that when your situation is in trouble, find a specter for the people to fear. While Dany’s arrival is certainly good for the storyline — and, presumably, the fate of the Westeros and maybe even the world — in the short term, it has provided an unexpected boost to Cersei as she smartly plays the sins of Dany’s lineage and the “savages” of the Dothraki horde against the “civilized” people of King’s Landing. She may not have Varys at her side anymore, but Cersei is no slouch in the propaganda department herself.

Fortunately for Daenerys, she isn’t exactly a mewling babe at this point. Her past experiences, with all the missteps and errors she’s made over the seasons, have shaped Dany and to her credit, she has learned from them instead of letting those decisions define her. The woman at Dragonstone who dresses down Varys is so far from the woman who fell for Pyat Pree and Xaro in Qarth as to be almost an entirely different person. The naivety of her early struggles and the uncompromising near-despotism of her time in the Bay of Dragons don’t guide her anymore; she has figured out how to compartmentalize those and has the wisdom to rely on the opinions of others when need be. Forgiving the likes of Varys would have been inconceivable even two seasons ago, but she’s smart enough to trust in Tyrion as her hand and to see the political realities of the world Varys lived in. Does she trust any of them? Short of Grey Worm and Missandei, I would venture to say no (at least, not completely). But she knows enough to value what they have to say, consider it and let it inform her own decisions. That she was able to unite a group as disparate and clashing as Ellaria, Olenna, Tyrion and Varys says a lot about her ability to move forward.

Meanwhile, those in the North have a lot to say about the return of House Targaryen to Westerosi shores as well. After Tyrion sends a very diplomatically-worded message to Jon at Dany’s request asking for a meeting (note that the words “bend the knee” were deliberately excluded from the missive), the King of the North has a lot to consider. There is a little bit of plot contrivance here in that everything all seems to suddenly be coming together in just the right order, especially when so much of the story has bucked traditional storytelling narratives. That said, it’s a perfectly acceptable amount of contrivance for a fantasy series like this, in which prophecy is an important thing. It’s also more important to bring the plot together than worry about the fact that Sam sent a raven about dragonglass at just the right time to give Jon the extra push to take a trip to Dragonstone.

Jon’s decision to journey to Dragonstone is inherently exciting for a few reasons. The big and obvious one is that it means that we’ll be seeing Jon and Daenerys come together in a room for the same time, which is certainly the next big milestone that has to fall. These two notably do not realize that they’re aunt and nephew yet, so instead they’re just potential allies and potential rival rulers. This is one of those cases where the audience benefits in knowing more than the characters do. Either way it will be interesting to see how these two characters, who unexpectedly grew into positions of power within Westeros, relate to and clash with each other. Melisandre will be an interesting X factor there, considering Jon did banish her not so long ago.

Jon’s journey to Dragonstone also moves him out of Winterfell and puts Sansa in charge of the North. This is development that in some ways for me is more intriguing than the Jon/Dany meeting. Sansa has been growing into a leader as well, although it’s hard not to argue that her journey is less advanced than those of Jon’s and Dany’s. Sansa has learned much, but for the second week in a row she seems to be letting her personal animosities get in the way. Last week she had tunnel vision regarding Cersei, but this week she can’t forget (perhaps understandably, to be fair) that their potential new ally’s grandfather burned their grandfather alive. To be fair, Sansa is no idiot and she has many reasons to be wary and suspicious; she’s also the right choice to lead the North (Lyanna Mormont aside, of course!). This gives Baelish a little room to breathe as he attempts to maneuver Sansa, at least until Arya shows up and is all “screw that noise.”

That’s the other Stark development that should have us all excited. Arya was looking to head to King’s Landing last episode so that she could murder Cersei, something she wasn’t shy about. But as soon as Hot Pie (in a welcome cameo) reveals that Winterfell is back in Stark hands, Arya’s focus gets derailed. I will completely understand if this frustrates some viewers; after all, Arya’s whole life mission since season one was to murder those who wronged her family and diverting from that means that a plot direction gets delayed. But bringing the Starks together — if only a few at a time — has been a major mission for the show and bringing Arya back to Sansa feels like a moment that really needs to happen for both of their sakes.

Thus far in season seven, Arya has unsurprisingly remained one of the most anticipated characters to see collide with other characters. Much like Dany was for a long time, she’s been alone and away from the rest of the plot for forever and those characters she knows would hardly recognize when she’s not using someone’s face. This is exemplified this week in the most surprising return: that of Nymeria. The dire wolves have always been symbols of their respective owners, of course, and Nymeria’s appearance here is reflective of where Arya herself is at. In a way, she’s looking in a mirror: the young wolf grown up on her own, wild and free. Arya wants to reconnect with her past and take Nymeria back to Winterfell, but that’s not possible anymore. The dire wolf leaves and Arya is saddened but as she says, “That’s not you.” I know some are going to take this to mean that Arya doesn’t think it’s her wolf, but it pretty clearly is and the other readings of that line are much more interesting. In one sense, Arya is realizing that she isn’t the person she was back when Nymeria was in her life. And in another sense, she’s realizing that Nymeria can’t go home, which may mean she can’t either.

With all of that in play, it’s a credit to “Stormborn” that we haven’t even gotten to a couple of the episode’s subplots. First of those is Sam, who is stepping up and taking some matters in his own hands. While his father is being tempted by Jamie’s flattery and impressive titles (admittedly, more the titles than the flattery), Sam is developing enough of a backbone to risk his life to save Jorah. Sam is an important exposition relayer at the moment; he’s become sort of a nexus point for all the little details important to Westeros. The Archmaester at the moment is content to put Sam through the paces, both because instructing people in the basics is the right thing to do for positions like the Maesters and because he doesn’t buy that the world is as doomed as Jon and Sam believe it to be. Sam, on the other hand, isn’t content to let Jorah, the son of the man he served in the Night’s Watch, die. The moment is a major risk for Sam as a character and will likely have some sort of repercussions — this isn’t something he can just hide from his mentor — but it’s one that is important for him to take.

And then there’s that climax. I said at the beginning of this review that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss proved (again) that they knew how to properly escalate things. Euron’s assault on Yara and Theon’s ship in order to claim Ellaria is a shock, because this is the kind of moment you expect to be stalled out just a little. But season seven-era Game of Thrones has zero time for stalling. It’s a big action setpiece, full of blood and chaos and resulting in two major deaths. With all respect to the talented Jessica Henwick and Keisha Castle-Hughes, Nymeria and Obara’s deaths aren’t exactly series shaking. The Dorne storyline was one of Thrones’ most notable missteps, and the Sand Snakes were part of that. Still, they are important because they’re named, established characters who mean a lot to the more significant and interesting Ellaria. Their death matters, but not so much that D&D have to slow back down in order to pace things right. If someone like Baelish, Theon or Jamie had died, that would have been a major moment that required the show to pull back a bit, because you can only go so far up from there. With Yara, Tyene and Ellaria still alive (for now), their fates are very much in the balance and it wouldn’t be out of line for the show to kill off a bigger character next week. As such, the tension remains intact.

Of course, perhaps more important than the Sands’ deaths is Theon’s reaction. The poor Greyjoy scion reverts back to the cowardice of Reek here and flees, leaving his sister at their uncle’s practically non-existent mercy. It’s a logical moment from a motivational standpoint, though it does feel like a somewhat frustrating backtrack. We’ve seen Theon make poor life choices, and he had been moving forward. There isn’t a lot of room for him to revisit old thematic material, because it undoes some of the character work that was done with his semi-redemption in helping Sansa. It’s a minor nitpick though in an episode that effectively sets the pace for the seventh season and promises even bigger and better on the way.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Death Count For this Week: Just about all of Asha’s people, some of Euron’s people, Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand.

• I love Baelish as a character but I have to admit; it was really satisfying seeing Jon throw him off of his game and say in no uncertain terms what would happen if he crossed a line with Sansa.

• It might just be me, but Qyburn’s great weapon against Daenerys’ dragons seems a little underwhelming. Sure, those ballista crossbows can pierce through dragon skulls, but just having a sniper rifle doesn’t make me Widowmaker.

• Just once, I would like for a major character to learn Jon Snow is King of the North and ask “Wait, isn’t he in the Night’s Watch? How did that promotion happen?”

• As much as I enjoyed Daenerys putting Varys on his heels a bit, I also loved Varys being quite blunt about his loyalties lying with the people of Westeros over kings. DGAF Varys is the best Varys yet.

• On the eve of the Unsullied heading to conquer Casterly Rock, Missandei and Grey Worm finally admit their feelings and get intimate, ending Westeros’ longest “will they or won’t they?” to date.

• Thus far, season seven can effectively be subtitled as “Game of Thrones: Sam Tarly Does Gross Things.”

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
"Stormborn" picks up the threads from the very good season premiere and runs with them, delivering some big moments and setting up plenty more to come. From Nymeria's return and Euron's assault to the impending Jon/Daenerys meeting and more, just about everything is coming up roses thus far.

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Game of Thrones, Jeremy Thomas