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Game of Thrones Review 7.01 – ‘Dragonstone’

July 17, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Game of Thrones - Dragonstone
8.5
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Game of Thrones Review 7.01 – ‘Dragonstone’  

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

With the stunning events of the season six finale, Game of Thrones officially declared itself to be in the final (extended) act of George R.R. Martin’s story. Cersei Lannister consolidated her power and eliminated all of her immediate enemies in King’s Landing (not to mention a good portion of the city itself), while Daenerys Targaryen finally set sail for Westeros with a conglomeration of allies at her back. Jon Snow and Sansa Stark took control of the North and prepared for the wars to come, with Baelish watching from the shadows. Everything about the final part of the season streamlined and winnowed away extraneous story arcs, seemingly setting the stage for the final battles for control of the Iron Throne…not to mention, the good of the entire world.

And indeed, barely more than a month after the dust from the season finale had settled, HBO had made it official and set an end date for the series. There are only two seasons left, and they’re shortened seasons at that. With that in mind and with extra time established to accommodate the show’s ambitious shooting schedule, Game of Thrones took an extra few months off. Of course, that only served to whet fans’ appetites. It’s almost startling when you look back and see how far Game of Thrones has come since it hit the air six years ago. It came into a television landscape where genre television was relied on for ratings and not awards, and helped shatter those boundaries. The pressure is on for HBO to deliver a final push for the series that lives up to the level of passion fans have for the show.

And therein may be the show’s biggest challenge. HBO has teased a final two seasons that have less episodes but more epic moments than ever. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have promised a faster pace for the show, battle sequences that dwarf anything they’ve ever done and, to put it simply, the kind of final arcs that the show’s fans deserve. With that fever pitch of hype coming into Sunday, HBO now has to deliver in a big way on their promises and in that, they may have become their hit show’s worst enemy. “Dragonstone,” the season seven premiere, may well come off as disappointing to some fans because it doesn’t contain too many of those epic sequences (or at least not the right kinds of epic) and doesn’t follow up “Winds of Winter’s” game changers with other immediate world-searing moments. But it’s incumbent on Weiss and Benioff to set those expectations aside and lay out their premiere as it should be: establishing the new status quo so that it can be upended later, while setting the stage for what’s to come.

Part of setting the table for what’s to come involves revisiting what we knew, especially when it’s been fifteen months since the last time we saw these characters. “Dragonstone” makes it clear that it has a lot on its plate when it goes into a deep dive for the recap montage, going as far back as to bring in moments from the very first episode. For Jon and Sansa though, that would almost be meaningless. The Stark children are among the most drastically changed by the events of the last six seasons and while the scenes in the North have plenty of callbacks to season one — Jon talking about Ned’s execution creed, the siblings discussing how their father treated them differently — even a whole “Previously On” dedicated just to them wouldn’t do them justice.

Instead, we get what’s most immediately relevant to Jon and Sansa: their unification of the North and the threats at their door. These multiple threats allow Benioff and Weiss to put half-brother and half-sister at odds about certain tactical decisions. While Jon is laser-focused on the threat of the White Walkers, Sansa has to point out the reality of the fact that he still needs these people to be loyal to him and the easiest way to do that is reward loyalty. Meanwhile, Jon knows the realities of what they’re facing in the Night’s King and his army, and he knows that there’s no one to spare. It’s very likely that if the North was just facing the threat of King’s Landing, Jon would be more inclined to honor the old ways. But he’s his father’s son, and he lets what he believes is right guide his tactical and ruling decisions which is something Sansa sees as a mistake.

The best part of this quandary is that neither of them are right or wrong. Sure, we may side with Sansa because Jon is acting a little too much like an ideologue in a world where he was actually murdered for his idealism, or we may side with Jon because — well, because there are zombies coming to kill them all. But both of them have entirely valid points from their perspective, and they’re viewing a difficult situation through their own experiences, strengths and shortcomings. Jon’s lean toward his honor over political realities makes sense and he’s right to see the White Walkers as a greater threat to all, but it’s also the kind of ruling that gets people killed and makes Houses fall. Meanwhile, Sansa is very accurate in saying that Cersei won’t stop until she kills them, which would be problematic if they need to stand against the undead. But she’s blinded to the Walkers due to her own experiences, which have her tunnel vision aimed at the new Queen of the Seven (or Three at best, as Jamie says it) Kingdoms.

To be clear, I’m not cheering the fact that the sister may betray her brother, or vice versa. I don’t think that will happen, because that would be the expected thing in this world when two people in power come into conflict. And while they are certainly setting up a philosophical conflict between the two, that doesn’t require them ending up at each other’s throats. One of the biggest themes of Game of Thrones is whether the children will become slaves to their parents’ legacies, or forge their own paths. Sansa and Jon would seem to have come too far at this point to just fall back to infighting and division, thus letting one threat or another carve them up. Sansa’s smart enough to keep Baelish at bay, but also recognizes the need to have him around. And Jon is smart enough to know that there are more important threats to deal with that preclude holding stubbornly to his pride for the ill of everyone else.

Instead of being a likely source of doom (however much we’re meant to worry about that), the philosophical conflict re-established here simply seems set to provide some necessary tension to their rule while showing why both of them are needed to probably save the North. Sansa can deal with the threats posed by Cersei to some degree (and indeed, may have a little unexpected sisterly help with that) and Jon is equipped with the knowledge of how to handle the White Walkers. Both of them have leadership styles that are different but effective in their own ways, evolved from the lessons they learned from their various mentors. There are a lot of dangers facing them in all directions, and their arc in this episode basically establishes those threats (including from within with Baelish), but we’re not at the point of moving their odds up on the death pool quite yet.

Jon and Sansa aren’t the only ones dealing with threats from all sides though, as another sibling duo find themselves besieged by problems even as their own power is now fully established. It’s interesting to look at the way that the Lannister siblings compare and contrast to Jon and Sansa. There are a lot of obvious similarities here; Cersei and Sansa are more devious and more astute in recognizing the importance of diplomacy, or at least making allies. Jon and Jamie are the more honorable halves of their respective partnerships, and arguably the more “moral,” trying to move forward instead of being bound by their pasts. But at the same time, Jamie and Sansa are arguably the pragmatists while Cersei and Jon are so busy focusing on the threats facing them that they can’t see the problems right in front of them. The Starks and Lannisters have always circled each other thematically and it seems appropriate that we have the upstarts from the youngest generation and the upstarts from the middle generation serving as counterparts to each other.

But while there are plenty of similarities, there’s no denying that the partnerships are opposite sides of the same coin. Sure, both sides are just now coming into real power and those character reflections make for some interesting things, but the Lannisters — particularly Cersei — are still bound by their pasts. They’re only one generation removed from the sins of the elders, and they have taken most of those sins on willingly. While Jamie and Sansa have lost their loved ones, that was despite their best efforts. Jamie and Cersei drove all of their loved ones away in one way or another and usually by being responsible for their deaths in some way or another. The big battle of course has to be the White Walkers versus humanity, but I have a very strong feeling that the Lannister vs. Stark conflict will have to be gotten out of the way first and I expect that conflict to drive the four characters this season, while the threat Daenerys and the Night’s King add pressure (assumedly with Dany getting involved in the conflict somehow).

It is worth mentioning that despite the prophetic nature of Jon’s status as the possible Azor Ahai, the resolution of Starks vs. Lannisters shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion. Sure, Cersei may be trapped in her vows of vengeance and her obsession of enjoying the power that cost her so much, and she really does need to get her comeuppance. But Cersei’s no idiot. In fact, she may just be the most dangerous non-undead villain that the show has had, and definitely my favorite. She acts rashly and impulsively and it costs her, but she also knows how to pick her allies. In this case, it’s Euron Greyjoy. This is an interesting bait and switch, because in Martin’s books Euron has set his sights on Daenerys as his chosen queen. That’s not to say that he won’t go that way eventually but for now, he’s choosing the one who is already corrupt as his potential spouse. It’s a wise move from Euron’s perspective, because Cersei has been tested in conflict and Dany just has dragons. The Queen of King’s Landing has already sold her soul to the devil, and that seems to be the way Euron likes it.

Euron may not realize just what kind of match he’s made, though. He comes in all swagger and disrespect, choosing to push boundaries. He insults Jamie, he moves forward on Cersei, and he’s inherently disrespectful to the both of them. Sure, there’s some tactical choice to this in Euron’s mind, but it’s also because he underestimates her. He seems legitimately surprised when Cersei turns him down, and then he promises her a gift after talking so much about Tyrion, Asha and Theon and how they’re travelling with Daenerys. Cersei knows she needs the Iron Fleet, but she also knows she can’t appear weak since she’s just gained power and has no allies. By making Euron offer to go get that “gift” — which I suspect is Dany and Tyrion — she’s making him do her work, and that puts her in a position of power. That’s a smart move and it may just pay off for her; it also effectively streamlines the storylines ever further, which is a must-do at this point whenever the showrunners get the opportunity.

“Dragonstone” does a lot of setting the table back up, putting pieces in place to be moved through these last two seasons. In most of the storylines we spy you can see the momentum — Arya heading to King’s Landing, Euron and the Lannisters, Jon and Sansa figuring out what’s next and so on. Even Sam’s busy work at the tower lets him learn about the location of the dragonglass at Dragonstone, making him a cog between Jon and Daenerys. If there is one arc this episode that doesn’t move much along, it still at least works because it’s following the moral line of one of the most interesting characters in Sandor. The Hound’s potential path to redemption is one of the only actual arcs of a character that may going from full-on evil to legitimately decent, and while the path takes a slow turn this episode that doesn’t stop it from being interesting. Thoros and Sandor’s bromance is the best thing about that arc, one that sees the Hound struggle with his guilt in the form of the man and his daughter from season four. This struggle leads to conversations about faith, and provides a believable path to put Sandor on the road to the Lord of Light. While not much happens there in an overall plot arc capacity, there’s plenty of character development and it works.

Meanwhile, Daenerys spends her screen time…walking. Dany’s arrival on Westeros is a moment six seasons in the making and it should feel epic. Director Jeremy Podeswa certainly films it strikingly; the lack of dialogue, the epic score and the beautiful cinematography makes it feel like the big moment we’ve been waiting for. But there is a such thing as letting a moment last too long, and that happens here. All of the character beats work, from Grey Worm trying to step forward and protect her and Missandei and Tyrion making sure she has her space to Dany herself making contact with the land beneath her, the purposeful pulling down of the Baratheon banner and so on. But it goes on a little too long, and by the time she tells Tyrion “Shall we begin?” we’re kind of shouting “Yes!” for him. It’s not a major flaw, but pulling back on that just a bit would have given time for another scene to develop a bit more (Bran and Meera’s, for example?) and would have been to the show’s benefit. But you gotta admit, that’s a great closing line and definitely has me looking forward to exactly how they begin next week.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome back to 411’s coverage of Game of Thrones! Reviewing this show is one of my favorite things I do as part of my 411 duties so I’m very happy to be presenting my thoughts to you for another year.

• Death Count For this Week: The entirety of House Frey, Sally, and her father.

• Arya gets the big murder moment by poisoning the Freys, then starts making her way south to King’s Landing. I have to believe that she’s ready to kill all those soldiers if they try anything on her, considering how canny she’s gotten. I hope so, anyway.

• While picking up bedpans to be cleaned, Sam runs into Jorah in one of the cells, all greyscaled up and asking about the Dragon Queen. This is making Sam an increasingly important font of potential information. That may not be good for his lifespan.

• One of Sansa’s best lessons from Cersei has to be her sharp tongue. “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

• The googly eyes that Tormund keeps giving Brienne is a joy to behold.

• Big giant Wun Wun is a White Walker now. Considering the opening took the time to show Hodor, I have to wonder if there’s going to be a big, door-holding Walker somewhere in that army so our hearts can be broken all over again.

• “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me.” Seriously though. Lyanna Mormont should be the true Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

8.5
The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Game of Thrones gets season seven off to a very nice start, re-establishing power dynamics in the wake of the season six finale's multiple seismic shifts. Alliances are starting to come into view and while not everything works quite as well as it could have, "Dragonstone" starts off with a bang and then follows that up with plenty of storyline setting in order to build upon in the coming weeks.
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Game of Thrones, Jeremy Thomas