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We're recapping Season 7 of HBO's Game of Thrones here on Monkey See. We'll try to turn them around overnight, so look for them first thing on Mondays. And of course: Spoilers abound.
One of the most frustrating things about a show like Game of Thrones is how much of the action is driven by someone — or, often, many someones — withholding information from other characters. A lack of communication, in a show with so many plot threads and so many characters, generates story; people who lack a full understanding of a given situation act on their ignorance, which leads to wacky misunderstandings, impulsive actions, misdirected anger — in other words, conflict.
Conflict is good. Conflict is story. But what's frustrating about shows that allow characters to hoard information is that the conflict it breeds is so often unmotivated, and unnecessary. It maintains narrative tension by postponing resolution, sure. But when the audience is privy to the information that's being kept from Character A, and when then there's no logical, story-based reason for Character B not to just tell it to Character A already, that's when things get annoying.
... Look all I'm saying is that Sansa should have told Jon before the Battle of the Bastards that she had a whole freaking army in her back pocket, OK?
But here's what else I'm saying: If you've ever been frustrated by characters withholding information on this show, "Stormborn" is offered up as a medicinal salve for your gross, infected greyscale wounds.
That's how you can tell we're in the homestretch: People tell each other things they need to know! They address things that happened in the past! Yeah, it means things can get a bit clotted with exposition, but I'll take the free flow of information over pointless data hoarding any day. And just when you think this episode is overcompensating by loading itself up with too much talk, we shake things up with a sea battle that throws two big pieces of the show's ballast overboard, for good.
Westeros' next dragon superstar
There's a light over at the Dragonstone Keep. It's a dark and stormy night, and Daenerys has gathered everyone in the map room: Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, Missandei, Professor Plum, Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock, etc. etc.
She's not feeling the place: She'd prefer to go in a more midcentury modern direction, but those dragon-head sconces say Dracula-by-way-of-Cher's Heart-of-Stone-Tour, and she is not here for it. Tyrion assures her they'll be leaving soon, which calms her, as does the paltry number of lion-tokens on the map table, as Cersei's proving an unpopular queen, with only a small army. Also there's been a run on lion-tokens at the Dragonstone Home Goods.
Varys seizes the occasion to launch into his default speech setting — Unctuous — but Dany stops him. I haven't always been a fan of the way Emilia Clarke has delivered the many imperious threats she's been called upon to issue, over the seasons — but in an intimate scene like this one, where she doesn't have to shout, she can show us a Khaleesi who's reined in her power, who's in total control. It's regal, more than anything else, and it's just one of the ways the show is signaling to us that she's the one who should sit on the Iron Throne.
Whether she will or not: Whole nother question.
She challenges Varys' loyalty — which is fair — and his past skullduggeries against her. He defends himself without dissembling, and with his requisite verve and aplomb. (I like Tyrion's worried looks, here, and his attempts to help, which get unceremoniously shut down.)
"Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty," he says, sending political pundits across America to their thinkpiece-generating machines. And then, "I choose you." Before things can get too Ralph Wiggum/Lisa Simpson, who should come knocking but Melisandre the Red Witch, who is here to cross the narrative streams.
Look, the show wants to bring Dany and Jon together. The show needs to bring Dany and Jon together. So here's the first of several seeds this episode plants to ensure that'll happen: Melisandre tells Dany about the Long Winter, and that she should summon Jon Snow to Dragonstone to talk.
After a refresher in the vagaries of High Valyrian grammatical genders, Melisandre says "Prophecies are dangerous things." She does not, however, follow that up with, "I mean take me for instance: I burned an adorable little moppet alive. For like, no reason. At all. So you know: Egg on my face, right? Like, a whole friggin' souffle."
Over the course of this exchange, Tyrion learns that his old sort-of-pal Jon Snow is now King in the North, which is something you would have thought he'd have known already, but don't go trying to tease apart just what various people know or don't know, just be glad that there's so much sharing of information happening at last.
Fire melts ice. Did you know that? Because that's a thing.
At Winterfell, they're training the younglings, and Jon shares with Sansa and Davos the note from Tyrion inviting him to Dragonstone. Jon is favorably inclined, Sansa thinks it's a trap. Lots and lots of exposition here — "Fire kills wights, you told me," Davos says, going weirdly Socratic all of a sudden, "What breathes fire?" Which I suppose is necessary for those viewers who have been watching the past six seasons while folding their laundry. And doing sudoku. And listening to thrash metal.
In the throne room at Kings Landing, Cersei urges the leaders of various Houses — including Randyll Tarly, Sam's dad, who always looks like he's just been told it's terminal — to fight for her. She imparts some judiciously edited bullet points about Dany's history in Essos, and talks some trash about Olenna Tyrell. I mean yeah, Cersei's done some awful things, and just blew up hundreds of innocent people blah blah blah, but it's this slander against Olenna that almost turns me against her. But then I take in those awesome metalwork shoulder pads she's rocking — like a kind of goth Julia Sugarbaker — and all is forgiven.
Cersei is all vinegar — red wine vinegar, surely — so Jaime sidles up to Tarly to supply the sugar. Tarly is a man of principle, but Jaime puts the squeeze on him. Principle, meet vise. Vise-principle. Look, it's 1:30 a.m. as I write this. Cut me some slack.
At Oldtown, no surprises: Jorah is there, and he's gone about 45 percent Killer Croc, which, as the Archmaester notes, is too far gone for them to help him. He's got a few months before he loses his mind to the disease. Sam wants to help, but the Archmeister shuts him down (Jim Broadbent is in fine form here, channeling a British public school headmaster's supercilious dismissiveness).
In the catacombs below the Red Keep, Qyburn leads Cersei on a haunted hayride tour of great big honkin' dragon skulls. In fact, he wants to show her what he's been working on — a defense against Dany's dragons. He unveils a ballista — a giant crossbow, essentially — and she proceeds to sink an arrow the size of a railroad tie into a dragon skull. She smiles a thin-lipped smile. As is, you know, her wont.
In Westeros, the quality of mercy is not strained. It's pureed.
Back at Dragonstone, a war council is in progress, with many of the Great Houses represented. Daenerys Targaryan, Tyrion Lannister, Olenna Tyrell, Yara and Theon Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand (Martell). They're urging Dany to strike at Kings Landing and raze it to the ground; she, on Tyrion's advice, argues for a siege instead.
On Game of Thrones, mercy is often conflated with weakness, cruelty with strength. Those who dedicate themselves to ideals like honor often get summarily and brutally dispatched by those who dedicate themselves only to survival. Which is why Olenna's advice to Dany that the people must fear her — "Are you a sheep? No, you're a dragon. Be a dragon." — is complicated. We know Dany can be ruthless when her back's against the wall, but she's also displayed tremendous compassion. She, like Jon Snow, is looking beyond the petty wars of Westeros to a grander purpose — "breaking the wheel," as she says. So maybe the writers are having her get this advice from Olenna to set her up for a future moment when she must temper her mercy with a show of terrible strength. Or maybe they just wanted to give Diana Rigg a chance to be a badass. Still. Again. Some more.
The plan, as it's laid out by Tyrion using his Houses of Westeros Action Figure playset: the Greyjoys and the Dornish fleet will sail for Kings Landing to effect the siege, while the Unsullied and the Dothraki make for the Lannister redoubt of Casterly Rock.
Grey Worm and Missandei get a long-overdue love scene, and Grey Worm's ... situation hands the producers a convenient excuse to keep the full-frontal nudity as one-sided as ever. 'Look, even if we wanted to show you the guy's bits, we couldn't! He's got no bits! He's bitless!"
At the Citadel, Sam's found a book outlining a forbidden procedure for curing greyscale. The Archmaester dismisses it — it's kind of his whole deal, really, dismissing things — so Sam takes it upon himself to sneak into Jorah's cell and go to surgical town on that infected tissue. Much moaning and slicing and oozing ensues. The Citadel's a pretty gross place, yo. And I'm not just talking about those oatmeal-colored robes. But them too.
At the Inn at the Crossroads, Arya stares off in the middle of the distance while eating one of Hot Pie's ... hot pies. Hot Pie serves up several thick slices of exposition while he's at it: Winterfell is back in the hands of Jon Snow. ("He's you're brother, right?" Thanks, show. We get it.)
No mention of Sansa, conspicuously. The news weakens Arya's resolve — she decides not to head to King's Landing but to instead make for Winterfell, and a Stark family reunion six seasons in the making. It's been so long they're gonna need name tags.
There, Jon receives a message from Sam that Dragonstone sits on a mountain of dragonglass. And if you thought Hot Pie's "He's your brother, right?" was a line of dialogue inserted for the benefit of people who haven't been watching the show from the beginning, then strap in, because this scene is all about underlining things we already know: Who Sam Tarly is. What he's found. Why dragonglass is important. That Daenerys summoned Jon to Dragonstone. And why that's a dangerous proposition.
Sansa objects, reminding Jon of a thing he doesn't need to be reminded about, which is that Targaryans aren't big with honesty, and the Lannisters have it out for him. He decides to go to Dragonstone, with Davos, and leaves Sansa in charge. Cue some sly, does-not-bode-at-all-well shifty eyes between Sansa and Littlefinger, who is, let's note, looking shiftier than baseline here, which is saying something. Cue, also, a nice little inward smile from Brienne, at the news that Sansa is running things.
Down in the Winterfell crypts, Jon broods before Ned Stark's tomb when Littlefinger steps out of the shadows, like Slimy Batman. It's a perfect moment for Littlefinger to let Jon in on his true parentage, but why would he do that when he could just as easily mutter creepy things about Catelyn and Sansa? Which he proceeds to do, earning himself a throttlin'.
Arya ready? Arya ready for this?
On the road to Winterfell, Arya is set upon by a pack of wolves led — it's about damn time — by her old direwolf Nymeria, now grown to her full, CGI-enhanced and not terribly convincing, height. Arya offers to start up the old double act, and asks the direwolf to come with her to Winterfell. Nymeria's all, "Gurl, Winterfell is so five minutes ago PEACE" and departs.
So what are we to make of this? That Arya's not truly a Stark anymore? That she's too far gone for her old soul-linked pet to recognize? Or simply that Nymeria's having more fun running with the pack, and gobbling up Lannister soldiers, and blowing down little piggies' houses, one assumes, and doesn't want to go back?
"That's not you," Arya says, after the direwolf is gone.
No, yeah, I don't get it either. Break into response groups and meet back here in 15 with your thoughts.
[UPDATE! Thanks to readers who dutifully pointed out that this is a callback to a scene in the fourth episode of the show's first season, "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things," in which Ned patiently explains to young Arya that she doesn't need sword training, as she'll grow up to marry a rich lord and have kids. "That's not me," says Arya.
Odd to have a deep-cut callback like that in an episode so stuffed with "As you know, he is your brother" exposition — but it's a nice moment. It's Arya recognizing that her direwolf has moved on — and implicitly acknowledging that she has, too. Look for Arya to turn up back in Kings Landing next episode, I wager.]
On the Greyjoy ships, the Sand Snakes get one last scene in which to be surly and annoying — what's the opposite of a victory lap? — before we cut to Yara, Theon and Ellaria drinking and flirting. Well, it's Yara and Ellaria flirting. Theon's just sort of ... hanging out, looking uncomfortable, waiting for an excuse to duck out. I've never found him more relatable.
The fleet's attacked by Captain Jack Emo himself. Ol' Maybe It's Maybelline. Goth John Silver. Euron Greyjoy.
Buckles get well and truly and bloodily swashed; Euron boards Yara's ship wielding both a pretty ridiculous kraken-themed battle axe and a wild-eyed lust for battle. (He's got a maniacal laugh, too, but you probably figured that.)
He wastes little time in going after the Sand Snakes. Say this much for him: The dude kills snakes like he's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. First spear-toting Obara, then whip-wielding Nym.
Dagger-throwing Tyene is below decks trying to protect Ellaria. They are captured, but not before Tyene sticks her daggers in several places nobody want daggers stuck.
Topside, Theon is acquitting himself well enough, while Yara and Euron go toe-to-toe. Euron gets the upper hand, and dares Theon to rescue Yara, who is now the kohl-eyed-vamp's helpless captive. Seeing that they've lost, Theon gives in to his inner Reek, and quails. He tosses himself over the side.
Euron's ship leaves the carnage behind. Theon, clutching a bit of flotsam, like a Rose who's lost her Jack, follows.