Game of Thrones – “Dragonstone” – Season 7, Ep. 1 (HBO) SPOILERS
“Through it all, the Wall has stood. And every winter that has come has ended.”
I can’t have been the only person yesterday whose afternoon and evening were spent keeping vigil in fairly rapt anticipation of the Game of Thrones premiere. “Are you ready for Sunday?” asked the amiable bartender (on Thursday), who’d seen me reading George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons in his fine establishment not two weeks earlier. Unprepared for the question, I was momentarily nonplussed. What the hell was Sunday? When he clued me (of all people) in, I did feel a touch foolish, but also realized at just what a remove from the hoopla surrounding Thrones’ return I’d inadvertently placed myself. This is, after all, a global phenomenon I heard not incorrectly described the other day as, “the last great water cooler discussion show in the history of television,” and I, as unabashed and informed a casual fan as you’d want to find without expending terrible effort in so doing, had paid the prospects of its revival embarrassingly short shrift. Much of that has to do with the fact that while the bulk of the show’s fans have waited with bated breath and rapidly deteriorating patience to re-enter the world of Westeros, I never really left, using the nigh interminable wait of almost a year and a half between seasons as an excuse to re-read the Song of Ice and Fire book series from its start. I’d felt a real dearth of compelling fiction at the time, and, after several false starts with New York Times bestsellers or intriguing also-rans plucked from my perpetually overburdened bookshelf, came to the conclusion that nothing “new” was going to satisfy me more than taking this prime opportunity to revisit and thus dig much deeper into a world I simply didn’t want to be shut of. Though, as of this writing, I have technically stalled out some 1/6 of the way into my combined re-reading of concurrent behemoths A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons (120 chapters combined!), I couldn’t have been happier with the results overall.
So much time given over to reading Westerosi history almost naturally precludes the ability to view it, and, finally, properly seized by the fever, my plunge into season six – starting, at approximately 1pm, with its emotional fifth episode (and Hodor elegy) “The Door” – felt both overdue and a bit reckless. DVR technology, and, as it turns out, the remarkably prompt HBO GO streaming service, removes any sort of overt pressure from the cavalier binger to finish on time.* The Song of Ice and Fire book series, Herculean in its ambition, imagination, and meticulous attention to detail, now, of course, feels to a great many observers like a quaint afterthought, preserved in amber as the show has rocketed past its countless dozen plot points toward Martin’s Gordian knot of an overarching climax. Yet its influence lingers, and should never be wholly or routinely discounted. What Game of Thrones’ uneven but magnetic season six began in earnest – episodes nine and ten contain enough visceral thrills and shocking denouements to cover the entire run of a lesser show – season seven dutifully continues, if not exactly accelerates. The hour’s most seemingly consequential development comes at its beginning, in a rare pre-title sequence, as loathsome, skeletal misogynist Walder Frey, last seen on the receiving end of the most advanced and purposeful needlework of Arya Stark’s burgeoning career as a murderess, seemingly returns from the grave to lead his ample house in a dimly lit, non-sequitur, general toast to villainy. That the wine they’re served is poisoned, and results in a cascade of anonymous schlubs ever more dramatically choking to death as a triumphant Arya smugly unmasks on the dais above them, might qualify as a surprise to the no doubt many Quaker and Mennonite viewers pirating HBO – everybody’s doing it! – but I found the suspense sorely lacking, and what should have been seismic impact muted, to put it charitably.
*This is a lovely development, as I haven’t been keeping the strictest sleep schedule lately and occasionally conked out mid-episode when I wasn’t also taking (we’ll say 6-10) momentary gaming breaks to put the glorious new “Diablo III” Necromancer class through its paces.
All in all, the Frey massacre makes for an oddly off-center launching point to the season, and, though as a fan I’d longed for unequivocal vengeance since season three’s apocalyptic “Rains of Castamere” slit Catelyn Stark’s throat just before cutting to black, my problems with it lingered even as I digested a succession of other early apertifs in search of an entrée. Bran’s arrival at the Wall, finally, pulled on a makeshift sled by Meera Reed, was a fairly pitiful sight (everyone misses Hodor) only compounded by just how frigging big Isaac Hempstead Wright has grown in the years of his glacial, pre-teen travels through the Haunted Forest. Samwell Tarly’s maester training at the gorgeously imagined Citadel of Oldtown (new to the season seven credits travelogue, along with the titular Dragonstone, fresh crime scene The Twins, and, to my ears at least, some tasty drumming accents added to the iconic score) is presented as a portrait of relentless and undignified daily drudgery in a presumably comedic but quickly overbearing sub-MTV Films montage that blurs the line between filling soup bowls and emptying chamber pots until it is virtually non-existent. Newly installed, Disney-vintage wicked queen Cersei Lannister presides over the painting of a map of Westeros large enough to cover the entire floor of some unnamed room in the Red Keep, her henpecked brother/lover/Hand Jaime watching on in bemused wonder either at how they’ve gotten to this point, what she’s become, or some combination of the two. Later, with stock fully taken of former strategic partnerships that now lie in ruins – situated on the east coast, King’s Landing helpfully boasts enemies to the “south, west, and north” – Cersei briefly entertains a marriage proposal of sorts from potential ally Euron “Crow’s Eye” Greyjoy, nascent king of the Iron Islands, and flamboyant method actor turned away from an open casting call for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie. “I’m the queen of seven kingdoms,” Cersei asserts in private, almost as if to convince herself. “Three at best,” her brother replies, not without sympathy.
Elsewhere, the plot advances in more conventionally pleasing ways, and directions. Arya encounters a curiously benign band of sojourning soldiers (Hey, Ed Sheeran! The internet will just love your cameo!) and lets slip to them (and us) that the next stop on her Westerosi tour is at King’s Landing to kill Cersei. Talk about upping the difficulty. Presumably, the House of Black and White face replacement technology that she retains, despite open rejection of Jaqen H’ghar and the Many-Faced God, and that allowed her to plausibly double Walder Frey in “Dragonstone”’s homicidal opening, will work just as well on Cersei when the fifteen-year-old killer urchin tries to get close by impersonating, say, her mammoth, undead bodyguard. A few forests away, Sandor Clegane continues his reclamation journey marauding/ meandering through the charred Riverlands as an adjunct member of Baric Dondarrion’s Brotherhood Without Banners, and remains one of the only characters (the others mostly being the remaining Lannisters) for whom the show has a consistent, distinctive voice. Westeros’ third recently crowned monarch in as many scenes, bastard war hero turned “King in the North” Jon Snow, brings a conciliatory spirit to a military council hall lousy, in the wake of the brutal Battle of Winterfell and prospects for the upcoming war father north, with brash, unorganized calls for either hibernation (“Winter is here!”) or further punitive retribution against the conflict’s various oathbreakers.** Sansa Stark in particular strongly favors turning the turncoat families out of their ancestral homes, but Snow sees a bigger picture, and decides against punishing children for the sins of their dead fathers. It’s telling that when the time comes for Houses Karstark and Umber to reaffirm their loyalty and fealty to the united North, their representatives are an eight-year-old boy and fourteen-year-old girl respectively. They are trueborn heirs turned heads of households*** well before their time, remnants of an especially cruel and widespread scouring process, the only hopes for their families’ futures the latest war has seen fit to leave.
**Meanwhile, Littlefinger smirks/broods enigmatically at the back of the hall. I’m not convinced the various repeated shots aren’t a single piece of stock footage by this point.
***See also ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont, whose council speeches chiding fellow representatives for insufficient honor make her MVP of her second episode in a row.
Whether armchair or professional, what critics miss in their periodic suggestions that George R.R. Martin “get back to work” on the admittedly past due Winds of Winter, or, better yet, “start writing already”, is not merely that a book so densely packed with detail and nuance doesn’t write itself. The nuance and detail so crucial to seasons one through four are already, however subtly, however slowly, becoming subsumed as the show’s action, base intrigue, and copious “OMG” moments are continually ramped up. Please don’t take that criticism as an indication that I don’t still love it. Seven episodes watched over twelve hours yesterday should sufficiently suggest otherwise. Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been famously coy about publicly joining the online Greek chorus, but I imagine that despite yeoman’s creative work performed under serious pressure (and an avalanche of Emmy nominations/ awards), the two would be secretly thrilled to have something concrete again from which to pull and not just perform their high wire adaptation work in a vacuum. It’s true that one author cannot equal the ceaseless work of hundreds of actors, writers, and technicians, which, in concert with the show’s dizzying ratings and HBO’s apparent intention, now engaged, to never, ever leave the Martin adaptation business, has left A Song of Ice and Fire in the figurative dust. It’s altogether trickier to attempt to create magic in absentia, in both the stead and the voice of an acknowledged master.**** As soon as the question became not whether Game of Thrones would overtake Ice and Fire but when, Benioff and Weiss sat down with Martin for perhaps the most notable extended story treatment session in Hollywood history. From those meetings, the pair emerged with an end point and numerous scenic markers along the way, but also the charge to change the show however necessary to make it function both narratively and commercially, without any further overt intervention from Martin. Their efforts have been heroic, wildly lucrative, and, inevitably, for any dedicated admirer of this world, uneven.
****”Justified”, for all its successes, still must have chafed under the strain of having to continually write in the imprimatur of Elmore Leonard after the peerless storyteller (and show consultant) passed away early in its run.
Under Benioff and Weiss’ unfettered stewardship, I would argue that the show, in its headlong rush to a nerve-rattling end, has lost something of the depth that initially made it so special. What bothers me about the mass poisoning at the Twins is that it’s almost an anti-climax. We saw Arya murder Walder Frey from behind the mask of a serving girl in the previous season finale. We know exactly what’s going to happen from the moment we see his face again. And then it happens. For a show that made its bones creating compelling characters like Ned and Catelyn Stark and then suddenly, ruthlessly destroying them, similar care should be taken in their avenging. Satisfaction without surprise is a different sort of aftertaste. If I may be so bold as to offer a revision, I’d take the scene of Frey’s murder out of the season six finale, which I think you’ll agree was saturated with spectacular happenings even without it, and instead maybe just show Arya’s arrival, crouching, steely-eyed, in the bushes across the river. One of the many reasons I look forward to Winds of Winter and beyond is seeing these scenarios filtered through Martin’s very specific lens. I do wonder how he’d pull off a point-of-view chapter like I just described without immediately tipping his hand, but that’s part of what makes it fascinating. People conflate depth with complexity all the time, of course, and Game of Thrones still has the latter quality in spades, but without Martin’s textual (and textural) anchoring, it often stumbles toward its next grand moment. Martin’s books, by comparison, have a troubling tendency to drift at times, so the ideal execution, unsurprisingly, probably lies in some vague middle way. This is appropriate. The two mediums complement and inform one another like no other pair of source and filmed material I’ve ever encountered.
The good news, furthermore, is that this material is just serially compelling, and that Benioff and Weiss remain without equal in the television realm in the conception and delivery of visually stunning shots, moments, and sequences. While there is nothing here with quite the scale or impact of the Great Sept of Baelor’s fiery destruction in the season six finale, or Jon Snow desperately suffocating beneath a press of corpses in “Battle of the Bastards”, witness the opening, post-credits reveal of a gnarled and swirling oncoming snowstorm, out of which confidently strides the Night King like Pestilence or some other biblical horseman; or of the grandeur of the reveal of external Oldtown and, within, the Citadel’s cavernous, almost futuristic library (stricken with Dragonscale, it would appear Ser Jorah Mormont has suddenly taken up semi-permanent residence in the periodicals reading room); or of, at long last, the largely wordless arrival of Daenerys Targaryen and her royal entourage at her family’s ancestral island home, eventually entering Stannis Baratheon’s old Stone Drum war room with its central table carved into the shape of Westeros, wherein Daenerys the Conqueror says, simply, “Shall we begin?”
At that, millions of heads – book readers, binge watchers, and both – nodded in unison.