Game of Thrones has always looked impressive. Small scenes and big scenes have a look to them that just works, reinforcing the illusion of Westeros and beyond. I can only think of a handful of scenes where the visuals have undermined the narrative (rather than the opposite). Mainly, the only significant moment in that category is the slightly-too-obvious green-screening when Dany first rides away on Drogon at the end of ‘The Dance of Dragons’. Even that still looks pretty damn good. Yet ‘The Dance of Dragons’ was an ‘episode 9’. ‘Blackwater’ was an ‘episode 9’. ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ was an ‘episode 9’. ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ was an ‘episode 9’. ‘Hardhome’ was… well alright, that was ‘episode 8’. Still, for most of the span of the show, Thrones has managed its funds so that it can afford the big, end-of-season moments.
Yet as the budget for the show continues to balloon to unprecedented proportions to accommodate whatever madness is left to come, that ‘back-heavy’ balance is no longer present. There were hints of the new, carte blanche paradigm last year, with the customary ‘Dany walking through flames naked’ shots of ‘Book of the Stranger’, and more significantly, with the glossy insanity of the White Walker attack at the end of ‘The Door’. With the Greyjoy-on-Greyjoy naval battle that ended ‘Stormborn’, those hints are now shouting ‘look at me’ in the audience’s face.
It’s episode 2 of the season (though granted, every episode takes on greater significance due to the reduced episode count), and here we have a battle that certainly surpassed the grandeur of the naval elements of ‘Blackwater’, and was on par with the visuals of the Meereen parts of ‘The Battle of the Bastards’. Yet ultimately, it’s a scene that’ll end up probably being on the smaller side of the battles this season, assuming Cersei doesn’t abruptly die, Grey Worm actually leaves Missandei to go and take Casterly Rock, and the White Walkers don’t decide to call it a day and stay that side of the Wall.
But what a scene it was. As has been raised in previous reviews, there is still the issue of just how Euron has such a fleet in such a short space of time. But equally, the idea that Yara and Theon could quickly run off from the Kingsmoot without Euron noticing and take off with so many ships is a bit suspect too, so all in all the two sides balance out, all leading to this moment where the two armadas clash in the mouth of Blackwater Bay. Put it this way, if you’re going to follow through on contentious developments, make it lead to something like this. It might not eradicate the issues, but it does obscure them with an absolutely mental 10 minutes.And what was more mental than Euron entering the fray by riding a grotesquely imposing boarding tunnel-plank-thing – he walked across it, his army walked through it, so it’s surely both – crushing some poor soldier, before getting stuck in. Euron has been set up as a deliberately ridiculous, overblown character, a man absurdly impressed with himself, yet who still plays politics, addressing the Ironborn like an Ironborn, and addressing Cersei with due deference to her regal standing. The problem so far is that we’ve only seen his ridiculous, only seen his style, and without substance to back up his cockiness, he’s slightly hard to take seriously, even as I know that he’s meant to be taken seriously.
However, this fight was his substance; someone with his hubris, in this kind of world, has to dominate the battlefield. And he does, complete with a Robert Baratheon-style axe. Choice of weapon is sometimes an arbitrary case of only whatever looks cool on Thrones (see Arthur Dayne having two, smaller swords instead of ‘Dawn’ at the Tower of Joy), but Euron wielding an axe both looked cool, and asserted his dominance. You don’t wield an axe unless you’ve got the strength to make it stick. Aside from Euron finding his calling, the general look of the battle was superb, with red flecks of flame always raining down across the shot. It’s a more ambitious look than even Thrones usually goes for, but my word it looked good.
On the narrative front, the battle did its job. Euron has his gifts, plural, for Cersei: Yara, Ellaria, and the one remaining Sand Snake, Tyene. One remaining Sand Snake, of course, means the other two are dead, and while I’m sure ‘fans’ are out there celebrating the death of wildly unpopular characters, for me, it’s more a case of once more regretting how the Dornish subplot has turned out. What could’ve been an interesting, contrasting element of the show from season 5 onwards has ended up with only lingering on-camera deaths for fan-service to show for.
Certainly, they were terrible characters on the show whose very presence made things infinitely worse – and their penultimate scene, mocking Tyene by wailing ‘mama’, seemed, worryingly, to have been written exclusively to have viewers baying for their blood – but the end to a ‘bad’ plot isn’t in itself really ‘good’; it’s just a bit sad. Besides, it’s not quite the end for Dorne yet, though upon delivery to Cersei, you’d imagine Ellaria and Tyene aren’t going to survive much longer, or if they do, it won’t be particularly pleasant, if you think back to the treatment of Septa Unella.
Yara is a more intriguing prisoner, in that her only logical purpose now – as a direct enemy commander without any emotional value to Cersei – is to die. Yet she’s been ostensibly kept alive, at least for the moment, which implies something is in store for her. Unless what’s in store for her is just a drawn-out death rather than a quick one. But at that rate, next episode will just be a series of King’s Landing torture sequences intercut with brief moments elsewhere.There isn’t much to say about Theon’s role in the battle, because judging by his departure, Theon has left the building, and Reek is back. Perhaps it’s not so black and white that he’ll revert to his conditioned alter ego completely, but still, the ticks and mannerisms that Alfie Allen has inserted into his portrayal over the years so well were there. And it kind of fit the moment too; he was fine to fight personally, where there is no choice but for how to strike the next blow, and no concept of self involved. But the moment he faltered was when he did have a choice, a choice which impacted Theon significantly: whether to do a Jon, take Euron’s bait, and make a futile attempt to somehow save Yara while she had an axe to her throat, or whether to run.
So of course, back came Reek, and away he went. In the heat of the moment, it works as character development (or perhaps character regression instead). The real question is whether it’ll just turn out to be a plot device to ensure he somehow survives to go and tell Dany the news or something, or whether it’s a more long-term return of his affliction that has serious implications for him. One can only hope it’s the latter, because it would be rather disappointing to see him just ‘revert’ to Theon next episode.
While one ally was crushing most of Dany’s fleet, Cersei was calling others to King’s Landing, which meant a return to screens for Randyll Tarly, he of the incredibly deep voice and contempt for Sam. Cersei’s part in that scene seemed rather functional, but Jaime’s exchange with Randyll was more interesting, giving more depth to Randyll than before. Yes, by the end he is convinced to break rank and fight for the crown, but in between, there was a brief insight into the value he places on loyalty. It did feel like Jaime had to fight to get him onside, rather than having Randyll just roll over for him.
Meanwhile, Qyburn has developed a super-weapon to stop Drogon and company, and that weapon is… a ballista. A great big, high-powered ballista. The fact that Drogon could be injured by spears was an irritating part of the fight in Daznak’s Pit in ‘The Dance of Dragons’, but it now serves an even greater, and thus even more irritating purpose: to prove how Drogon can be killed. As far as revelations of mortality go, this was basically an elaborate version of ‘stick ‘em with the pointy end’; I had been hoping for a more dynamic solution. Quite apart from anything, if Drogon or one of the other dragons is stupid enough to just loiter within range of such a static weapon as a ballista, then they aren’t the weapons of mass destruction they’re hyped up to be.Sam’s scenes this week were much the same as last, only with more Jorah. After his silhouetted tease in ‘Dragonstone’ we saw Jorah in all his ‘glory’ in ‘Stormborn’. Otherwise, there was once again a case of Marywn schooling Sam, and refusing his requests, and, in what represents an escalation on the montage of last week, an incredible transition cut from Sam peeling away Jorah’s scaled-skin, to a deep, gooey pie being cut into. It was as inventive as it was disconcerting. Still, Sam’s role for now seems to be to surreptitiously affect events elsewhere, by helping Jorah, and by telling Jon of the Dragonglass under Dragonstone. Who’d have thought, with those kind of names, hey?
That raven from Sam reached Jon this week, as did one from Tyrion inviting him to meet Dany at Dragonstone, leaving Jon in the precarious position of recommending an alliance with a Targaryen and a Lannister. The opposition to the idea by all of the attending Lords and Ladies – all, including this time, Lyanna Mormont, so often on Jon’s side – makes absolute sense from their perspective, one that is more focused on living rivalries than on the White Walkers. But it did seem like the writing of Jon’s response was set up to deliberately make the inexplicably wrong argument.
Sansa reminds Jon of how the Mad King burnt Rickard Stark, and Jon’s response is to assert the need for Dragonglass and for allies, and to remind them that only he has seen the army of the dead. All well and good, but surely the only possible reply is: what else do you want me to do? If Sansa et al. are so sure the invitation is a trap, then refusing it, or sending a proxy instead, makes you Dany’s enemy. That not only means no access to the Dragonglass, but also a costly war against her which the North are almost certain to lose, against a bigger, stronger, Dragon-aided army. And if there’s a possibility, in their eyes, that it might not be a trap, then refusing it is turning down a potential ally, and turning down a mountain of Dragonglass.
Like I said, the Northern perspective against Dany and Tyrion is understandable, until you factor in the severe reality that Jon seems aware of, that this is their only real choice, other than to just sit there and wait for the White Walkers, Dany and Cersei to all attack them. The fact that he doesn’t really enlighten anyone seems to just be a way to make him depart for Dragonstone, with discontent in the air. And apart from anything, it all means that Jon departs to meet Dany, well before Bran can reach Winterfell and mention the rather important family connection. Although perhaps Melisandre knows something about that.As Jon departs Winterfell, Arya is now slowly making her way back. Her volte-face, like so many choices in a narratively competent episode, fits her. She has her desire to go to King’s Landing, but why would she not head to Winterfell for a family reunion? What’s more, it potentially turns Arya’s arc from revenge, into facing who she now is. Simplistically, a reunion with at least Sansa, and perhaps Jon and Bran depending on further events, is a good thing. But she’s changed in very different ways to how they have, and even if her extinction of House Frey might please Sansa, her methods will surely have her slightly taken aback at what Arya has become.
Of course, by the end of the episode, she’s already had a reunion, with a now enormous Nymeria and her pack. On the one hand, it feels like a nice bit of closure to the question of where she had ended up; on the other, they didn’t need to be thrown together, and something says that Nymeria will have a greater role to play later on in the season.
Finally, after reaching Westeros at the end of last episode, Dany set about planning her conquest in this one. With the aforementioned Greyjoy massacre, it’s not going great. Seeing Dany face an actual setback feels brilliant, like a spanner in the works for the expected procession this season could have been. One would have been forgiven for thinking she really wouldn’t face much difficulty, with a superior army, navy, allies and her dragons, against a North that doesn’t really want to fight, and a seemingly alone Cersei and King’s Landing. Instead, we now have an even playing field, and it feels a lot like the slightly blunt way pieces were moved around in season 6 was just a setup to allow a better story for season 7, rather than part of a trend of over-consolidation.
What now, anyway, for Dany? Does she still push to take Casterly Rock, now that she’s not going to be able to lay siege to King’s Landing as planned? Or perhaps, does this mean she relents on the desire to avoid bloodshed, and launches a full-scale attack on King’s Landing soon, heeding Olenna’s advice to ignore Tyrion, and ‘be a dragon’. Certainly, this possibility would be brimming with potential, for yet more battle sequences, and more interestingly, for Dany to set upon a long path to resembling her father, laying waste to the capital.
But that’s for the weeks to come. For now, ‘Stormborn’ continued the positive, yet careful momentum of the premiere, before a hammerblow ending to throw the game wide open.