Game of Thrones: Season 7 – Episode 1 ‘Dragonstone’ REVIEW
What do you mean you're supposed to review shows in order? Don't be daft.
Do you remember Game of Thrones’ arguably most shocking moment, the betrayal and massacre of the Northern leaders by the Freys and the Boltons – the Red Wedding? Well, we’re doing it again! With no survivors!
This is a humorous exaggeration. Since Arya fed Walder Frey’s sons to him and then killed him last series, she’s been hanging around the Twins in disguise as Walder, a man some six times her age. Such is the kind of fun you can have with face-changing powers. Having gathered all the remaining Freys together, Arya loudly reminds them of just what they did, also recapping the Red Wedding just in case you missed it, then is intensely pleased with herself as they all quaff down what is obviously poisoned wine. She tells the women – who aren’t allowed wine, because the Freys are unremittingly awful to the last – to make sure people hear about what happened, then strolls on out.
After leaving the Twins (probably in flames), Arya comes across a group of Lannister soldiers, camping in the forest and singing a jolly song. And may I say, the Red Wedding might have shocked people, but nothing the show has ever done before produced quite so much confused roaring as this Ed Sheeran cameo. They invite Arya to sit by the fire and share their food, and are so generally decent you expect at any moment they’re all going to be killed horribly as well. Arya tells them she’s on her way to kill Cersei, and they all have a good chuckle. You might think this would provide some more perspective on how people don’t bear moral responsibility for what their liege lords do, especially after she’s just murdered the entirely of House Frey. On the other hand, look, it’s Ed Sheeran! Singing!
Meanwhile, Bran is having visions of the white walkers – remember those guys? The ostensible actual villains? The poor devils don’t get pithy quips or sex scenes, just full-body makeup, so it’s good someone’s sparing them a thought. With Hodor gone but not forgotten, Meera’s had to take over dragging him around, and has now gotten him to the Wall, which is actually pretty impressive. Lord Commander Dolorous Edd comes out to meet them, and asks Bran to prove he really is Bran Stark, which doesn’t make a lot of sense – they’re clearly alive, and the Night’s Watch has a general amnesty for wildlings now, unless Edd’s made some drastic policy changes offscreen. Bran’s response, to witter on about his visions of the army of the dead, makes even less sense, but is pure protagonist material, so it’s more than enough for Edd and he lets them through.
We left off with Sam last series having just reached the Citadel, and were treated to some spectacular, soaring shots of its vast library with the astrolabe-style lamps that look oddly similar to the ones in the opening credits. This is a perfect opportunity to do some heavy worldbuilding and exposition, maybe even explore some of the mystical elements of the story, so instead we get a two-minute montage of close-ups on bedpans, juxtaposed with bowls of unpleasantly lumpy stew. The nearest we get is Sam’s mentor (Slughorn from Harry Potter) talking about how the maesters are the world’s memory. And this is true, but as any historian could tell you, it’s very hard to keep personal biases out of this – the companion to the books, A World of Ice and Fire, is ostensibly written by a maester and has a cartoonishly pro-Lannister slant, because it was written under a Lannister-run monarchy.
Unfortunately, this ‘world’s memory’ stuff doesn’t extend to any information about how to fight the white walkers, even though they just mentioned the Long Night. So because Jim Broadbent has infected the storyline with allusions to Harry Potter, Sam steals the keys to the restricted section (no, really) so he can read up on dragonglass/obsidian, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a huge stash of it on Dragonstone. Just like Stannis told him two seasons ago. Of course, Valyrian steel also kills white walkers, and Sam stole his family’s Valyrian steel sword last series and has proceeded to do nothing with it, so there is precedent for this kind of incompetence. We also check in with Jorah, who’s quarantined under the Citadel and whose skin condition is getting worse.
Somewhere in the vast, snowy expanse that’s making up more and more of Westeros these days, Sandor Clegane and the Brotherhood without Banners are taking shelter in a farmhouse, a farmhouse Sandor is finding oddly familiar – and which you should too, since the ‘previously on’ showed us the time he stayed here during his and Arya’s bro-trip and mugged the father and daughter who lived there. They’re still here, only in skeleton form, which ironically increases their ability to guilt him.
Beric and Thoros are clearly used to Sandor’s constant stream of sullen abuse by now – if you wear a topknot, you know the risks you’re taking. They settle in for the night, and for no reason other than they’re stuck in a hut with a fire and two corpses, Thoros decides to convince the man with severe fire-based PTSD to have a go at seeing visions in the fire. Despite some initial scepticism, he sees an army of ice zombies heading in the direction of Eastwatch-by-the-sea, then one of the logs bursts, which probably has some sort of deeper meaning. (We don’t actually see the vision, because the show only has so much money for CGI.) Presumably figuring that in the face of a bona fide religious experience he could do with some karma, he decides to finally bury the father and daughter, an unsubtle nod to the book theory that he’s the unidentified gravedigger on the Quiet Isle. In moral terms this seems like putting a plaster on an amputated arm, but there we are.
Down in King’s Landing, Cersei’s regime is, as she establishes, surrounded by enemies on all sides, so she’s having a huge map of Westeros painted all over the floor, in order to make the biggest plans possible. She’s also walking all over it, despite it not being done yet, and the paint probably still being wet. Jaime says Daenerys is winging her way in the direction of King’s Landing – you reckon that might come up later? – and that they need to make some new allies. So along toddles Euron Greyjoy, the man the show’s trying to set up as a replacement for Ramsay Bolton, wearing a costume I’ve seen described variously as making him look like ‘the lead singer of a metalcore band that peaked in 2011’, ‘an Eastern European Glam Rock artist’,‘a character in What We Do in the Shadows’, and, of course, ‘off-brand Jack Sparrow’.
Give Euron his due, he’s managed to cobble together a whole new fleet while living on an archipelago with no trees. Once in the throne room, he proceeds to act like a drunk uncle at a birthday party, mocking Jaime for only having one hand, suggesting Cersei murder him, and finally proposing to her. Even though last series his plan was to marry Daenerys, but then that was when they were awkwardly slotting in the book version of him. Cersei turns him down – even though she’s the one who wants allies – and he agrees to get her a gift to sweeten the deal. Maybe he honestly has a bit of a crush on her? That certainly fits the character of the sexually deranged, murder-happy pirate we’ve seen so far. He became king of the isles on a platform of having a big cock, so it’s a bit of a surprise that he didn’t agree to get Cersei a gift and then start undoing his ridiculous trousers.
Up North in Winterfell, Jon has everyone round for a big strategy meeting, and declares both men and women have to train to fight the white walkers. Lord Glover objects, mainly so Lyanna Mormont can be a strong female character at him. Then Jon sends Tormund and the wildlings back up to the Wall to garrison the abandoned castles, which meets far less resistance even though the North has traditionally felt the sharp end of wildling incursions. You could almost think everyone’s got on the same team, except then Jon and Sansa have a dramatic and very public disagreement over whether they should punish the Umbers and Karstarks for siding with the Boltons last series. Just so everyone’s clear as to what the answer is, the Umbers and Karstarks are represented by dear, innocent children who had nothing to do with the events of last series, and swear fealty to Jon in an adorable fashion.
Outside, Jon and Sansa try and talk through their differences of opinion, like they probably should have done earlier rather than letting them blow up in front of all their sworn lords. Jon asks her to stop undermining him, which I’m sure will happen, and I’m equally sure this tiresome dynamic won’t be drawn out through the entire series. Then a letter from Cersei arrives, asking Jon to bend the knee, which, not likely. Littlefinger smarms over to Sansa and tries to exploit the very obvious cracks in her and Jon’s relationship, but it’s Littlefinger, the designated evil schemer, so she immediately shuts him down. Brienne asks why he’s even still here, giving voice to what the majority of the audience are surely screaming at their televisions.
Finally, we have what everyone’s been waiting on for seven years now (or twenty-one, counting book readers) – Daenerys sets foot on Westeros. Specifically, the ancestral Targaryen fortress of Dragonstone. And it’s all presented in a suitably triumphant way, with grand sweeping scenery, grand sweeping music, and so forth. The only onion in the ointment is that Dragonstone was Stannis’s territory, if you’ll remember – and in a serialised show with a huge fan following turning out recaps faster than you can blink, you really should. It’s not like it makes a huge amount of difference to the overall plot, but frankly, it’s sloppy writing. Dragonstone is a strategically important fortress-island just off the mouth of Blackwater bay, it’s implausible that it would just be left abandoned – if nothing else there would be looters, and earlier this episode we had Euron’s fleet sailing up to King’s Landing, so they would have had to go right past Dragonstone to get there.
The frustrating thing is, this could have been fixed so easily. Remember the ironborn who’d occupied Moat Cailin, way back in series 4? Remember how they knew they’d been forgotten by their leaders, and were willing to strike their colours at the first possible opportunity? This would have been the same, but with a happier ending and more historical significance. If a Baratheon garrison, stir-crazy, probably starving, and knowing Stannis was dead, had seen Daenerys roll up to her family’s former holding at the head of a vast army, they’d have gone Team Dragons in a hot second.