As far as table-setting season premieres go, Game of Thrones season 7 lead off installment is pretty much as good as they come. Although I wouldn’t put “Dragonstone” in the pantheon of individual episodes, it did set up the board for the ensuing season, as Game of Thrones season premieres always have. It wasn’t the most riveting or challenging episode they’ve ever done, it certainly had its moments and that moved the narrative forward significantly, even though the most unexpected moment was a bizarrely orchestrated cameo by a pop star.
The “cold open” at the Twins was an inspired choice for the commencement of the new season for several reasons, not least of which is that watching David Bradley on screen remains one of the great pleasures of media consumption, made all the more enjoyable in this instance KNOWING beyond reasonable doubt that Arya in the guise of Walder Frey. As Dan Weiss pointed out in the “Inside The Episode” segment, the subtle but noticeable changes David Bradley made in his performance were absolutely spot on, especially in the way that the guise of Walder slowly and steadily dissolved leading up to the big reveal at the climax of the scene.
There is one major flaw with the sequence, though, from a dramatic standpoint. As satisfying as it was to watch Arya exact her final vengeance on what remains of the cretins who slaughtered her family, she had already assassinated the only members of the Frey clan that were ever introduced to the audience as actual characters and not just generic Frey’s, thus leaving the viewer without a scapegoat, so to speak, to infer their ire to as they witness the elimination of their house. As a sequence and a plot point, it was an appropriate answer to the Red Wedding, to be sure, albeit a somewhat impersonal one. I can’t think of a way Benioff and Weiss could have written themselves out of this corner and it didn’t totally ruin the moment by any means, but it did come across to me as a crowd-pleasing moment in a way that’s uncharacteristically emotionally hollow for Game of Thrones, however well-executed it was.
I really dug the effects shot that followed the opening credits featuring the Army of the Dead emerging from the snowstorm. The way the storm built up and approached the camera with the Night King and his host slowly revealed themselves through the flurry was incredibly eerie and majestically beautiful at the same time, a combination Thrones has always excelled at. The scene was a really good example of a single idea to set up the season done elegantly and succinctly, which is often one of the biggest challenges in conventional filmmaking, so I can only imagine that doing something like this with CGI presents its own set of challenges as well.
I’ve come to expect excellence in the Winterfell sections and this episode did not disappoint. The writers have done an excellent job setting up the tension and conflict between Sansa and Jon. The frustration on both their parts, in this episode at least, is quite understandable. In their disagreement with each other, Jon and Sansa are each exemplifying the fatal flaw of the parent they most take after, Ned and Cat, respectively. The Stark men have all demonstrated a great capacity for leadership, but the very moral rectitude and stubbornness that imbues them with this trait has also led to their undoing as the resultant blindspot led Ned, Robb, and Jon to their betrayals and deaths.
I suspect that many viewers will be tempted to reduce the rift between Sansa and Jon to a classic case of a man thinking he knows best who won’t take Sansa seriously “because she’s a girl,” I would argue that there’s a lot more going on here than a cliched (however pervasive) brand of dismissive sexism. While Jon has proven himself as a leader and Sansa has grown much more cunning, neither one of them possess much political acumen and their squabbling poses a serious political problem for both of them. While Sansa is right to demand more respect from Jon, bickering about it in public in front of all their bannermen (to say nothing of Littlefinger) is not the best venue for her to air her grievances. Jon’s rigidity is a problem, but Sansa’s petulance and lack of persuasiveness don’t help either. Take for example Sansa’s frustration over Jon not taking the threat from Cersei seriously. As with Ramsey last season, Sansa has insight that Jon doesn’t have he’d do well to consider, but fails to offer an alternative to Jon’s approach in either case.
It seems like the start of every season of Game of Thrones has an obligatory Lannister twins “catch-up” scene, which is fine by me seeing as they’re two of my favorite characters and I love watching Headey and Coster-Waldau together as much as I do. As perfunctory as these scenes can sometimes get, I never seem to tire of watching those two. Having said that, the scene in this episode was about as perfunctory as they come, but I’ll give bonus points for how fantastic Cersei’s giant map of Westeros looks.
For a series with so much going on and so much material to cover, it’s kind of remarkable how few montages have been featured on Game of Thrones, especially given how pervasive montages are in narrative in general. Of the relatively few they’ve had, the montage of a day in the life of Samwell Tarley, Citadel Intern, was one of the more effective they’ve had. I have a fairly high “gross-out” tolerance, and by the third time we saw Sam empty a chamber pot I was thought I could smell shit in my apartment; after I verified that the dog had not left my side I came to the conclusion that the show had effectively sent the message.
The introduction of the great Jim Broadbent as Archmaester Ebrose was quite well-done. I think we all know where this storyline is going, but all the same, I’m quite interested to see it unfold and see more of the inner workings of the Citadel and the maesters as an institution. The existence of this great repository of knowledge is one of the masterstrokes of the world George R.R. Martin has created, in my opinion, because it makes the world of the series seem lived-in in the way it lends a logic to everything, which I think helps a lot of the more fantastical elements seem grounded.
For whatever reason, I haven’t devoted a lot of space in this forum in praise or Rory McCann’s work on Game of Thrones. The Hound is one of the best characters in the series and I’ve thought McCann was great and perfect for the role from the beginning, but I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for his performance the more I rewatch previous seasons. I especially love his scenes with Arya and the “rabbit stew” sequence from “Breaker of Chains” in season 4 is one of my favorites and I enjoyed seeing them follow up on tragic but predictable fate of the farmer and his daughter, which served as a fitting backdrop for Glegane’s further growth.
I’m fairly certain that by the time I actually post this piece Ed Sheeran will have already broken the internet, but it must be said that his cameo is by far the closest Game of Thrones has come to “jumping the shark.” The cameo was so gratuitous that I genuinely entertained the possibility that the showrunners and filmmakers had screwed it up on purpose. If they had only constructed the scene normally without calling so much attention to him, I really think it would have worked, but instead we got something akin to when pro athletes made inexplicable appearances on 90s sitcoms. It’s bad enough to “wink to the camera,” but the way they did so with that scene was so unsubtle as to be worthy of Lucille Bluth.
I have mixed feelings about the scene apart from the cameo, as well. It was a bit long and talky for me but I did find it interesting for Arya’s character development as the latest in the sort of “empathy lessons” she’s been having since the end of last season with her reaction and interpretation of Lady Crane’s portrayal of Cersei. Particularly effective is the way in which the closer Arya gets to checking all the names off her hit list, the more she seems to emphasize with her enemies, to a certain extent.
Appropriately, the highlight of “Dragonstone” was undoubtedly the sequence where Dany and her circle finally make landfall in Dragonstone. This final sequence was beautifully constructed, executed, and utilized a truly stunning location. Additionally, the production design and wardrobe, which have always been excellent on Game of Thrones, were even more impressive than usual. Dany’s new gear is one of my favorite costumes of the series so far. I particularly like how the dark tones contrast with her hair and skin tone. It also sort of makes it look like she’s “dressing like” Drogon. Those two could really give Lucille and Buster a run for their money at the next Motherboy competition.
The choice to go dialogue-free until the very end was perfect for the sequence and a welcome change of pace for an episode that had slightly too much dialogue, in my opinion. The lack of dialogue also gave us a chance to see Emilia Clarke anchor a scene without delivering any speeches or proclamations as she so often does. Clarke has incredibly expressive eyes and a great presence on camera that was on full display in that final sequence. The final line was an exhilarating kick off to the season.