(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows.)
There are so many pieces on the Dragonstone war board (or the Lannister’s painted Playground of Blood Floor), it can be difficult to remember who’s where, and what’s going on when. This is especially true as Game of Thrones‘ increasingly accelerated and convoluted timeline collides with the ever-turning death wheel, turning every scene into the equivalent of trying to walk a tightrope while reining in a wild horse; at times, it can lead to confusing moments that require group think (or Google search) to remember who is where (in this episode, it was “who the fuck is at Casterly Rock right now?” to which the answer is… maybe some random advisers to the Lannister family?). My point is, it’s easy to overlook things; and if there’s a definitive thread to “Stormborn”, it’s the various overlooked elements of the intricate chess game being played in Westeros, surprising turns and reveals that expose dangerous weaknesses at the heart of every faction, weaknesses that may not be cured by just stripping away the dead flesh, and hoping what’s left will grow anew.
“Stormborn”, an hour-long crescendo into a rain-drenched bloodbath finale, spends much of its time observing strategic conversations between the major players of the war; not only is this an effective avenue to really set the narrative tracks for what is to come, but they serve the dual purpose in observing the changing (or in cases like Olenna, steadfast) identities of its major characters. The emotional core of this, of course, is Arya Stark’s visits with Hot Pie and Nymeria, offering a powerful mirror into both the character and performance of Arya Stark, which has only grown more tragic and dynamic, respectively, over the years. We forget, however, that underneath the face of the assassin and the soul of a wolf, is the broken heart of a young woman, un-moored from her rapidly-expiring family. The mention of Jon at Winterfell is enough for Arya’s steely facade to drop, the murder list vanishing from her head, if only for a moment to think about a path home, to something she felt still defined her after all these years.
“Stormborn” is a thematically rich, emotional ‘Game of Thrones’ that devolves into glorious chaos
As observed with Dany’s less-than-enthralled reaction to being home, nostalgia can only get you so far: one’s life and lineage is defined by their own decisions, not the thousands of pages of historical text contained in the libraries Samwell is currently moseying around in. No matter the legacy, each king, queen, and lord of Westeros makes their own decisions, for better or worse; the dichotomy is no more clear than with Jon and Sansa, two people who embrace the values and teachings of their father (or adopted father, in Jon’s case) in very different, equally respectable ways. Their lineage informs them, but their path is their own to choose: and across Westeros, “Stormborn” follows in the steps of “Dragonstone” in challenging perceptions of identity, and the changing tides of power that have forced each character to look in the mirror with brutal honesty.
Circling back to Arya, she’s just not the girl she once was, who guided Nymeria as a pup and saved her life from Cersei’s wrath: she can barely recognize herself anymore, and recognizes the same qualities of individuality in her once-loyal companion, now a massive fucking dire wolf cruising around the north with a pack of straight muthafuckin’ killas. It’s a beautiful moment, when Arya begins to realize just how much she’s changed, and begins to even question her motivations to this point – like everyone in Westeros, she’s unsure if she’s making the right decision: heading away from her family to kill the Queen may be satisfying, but it’s a dangerous, reckless mission that could easily get her killed. The responsibility of that wolf sigil lies heavy, however: it remains to be seen what path Arya decides to take, but her conflict is a microcosm of every battle, theoretical or real, faced by the characters of Game of Thrones.
Oddly enough, Missandei and Grey Worm’s Boob Quota scene provides important support to Arya’s scenes, and the many others around them; there is a very specific exploration of honesty in that episode, from the two of them slowly undressing each other as they say goodbye, that is used as a fantastic backdrop to some wonderful visual metaphors in what becomes a very sensual, tensely emotional moment. Grey Worm pleasuring Missandei is a wonderful nod to the themes of overlooking essential, but often forgotten and underappreciated elements of life, pairing up nicely with Hot Pie’s ability to bring pleasure through food: he talks about the longer, slower preparation of bread people never want to work through, which ties back into the literal climatic moment of Grey and Missandei’s scene together. It’s only special when you take your time to get to the… well, you can see where I’m going with this increasingly disturbing metaphor. I don’t care how weird it is, it’s effective!
It also carries a lot of emotional water other scenes don’t have space to lift; Grey Worm’s conversation about fear is easily applicable to every face we see in this hour, peeling back (sorry, Jorah) and exposing the rawest nerve of each character. For characters like Theon and Euron, these proverbial nerves don’t need a lot of tweaking and explanation; Grey Worm’s scene, however, helps prop up similar moments with characters like Varys and Littlefinger, who offer up various truths to expose their own moral and existential infections (again, sorry Jorah), moments that are powerful enough in their own context, but benefit from the added emotional weight of Grey Worm’s tough, tearing eyes as he reveals his deepest mental and physical fears to Missandei before heading off to war.
There aren’t just emotional underestimations made in “Stormborn“, however: a series of rash decisions expose the dangers of highly technical warfare throughout the hour, neatly setting the stage for Euron’s assault on Yara and Ellaria’s escort ship, a devastatingly brutal sequence that once again proves the level playing field each character is on both physically and mentally. Euron is a fucking animal, no questions asked: he charges in and brings the fire we’d normally expect from Dany’s dragons down on his Bretheren’s fleet, his completely-unexplained-but-ok-we’ll-worth-with-it massive war fleet demolishing 2/3 of the Sand Snakes and a bunch of Yara’s ships – not to mention what was left of Theon’s dignity – along with it. Traditionally, when a character says they are off to do something, it’s “see you in a couple weeks”: his siege on Yara’s escort fleet was surprising to the characters because they had overlooked The Hipster King’s hunger for power (again), and to the audience because who the fuck would expect them to follow up on that story so quickly?
Regardless of how you approach the element of surprise in this scene, it’s a brutal sequence that ends with Yara and Ellaria captured, two of the Sand Snakes dead, and a lot of burning garbage in the open sea. Although it seems like a small battle in context, the consequences of this are enormous; it establishes Euron as a legitimate power player in the game, a Greyjoy who actually walks the walk – and it throws a wrench into Dany and Tyrion’s well-laid plans to conquer Westeros, much of which initially appear to be based on Tyrion thinking like a Lannister, taking back the homeland and fighting a huge war on various fronts. As Olenna reminds Dany, she is not a lion, but a dragon, and should act as such; it’s too bad Tyrion didn’t hear this, because his allegiance to Lannister ways, at least in militaristic thought, is probably not going to bode too well for him in the long run.
A well-crafted hour organized around the many forgotten elements at play south of the Wall makes “Stormborn”, an hour that is particularly dialogue-heavy, feel much more contoured than it should on its face. There are many different philosophies playing out across the lands of Westeros, and “Stormborn” gives great respect to the debate that comes behind these decisions; as each one of them is exposed as supremely flawed, the dramatic tension from those reveals are bottled into one huge explosion in its final moments, a fiery declaration of power from an unexpected source, one of many such elements lying in both warm castles and frozen lands. The clock is slowly and loudly beginning its wind down to zero on Game of Thrones; the strong pair of opening hours to season seven are a promising sign that countdown isn’t going to be a lot of pontificating and fan service as all the pieces push to the center of the table.
- some other overlooked elements this hour explores; Varys’s moral honesty, Melisandre’s rejection of prophecies (calling them “dangerous things”), Cersei’s ability to spin propaganda, just how fucking big Valeria the Dread was… and just how dangerous it could be to leave Sansa in power while Littlefinger runs around without a muzzle on.
- Dany wants Jon to bend the knee; Jon wants her dragons to burn the Night’s Army. This should be an… interesting debate, especially after Dany and Tyrion learn of their loss to Euron’s fleet.
- Need to say this one more time: Euron Greyjoy is a Fucking. Animal.
- How many episodes until Samwell is kicked out of the Citadel? Three?
- Maisie Williams’ performance in this episode will be lost amongst the spectacle of the final ten minutes, but goddamn, is she mesmerizing in her two big scenes.
- “You don’t want to be the queen of the ashes” isn’t the most positive-thinking slogan, but I can dig it.