After what seemed like a few centuries, the final season of “Game of Thrones” has descended to us from the heavens. Predictably, the HBO streaming service crashed, which led the watch party in my dorm to lament loudly at the projector. It’s a little strange to sit here at the beginning of the end of a global phenomenon that enjoyed a uniquely dominant spot in the cultural zeitgeist; the ubiquity of references to the show was stunning and at times bizarre, like when President Trump and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani tweeted GOT memes at each other. But in any case, the question we’re all here for: How was the episode?
All in all, pretty solid. In line with first episodes of previous seasons, this episode seemed to principally be about distilling tensions that were built by past episodes into the foundations of this season’s storylines. This was occasionally tedious, but there were some fascinating set-ups for later action. There were no dramatic deaths of main characters, but instead a sweeping survey of major conflicts. During season seven, there were basically three camps: Cersei and the Lannisters, joined by Euron Greyjoy; Daenerys and the Unsullied, the Dothraki and (of course) the dragons; and Jon Snow, King in the North, backed by a motley crew of Northern houses owing allegiance to House Stark and Wildling forces. At the end of season seven, Jon had “bent the knee” to Dany, and Cersei had ostensibly agreed to help them fight the Night King, who was marching south with a massive army of undead and a dragon. Unsurprisingly, Cersei had sent Euron Greyjoy to bring the Golden Company, a mercenary army, to bolster her forces and planned to betray the nascent alliance between Dany and Jon. This betrayal ultimately cost her the allegiance of her brother/lover/Kingsguard Jamie Lannister, who then rode north to fight with “the living.”
(SPOILERS for the episode below)
The Cersei-Lannister plotline was expanded upon this episode. Euron Greyjoy, who replaces Ramsey Bolton as the show’s most dastardly (human) villain, ferried the Golden Company to Westerosi shores and pined after a better spot in his alliance with Cersei. Lena Headey’s pitch-perfect Cersei handled Euron’s lust and arrogance with ease and hired Bronn to kill her brothers. Tyrion advocated for Cersei’s changed heart to a skeptical Sansa Stark. Jamie arrived in the last frames of the episode, presumably to disabuse Tyrion of that notion. None of this was particularly unexpected, and so it played pretty rote.
The unfortunate consequence of a plot as sprawling as GOT’s is that in these more recap-y moments, the story moves at a glacial pace. It’s a bit like an uninteresting lecture from a dispirited AP Euro teacher. My own AP Euro teacher was excellent, so these moments occasionally made me wish that I was in one of her lectures. Instead, the premiere treated us to meandering scenes like Euron arrogantly prancing around while talking to the commander of the Golden Company about elephants getting seasick and sailors cheating at dice. Thus, we have (a) an in-universe explanation for a strained CGI budget and (b) one more piece of evidence for how much of a raging asshole Euron Greyjoy is. Similarly, Euron’s conversation with Yara served no purpose that I could surmise. On the whole, the episode was padded with various beats that seemed to exist principally for the audience to wax nostalgic and to gif — basically so I could see Arya flirting with Gendry a thousand times on my Twitter feed.
I appreciate that some of these moments were necessary for the storyline to proceed, but in a moment emblematic of my issues with this episode, Arya went from being a “cold little bitch,” as per Sandor Clegane, to “m’lady,” as per the infatuated Gendry, in a few seconds without any through line. It felt like this scene was trying to show that the variety of faces that Arya has worn. To me, though, in trying to situate those different versions of Arya, in insinuating that the “true Arya” was hidden, the transition between the cold killer and lovestruck teen was instead just jarring. Much like my first draft of this review, parts of this episode were too interested in recapping past events in lieu of synthesizing the variety of situations in which we’ve seen our characters into a coherent narrative for those characters in time for the conclusion of the series.
The more interesting conflict in this episode was the growing divergence of Jon, Sansa and Daenerys, and for these parts, I also found that the writers were generally better of turning the plot into fuel for character development. Sansa appears completely at home in her de facto role as leader of the North, and she seems to revel in its casual distrust of outsiders. She offers a cold reception both to the Queen of Dragons and to her brother. Jon, while reuniting with Arya and bantering about swords, indicated that he was bit miffed at Sansa’s style of leadership. I should add that I thought Arya’s characterization in the opening scene and her reunion with Jon was much stronger. Jon and Dany’s relationship appeared to have been strengthened in the first half of the episode, with Davos, Varys and Tyrion playing strategic matchmaker for the “handsome couple.” The two lovebirds themselves took flight on the backs of dragons.
But the biggest moment of the episode was undoubtedly when Sam revealed to Jon his ancestry, and crucially, his claim to the Iron Throne. This reveal came right after Sam had learned that Daenerys had burnt his brother and father alive. Sam confronted Jon with the most interesting thread of the episode: Where Dany was cruel, Jon was merciful. Where Dany would likely die before she relinquished her claim to the Iron Throne, Jon passed up his kingship for the good of his people (or perhaps for love, as Sansa argues) with nary a second thought. Wouldn’t, then, Jon make a better king? With an eye to Dany’s growing brutality and Ned Stark’s interminable honor that Jon is obsessed with upholding, this seems to be one of the most interesting storylines in the upcoming episodes. And although the convenient sequencing of events felt a little contrived, the transition from Sam apprehending Daenerys’ brutality to Sam pleading with Jon to embrace his claim to the throne added a significant fascinating wrinkle to the plot and a great bit of depth to both characters; this beat was far better than the relatively stale meetings-cum-recaps that I mentioned earlier.
But of course, winter is here, and as we learn in a reveal straight out of a “Saw” movie, the Night King appears to be only a short march away from Winterfell. Last season, fans of the Machiavellian plots and backstabbing that made the first six seasons so rich looked askance upon what appeared to be an Avengers-style team-up against the impending threat and the seemingly rushed storytelling that occurred as a result. Those fans ought to be at least partially relieved, as the well-constructed characters and storylines appear to still be here. But with five episodes left, I am a little skeptical of the showrunners’ ability to tie everything up in a way that will satisfy the millions of devoted followers around the world. At any rate, I can’t imagine that even the most critical fan will be able to stay away, and I am already spiritedly watching YouTube breakdowns of the trailer for next week’s episode. See you then.
Contact Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.