After a slow start, Game of Thrones shifts into gear, delivering the season's first major action sequence that has major implications moving forward.
Last week's Game of Thrones took some criticism across the internet for matters concerning its narrative propulsion, or perceived lack thereof. With the shortened season having to cover a lot of ground between now and the even shorter final season, it's understandable, then, that some were perturbed by the somewhat languid pace of 'Dragonstone,' and the fact that it took a full hour of checking in with all the characters before fans got to see Daenerys finally set foot in Westeros and set to work with Tyrion in the war room of the Targaryen ancestral home. On the other hand, that's pretty much the formula followed by every season premiere of Game of Thrones, and it's worked pretty well so far, so it's not exactly a surprise that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss didn't dramatically change course just because there are fewer episodes this time around.
Fans didn't get to see the all out siege of King's Landing by Dany, her three dragons, the Dothraki, Unsullied, and everyone else who has literally joined her at the table in Dragonstone, and, to its credit, 'Stormborn' presents the series' explanation as to why. As it turns out, Dany's plan was never to lay waste to King's Landing, regardless of who sits on the Iron Throne. Instead, as she and Tyrion explain to a skeptical Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell, the Mother of Dragon's invading forces will be otherwise preoccupied with ending what's left of House Lannister's grip on power by taking Casterly Rock, while Yara and Theon lead the charge to lay siege to the Westerosi seat of power with the help of Dorne and House Tyrell's armies.
It's a solid plan, and one that noticeably earns Tyrion some points, or at least proves to Olenna and Ellaria he's not still loyal to his sister and brother. What's more, the explanation demonstrates that there's much more going on in this penultimate season that a mere smash and grab to see who can take the Iron Throne. Yara's frustration with Dany for not simply taking what she wants is echoed by the others in the room, yet, as the would-be queen of Westeros makes clear, she's not interested in ruling a ruined pile of ashes, but rather in forging an alliance with the other who oppose Cersei's reign and wouldn't object too terribly to a queen with three dragons.
Much of 'Stormborn' is about characters in positions of power discussing the importance of alliances, and convincing those who follow them to continue doing so, even if it means extending a hand when normally it would be reaching for a sword. The tendency to do so is common throughout Game of Thrones, as is evidenced by the reaction of those in the north taking issue with Jon responding to Tyrion's letter, as well as Jamie's pressing of Randall Tarly to pledge loyalty to Cersei. It was there throughout the Dragonstone war room meeting as well, yet even as Dany and Tyrion's plan was sound, Olenna objected it to in a private meeting, where she suggested that perhaps the Mother of Dragons should be acting more like her three children than her advisor is recommending.
Olenna is without a doubt one of the smartest characters on the show, and when she offers advice, it best be listened to. But Olenna's telling Dany the people "won't obey you unless they fear you," is troubling in its own right. Still mourning her grandchildren, Olenna has as much a vested interest in seeing Cersei and King's Landing reduced to a pile of ashes as Ellaria does, and her "be the Dragon" talk with Dany felt self-serving to a degree. In that regard, Olenna's guidance falls in line with Sansa's open objections to not only trusting that Tyrion's letter isn't an invitation to a trap, but that any alliance with a Targaryen is a surefire way for history to repeat itself.
With Jon and Davos heading off to Dragonstone it's now inevitable that he and Dany will meet. While the sight of Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke sharing the screen after seven seasons will be a sight to behold, the fact that it may happen in the third episode of the season bodes well for those concerned about Game of Thrones pacing. Each season it seems as though the world the story inhabits becomes just a little smaller, and now that the series is down to the characters who will see the narrative come to an end (well, some of them), there's at least one big noticeable change: they're all talking about, and deciding what to do with one another.
These characters being aware of one another and making plans to deal with each other alters the pace in the sense that every action taken from here on out is part of the endgame. Every decision carries an incredible amount of weight, especially since it is so unclear what will become of it. Sansa gets the recognition she wanted, even though it's still less than what she deserves when Jon leaves the North in her hands, yet that smile on Littlefinger's face is more than a little troubling.
The series continues to take its time by promising big things ahead, with the continuing adventures of Samwell Tarly and Jorah Mormont at the Citadel, presumably finding a very uncomfortable solution to the grayscale that's spread across his body. It does the same with Arya who turns away from her quest to King's Landing upon hearing word that her brother is now back in charge at Winterfell, only to run into a now-wild (or wilder than before) Nymeria whose broken from her semi-domestication. The encounter calls back to Arya long quest, as the line "That's not you" reflects her own refusal of a domesticated life that led her to this point.
With all that was going on in 'Stormborn' with regard to setting up possible alliances and moving major pieces on the board the question of narrative progression was answered soundly by a massive attack on Yara and Theon by their psychotic uncle Euron, who'd promised Cersei a gift and presumably delivers on that by taking Yara and Ellaria prisoner. It was the sort of display that was impressive for both Euron and Game of Thrones, especially in response to the criticisms of last week. Not only does Dany's naval fleet get wiped out, but the Sand Snakes are all killed one by one, and Theon reverts to Reek at the worst possible moment, choosing to jump ship rather than help his sister.
In all, 'Stormborn' was a solid mix of setup and spectacle that pushes the season into a higher gear by virtue of the dramatic action taken by Euron. Game of Thrones would do well to follow this impressive battle by raising the stakes even higher. Euron's sneak attack will require a response from the Mother of Dragons, and with so few episodes in the season, it's a good bet retribution will be swift.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'The Queen's Justice' @9pm on HBO.