Game of Thrones Gears Up for the Wars Still to Come

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Dragonstone,” the first episode of the seventh season.

Helen Sloan / HBO

Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, David Sims, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.

David Sims: It’s finally back. After 12 long months of waiting, 12 months of rumor, speculation, and fierce fan arguments, Game of Thrones has returned to answer the question we’ve all been asking: Just how does the sanitation system at the Citadel work? How has Westeros’s largest collection of intellects dealt with the issue of human defecation? Now we know: It’s Sam’s job, and he pours all the bedpans into a giant trough. Might as well end the show right here.

I jest, but only to honor the show that has been off our airwaves for so long and has made its much ballyhooed return in typically muted fashion, with a couple of silly tweaks that simply had to be for our benefit. With only 12 episodes remaining before this show is gone for good (we’ll get six more this year, followed by just six in Season 8), one might be pardoned for asking, as Milhouse of The Simpsons once did, when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory. Patience! “Dragonstone,” written by the show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, was the kind of table-setter Game of Thrones always prefers for its season premiere, promising carnage to come but mostly using the first hour to push the pieces into place. And, in this case, to give us a good old-fashioned bedpan montage.

“Dragonstone” actually began in much more shocking fashion with a scene wrapping up Arya’s revenge from the Season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter,” in which she killed the aged weasel Walder Frey as retribution for his part in the Red Wedding. Now, disguised as him, Arya the assassin gathered the entire Frey clan for a banquet, poisoning them all and revealing herself to Frey’s poor child bride. Even for the merciless Arya, it was a bloodthirsty moment, one that underlined just how much her training by the Faceless Men forged her. She’s not “no one,” as they wanted her to be, but she’s still a wraith—a vengeful Stark wraith who can operate without fear of upsetting lordly alliances.

It was fitting that “Dragonstone” began with a triumphant massacre and then spent the next 55 minutes pondering the moral gray areas of war and vengeance. That’s what Game of Thrones is really here for—to keep you arguing with yourself every time some plot development feels too neat or simple. Up in the north, Jon and Sansa debated the finer points of treason when Jon refused to strip the families of two traitorous houses—the Karstarks and Umbers—of their lands just because of the sins of their dead lords. Sansa, whose political acumen was forged in the fire of Ramsay Bolton’s torture and Cersei’s particular brand of leadership, argued for a deeper punishment, and I found myself surprised at how much I disagreed with her. Ruining families forever is what Lannisters do. But, as Sansa later admitted to Jon, she does admire Cersei’s indomitable spirit, in a weird sort of way.

Cersei, meanwhile, is in full-on defiance mode, her heart hardened by the death of Tommen. She’s having a gigantic map of Westeros painted as if to stubbornly pretend she’s still in charge of all of it, and when prodded by Jaime (who, honestly, did not seem angry enough at her to me) about her lack of allies, she produced Euron Greyjoy, dressed like an emo Captain Hook, who then promised to get her a proper wedding gift. Something to fight dragons with, methinks? Cersei’s going to need it, since Daenerys (in the episode’s final sequence) has taken roost at her birthplace of Dragonstone, the obsidian island off the coast of King’s Landing that was once home to Stannis Baratheon.

My favorite scenes in “Dragonstone,” though, were not these big pieces of plot movement but the quieter meditations on the unceasing foolishness of war, even in the face of Daenerys’s possible triumph. Arya, upon leaving The Twins, encountered a group of Lannister soldiers (including one Ed Sheeran) who seem as good-natured as any other Westerosi, a welcome change for a show that usually portrays red-armored men as pitiless monsters. The Hound, now traveling with the Brotherhood Without Banners, stumbled upon a home he once robbed, whose kind-hearted owner has long since died (along with his daughter). His understated burial service for the people he once wronged in the name of nihilism was the episode’s best moment, far more intriguing (to me) than his visions of oncoming doom from beyond The Wall. And Jon’s pronouncement of the new lords of Karhold and Last Hearth, a steely feudal pledge to two pale teenagers, was a stirring reminder of his belief in not judging people by their family name.

And then, of course, there were the bedpans, emptied dutifully by good old Sam, who toils away at Oldtown learning to be a maester in the hopes that he can repel the coming onslaught from the White Walkers. In all that excrement-cleaning, all that weighing of innards, came a revelation—Dragonstone is the key to defeating the dead, as it’s a veritable palace of obsidian. There also came a veiled threat, in the form of the Archmaester (played by a folksy Jim Broadbent) making a safe assumption. The Wall has stood for thousands of years. Why would it fall now? With so few episodes to go, I wouldn’t count my bedpans. Lenika and Spencer, what do you see in the flames?

Cruz: “Dragonstone” should win an Emmy next year for Most Disturbing Poop-Soup Montage on Television. (No brownish liquids for me for the next bazillion winters, thanks.) I, too, was weirdly drawn to the goings-on at the Citadel—far more than I was to Cersei’s machinations at King’s Landing, somehow. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen her royally ruin every situation in which she’s maneuvered her way into having the upper hand. Or maybe it’s because, without the counterweight of her love for and desire to protect her children, Cersei has even less moral dimension than she used to. Her goals have been reduced to simply keeping herself and her brother alive and ranting about her enemies in colorful language (though she didn’t manage to make “Ellaria Sand and her brood of bitches” sound entirely like an insult).

We had gotten a peek at the University of Westeros at Oldtown late in Season 6, and “Dragonstone” gave us a better look at the bowels (sorry) of the place, as well as its singular role in the history-keeping of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. “We’re this world’s memory,” the archmaester there told Sam. Surprisingly, the old man believed Sam’s warnings about the White Walkers because of his own research, but he stopped short of marshaling the Citadel’s brainpower for Jon’s cause. To the archmaester, the fact that The Wall has been standing for thousands of years is evidence against true calamity. To him, The Wall is history and memory. Like the chains the maesters bedazzle their necks and library shelves with, it’s a symbol of continuity that endures even as foolish men and women spill blood over thrones and crowns.

The archmaester’s apolitical perspective was a good one to consider at the outset of this season before the politics consumes the plot. He even offered a compelling admonishment to resist myopic thinking lest humans be like dogs who “don’t remember any meal but the last, and can’t see forward to any but the next.” Of course, the archmaester is almost certainly dead wrong about the threat in the north. But he aptly illustrated the difficult task facing many characters this season: weighing generations upon generations of experience and reason against impossible prophecies and shadowy threats taking shape. How seriously to receive the news of the Dragon Queen returning to her ancestral home with flying beasts in tow? Or the visions dancing in the flames? Or the stories about men who have died and come back to life? Or the tales of ice zombies that haven’t been seen for millennia?

Likely lending credence to the last of those is Bran Stark, who’s back south of The Wall for the first time since Season 4 and ready to deliver his mystical findings. In case you’re counting, that’s now a total of four Starks between The Wall and the Riverlands. So many Starks! The next stop for him is likely Winterfell, where Jon is executing a thoughtful and gender equitable plan for dealing with the imminent White Walker invasion, while also trying to heal the wounds of a broken north. (The hall scene was mostly serious stuff, but the reveal that young Alys Karstark and Ned Umber were in the room while the Starks debated executing them reminded me of an Arrested Development-style comic zoom-out.) The conversations between Sansa and Jon about Cersei, and between Cersei and Jaime about the Ironborn, were like so many that we’ve seen before. One person says trust me, I know, and the other disregards that insight at their own peril.

Quickly, I have to give credit to “Dragonstone” director Jeremy Podeswa for giving us some lovely and haunting moments in this fairly calm premiere. I’m thinking of the two mistiest-looking scenes: the smoky visualization of the literal “winds of winter” as the Army of the Dead ranged farther south (oh god, don’t let that be White Walker Wun Wun!), and the shot of Thoros of Myr and the Hound quietly digging the graves. Both were reminders that it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening outside the walls of lordly castles. I also can’t help but wonder if the vision the Hound saw in the fire has to do with the Night King heading to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, newly manned by Tormund and his free folk: “It’s where The Wall meets the sea, there’s a castle there … the dead are marching past. Thousands of them.”

If so, I hope Daenerys and her luminous tendrils are ready to sail up the coast, preferably with lots of obsidian. Still, the immediate threat to peace, it appears, will come from King’s Landing and a cocksure but not totally incompetent Euron Greyjoy: Yes, an unprecedented existential threat of apocalyptic proportions looms, but first the blood feuds and dramatic proposals of marriage. Spencer, what do you make of this new Westeros and the people now attempting to rule it? And how many more episodes do you think it'll be until Daenerys finds out that poor Jorah Mormont couldn’t keep his promise to her?

Kornhaber: We’ve all sat through sleepily paced, dialogue-heavy, prologue-like Game of Thrones season premieres before, and the expectation that “Dragonstone” would be the same left me pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it was. Part of the fun came from the way the creators varied tone and style with three excellent wordless sequences, even if one of them, Sam’s montage, felt like a particularly revolting take on a recent internet meme.

Moreover, no episode that opens with a chumming of the fan-service waters like that Arya revenge scene can be called “boring.” It was a particularly mind-bending cold open, too. Viewers first were made to feel Leftovers-style disorientation as they tried to make sense of what seemed an impossible flashback, then got the satisfaction of having read the clues that Walder Frey was about to poison his men, and then were smacked by the truer twist of Walder really being Arya.

Among the powerful things about that reveal was the simple visual shock of a greyed old man turning into a cherub-cheeked girl. Even if she’s accumulating a body count higher than most of our own world’s serial killers, Arya really still is a kid. Perhaps it’s her immaturity that makes her decide to continue immediately toward her biggest target, Cersei, rather than, say, take a breath and let her Stark siblings know she’s not dead. But her kid-ness was most apparent in the scene with the Lannister bannermen, the most boyish of whom—not Ed Sheeran, but the blackberry-wine maker—she connected with the most. What would it be like for her to have friends her age? (Miss you, Hot Pie!) What would it be like for her to have hobbies other than assassination?

Much of the hour similarly revolved around young people taking on responsibilities that would be left to their elders were their elders not already decomposing. Winterfell in particular felt like the meet-up place for a very un-fun youth group. After he proclaimed that both boys and girls as young as 10 would have to battle, Jon enlisted the loyalties of two moppets who find themselves head of household alongside child-ruler Lyanna Mormont. In this, we see the starkest manifestation of George R.R. Martin’s interest in how innocence isn’t the sacred status we might want it to be. In Thrones but also often in our own world, the wars to come must be fought by a generation orphaned by the wars that came before.

Jon and Sansa have long stood as symbols of that same idea, and though they’re now the ones giving orders, they are still sorting through the teachings of those who raised them. From Ned, Jon took some wisdom about rejecting flattery—as well as, Sansa implied to him, a dangerously naïve sense of honor. Because of her gender, Sansa herself wasn’t availed of frank fatherly advice: “He never wanted us to see how dirty the world really is.” In a fascinating move from the writers of the show, we heard her invoke not Catelyn but Cersei as someone from whom she’s taken life lessons—ones that amount to “show no mercy.” The squabbling between Jon and Sansa thus wasn’t mere sibling rivalry. It represented the fundamental moral struggle of Thrones: between those trying to live by a code and those who are just trying to live.

Though older than Jon, Cersei is similarly now stepping into the role her father groomed her for, “whether he knew it or not” (Jaime: “he knew it”). The scene of the Lannister twins in the new map courtyard made for a typically sharp sparring match, imparting the weight of the task that faces them, the depth of loss that they live with, and the way that this brother and sister differ in approaches. Jaime for some time has seemed reserved, guarded, and with Cersei having gone full Mad Queen at the cost of their last remaining child’s life, I sensed some calculated gentleness in his attempts to persuade her toward moderation. She meanwhile seems a bit thrilled about getting to execute a strategic maneuver she learned from 40 years of listening to Tywin: the alliance by marriage.

Her comrade in that plot, Euron Greyjoy, has been hyped as the successor to Ramsay and Joffrey in show’s maniacal-villain slot. He’ll have to bring his ick factor up quite a bit to compete with them, but I’d be fine if he stays in the zone he’s in now: amoral and pompous but not altogether unwatchable, providing much-needed comic relief. His line about how “wonderful” it feels to kill one’s own brother certainly landed interestingly in front of Cersei and Jaime, and his feisty staring contest with The Mountain gave the impression of someone who knows which fights can’t be won by might alone. What priceless gift is this nu-Jack Sparrow going to bring Cersei? Surely one of her enemy’s heads, but which one? With all his talk of sibling betrayal and fratricide, I’d bet Euron might try for Tyrion.

Which would mean confronting Daenerys just after she and her fleet have landed in Westeros. The closing scene of her arriving in Dragonstone might have seemed drawn out—a showcase of set design to justify all the plasterers and carpenters named in the episode credits—had the hour before it not been filled with hints that Dragonstone, a landmark not seen since Season 4, will be of great importance. After so much time watching Daenerys in exile, viewers know well what this moment means to her. It’s not only that she’s embarking on a long-planned mission of conquest. It’s that she, like so many characters, is finally stepping into the role she’s prepared all life for—and that her ancestors had prepared for as well.