“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.