Game of Thrones: A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Stormborn,” the second episode of the seventh season.


Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers 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.

Spencer Kornhaber: Game of Thrones ended its latest episode with a good-old-fashion pirate ambush, eliminating two out of three of the Sand Snakes and subjecting Theon to a humiliating self-directed walk of the plank. As far as late-episode twists go, Euron Greyjoy’s at-sea ambush was a solid one, injecting real suspense and unsettling violence into what had seemed like a straightforward sail. Yet, in the end, it was also a typical Thrones-ian calamity: You’d best bet against the side you want to win.

Not all is lost for Daenerys’s fleet, though. The Sand Snakes are just one reptile now—but, to be the most frank, weren’t three sassy warriors a bit difficult to keep track of anyway? Theon may still doggy paddle to safety, and Ellaria and Yara, so rudely interrupted before they consummated friends-with-benefit status, aren’t yet confirmed fish food. Bonus expectation fulfillment: Euron got to make like all great Thrones villains and giggle maniacally while covered in blood.

The episode-ending battle at sea also highlighted a larger issue with this episode and perhaps with all of Thrones going forward. We’re in turbo mode: Game pieces are flying across the tables of various Westerosi war rooms, and certain details need to be yada-yada’d. So you might ask, wouldn’t a fleet primarily composed of rebels against Euron Greyjoy proceed with heightened concern that Euron Greyjoy might try to attack them? What’s responsible for the ambush—Cersei’s suitor’s craftiness, or Daenerys’s henchwomen’s incompetence? The answers probably don’t matter. Focus instead, the show increasingly asks, on the big map.

What’s clear is that Daenerys’s surgical strike—outlined toward the beginning of the episode—isn’t going to unfold in as lovely and uncomplicated a fashion as, say, the love scene between Grey Worm and Missandei did. But the underlying point of the Dragonstone deliberations remains relevant. In the competing advice of Tyrion the “clever man” (advocating bloodless conquest) and Olenna the battle-hardened “dragon” (encouraging total war), Thrones reiterated its core conflict between righteousness and realpolitik. But it also turned its attention back to a fascinating uniter of those two approaches: Varys.

Daenerys’s interrogation of the so-called Spider served as a history refresher on his character, but it also clarified what’s made his strategy special all along. He’ll stab any regent in the back, but he’ll do it with a noble purpose. Khaleesi, for now, seems to see the promise of this practical-yet-principled approach in a world where the self-interested keep preying upon the oathbound. The viewer may note how such a philosophy is reflected in other characters. Take Jaime Lannister, who keeps taking heat from the likes of Sam’s dad because he kingslayed for the greater good. But does Melisandre, the surprise visitor to Dragonstone, really have a divine mission? Or, as the question has been since she first appeared in Thrones, is she simply a charlatan leaping between would-be monarchs?

Up north, Jon Snow has the opposite sort of perception problem. He’s still being viewed by many of those around him as a typical Stark: naively trusting of human nature, ready to strike bargains and cede power just to be a honorable guy. Even his loyal prodigy Lyanna Mormont thinks he’s a rube to answer Dany’s summons in person. But as Snow tells his council, he’s coming from a perspective they don’t—but the viewer does—understand: He's seen the army of the dead. Yes, he's tempting the same fate as his grandfather in meeting with a Targaryen, but it’s because he truly thinks it’s the best bet to save the skin of himself, his people, and the realm at large.

One serious possible strategic error on Jon’s part, though: Not making nice with Petyr Baelish. Despite Sansa’s frostiness toward him, the Lord of the Vale may still hold real sway over the ruler of the North that Jon has just appointed. Even if not, Baelish has an army—as well as ambition unchecked by the idealism espoused by his longtime foil Varys. Additionally, he’s obsessed with Catelyn Stark, who, as we were reminded by their conversation in the presence of a B-minus stone tribute to Ned Stark, was no fan of Jon’s.

It’s probably no coincidence that the scene between Jon and Littlefinger took place in the crypt of Winterfell just like how Qyburn’s weapons demonstration for Cersei took place in the bowels of King’s Landing. The subterranean locales fit with the episode’s larger focus on secrets, politics, and history: Save for the final nautical skirmish, most of the movement we saw on screen seemed to be building foundation for future action. Dany assembled a neat—if, it now appears, abortive—plan for a two-front war. The Lannisters tried to rally the few lords who might be loyal to them while searching out ways to deal with that pesky dragons issue (still unclear: what makes Qyburn’s ballista so special).

Some of tonight’s smaller moments will also, possibly, come to be seen as important foundation. We’re now two-for-two in season 7 episodes that feature disgusting Sam sequences, and while it seems dubious that slicing Ser Jorah’s skin will result in anything other than the would-be maester also being infected with greyscale, it's possible that the search for a cure will bring these characters to where young Shireen Baratheon was healed: Dragonstone. (Also of note from the Sam plotline was the meta joke about his mentor writing A Song of Ice and Fire under a much less catchy title.)

Then there was Arya facing down wolves, mysteriously. I haven’t read the George R.R. Martin’s books—I know you have, David—but everyone tells me the later volumes spend a lot of time with a pack of feral canines. I assume her meet-up in the woods was partly a reference to that story, but Arya’s closing line—“that’s not you”—would seem to indicate that Nymaria isn’t rejoining the ensemble. Or was the whole scene somehow just an Ed Sheeran reference?

Finally, though it’s admittedly tired to compare this show and current events, some news parallels can’t go un-noted. I couldn’t have been the only one who thought the conversation between Dany and Varys had an whiff of recent debates over “loyalty” vs. “honest loyalty,” no? Nor could I have been the only one to feel Missandei was throwing out a think-piece prompt by by saying the “the prince that was promised” actually could be any gender. And was it not sorta familiar how xenophobia and expedience swirled together as Cersei and Jaime made a pitch to fight against Dothraki and Unsullied? David, bring me back to escapism, and please also give an excuse for Theon escaping.

David Sims: Ah, Spencer, you expected too much of poor Theon, or should I say, Reek. His goodbye to Yara was a bleak little mirror image of Arya’s little showdown with her former companion Nymeria. When Arya last left her direwolf, she was a girl playing with wooden swords, and Nymeria was a barely tamed beast biting at Prince Joffrey. Now, Arya is a cool-blooded assassin, and Nymeria is even more feral, far too wild and free to serve even as a threatening companion to a returning Stark warrior in Winterfell. The look between them said it all—our animal natures are hard to shed.

The same went for poor Theon as his nasty uncle Euron dared him to take up the sword and try and rescue Yara. Try as he might, Theon’s not about to play the noble warrior—his bravest action up until now had been taking Sansa’s hand and jumping with her off the ramparts at Winterfell. In the face of a familiar brand of chaos (Euron is a 1980s goth version of Ramsay Bolton), Theon jumped again, hoping to live to fight another day. Lord knows what the show has planned for him in the coming weeks, but given his history, it can’t be anything good.

Honestly, I figured Daenerys’s initial invasion force was doomed the second it launched its mission. For one, never throw in with the Dornish: They’re Westeros’s equivalent of the L.A. Clippers, a decent bet on paper that seemingly never pans out, always swerving stylishly into some unfortunate twist of fate. Yara, a far more exciting character, has also always felt doomed to play second fiddle, given how wrapped up she is in the internecine politics of those mollusk-pocked Iron Islanders. And Olenna Tyrell, masterful game-player that she is, has quickly been written off by men far stupider than her (namely Jaime and Randyll Tarly) as being too “emotional” in the face of, oh, you know, Cersei blowing up her entire family.

Game of Thrones has always simplified the precarious, shifting alliances of Westeros’s many houses. I’ve always forgiven it, because this is a TV show and there’s only so much backstory it can provide without sounding like someone’s reading a fake encyclopedia. But as the big bad war the show’s been building up to finally explodes onto the screen, I’ll admit I’m a tad disappointed at the intelligence level of the game-playing unfolding so far. Jaime’s continued allegiance to Cersei is baffling enough, but just about forgivable when you consider he’s got nowhere else to turn—it’s hard, even, to imagine Daenerys accepting the murderer of her father, no matter how big a team of rivals she’s trying to assemble.

But why in the name of the prince (or princess) that was promised would Randyll Tarly, Sam’s hardheaded dad and the chief military commander of House Tyrell, suddenly throw his lot in with the woman who murdered his liege lord? Mace Tyrell wasn’t exactly Alexander the Great, but he (and his two heirs) were incinerated in cold blood, and it’s hard to imagine a blinkered rule-follower like Randyll sullying their name just because he’s afraid of a few Dothraki. I appreciated Jaime’s opportunistic playing on the invading foreign horde—it’s just like our Kingslayer, who’s always been underrated as a politician. But I didn’t buy that Tarly would go for it.

The same goes for Jon Snow, who is declared King in the North and instantly decides … to leave the North on a boat with his most trusted adviser. There’s a reason we hard cut from that decision to a statue of Ned, holding his longsword in noble judgment. Jon seems similarly afflicted with the idea that the logically sound decision is always the right one. Dragons, as Davos points out, can breathe fire, so they might be useful against the White Walkers.

Fine. But maybe wait a second before approaching Daenerys and asking her to open a second front, in her brand new war, against a race of mythical beings? Jon’s role in Winterfell has to be healing the bitter divides of a just-ended civil war, and, as his lieges point out, the last King in the North who left Winterfell never returned. The only reason I can think for his rashness is that foul mistress, plot. Jon doesn’t make much sense as a King in the North anyway—the title should fall to Sansa, pronouns be damned, just like with the so-called prince who was promised. Jon came back from the dead to defeat the Night’s King, and if he has to make a few stupid decisions to spur that final confrontation along, so be it.

In these final episodes of the show (remember, there’s just 11 left—total!—and five left this season), such silly twists may become a matter of course just to get all the pieces in the right places on the board, plausibility be damned. Just how did Euron find that invading fleet and sail himself straight into it without any detection? Who knows! But that’s another plot point sewn up as we point our giant, mechanized crossbows at the grander confrontations to come.

Sophie Gilbert: A quick note that I’m subbing this week for Lenika, and maybe I spent too much time watching Anthony Scaramucci this weekend but Varys reminded me of nothing so much as the new White House communications director in his season-seven return, seamlessly switching allegiance from Bush to Baratheon without batting an eyelid. Sorry, Spencer, I know you wanted a break from current events but the politicking in this episode did feel nakedly relevant. Cersei warning the lords about foreign savages who will rape their wives and murder their children? Varys warning Daenerys that incompetence shouldn’t be rewarded with blind loyalty? It all cut a little close to home, IMO.

The other thing I noticed in “Stormborn” was the proliferation of women taking charge. You had Sansa, stepping in for Jon while he heads south to (finally) meet with Daenerys and Tyrion. Cersei, preaching hate in a rather drafty throne room. The Dragon Queen, of course, determining whether or not Varys is a simple opportunist or a true threat to her rule. And then Olenna, Ellaria, and Yara pondering the ethics of war and the need for an iron fist. Olenna’s warning that pure politics alone leaves a leader vulnerable felt like the counterargument to Varys’s calls for populism. “They won’t obey you unless they fear you,” she told Daenerys, entreating her to be a dragon, not a sheep. But as a leader, Dany has always understood that simple fear alone won’t cut it. True allegiance needs to be based on respect, too, and that can only be earned, not taken by force.

David, last week you praised the famed Ed Sheeran scene as one of the quieter moments of respite during otherwise ceaseless war and strategery. The (lovely) scene between Grey Worm and Missandei seemed to serve the same purpose this episode, presenting a moment of vulnerability and connection between two people that was genuinely moving. For once, the nudity didn’t feel gratuitous so much as pivotal, and Grey Worm’s description of Missandei as his “weakness” emphasized the episode’s constant tension between humanity and strength. So did the encounter up north with an old friend, as you noted. Nymeria had enough of her former self (good dog!) left to recognize Arya, but not enough to abandon her new pack and accompany Arya north. “That’s not you,” Arya murmured as she left. But Arya isn’t the same person she was either—she’s arguably just as fearsome and potentially predatory a figure as her direwolf has become.

Can we take a moment to appreciate the always-gratifying Hot Pie and his dab hand at devising ingenious baking methods (browning the butter before making the dough, who’d have thought)? Not to mention his deft, succinct delivery of groundbreaking news. (ICYMI: “Jon Snow came down from Castle Black with a wildling army and won the Battle of the Bastards. He’s King of the North now.”) After five full seasons on the run, including her mostly torturous (for her and the audience) residence in Braavos, Arya is finally going home. Jon, of course, won’t be there, although given that we’re already two for two on “this is the moment Jon Snow became President” speeches this season, I’m okay with that. Sansa, who had absolutely nothing to do in this episode beyond look disapproving, deserves an emotional reunion with her sister, and Arya will likely have even less tolerance for Littlefinger’s creeping than Jon does.

Which leaves us with Euron. The scorn on Yara’s face as Theon jumped ship (literally) was a sight to behold, but who among us can’t sympathize with Theon? Having been tortured so hideously in the past, both physically and emotionally, it’s not hard to understand why he ditched his sister. But like you both, David and Spencer, I’m less convinced by Euron’s sudden attack-out-of-nowhere. Pilou Asbaek has the maniacal glint in his eye (not to mention the discount Russell Brand wardrobe) to cast himself as a Ramsay-like villain for season seven, but whither his endgame? Cersei isn’t nearly foolish enough to betroth herself to someone so gleefully psychopathic, not to mention someone responsible for torching her father’s entire fleet back in the day. Best case scenario: he ends up subject to one of Sam’s medical experiments. Sure, it *looks* like Sam’s assembling the apparatus to make tableside guacamole, but he could potentially save Jorah’s life, so let’s not judge too hastily.