Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 1, “Dragonstone”

This review contains SPOILERS for the first episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Dragonstone”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

“Shall we begin?”

So says Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in her only line of Season 7’s premiere episode, somewhat oddly titled “Dragonstone”. The idea of new beginnings is prevalent in Dragonstone, which starts again after last year’s finale wiped the slate clean and concluded storylines that had been building up for the better part of six seasons.

The episode’s new beginnings come from vastly different quarters: Cersei Lannister, having gained a throne and lost everything, continues her trail of vengeance. Jon Snow, King in the North, establishes his new leadership. And for Dany, the new beginning is also an ending, of a sort; she has come full circle, returning to the island where she was born, and back to the beginning of the Targaryen story.

The cold open of the episode is somewhat at odds with this theme of new beginnings, though: we open at the Twins, where David Bradley – who can now sort-of add ‘Arya Stark’ to his list of onscreen roles – delivers one of Thrones’s most satisfying speeches. It was obvious from the first moments of the scene that Arya was wearing his face, but in a way that made the gradual reveal even more enjoyable to watch. There’s a brilliant shot of Arya (now wearing her own face) walking through the Twins’ hall through the mass of bodies that brings to mind an iconic shot from Season 3’s “The Rains of Castamere”.

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In the credits sequence, Oldtown gets a nice clockwork animation complete with a spinning astrolabe, and Essos is omitted entirely. Arguably, the omission of Essos is what makes this episode so thematically focused – in previous seasons, shoehorned scenes from Meereen often disrupted the flow of the episode.

The episode properly opens with a lovely atmospheric shot of the dead marching on the wall. Jeremy Podeswa excels at these sorts of scenes – his directorial style is suited to dark, moody silence. I half-expected to see a wighted version of Hodor marching through the snow, but ultimately I think that would have distracted us from the sheer gravity of the situation. Podeswa, with input from composer Ramin Djawadi, constantly reminds us throughout the episode of the mounting threat. Notably, the sequence with the Hound and the Brotherhood (more on that later) is made even more tense by the muted percussion of Djawadi’s “Three Blasts” theme, and the framing of the characters with a great deal of empty, mysterious, cloudy space behind them. Even though I knew white walkers would not suddenly materialise on Riverlands, the scene still had me on edge.

Bran and Meera’s scene was fairly standard. It was good to see Dolorous Edd again, but it was exactly what I expected. There’s not much to say here.

Over in Winterfell, Jon sits down to his first proper council meeting. He decides that the Karstarks and the Umbers should be allowed to retain their lands in spite of their parents’ failings. Perhaps Jon’s feelings about this matter stem from his relationship with Lady Catelyn, who despised him for his (supposed) bastard parentage. I was a little disappointed by Alys Karstark, who was quite a major character in A Dance with Dragons, but from what I understand of casting news, she has a larger role going forwards. I felt this sequence was slightly over-dramatic, and the Umbers and Karstarks swearing their fealty to Jon probably didn’t merit the dramatic reprisal of his theme from “The Winds of Winter”.

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Sansa puts up an argument, but Jon upholds his decision. Here, we see Sansa being the more reactionary and directly antagonistic member of the pair, a trait she’s had ever since “Book of the Stranger” in Season 6. This ties in nicely to her later point that she “learned a lot” from Cersei, who is similarly reactionary and vindictive when it comes to dealing with her enemies. Sansa’s decision to punish people for their crimes is not innately in her nature; in A Game of Thrones and Season 1 of the show, we see that, unlike Arya, she doesn’t hold to ideas of retribution, and believes Joffrey when he says he will forgive her father (though arguably this is because of her naivety more than anything else). Sansa’s understanding of, and desire for, retribution has grown throughout the series, shaped by Cersei, Littlefinger and Ramsay, who – however hard she tries to deny it – is “a part of her”.

Despite her arguably flawed logic, Sansa makes a convincing case, and this is testament to Sophie Turner’s acting ability. Turner has a tendency to overact at times, and her early seasons as Sansa required her to maintain a blank, impassive expression at all times. However, when she strikes the balance between these two extremes, she’s a fantastic actress. Her performance in “Dragonstone” is one of her best. Despite her somewhat confusing public messages about Sansa, Turner definitely understands her character.

Moving on: in King’s Landing, Cersei proves her general awfulness by walking over wet paint. The courtyard scene makes fantastic use of natural lighting, and the shot of Jaime and Cersei standing on the map is one of my favourites of the episode – with Cersei symbolically standing on the Neck of Westeros, placing it in a sort of stranglehold. Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have some of the best chemistry of any two actors on the show, and both are individually fantastic, so it goes without saying that their performances here are great. The main emotion that comes through in this scene is how far detached Cersei has become from the reality of the situation facing her. I love Headey’s Cersei; her generally unhinged view of the world makes her a joy to watch. With Tommen gone, hopefully we’ll see some of Cersei’s deranged alcoholism from A Feast for Crows slipping through in future episodes.

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Unfortunately for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime’s character development is still stuck in a rut. Yes, he’s saying things that suggest character development, but these are things we’re intelligent enough to imply, and like most of Jaime’s characterization since Season 4, they appear to have no effect on his character. For the majority of the story he just limps around looking like a whipped dog. Show Jaime has served almost exclusively as either a plot device or as a foil to Cersei these past two seasons. Dorne was a pointless heap of shit, and while “Blood of My Blood”, “The Broken Man” and “No One” offered some depth to Jaime in Season 6, this episode doesn’t suggest that Jaime has any lasting horror at Cersei’s destruction of King’s Landing. That being said, it is still early days.

Cersei and Jaime stand next to a nice wall in Dubrovnik or Sevilla or wherever the hell they’re filmng it this year, and watch as Euron arrives. Podeswa echoes a shot he previously used to show Jaime’s arrival in the Season 6 premiere, “The Red Woman”. Euron’s navy is fantastically well-done by the FX teams, and his flagship (possibly the Silence), looks very foreboding in black wood and black sails. I’ll gloss over the fact that Euron supposedly built a thousand ships in a year, on an island with very few trees, and cut straight to the throne room scene.

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It’s very rare that Michelle Clapton’s costuming goes wrong. In this episode alone, Cersei gets a new gown similar to the one she wore for her coronation; Sansa puts her ring necklace on again, and the whole of Dany’s crew – all dressed in black – look amazing. But Euron looks like an alcoholic misfit from a second-rate punk rock band who accidentally time-travelled into the Middle Ages. Pilou Asbaek is better than he was in last year’s travesty of a kingsmoot, but he still lacks proper menace, and comes off as more comedic than scary. Euron is one of a few characters for whom I can say that I prefer the book adaptation in every way. Presumably, the decision to keep his men outside the throne room is intended to make him seem more intimidating, but overall, he seems more like a deranged hobo than the King of the Iron Islands. Nonetheless, the trio of actors manage to salvage a good scene, helped along by good writing and clever use of lighting to heighten the tense mood. Cersei talks about the risks of Euron betraying her, but we know she would be just as likely to betray him. Either way, the chance of these two ruling side-by-side is nonexistent.

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The next scene takes us to Season 7’s first new location: the Citadel in Oldtown. I like the Oldtown sets and the sense of loneliness and hostility we get from them, even though they’re places of learning. It’s very different to the Citadel presented by GRRM in A Feast for Crows, where Pate (from the prologue) and Sam both find companionship early in their time there. The Citadel in ASOIAF pretends to conform to the ‘Hogwarts model’, of a school/university for the protagonist to have exciting adventures in with a cast of new friends, with a suggestion of mystery beneath. The Citadel in GoT doesn’t even bother with that veneer. In Sam’s scenes, no one talks to him outside of Archmaester Slughorn and Gilly, and while the corridors are bright and airy, there are secrets hiding everywhere: in the depths of the library, and in the mysterious quarantine room where Jorah Mormont is kept.

This comes across especially well when contrasted with Sam’s homely scene with Gilly towards the end of the episode. Sam might have friends outside the Citadel, but he has none inside it. In a way, the Citadel have forbidden him from having companionship, forcing him to become one of an order of like-minded individuals. This links nicely to what Barbrey Dustin says in A Dance with Dragons about the maesters being entirely focused on the preservation of order.

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Archmaester Slughorn (who may or may not be Marwyn the Mage) is an interesting new character. Jim Broadbent fits the role well – it’s almost as if he’s been asked about restricted sections in libraries before. Though I think he had good screen chemistry with John Bradley’s Sam, I have to wonder whether Slughorn’s character is, like Marwyn, different to the other archmaesters, or if he represents the popular worldview at the Citadel. If it’s the latter, it’s a bit baffling that the Citadel hasn’t given Sam any help already. But if Slughorn/Marwyn is viewed by the ‘grey sheep’ as a brain-addled outsider, it could open up some interesting plotlines about a rogue, slightly crazed maester.

I’m not going to say much about Jorah or Gilly, as I don’t think their scenes were substantial enough to warrant lengthy comment. However, it’s good to see that they’ll (hopefully) have bigger roles this season than they did in the previous one, where they were only in 3 episodes apiece.

I haven’t forgotten the ‘shitty montage’ that opened the Oldtown storyline. I found it hilarious, both because it’s so anachronistic compared to the rest of Thrones, and partly because of John Bradley’s mildly disgruntled ‘this is turning out to be a shitty day’ face. However, I do think the montage has some sort of significance. It sets the world of the Citadel (more like Shittadel, amirite?) apart from the rest of Thrones. Even though this whole plotline is based on Sam finding out about the white walkers, it instead focuses on the menial jobs Sam has to complete to reach his goal. You can almost hear Yoda saying, “to become a Jedi master, through a field of shit you must wade.”

As much as I enjoyed our brief foray to Oldtown, my favourite part of this week’s episode was the time we spent in the Riverlands. Benioff and Weiss put together two truly remarkable scenes here. The first features Maisie Williams’ Arya coming upon half a dozen Lannister soldiers in the wood. Podeswa does a great job in making the scene feel tense, and we, as skeptic Thrones-watchers, are waiting for the soldiers to suddenly jump up and try to rape her at any minute. We’ve got so far into the ‘Lannisters are evil’ mentality, that we, like Arya, are instantly suspicious, and only too ready for the approaching swordfight. There are prolonged shots of Needle, and just when we start to feel settled there’s an odd, jarring piece of dialogue – “a nice young girl” – that brings the tension back all over again. It’s a fantastic scene, and wonderfully meta; the audience, as well as Arya, has become conditioned to violence. True, there is a slightly anachronistic line in there as well – “are you old enough to drink?” – but it’s not enough to diminish the effect of the scene. Oh, and Ed Sheeran’s there, too. He looks weirdly Photoshopped into the scene, even though I know that’s not true.

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The best scene of the episode is the one that follows this, though. Sandor Clegane is a character who frequently slips under my radar, but Rory McCann’s performance in this episode is so good that it’s cemented him as one of my favourite characters all over again. The Hound’s wit is positively acerbic, and he gets all the best lines – “you think you’re fooling anyone with that topknot? Bald c*nt.” But on top of that, the scene continues the Hound’s personal development from “The Broken Man”. He has been spiritually reborn, and you can tell. McCann expertly portrays his genuine sorrow at the deaths of Sally and her father (from “Breaker of Chains”), but honestly I think credit is due here to Benioff and Weiss more than anyone else. This isn’t a scene that needed to exist, but I’m so glad it does. The Hound’s attempt to recite a prayer he clearly doesn’t know shows the extent of his goodwill, and his willingness to stare into the fire shows how far he’s come from a time when he regarded fire as his greatest enemy.

And this scene has some of Podeswa’s finest directing: dark, sobering and reflective. For the record, I think “Dragonstone” is actually the least Podeswa-esque of this director’s five offerings for Game of Thrones so far, and the least visually compelling, but it’s still damn good, and honestly I think Podeswa is better than Sapochnik or Michelle MacLaren when it comes to sequences like these.

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And then we come to the grand finale: a majestic visit to Dragonstone which is a triumph of production design. The whole thing is borderline orgasmic, a grandiose ‘look-at-me’ scene, piling iconic shot on top of iconic shot. The sets are among the best Thrones has ever produced, and it’s clear where the episode spent most of its increased budget. Dragonstone looks better than ever, and it’s a triumph of cinematography as well as visual and special effects – once again, some of my favourite shots from the episode are in here.

The final sequence is thematically significant too. It’s key to the scene that Tyrion walks a few steps behind Dany, allowing her discovery of home to be a significant individual experience. You can see Missandei holding Grey Worm back: this is Dany’s place, this is Dany’s time. It’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best sequences as the character (without being unecessarily unkind, that’s possibly because she doesn’t say anything). The lack of dialogue, coupled with Ramin Djawadi’s dramatic continuation of the ending soundtrack from “The Winds of Winter”, allows us to experience the same awe that Dany is feeling. And in this silence we can more easily appreciate the moments of significance. The most obvious of these is when Dany rejects the throne room for the Chamber of the Painted Table; she heads straight to war, following the destiny Daario Naharis laid out for her: “you’re a conqueror, Daenerys Stormborn.”

“Shall we begin?” she says. And begin we will.

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Notes and Side Bits:

Bloody hell, this was an easy paycheck for Peter Dinklage. $1 million plus first billing, and he doesn’t even have to say one line.

Maester Wolkan (at Winterfell) has visibly aged, quite a bit.

Despite initially disliking Lyanna Mormont, I’ve really enjoyed her part in this season.

Ed Sheeran sings “Hands of Gold”, which Symon Silver-Tongue wrote about Tyrion and Shae in A Storm of Swords. Given that Symon doesn’t appear to exist in the show’s universe, I have to wonder where the song came from.

My favourite line of the episode is one I haven’t really discussed, a meta reference to one of Littlefinger’s more irritating habits. “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish,” Sansa says. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

For me, the best actor of the episode was Rory McCann (the Hound), with second place going to Lena Headey (Cersei), and the best guest actor was probably Richard Dormer (Beric Dondarrion), with Paul Kaye (Thoros of Myr) in a close second.

 

 

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