Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Dragon and the Wolf”

“The Dragon and the Wolf” isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t quite make up for the narrative failings of the previous two episodes, but it’s spectacular in terms of the acting, directing, and cinematography, and a massive 81 minute runtime means that there’s more space for everything to play out instead of being rushed. The scenes in King’s Landing felt like a return to GoT of old, and the confrontation between Tyrion and Cersei may be my favourite scene of the season.

It’s a very well-paced episode, but its greatest strength lies in the way it weaves its character arcs. Arguably, there’s as much character development in “The Dragon and the Wolf” than there was in the previous six episodes of the season. Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, Daenerys and Jon all have a mini-arc of their own in this episode, and you can make the same argument for Theon, Arya and Sansa.

My issues with “The Dragon and the Wolf” are mostly limited to minor quibbles (Jon’s name is Aegon? Seriously?) and the fact that it doesn’t do quite enough to resolve some of the season’s earlier storytelling issues. Yes, Sansa and Arya were revealed to be on the same side, but that doesn’t excuse her weird behaviour in “Beyond the Wall”. Also, the lack of #CLEGANEBOWL was concerning, but #BoatSex mostly made up for it.

King’s Landing would be the logical place to start this review. I was a little concerned to see that the first dialogue of the episode was some of the usual ‘witty banter’ that Benioff and Weiss are known for, but the conversation quickly took a turn away from cocks and eunuchs to something more prescient. I don’t know how Grey Worm got to King’s Landing, or who controls Casterly Rock, or how Euron sailed back round Westeros (again), but I’ll let these problems slide, for now.

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The first 12 minutes of the episode concern the buildup to the parley in the Dragonpit, and it was good to see the reunion between Podrick, Bronn and Tyrion – something I was pleasantly surprised by, as I’d completely forgot it was happening. Brienne and the Hound also bonded over their not-quite-parental ‘love’ of Arya Stark. The location used for the Dragonpit and the scenes surrounding it is beautiful, and the long takes are fantastic. More on the cinematography later.

Things get going once our main characters reach the Dragonpit. Dany comes soaring on her dragon, in a scene that, frankly, is a little shoddy, but would have been impossible for the VFX team to make believable. Everyone shares some tense looks. We get teased for Cleganebowl, though ultimately the brawl that was promised never takes place. But that’s okay, because this is a talky episode, and a massive fight in the middle would have been a bit distracting. On that note, I can see why they got Jeremy Podeswa to helm this one, because the man is a master at long, complicated dialogue scenes. Between his excellent blocking and direction and the damn-near-flawless performances of all the actors (both the five principals and the supporting cast), the whole Dragonpit scene is one of the show’s most memorable, and it doesn’t rely on fancy VFX. And to give credit where credit is due, Benioff and Weiss wrote some truly outstanding material for this scene.

However, the best scene of the episode is the one which comes after, where Tyrion ominously walks back into the Red Keep and sits down for an audience with Cersei. Lena Headey’s Emmy is long-overdue, but if there’s ever been a scene that is Emmy gold, I think this is it. Headey and Dinklage have some of the best screen chemistry in the entire show, playing off each other’s subtle cues perfectly. Headey’s Cersei is like an onion; peel away the layers and you will reveal a vulnerable soul, but beneath that vulnerability is iron, and beneath that are yet more layers. It’s a strange world where a woman’s reluctance to kill her brother – one of the show’s most beloved characters – is heartbreaking. And as for Dinklage, his performance opposite Headey reminded me of why I loved his character so much in Seasons 1-4. This is also one of Dinklage’s very best episodes, matching up to “Baelor” and “Blackwater” – the former of which he won an Emmy for. It was one hell of a performance. And once again, this scene was impeccably directed and shot.

Cersei comes out and proclaims that she’s going to fight alongside the Northmen. Of course, this is a lie – like her pregnancy, I suspect – and I think Tyrion knows it. Nonetheless, Jon and Dany accept that this is the best that they’re going to get, and head off to Dragonstone together. The rest of the King’s Landing arc is the build-up to Jaime finally saying what we’ve been waiting for him to say since Season 5: inspired by Brienne and Tyrion, he tells Cersei that if she wants to take back the Seven Kingdoms, she can bloody well do it alone. There’s a moment where Ser Gregor threatens Jaime – to which I had a genuine “holy shit” reaction – but then, in a brilliant scene that parallels the Cersei-Tyrion encounter from earlier – she shows mercy once again, and displays some weakness under that cold veneer. She heads off after him, but stops himself. She must be a queen.

Over on Dragonstone, there’s a council meeting where Jorah attempts to subtly cockblock Jon, but the real point of these scenes are the conclusion to Theon’s fantastic arc in this episode. While I felt the “I have no balls” trick was a little cheesy and over-the-top, it does a wonderful job in keeping to the ironborn idea that “what is dead may never die”.  Theon gets back up, beats the shit out of ratface, and then falls down in the sand. This shot, designed by DP Gregory Middleton, with Theon in the foreground and the bluffs of Dragonstone behind him, is absolutely perfect.

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Up at Winterfell, Littlefinger gets schooled. Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa was so genuine that I believed that Sansa had fallen for his shtick, and that this was ‘bad writing by those untalented hacks D & D’. So I was pleasantly surprised when the scene was turned on its head, and Sansa, in a brilliantly written scene, turns Littlefinger’s words on him and has him comprehensively torn to pieces. Then there’s Aidan Gillen’s reaction; he goes from mild confusion to desperation to a complete broken man in a scene that demonstrates the full extent of the actor’s ability. Farewell, Littlefinger. I won’t miss you… but at the same time, like all good villains, I think I will.

On the whole, I still don’t think this justifies the Winterfell storyline this year, which has been damnably poor in places. Though at the same time, I don’t think Benioff and Weiss could have conceivably written anything else. Winterfell is “on hold” this season, and for the plot to last until the finale, Littlefinger has to make some dumb decisions and Bran has to not bother talking to his sisters.

The scene ends with Sansa’s “the pack survives” line from the trailer. I was pleased to see the reprisal of the battlements shot from “The Winds of Winter”. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this shot closes out the series, with the surviving Starks standing solemnly together on the wallwalk as we cut to black one last time.

Sam turns up at Winterfell unexpectedly late in the episode, and immediately shares his findings with Bran, in a scene that felt a bit ‘off’ for reasons I can’t really describe. Bran then does some shady stuff with the fire and transports himself to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s wedding. I found it strange that Bran didn’t already know about this; considering that he’s done so much ‘research’ into Jon’s lineage, his findings didn’t really amount to anything. After so many years, we finally see Rhaegar… and he’s a bit disappointing, looking a bit like a discount Viserys. Personally I think would have been better to tease us with the joining of hands, but not to show Rhaegar’s face, but it’s not a huge problem, I suppose. This scene is intercut with Jon and Dany having tastefully directed sex on a boat… #BoatSex it wasn’t everything it had been cracked up to be, but then again, what more do you want? Also, Jon Snow’s name is Aegon, apparently. I still think Aemon would have been a much better name for him, but it’s not like everyone’s going to be calling him Aegon next season, is it?

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The episode ends with the Wall coming down. The Night King soars in on Viserion and burns the whole thing to rubble, allowing the army of the dead to swarm through the gap while an ice dragon soars overhead. It was what I’d been expecting since the start of the season, but seeing the great icy monolith – one of the few remaining constants in Westeros – come crashing down truly emphasized the power of the foe that the Seven Kingdoms will be facing in the wars ahead.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the episode that has rescued Season 7. It’s not a quiet episode, but it is reflective and thoughtful, and the reunions we saw here will not be easily forgotten. More than that, from a visual and cinematographical standpoint, this is possibly the most beautiful episode in the entire show. Whatever missteps Podeswa and Middleton made in previous seasons are always and completely forgiven. I’d be surprised to see this director back for Season 8, but with this sort of legacy, does it really matter?

It would be remiss not to recognise Michelle Clapton and Ramin Djawadi for their roles in this episode. Having everyone all in black has been unsettling, but it has paid off, and Djawadi’s score – particularly “Truth” and “Army of the Dead” – has been exemplary.

As for Benioff and Weiss… well, they’ve made some mis-steps with this season, notably in “Beyond the Wall”, but if you want proof that they can write, look no further than this episode. Oh, I’ll nitpick them to death, but I respect these ‘talentless hacks’ really.

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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”

“Beyond the Wall”, the latest in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s list of inspid, blandly-titled Game of Thrones episodes, is arguably the episode that encapsulates the best and the worst of Season 7. I imagine this will be a divisive episode among the majority of the fandom; it’s certainly an episode where you can make an equally competent argument for it being among the show’s best or among its worst.

Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category of reviewers. “Beyond the Wall” is very similar to “Battle of the Bastards” in the regard that it sacrifices logic for action, but unlike BotB, its strengths are less impressive, and its failures are more pronounced. With BotB, I enjoyed the ride all the way through, and its logical inconsistencies only occurred to me on subsequent rewatches and on reading through forums. “Beyond the Wall”, however, is the first episode where the sheer graceless stupidity of the plot has negatively affected my first viewing experience.

My issue with “Beyond the Wall” is that it is downright insulting to anyone who puts a bit of thought into what they’ve just seen. Benioff and Weiss’s writing is downright dumb, and of a far lower quality than what I’ve come to expect from them, and they aren’t helped by Alan Taylor’s directing, which felt like an extended montage of ‘cool stuff’ instead of a cohesive narrative. I won’t deny that the big moments, like Viserion’s death and resurrection, were very well done, and will be game-changing, but as a whole, the episode left a sour taste in my mouth that I haven’t experienced since “No One”.

I’ll start with the Arya and Sansa scenes, as these will be the easiest to review… but at the same time, they managed to be the most awful. The lack of cohesive storytelling left me baffled, and I did wonder whether the scenes had been edited into the wrong order. They make no sense. This aspect of the episode was a colossal mess, saved only by Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams who both try their best, but ultimately fail to overcome a God-awful script, and ultimately give performances which are quite average compared to their usual high standards – especially Williams, who seems deathly flat.

The Winterfell plotline in Season 7 is genuinely worse than Dorne in Season 5. Dorne was merely bad, but Winterfell is on a whole other level, as beyond the reunions of the three Starks, it seems that any character who goes to Winterfell actually regresses – most notably Arya, but also Sansa and Brienne, who both seem to be running in circles that go nowhere. In their quest for ‘cool moments’, Benioff and Weiss have chosen to alter their characters at random to create a contrived, ‘exciting’ plot. Arya seems to have forgotten her “master assassin” training to become “a hypocritical and completely irrational bitch”. Sansa fares slightly better, but again the issue is simple: the Winterfell plotline is a slower-paced story that might have worked in the context of Seasons 1-6, but is completely out of place here, requiring its characters to just sit down and do nothing while everyone else in Westeros zooms around at 10,000 miles per hour. It also requires Bran – the all-seeing eye of the Seven Kingdoms – to do nothing at all.

I do have one outlandish theory – that Arya killed Littlefinger at some point between “Eastwatch” and this episode, and is now playing a game with Sansa, seeing how suggestible she is to southern whims. However, with what happened last year in “No One”, I don’t have high hopes for this, and I’m expecting the contrived drama to be solved in an equally stupid way.

(Also, the budget must be gone, because there are apparently no people in Winterfell save for Arya, Sansa, Brienne and Littlefinger.)

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Meanwhile on Dragonstone, Peter Dinklage put on a firm performance, but again it falls into Benioff and Weiss’s mentality of telling instead of showing, forcing us through exposition that only serves to fill up space in the episode and other than that, just seems like an empty void. Then Dany receives the raven from Eastwatch and flies off to the land of magic and mystery.

North of the Wall, we open with some good conversational scenes. I particularly enjoyed Jon and Jorah’s conversation about the Old Bear and Longclaw. It was one of those scenes where the conclusion was entirely predictable, but it was fun to watch anyway. And even though I don’t love Jorah as a character, I can appreciate that Iain Glen is a fantastic actor. And the shared insults between Tormund and the Hound was the funniest conversation of this season; I might think Brienne is doomed to end up with Jaime, but I can’t fault the Giantsbane for trying.

Some time later, Gendry manages to run all the way back to Eastwatch (at the outside, that’s surely 10 miles or more, making at least 2 hours running time in heavy snow). He then has Davos send a raven Concorde airplane to Daenerys, requiring the bird to fly for about 1200 miles (24-30 hours), and then fly a dragon back (12 hours), while Jon and his crew of Dumb Cunts stay on their island for the better part of two days. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cooked and ate Thoros’s corpse during this time, because given the stupidity of this plan in the first place, Jon probably didn’t bother to take any provisions north with them.

D & D seem to have forgotten that they have a boy who can send messages instantly over at Winterfell, which would be a much more plausible explanation. Bran could inform Daenerys of the circumstances north of the Wall – and Melisandre, if she’d stuck around, would also have worked. That way, we wouldn’t have to see Dany until late in the episode, which would have made her arrival a genuine surprise.

Either way, they’re fine until the Hound throws a rock at the wights, which is apparently the signal for the mass attack, as the Night King didn’t realise that the ice was weak until it was demonstrably such. Anyhow, a moment later, the entire wight army surges across the ice, and then there’s a battle of epic and preposterous proportions, where Jon and his band of 5 named characters and 3 redshirts, fight off the army of 10,000 dead men. No prizes for guessing who died. Even so, it’s faintly ridiculous that they manage to hold on for as long as they do. There are some nice ‘hero shot’ moments, and the choreography of the sequence is outstanding, but the whole thing is slightly unbelievable, and there are no stakes and there is no horror whatsoever.

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Props to Jonathan Freeman for the cinematography throughout this episode, and to Alan Taylor for the directing, though I don’t think this was his finest hour on Thrones; the battle sequences in the latter half were entirely without suspense, even though that was mostly due to D & D’s unwillingness to create any tension by, you know, actually killing people other than Wildling #4. I expected us to lose Beric as well as Thoros, and Jorah, and possibly even Gendry. Back in a time when Game of Thrones had consequences, we almost certainly would have. Instead, Thoros dies, and… oh, that’s it.

Oops, I forgot about Viserion. This was the most unexpected twist of the episode, and it was possibly the finest triumph of visual effects ever seen on Game of Thrones; the dragon plumetting into the icy waters, blood and fire exploding out. And I can’t deny that I was in the edge of my seat as I watched Dany and her band of misfits fly away, abandoning Jon… but then I realised that the only reason they had to abandon Jon was because he’d entered a stupid battle rage, holding off the wights for no reason other than a shot of him staring dramatically at the Night King, and so he could drown, then be revealed as ‘not dead’, then get surrounded by wights, then get saved by Uncle Benjen, then have Benjen sacrifice himself even though there was enough room for both of them on that horse.

I’ve heard people asking why the Night King didn’t just kill Drogon instead of Viserion. I’m going to assume that he thought Viserion was a more immediate threat to his army – though this is a bit flimsy, given that he threw an ice spear at Drogon almost immediately after. I’m assuming the Night King set up this trap deliberately so he could get hold of a dragon, in which case he must have been chuffed to find out that people as stupid as Jon Snow exist.

After Jon’s miraculous and ‘unexpected’ escape, he and Dany find themselves on a boat. There is genuine chemistry between Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke, and the romance is one of Thrones’s more believable ones. Emilia Clarke’s acting was superb this episode, something I doubted I’d ever say, covering the full range between vulnerability and empowerment and reflective sadness. Her realisation that the white walkers exist, and her reflection to Jon, is one of her finest moments as an actress. At the same time, lines like “thank you, Dany”, and the ensuing nonsense, prove that the kudos should go to Harrington and Clarke, not Benioff and Weiss.

Overall, what should have been one of Game of Thrones’s finest episodes turned out to be one of its most disappointing because of the atrocious writing, proving, once and for all, that lots of explosions are no substitute for a compelling story.

P.S. Kudos to Michele Clapton and the costumes department. Dany’s winter dress/gown/thing is my favourite costume of this season.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 5, “Eastwatch”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fifth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Eastwatch”, 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.

Every so often in Game of Thrones, there’s an episode which is bound to slip under the radar, usually due to the fact that it follows a bombastic extravaganza such as “The Spoils of War”. Hence it is the highest praise that this week’s episode, the somewhat insipidly titled “Eastwatch”, is probably Thrones’s best ‘quiet episode’ since Season 3’s “Kissed by Fire”. Indeed, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the episode, it probably de-thrones “Kissed by Fire”, being an episode full of massive revelations and some of the most realistic dialogue the show has seen this season. It proves that, aside from an occasional over-reliance on humour, hell, this Dave Hill guy can write.

“Eastwatch” is a significant improvement on Hill’s three previous contributions to the show: Season 5’s “Sons of the Harpy”, where he only wrote three-quarters of a script, Season 6’s “Home”, a solid if occasionally baffling episode, and the creation of an irritating child known as Olly. Yes, it does feature some Hill-esque leaps of logic, but these can be attributed to Benioff & Weiss’s story arc more than anything else. In some regards, “Eastwatch” is an extended teaser to next week’s hotly anticipated “Episode 66” (love the title), but it stands up really well on its own, with a focus on ‘getting the gang together’, heist-style, for Jon Snow’s Stupidest Plan Ever™.

I expected Jaime and Bronn to end up being captured by Daenerys, so I was both surprised and somewhat baffled when they suddenly turned up coughing and spluttering on a riverbank and managed to stagger back to King’s Landing. Nonetheless, I think the alternative storyline would have been somewhat predictable – and hey, I’m not complaining about Jaime’s survival. It has become clear to Jaime that Cersei cannot win the war ahead, which he’s definitely correct about, but she refuses to listen, with Lena Headey channeling a strange, irrational version of Tywin Lannister. As always, Jaime and Cersei’s scenes are a delight to watch, but the real treat this week was that Jaime had – wait for it – actual character development.

At the battlefield, Dany burns Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon alive. I have to apologise for my initial disdain for Dickon – yes, his head is too small for his massive shoulders, but that doesn’t change the fact that: a) Tom Hopper played the role really well, and b) he went out like a champ. A stupid champ, perhaps, but a weirdly endearing one. And I never thought I’d say this, but I was sad to see Randyll Tarly go, come the end. This was also Matt Shakman’s finest moment of the episode; those two burning pyres in front of the kneeling Lannister men is something I fully expect to come up on the Beautiful Death poster.

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Over on Dragonstone, Jon touches Drogon – not as thrilling as it might have been, since it was an obvious consequence – but still an interesting scene nonetheless because of the implications about his parentage (more on that later). Also, Jorah turns up. The scene was shot a bit strangely if you ask me – making Dany and Jorah seem like long-lost lovers rather than old friends, though Ser Friendzone lived up to his name when Dany hugged him. I’m finally starting to like Jorah, which, coupled with what seemed like a very fatalistic reunion with Dany, makes me think he’s almost certainly going to die in the next episode. And to be honest, that might be the right choice. Once he’s had a heart-to-heart with Jon about Lord Commander Mormont, I think Ser Jorah’s arc will have reached its natural conclusion.

Meanwhile, Tyrion and Varys have a heart-to-heart in the throne room. It’s a really good scene for both Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill, with some pithy dialogue, but in the end, it fails because of a mentality of ‘telling instead of showing’. One of the areas where the Thrones writers frequently fail is in that they think their audiences are dumb; in their world, understatement is a dying art. We could have gained so much more from having the meaning of this scene injected into the performances of Dinklage and Hill than having it spelled out. But Varys got screentime, so that’s a good thing.

The best section of the episode for me was the portion taking place in King’s Landing, with the Davos/Tyrion buddy team. I was surprised that Davos seems so jovial about the man who killed his son, but that really speaks in testament to the strength of his character and the depth of his belief about the living dead. But the Davos and Tyrion buddy cop drama is fantastic. Both of them then head off to their separate meetings with Gendry and Jaime respectively. It’s always pleasing when the writers up the pace, because I didn’t think we were going to see the Jaime-Tyrion reunion until the next episode, at the very least, but in the end, it was pretty anti-climactic. Based on this, I’m almost certain that Jaime and Tyrion are going to meet again by the end of the season, probably in the finale, for an extended period of time. Meanwhile, Davos heads down to a forge to meet Gendry, because where else is he going to be. Having seen Joe Dempsie’s name in the credits, I wasn’t surprised by his appearance. I’ve always liked Gendry, even if I’m not his biggest fan, and my feelings of hype only increased when he picked up the warhammer. The warhammer! We’re in for some good times ahead, I think (providing he doesn’t die in Episode 6).

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The King’s Landing section ends with a very Dave Hill scene; some gold cloaks come to confront Davos, who turns them away with bribes and fermented crab. Now, obviously, this is meant to make a point about the corruption and greed that pervades King’s Landing… nah, actually, it isn’t. It was a fun scene, but nothing to write home about. And I was glad to see that Gendry didn’t bother going along with Davos’s ruse about him being some bloke called ‘Clovis’ (gods, what a stupid name) when they got back to Dragonstone. It allows to see the Ned/Robert dynamic as it must have been, bastard and bastard. Davos, meanwhile, drops the best line of the episode – “nobody mind me; all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age.” I swear, if they kill off Davos, someone at HBO is getting beheaded.

Also, by the way, Cersei’s pregnant. I’m not sure I believe that, because it seems a little late in the game to be introducing a baby to the mix. Also, that would go against Maggy the Frog’s prophecy (though if the baby is born, that could be intriguing in itself because it means Maggy’s prophecy was utter bullshit, which opens up some very interesting possibilities). And if this child is born to Cersei and Jaime… poor kid. You saw what happened to the last three.

(On this note, I think a baby is only possible if GoT implements in a time-skip of a year between Seasons 7 and 8. This might sound far-fetched, but I can see it happening – the war of men and the Others reaches a stalemate, and we end up with this.)

Winterfell was the least interesting part of this week’s episode, feeling somewhat detached from the main plot. Littlefinger’s plotting something, most likely some plan to put Sansa on the throne instead of Jon, and it seems that he intended for Arya to find the letter he left in his bed. We also get a really creepy shot of him leering from behind a pillar. Other than that, though, it’s most uneventful in the castle, though Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner have really great screen chemistry. Which isn’t that surprising when you think about, though I imagine that Sansa/Arya scenes will make up 90% of this season’s blooper reel.

In Oldtown, Gilly drops the FUCKING BOMBSHELL TO END ALL BOMBSHELLS, and Sam just brushes it off, ranting about Maester Somebody and his 17,000 shits. He decides to leave Oldtown in the end, since the war in the North is more important. I imagine we’ll see him at Winterfell by the end of the season, possibly via Horn Hill and the Wall. While Sam’s venture south has been one of my favourite storylines, and I’ve loved the Citadel setting, it’ll be good to see him back with some familiar faces… unless, that is, he runs into Euron while sailing north past Casterly Rock.

Anyway, with regard to the Motherfucking Bombshell™, it turns out that “Prince Ragger” had his marriage annulled and then married another woman, presumably Lyanna Stark. In which case, R+L=J is true, and Jon is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Of course, Bran probably knows all of this already, and we’re just waiting for the opportune moment for the reveal, which will likely be in the finale.

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Meanwhile, Jon and his allies sail to Eastwatch (the title sequence does a crazy rightwards pan from the Wall, which left me goggle-eyed), where the Fellowship of the Ring the Magnificent Seven is formed – oh, and some background extras. They set out to pursue the Stupidest Plan Ever™; at a guess, attempting to capture a wight is not going to go down well, at all. My guess is that Jorah won’t make it back, and that Beric, Thoros and Tormund will also die. Sandor’s still got a story left (Cleganebowl) so he can’t die, Jon is… well, Jon, and Gendry only just came back. Game of Thrones would surely never kill off a character in the episode immediately after they came back for the first time in three seasons…

Ahem. Osha would like to have a word with me.

So yeah, that’s about it. “Eastwatch” is a really solid episode with some great diplomacy, some high quality dialogue, and the promise of next week to live up to. Since Alan Taylor is directing this – his only episode of the season, I should add, and therefore one that seems likely to be pretty GOAT. I’m expecting big things. IMDb 10/10 rating. And for once, I think we’ll get them. This one looks to be Hardhome 2.0, even if the trailer isn’t giving anything away. And since it’s 71 minutes long, I’m looking forward to big developments in the other Seven Kingdoms, not just North of the Wall.

P.S. HBO, bring this Matt Shakman bloke back next year. Turns out he’s pretty good.

P.P.S. We don’t know the next episode title yet, but it’d better be “Wight Night”, or “Hardhome 2: Electric Boogaloo”, or for a more realistic guess, “The Night King”.

Review: “The Blade Itself”, by Joe Abercrombie

SPOILERS AHEAD for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first book in his The First Law trilogy.

I can’t claim that I enjoyed The Blade Itself, mostly finding to be a slightly amateurish slog through a fantasy world that felt a bit textureless and generic, and I doubt I’ll continue with Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, at least not for some time. That being said, The Blade Itself has merits in its ‘gritty’ exploration of the fantasy genre.

‘Gritty fantasy’ is almost something of a cliché in itself, nowadays. Every fantasy claims to full of grit and mud and blood. With Abercrombie, this is actually true; his protagonists are all subversions of fantasy tropes adapted for the ‘real, grown-up world’. And better than that, none of his characters feel like they’ve had a ‘grit injection’, where the author stands off-page and shouts “Look, isn’t this gritty!” Abercrombie’s characters feel naturally roguish and immoral.

Unfortunately, besides their lack of morality, they’re not really that interesting, either. Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is the standout; I thought it was interesting how Abercrombie never made some slightly soppy speech about Glokta’s disability being his strength, as many writers would have. No, Glotka is bitter as bile, and unintentionally hilarious in places. You don’t feel pity for Glokta, because I never got the idea that he was ‘a good man who lost his way’; instead, he was flawed to begin with. He is an excellent fantasy protagonist, with an acerbic inner monologue that admittedly verges on over-use.

Logen Ninefingers, ‘infamous barbarian’, also has a lot of potential, and is perhaps the best example of a protagonist who embodies ‘true grit’. And Logen’s input in the story is needed: he’s a solid, honest presence who doesn’t kowtow to bullshit, and probably the most worldly-wise of the characters. Logen has a definite sense of place – when we see things through his eyes, the world seems the most real. However, the weakness with Logen is that his story essentially descends into nothing after he meets Bayaz, First of the Magi. Yes, the incongruous nature of an uncivilized man in a civilized story creates the book’s best moments of humour, but it does nothing for his character arc. Or maybe it does. Since I haven’t read the final two books in the trilogy, I don’t know if this is the ‘bedrock’ of Logen’s arc, or something like that.

Finally we come to Jezal dan Luthar. From very early on, I hated Jezal, not just because of his abrasive arrogance, but also because he seems something like a caricature. I can see that Abercrombie’s intention was to create a Rand al’Thor/Kvothe/Jon Snow type of character, of the young man on a noble quest, but to make him completely vile. Jezal has all of Kvothe’s arrogance but none of his charm, and I never really got the illusion that I was reading some sort of warped hero. I wanted Jezal to win, but ultimately that was only because he seemed like the lesser of two evils. But Jezal is so vapid and shallow that I didn’t really care if he won or lost, because it wasn’t going to matter. Then again, I think that was the point. Which is either stupid or fantastic. I don’t know.

Anyway, for his protagonists, Abercrombie scores 2.5 out of 3. Which is pretty good, I guess. Glokta is awesome, and Logen and Jezal have a lot of potential.

However, I think the characters are the strongest part of The Blade Itself… which leaves the rest of it. Abercrombie is his worldbuilding. He unusually chooses not to put a map at the front of his book, another small way of subverting the genre. In itself that isn’t too much of an issue, but you never really get to reorient yourself within the world. Basically, it feels like medieval Europe with a big city and a big tower called the House of the Maker. There were other places too, somewhere with an emperor and ‘fucking pinks’, and the vaguely defined area known as ‘the North’, but these were just words to me.

The issues don’t stop there, I’m afraid. Abercrombie’s main characters range from good to excellent, but there were no secondary characters that popped out to me. Once again, they all seem like caricatures, particularly the ‘righteous’ Major West and his sister, Ardee. Oh, good god, Ardee. Yes, this is a medieval fantasy in a male-dominated world, but Abercrombie’s female fundamentally fail as ‘characters’; instead, they are ‘things’. We see a greatly idealized version of Ardee through Jezal’s eyes, of course, but even when we see her ‘in the flesh’ from Major West’s POV, she appears to be ‘a strong opinionated female’ instead of an actual character. Ardee is like every fantasy cliché rolled into one, yet somehow she manages to amount to nothing at all. And aside from Ferro “X-23” Maljinn and a couple of vapid Jezal-types who don’t even get proper dialogue, she’s the only female character in the book. It’s a very poor showing from Abercrombie.

Now, I could be wrong about all these things. Maybe a different story unravels itself in the next two books and reveals my ignorance. But I don’t want to read the next two books, and that’s because of the fact that The Blade Itself gives me no reasons to read on. It’s an extended prologue where nothing happens. It’s entirely character-based, not a bad thing in itself, but uneccesarily dangerous for the first book in a trilogy. I want things to be happening that draw me in to learn about the characters, but Abercrombie instead runs with an incredibly low-stakes plot that culminates in a big nothing. We see the House of the Maker and the Bloody-Nine and there’s a whole lot of promising stuff up ahead, and then the book just… ends. And while I appreciate the necessity of this build-up, there’s far too much of it for far too little payoff. Yes, I agree that Abercrombie’s fight scenes are fantastic, and his characters have some great moments (particularly with the dry humour), but you have to wade through so much to get there.

You might find a jewel in the end, but you still have to walk across an arid desert to find it.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 3, “The Queen’s Justice”

This review contains SPOILERS for the third episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Queen’s Justice”, 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.

Probably the fastest-paced episode of Game of Thrones yet, “The Queen’s Justice” is an episode full of big moments that really emphasises the changes in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s priorities as writers. Continuity and timelines have ceased to exist, in favour of getting to the meat of things. I think, in this regard, Benioff and Weiss have finally resolved the narrative problems that plagued Seasons 5 and 6: a lack of certainty over whether Game of Thrones should retain its usual slow dramatic pacing, or move on into a different type of storytelling entirely.

That being said, this ‘new era’ of Thrones is not entirely new. Indeed, the current season’s pacing can be likened to Season 1, albeit with a few more logical inconsistencies. But even then, its refreshing to have reached what seems to be a definite midpoint by the end of episode 3. Had these storylines been taking place last year, we’d be up to episode 5 or 6 by now.

“The Queen’s Justice” chooses to tell its stories in big, blocky chunks, a structure that has become characteristic of Benioff and Weiss’s writing. In the case of this episode, I think that was the right decision. Narratively, the whole thing holds together very well. However, the whole episode is underscored by a sort of staleness. You know that the writing could be better, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the best shows on TV, but the writing of individual scenes can be atrocious and there are some truly dreadful lines – from this episode, Euron’s crass “Does she like it gentle or rough? A finger in the bum?” was particularly abrasive.

It may sound like I am being unecessarily harsh here. I enjoyed “The Queen’s Justice”, and objectively it was the strongest episode of the season, but it did feel a little sketchy in places. Every scene had something slightly off about it, be it the actors’ performances (a couple were shaky this week), the directing, or the writing itself. There was, however, one scene that was outstanding (so much so that I’ve italicised its sheer outstandingness), but I’ll come to that later.

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We’ll start with Dragonstone, which dominated the episode. I was pleasantly surprised that this instalment didn’t delay when it came to getting to the chewy bits. Tyrion and Jon have a reunion on the beach that serves as a ‘hype starter’ before the main course, somewhat mirroring Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon’s reunion in Season 1. Director Mark Mylod makes good use of the Gaztelugatxe staircase location, though Jon and Davos’s ground dive seemed a little over-comical, and can’t have done much for the reputation of the King of the North. They then go to the throne room, where Jon and Dany are finally in the same room, and…

…it’s a little underwhelming, actually. It’s a great set, and a scene of huge significance, but for some reason it never really clicks. Mylod doesn’t really use the space well, and the actors and camera are both completely static. An empty mood isn’t really what I wanted for the first meeting of the ‘golden trio’. Oddly enough, none of the three ‘main’ performers play the scene particularly well; instead, it is Liam Cunningham who is standout as professional hype man Davos Seaworth. Missandei lists all of Dany’s titles, to which he seriously replies, “This is Jon Snow”, dialogue which serves to highlight the differences between the two rulers. The dialogue is mostly quite good on the face of things, though there are little irksome moments that validate a claim that “the show isn’t what it used to be” – the ‘figure of speech’ joke doesn’t really work, and no one appears to have told Peter Dinklage that his lines don’t always need to be funny. Also, in places it feels like Dany is spinning the same “I am the queen” yarn for the ten thousandth time, which doesn’t come across well.

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However, the real kicker of the Dragonstone scenes is that Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington have unexpectedly poor screen chemistry. Mark Mylod doesn’t help this by constantly framing their scenes in a bland shot-reverse-shot formula, which means that the two are hardly ever in the frame at the same time. The result is that it seems like Jon Snow – still wearing his Northern clothes, which doesn’t help – has been Photoshopped into Dragonstone, but isn’t really there. On the other hand, Harrington and Dinklage have great chemistry, and their scenes were a joy to watch, though Tyrion still suffers from a sort of “my lines are always funny” syndrome.

Moving over to King’s Landing: there’s a slightly cheesy sequence with Euron, but everything with Euron is slightly surreal and cheesy, and that’s what I like about him, honestly. I’m never quite sure whether his lines are intentionally atrocious, but Pilou Asbaek sells it. The scene with Cersei and Ellaria is one of the best of the episodes, with the underrated Indira Varma perfectly matched and contrasting Headey’s Cersei. It’s a dark, tense scene, ultimately poetic if not wholly unexpected, and I have to applaud Benioff and Weiss for not succumbing to Gregor-Clegane-based bloodlust. This is something that could come straight out of Martin’s novels, and I mean that as high praise. There are two more scenes in King’s Landing – the Jaime and Cersei sex scene, where Cersei ironically becomes the only person in the episode to willingly kneel, and then the Iron Bank scene, where Mark Gatiss smoothly tells Cersei that she needs to pay back her loans. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention beyond trying to think up nonsensical Gatiss-based puns: “oh, you’re in the Great Game now”, “you’ll sleep no more after this”, “she’s a real crimson horror”, and so forth.

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On to Winterfell. I think Sophie Turner is best in scenes like these, and Sansa seems to be back on a (mostly) stable character arc. Littlefinger, meanwhile, is a bit all over the place. D & D seem to have taken the description of him from the Honest Trailer – “the sneaky dude” – and have gone a bit too far with it. He’s also now “the monologue guy”, delivering a speech about Sansa fighting every battle in her mind, which sounds good in a trailer, but within the episode it seems to come out of nowhere. I think Littlefinger’s ‘great-game-based’ speech might be some sort of big thematic link across the episode, but I didn’t really pick it out here. Then he slithers off creepily back to his hole, leaving his motivations (or lack thereof) deliberately unclear. It’s all a bit weird.

Bran – not Arya – then turns up at Winterfell, which would have been a surprise if I hadn’t watched the credits sequence. Meera’s also there, looking in sore need of therapy and a spa day. Again, Turner seems to play this scene well, but someone seems to have told Isaac Hempstead-Wright that the best thing to do would be to stare distantly into space all the time. Which works fine for the three-eyed raven, but it’s a disservice to the years he spent as an actual human character called Bran Stark. Indeed, Bran doesn’t seem to really exist any more, only some weird kid with no conversational skills, which is saddening really, given how much development he’s gone through over the years. And frankly, I don’t see why Bran has been entirely consumed by mysticism. He’s still Bran, isn’t he? Isn’t he?

S07E03 Sansa and LF.jpgThere’s a brief interlude at the Citadel, which doesn’t really do much other than confirm the events of last week – a somewhat disappointing conclusion to Jorah’s greyscale arc – but I wonder if Sam might find something about the white walkers in all those papers. The episode’s concluding sequence takes us to Casterly Rock, where ‘everyone’s least favourite part of Team Dany’, the dull Grey Worm, manages a conquest of the Rock. I have several issues with the fact that the Lannisters seem to have left behind only a skeleton garrison, most notably for the implications on Lannister prestige and morale that the fall of the Rock will have. I saw the sewer conquest coming, but it was the right way to conclude this arc, and I found Tyrion’s voice-over to be an effective way of linking this isolated conquest back to the episode’s main narrative. Even so, the scene felt somewhat underwhelming, given how hyped I was about Casterly Rock, and the Unsullied charging in with their spears in narrow passages was quite irritating. As for Euron’s sudden arrival… well, I’ve given up trying to understand the passage of time in Game of Thrones.

We then cut to Highgarden, where Jaime, Randyll Tarly, Bronn, and Randyll’s goat-faced son (sorry, but he just looks like a massive twat) take the castle in an easy conquest. Mark Mylod is consistently very good at tracking shots, and the one that takes Jaime from the castle gates up to Olenna’s solar is one of my favourites.

S07E03 Grey Worm.jpgHowever, things really get going in the final scene of the episode. And I say this honestly: I think the final scene of “The Queen’s Justice” is probably the best dialogue scene since Robert and Cersei in “The Wolf and the Lion”, or possibly even better. Dame Diana Rigg proves one last time why she is an international treasure, with a single-scene performance that encapsulates Olenna Tyrell’s character in a neat, final summary. It’s exquisite to watch, and though Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays second fiddle, the man’s reactions are legendary. You can see the horror in his eyes when Olenna tells him the truth, as he realises that nearly every event since Joffrey’s death is the result of her machinations. Should he just run her through with his sword? Yes, perhaps he should, but that would only consolidate Olenna’s victory in a moment that is just that – her final, pyrrhic victory over Cersei Lannister. She has driven a wedge between the Lannister siblings at last, and I hope this finally marks the start of Jaime’s long-delayed redemption arc. This part of the episode feels like it was written by someone else entirely. “Tell Cersei I want her to know it was me.” That is one hell of a line, and the weight of the implications it carries… it is one final thorn in the lion’s paw, and this may be the one that kills it. This is the queen’s justice, indeed. And yes, Olenna Tyrell dies, but in doing so, she denies the old adage from Season 1.

Because Olenna Tyrell dies, but Olenna Tyrell wins.

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Notes and Side Bits:

The biggest weakness of this episode is that Benioff and Weiss fall into the mentality of telling rather than showing. One of the few things I hate about Thrones (and this is the book elitist in me speaking) is that it constantly assumes its viewers are stupid. Obviously, this is necessary for the casual audience who don’t remember events from “The Mountain and the Viper” and “Mother’s Mercy”, but it’s still bloody irritating. Callbacks should be a treat for the astute viewer, not some big red button blaring on and off, going “DO YOU REMEMBER THIS?” Also, D & D have an irritating inability to write inferred dialogue. Everything has to be said out loud; they don’t trust their audience to make any sort of intelligent assumptions based on what they’ve seen. This is a two-way street, you know – otherwise it’s not going to be long before we get lines like “I’m Arya Stark, your sister from Season 1.”

I loved the end credits theme, a new rendition of “The Rains of Castamere”. RoC always gets me in the mood.

Mylod was alright this episode, but I thought his work was stronger on “Stormborn”. The episode ends on a weird wide shot that is held for a couple of seconds too long to let the RoC motif play out. I think an Olenna close-up would have suited better, but choosing to show Jaime’s departure from the room means Mylod has to switch to the wide.

The best acting this episode comes courtesy of Dame Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, of course. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) was also very good, and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) had his finest performance in ages.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 2, “Stormborn”

This review contains SPOILERS for the second episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “Stormborn”, 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.

It’s Olenna Tyrell (Dame Diana Rigg) who makes the defining statement on the themes of “Stormborn,” the second episode of Game of Thrones Season 7. “I’ve outlived many [clever men],” she tells Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). “I ignored them.” Throughout this episode, we see characters deviating from the advice they are given and following their gut feelings – Jon conflicts with Sansa over his decision to accept Daenerys Targaryen’s offer of a meeting on Dragonstone, and Sam goes against Archmaester Ebrose/Professor Slughorn when he decides to treat Jorah Mormont’s injuries despite better advice. “Stormborn” is about the characters stepping up to the plate and making risky decisions for themselves which they come to regret, all without looking back.

Fittingly for an episode titled “Stormborn”, we open on Dragonstone in the midst of a storm. The Painted Table set is fantastic as always, but the low light leaves everyone looking a little wan in their ghoulish black clothes – though that might well have been the intention of director Mark Mylod. Dany and Varys share some awkward dialogue that seems to have been shoehorned in; it seems unreasonable that they would not have mentioned Varys’s betrayal at any point during the journey from Slaver’s Bay. Of course, the structure of Thrones seasons necessitates that Dany and Varys have this conversation now, on-screen, instead of at some unspecified point during their off-screen journey to Westeros. Bryan Cogman’s dialogue is solid, if slightly bland, but Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill make the scene work with their distinctive screen presences.

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Our characters then proceed to the Great Hall set to talk with the newly arrived Melisandre (Carice Van Houten). The performances of the actors are passable, but not up to the usual quality expected on Game of Thrones, and everything feels a bit dreary and lifeless. The dialogue scene is very static – possibly a result of poor positioning on Mylod’s part – and book-readers in particular will find it tedious as it does little more than set in stone what we already knew. And, with all due respect, Emilia Clarke’s acting in the opening scenes was wooden. We know that Clarke is capable of non-verbal performances like the one we saw in last week’s “Dragonstone”, but in this episode she retained the same vacant, flat expression she’s been wearing for three seasons. I think she needs to be careful not to let Daenerys’s impassive style of leadership deteriorate into a complete lack of emotion. Peter Dinklage also struggles a little with the lines he’s given, which require him to act as little more than a placeholder.

A little while later, we return to Dragonstone, and this time a few more characters are present. The performances of the actors and actresses are… mixed, to say the least. Clarke and Dinklage dominate the scene, but they still seem a little flat. Gemma Whelan and Indira Varma are (perhaps unexpectedly) fantastic – more on that later. And Diana Rigg’s script material is a little weaker than usual, but there’s a certain ruthlessness about post-Season 6 Olenna that shows substantial development of the character, even if her transition from semi-comedic to entirely dramatic is a little jarring.

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Something I found interesting was the dichotomy between Dany’s council and Cersei’s. Even though Dany’s council takes place privately whereas Cersei announces her intentions before the court, Cogman’s script subverts the idea that Dany is a more grounded and personal ruler than Cersei. The script calls for Dany to make sweeping, grand power plays with a lot of autonomy for her allies and an apparent lack of judgement, while Cersei seems a lot more personal in her pursuit of allegiance. She uses Jaime to enforce a policy of personal diplomacy on lords such as Randyll Tarly, and demands considerable sovereign oversight. This is achieved through lighting: by contrasting the cold blues of Dragonstone with the warm hues of the throne room, Mylod presents Dany as a harsh, callous ruler against whom Cersei seems unexpectedly friendly. Maybe it’s my pro-Lannister bias creeping in, but I think this episode made Dany seem much more like the ‘mad queen’ than it did Cersei.

The King’s Landing storyline is fairly straightforward: Cersei appeals to the loyalty of her lords, while Jaime confronts Randyll Tarly in attempt to make an alliance with the lord of Horn Hill. Though it only lasts a couple of minutes, this sequence has some of the episode’s best writing and acting, even if doesn’t really do much for Jaime as a character. But it raises interesting questions about Lord Tarly and where his loyalties lie.

Meanwhile, over on Dragonstone, Grey Worm and Missandei continue their romance. I’ve never really understood why the show devotes so much attention to these two, but it was a much-needed chance for Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson to show that they are both accomplished actors, and gave them a chance to actually act beyond their limited roles as Daenerys’s (arguably) least-important advisors.

Back at the Citadel, Sam – who has already become my favourite character this season – cures greyscale. It’s unsatisfying from a plot perspective, but my physical revulsion at this scene is testament to its effectiveness. John Bradley and Iain Glen have good onscreen chemistry, and the sterile environment of the Citadel remains a welcome oasis from the frenetic pace of the other storylines.

There’s a flawless cut from Sam scraping pus out of Jorah’s greyscale patches to a man breaking the crust of a pie. There weren’t as many moments of cinematographical note this episode as there were last week, but I applauded this one.

S07E02 AryaThe ensuing scene of Arya meeting Hot Pie for the first time since Season 3 is a brilliantly understated one. Maisie Williams channels the Hound, trying to act tough, but there’s a fantastic moment here which acts as the crux of the episode, where she decides that returning home to Winterfell is more important than achieving her vengeance. I liked the contrast between Hot Pie – ever unchanging, with his allusions to Season 2 (“she was a knight because she had armour on”) – and Arya, who has been through so much in the last three seasons. This scene also serves to remind Arya that some things, like friendship, are unaffected by the distance between her and Hot Pie, and by extension, that the love between her and her family is also unaffected by distance.

Arya heads out on the northern road and encounters Nymeria. The CGI giant direwolf is a little shoddy, but other than that, it’s a suitably impactful scene, with just the right amount of poignancy. And then they go their separate ways, and that’s that. I never expected Nymeria to go with Arya, so kudos to the writers for not taking the easy way out and giving Arya a giant direwolf buddy in the Riverlands. That being said, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Nymeria in this show.

There are still two elements of the episode to be talked about: the first of these is Winterfell. While I felt the scenes here were perfectly fine, and consistently well-acted, they were my least favourite part of the episode. These scenes have the unfortunate role of telling us things we can already deduce – it’s like when you collect facts for an essay, and have to endure the tedious process of summarising them. That’s what Jon’s doing in the council scene: summarising what he knows for the viewing audience, and then acting on those intentions in a way that is entire predictable. The Northern lords are pissed off. Predictable. Sansa is taken off-guard. Predictable. Littlefinger sees an opportunity. Predictable. Jon leaves Sansa in Winterfell. Predictable. Of course, the episode couldn’t have functioned without these scenes, but it can’t have been much fun for Bryan Cogman to write them.

S07E02 Jon and LFSadly, an overabundance of exposition characterises the episode as a whole, which makes it frustrating – almost every event in “Stormborn” is something we could have predicted in advance. It sounds like a harsh critique, but aside from a few areas – at the Citadel, for example – the episode doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of storytelling.

Until the ending, that is. We open on the Sand Snakes, who – oddly enough – are at least tolerable in their one expositional scene. Even Obara (of “I AM OBARA SAND” fame) is less irritating than in any of her previous episodes. However, I was massively surprised by Indira Varma’s performance as Ellaria; with material better than the Season 5 & 6 Dornish fiasco to work with, Varma lives up to her acting reputation with a spirited performance as a character who, despite being completely unrecognisable next to her book counterpart, is interesting in her own right. I almost wanted to see more of her, and I hope Cersei doesn’t kill her outright next week.

S07E02 Yara and Ellaria.jpgAnyhow, Ellaria has some good banter opposite Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon (Alfie Allen), and then – boom – the ship suddenly jolts, we follow Yara up onto deck, and Euron’s Silence looms out of the fog. Though it lacks the horror of “Hardhome”, the sudden escalation of events far outpaces even the sudden arrival of the white walkers in that episode.

If Miguel Sapochnik’s “Battle of the Bastards” is a fine wine, then Mark Mylod’s battle on the high seas is a sudden shot of vodka. The night shoot surely posed its own technical problems, but it allows Mylod and his team to hide any imperfections lurking in the darkness, and it makes the use of CGI replication (of Euron’s ships) less obvious. Beyond that, it manages to be “Bastards” in miniature, compressing the explosive action and emotional resonance of that battle down into a frenetic 6 minute sequence.

S07E02 Yara and Theon.jpgWhereas “Battle of the Bastards” is organised chaos, “Stormborn” throws away the ‘organised’ part and lets the scenes flow however they will, with some fantastic editing in between. It’s a classic Mark Mylod battle – full of quick, sometimes confusing cuts, but in this case, that amplifies the drama rather than diminishing it. Yes, it looks a little bit like Michael Bay, but honestly, I think that’s the effect Mylod was going for. Nothing is held back. More than any of Thrones’s other battles, which have always felt a bit too performance-like, this one felt real. The scene is perenially lit in orange smoke and embers, chaining several powerful images together: Euron descending on a corvus, laughing like a lunatic, lugging a battleaxe into battle (presumably an homage to his brother, Victarion, from the books); Yara’s leap from the bridge onto her uncle; Tyene fighting off her foes below deck.

But in the midst of all this chaos, Mylod is careful not to lose the narrative thread which first uses the deaths of Obara and Nym for emotional effect. If the Sand Snakes had been better employed in previous seasons, I might have felt bad at their loss; instead, I cheered, which probably wasn’t what the writers were hoping for. However, the second part of the battle – the conflict between the Greyjoys and Theon’s eventual reversion to his Reek persona (one of Alfie Allen’s best moments) – successfully Yara’s mix of shame and sorrow, Euron’s glee, and Theon’s emerging weakness to the reader. The ending image of the Silence sailing away into the darkness successfully gets across the scale (and awe) of the physical destruction, mirroring the emotional damage that has been inflicted on Theon.

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Notes and Side Bits:

I don’t think “Stormborn” was one of Bryan Cogman’s best-written episodes. Of the show’s four main writers, Cogman is the one who usually sticks closest to book canon, often lifting whole lines or sequences which a few subtle tweaks to make them his own. This makes his episodes a special treat for book-readers… only for “Stormborn”, we have no book to compare it to. This episode doesn’t hold a candle to Cogman’s finest, Season 3’s “Kissed by Fire”, possibly because it doesn’t have that ‘classic Thrones’ feel that he put across so well in last year’s “The Broken Man”.

The music for this episode was great, especially the battle theme, which led into the end credits, and Cersei’s new theme, based on “Light of the Seven”, which played during the scene in the crypts.

This is unquestionably Mark Mylod’s finest hour as a director on the show, though. He converts his weaknesses – most notably his tendency to direct Thrones as if it were either an action movie (“No One”, “Sons of the Harpy”) – into his strengths.

The best acting this episode comes courtesy of Alfie Allen (Theon), mostly for his transformation from Theon into Reek. Second place goes to Maisie Williams (Arya) who displayed an impressive range. Both James Faulkner (Randyll Tarly) and Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm) put on impressive performances as supporting/guest actors.

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”.

S07E01 Arya

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.