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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Sadly, 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.
Anyhow, 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.
Whereas “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.
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.