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Game of Thrones 07.01 Recap: Dragonstone

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“Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

Our game recaps for Game of Thrones are back, as written by Manu! Enjoy!

So how does the biggest show on TV reward its audience for a prolonged wait and shortened season? With an ice cold open featuring Arya Stark coolly exterminating House Frey. Game of Thrones roared back into action with “Dragonstone,” the exceedingly confident season seven premiere.

Directed by Jeremy Podeswa and written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, “Dragonstone” does all the heavy lifting previous openers have done, but with less fat and storylines to service, this episode has an uncanny briskness while still giving time for all of its scenes to breathe.

Deviating from formula, this episode doesn’t narrow in on a singular theme compared to other episodes (save of course themes of power and ruling which can be applied to any episode). Instead, this hour highlights the stark contrast between those who are aware of the impending doom from the North and those not-quite-blissfully unaware.

On one hand, Jon moves to fortify the North against the White Walkers while “The Hound” Sandor Clegane and Samwell Tarly are separately aiming to learn about the enemy and the attack to come. On the other, we have characters concerned with a more personal agenda, both writ small (Arya’s revenge quest) and large (Cersei and Daenerys vying for the Seven Kingdoms).

Oldtown, the newest location in the opening credits, is where Sam is knee-deep in the shit of maester training, quite literally. As an acolyte of the Citadel, Sam must perform all the menial duties that come with it. And given the old men and infirmed in his charge, it’s no surprise that changing chamber pots is his primary duty. In a very fun direction choice, the audience is treated to (punished by?) a shit-cleaning montage, a scene that is both remarkable in its execution and (deliberately) repugnant to experience. But it conveys the amount of crap that is distracting Sam from his true mission: to learn about the White Walkers.

To that end, Sam approaches Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) about his wishes. Sam has seen the restricted section in the library, and figures texts about the Long Night are behind those bars. The Archmaester (who is busy disemboweling a corpse) seems sympathetic to Sam’s inquiries, even copping to believing Sam’s remarkable story. It’s all for naught, however, as a combination of institutional inertia (only maesters are allowed in the restricted section) and the archmaester’s belief that humans will endure regardless of the coming winter. It’s a resonant echo of our own reality, where gatekeepers withhold knowledge behind the veneer of hope and optimism.

But as with his father before, Sam doesn’t let this dressing down prevent him from acting. Sam burgles a history of the Long Night out of the restricted section, which him and Gilly pour over in their lodge outside the Citadel. Sam eventually comes across a map of Dragonstone, which immediately makes him recall words from Stannis back at the Wall. Amid the wildling migration and war up north, Sam entirely misremembered Stannis’s claim that Dragonstone is rich in dragonglass. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sam pens a letter to Jon, seemingly to put the King in the North on course for Dragonstone and those who now dwell there.

Sandor Clegane has a discovery of his own, one more personal and cathartic than Sam. Now in league with the Brotherhood without Banners, the Hound is grappling with his own sinful past, a past that should have ended when Arya left him to die at the end of the fourth season. In his own way, Sandor was reborn, with humanity and purpose finally peeking out of the cloak of anger in which he wraps them. The company stumbles across a hut the Hound and Arya once stayed at, a house whose owner the Hound robbed on the pretense that they wouldn’t survive the winter. And as it were, the Hound discovers the owner and daughter’s corpses, huddled in the corner in what appears to be a mercy killing/suicide. The Hound’s brutality makes him a uniquely keen observer of the harsh world around him, being prescient of the fates that will befall softer men (in his estimation).

What follows is an important moment for the Hound; after some coaxing from Beric Dondarrion, the Hound faces down his own fear as he stares into Thoros’s nightfire.

In the flames, Sandor gets a glimpse of the Wall, of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, and the army of the dead that approaches it. Sandor already brushed up against the mystical when Beric was resurrected in front of his eyes, so he’s prepared to take in this fantastical vision.

The dead owner and daughter, the flames, and the vision therein all combine to mark a turning point for Sandor Clegane, punctuated poignantly by his digging a grave for the former residents. Thoros of Myr joins him, realizing the Hound has turned a corner and that the Brotherhood can help the Hound just as the Hound can help the Brotherhood. The show pauses a moment to focus on these two men silently digging through dirt and snow to put the smallfolk to rest.

Winter is here, but it is our humanity that binds us into brotherhood.

The Hound’s old traveling companion, Arya Stark, has her own brush with humanity, albeit in a wholly unexpected way. Even before the main title plays, Arya dispatches 40+ Freys in quick and chilling fashion. Posing as Walder Frey (last seen having his throat slit), Arya assembles the men of House Frey to discuss the oncoming winter. But first, they must toast to their victories, and drink the wine Arya has poisoned (scenes in Braavos of poison-crafting pay off here).

As the men choke and die around her, Arya-as-Walder orates on the brave Frey men, the same men who butchered unarmed men and women (and an in utero child) after offering guest right. Arya’s revenge is so cold, so complete, that it seems the youngest daughter of Ned Stark has completely lost her way, that only darkness remains for her.

The audience carries this feeling into Arya’s next scene, when she stumbles across Lannister soldiers (yes, that’s Ed Sheeran) on their way to the Twins to investigate what happened to Walder and his brood. Immediately, I assumed we would be treated to Arya practicing her Needle work on these men.

Even as they invite her to share food and fire, Arya takes stock of swords in scabbards as she plans her attack. But then the unexpected happens: the soldiers’ humanity forces Arya to confront her own. As they speak of family and life away from war, Arya steps back from the proverbial ledge to have a warm, human moment with strangers. As in our own world, the poor and underclass often fight the wars of powerful men, to no benefit of their own.

While the future is unclear, this brief respite from her quest for revenge may end up being monumental to her character arc.

The game of thrones rages on, as the episode spends the rest of its hour with the preeminent rulers of Westeros and their courts, but it is in the personal, more intimate storylines of Sam, The Hound, and Arya that this episode is truly at its richest. Instead of playing into trope or crutches the show has previously relied on, these three are surrounded by complex, authentic characters who force our protagonists to turn their gaze inward.

Big moments are on the way, but it’s the small moments of reflection and epiphany in Game of Thrones that glues it all together.

While the premiere opened in chilling fashion, it closed on a more triumphant note.

Daenerys Stormborn, the last scion of House Targaryen, makes her long-awaited return to Westeros, landing on the island of Dragonstone. Almost completely sans dialogue, the audience is treated to Dany making landfall on the beach, touching the dirt of her native soil for the first time since her infancy.

Slowly, she makes her way up the long causeway up to the keep of Dragonstone, beautifully ornamented with stone dragons unlike anything seen on mainland Westeros. Once inside, she tears down Stannis Baratheon’s banner and heads for the throne (in a cute moment, Missandei stops Grey Worm from following so Daenerys can soak in the moment). But before taking her seat, Dany turns to the war room behind the throne and heads for the Painted Table.

The episode ends with her only spoken words: “Shall we begin?”

Time remains to discuss Dany’s war strategy, but it is worth taking a moment to conceptualize Dragonstone itself. Before the Doom of Valyria, a lesser known dragonlord of House Targaryen migrated to Dragonstone, an island just off the eastern coast of Westeros, to build his new castle. Here, 100 years later, Aegon Targaryen would have the Painted Table built, a map for his coming conquest of Westeros. After Aegon’s conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, Dragonstone would become the castle for the heir to the Iron Throne, which is why Stannis wound up with it when Robert ascended to kingship.

The architecture is unlike any other mainland castle, with stone carved in such a way that defies all logic or known methods. It is widely believed that sorcery went into the formation of the giant gargoyles and dragons adorning the palace. The island is bare of most resources, but being a volcano, it is rich with dragonglass (obsidian), which gives it narrative weight. The Targaryens also raised and housed dragons on this island, leading some to believe that there may be dragon eggs hidden away here as well.

Given its historical significance to the Targaryen family and Dany’s own parallel to Aegon, Dragonstone becomes the most logical place for Daenerys to begin her invasion. But with Samwell’s dragonglass epiphany and Jaime postulating it to be Daenerys’s landing spot, Dragonstone enters the crosshairs of all competing factions.

A Couple Extra Ravens

- A lot else happens in this episode, but most of it is reestablishing players and power dynamics after last season's finale. Jon Snow appears to be growing into his crown, seeming kingly as he begins fortifying the North against the White Walkers. In a series of adept moves, he orders that all men and women (including children) be trained in arms, that all soldiers be armed with dragonglass, and for the Wall’s defenses to be reinforced.

Jon does get pushback from Sansa on Last Hearth and Karhold, castles belonging to Bolton loyalists. Sansa gives sage advice, saying those loyal to Jon should be rewarded for their service, and those not should be punished. Being called out publicly puts Jon on the defensive, however, and he forcefully pushes back, recalling what befell Robb when he punished the Karstarks severely. Later and in confidence, Sansa warns Jon that they can’t afford to make the same mistakes as Ned and Robb before them.

Personally, all of this worked really well for me. Both characters have valid points, befitting their own unique experiences up to this point. Jon is much better as a martial leader, whereas Sansa has the softer touch and cunning more befitting a lady at court. The influences of those who’ve mentored these two shine through, concluding in a chilling moment where Sansa admits to Cersei teaching her much.

- Euron Greyjoy arrives in King’s Landing to seek alliance with Queen Cersei Lannister. After some characteristic swashbuckling, he departs to prove his allegiance to Cersei by promising a gift. The scene prior, however, is what I’d like to highlight, as its perhaps the funniest scene ever on Game of Thrones. While a giant map of Westeros is painted on the floor, Cersei and Jaime reestablish their position in the Kingdoms, with Jaime asking (incredibly logical) questions about what Cersei plans to do going forward. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s facial expressions are just divine here, at first confused by the map, then incredulous at Cersei’s hope for a dynasty (“for whom?!” he retorts), and finally visibly aghast when she says Tommen “betrayed” us. Jaime’s exasperated face throughout really sells how far gone his twin sister truly is.

- The song Ed Sheeran’s character sings is “Hands of Gold” which he refers to as a “new” song. In fact, the song is about Tyrion and Shae’s secret relationship, and the gold necklace with which he would strangle her: He rode through the streets of the city / 
down from his hill on high / O'er the wynds and the steps and the cobbles / 
he rode to a woman's sigh. / For she was his secret treasure / she was his shame and his bliss / 
And a chain and a keep are nothing / compared to a woman's kiss / For hands of gold are always cold / but a woman's hands are warm…

- I mentioned how Dany bypasses the Dragonthrone to proceed onto the war room in Dragonstone. In fact, it’s almost the same shot from season two’s House of the Undying vision, where she walks past the snow-covered throne and finds herself north of the Wall. At the very least, it’s a great visual callback.

Winter is Here.

You can hear more from Manu and his podcast partner Andrew Mearns here.