As the most expensive and expansive series on television, Game of Thrones is nothing if not HUGE. With its expansive cast, numerous locations, and epic battles, the show succeeds at scale. And as Game of Thrones accelerates towards the finish line, those set pieces (and dragons) become larger with each passing episode.
Odd, then, that it’s the smaller moments that resonate most in the season’s first and second episodes.
“Stormborn,” written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Mark Mylod, acts as another piece-setting episode, wherein alliances are forged, hardened, or threatened in all corners of the Seven Kingdoms. But even with an impressive battle-at-sea climax, it is the tiny character beats along the way that are most enriching. Be it Grey Worm and Missandei finally seeing each other, Dany playing off Olenna and Varys, or Jon choking Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypts, “Stormborn” provided many minor, human moments that help round out these characters ahead of the oncoming spectacle.
There is no better example than the battle itself. Charged with picking up the Dornish army and depositing them at Cersei’s doorstep, Yara Greyjoy leads her Iron Fleet to Sunspear, with Theon, Ellaria Sand, and the Sand Snakes in tow. It’s a moment to unwind for them; within days, they expect to be laying siege to King’s Landing. Yara and Ellaria even find a moment of intimacy before Euron Greyjoy’s ship Silence comes crashing down.
Performing his own version of the “superhero landing,” Euron descends on to Yara’s deck with kraken axe in hand, instantly starting to cleave her men in half. Yara’s entire fleet is besieged; in the distant night, flames rain down on her ships from all sides, with dying soldiers littering the water. Yara knows the truth before her sword is even drawn; Daenerys’s fleet has suffered a devastating blow. Angered, the captain launches into battle, alongside her brother and the Dornish retinue.
Euron Greyjoy is too much, however, enduring blow after blow while hysterically butchering Yara’s men. He dispatches the Sand Snakes (much more compelling in these moments than any prior), and finally disarms and captures Yara, then calls to Theon.
It is in this moment, where the battle at large seems to fall away, and the audience is frozen in time with the three Greyjoys. Theon, surrounded by death and pain, starts to slip back into his Reek persona. His eyes and neck start twitching as fear returns to his eyes. Completely breaking, Theon launches himself into the sea, much to Yara’s dismay and uncle Euron’s delight.
Game of Thrones excels in its depiction of trauma and the permanence of violence. Humans don’t follow neat character arcs, and an act of heroism or justice doesn’t suddenly make a broken character whole. Be it Sansa or Cersei or Theon here, the horrors they’ve suffered are not inescapable. Alfie Allen does tremendous work, quick to draw steel but incapable of looking past the violent scene around him. Ramsay Bolton may be dead, but the damage done to Theon never died, rising to the ultimate breaking point. Gemma Whalen’s performance as Yara here is more profound than it seems; her disappointment is not in Theon’s flight, but her own realization that she was unable to save her baby brother.
To a man of Euron’s worldview, Theon’s escape is little more than cowardice. But the truth is more tragic for the Kraken’s son.
At the age of ten, Theon was taken from his family due to a war his father and uncle waged, a war that caused the death of Theon’s two brothers. Raised at Winterfell, Theon found a home with the Starks, but never belonging. And when finally given a chance to make either of his families proud, he caused a chain of events that could have landed both in eternal ruin. This all before Ramsay flayed away the choice bits and left behind a sniveling Reek.
Alfie Allen carries the weight of all this without much dialogue or screentime. Against the backdrop of this sea battle, this intimate moment binds it all together, a harrowing character beat to pay off the grandeur that preceded it.
Smaller character moments are in excess furthest away from the war, however, as Samwell Tarly comes face to face with the greyscale-stricken Ser Jorah Mormont. The damage has taken over much of the grizzled knight’s body, and Archmaester Ebrose says his mind will be lost within six months. He gives Ser Jorah the night to ponder his options: take his own life in that cell, or board a ship to Valyria to live out his days among the stone men.
Sam is not quite so defeatist though. He finds account of a Maester Pylos halting adult cases of greyscale with extreme methods, though at ironic cost to his own life. Sam potentially sacrifices his standing at the Citadel in a quiet moment of heroism.
Ser Jorah’s father Jeor, Sam’s old Lord Commander at the Wall, is among the most important influences in Samwell’s life. The Old Bear didn’t force Sam to be brave, but forced him to find the courage he always had. Without it, Sam would never have survived a White Walker or the Battle at the Wall. In helping Ser Jorah, Sam honors one of his own role models, and may give an honorable man one more chance at life.
But the actual heroism is one of the most excruciating scenes Game of Thrones has depicted. Sam must cut away the rotting flesh (presumably to apply a salve or ointment) in near silence, as a single sound could land both on the wrong side of the Citadel walls. Iain Glen, much like Allen, must do the work without words, physically portraying Jorah’s pain. His letter earlier shows his love for the dragon queen burns just as bright, and with Samwell’s help, may reunite with her just yet.
The episode transitions from Jorah’s puss to Arya at an inn, recreating the foulness of the chamber pot montage last week. But with Arya, the audience is treated to two touching, sweet reunions. “Arry,” Hot Pie calls out upon seeing his former traveling companion.
Hot Pie has found a home at the inn, living up to his moniker. Arya once again gets to have a warm moment, a reminder that the world isn’t as cold as the life she’s known. The two friends get a moment to catch up, before Hot Pie informs Arya that her brother Jon rules as King in the North from Winterfell.
Scrapping her journey south, Arya sets her sights for home instead. But “home” finds her first, as Arya’s campfire is beset by a wolf pack led by Nymeria, Arya’s direwolf from ages ago. When Arya left Winterfell, she had to release Nymeria to the wild to ensure Joffrey and Cersei wouldn’t have her butchered as they did with Lady.
Several adventures later, Arya sees Nymeria has created a family of her own, a group of wolves who resemble Nymeria’s direwolf siblings. It’s stark (heh) symbolism as Arya ventures home, and the quiet “That’s not you” as Nymeria leaves Arya echoes her own words to her father. “That’s not me,” she said to a future of lords and castles, and we’ve come to see just how far Arya is removed from that world.
It’s in these quiet moments that endear us most to these characters. Letting Nymeria go is as much about Arya as it is about her direwolf. It’s a moment of clarity for her, an intimate moment shared with no other human, echoing the pattern of this episode of realizing who you are. Game of Thrones is at its richest when it hits these character beats, deepening our understanding of our players as war comes to everyone’s door step.
Photo from The World of Ice and Fire
With Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen on a collision course, it’s worthwhile to look back at the last time the King in the North met with a Targaryen Conqueror. Torrhen Stark ruled from Winterfell when Aegon the Conqueror landed with his armies and dragons 300 years ago. When the Stormlands and Riverlands fell in quick succession, Torrhen called the banners and marched south. When Torrhen Stark arrived at the Trident, he was greeted by Aegon’s army and three dragons.
Having heard what befell the King of the Reach and allied Lannister forces at the Field of Fire, the King in the North chose not to fight. After a night of negotiations, Torrhen Stark bent the knee to Aegon. Forever known as the “King who Knelt,” Torrhen Stark saved northern lives by relinquishing his kingship, swearing fealty to the Targaryens and being raised up as Warden of the North.
It’s unclear how Daenerys and Jon’s meetings will go, but the power imbalance favors Team Targaryen. And with Jon Snow being a reluctant King, it will be worthwhile to see if history repeats itself.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- After minimal dialogue last week, it’s good to see each of Dany’s council being centered before the wars to come. Whether it is Varys’s work history, Tyrion’s recollection of Jon Snow, or Missandei and Grey Worm’s moment together, Dany’s supporting cast was given earnest moments to reinforce characterization or provide exposition. Olenna Tyrell’s words “be a dragon” specifically loom large, especially when Dany eventually finds out what befell her fleet.
- I’m down on some of the scenes up North; whereas last week struck the right note with Jon and Sansa’s inexperience at ruling, this week’s felt more labored. Jon’s “I’m the King, trust me” approach seems off, and his and Sansa’s discussions should be held in private prior to meeting with the lords of the North. However, Jon choking Littlefinger and telling him to stay away from Sansa was infinitely rewarding.
- While unsavory, Jaime Lannister appealing to Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner, reprising his role as Samwell’s father) with xenophobia was a deft maneuver. When Randyll found out Gilly was a wildling last season, he completely lost it on Samwell. Here, Jaime plays up the Dothraki and Unsullied to feed Randyll’s jingoism, and further dangles Highgarden as reward for fighting with the Lannisters. Jaime has always rejected the world of politics, but his keen eye for people has him flash moments of brilliance.