In "Dragonstone," the Season Seven premiere of Game of Thrones, two queens stand poised on opposite sides of the gameboard, each seeing the world as theirs for the taking. It is what their fathers trained them for, what they've been waiting for all their lives. But it will not be easy: there are enemies to the north and enemies to the south, enemies to the east and enemies to the west. There is a wall of ice in the flames, and an army of the dead marching where the mountains meet the sea.
Yesterday's wars don't matter: there is no divine justice, no punishment for treason, no reward for loyalty. The dead are gone, and it doesn't matter how they died. (Should we spend our days mourning the dead? They are but ashes, while we are flesh and blood.)
But it is memory—not the triumph of transitory pleasures—that makes us better than dogs. And so we bury our dead, and we pray for their souls. We study their lessons, and we try to learn from their mistakes. Everything before the word "but" is horseshit, but the North: the North remembers.
What have we learned, from everything that has happened, and everything that has come before? We know we must be kind to strangers, so they will be kind to us. We know we must have allies, and we also know they will murder us when it suits them. We do not know what the gods want from us—perhaps nothing more than to endure an endless cycle of shit and gruel?—but we know, if we know nothing else, that they want us alive.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones. As usual, we have a lot to talk about.
"Shall we begin?"
Let us begin, oddly enough, at the end of "Dragonstone." It has only taken six seasons, but the rightful Queen of Westeros now stands in her queendom, in her family's seat of power. From the shoals of Dragonstone her ancestors conquered the Seven Kingdoms and launched the greatest dynasty the world has ever seen. Now, the exiled last heir to that legacy has returned to reclaim it. It's been a long, strange journey, but Daenerys Stormborn, of the House Targaryen, of the Blood of Old Valyria, has finally come home, to take what is hers, in fire and blood.
It is a watershed moment for Game of Thrones, and "Dragonstone"—written by show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by GOT veteran Jeremy Podeswa—treats Dany's return with the gravity it deserves. Like her entourage of faithful advisors, we just stand back, at a respectful distance, and watch her process the emotional weight of her homecoming in a wordless, nearly six-minute scene. She touches the soil of her homeland for the first time since she was a baby, walks through the Dragon Gates to the castle of her birth, and enters the throne room from which her family ruled the world.
But Dany does not touch the throne—not yet. Just as she did in her vision of the Iron Throne, back in the Season Two finale, she approaches it—tempted—but then turns away: she has other business, before she can assume that seat. She enters instead the antechamber that holds the table shaped like a map of Westeros, the chessboard carved by her ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror. She takes her rightful place at the head of the table, the board on which the Great Game will now be played again. "Shall we begin?" she says.
So this episode—and Dany's long journey—ends with the word "begin." It's appropriate. "Dragonstone" is a relatively uneventful episode of Game of Thrones, but it's an important pause, an opportunity for the characters—and us—to reflect on everything that has come before, and to prepare for the beginning of the end.
And—more importantly for our purposes here—"Dragonstone" is about the complicated tensions between beginnings and endings, between the past, present, and future. Game of Thrones has always been a show in which history matters: Westeros is a place of old laws and old gods, a place where honor, duty, and tradition are all nearly the same thing, and ancient houses live or die according to hereditary loyalties and inherited grievances. What happened yesterday has always driven what happens today, but in recent seasons it has become clear that the future may depend on everyone putting aside their allegiances to the dead and banding together so that the current generation has a chance to live.
Dany, as much as anyone, embodies these tensions. Her claim to the Iron Throne is the oldest of anyone who has fought for it in all six seasons of Game of Thrones so far: before any Baratheons, Lannisters, Starks, or Greyjoys were ever crowned, the Targaryens ruled the known world. (Dany casually pulls down Stannis's banner here: he was just another johnny-come-lately, a pathetic pretender who had presumed to squat in her house.)
But, as much as her claim is rooted in ancient tradition, Dany also represents change. She has never set foot in Westeros since she was an infant. She has not been here for any of the battles between the great houses, and doesn't even know the players. She is a very young woman, and until very recently no woman had ever sat on the Iron Throne. And Dany does things differently, as she proved over and over again in her rise to power across the Narrow Sea. Her quest for the crown is—simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically—both a restoration and a reformation: she is queen because she has an ancestral right according to ancient laws, but she wants to pull the system down and change the way everything has always been done. She's the ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider, a traditionalist and a radical, old and new in one package.
What is clear from "Dragonstone" is that these tensions will be at the heart of the final act of Game of Thrones. It is an episode that asks important questions about how we deal with the past as we move forward into the future. What is the value of memory, of history? What customs can and should be changed? What sins can and should be forgiven? What do we owe to the dead, and is it more important that what we owe to the living?
"When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North remembers."
Now, having discussed the ending of "Dragonstone," let's next turn our attention back to the beginning. These two scenes, taken together, may encompass everything we need to know about the ideological issues at stake this season.
Like Dany, Arya Stark has come home, from across the Narrow Sea, to Westeros. Like Dany, she is the long-lost daughter of a great and ancient house. Like Dany, her family was betrayed and murdered by the people who now control the crown. And, like Dany, she's a ruthless bad-ass, who has taken her time away to become powerful enough to take what she thinks she's owed from the men who committed the crimes.
In last year's season finale, we saw Arya enact her terrible revenge against Walder Frey, feeding the old man his two eldest sons in a meat-pie before slitting his throat. As I discussed at the time, this was a troubling and monstrous act, however justified we think it might have been: it is the sort of conflation of justice with personal vengeance that has too long fueled the endless cycle of violence in Westeros. Now, she takes that revenge further, impersonating Frey—in a final, subtly brilliant performance from David Bradley—so that she can murder "every Frey who means a damn thing."
Last time we talked about how Arya had disturbingly echoed the legend of the Rat Cook—which Game of Thrones has always associated with Frey and the Red Wedding—in serving him his own sons. Now, she imitates Walder Frey himself: slaughtering guests at a feast, after inviting them into her (his) home. We don't need to dwell on the symbolism of her illusion, or of her actions: literally and figuratively—and perhaps morally—she has become Walder Frey, presiding over her own Red Wedding.
Was she justified? Sure. But one of the lessons of Game of Thrones is that monsters always think they're justified. Walder Frey thought he was justified, too, for indignities his family had suffered for generations, and for King Robb's betrayal of a blood oath to his own bannerman. Tywin Lannister always thought he was justified in everything he did, to secure the future of his house. ("Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?" Tywin asked Tyrion once, unable to see a distinction that is obvious to anyone with a conscience.) Cersei always thought everything she did was justified, to secure the safety of her children. Everyone who has committed a monstrous act—from Melisandre burning little Shireen Baratheon, to Alliser Thorne assassinating Jon Snow—thought they were doing what was right, too. (Perhaps Ramsay Snow was the sole exception: he was the one monster who knew he was a monster, and enjoyed evil purely for its own sake.)
Look, I love Arya Stark to death—no pun intended—and, watching her stroll out of that massacre like a boss, it's hard not to love her even more. But this shit has got to stop. One of the other lessons Game of Thrones teaches us is that monstrosity only breeds monstrosity: Arya Stark is herself proof of that, and she knows it. "But you didn't slaughter every one of the Starks," she tells the assembled Freys. "No, no, that was your mistake. You should have ripped them all out, root and stem. Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe." (In fact, does this language sound familiar? It's an unknowing echo of Cersei Lannister's mindset: "This is what ruling is," she once said. "Lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep.") It remains to be seen whether Arya has killed all the Freys. (Is her annihilation of this house as thorough as the one commemorated in the song "The Rains of Castamere," yet another disturbing association?) But, either way, the person Arya is now was born from the massacre of her family, and she's now committed another act of wholesale slaughter that could easily become just another justification for further vengeance. Where does it end?
And yet, perhaps, there's hope. Arya's second scene this episode goes in completely unexpected directions, as she stumbles upon a squad of Lannister soldiers sitting around a campfire. She is wary: they are wearing the uniforms of her enemies, and in fact they are there—as she learns—precisely because of what she did at The Twins. We half expect her to go full-on medieval on their asses, as she has done time and time again when coming across Lannister men. (On some of those occasions she had the Hound with her to even the odds, but we have little doubt now that Arya could kill all of these men herself without breaking a sweat.)
But these men are kind. One (Ed Sheeran) is singing a pretty song, about how love is more important than castles and gold. (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…) As it turns out, they hate Kings Landing almost as much as she does. ("Worst place in the world," they all agree.) They insist on sharing their food and wine with her. "Be kind to strangers, strangers will be kind to you," one (Thomas Turgoose) says, invoking the unspoken laws of hospitality that Walder Frey—and she—had broken. (As she chokes down his homemade wine—pretending to like it—we are reminded also of her friendship with Hot Pie. "It's really good!" she says now, as she said then.) This soldier speaks of worrying about his father, and another (Billy Postlethwaite) speaks of the child his wife has had by now, which he hopes is a girl. ("Girls take care of their papas when their papas grow old. Boys just go off and fight in someone else's war.")
We see Arya reminded of her own father, of whom she couldn't take care. And we see her register that these men—boys, really—are just people who love their families, dislike their lots in life, and try to be kind to strangers. They are not her enemies, they are not liable for the sins of their masters, and they do not deserve her terrible vengeance. "I'm going to kill the Queen," she admits to them—for the Queen still deserves it. But she is not going to kill these men.
And then we see Arya Stark do something she has not really done in years: she laughs. In that laugh we see the first glimpse we have seen in a long time of the happy little girl that she used to be. And we see, perhaps, the happy young woman she might—against all odds—still become, if she could just let go of hatred, let go of vengeance, let go of the past long enough to recognize that there is still decency, kindness, and joy in the world.
"There's no divine justice, you cunt."
Does the past define the future? That is the question everyone faces at this moment in Game of Thrones. For some, it is a question of whether they can forgive their enemies. For others, it is a question of whether they can forgive themselves.
Sandor Clegane reluctantly returns, this week, to a scene of his own sins: the farm he and Arya visited back in Season Four's "Breaker of Chains." In that episode, a kindly farmer and his small daughter took the travelers in, feeding them from their own meager stores. ("It's really good," Arya said—yet again—greedily slurping down the family's rabbit stew.) It was another example of the laws of "guest-rights"—the laws of basic human decency—and the Hound, as Walder Frey had done, broke those laws. "Guest-rights don't mean much anymore," he said, and later he beat the farmer, and stole his silver, and left the man and his daughter to starve. "You're the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms!" Arya screamed at him, when she discovered what he'd done. But The Hound said it didn't matter. "Ay, he's a good man, and his daughter makes a nice stew," the Hound said. "And they'll both be dead by winter."
And that is exactly what came to pass. As the Brotherhood without Banners enters the farmhouse, they find the man and his daughter both dead. They were starving, Beric Dondarrion surmises, and the father slit both their throats rather than let his daughter suffer.
The Hound tries to maintain his old philosophy here, claiming it doesn't matter how the people died. ("How do you think it ended for them?" Beric asks him. "With death," Clegane says. "Doesn't matter how.") After all, there is no justice in the world: life is nasty, brutish, and short; death comes to everyone, and none of it is fair. "I just know how things are," he had said to Arya, the first time he was on this farm. "How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure it out?"
The "way things are" is one of the fundamental conversations in Game of Thrones. The entire question of whether there is any order to the universe has been central to the narrative all along, with most of the available evidence seeming to indicate that either the gods don't exist, or that the gods don't care about right and wrong. ("There's no divine justice, you cunt," the Hound says to Beric Dondarrion now. "If there were, you would be dead and that girl would still be alive.") The Hound has been one of the most cynical, pragmatic adherents to this extreme realism, and he passed his lack of belief on to Arya: the world is hard, and the only way to survive is to be just as hard in return. ("You're very kind," he said to her once. "Someday it will get you killed.")
But Clegane is not the same man he once was: his affection for Arya, his own near-death, and his experience with Brother Ray have all changed him, whether he'd admit it or not. ("If the gods are real, why haven't they punished me?" he asked Ray. "They have," Ray responded.) Brother Ray taught him that—even if the world is cruel—he could decide not to be. ("Violence is a disease," Brother Ray had told him. "You don't cure a disease by spreading it to other people." It's a lesson Arya—and many others—could stand to learn.) Once a heartless brigand himself, Ray had found a different path. "All I can do with the time I've got left is bring a little goodness into the world," Ray said. "It's never too late to come back."
What The Hound did to these people is not the worst thing anyone has ever done. It is not even the worst thing he has ever done. But it is a small, tangible example of everything Ray tried to teach him: yes, the world is cruel, but you have a choice whether to add to that cruelty or to try, in some small way, to alleviate it. This farmer and his daughter actually asked him to protect them: they wanted him to stay on, work the farm, and defend them from brigands. (How different would both Arya and the Hound be now if they had accepted this offer?) They opened their home to him, and they asked him to be a hero, but instead he betrayed their hospitality, refused their plea for help, and stole what little they had left.
Would these people have died anyway, even if Clegane hadn't robbed them? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that he did rob them: in that moment he was given a choice, and he chose to contribute to the world's cruelty instead of countering it. For this farmer and his daughter, he was the evil of the world.
There's nothing he can do about it now, but it troubles him, and so he does the only kind thing he can do: he buries them, so they can have some peace, if there's any peace to be had. (Watch how tenderly he cradles the daughter's head as he lays her in her grave.) He even tries to say a prayer over them, but he can't remember the words. "I'm sorry you're dead," he says instead. "You deserved better. Both of you." It's as honest a prayer as anyone could ask, and an honest wrestling with his own conscience. ("It's not even about the gods," Brother Ray had told him. "It's about you, learning you have to answer your prayers yourself.")
Sandor Clegane has changed, and his reward now is that he gets a glimpse that there may be some order to the universe after all. It is not an answer, and it is certainly not evidence of divine justice, but it is a hint that there might just be a purpose for him, a way to do good in the world instead of bad. ("Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What does the Lord see in me?" Beric asks. "I don't know. I only know that he wants me alive.") When he was a child, fire taught Sandor Clegane that the world was evil, but that was just human evil, the kind that is a matter of individual choice. Now, fire teaches him that he can make a different choice, and perhaps protect humanity from true evil. But the gods won't tell you what they want: you still have to make the choice for yourself.
He's an unlikely hero, but the dead are dead, and what's past is past: Sandor Clegane is still alive, and, as long as you're alive, it's never too late to come back.
"Should we spend our days mourning the dead?"
But coming back means figuring out what you owe to the dead, and what you owe to the living. It requires self-awareness, self-examination, and some semblance of a conscience. These are not qualities Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, has ever had in abundance.
For that matter, she doesn't even have the Seven Kingdoms. (As her brother points out, she has three, tops. The North, The Vale, Highgarden, and Dorne are all in open rebellion.) But that doesn't matter: she has a painter working overtime to put the world, literally, at her feet. She can stride across it like a giant, grind it beneath her heels if she so chooses. It's all she's ever wanted. "What we've been waiting for all our lives," she tells Jaime. "It's what father trained us for, whether he knew it or not."
As we've discussed many times before, Cersei's one redeeming feature was her love for her children, and now all of her children are dead. She won't even talk about them, let alone examine the terrible role she played in each of their deaths. ("There's nothing to talk about," she says, stopping Jaime's questions about Tommen. "He betrayed me. He betrayed us both.") In our discussion of "The Winds of Winter," we talked about Cersei's utter renunciation of the role of Mother, and her embrace of selfishness and self-gratification. ("I do things because they feel good," she admitted to Septa Unella, before having her raped by The Mountain.)
She reiterates that philosophy now. For whom should they build a dynasty? Jaime asks her. Their children are dead. "A dynasty for us, then," she says. "Should we spend our days mourning the dead? Mother, father, and all our children? I loved them, I did. But they're ashes now, and we're still flesh and blood. We're the last Lannisters, the last ones who count."
Cersei's enumeration of the people who "count" has always been stingy. ("There aren't more than 700 people of any importance," she told Olenna once, and that was being generous.) Really, there were never more than six people who mattered to her at all: her father, her brother, herself, and her three children. Now, four of those people are dead, and Cersei will have no more children. Her reputation has been dragged through the mud, her family name has been tainted, and she has never cared about the people she is supposed to rule. Severed from the past, and completely unconcerned about the future, she is now free to live the rest of her days as a monster.
And she is free to ally herself with monsters. When Dany joined forces with Yara and Theon Greyjoy, it was with the understanding that they would all work together to leave the world better than their evil fathers had left it. But Cersei has no such concern, and neither does Euron Greyjoy. His only goal is to kill his own family members, to secure his own power, and to carry on the Iron Islanders' lifestyle of rape, murder, and pillaging that Yara had sworn to renounce. He boasts of killing his own brother—"You should try it," he tells Cersei—and he celebrates the memory of Jaime cutting a bloody swath through Greyjoy bodies. ("It was glorious," he says. "Like a dance.") He promises Cersei nothing but the ability to crush her enemies.
Game of Thrones has always eschewed such simple distinctions as "good guys" and "bad guys," rightfully recognizing that situations—and people—are usually a lot more complicated than that. (As I said above, most everyone thinks they're the good guy.) But, here in the final act, there are clear dividing lines being drawn: Cersei and Euron are both assholes, and it's natural that they should find each other. While everyone else faces the delicate balancing act of respecting the past while preparing for the future, they are doing neither: they are living only for the present, to satisfy petty vendettas and to gratify selfish urges. ("The triumph of transitory pleasures," as the Arch-Maester of the Citadel [Jim Broadbent] calls them. "Mankind's curse." Without memory, people are no better than dogs, and that's more or less what Cersei and Euron are becoming.) They are everything that is wrong in the Seven Kingdoms, and everything that must be ended if humanity has a chance for survival.
"Yesterday's wars don't matter anymore."
"He's coming for us," Brandon Stark says, of the Night King and his army of the dead. "For all of us."
He's right, of course, but at the moment the only ruler who knows it—and wants to prepare for it—is Jon Snow, the King in the North. Jon and Dany have fought a lot of the same fights: to break down barriers between classes and clans, and to find a kinder, more just way to rule. They are natural allies—and part of our anticipation for this season has to be to see them finally realize it—but Jon has a perspective Dany doesn't have: he knows what the stakes are. At "Hardhome," Jon saw with his own eyes what awaits the human race if they can't put centuries of petty squabbles and resentments aside and work together for the future.
Sansa doesn't have that perspective either—not really. (She has been told, but she could be forgiven for not believing, let alone understanding.) So she and Jon stand at the same moment in history, but facing in slightly different directions: she is still looking over her shoulder, towards the old enemies, and the old sins. She is outraged when Jon plans to allow the Karstarks and the Umbers—who sided with Ramsay in "The Battle of the Bastards"—to keep their names and lands. "So there's no punishment for treason, and no reward for loyalty?" she protests. She argues with him before the assembled lords that those who betrayed their family must be punished: stripped of their lands and castles, prevented from prospering on their cowardice and treachery.
And Sansa isn't wrong, exactly, any more than Arya is wrong: crimes have been committed, and any sense of justice—human or divine—would seem to demand some manner of retribution. But Jon is looking towards the future, and he sees that forgiveness and acceptance are more valuable right now than punishment and exclusion. "Yesterday's wars don't matter anymore," he says. "The North needs to band together, all the living North." It is the same argument he made at Hardhome, convincing both his brothers in the Night's Watch and the Wildlings north of the Wall—who had been killing each other over legitimate grievances for centuries—that they needed to put the past aside and stand together now.
Jon wasn't wrong then, and he isn't wrong now. "I will not punish a son for his father's sins," he says—which is, in the Seven Kingdoms, a radical thing to say. The entire society, after all, is built on the concept of "the family name." Treaties are brokered, marriages are planned, people are executed, and entire wars are fought based on the notion that one individual is responsible for the honor or dishonor of an entire clan. But Jon has seen what that kind of thinking gets you, and knows it leads to nothing but division and self-destruction. Violence is a disease, and you don't cure it by spreading it to other people. (There is an echo of Arya's small episode-arc here: just as she won't punish her new, chance-met friends for wearing Lannister red, Jon won't punish little Alys Karstark [Megan Parkinson] and Ned Umber [Harry Grasby] for bearing the names of traitors.)
Change doesn't come easily to Westeros, as Jon learned the hard way at the Wall. But it does come. "Looks like we're the Night's Watch now," Tormund says, enjoying the irony: the idea of even letting the Wildlings past the Wall once got Jon assassinated, but now hardly anyone raises an eyebrow as Tormund and the rest of the Free Folk go off to man its castles. (And other changes towards a more just, egalitarian world are coming too, if only out of necessity: almost without a fight, Westeros makes a quantum leap towards gender equality this week. "We can't defend the North if only half of the population is fighting," Jon argues, and just like that—with the help of an impassioned speech from fierce and fearless Lady Mormont—women are admitted into the armed services.)
In her own way, Sansa is in the same place as Arya: she has suffered tremendously, and she has seen terrible injustices, and she has come by all her hatred, anger, and mistrust legitimately. She is not wrong about Cersei—who, though not the most pressing threat, is still dangerous—and she is not wrong about all of them needing to remember and learn from the errors of the past. "You have to be smarter than father," she tells Jon. "You need to be smarter than Robb. I loved them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes, and they both lost their heads for them." (And Jon proves he's not quite as progressive as his policies, when he scoffs at the idea that listening to Sansa is one way to get smarter. "Would that be so terrible?" she asks him.)
And, in a way, we are all in the same place as Sansa and Arya: Game of Thrones has played us all the same way. We've spent six seasons caring about these characters, investing in their political quests, and mourning their personal losses. The North remembers, and so do we: we remember Ned's execution, and we remember the Red Wedding, and we remember Sansa's rape. We remember what it was like to care about who won the War of Five Kings, and when the most important question seemed to be who would sit on the Iron Throne. We remember when little Joffrey Baratheon seemed like the worst monster the world could produce, and then when little Ramsay Snow supplanted him in that estimation. We remember when justice, human justice, seemed like the most important thing to achieve, and we remember that justice—as we imagined it—would feel an awful lot like personal revenge. (There was a time when I dreamed of nothing more from the end of Game of Thrones than to see Arya Stark stab Joffrey Baratheon in his smug fucking face.)
It's right that we remember all of the human-scaled injustices, and long to see them set right: if we've learned anything from Game of Thrones, it's that individual lives matter, empathy is important, and even the smallest crime—like robbing a poor farmer and his daughter—is part of the accumulated misery that makes the world cruel and unbearable. Arya deserves justice. Sansa deserves justice. We deserve justice, for enduring the emotionally tortuous gamut of this show for six full years.
But the stakes have been changing for a long time. ("This War of Five Kings means nothing," Melisandre told Stannis, back in "Mhysa," as they stood in the same room Dany stands in now. "The true war lies to the north, my king.") Looking back over the last couple of seasons, "Hardhome" was the real dividing line between the concerns of the past and the fears for the future, but in fact the true danger has been present all along. (Remember that the very first scene in Game of Thrones, back in the pilot, even before the credits rolled, was not about human dangers: it was about the White Walkers.) And as our awareness of the stakes has changed, so too must our—and the characters'—response to those injustices change. We, and they, are tasked to resist the understandable impulse towards settling old debts, and recognize that violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and revenge just sows the seeds of further misery. Memory is important, and the dead deserve their due, but it's the future that matters now. History is just an army of the dead, marching on the living, threatening to destroy everything. The living must stand together, or we won't stand at all.
Buckle in, kids: it's going to be a hell of a season.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Welcome—or welcome back—to my continuing coverage of Game of Thrones. If you're a long-time reader, it's nice to see you again. If you're just discovering this site, I'm happy you've joined us. As you can tell, if you've read this far, I don't really write "reviews": I call them that, but really they're essays, explorations, long-winded explications of the themes of each episode and of the series as a whole. They tend to be very lengthy, and they tend to be very late: I always aim to have them up 24 hours after the episode aired, but I rarely hit that mark: realistically, Tuesday or Wednesday is the most likely day for new pieces to post, and a week (or more) is not entirely unheard of. Please subscribe, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new posts go up, and bear with me.
- I kept expecting to circle back to Sam's storyline, and somehow I never got to it, but the Arch-Maester's speech about memory is thematically on-point for this episode, both in the ways it's right and in the ways it's wrong. Yes, memory is important, and learning from the past is one of the things that separate us from the animals. But he also makes the error everyone is in danger of making: he thinks the way things have always been is the way things are now, and will always be. People have been saying "The end is near! How will we survive?" through all of recorded memory, but it was never the end. "The Wall has stood through it all," he says, "and every winter that ever came has ended." But this winter may be different, and if people don't realize that, the end may in fact be near. (I will personally be very surprised if this season doesn't end with the Wall coming a tumblin' down.)
- And, speaking of which, the montage of Sam's life in the Citadel was very unusual for Game of Thrones, but brilliant: it was a dazzling (and disgusting) bit of editing, but it was also somehow thematically poignant, speaking to the endless, repetitive cycle of a human life on earth: gruel goes in, and shit comes out, and memories get filed on the shelf.
- Once Jaime started counting kingdoms, I realized I needed a refresher on just exactly what the "Seven Kingdoms" are. The show has never really said, and it doesn't really matter, but for the record they are The North, The Eyrie, The Riverlands, The Rock, The Stormlands, The Reach, and Dorne. By my count, the Lannisters currently control The Rock (Casterly Rock), The Riverlands (though the annihilation of the Freys makes that precarious), and maybe The Stormlands? Jon Snow has the North and the Eyrie, while Dany's alliance with Ellaria and Olenna gives her Dorne and The Reach (Highgarden).
- Nothing made me happier than to see Sandor Clegane return last season: Rory McCann is fantastic, and the Hound is a treasure trove of memorable lines. "It's my fucking luck I end up with a band of fire worshippers."
- I like how the show is playing the tension between Jon and Sansa. She is resentful—and she has a right to be, since she's been supplanted as the head of House Stark—and that may fester into open warfare later. But there is real affection, too, and for now they're really being quite genuinely sweet to each other, even when they argue. ("You're good at this, you know," she tells him, kindly.)
- It would be nice, in fact, if Jon would name Sansa Hand of the King, making their partnership official. But I have to admit that Lady Mormont might be a better choice to keep everyone in line. "I don't plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me," she spits. "And I don't need your permission to defend the North." Love her.
- A few plot points I didn't mention: Sam discovers there is a mountain of dragonglass beneath Dragonstone, which is obviously going to be very important, and may bring Jon and Dany into contact sooner than expected. Sam also discovers Jorah Mormont away rotting in a Citadel cell. (Not sure how important this will be, but I like it when the decent people find each other.)
- Also, Euron Greyjoy is going to bring Cersei a "priceless gift" to prove his worth. Seriously, no good can come of this.
- I've tried, I really have, but I still don't give a crap about Brandon Stark. I keep forgetting he exists until he pops up for a mercifully brief, meaningless reminder.
- I don't actually know who Ed Sheeran is—I know he's a singer-songwriter, and that this was a bit of stunt-casting—but it was nice of his character to contribute a new song to the tragically small Great Westerosi Songbook. (I am so tired of hearing "The Rains of Castamere" and "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" played on infinite repeat by every minstrel in the Seven Kingdoms.)
- My favorite moment in this episode may be when Sansa shuts Littlefinger down, refusing to even listen to his transparently manipulative bullshit. "No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I'll assume it was something clever." Why doesn't everyone do this with Littlefinger? Brienne's question "Why is he still here?" may be Benioff and Weiss admitting the character has outlived his usefulness: if you're placing bets in the Game of Thrones deadpool, I'd put a fiver on Littlefinger to not survive the season.