The second episode of season 7 continued to set us up for payoffs that will undoubtedly come later, but it also delivered on a major promise from the premiere. Just as Daenerys and Tyrion put their master plan into motion, Euron showed up and went shopping for wedding gifts.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Stormborn. Spoiler alert!
'Stormborn' brought us our first major battle sequence of the season, just as we were realizing how much fun Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand could have together.
In a well-shot sea skirmish, we finally get to see Eurons braggadocio put to the test. It appears to be justified, as he strikes unexpectedly and with a gleeful ferocity that would make Ramsay Bolton blush.
The capture of Ellaria and Yara deals a heavy blow to Daenerys. Dorne is now leaderless, and presumably out of the war for the foreseeable future.
From the audience, its hard to care much about the death of two of the three Sand Snakes, since their screen time and development was extremely limited. But it matters a great deal to Cersei, who will surely relish in avenging the murder of her daughter Myrcella. It may also spur Daenerys to set Tyrions grand strategy aside and go for the jugular.
And what becomes of Theon now? His unwillingness to die defending his sister makes clear that her attempts to rehabilitate his character failed. He is back to being Reek again, a slave to his own fear. Can he ever redeem himself, or is he fated to live out his days a despicable coward?
In the past, some have dismissed the Grey Worm-Missandei subplot as gratuitous and inconsequential. But if there ever was a show that needed the distraction of an adorable love story… Game of Thrones is it. Its just nice to remember that there is still such a thing in this universe as affection without a basis in greed or ambition.
On the other hand, its hard not to worry whenever this show raises the stakes by investing us in something pure and uncynical. Weve learned from experience: were usually being set up for a fall.
Ive known a great many clever men, Olenna Tyrell tells Daenerys in what may be the best scene in the episode. Ive outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them. The Queen of Thorns once again lives up to her reputation.
Olenna may be impressed by Tyrions grasp of strategy, but shes unconvinced by his idealism. She has seen too many well-intentioned women and men reduced to cinders to believe that popularity is enough to bring victory. If Daenerys lacks the stomach to be Queen of the ashes, she may end up in an urn herself.
As much as I love Olenna, I cant help but question her intentions. (continued…)
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As she remarked last season after the incineration of her family, she no longer has any care for the future. Her sole purpose is revenge. Whether Kings Landing burns matters not to her as long as Cersei burns with it.
I also question how much Olenna really cares what becomes of the Dragon Queen once the Mad Queen is disposed of. Fair-weather friends are no friends at all, and the Queen of Thorns is more dangerous than Daenerys perhaps realizes.
Contrastingly, Tyrion is concerned with preserving the kingdom just as much as he is with conquering it. Tyrion is more diplomat than warrior, and he knows that his Queen can only win the support of the nobles if she is seen as a liberator. If the Lords of Westeros dont abandon Cersei willingly, they will have to be compelled by a devastation that would render the Iron Throne worthless.
Perhaps its fair to say that Tyrion and Olenna are both partly wrong - or both partly right if youre an optimist. As Machiavelli cautions - it is best to be both feared and loved. But if you cannot be both, its better to be feared.
This is going to be a problem for Daenerys throughout the season. If she fails to secure the love of her would-be subjects, will she settle for fear alone?
Littlefinger is in trouble. Nobody in Winterfell trusts him.
Nobody in Kings Landing trusted him either, but there he at least made himself useful. His utility to his supposed betters masked his manipulations; now he spends his days smirking on the sidelines and sidling up to marks who can see right through him. Has he lost his touch?
Its ironic that love is the Achilles heel of this steely, unemotional intriguer. Littlefinger wants Sansa so badly that he seems to have lost control of himself. Asking nicely obviously isnt getting him anywhere, so what will he resort to now?
Its also ironic that he has turned Sansa into someone tough enough to counter him. He used to pine after a callow girl who dreamt of chivalry, a lost child easily dazzled and deceived. Now hes in love with a woman, a woman he has allowed to learn far too much about his machinations.
Last week, Arya had a humanizing encounter with a group of Lannister soldiers. She briefly contemplated killing them, eying their piled swords, perhaps calculating how many of them she could stick before they armed themselves. But then they poured her a tall glass of lonely boy ale - or was it blackberry wine? - and for a moment she sensed the depth of her own solitude.
But Aryas reunion with Hot Pie reminds us how far shes come and gone. (continued…)
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A chasm separates her from a normal kid her age - even an old friend. She hardly seems to notice the pudgy bakers apprentice/chatterbox; she just stuffs her face full of pie and beer as she stares into the abyss in a manner reminiscent of the Hound dominating a roast chicken.
Then Hot Pie gives her the news.
The Boltons are dead and Jon Snow is King in the North. On her horse outside the tavern, Arya considers following the thieves south to Kings Landing. No. Its time to go home.
Her brief reunion with her former pet, Nymeria, offers us another glimpse at the girl Arya was and the woman she has become. Like her former master, the dire wolf was bred to go her own way.
Varys delivers this masterful rebuttal when Daenerys questions his history of switching sides, straight-up telling her that he would rather be dragon poop than a zombie vassal who obeys her out of obligation. He will not offer blind loyalty, and she will not ask for it.
I hate to mix real world politics and fictional politics, but I cant ignore the parallels here. The exchange between Varys and Deanerys is the exact opposite of President Trump asking former FBI director James Comey for a pledge of loyalty. According to Comey, he instead offered the president honesty; the two eventually met halfway and agreed on honest loyalty.
Perceptive leaders dont expect unconditional allegiance from the thinking people who serve them. An oath is a contract, and a contract involves more than one party. If a leader fails to live up to her responsibilities, she voids that contract and should expect no devotion.
Daenerys is plenty justified in accusing Varys, but his defence reiterates a transcendent truth she ought to remember from her days as a breaker of chains: one true believer is better than ten sell-swords.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Stormborn invites a comparison between two characters who could hardly be more different: Samwell Tarly and Qyburn. (continued...)
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Like Samwell, Qyburn was once a student at the Citadel, training to become a maester. Like Samwell, Qyburn was frustrated with his teachers lack of imagination. In this episode, we find both men applying their entrepreneurial spirit to tasks other learned men might find distasteful.
When Qyburn informs Randall Tarly (Sams unpleasant, Tywinesque father) that hes devising a method to kill dragons, you might have thought he was bluffing. He wasnt. He leads Cersei down into the labyrinth below the Red Keep and offers her a demonstration. With the help of engineers, he has invented a ballista capable of firing a bolt through a dragons skull and into its brain.
Cerseis subdued delight sums up the bizarre codependent relationship she has developed with the defrocked maester. She needs a man who can think bigger than Pycelle ever could, and he needs a patron who isnt squeamish about his research - unfettered as it is by any moral considerations.
Meanwhile, Sam risks being expelled from the Citadel for reasons that are abundantly moral. Whatever Jorah Mormont is now, he is the son of the dead Lord Commander of the Nights Watch. Sam will not condemn Jorah to madness and death before he tries his hand at a dangerous potential treatment for greyscale.
Sam is a sort of young Qyburn, but with a conscience. Its interesting to see both sides of the same coin: men who arent afraid to risk everything in the pursuit of unconventional solutions.
When the Red Woman Melisandre arrives at Dragonstone, she recites the same messianic prophecy she once poured into Stannis' ear.
But Missandei corrects the translation. In old Valyrian, the word prince is gender neutral. Melisandre confirms this, and implies that the one who fulfills the prophecy could be Daenerys. It could also be Jon Snow.
Against the advice of his attending lords, Jon has determined to travel to Dragonstone and meet with the woman who is actually his aunt. The two have pressing reasons to align themselves in the short-term, but the basis of a long-term alliance remains murky.
For one thing, Jons lords dont (and wont) trust a Targaryen. Maybe theyll change their minds when they inevitably realize that the man they proclaimed King in the North is one himself.
More fundamentally, how can there be two princes who were promised? One of them will have to stand aside at some point, and were talking about two fairly assertive people here.
Jons meeting with Daenerys better come next week. Weve been waiting for a long time to see how they will deal with each other. Will Jon bend the knee to a woman his supporters dont know and dont trust? Hes already been murdered once for making an alliance over the objections of his companions.
And how will he react when he sees that the Dragon Queen has taken up with the Red Woman? It sure doesnt help her familys reputation for burning folks alive.