One of the major selling points of this season of Game of Thrones, one brought to the fore more in the kinetic “Stormborn” than the place-setting “Dragonstone,” is that the show’s far-flung narratives are finally coming back together, revolving around the three power bases of Team Dany, Team Cersei, and Team Stark. The show took its sweet, meandering time for six years, and now its oft-jagged plotlines are finally coagulating into something easily navigable. You don’t just see this in the battle at episode’s end (more on that in a bit); the theme of convergence comes through most powerfully in a couple of simple character juxtapositions, achieved with nothing more fancy than paralleled dialogue and a pointed edit.
The opening scene on Dragonstone brought to the forefront a figure frequently sidelined over the past couple of seasons: Varys. The eunuch spymaster is one of George RR Martin’s most complex characters, despite being perhaps the most significant character in the book series (give or take Littlefinger) to never be granted a POV, lest we learn all his plans and spoil for ourselves the pleasure of their slow unspooling. Bit by bit, we come to understand how his worldview was shaped by his rise from desperate poverty, and that his overall mission is to save the next generation from such a fate by installing an enlightened absolute monarch to fix society’s ills. It was precisely this side of Varys that received the spotlight in “Stormborn,” and it was a real delight to see Conleth Hill (one of the show’s best performers from the beginning) sink his teeth into a monologue and engage with his character at a deeper level rather than continue trading snark-barbs with Tyrion.
The scene did, however, inadvertently expose an issue with the adaptation of the character. As Dany notes, Varys’ track record doesn’t really line up with his stated goals—if Aerys was unacceptable, why did Varys back Viserys? The scene doesn’t really resolve this point, and it feels jarring that Dany is only now choosing to question Varys’ loyalties now. In the books, the answer to this question is that the Spider has had a secret prince in his back pocket all along, (ostensibly Dany’s nephew Aegon, one of the children in Oberyn Martell’s “you killed her children” mantra) who he’s been raising to heal Westeros. I totally get why the show cut the “Young Griff” storyline, given limitations in terms of time and dramatic focus, but without it, there’s no real answer to The Varys Question.
For me, what made the theme of “I came from nothing, and I want to save the people still stuck there” work nonetheless was the aforementioned dialogue parallel: in the next scene, Melisandre turns up saying the exact same thing. Everyone’s narratives are coming together around Dany (and Jon, as Mel notes), and so it’s easier to see character echoes because everyone’s in the same room. Martin himself has cited Varys and Melisandre as the series’ most misunderstood characters, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s easy to come down with the Starks and against the Lannisters, but for the characters with worthy ends and unworthy means, these are more difficult to parse. The Spider and the Red Woman have climbed the ladder (which is, as Littlefinger says, chaos), and done so in the name of saving the world, but at what cost? Mel’s had quite a fall, yet as Dany archly points out, Varys too has backed the wrong horse before. Does that make their efforts irredeemably evil or merely futile? Where is the tipping point? Their need to face up to their failures enriches Dany’s march to power, which has always been cast as the most straightforward.
And then the show cuts from Randyll’s face to Sam’s, who makes a case for himself this episode as the moral center of the season. Where Randyll’s loyalties can be swayed in service of the corrupt powers that be, Sam works past his shyness and stammering to question, challenge, and ultimately defy the archmaesters’ dogma. Where Randyll is focused on his own status, Sam sets out to unite everyone behind the righteous cause of defending Westeros from the white walkers. And where Randyll is so effectively manipulated in part because he believes that the Dothraki are inhuman “savages,” Sam defies Jorah’s literal dehumanization and throws himself into curing his greyscale. For all the big-picture stuff at work, for all the backstory with Tyrion, Dany, Jeor Mormont, the White Walkers, and everything else that led these two men here, the most powerful moment in “Stormborn” was Sam gently but firmly asking Jorah not to scream as he tries to save his life.
As for that big picture, though, much of “Stormborn” is organized around opposing answers to the age-old question: how to rule Westeros? On the one hand, Team Dany settles on what seems like a decent answer: spill as little blood as possible, and have Westerosi do the spilling, at least in King’s Landing. At a script level, this is actually a great way of addressing the much-noted imbalance of forces between Dany and Cersei. As Yara notes, Team Dany has the numbers (and dragons) to take the capital by storm. Dany and Tyrion, however, would like top commit themselves to winning without doing that, which is arguably a more noble task, but inarguably a riskier one, because across the bay in King’s Landing sit the golden twins of House Lannister, who have no such compunctions.
Cersei’s back is against the wall as Dany’s invasion begins, but she and Jaime keep adding arrows to their quiver, including Lord Randyll, a Wun-Wun-worthy crossbow for dragonslayin,’ and of course, their new best friend Euron Greyjoy, a Mastodon album brought to life and set loose on the open water. The climax to this episode, a naval battle between the two Ironborn fleets, was clearly conceived as Euron’s coming-out party, as the maddest Greyjoy of them all officially takes Ramsay’s place as the show’s resident heel. As someone who is dangerously invested in his character in the books, I can’t pretend I don’t miss the eyepatch and the demon horn and the lips turned blue by the Qartheen warlocks’ drugs, but watching him emerge “I AM THE STORM” style from the blackness was still a nightmare come true. The basic idea of Euron’s character in the books is that he appears out of nowhere to plunge the entire story into horror, and the show visualized that perfectly. The episode’s title refers to him as much as Dany. He is the storm, and the storm is born.
Indeed, this take on Euron felt like it was at least partially picking up where his Season 6 introduction on that Pyke bridge in the rain left off; I loved that scene so much I wrote a play-by-play line-by-line breakdown of it. I thought it did an incredible job of boiling down his psychedelic apocalyptic border-crossing sorcerer-king persona (the “Crow’s Eye”) from the books into a handful of lines and shots, with the perfect stormy atmosphere. The characterization went downhill after that in Season 6, and was still finding its footing in “Dragonstone.” However, when put in context of a huge naval battle, chaotic fiery explosions, and plenty of opportunities for Pilou Asbaek to howl his head off, something singular emerged. It’s maybe a li’l more brawn-over-brain than I’d like, as close in spirit to the book-character of Euron’s younger brother Victarion (aka the Mountain on a boat) as to Euron himself, but yeah, he’s finally arrived, crashing down on his niece’s deck with a roar of bloodthirsty joy. Bloodlust Wario is not to be fucked with.
Sadly, it immediately gets less compelling when he goes hand-to-hand because of who he’s fighting. The Sand Snakes are the show’s least developed and least interesting characters, and so their grisly deaths don’t ht as hard as they should. The show’s solution for shoddy character work is to make you at least react by using extreme violence. The same problem happened last season when they killed off Doran and Trystane, without ever giving us a reason to care or even figure out what their place in the wider context was supposed to be—Ellaria had to explain to us the big picture of Doran’s death as she was killing him, because it hadn’t emerged organically at all in Season 5.
It’s not quite as out-of-nowhere here, given the setup of Euron needing a “gift” for Cersei (and as cringeworthy as “foreign invasion” is, it’s no “bad pussy”), but it’s arguably more tonally dissonant. Because they’re fighting against the slaughter-happy Euron, alongside characters we generally like, we’re meant to be invested when the Sand Snakes die—the music cues and cinematography are clearly pointing in that direction—but they never advanced as characters beyond the one-note hard-to-take-seriously villains of Season 5. As such, there’s not that “Oh no! Not them!” moment that the show has proved repeatedly capable of creating before.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the writers and showrunners know that their Dornish plot isn’t working, and they’re trying to rush through what they have left of it as quickly as possible. That’s fair enough! But they need to keep that sinking ship from dragging down the elements that are working. At its heart, this battle scene is all about the Greyjoy family dynamics: Yara is trying to bolster Theon (though she’s been alternately aloof and overbearing), Theon’s trying to live up to her expectations (though he doubts himself constantly), and then Nuncle Nightmare shows up to blow everything to hell, as he’s done all his life. Euron does what his book-self does best, which is prey on his family members’ weaknesses. His cruel victory is twofold: he forces Theon to crumble, and he forces Yara to watch. Really effective stuff! But having it share space with the half-baked Dornish characters dulls the impact somewhat, and I fear the same will be true when Euron drags his captives before Cersei.
That didn’t stop me from immediately starting the episode over to hear the theme song reach its quivery apex at Oldtown, though. That the credits’ astrolabe showed up in-universe at the Citadel lends an air of the meta to Sam’s time there, as if he’s outside the story and looking in, a sense enhanced by the self-satisfied archmaesters telling him that his interpretation of events is wrong or at least wrongheaded. As usual in fantasy, those ignoring the Cassandra are the ones with a distorted perspective; after all, as many have noted, Sam’s a clear insert of George RR Martin himself. It’s all too easy to speculate about endgame, but I’d put money on our last sight of Samwell Tarly in both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire being him sitting down with ink and paper, ready to tell the story that he lived through and we watched.