Appropriately for a season premiere, last night’s “Dragonstone” was all about preparation — of both the literal and the metaphorical variety.
As for the first, we have Arya preparing for her mission to kill Cersei, who now sits on the Iron Throne, by first clearing Westeros of House Frey. And we have Sam trying to push the archmaester, wonderfully portrayed by show newcomer Jim Broadbent, beyond his comfort zone. The archmaester is confident Westeros will survive the White Walkers, just as it’s survived everything else. But Sam isn’t so sure, so he snatches some books from the portion of the library forbidden to maesters-in-training like himself. That ultimately leads him to discover the location of an old deposit of dragonglass, the one substance known to kill the White Walkers.
Then there’s Cersei Lannister, who looks ready to launch a war between her own House and most of the continent’s other seven kingdoms. She’s proven a consummate survivor who, as Sansa put it, has successfully murdered everyone who’s ever crossed her. But Cersei is also obsessed with punishing anyone she perceives to be betraying or undermining her (with no one landing higher on this list than her own brother, Tyrion) and Jaime’s entreaties that she acknowledge her own limits seem to go nowhere.
But ultimately, Cersei surprises: She isn’t about to launch a four-front war she’s destined to lose. Instead, she’s recruiting the massive naval fleet of the Iron Islands, with the mad Euron Greyjoy himself in their command, promising her an ominously unspecified “gift” to win her hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, Daenerys, another rival queen, has the other half of the Iron Islands’ navy, commanded by Yara Greyjoy. She lands on Dragonstone, House Targaryen’s ancestral fortress. Here, Game of Thrones pauses for a well-placed moment of majesty and splendor, as Daenerys touches the wet soil of the land she’s dreamed of returning to for so long, and then makes the long climb up the ramparts with her entourage.
There, Daenerys holds court over the castle’s central table, itself carved in a detailed rendering of the continent. Interestingly, that imagine is mirrored when we first see Cersei, surveying a massive map of Westeros, which a servant is painting on the courtyard floor. Do show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss subtly suggest Danny and Cersei may have more in common than viewers are comfortable admitting? The two probably come as close as Game of Thrones gets to a traditional hero and villain, respectively. But Daenerys’ conquest of liberation has always teetered on the brink of collapsing into a George-W-Bush-in-Iraq-style folly. And it seems likely that season 7 is when the moral merit of this project will finally be conclusively decided.
In terms of the metaphorical, we begin with Sandor Clegane, who is preparing by relearning the feel of possibility.
The possibility of gods and magic, for one, which he discovers in the episode’s most well-crafted and disarmingly low-tech scene. The red priest Thoros of Myr invites him to stare into the flames, and after a moment of skepticism, Clegane stops and his eyes widen. He says he sees the army of the dead marching on the wall of ice. We never see the vision ourselves; just the flames, actor Rory McCann’s face, the dead silence in the shack, and the haunting music. But the effect is unnerving. And perhaps it even opens the possibility of purpose, now that Clegane knows the Lord of Light is real.
Out in the icy wilderness, Clegane is relearning the possibility of decency and humanity as well. Thoros finds him in the middle of the night, digging graves for the dead man and child they find in the cabin. And after forgetting the traditional prayer of the Seven, Clegane ends with a simple “I’m sorry you’re dead. You deserved better.”
Finally, Jon and Sansa Stark are preparing by hashing out what it means to lead and rule.
Their disagreement — over how to handle House Umber and Karstark, both of which betrayed House Stark in the earlier seasons — is precisely the sort of thing that makes the show great. For one thing, it’s a disagreement laden with ugly portent, threatening a rift in the only just-reunited Stark clan. The scheming Littlefinger is gleefully watching from the sidelines as the two Stark siblings go at it.
But Jon and Sansa’s debate is a morally substantive one as well. Neither one is wholly right or wholly wrong. It’s hard to argue to argue with Sansa’s brute logic of rewarding loyalty and punishing treachery. Making her case to Jon, she raises a classic critique by accusing their father Ned of often stupid decisions. And what she means by “stupid” here is clearly “insuffiently ruthless.”
Yet Jon chooses compassion. At this point in the war, both Houses Umber and Karstark are headed by young family members who had nothing to do with the decisions of their forebearers. So Jon welcomes them back into the fold of the North’s army, and lets them keep their lands and castles. It’s a decision that certainly could weaken that community — fear always plays some role in maintaining a society’s bonds. And when he makes the call, Jon is clearly thinking in moral, rather than strategic, terms. But if the risk pays off, he will have expanded the North’s circle of inclusion — which fear can only shrink.
With the White Walkers and their undead army marching ever closer, a larger circle on inclusion may prove to be the most valuable preparation of all.