As Game of Thrones barreled past George R.R. Martin’s source material, it also began outdistancing the capriciousness and chaos that infused Martin’s narrative world. Major players like Daenerys, Jon, Arya, Tyrion, Sam, and Sansa are all settling into something resembling the arcs of classic heroes. So last night’s “Stormborn” was a subtle jab in the ribs: a reminder to not get too comfortable.
Euron Greyjoy’s naval assault on Yara and Theon’s fleet was bloody, violent, and gorgeously staged. Director Mark Mylod managed to conjure something fresh and a little disturbing amongst the fire and phantasmagorical night time ship rigging. (Though the show never did explain just how those hurting balls of fire were being lobbed, or where from.)
But what really made the scene cut was the swift collapse of Yara and Theon’s forces, and then of Theon himself. We haven’t gotten to see much of these two in action, or see their portion of the Ironborn fleet tested in battle. But they’ve certainly come off as scrappy and resourceful. Theon’s journey in particular since the start of the show has been remarkable: from traitor to captive to torture victim to spiritually broken to reluctant rescuer. So watching Euron and his hordes tear through them like wet paper last night was a grim reminder that our pleasant underdog and redemption arcs do not always go as planned.
Rationally, it makes sense that Theon is still so shot through with post-traumatic stress that the battle would undo him. But we’ve all seen plenty of movies and scenes before with this sort of “moment” ending in redemption. So watching Theon leap off the side of the ship and leave Yara in Euron’s clutches was still pretty deflating.
Game of Thrones has invested almost nothing in the Sandsnakes, so the deaths of two of the three carried relatively little weight by comparison — save for that shot of their bodies hanging from the rigging at the end. As for Euron himself, he seems to be turning into the anti-Oberyn: as potent a force for destruction and degradation as Oberyn once seemed to be for vengeance and restoration. Taking Ellaria, Oberyn’s former lover, hostage just served to drive the point home.
Nor was that the only reminder to not start expecting happy endings.
Jon’s decision to travel to Dragonstone and discuss an alliance with Daenerys makes sense. The North doesn’t have the numbers to fight the White Walkers and the undead on their own. And thanks to Sam, Jon now knows there’s a deposit of White-Walker-killing dragonglass on the island.
But Sansa and the other nobles aren’t wrong: Jon will also be leaving his nascent kingdom just as it’s getting back on its feet. Even more worrisome is that he’ll leave Winterfell vulnerable to whatever scheme Littlefinger is currently cooking up. The moment when Jon entrusted the kingdom to Sansa was invigorating — a testament to the depth and power of Sansa’s own transformation. The show is clearly setting up Jon and Sansa’s relationship as a new dialogue between Ned Stark’s brand of honor and Cersei’s brand of ruthlessness, with Littlefinger as the oleaginous wild card in the middle. It’s not clear how that dialogue will end or what toll it will exact on the two Stark children. Sansa may know what Littlefinger’s wants, but whether she can best him all by herself is another question entirely.
There were also some bright spots. Arya’s reunion with Hot Pie was almost too heartwarming for words. Then there was the look of actress Maisie Williams’ face as Arya realizes her brother is still alive and a reunion is still possible. After seven seasons, I can scarcely imagine how I’ll react if Arya, Jon and Sansa all get to be in the same room together again.
The lovemaking between Missandei and Grey Work was also a welcome moment of humanity. (Though it also made room for HBO’s now trademark T-and-A.) And finally there was Sam’s decision to try and cure Jorah Mormont of his greyscale. That was one of those decisions that should have been given several episodes to come to fruition — a victim of the narrative speed David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have had to adopt to make up for Martin’s dilly-dallying. But it was more evidence of Sam’s unshakeable goodness and blossoming courage in the face of the Archmaester’s authority. Of course, the mechanics of the cure — basically peeling the infected skin from Jorah’s body a piece at a time — was just about too much to contemplate.
But the core of last night’s episode was the confrontation between Daenerys and Varys. The spymaster has always been a mercurial character; as Dany observed, his loyalties always seem to be shifting. But as Game of Thrones goes on, we’ve gotten less evasion from Varys and more statements of purpose — dialogue that does seem to cut to the beating heart of who he is. Last night went the deepest yet: He has no loyalty to any ruler because his loyalties lie with the people, and he’ll pick whichever ruler will best serve them in his estimation. And fortunately for Dany, he’s picked her.
So on the one hand, Daenerys’ confrontation with Varys had something magisterial too it: a coming to terms between equals. Varys promises to always tell Dany to her face when he believes she’s failing the people, and Daenerys promises to burn him alive if he ever does go behind her back. But other questions remain unanswered: Should that day come, will Dany listen? Will Varys ever find any ruler who can measure up? Who is Varys to even judge?
Daenerys says she doesn’t want to be queen of the ashes. It’s a noble sentiment, but also one put in her mouth by Tyrion. And Tyrion and Varys are both who Olenna dismisses as mere “clever men” as soon as she has a moment alone with Dany. The Queen of Thorns’ cynicism about the possibility of peace may be more realistic than Tyrion and Varys’ high hopes. But it’s also a reversion to the bloody mean that Westeros has endured for so long.
You’re not a sheep, Olenna tells Daenerys, you’re a dragon. So be a dragon.
Westeros may need dragon fire to defeat the White Walkers. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Olenna was talking about.