“Dragonstone” Review

There be spoilers ahead…

“Dragonstone” picks up where the breakneck paced “The Winds of Winter” ended last season but instead of plowing forward with more Game of Thrones plot, they pump the breaks and remind us not only what is to come, but what our characters will ultimately be fighting for in the end: Their humanity.

We open the episode with Walder Frey toasting his men for another victory which was confusing because last season we see Arya kill him. As Frey speaks wine is being poured and the camera makes an important note of this detail. As the men drink, Frey speaks and notably doesn’t sip from his cup so something is clearly off. After a few seconds we discover the wine has been poisoned and men choke to death. Cutting back to Walder, it’s revealed Arya planned this elaborate assassination.

Yay! Murder!

Cersei isn’t the only one capable of mass clearing players from the Game of Thrones game board.

Writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had me worried that this was a flashback. But surprise, it was Arya. She tells Walder Frey’s wife to spread the word that the North remembers and winter came for House Frey.

This victorious and vengeful call back to the two most popular Northern sayings gave me a rewarding chill. The kind that rounds your lips just wide enough for a cheerio to fit though as you think “oh, shit.”

It’s been three seasons since the red wedding and time has only made Arya Stark’s quest for revenge more satisfying. Often we hear phrases from houses thrown around “what is dead may never die” or “a Lannister always pays his debts.” Now the phrases of the North are finally paying off.

“Dragonstone’s” main theme centers on a contrast between kingdoms and groups — the two contrasts being humanity v. death and celebration v. fear.

Arya’s path is the first contrast presented in this episode. She’s introduced as a cold-blooded killer, but this side of her is later contrasted when she encounters a group of Lannister soldiers and Ed Sheeran. Ultimately these are enemy soldiers to Arya and she would be justified in taking them out but she doesn’t. These soldiers show kindness through sharing homemade blackberry wine and food. These acts of kindness serve to remind Arya ultimately these enemies are people too. They complicate her mission to kill Ceresi a bit by blurring the lines of this contrast.

Granted next week we can totally open a scene with Arya standing over the soldier’s lifeless bodies and all of the above would be moot.

After our celebratory moment of Arya’s mass murder, we go beyond the wall.

We stare out at a winter storm for what feels like minutes. Breaking this eerie tension we see the Night King emerge out from the winter veil reminding us that his army is out there and it is coming. And not only that, but it’s huge and they have dead giants.

I wonder if this minute long sequence would have better for the end of the episode. Throughout 68 minutes the viewers would have a chance to get recapped on the world, celebrate, and get hyped for battles to come — only to be snapped back to an unsettling reality as the real enemy encroaches.

Let’s jump to King’s Landing (or is it Queen’s Landing now?) to catch up with Cersei and Jamie. Things between the twins have been tense to put it lightly.

“We need to talk…”

Cersei and Jamie share a cold exchange — he’s questioning her intentions as she sits on the iron throne and neglects to talk about Tommen who we watched commit suicide in the end of Season 6. Cersei’s dialogue recaps how the board stands — who is where and doing what. Cersei seems confident in her and Jamie’s ability to defend King’s Landing. Meanwhile Jamie contrasts this idea, formally the overconfident one, he reminds Cersei the Lannister’s have limited allies but numerous enemies.

Cersei in a way, is more like the Night King than she is any of her other human leader counterparts. Jon fights for the very right for life and Daenerys is fighting for a better life for all. Cersei has lost everything, her children, and now is fighting to just to gain power. There is no better life she’s looking for. Jamie is now just a tool for her, to lead her Lannister army, their love is dead.

This makes Jamie’s story more tragically compelling. All of this began because Jamie pushed Bran out the window noting “the things he does for love.”

Flying back up north we see Jon and Sansa both vying for power and it really comes to head as the people of the North meet to discuss the fate of the lands of the Umbers and Karstarks. Sansa looks to give them a way to reward families for supporting the Starks, while Jon contrasts her and wants the lands to be a bargaining chip to help put aside the Karstark and Umber’s beefs with the Starks.

After moving speeches by Jon and Sansa, Jon eventually wins out and gives the lands back to the family noting that it’s not the time for infighting.

When you’re at a family gathering and your mom uses your middle name.

The contrasts between the Stark leaders keep piling up. Sansa is busy looking south towards the Lannisters and Jon’s looking north beyond the wall. Jon and Sansa are both motivated by renewed senses of life, whereas the Night King and Ceresi could careless about life, they want death.

With a world as expansive as Game of Thrones it’s easy to always want to move forward, but incredibly Benioff and Weiss still find time to look back and remind us what all the Game of Thrones has taken.

Enter Sandor Clegane aka The Hound, he along with the Brotherhood Without Banners take shelter in an abandoned farmer’s house, but just not any house, the house Sandor looted and left the family for dead. Turns out the family did die with the father likely killing his own daughter to prevent them from both suffering. Sandor in season 4 would have never cared about this moment, yet now he grapples with guilt for the horrible acts against humanity he’s committed.

The quiet scenes with Sandor and the Brotherhood are some of the most powerful demonstrations of contrast we’ve seen. Sandor is faced with two versions of himself: the murderous mercenary and the soldier seeking redemption.

Sandor beautifully works for repentance here, opting to bury the bodies of victims he left for dead. We even see Sandor struggle to accept faith in his life: he’s unable to finish his eulogy for the dead and he later reluctantly sees visions in the fire.

Finally, the last big set piece of the episode comes with Daenerys finally arriving back at Westeros landing at Dragonstone.

This homecoming scene belongs to Dany and rightfully so. Fans of the show have been waiting for this moment for years and in some cases decades.

Podeswa smartly separated Dany from the rest of her crew with physical space. They notably trail behind her as she leads. Even the momentary camera break from Dany to Greyworm being told to stay back by Missandei helps keep the attention on Daenerys. As we slowly follow her to her family’s castle director Jeremy Podeswa milks every moment. The camera shows us all of Dragonstone: from the island the castle sits on, the detail carved in the castle’s stone walls, Dany’s tugging down of Stannis’s banners left hanging, to Dany running her fingers over a table with a battle of map of Westeros.

We even get to see the castle clearly in daylight, a contrast from when Stannis occupied the castle. I can’t remember a time it was seen in the light in earlier seasons. It was always at night barely illuminated with fire.

The camera slowly zooms in on Daenerys and she finally breaks the dialogue silence with “shall we begin?”

Let’s not get too hyped for this. Dragonstone is really just a pit stop.

It’s outstanding Game of Thrones still finds time to invest and romance these scenes. The Night King approaches, Arya’s murdering her enemies left and right, the Lannister’s are still sitting on the Iron Throne yet we still have time to watch Sandor struggle with his past and watch Dany’s fingertips dip into the crevasses of a table.

In a way, Dragonstone feels like a season finale episode with it cleaning up the pieces from the mess penultimate episode’s have often left behind.

Leaving season 6 and then learning the final two seasons will be shortened I wondered if we’d still have time to invest in characters and the world as a whole. That fear was laid to rest last night. Last season, unimportant characters fell in masses to clear the board for the final battles and now the pieces are in place.

Dany’s just a few days away from King’s Landing. Jon is in Winterfell getting ready to fight on two fronts. Cersei has nothing to worry about but power. The Night King is coming. It’s about to begin.

Now on Monday when I’m writing this all I can think is “is it Sunday yet?”

Other Notes and Observations:

  • David Bradley performance as Walder Frey was incredible. He’s a magnificently creepy crank.
  • Game of Thrones, what the heck are you doing featuring Ed Sheeran? You’re prestige TV. You don’t need guest stars.
  • Littlefinger, what are you scheming now, you creep!?
  • Sam’s montage of his time at the Citadel is fantastic. When we cut to the Citadel we see how grand the library is. The rows and rows of limitless books and knowledge. Yet we get to watch Sam struggle with the life being a freshman at the Citadel. From scrubbing floors, to emptying toilets, adjusting to cafeteria food, to holding the guts of an autopsy patient. Normally I’m not one for montages, but this one was great, albeit disgusting, it gave us a moment of levity to laugh but keep the story moving.
  • All I want in life is for a woman to look at me like the way Tormond looks at Brianne.
  • Jorah’s looking rough at the Citadel, but hey he still loves Dany. I wonder what’s going to happen here?
  • Euron Greyjoy’s appearance although brief is fantastic and proves a haircut can do wonders for you. Plus his jab at Jamie is hilarious and a VEEP worthy insult.
“What has two thumbs and doesn’t give a damn? Euron Greyjoy.”
  • So many great moments of dialogue in this episode. My personal favorite being Sandor’s “Experience.”
  • Lyanna Mormont, what can’t she do!?
  • In the preview of next week we see a dire wolf for like a millisecond. All I can say is Nymina and Arya reunion!? Also, #ProtectThePups, I can’t lose another dire wolf.
  • Bran’s finally heading back on the other side of the wall! I wanted more time with this story, but I understand we have only so much time in a episode.