GoT S7, E1 & E2 Review: Power to the people?

It was quite nice to watch episodes 1 and 2 in a row, as “Dragonstone” eases you back into the universe, showing you what various characters have been up to. Then, by the end of “Stormborn”, you see things start to happen , balances of power shift, and get an idea of how things might come together in the next 5 (Is that right? So few!) episodes.

(Spoilers for S07 Episodes 1 and 2 ahead!)

I’ll start by commenting on the one thing I dislike about this season so far, to get it out of the way. The show-runners seem to have decided it’s completely irrelevant that the viewers know how much time has passed between an episode, a season, or even scenes within an episode. The most flagrant example is Gilly’s baby, who is now apparently a toddler. Are we supposed to assume 6 months have gone by? I’m sure he was still a baby last time we saw him, although I might be wrong. And how much time has elapsed since Tommen’s suicide? This is crucial for Cersei and Jaime’s character development, but we have no way to know. The confusion around time is accentuated by the confusion around transportation. Journeys that used to take up half a season or a whole season now seem to happen between episodes, so we might reasonably assume a lot of time is passing between each, but in the end my feeling is that as viewers we simply have no way to know. Which may not matter so much, except timing does matter in this world. Timing is the only thing that explains, for instance, how Euron’s ships found Yara’s in such a short time — they must both have been sailing in/around Blackwater Bay. Then, how did Euron sail into King’s Landing without Yara spotting him? If he sailed in at the same time Yara’s fleet was stationed at Dragonstone, given the location of Dragonstone in relation the Blackwater Bay, she should reasonably have known about this:

Look at Dragonstone in relation to King’s Landing: How did Euron sail his huge army past Dragonstone without being noticed?

For a show that’s meant to be realistic at least in terms of its military and political strategies, these inconsistencies or (at best) omissions are disappointing.

Despite the time/transport confusions, which is something we might just have to live with, I think the first two episodes have good material in them. To start with, they have some great interactions between characters, pulled off with generally great acting. Character interactions are possibly the most enjoyable part about these well-paced episodes with sufficiently long dialogues and not many battle scenes yet. Starting with the cold open of Arya finishing off all the Freys — not only is this completely in character, I do think that The Twins now being abandoned will have some sort of strategic relevance in the wars to come. Recall The Twins role in earlier seasons: its strategic location in letting Robb’s soldiers march south was the reason for the marriage alliance with the Freys that would eventually lead to his demise. Euron, who is shaping up to be a more ambitious Ramsay, was fun to watch in his mocking of Jamie at King’s Landing, and painful to watch in the naval battle that ended Episode 2. Episode 1 especially had plenty of subtle looks and reactions within well-paced scenes that took their time to allow the viewer to take it all in. These include Sansa using her political skills to interact with Jon before his bannermen and later, in private, warning him to not be Ned or Robb; Jamie’s subtly tense reactions to Euron’s mocking; and the weird tensions between Daenerys’s supporters, an interesting mix of people that would have been hard to picture together in past seasons.

Finally, one of the key interactions for me was the one between Arya and the random Lannister soldiers. Putting Ed Sheeran’s cameo aside (I’m not a fan), this scene fulfilled two key functions. First, it showed Arya being human, as if she were deliberately trying to be just a teenager, albeit in a world that is not especially kind to teenage girls: accepting food because she’s hungry, just trying to drink some shitty wine and laugh a little. This is important for her development as a character, because if not she can easily become just a one-dimensional ninja assassin character. It’s the same reason her encounters with Hot Pie and Nymeria, even if short-lived, matter: we need to remember Arya is a lost and lonely girl. That makes her assassin dimension even more interesting. Second, the seemingly meandering conversation with the Lannister soliders (do we really care if some random Lannister is having a child?) echoes and brings to life the idea of the people that is coming up elsewhere in these episodes. These soldiers are the people that Cersei talks about in abstract: a man who doesn’t want a son because “boys just go off to fight in someone else’s wars”, a soldier who offers scarce food to a strange girl.

The show tends to focus on the big players, the lords and ladies playing the game of thrones or worried about saving the world from the White Walkers. This makes sense: they are the ones that drive the plot and make things happen. However, this focus on the noblemen makes us forget about the non-nobles that inhabit this universe. Only a handful of the main characters (Varys, Davos, Melisandre, Grey Worm and Missandei) were not born into nobility, and this makes us easily forget this minority is actually a majority in the universe they inhabit. This majority forms the bigger picture in which the main characters need to be understood. Daenerys is at least nominally aware of this, with her intention of winning the hearts of the people and not being queen of the ashes. The trouble, however, is that just like in reality, the concept of the people is often used to justify anything. Cersei’s xenophobic rallying speech could be read as a fantasy echo of a Donald Trump speech, and she literally says it is her “solemn duty to protect the people” when arguing her point. Cersei has never evidenced any sort of real concern for the ordinary people of Westeros. She is the kind of ruler who uses the concept simply for rhetorical effect, but she is not the only one to use it in these episodes.

On the other side of the spectrum you have Varys, who seems unusually sincere in his concern for the commoners and its incompatibility with blind loyalty to a certain ruler. Unlike Cersei, Varys was actually born at the bottom of the social ladder, and has suffered because of it. It is no coincidence that his speech cuts to Missandei and Grey Worm’s reactions, and not to the noble-born Olenna. Why? Grey Worm and Missandei are also part of “the people”, not the nobles. They are the ones that speeches such as Varys’s refer to: “The people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule”, oppressed by unjust rulers and systems. Slaves and eunuchs probably represent the most extreme examples of this, but not the only ones. Their somewhat tedious romance even has a new poignancy and beauty, in this light.

In a way, “Game of Thrones” has always been about the brutality and senselessness of war. The much recognized fact that in this universe any character can die, anytime, is the most popular instantiation of this senselessness, but it is not the only one. The wars they wage are also brutal and senseless, and possibly more so, for the common people. I do hope that this season explores a bit more how the big players, the characters we follow and obviously care about, fit into the bigger picture of Westeros. Developing this can show why it matters who sits on the Iron Throne, not only because one character is more likeable than another, but also because one is better suited to rule justly.

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