People have to admit to a moment of clueless outrage at the beginning of “Dragonstone,” the first episode of Game of Thrones season 7. Walder Frey died in the final episode last year, of course. Yet there he was in the cold open, spouting his unique brand of crass, self-aggrandizing blather at the head of his banquet hall. I thought HBO was doing a cheesy flashback or needlessly mucking about with time travel. Only when old Frey chided his kin for failing to kill the entire wolf pack did I realize it was Arya, employing her Faceless Men skills. Duh! Fantasy, dummy. I blame the long winter.
The scene provided a thrill to lead off what was otherwise a typical, exposition-laden first episode. It also set me to wondering about the rules of face-changing. Arya stands five-foot-one and is twenty years old. Does merely donning dead Walder’s inanimate face magically turn her six-foot, stooped and crotchety? Or is she just that great an actor? More importantly, why do none of the other rules of the Faceless Men apply to her? She spent a season assuring us she was “No One,” a nameless, faceless person worthy of serving the Many-Faced god. But this mass homicide was personal, and she made sure Frey’s surviving child wife knew who was responsible. She seems fully possessed of the god’s gifts, though she completely forsakes his most important rules. The mysterious inconsistency of the gods is a recurring theme in the show, and it played a part later in this episode, as well.
Arya’s enigmatic expression as she passes through the corpse-lined banquet hall suggests she is surprised at her own ability to carry out such a coldly calculated mass homicide. Justice it may be. Nevertheless, little Arya Stark from Winterfell should expect to feel horrified. Interpret the act as you will; Arya now has mass murder in common with Cersei.
Lest we forget about the Only Important Thing, our first image after the opening credits is the relentless march of the Night King’s army, which includes a couple of blue-eyed giants. Wun-Wun, who died south of the wall and must have been a large part of a huge funeral pyre after the Battle of the Bastards, at least, is not among them. Unfortunately, life imitated art in the off-season, as the actor who played Mag the Mighty, Neil Fingleton, died in February, at age 36. Tall man, sadly short life.
Some unknown distance ahead of the march of the dead, Meera and Bran pass through the Wall at Castle Black. Dolorous Edd is reluctant to let them through, until Bran evokes the memory of Hardhome and the Fist of the Fist Men and reminds us (because we need reminding!) that the Night King is coming for all of them. When Edd pauses to look toward the barren north, you sense he expects ice zombies to leap out of the woods and charge the portcullis. But, alas, they don’t. The question now is whether Bran broke the Wall’s protective spells by passing through, just as his presence beneath the great weirwood tree after being touched by the Night King destroyed its magical shields.
At Winterfell, Jon proposes training every man, woman and child over age 10 to fight the army of the dead. Tensions mount as Sansa urges him to dispossess the remaining Umbers and Karstarks of their castles and give them as rewards to families that remained loyal to the Starks in the Battle of the Bastards. Jon says he will not punish a child for his father’s sins, and brings the young children of the traitors forward to swear an oath, with the other northern lords stomping their approval.
Later, overlooking the courtyard, Sansa and Jon air their differences further. Sansa tells Jon he’s good at ruling, but must be smarter than Ned and Robb, who both made stupid mistakes and lost their heads for it. They part, seemingly united in purpose. Sansa coldly brushes off Littlefinger, telling Brienne she knows exactly what he wants. All this early reassurance that she is on the right side suggests her allegiances will shift as the season progresses. Nothing is as certain as it appears, after all. Especially troubling: Sansa does not refute Jon’s observation that she may admire Cersei.
The admirable queen is having a courtyard floor at the Red Keep painted with a map of Westeros to give her a visual representation of the enemies lurking in every direction. Jaime throws cold water on her plans of building a dynasty (or “din-esty,” as they distractingly pronounced it) by reminding her that she is queen of not seven, but three kingdoms, at best, and that after Tommen’s suicide, they have no heirs to continue a dynasty. He concludes that they have few prospects for gaining allies, because they look like the losing side. He also derides her invitation to meet with Euron Greyjoy, describing the Iron Islanders as bitter little people who are only good at stealing what they can’t make or grow themselves.
Euron returns Jaime’s insults in their audience, noting that he has 1000 ships and two good hands. He does not deny killing his own brother and tells Cersei, “It felt wonderful. You should try it sometime.” Cersei declines Euron’s marriage proposal, but he promises to bring her a fabulous gift as proof of his loyalty and devotion. Tyrion’s head, maybe? A dragon (or two or three) captured with the aid of a mythical horn?
In the Riverlands, a group of Lannister soldiers invite Arya to join them for roast rabbit. She is surprised to learn that the soldiers of her greatest enemy are willing to share their scarce food and homemade blackberry wine. She also learns they have mothers who taught them to be kind to strangers, and that they long to be home with wives who have given birth to babies they have not met while doing the bidding of their liege lords. Arya’s confession that she is headed to King’s Landing to kill the queen elicits a protracted pause, then a blast of laughter at the preposterousness of the notion. Ah, sweet summer children.
After the mayhem Arya brought to the Freys, the scene around the campfire tests her humanity. It appears, somewhat remarkably, intact. The scene forebodes future events, as well. One or more of these kind-hearted fellows is sure to show up in later battles opposite Arya, posing a dire moral dilemma for our beloved assassin. This is why becoming No One was so important: The Many-Faced God’s mission leaves no room for moral dilemmas.
The Citadel at Oldtown, despite being the most enlightened of places, seems to be mostly about the filth of human existence. Sam is tasked with emptying bedpans and filling food trays with what appears to be the exact same goopy substance. He also shelves heavy books and experiences the Harry Potter frustration of being unable to talk Slughorn (yes, it’s the same actor) into granting him access to the restricted section of the library. (Odd detail: there are chains on the bookshelves, but none of the books—which would have been very valuable in those times—are attached to the chains, which seem to be completely superfluous.)
His request denied, Sam purloins the keys from a diarrhetic maester and borrows a book that reveals Dragonstone sits on a horde of dragonglass. The raw materials to fight the white walkers, and perhaps to defeat Jorah’s greyscale happen to be right where Dany and her followers will make headquarters. How ironic that Jorah is not with her, since the sight of his arm shooting through the food door of his quarantine cell reveals the disease has progressed terribly.
In a five-minute landscape photography showpiece, Daenerys makes her return to Westeros, landing on the beach at Dragonstone. The castle is remarkably untouched by looters or squatters, so they parade in slow motion to Stannis’s war room, where Dany utters the group’s only line: “Shall we begin?” After a speechless, five-minute stroll through the unspoiled grandeur of the seaside castle, the line seems anti-climactic. Yes, for God’s sake. Begin, already!
Although Dany’s was the last scene, perhaps the most intriguing one covered the Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners as they occupied an abandoned farmhouse for the night. The Hound and Arya had stopped there months ago. He had stolen silver from the farmer and his young daughter, to Arya’s great outrage. Guilt and the certainty of finding their corpses in the house makes him try to talk the others out of staying there, but they will not be dissuaded.
The Hound quizzes Beric Dondarrian about why the Red God would resurrect him over and over, since there is nothing remarkable about him. Beric says he asks himself the same question every day. Although the Hound laments falling in with a bunch of fire worshippers, at Thoros of Myr’s insistence, he looks into the flames. Mellisandre should take lessons from him. She is a true believer, yet never seems to see the truth in the fire. Sandor Clegane has consistently denounced the gods, yet he sees a clear vision of the army of the dead near the Wall, marching past a mountain shaped like an arrowhead and a castle that must be Eastwatch by the Sea. “Now do you believe, Clegane?” Beric asks. Surely a few pictures in the fireplace will not dislodge the Hound from his steady, self-reliant agnosticism. If he found religion, he’d have to clean up his language. And who wants that?
Nearly as interesting as who will sit the Iron Throne in the end is which ideology will prevail. Horrible things have been done in the name of R’hllor, yet the Red God—rightly or wrongly—gets credit for resurrecting both Beric and Jon. This may be no great bargain for Beric. His life is not restored for his own benefit, but only to serve the interests of the dark Lord of Light, whatever those interests might be. Jon’s resurrection seems different. We’re still waiting to see how it has changed him.
But what of the other gods? Westeros mainly worships the Seven. We saw last season what the fanatical arm of that faith is capable of doing. The Many-Faced God is the god of death. Or, more precisely, death for hire. The Drowned God’s baptism ritual involves holding believers under water until they stop breathing, then “resurrecting” with the nonsensical chant, “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.” His followers, as Jaime so aptly summarized, make their subsistence by stealing from others (and raping, pillaging and enslaving those they raid). Mirri Maz Duur invoked the power of the Great Shepherd (along with some other voodoo blood magic) to resurrect Khal Drogo, with ghastly results. None of these gods seem worthy of much devotion.
Ned Stark worshiped the most benevolent of the gods, known only as the Old Gods. They are intertwined with the earth and nature and require few rituals, other than quiet contemplation near a heart tree. But the treatment of Bran and Jon at the hands of the Old Gods and their followers beyond the wall has been ungentle, at best, and their closest adherents, the Children of the Forest, created the Night King, who has been depicted as the embodiment of existential evil.
Although we don’t know what to call it, there is another power at work in the Game of Thrones universe. The Night King is its leader, and its power to raise and control the dead, as well as to create commanders who are impervious to common weapons, is undeniable.
Miracles have been performed in the name of all the gods, except (unless I’ve forgotten one) the Seven. Most of the miracles touch resurrection, on some level. The Many-Faced god allows Arya to bring back the appearance and essence of the dead in the interest of doing his bidding. Those resurrected by fire (Beric) retain much of their humanity, but diminish with each death and no longer live for their own purposes. Those raised by ice are staring, mindless automatons doing the Night King’s will. Let’s not forget the other resurrection—the one performed in the name of science, I suppose—accomplished by Qyburn with Gregor Clegane’s corpse. The power of the Old Gods may be greatest of all. Its followers can transfer their conscience into other beings, and green-seers of the highest order can see present events and even alter past ones. The consequences, as we’ve seen, can be dire.
So much attention has been placed on religions that the clash among them must be pivotal in the end. Yet the principal players (Dany, Tyrion, Arya, Jaime, Cersei and even Jon, now) are not motivated by religious dogma. As we see through Arya and the Hound, the gods apparently don’t give believers alone exclusive access to their powers. They use believers and non-believers equally to accomplish their aims.
The week 2 preview hints at a reunion between Arya and her direwolf. Fans have wanted this for a long time, but with all the other wolves but Ghost lost, it seems a bit gratuitous to bring Nymeria back now. The wolves served a symbolic purpose early in the story, but Arya won’t be able to waltz into King’s Landing with a snarling beast at her side. Maybe they’ll greet each other, then go their separate ways. They can keep contact through the Stark warging abilities, and that should be enough. It’s hard to fathom what purpose it would serve to reunite them permanently.
The triumphant homecoming Dany envisioned may not materialize, since she has arrived with raiders (the Dothraki) and rapers (the Ironborn) at her side. Jon may face mutiny if he suggests allying with Daenerys, and Yara wants to strike, rather than sitting around waiting for others to flock to their cause.
The last frame of the preview is most enticing: Someone is choking Littlefinger, and the panic on his face is pure catharsis.
Whatever happens, let’s hope Tyrion has some lines. It’s a waste to put Peter Dinklage on screen and not allow him to say something.
Watch the Episode 2 Trailer here.
Which of the gods is most powerful?
This poll is closed
The Old Gods
R’hllor, the God of Light
The Seven (they just haven’t revealed themselves yet)
The Many-Faced God
The Drowned God
Other (explain in comments)