On July 16th, Game of Thrones kicked off its seventh season with “Dragonstone,” and it wasted no time getting violent and bloody. At the end of last season, the battle lines were drawn across a Westeros in chaos. Cersei lost her last son and seized the Iron Throne as Queen, Daenerys Targaryen assembled her fleet and set out across the Narrow Sea, and Jon Snow was named King in the North. That’s right where “Dragonstone” picks up, kicking the season off with one of the most efficient and satisfying openers we can remember.
Arya’s rampage is emblematic of what makes Game of Thrones so satisfying. Whether it’s an important character turn, a clever piece of filmmaking, or a satisfying twist, Game of Thrones lives and dies in the scenes that stick in the minds of audiences and keep them talking for days after. Following last night’s episode, we sat down to discuss the most memorable scenes from “Dragonstone.”
The fall of the Freys
Bryan: Game of Thrones delights in its horrific little bloodbaths. The opening of the season 7 premiere was a throwback to one of its most infamous gory spectacles. After the “previously on” recap reminded viewers that Arya slit Walder Frey’s throat last season as comeuppance for the Red Wedding massacre, “Dragonstone” goes for a not-so-subtle feint. The opening shot reveals that Walder Frey is alive and well. He’s hosting a dinner for the rest of the Freys, an uncharacteristically spontaneous celebration from one of Game of Thrones’ crankiest old bastards.
It didn’t take long to do the math. Arya just killed Walder Frey, Arya has the ability to don other people’s faces, therefore Arya must be posing as Fake Walder Frey to take down his entire family.
Showrunners (and “Dragonstone” screenwriters) David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know the audience will see the twist coming, but that’s what makes the sequence so delicious. The pieces practically come together in slow motion, but rather than building to an unrelenting sense of dread, there is, instead, catharsis. Given what the Freys have done to the Starks, I wanted to cheer — which is an altogether horrifying reaction to the mass poisoning of dozens of men. But the sequence puts viewers right in Arya’s shoes. Her relief is our relief.
Tasha: There’s so little justice in this series that this scene feels like a tremendous payoff, but it really helps that we’ve spent so much time with Arya, feeling her personal pains and watching what she’s been through to get here, whereas the Freys are a largely faceless, impersonal evil horde. The confrontation here is all positives for the audience. Game of Thrones has spent so much time on one-on-one brutality, where named characters torture or murder each other, often taking their time about it. That brand of close-up violence can be so deadening. This, on the other hand, was comparatively quick and clean. The whole scene is satisfying as long-overdue vengeance for the Red Wedding, but it’s also about as kind to the audience as Game of Thrones gets with its murders.
And director Jeremy Podeswa (who’s helmed some particularly memorable Game of Thrones episodes, including “Hardhome”) really gives us a lot to relish with this scene, given that we know where it’s going and have time to drink in the details: the way the camera lingers on disguised-Arya’s eyes flicking around the room, making sure everyone’s drunk the poisoned wine before she switches her speech from congratulations to castigations; the way “she” brings the goblet to her mouth but doesn’t follow through; the shots of the Freys continuing to guzzle the wine during the speech; Arya stopping Joyeuse from drinking the wine with a curt insult about not wasting good wine on women — something that’s perfectly in character for Walder, but saving Joyeuse’s life at the same time.
It’s a satisfying moment and a hell of a kickoff for the season. As a statement of intent, it’s the equivalent of an ‘80s action hero cracking his knuckles and saying, “Time to take out the trash!” But it’s also a really lovely bit of directing.
The North remembers, but doesn’t reward
Tasha: There’s a lot to love about the scene where Jon Snow briefs his bannermen, with Sansa throwing in her two copper pennies about how he should punish the Umber and Karstark families for betraying him and siding with Ramsay Bolton. Sansa gets in plenty of zingers. (“So there’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty?”) Everybody’s favorite tiny badass, Lyanna Mormont, steps up to give orders. Tormund Giantsbane does a little chest-beating. It’s quite the council of oddballs, but at least everyone (except Jon and Sansa) are on the same side.
But my favorite part of that sequence was when Jon calls Alys Karstark and Ned Umber forward to renew their vows to his house. They both come forward, eyes wide and terrified, unsure whether they’re about to be executed, but they declare their vows as crisply as if they’ve practiced them together. They’re acting like adults, but they’re a teenage girl and a little boy, and like Lyanna, they’re apparently the only people left to lead their houses. The pair are a reminder that the game of thrones has had horrific consequences for Westeros, and the country is literally running out of adults to rule things. The plan to arm women and children may bring some equality to the Seven Kingdoms — Brienne certainly looks like she approves of the plan — but it’s also a mark of how desperate things have become.
And the moment also reminds us that Jon still isn’t the best judge of what will make his followers love him. He’s so tied to his sense of duty that he ignores the mood of the room, and the definite cheering for Sansa’s idea of handing over the Umber and Karstark lands to his true loyalists. By refusing, he may be guaranteeing Ned and Alys’ devotion, but alienating others within his army. We’ve already seen what happens when he makes his choices based on his perceived duty rather than what his followers expect and want.
Bryan: Jon’s sense of duty is so strong in this scene you can practically feel it, and I can’t help but think it’s what will eventually get him killed (again). With every fiber of his being, he’s trying to fill his (adoptive) father’s shoes, and that’s a vacuum that needs filling. Game of Thrones wasn’t always about the worst people trying to do the worst things possible; it was once a show about a good man and father trying to be honorable and respectable in a place that challenged that idea at every turn. That man was Ned Stark, and ever since he was killed at the end of the first season, the show has been about the struggle between the worst angels of our nature.
Jon taking on Ned’s role of moral compass intuitively feels like it’s at the core of the story Benioff, Weiss, and author George R.R. Martin are trying to tell. It’s the grand restoration that would give Game of Thrones the closest thing to a happy ending that I could imagine. But of course, this is also a show about the fantasies of storytelling butting up hard against our more sinister inclinations. That contrast is why I’m grateful for Jon Snow every single time he does what can empirically be described as the right thing. But it’s also why I cringe.
Sansa is more like Cersei than Jon realized
Bryan: Sansa counsels Jon to punish families who have betrayed the Stark family, and later in the episode, he complains about what he sees as her undermining him in public. Then they share a moment of truth, honestly discussing which enemies to prioritize: the White Walkers approaching from the North or Cersei Lannister, eager to strike back from the South. Jon says the Lannisters are more than a thousand miles away, but Sansa knows Cersei will do whatever it takes to quench her need for vengeance.
Jon says Sansa sounds like she admires Cersei, and he’s right: she does. Sansa has been through such an unbearable ordeal over the course of this show that it’s easy to see the hard edges building up, with well-earned cynicism transforming her once-optimistic personality. It’s an important moment, establishing Sansa’s strengths and weaknesses at this point in this series. But Littlefinger, ever able to read the temperature of a room, senses Sansa’s detachment and dissatisfaction almost immediately, recognizing that it might be another rung to climb on his ladder of chaos.
Tasha: For me, this scene hinges on Sansa’s response to Jon accusing her of admiring Cersei: “I learned a great deal from her.” So often in this show, Sansa’s torments have just felt like gross performative suffering, like torture for the audience’s titillation. But here, she openly acknowledges that everything she’s been through has shaped her into the person she is in this moment. I’m sure she isn’t happy about her experiences, but they all meant something. There was a point to them, it turns out, and that makes Sansa’s arc in the show much more meaningful than it’s felt so far in the books.
It’s worthwhile to note that Jon and Sansa favor focusing primarily on the threat with which each is most familiar. Jon’s seen the White Walkers personally, and takes them more seriously than some angry human way off in the distance. Sansa spent seasons in Cersei’s hands and understands that she’s as much of a monster as the Walkers, who are equally distant and abstract for her. They’re both victims of their own trauma when it comes to making decisions. Sansa underlines that again when she tells Jon, “You have to be smarter than father. You have to be smarter than Robb. I loved them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes.” Ned and Robb both failed her, and failed to rescue her, and they aren’t around anymore — either to save or to blame.
Now she’s dumping all of those feelings on Jon: her exasperation at him making mistakes that might doom him as well, as well as her desire to protect him where she couldn’t protect her father or brother. This is a complicated, but terrific relationship. I hope the writers keep up the tension as Jon and Sansa continue to jockey for position.
The Lannisters draw up their battle plans
Bryan: Every new season of Game of Thrones requires a little housekeeping as the creators line up the characters across the playing field in preparation for the season’s battles. When Jamie and Cersei Lannister discuss their current predicament, they literally put themselves on the board, as they discuss the current state of Westeros while standing on a giant map painted on the floor.
Jon Snow threatens from the North; Daenerys Targaryen is crossing the Narrow Sea; and the Freys, the Lannisters’ last remaining major allies, are gone, thanks to Arya Stark. On one level, the cold, tactical nature of the interaction speaks to the schism that separates Jamie and Cersei. (We learn that they haven’t even discussed the suicide of their son Tommen.) On another level, it’s flagrant exposition, establishing the stakes for the audience. And yet, it gels.
That same approach is used with Jon’s dragonglass problem: he needs the material to defeat the Walkers, Samwell discovers where to find some, and Daenerys then lands at the same location. The three beats are refreshingly straightforward, particularly coming from a show that has gotten byzantine at times. For most of the series, Benioff and Weiss worked from Martin’s novels. But starting last season, they’ve caught up to him in the timeline, allowing them to structure the story on their own terms. Perhaps the show will return to its more fractured, convoluted approach in episodes to come, but if “Dragonstone” represents what the show can do when it can forge its own path, Martin’s writer’s block may end up being a net positive for the series.
Tasha: That is really regrettably true. “Dragonstone” is a terrific episode, in part because it zooms back out to take in the big picture, and it feels like it has some meaningful forward momentum, in a show where that isn’t always true. Let me just say this scene is unnecessary. We know what the sides are in this conflict, Cersei! We’ve been watching them unfold for six seasons now! Literally every episode begins with a camera zooming around a map of the Seven Kingdoms, we don’t need you queensplaining the geography of Westeros to us!
Still, I hugely enjoyed the moment, because so many of Cersei’s decisions over the past few seasons have been rash, poorly considered, emotional, and abrupt. This sequence feels like a resetting for her character, a pullback to the colder, more rational, more calculating Cersei she will have to be if she intends to be a suitable opponent for Jon and Sansa’s faction in the North and Daenerys in the South, let alone those Dornish afterthoughts and Oleanna Tyrell’s infinite supply of low-key awesomeness.
She reminds us that she’s much more than the hateful mother who enabled Joffrey to become a sadistic teen tyrant, or the victim who got drunk in a locked vault in the Red Keep while Tyrion saved the day at the Battle of the Blackwater. She redefines her motives — “Fine, a dynasty for us, then” — now that she has no children to inherit a kingdom. Or maybe she’s just revealing that personal power, rather than power for her children, was always the goal. It was never an acceptable one in a male-dominated kingdom, but that’s another thing that can happen in a Westeros increasingly run by children and remnants: she can step up and say what she wants for herself, instead of pretending it’s for another generation.
One of the best things about this premiere is the way it redraws the battle lines to make this a show more about the meaningful movements of armies, rather than the petty cruelties of individuals. Here, it feels like Cersei’s acknowledging all the personal things that have shaped her life — her relationship with Jaime, the death of her children, her father’s tyranny — and setting them aside so she can focus on the future. As exposition goes, this is a tremendous character-building moment, and it’s a big step up from Littlefinger’s sexposition class, back in the days when Game of Thrones’ showrunners assumed no one would be able to concentrate on a speech without boobs hovering in the background.
The monotony of being Samwell
Bryan: When I think of Game of Thrones, I don’t necessarily think of snappy, Edgar Wright-esque filmmaking, but halfway through “Dragonstone,” the show delivers exactly that — only with a lot more fecal matter. It’s the show’s way of showing how underwhelming Samwell Tarly’s life has become. Rather than serving as a Maester in the Citadel as he’d hoped, he’s basically a janitor: his life consists of stacking books, cleaning bedpans, pouring stew that looks like it came from a bedpan, and washing everything so his day can start again.
There’s definitely something anachronistic about it stylistically — this show doesn’t normally use syncopated, rhythmic cutting — but it infuses a depressing state of affairs (from Samwell’s perspective, anyway) with whimsy. Game of Thrones has always liked to poke fun at Samwell’s plight, but his indomitable goodwill usually wins out. That’s what happens here, as well, when he eventually discovers the location of some dragonglass that could help Jon Snow with his weapons problem.
Tasha: Edgar Wright is a good point of comparison. Having watched Baby Driver, I half expected song lyrics to start popping up behind Samwell’s head as the chamberpots piled up. It’s a really morbid piece of humor to have the food and the post-food waste products looking so much alike, and to keep returning to Samwell’s gorge rising over and over, proving that pouring out liquid shit doesn’t get any easier over time. And how typical of Samwell that he doesn’t protest about any of it, apart from his eagerness to help Jon. (And that protest is delivered to Jim Broadbent, always a bonus in any on-screen entertainment.)
I think this scene feels odd not because of the unusual editing, but because it’s the rarest thing in Game of Thrones — an extended comedy sequence. It’s not just a mordant joke or a grim chuckle, but several minutes of hilarious awfulness. We’re just not used to finding anything in Game of Thrones funny for more than a second, and it’s a welcome shift.
Bonus scene: Mormont lives!
Bryan: I’m going to come clean: I am on Team Jorah, and I have been on Team Jorah from the very beginning. Despite some compromises he made along the way, Jorah Mormont has otherwise been one of the show’s few moral constants. So I was more than a little upset when he caught a bad case of greyscale. I was even more upset when Daenerys learned about his treachery, and sent him away. She told him to find a cure, giving the most optimistic audience members the hope that maybe he’d come out of this unscathed. But I’d watched the previous six seasons of the show, so I assumed he was all but done for.
So imagine my glee toward the end of the episode, as Samwell gathers bowls from a series of imprisoned men, only to have one greyscaled hand claw a bowl away, sending it clattering to the floor. There isn’t much to let us know it’s Jorah — just Iain Glen’s sharp silhouette, and his unmistakable voice, asking if the Dragon Queen has arrived. But that’s all I personally need for now. Ser Jorah Mormont may not survive, and he may never see Daenerys again… but he is alive.
Tasha: Hooray for him, I guess? I’m glad you enjoy your Jorah fandom, but to me, he’s the medieval embodiment of Nice Guy Syndrome. “Why don’t you love me? I eventually stopped betraying you! I’ve been loyal to you ever since I realized I want to bang you! Doesn’t that mean I deserve to be with you?” Favor-sharking isn’t limited to our era, and Jorah’s a premium-catch turncoat favor-shark who got caught and got what he deserved. Let him rot in that cell, sez I.