Game of Thrones: 701 “Dragonstone” Review
Reviewed by Mark McCullough.
A hiatus is always a tricky thing for a show like Game of Thrones. The series thrives off its momentum, weaving stories and building them to a denouement each series which usually sees it sign off in epic style. Last year, The Battle of the Bastards, and The Winds of Winter were two stellar episodes which set a level that realistically would be impossible for this series opener to achieve. To say that it didn’t even come close is putting it kindly, but then that isn’t really a fault of the episode itself more so a symptom of the series structure itself.
Arya gets the best scenes this week with not one, but two highlights. The episode opens with her completing her revenge for Seasons Three’s Red Wedding. The scene is well executed and proves that Arya has mastered the art of disguise keeping even the viewer in the dark for the shortest of times. The scene offers a thematic mirroring with the finale of last season as it features the extinction of one of the great families at the hands of a leading female, leaving the family survived by a single female member. The parallels between Arya and Cersei across this pair of episode is not hard to see, which is rather ironic given that it is the former’s hatred of the latter which is one of the main drivers of her actions. Even more interesting is the fact that Arya is not the only Stark girl to be compared to Cersei as Sansa admits her admiration for her.
Such is the dehumanising nature of Arya’s first scene in the episode that her second becomes an almost necessity to prove that she is still the character we have come to love over the last few years. Enter Ed Sheeran in one of the most metatextual moments Game of Thrones has offered to date: as Arya stumbles across the company of Lannister Soldiers, Sheeran’s character is singing a song (which in all honesty would be a waste if they hadn’t done this), when questioned by Arya as to what he was singing, he admits that it was ‘a new one’ which did earn a deserving laugh. Through the conversations and kindness shown the scene did go a long way to highlighting some of the core values of Arya’s character to prove that she is still Arya and not just another faceless assassin.
Redemption is an apparent theme this week with the narrative giving a sizable chunk to the Hound and his journey with The Brotherhood Without Banners. The story takes him back to familiar location where he is forced to confront some of his previous crimes as he revisits a cottage where he was responsible for the death of the occupants. There’s a lot of strong imagery in his scenes too with the burial of the bodies a literal metaphor of the Hound burying his past in order to move forward. Overcoming his past is also evident as warms to the idea of the Lord of Light, initially joking about it being his luck to be stuck with fire worshippers given his history with fire and his injuries. To see him by the end of the episode able to look into the fire and discern the vision that the lord has intended for him represents a huge step for the character. It also offers an interesting comparison to Arya’s character journey.
The story in King’s Landing had a lot of material to cover with Cersei’s ascension to Queen of the Seven (or rather Three at best) Kingdoms, the explosion at the sept and Tommen’s suicide. This is approached via a conversation between Jaime and Cersei where they discuss the lie of the land and the enemies they have in every direction. There’s some more striking dialogue such as when Cersei claims that Tommen betrayed her, when the opposite is much more likely to be true. Another highlight is when she asks Jaime if he is scared of her, something which I suspect will come to the fore again later in the series.
Samwell Tarly gets perhaps the most generous portion of the narrative this week, which is understandable given that it’s a relatively new location and his role will be pivotal in reshaping the series into Human versus White Walker as opposed to the battle for the Iron Throne. There’s not really much that happens here other than a discovery that might serve the dual purpose of helping Jon, and crossing his path with that of Daenerys Targaryen who now sits where the discovery lies. There’s also a very interesting scene at the end where a familiar voice asks Sam for an update on Dany’s progress.
Elsewhere in Westeros, Jon comes to terms with leading by showing mercy to the Karstarks and the Umbers who had sided with Ramsay. This leads to tension with Sansa who has her own ideas about how to rule whilst also aware of the fact that Littlefinger continues to play his games. Bran has another vision of the White Walkers and finally arrives at the wall with Meera Reed, giving the Night’s Watch a main character again to continue the story there. Euron Greyjoy makes a reappearance which establishes him as one of Series Seven’s main antagonists via his proposal to Queen Cersei. Dany finally lands in Westeros and returns to her ancestral home: Dragonstone, the castle which gives name to this episode. Her final words give hope that the show will kick on from here and start to move its pieces together now that the board appears to have been fully re-laid.
For what it tries to achieve, the episode fares reasonably well. A lot of the issues stem from the fact the show is producing its climax with now only twelve episodes remaining. This raises the expectations on each instalment of the series as time is running out, therefore each episode that feels like it does little to advance the grand narrative is hard not to look at as a wasted episode. Looking at the episode, nothing new is added for Jon, Bran, or for Dany. Everything revisits previously covered ground which is disappointing for three of the show primary protagonists. The opener does little more than lay the groundwork for the series to come, which would have worked well with another ten-episode series, but with only seven episodes this year I would have hoped for a bit more.