If last week’s Game of Thrones premiere was a tight, well-oiled machine that smoothly reintroduced the major plot threads and moved them forward in satisfying ways, “Stormborn” feels a bit dropped in from an alternate Scooby-Doo dimension, just boi-oi-oing-ing all over the place. Things seemed to work a little too neatly, and a hair too fast to track logically.
Sam just happens to find a cure for greyscale in Bathilda Bagshot’s History of Magic, then decides he’s brave enough to flout the Archmaester Marwyn and perform some Boltonesque plastic surgery on Jorah. (Conveniently, the greyscale was all over Iain Glen’s body but not his handsome face — though I suppose I can live with that.) Tyrion perfectly anticipates Cersei’s xenophobic rhetoric and perfectly plots to have only Westerosi forces siege King’s Landing, while the Unsullied take the Lannisters’ Casterly Rock. Jon handily solves the problem of Sansa’s simmering, wolfish resentment by making her regent of the North. Oh, and the word “prince” has no gender in High Valyrian, so yeah, that prophecy could totally be about Daenerys.
Even the very first scene — in which Daenerys confronts Varys with her knowledge that he’d worked against her back in the day, then extracts a promise that he will be the people’s voice in her ear — felt a little too contrived for the purpose of proving to us, the audience, that Dany has been reading all the proper management books and is Learning to Be a Good Queen. After all, Varys was with Daenerys on that damn boat ride to Westeros. Why stage the whole show now? (As my friend noted, maybe it was just an excuse to give Conleth Hill a juicy, Shonda Rhimesy monologue.)
Other moments felt randomly dropped in, without enough context or credibility. Littlefinger decides that he’s done with weaselly leaning against dark corners and comes right out and tells Jon he has the hots for Sansa, because if there’s one thing Littlefinger loves, it’s showing his emotional cards when it does not serve his grand schemes. And I will happily bookmark all the Missandei and Grey Worm GIFs tomorrow, but that scene was like 12 minutes long and might have made sense two seasons ago, and really just felt like the show was like, “Uh-oh, we’re falling behind on this season’s butt tally.” Of Ellaria Sand’s proposed “foreign invasion” of Yara Greyjoy’s pants, these are things best not spoken of, especially because the cultural narrative of the Dornish being hot people from a hot land who can’t control their lusty passions has always been pretty tiresome.
But all of this prologue is what made the final scene land so hard, and so well. The shipboard battle between the Greyjoys was very good GOT, in my mind: dramatic, unexpected, and authentic on a character level. Yara, Theon, Ellaria, and her daughters are sailing to Sunspear to pick up the Dornish army, while everyone is doing the (occasionally annoying) thing they like best: The Sand Snakes are bickering, plotting how to divvy up all the killing in King’s Landing, and working out their mom issues. Ellaria and Yara are commencing the aforementioned cross-cultural sexy times. Theon is mumbling and trying to fade unassumingly into the background, even as Yara tells Ellaria that he will be his sister’s protector when she gets her throne. Then Euron’s Iron Fleet surprises them, and suddenly the sails are on fire and the flesh gobbets are flying. It’s all a bit Pirates of the Caribbean and staged with the herky-jerky speed we’ve come to associate with White Walkers, but the fireworks are eerily lovely. Euron makes short work of his niece and nephew’s forces, and as he holds his blade to Yara’s throat, he goads Theon — who was, just moments before, doing hero’s work with a sword — to come at him, bro. The camera cuts to an ear being hacked off, a tooth being gouged. As hope, then doomed understanding, play across Gemma Whelan’s expressive face, poor, brutalized Theon takes a Tommen and jumps off the side of the ship, leaving his sister to her fate.
Characters make terrible decisions all the time on Game of Thrones. But more often than not, those decisions require the fullness of time to reveal themselves to be truly catastrophic. Tragedy on this show often looks like someone making what they think are the best decisions at the time, armed with imperfect information or the naïveté of idealism. What breaks my heart about the moment Theon jumps is that he knows what he’s doing, what kind of hell he’s dooming Yara to. Exactly one season ago, after they had escaped from the Boltons and found Brienne, Theon told Sansa, his surrogate sister, “I would have taken you all the way to the Wall. I would have died to get you there.” That moment was a glimmer of hope, a sense that, yes, not only had Theon left Reek behind, but also that he had the capacity to be the Starkish hero he always wanted to be but was never quite brave, quick, or strong enough for. This was his moment to fulfill that promise, and he failed, and he’ll have to live with it on top of everything else he’s endured.
The moment was also heartbreaking because it felt so honest — like a real, terrible decision that the character would have made in the moment. After all, just because Theon has shed Reek’s name doesn’t mean that the trauma the name represents can be left behind so cleanly. In a show with such winding, overstuffed narratives, it can be easy to let the long game play tricks on your memory; in the last few episodes, for example, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the Hound hasn’t always been a gruff, tender-hearted (if violent) bear, just as it it can be a challenge to remember that Jaime Lannister once, you know, pushed a child out of a window. Yes, one of the show’s strengths is that it shows characters as multifaceted, but I often find myself wondering how to hold all these disparate pieces together, when I really just want the Hound to be a good guy, or to have Jaime be a soulful golden knight. I may have wanted Theon to save Yara and prove that her faith in him wasn’t misplaced — or that her admonishments and encouragements really did have the power to raise him up — but it felt truer, and sadder, for him not to.
And this brings me around to Arya, the patron saint of conflicted viewer feelings. After leaving Ed Sheeran and his Merry Men, Arya ends up at the Inn at the Crossroads with her old buddy, Hot Pie. She quips that she’s made “one or two” pies of her own, but the joke is bitter, smug, a little bit cracked. Hot Pie notices that she’s changed, as she stabs her bread with a knife and throws back a pitcher of ale. Then Hot Pie tells Arya that he’s surprised she’s headed to King’s Landing and not Winterfell, where her brother Jon is King in the North. Maisie Williams plays this moment beautifully, going from a dead-ahead stare to glancing up and around as if she’s waking up from a dream. (That girl’s eyes are like television screens, they project so clearly.) There’s a sense that Arya is not only going home to Winterfell and to her family, but also home to her true, hopeful, self — her “pretty” self, as Hot Pie says. Not the boy ‘Arry, or the nameless and Faceless Girl, or any one of the identities she’s worn. It’s this transformation, I think we’re to believe, that draws her long-lost direwolf Nymeria back to her, and the rightness of the fit that allows Arya to be all chill and if-you-love-something-set-it-free when Nymeria chooses not to follow her.
Of course, “pretty” is not the first word — or one of the first 10 or 20 words — I’d choose to describe Arya. So it remains to be seen whether this more buoyant, more pleasing Arya is here to stay — and what will happen if she arrives in Winterfell to find not her beloved brother warming the throne, but her equally transformed, newly flinty and sharp-eyed sister.
See you next week to find out. I’ll be here, browning the butter and drinking myself into a small coffin.
A Few Parting Thoughts
• I was confused by the end of the Nymeria scene and thought that when Arya said, “That’s not you,” she literally meant she got the wrong direwolf, but the Inside the Episode featurette clarifies that it is Nymeria, and the line is a throwback to an early episode where Arya says, “That’s not me” to Ned, who’s describing her future as a fine and fancy lady.
• The Citadel is apparently where gross-out, jump-cut visual gags go to earn their links. I may never eat a shepherd’s pie again.
• Qyburn’s big, secret solution to the dragon threat is … a big crossbow? Not even, like, an evil, reanimated crossbow? Just a really big one?
• Gorgeous dragon skulls, though.
• Hot Pie!