The second episode of Game of Thrones season 7 was a long series of reminders of where and how the show began. It feels like half of “Stormborn” is an extended callback to season 1. There’s Daenerys and Varys, reminding us of her brother Viserys and the plot to sell the young woman to Khal Drogo. Varys offers his own history lesson about Robert Baratheon, whose death kicked off the entire game of thrones. There’s Tyrion Lannister sidechanning Jon Snow with a quote from an important conversation they had in the show’s first episode. And then we have Arya, finally turning toward the home she left — and reuniting with the dire wolf she sent away in the series’s second episode.
They aren’t the only characters reflecting on the past. Sam and Archmaester Marwyn also talk their way through Robert’s Rebellion, and Cersei and Qyburn get into it as they consider how to fight dragons. Sam also sets out to save Jorah out of respect for his father Jeor, who took Sam in at the Wall and replaced the aspiring maester’s own, much less accepting father.
It’s as if the overused George Santayana quote — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — somehow made its way from our world to Westeros, becoming a universal mantra along the way. Practically everybody is considering how the past can inform their future. Loyalty and trust are rare commodities on Game of Thrones, and in “Stormborn,” everyone’s considering who they really trust, and what they’ve done to deserve it.
Arya Stark and the Hot Pie reunion
Tasha: There were certainly bigger, bloodier, and more important things going on in “Stormborn” than a quiet conversation between Arya Stark and the baker kid she left behind at an inn in season 3. But nothing in this episode sparked as much emotion for me as the look on Arya’s face when Hot Pie tells her the Boltons are dead and Jon Snow is ruling Winterfell. It’s a terrific, understated moment from Maisie Williams — just look at her eyes, how she processes hope with just a little terror, because it’s let her down so much in the past.
The Red Wedding didn’t just kill Arya’s mother and brother. It killed her hopes of a family reunion, and with it any sense of safety or connection for her somewhere in Westeros. (It explains a great deal of her reckless, brutal, and often extremely adult behavior since.) But meeting Hot Pie again was a reminder that not every friend of Arya is dead yet.
“I’m like you, Arry. I’m a survivor,” he tells her, as she prepares to hit the road without even finishing her food. He doesn’t know how wrong he is. He’s not like her — he’s a baker, she’s a face-changing mass murderer. (Though they do both bake pies, even if she doesn’t bother to brown the butter while she’s murdering Freys and cooking them up for their unwitting father to eat. Bonus points to this scene for that callback in-joke.) But still, this was a sweet and moving scene. Arya’s essentially cared about nothing but various forms of murder and revenge since season 1, yet here we see her turning away from her vengeance plan in order to go see her brother. (Of course he’s leaving Winterfell, and they’ll likely miss each other completely. This is Game of Thrones; we can’t have nice things.)
Bryan: I’ll admit that I had a hard time staying focused on this scene when I initially watched because of the transition that precedes it. You know, the really pleasant one, where Samwell rips off a layer of Jorah Mormont’s greyscaled skin, and leans in for a closer look — just so director Mark Mylod can cut to a close-up of a gushy, nasty pie crust being lanced like a wart. I don’t know what it is with the season thus far, but if the goal is to rack up the most stomach-churning cuts possible, this transition and last week’s game of Is it stew or human waste? are doing a bang-up job.
As for the scene itself: I was struck by the way Arya, on her way out, puts her hand on Hot Pie’s shoulder. Despite everything she’s been through, Arya is eager (and perhaps ready) for human connection beyond vengeance and blood.
That likely means everything will end terribly for her, of course. At times it seems like Game of Thrones gives its characters hopes and dreams only so it can giggle cruelly while it rips them away. But even if it’s just for a moment, seeing that sliver of hope restored in Arya’s eyes means everything.
First blood in a new war
Tasha: Arya adding a new entry to her quest-log was my favorite scene of the episode, but the final sequence was certainly much more important to the show. Daenerys sent Yara and Theon Grayjoy, and everyone’s least favorite, kid-killing Dornish family (Ellaria Sand, her daughter Tyene, and Tyene’s half-sisters Obara and Nymeria) off to blockade King’s Landing. But Euron Greyjoy shows up, smashes their fleet, murders Obara and Nymeria, and captures Ellaria, Tyene, and probably Yara. (Some viewers online are assuming that the corpse hanging from the prow of their ship at the end of the episode is Yara, but I’m pretty sure that’s Nymeria, hanging from her own whip. The corpse pinned to the boat is Obara, run through with her own spear.)
This is the first scene I’ve called out in one of our scene breakdowns that I actually hated. Not because of who dies — I’ve always thought the Sand Snakes were poorly written and borderline intolerable, and this feels like the writers cleaning house and starting the bloodshed in the latest battle for Westeros at the same time. No, I hated the scene because it’s so visually muddy that I could barely tell what was going on. Between the frantic editing, the wild camera movement, the darkness, and the motion-blur, there’s no anticipation or tension or terror to the sequence. It’s just crashing bodies, and occasionally some Euron crazy-eye. It’s an important sequence, but I found it incredibly visually irritating. And Lord, let’s please not let this show veer back into rape territory again, with a bunch of vulnerable women captured by leering men.
Bryan: It’s definitely not the most coherently blocked sequence in the show’s history, but I was just hung up on the sheer, dumb improbability of it all. Yara is supposed to have some savvy as a sailor and warrior, and yet Euron shows up out of nowhere, seemingly just feet from her ship, so he can conveniently board the vessel and wreak havoc. How are we supposed to believe he found them, exactly? Did the magic strobe lights that seem to be firing off behind his ship’s sails have something to do with it — or was Euron just coming from a Nine Inch Nails show?
And then there’s Theon. I know we, as the audience, are supposed to be frustrated by his decision to jump off the ship here, just as we were frustrated by his complete and utter Reek-ness when he was being tortured by Ramsay Bolton. And I recognize that just like his time with the Boltons, this act of cowardly self-preservation may be setting up some future reversal or opportunity for redemption. But at this point I’m just so exhausted by Theon Greyjoy that I wish the show would be done with him. The minute things started going awry, it seemed a given that this would come down to Theon and that he would let Yara down — and, yep, that’s exactly what happened.
I’m fine with him being a broken man who is utterly useless, and I actually have great sympathy for the character given what he’s undergone. Alfie Allen’s face is wonderful in this sequence as he looks around and witnesses the violence happening around him; you can practically see his focus drain away as PTSD overtakes him. But at a certain point, he’s such an obvious liability that I can’t help but yell at the TV for people counting on him in the first place.
Haven’t had any good torture in a while
Tasha: Speaking of places we’d rather the show didn’t go, the sequence where Sam Tarly sets out to cure Jorah’s greyscale by cutting it off his body feels like a callback to Ramsay Bolton’s nigh-endless torture of Theon. Dear Game of Thrones showrunners: it was honestly enough to have Sam hand Jorah a huge-ass skin of rum and tell him the procedure would be painful. Having him offer Jorah a belt to bite, and visually lingering over the cutting tools, and having him beg Jorah not to scream — that was all redundant. And then the grotesque skinning scene, lingering over Jorah’s muffled shrieks and those foley noises — Game of Thrones has always struggled with its fluid tone, but these dips into torture porn are the most jarring and unnecessary.
And yet, I was jazzed about the meat of this sequence (forgive the pun) because once again, Sam weighs what he’s been told to do against what he thinks is right, and he commits to the latter. And he does this, despite the fact that he’s risking his life by exposing himself to greyscale, risking getting booted from Oldtown, and could very well kill Jorah in a grotesque way. Last week’s horrific poop-and-soup montage is a reminder that Sam, dismissed by his father as craven and weak at the beginning of the series, has gradually earned a place among the series’s greatest heroes. He’s quietly turned into a brave man who may literally gag over his duty, but still toughs it out and does the right thing. Here, he’s honoring his old mentor Jeor the only way he can, and his loyalty does him credit.
Bryan: I had a slightly different read on this, because I actually found the descaling scene to be rather hilarious. It’s a comedy of errors from the start: Jorah asking Samwell if he’s ever done this before, followed by Samwell’s long, drawn-out pause; the preposterous notion that Sam is pulling crusty, pus-laden skin off Jorah while he’s supposed to keep nice and quiet so the neighbors won’t hear. It gets to a point where Sam is literally sawing at Jorah’s flesh as a last resort, unable to get that final piece off — while Jorah comically grunts and moans.
Taken at face value, it’s obviously horrible and gross. But thought of as absurd comedy — just imagine Bruce Campbell as Jorah, and how that would change the way the scene reads on a gut level — and you’ve got a gross-out comedy sequence that is funny as it is horrid. I mentioned the transition to the pie earlier, and that for me is the true tell of how this scene was intended. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not tough to watch (obviously it threw me), and it doesn’t mean this attempt was completely successful. But there’s a weird new strain of humor in Game of Thrones this season, and I’m appreciating the way it’s trying to keep some of the misery of this world at arm’s length.
Tasha: On the other end of the spectrum from gory torture-cures, we have Grey Worm and Missandei finally consummating their relationship, and it’s about damn time. I’m honestly at a loss to come up with the last time Game of Thrones spent this much time on a sex scene that wasn’t violent, coercive, degrading, transactional, or interrupted by something awful happening. This sequence was actually shot with tenderness, respect, and affection! Add on the fact that Game of Thrones barely has any characters of color, and the few it has are usually slaves, victims, or both, and this sequence of two people (both former slaves, in fact) taking something personal for themselves without needing anyone’s permission becomes a welcome relief. I’m really hoping this scene doesn’t just exist to set up one of them to mourn the other’s death. Sorry for being cynical, but that’s how Game of Thrones rolls, and fantasy stories in general aren’t much better about it.
But I also enjoyed this sequence for Grey Worm’s speech, giving us a little more of his history and going into further depth about his conflicted behavior toward Missandei. There are a fair number of barriers to their relationship, even apart from the obvious physical one he faces in being a eunuch. But for the moment, at least, they get to consensually enjoy each other without outside interference or judgment, which is more than most sexually active people in Westeros get to say.
Bryan: The beauty of this sequence was how it acknowledged and embraced a quality that has all but disappeared from the show’s lead characters: vulnerability. Grey Worm tries to stop Missandei from taking off his clothes because he is very clearly worried about how she’ll react when she sees the physical evidence of him having been turned into a eunuch. She simply doesn’t care, saying that she wants to see him, and he finally relents.
It is a moment of absolute trust from a warrior who is supposed to be immune to such concerns; the singular focus is the reason the Unsullied are supposed to be such a fabled fighting force in the first place. But here he follows Missandei’s lead and drops his guard completely and utterly, another reminder that beneath the horror and the war and the violence, these are simply people with hopes, dreams, and fears of their own. The game of thrones may turn the major players into monsters, but not everyone in this world is like that. Some still understand hope, and love, and respect, and this scene is a reminder of the very real human stakes in play.
To kill a dragon
Tasha: There are so many strategy sessions in this episode, and I love them all: Daenerys calling Varys on the carpet to defend his history of betrayal. Olenna giving Dany a little motherly “fuck ‘em all, do what you want” advice. Jon once again telling his council, “Sit down and shut up, I’m the king,” then handing the North to Sansa, who hopefully from here on gets to make wise decisions instead of eternally scolding Jon for his. Jaime trying to get Randyll Tarly on his side, and getting a righteous shaming about oathbreaking. And above all for me, Tyrion laying out a sensible, well-considered plan of attack that takes into account exactly what his sister’s going to pull out as her go-to plan against Daenerys. Cersei’s been doing better with alliance-building and thinking ahead lately, but Tyrion’s still the well-read master strategist, and he’s got her number.
But of all the planning sessions, my favorite was Qyburn reminding Cersei that while dragons are immensely powerful weapons, they aren’t invulnerable or unkillable. That shot of Cersei walking up to the immense skull of Balerion, the Black Dread, is a shocking reminder of the scale of dragons. (It’s also a nice callback to season 1, episode 5, when Arya hid in one of these dragon skulls and eavesdropped on Varys and Illyrio plotting against her father.) There are a lot of history notes in this week’s episode, but the best of them may be the reminder that the Iron Throne itself was forged in Balerion’s fiery breath. But the reveal of the dragon-slaying crossbow is just as shocking. Never mind the silly demo — anyone can shoot a stationary skull, Qyburn — the size of that thing is intimidating all on its own. Still, I appreciate that Qyburn took the time to have the thing loaded and aimed so Cersei could fire it, and have the kind of satisfying moment of power that keeps her impressed with Qyburn’s resourcefulness and loyalty.
Bryan: I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or an actual element we’ll be seeing throughout the season, but the constant strategy sessions are thus far making this feel like the most coherent Game of Thrones season in years. There’s a lot of exposition in both of these episodes thus far, but the show’s writers are doing an excellent job of masking the moments in drama and character. It has rarely felt like they’re telling us what the rules of the game are; it’s always about another character learning, while we just happen to watch.
That said, I did feel that the seams showed for a brief moment in this episode, mostly revolving around the topic of Theon and Yara. Tyrion pitches his big plan, which relies on the Dornish army aligning with the Tyrells to lay siege to King’s Landing. That will isolate Cersei, while Grey Worm and the Unsullied will simultaneously head out to capture Casterly Rock. It’s so crazy, it just might work — the swelling score when Tyrion lays it out dictates exactly how we’re supposed to be feel — but the rules are almost too streamlined for their own good. The moment the show cuts to Yara and Ellaria, it’s obvious that something is going to happen to interfere with their mission. Of course, I don’t expect things to go smoothly all the time — I know full well what show I’m watching — but in this particular case it felt more like a telegraphed set-up for an easy fall than the sleight of hand it could have been.
Bonus scene: Lassie come home
Tasha: It’d definitely be excessive to have two Arya scenes in our breakdown, especially since no one dies in either one, no plots are wrapped up, and no thrones are gamed. But I still have to give a bit of a shoutout to the long-awaited reunion of Arya and Nymeria, as Ayra heads home toward Winterfell and Nymeria does her the honor of not devouring her. For dire wolves, that’s some serious loyalty. I’m assuming we’re going to see more of Nymeria now that she knows Arya’s in her territory — she’s a solid deux ex machina, waiting in the wings to bite the ass off anyone who messes with her personal Stark.
So much of “Stormborn” is about loyalty — the bond between Tyrion and Jon, between Randyll Tarly and the Tyrells, between Varys and the people of Westeros (driving all his decisions as he repeatedly abandons his other sworn loyalties in order to serve the realm), between Sam and Jeor, and so forth. There’s an extra little emotional heart-nudge here, as we’re reminded that nothing is as loyal as a faithful hound, even if that hound is a prehistoric monster-wolf. Nymeria re-entering the picture and recognizing Arya is like Argos recognizing Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey, except the dire wolf doesn’t immediately die afterward. There’s still a lot of story left to teach Arya about trust and friendship. And also possibly the vicious mauling of Arya’s future enemies.
Bryan: What you just said. Plus one other really important thing: that dog got big.