In the simplest biological sense, winter is a time for nature and evolution to pause. As water turns to ice, everything underneath it becomes preserved; bacteria, viruses, animals, and artifacts are all preserved under the frozen tundras, stationary and quiet until the catalyst of growth, the heat of energy, deconstructs them from the ice, to be admired, examined – or simply tossed aside. Westeros, in many ways, was trapped in a long winter long before the Army marched south and the rains turned to chilling snows; a world nearly consumed by its own cycle of domination, submission, and retribution, the nations in Game of Thrones were tethered only to the long time traditions and presumed laws of the land to dictate a certain structure and logical proceeding. Woman were not to speak at the war table, the old gods reigned supreme, and the values that came from such rigid devotion led to an accepted world order. Targaryens slept with their brothers, Greyjoys pillaged on the fringes of society, and the Starks of Winterfell were always known to be noble hardasses.
The many scenes of “Dragonstone” are often in observation of those traditions, mostly concerned with how the generational change in Westeros has undercut many of the assumptions that previously dictated the cyclical lives within the realm, almost as a middle finger to nature and history itself, the end of a cultural winter as the physical season begins to take its long toll. The precious, perfectly preserved rules of patriarchal order Ned Stark kept in a medieval pocket protector for easy reference are long gone; for better or worse, characters like Dany, Euron and Jon Snow have shattered the expectations placed on them by previous generations, the veneer of history melting away like so many bricks and human skeletons during a wildfire explosion (as Jon says, “Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore”). The last two seasons of Game of Thrones have been increasingly engaged in the generational differences between major Westeros families; “Dragonstone” all but blows up these long-standing assumptions about family and society, the philosophic spring to the winter cursing the gods of progress through Westeros for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Though Sam’s trusted arch maester may disagree, the winds of change are tearing through the various corners of Game of Thrones – and from the cold open where Arya annihilates the Fray family from the Westeros family tree in glorious fashion, “Dragonstone” is an extremely strong episode thematically, even while it exists in the realm somewhere between a 68-minute exposition dump and an extremely temporally confusing episode (why does it appear years have passed in the Citadel, while only a few months in King’s Landing? But I digress…). Every scene of “Dragonstone” is focused on a singular goal: challenging assumptions about characters alliances, and traditions to examine how the old powers of King’s Landing – the Jaime Lannisters of the world – are decidely more simplistic than the complex relationships between morality and honor that the new generation is struggling to grasp in the face of multiple imminent dangers.
Admittedly, it can be hard to follow the pieces around the Westeros map; “Dragonstone” takes 66 or so minutes to get to its titular location, forcing the audience to suffer through a (massively entertaining) feces-cleaning montage and an insufferable Ed Sheeran cameo (oh my god, fuck every shot he appears in) before it provides some visual clarity to the many, many scenes of the episode. Dany touching down in Dragonstone, however, turns out to be exactly what this episode needs to tie errant moments like Cersei/Jaime and Sansa/Jon together. Anchored by the lasting power of home (again, Dragonstone seems like a city frozen in a moment of time until Dany arrives) and influence of family, Dany’s ascent to the throne room in her home city is a perfect snapshot of the thematic work that appears everywhere from Lyanna Mormont bringing women into the army (hurray!), to Cersei and Dany looking at maps of the Seven Kingdoms they see as rightfully theirs.
A few particularly strong scenes anchor the thematic core of the episode, which allows the last few scenes to soar like Dany’s dragons around her home castle. The first of these, obviously, is when Arya fucking murders every memb – ok, it’s really Jon and Sansa’s council with the families sworn to their banner, I just wanted to shout out that amazing cold open for a hot second. Putting aside the gender dynamics offered by Lyanna and her proclamation of support (again – could say a million words about Lyanna, but the societal subtext here is obvious); this scene is a tale of two strong halves, observing the fallout that occurs when societal conventions are thrown to the way side (I still don’t think Jon has embraced his role as King of the North), and everything from women being in the army to captains questioning their king is under the microscope.
Jon and Sansa’s conversation in particular is a lasting point; it offers a quiet observation of how much Sansa has evolved, now that’s she is long separated from her cold, static existence at Winterfell and King’s Landing – and by the same token, shows how Jon’s nobility (inherited and modeled after Ned) is a troubling shortcoming in the coming wars to the North and South, a naivety most soldiers would accept, but many leaders would recognize as a weakness to exploit. Oddly enough, Cersei is probably the most naive leader in the world right now; though she has the psychotic Euron trying to win her favor (possibly by hunting down and kidnapping Tyrion?), Cersei’s lack of allies is at odds with her dynastic thinking. Like Jon, Cersei’s attempts to think like the opportunist conqueror her father once was are only going to be damaging; though her inability to adapt eventually led her to the Iron Throne, her inability to evolve and adapt as winter heads south is a dangerous game to play, especially while still drunk on the victories of the past perfectly frozen in the mind’s prism.
The other scene that really speaks to the heart of what “Dragonstone” uses to thread its many convoluted, disconnected moments together is The Hound’s visit to the home he robbed a few years back while on the road with Arya. Traveling ironically with a group of fire worshipers (as he so daftly points out), The Hound is in about the most unfamiliar, horrible place he could imagine. He’s trapped in his own past, drowning in regret for his actions, and quietly anxious to find some small piece of redemption before the inevitable powers of death take him down. He’s not like Ser Beric, but The Hound has lived a number of different lives throughout the series, trying to embrace the conventions and assumptions of his reality to inform his world view – and in the process, has become arguably the most developed, nuanced characters of the series. He’s the true embodiment of the show’s exploration of the intersection between faith, identity, and society, a man who has finally rejected the world he came from, in order to truly try and change himself for the better, if only to quiet the screams in his mind on his long march towards death.
Smartly, “Dragonstone” plays this episode quietly, never throwing in an unnecessary flash or call back to the previous scene with the dead characters (season four’s “Breaker of Chains”, lest we forget) – the scene is used to catalyze the next step in Gregor’s evolution as a human being, silently contrasting the man who met the ill-fated father and daughter with the man who emerged after his time with Arya and the road priest. He may be resigned to violence and a violent end, but there’s a soul inside that man, and “Dragonstone” finds beautiful ways to give many shades to the palette of emotions Clegane experiences, and use them as prisms to explore the changing lands, winds, and leaders of Westeros.
While the ships sail and the dead march south, “Dragonstone” does a (mostly) magnificent job of bringing the many frayed and frozen corners of Westeros together, pausing for astute observations of tradition – Sam stealing the keys for knowledge may not work out well for him in the long run, but boy does it fit right in with this episode – and little bits of story placeholders for future episodes to expand on (like Bran arriving at Winterfell; that’s a big development that’s only given a minute-long treatment in this hour). Again, it’s completely fucking impossible to place any two consecutive scenes on a coherent timeline, but I don’t think temporal consistency is ever really where “Dragonstone” shines; when it’s exploring the depths of its own world (as Jon’s about to do in what is now a crowded, extremely armed city), or teasing future developments involving Lyanna cutting off motherfuckers’ heads, the seventh season premiere of Game of Thrones is as confident and directed as one could hope, an important first step as Game of Thrones wades into uncharted narrative waters. What it lacks in visual cohesion and a signature set piece (save for the genius cold open), “Dragonstone” captures in thematic resonance, and narrative titillation, an encouraging return for the HBO giant after a devastating thirteen month wait.
(oh yeah, and fuck Ed Sheeran’s cameo, the most brazen, inauthentic thing Game of Thrones has ever done.)