There are two very distinctive movements occurring in ‘Dragonstone’.
One movement is obvious. It’s the housekeeping that goes on in any penultimate season. The shifting of pieces on the board, repositioning of characters geographically, motivationally, and logistically so that the endgame can occur.
On the surface, this is what many Game of Thrones fans tune in to see. Daenerys arriving in Westeros, reclaiming her birthright at the seat of Dragonstone. Cersei and Jaime standing on the brink of absolute power and absolute annihilation. Jon staking his claim as King in the North, despite the presence of three legitimate Starks at or near Winterfell. And finally, Arya, reframing the Red Wedding as a neat, swift and merciless removal of House Frey.
On the surface, these are the pieces moving as we expect them to. These are also the movements that certain Reddit threads have kept themselves occupied with while debating whether certain leaks from the set were legitimate or not. It’s all the big picture: who goes where, who talks to whom, who kills or is killed.
But the problem with this is that we can anticipate it all. It’s the law of diminishing returns for plots. There’s only so many eventualities. This is best exemplified in the cold open: we know it’s Arya from the beginning, we know the wine is poisoned, we know the Freys will all die. So what do we get then?
The other movement in the episode is less obvious, and less clear. And most importantly, it seems to occur with characters failing to do things: Sam not succeeding in Oldtown, Bran retreating from his sojourn, Sandor Clegane backing away from everything that made him The Hound.
Two of these three involve visions. The march of the army of the dead at the beginning of the episode gives us a look at Wun Wun reborn as a wight, and much was made of this in certain reviews, particularly for the threat it evokes of undead giants. Only, we have no idea if this is true or not: Wun Wun died at Winterfell in the defeat of the Boltons, and it’s unlikely Jon Snow would forget the lesson around burning the dead. So unless the army of the dead have already transported south of the Wall, this is clearly Bran’s vision not of the present, but of a potentiality.
However, it’s worth remembering ‘The Door’ from last season. Most of Bran’s warging with the Three Eyed Raven was to the past, until the fateful moment that doubled the past back on the present, causing Wylis to become Hodor. At that point, there is no past nor present nor future, there just is. This isn’t a case of paradoxes caused by time travel: Game of Thrones has increasingly warned its characters about forgetting the past lest the future become an endless repeating loop.
So Bran’s vision may be what occurs in the future, but also what happened the last time the Long Night came to Westeros. Only time will tell.
Sam’s scenes in Oldtown underscore this. His scene with Archmaester Marwyn explicitly draws a line between the stories characters tell themselves about the past, and the past that is true, that will instruct Sam’s learning about the present so that he can influence the future. His ‘discovery’ of dragonglass ore on Dragonstone is inconsequential: the characters are behind the audience on this in that we know dragonglass is effective for defeating the White Walkers and that Dragonstone is key to this, we’ve just been waiting for the characters to catch up. What is much more interesting is Sam’s brief moment with Jorah Mormont.
Since the show started to part ways with the books, it has maintained a constant reminder for audiences of dragonglass, greyscale and Valyrian steel, while linking them to the destruction of the White Walkers. We get all three of these in a minute in Oldtown – the Valyrian dagger on the page in the book Sam reads is the same one used to almost kill Bran in Season 1, as given to Joffrey by Littlefinger – showing that while Sam does find a clue about dragonglass to send to Jon (as he was always going to do) the real story is hiding just around the corner, in a locked cell.
For Sandor Clegane, there is no forgetting, there is no repetition of past mistakes. He returns to a place from his past, and buries the dead. He looks into the fire that terrifies him. He shrugs off enough indifference to the world around him long enough to see a vision of what might come: the army of the dead at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, and the realisation that he and Thoros and Beric Dondarrion (and Tormund, who’ll no doubt meet them there) are part of a world that needs them.
So what does this all mean? As Thoros keeps asking Sandor:
‘What do you see?’
There’s the story we think we’re getting, and the story that we’re really getting. We think we’re getting a conquering Daenerys, a wrathful Cersei, a deadly Arya and cunning Sansa. But none of their storylines show any willingness to acknowledge there’s something larger going on. Sansa may be right that Jon would do well to strip the Umbers and Karstarks of their castles and their legitimacy, but what do we get? A generation on, more revenge, more death, more endless conflict. Jon’s solution, while noticeably Nedd-like in its honourable folly, is actually evidence of a character looking to the past and recognising that something needs to change.
This may set him apart from Sansa, but it’s important. If we are barrelling along toward his eventual union with Daenerys, it’s not to appease the plot gods of two disparate characters coming together, but rather as a potential warning that these things shouldn’t happen. If Jon is a Targaryen, then his union with Daenerys cannot be a good thing. It can only be their undoing as our heroic characters.
That seems much more like a Game of Thrones story, rather than two noble characters joining forces to defeat the bad guys so we can live happily ever after. Jon and Daenerys will meet this season, and join forces before it’s over, but remember: we’re housekeeping for the real finale. There’s a whole other story yet to come.