If last week was housekeeping for many of the storylines in Game of Thrones, then this week was table-setting.
I’m a bit unsure what to make of it. For the most part, scenes seemed to exist merely to give voice to characters’ motivations and allegiances, but everything is happening in such a shorthand way that I can’t help but feel that this is a clunky combination of the end point forcing matters and adapting George R. R. Martin’s plot notes freestyle.
Varys’s declaration of allegiance (partly to Daenerys but mostly to the realm) was probably the best moment of the episode, even if it did serve as the clearest example of what’s a bit off about this season so far. So much time has passed since the beginning, and so many shifts in geography and loyalty have occurred between then and now (exponentially since last season), that all this does is clarify for the audience how we’re meant to view characters leading into the final set pieces of the series.
And that would be fine if it felt like everything had organically grown to these moments, but really, Varys is occupying a far different role than he does in the source material, and so his characterisation in the show has reflected these mixed messages. So instead of just expositionally clarifying what’s what and who’s who before the endgame, we actually have a story that is retooling and rewriting certain characters and scenes to suit the greater control the showrunners have over these final episodes.
Anyhow. In amongst the various declarations from Varys, Randyll Tarly, Olenna, Ellaria and Yara (long may those two last), the story once again can’t help but feel as if it’s hiding its true self in plain sight.
I’ve been banging this drum for a while now, but again greyscale and dragon glass serve as plot motivations for the two characters who are seemingly moving against the conquest-for-the-Iron-Throne plot that everyone else is still dabbling in. Sam’s attempted curing of Jorah is not unexpected, and it’s hard not to feel that the disease itself – and the mentions to Shireen’s curing and its infectious nature – are part of a much larger mythological concern the story has, other than mending Jorah so he can return to Daenerys.
Similarly too, Jon understands that he must go through the motions of acquiescing to Daenerys’ demands, given he cares not for the throne he currently occupies, or the throne everyone else wants in King’s Landing. He knows what the real story is, even if nobody else is listening.
And I think that gets to the heart of the problem these early episodes may have. The real story has never been clearer or closer, but we still need to put up with the spinning of wheels around King’s Landing until that is dealt with. It’s like a larger scale version of Daenerys trying to solve Meereen that plagued her storyline for two seasons.
While we may get excited at the frisson from seeing so many characters together on screen, it doesn’t amount to much if the Dornish and Ironborn armies sailed from Meereen to Dragonstone only to then be sent back around to King’s Landing for no reason other than to give Euron something to do and clear a few more characters off the table. For all the visual flair, it’s awkward plotting.
So we take what gifts we get in this otherwise uninspired opening to the penultimate season. Varys’ speech. Theon’s face before he jumps ship. Samwell’s go-hard-or-go-home excavation of greyscale. Jon’s tiredness at the world he finds himself defending. And Arya eating and drinking and realising that family is better than revenge.
This is a moment worth savouring, and a moment potentially unexpected. For all that Arya had to deal with at far too young an age – her father’s execution, the loss of her family, witnessing the Red Wedding, murdering by accident and then by intent – the fear for so long is that Arya would really become no-one. Not a Faceless no-one, but someone who had truly given up on the living, and succumbed to insurmountable psychological trauma. My gripe with the cold open from last week – other than being a retread of her final scene last season – is that it was more evidence of Arya losing her soul.
The scene that followed (the maligned famous singer cameo scene) actually gave us something else: optimism. The scene lingered for too long, not for the cameo, but for the benign conversation of the Lannister soldiers, all far from home and too close to death. Seeing Arya turn and head back to her family, is a sign that she might have been pulled from the brink. There is more to life than death.
Just as she recognises Nymeria is not a pet anymore, not her pet to house at Winterfell, so Arya is neither a maid or a princess, or an assassin. She just wants to go home.
Whether she can maintain this when she returns to Winterfell, and unites with Sansa (and probably Bran), remains to be seen. It may be the moment we have three Starks return to one another clear for the first time of what it is to be a Stark since Ned left Winterfell in Season 1.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jon recognises yet again that there’s no room for him at the Stark table. He, like us, know there’s his real story still to come.