Game of Thrones season 7 has opened with a confident and mature first episode. For all the bluster, posturing, and promise of battle suggested by the show’s trailers, Dragonstone is a relatively quiet, action-light start to the season. While the episode is unlikely to slake the bloodthirst of anyone eager for a follow-on from Battle of the Bastards or Winds of Winter, what it demonstrates is the writers and showrunners at the peak of their storytelling power, as it delivers a strong set of narratives with very little wastage or dull moments in its hour-long runtime. Very little actually happens, but it grips viewers from start to finish.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of Dragonstone, however, is the way it weaves both casual exposition and fan-pleasing depth together, without (mostly) being too obvious about what it’s doing. The highpoint, for me, are the scenes with The Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners. On the surface we get a bit of comment on the horrors of war with the dead father and his daughter, their lives ended by the poor man’s own hand; plus a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come. Despite a few noble attempts by Sansa to steal the best lines of the episode (more on that later), The Hound still manages to entertain via his own unique brand of comic grumpiness. “It’s my f**king luck I end up with a bunch of fire worshippers,” he growls at Beric and Thoros of Myr.
However, the real beauty of those scenes in the house is the callback to season 4 (episode 3 ‘Breaker of Chains’), which frames the story in a whole new light. When we see The Hound burying the bodies, Thoros casually asks: “You knew these people, Clegane?” which prompts another flurry of grumbles from our antagonist. He’s spot on, though. The Hound accepts the hospitality of this man and his daughter when he first starts travelling with Arya, before robbing them of their silver and bullying his way out of the house. What we see here is Sandor Clegane’s past catching up to him, and it puts all his actions into a whole new light. He’s reluctant to go into the house, the sight of the dead bodies upsets him more than it should, and his grumpy bluster is exposed for what it really is: an attempt to distance himself from the horrors of his former life. What we’re seeing is The Hound’s redemption, one of the biggest character shifts in the whole show, yet it’s presented in such a wonderfully subtle way.
Slightly out of tune
Strange, then, that the only bum note in the whole episode is presented in such heavy-handed fashion. After her triumphant opening of season 7, poisoning the entirety of House Frey and making a cracking speech to boot, Arya encounters a bunch of Lannister soldiers on her way north. Instead of the usual aggression, Arya is met with compassion and a little song from the character played by Ed Sheeran. It starts out as a touching, very human piece of storytelling designed to humanise the Lannister army so we don’t just see them as faceless killers. But it goes way too far, to the extent where the viewer is waiting for some kind of horrific fake-out because surely these battle-hardened soldiers can’t be that nice. They’re transformed from ‘not monsters’ to stereotypical saints, giving Arya the lion’s share of their food, and regaling her with stories about how they miss home, or that one of them has just become a father for the first time. It delivers its message with the subtlety of an axe to the forehead, and Arya’s line at the end - “I’m going to kill the Queen” - feels super flat, even when it’s laughed off by the bemused group.
The rest of the episode sees the three main players setting out their stalls for the rest of season 7. In the north, we get a welcome glimpse at Jon and Sansa preparing for war, although the pair are already disagreeing publicly about how best to rule, hinting at a possible rift later in the run, which Littlefinger is oh-so-eager to exploit. While such public bickering is designed to highlight the differences in experience and opinion between Jon and Sansa, and underline the tension felt by their respective, imperfect claims on Winterfell, it feels a little out of character for them both. Jon comes across as a bit of an inconsiderate jerk when he dismisses Sansa’s opinions - very out of character - and similarly Sansa’s naivety at how she deals with the Umber and Karstark betrayals is well out of sync with the way she plays the Great Game in season 6. The problem the showrunners have created for themselves, is that Jon and Sansa are characters too experienced and too smart to fall out, yet the narrative demands they do. It’s not massively out of step, and it invites Littlefinger into play, which is already proving wonderfully entertaining.
As a neat aside, it’s becoming ever more intoxicating seeing the back and forth between Tormund and Brienne, as their deliciously awkward relationship continues in season 7. After watching Podrick getting repeatedly smashed during his training with Brienne, Tormund delivers his adorable line: “You’re a very lucky man...” Similarly, Lyanna Mormont continues to make her oh-so-brief screentime shine, as she repeatedly shames the other northern houses into becoming more honorable and progressive with her forceful speeches. These two minor plotlines add both depth and lighthearted likeability to an otherwise straight-laced northern narrative, making it a far more rounded and watchable story.
The real star of this episode, however, is Euron Greyjoy, who has ditched the angry fisherman look in favour of ‘sexy goth pirate’. He’s clearly being positioned as the show’s newest bad guy - the one we can all love to hate - and he’s a very different type of beast to Joffrey and Ramsay. While Jaime seems disgusted by his psychotic delight as he remembers the way the Kingslayer cut down Greyjoy soldiers during the Lannister’s quelling of their rebellion, there’s a very balanced and smart nature to Euron’s evil. He’s cocky like Ramsay, but doesn’t let his malevolence get in the way of his ambition, making him a truly dangerous character indeed, and one who is so wonderfully played by Pilou Asbaeck, the show is in danger of having its viewers frantically applauding the villain. I know I am.
The rift between Cersei and Jaime is clear to see too, and it’s much better handled than the one between Jon and Sansa. Jaime’s moral checks and balances, hard earned from his gradual redemption during the last few seasons (since losing his hand) are contrasted well against Cersei’s increasing desperation. His line about “three Kingdoms at best” cuts deep, and his comments about “what legacy?” finally show that the pair are drifting apart, likely heading for a tragic end where - for all the military posturing - it’s love, not steel, that brings down House Lannister in season 7.
Daenerys, by contrast, appears to be very much continuing her upwards trajectory in this first episode. Having landed in Westeros at the titular Dragonstone with little fuss, she inspects the seat of her ancestors while the showrunners furiously nod to long-time fans. Dany firmly tugs down the dusty Baratheon banner in Stannis’ former stronghold, before running her fingers over the neglected war map of the Seven Kingdoms, and inspecting her family throne. Everything, it seems, is hers for the taking.
Finally, let’s talk about Sam. His introduction is one of the most entertaining, disgusting moments of the whole episode as the mundanity of his ‘training’ at Oldtown is revealed. The horrific grind of emptying bedpans so closely mirroring the serving of foul food is a smart way of creating a time-is-passing montage of mundanity, and we pity Sam in a whole new way. All the better to appreciate how integral he is to the plot, and how much we’re always rooting for him to stand up against his oppressors - be they Night’s Watch bullies, his own father, or arrogant, old Maesters. Speaking of which, Jim Broadbent’s turn as the Archmaester is an intriguing introduction to his character, but one that doesn’t truly impress in an episode filled with quietly impressive performances. Expect more from him as the season unfolds.
So, yeah, a relatively quiet episode to start season 7, but one filled with subtle craft, brilliantly layered storytelling, and the pregnant promise of absolutely blistering events to come. There’s no fat in Dragonstone, no storylines that let you switch off or switch on the kettle, and if season 7 can keep up this confident pace, it could easily be one of the best slices of TV you’ll watch in years. Yes, even with the wonky Ed Sheeran cameo.