Like you, I was drifting pleasantly towards the end of Game of Thrones season 7, episode 2. Stormborn was, as it was with GoT episode 1, a lovely example of a powerful show flexing its muscles a little; building towards the epic events to come with some deep personal moments and a generous helping of wonderful foreshadowing. There was mild heartbreak (Nymeria), fan-pleasing cameos (Hotpie), a glimmer of joyous hope (Ser Jorah), and a cheeky scattering of humour (“A foreign invasion is underway”). Then Euron Greyjoy. And suddenly a quiet episode exploded in a shower of blood, sea spray, and utterly mesmerising carnage.
Stormborn represents Game of Thrones at its brilliant best - while far from unpredictable, its showmanship is second to none. When Euron burst off the deck of his ship and started carving up Yara and Theon’s crew, all I could write on my notepad was ‘Euron. Oh shit’. What follows is one of the most intense battles in the whole show, its grand scale condensed to the encounters on board the fleet’s flagship while still conveying the enormity of the conflict. Many complained that the showrunners had turned Euron into a dancing dandy, making jibes about his new ‘wannabe The Cure’ look and his departure from the rough reaver we know from the books. Compared to Joffrey? Nah, he’s a pussy cat. A better villain than Ramsay? LOL - he'll be dead in the next episode. For me, Euron’s qualifications as the show’s new villain were never in doubt, but his character’s brooding menace is now underwritten by some proper fighting credentials. He’s fast becoming one of the show’s most watchable stars, and his intervention the end of Stormborn not only shifts the balance of power, it shows us what happens when Euron's insanely fierce ambition is unleashed. He’s an element of chaos in a narrative that appears to be otherwise unfolding as expected, and he absolutely makes this episode the triumph that it is.
Euron’s naval victory very much clears up the question of his gift to Cersei - he has human wedding presents now (Yara and Ellaria), and a story of smashing one of her most feared enemies. Theon’s cowardly turn at the end of it and the shocking death of a pair of Sand Snakes were the necessary finishing touches to a plot fast becoming one of the show’s best. The battle itself is handled with the right level of brutality too: excessive. While all the plotting and scheming will please the hardcore fans, the showrunners know that sex and violence are one of Game of Thrones’ biggest draws. They’re both in Stormborn, and both handled exceptionally well.
The burgeoning (and now realised) attraction between Greyworm and Missandei has long been one of the show’s more slow-burning subplots. Ok, you may have seen it as dull. Stormborn livens it up with a bit of oral and, more than that, finally gives voice to Greyworm’s feelings. “You are my weakness” isn’t the best line ever written, but it marks an important humanisation of the Unsullied commander, making him delightfully vulnerable. It’s a strange scene, and many will poke fun at the ‘show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ nature of it, but the naivety on display is spot on, and rather touching.
In the North, the tension is still bubbling, in preparation for the inevitable carnage to come. Jon and Sansa are still bickering, something likely to be a theme of the season, and I’m still not entirely buying it. While both characters have been fed a healthy diet of mistrust and victimisation over the past six seasons, they’re family (although not quite as close as they might think) and united by common goals, so the arguments still feel a little out of place given their broad philosophical alignment. Still, it makes for great TV when you see Littlefinger grinning on the sidelines, or creeping up to Jon in the Stark family crypt.
Tensions are simmering away nicely at Dragonstone too, with the agenda-based needling of Daenerys’ allies a neat reflection of the uneasy peace between the Northern Lords, and the mistrust between Cersei's growing army. The message to viewers is that despite having an overwhelming advantage, Dany isn’t going to take Westeros that easily. And once she has, can she hold it? Throwing in Melisandre, and having Jon and Ser Davos riding to meet them in Dragonstone is only going to make the uneasy alliances even uneasier. Plus, y'know, the elimination of the Greyjoy fleet, the Tyrell armies, and the Dornish… that’ll test Dany’s mettle to breaking point. We knew Game of Thrones wouldn’t simply allow her to roll through Westeros easily, but it’s doing a great job so far of building up expectations before smashing them to pieces.
It was a quiet episode in King’s Landing, where we get a neat look at the PR war being waged by the Lannisters. There’s a quiet suggestion that Daenerys may not be the white-as-white Queen many would believe, and although Cersei is merely trying to win support by reminding people of the cruelty of the Targaryen dynasty, she does have a point. It gently tells the viewer that there are still plenty of moral grey areas in this show, and nothing is done until it’s done. Many just assumed Randyll Tarly would fall in line behind Cersei as one of the show’s ‘villains’, but his stubborn callousness can also be seen as admirable loyalty to both allies and tradition, as his little chat with Jaime highlights.
One slight disappointment is Qyburn’s solution to the problem of Daenerys’ dragons. This is the man who resurrected Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane, who stole Varys’ little birdsand taught them to murder Maesters, and who masterminded the dragonfire detonation of the Sept of Baelor at the end of season 6. ‘I’ve built a massive ballista’ is a sensible idea, but it feels weak compared to his other schemes. Still, we may well be barrelling towards a sweet piece of storytelling poetry, if Cersei somehow manages to defeat Tyrion’s plans with a giant crossbow in the same way he killed their father, on the toilet, with a smaller one…
Another thing that seems rather neat is the virtuous circle between the Mormonts and Sam Tarly, who is treating Ser Jorah’s greyscale in the most painful, piece-by-piece way possible. He continues to be one of the show’s quietest heroes, binding plots together and enabling others to shine. It’s a neat contrast to the Arch Maester who appears to delight in self-preservation and introspection. Even though the pair are technically fighting for the same side, their outlooks couldn’t be more different. It’s almost as if the Arch Maester exists to make Sam look even more of a saint than we previously thought… and it works.
Finally, Arya’s rather aimless wandering in what I’m going to call ‘the midlands’ seems like a perfect excuse to tie up all manner of loose ends, and feature a deluge of fan-pleasing cameos. Last week’s appearance of Ed Sheeran was a bit awkward, but this episode takes shoehorning to a whole new level. First off, Nymeria: Arya’s direworlf, which seems disproportionately enormous next to the tiny (head of) Shaggy Dog from season 6. Gone as quickly as she appears, Nymeria is a nod to the show’s past, and a character we’re likely to see again in season 7. Right now, this episode is just reminding us that there’s still another direwolf alive and hungry in the north, and trying (unconvincingly) to convince us that we’ve seen the last of her.
Next up, Hotpie. Yes, it’s great to see the rotund baker-boy back on screen, and his chat with Arya does a decent job of showing how far we’ve come since the pair said goodbye. It acts nicely as a narrative device too, compelling her to change direction and head north for that lovely Stark family reunion we’ve all been hankering after. However, if this episode has taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans rarely survive without a few hiccups or changes. Or, indeed, massive catastrophes. Or, indeed, sexy sea pirates with a massive axe, a hard-on for the Queen, and a delightful flair for the dramatic. And as long as that remains the case in Game of Thrones, this will be the best thing on TV by a long, long way.