How do you follow up an episode like “The Winds of Winter”?
More than a year ago, Game of Thrones closed its sixth season with what many consider its best installment to date, and indisputably its most eventful. “The Winds of Winter” portended plenty of change for the denizens of Westeros: Alliances were formed, massacres committed, the Iron Throne graced with its latest seat warmer. But the chapter also hinted at a potential sea change in Game of Thrones itself. How would a series given to spending half a season on a good walk-and-talk proceed after squeezing two intercontinental boat rides into a single hour? Historically, both premieres and finales on Thrones have proceeded at a slower pace, with twists and blow-ups reserved for the season’s midsection, when we could less reliably predict them. But “The Winds of Winter” effectively shredded the playbook once more, on a show that takes pride in doing so. Put simply: Going into Sunday night’s premiere, we had even less of an idea of what to expect than usual — in tone and pace if not in larger plot points. Would Thrones pick up at the same turbocharged clip where it left off, or would it slam the brakes to start its next long-simmering build-up?
With “Dragonstone,” we got our answer. Game of Thrones began its seventh season not with a bang, but an hour-long sequence of deliberate place-setting. That might be frustrating to some fans were it not increasingly clear what all the exposition is leading to. As it nears its imminent conclusion (in relative terms, that is — there’s a chance we might not see the end of Season 8 until 2019), Game of Thrones is condensing its plot, clustering its characters, and drawing surprisingly black-and-white battle lines for a show that’s dealt so often in shades of gray. It sure isn’t sexy — the only naked body in “Dragonstone” is a cadaver on a table — but if you’re able to look to the long game, it’s plenty exciting.
In light of Thrones’ notoriously sprawling story, the sudden proximity of so many previously disconnected major players to one another is as surprising as it is welcome. If not in wildfire explosions, “Dragonstone” certainly builds on what “The Winds of Winter” started in terms of condensing the story. Last season brought Sansa, Jon, and Littlefinger together at Winterfell in a politically explosive combination (that’s sure to end well) and brought Dany, Olenna, the non-Euron Greyjoys, and the Sand Snakes into an alliance that seems slightly more beneficial to all parties involved. In “Dragonstone,” Jorah has joined Sam at the Citadel; Jaime and Cersei are together once more, with a semi-welcome interloper in the form of Euron; and Bran has returned to the Seven Kingdoms, greeted by none other than Jon’s trusted former lieutenant Edd. What heroes and villains haven’t already connected with one another are on a fast-tracked collision course. In a telling statement of her current priorities, Arya has announced her intentions to kill Cersei Lannister rather than reunite with her siblings; Sam has conveniently discovered that there’s a massive cache of dragonglass at Dany’s aptly titled new home base of Dragonstone, which he immediately writes to tell Jon. And it’s only a matter of time before Bran joins up with almost half the cast at Winterfell.
But Thrones’ momentum isn’t simply a matter of density. Every single scene in “Dragonstone” relates directly to one of two ongoing conflicts, with one obviously prioritized over the other. There’s the probably doomed Lannister quest to hold onto the Seven Kingdoms — the only goal Cersei has now that she has no children left to protect, a state of affairs she’s determined not to address apart from pouring an extra glass of wine or six. And there’s the quest for the survival of mankind against the seemingly unstoppable army of the dead, terrifyingly reintroduced here via CGI and borderline-Lynchian sound design. (That whooshing!) Once frustratingly confined to the show’s periphery, the threat posed by the White Walkers is now a central concern to more characters than ever, and doubtlessly more in the coming weeks. Even the Hound has found himself bound up in it, despite his best efforts.
As Cersei’s foremost challenger and the newfound owner of an anti-undead arsenal, Daenerys promises to fold those two brewing wars into one. She’s also an obvious signal of whom we’re meant to root for, an anchor that was conspicuously and intentionally absent in the War of the Five Kings. Rather than an assortment of morally ambiguous contenders, this conflict pits a just and capable ruler with the potential to unite the realm against a common enemy and an isolated madwoman who has no problem sacrificing hundreds of bystanders to get what she wants. It’s all coming together, and Game of Thrones couldn’t be spelling it out more clearly.
All of this isn’t to say that “Dragonstone” is pure pipe-laying or devoid of the tiny moments that give Game of Thrones its sense of joy in between the major set pieces. More blunt than Tyrion and more reliably present than Olenna, Sandor Clegane remains one of the more underrated sources of one-liners on this show (“There’s no divine justice, you dumb cunt”), with Sansa Stark coming into her witheringly condescending own to join the fun (“No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever”). The aggressively one-sided flirting between Tormund and Brienne rages on. And then there’s that lovely, satisfying look at Daenerys finally touching Westerosi soil, taking stock of the homeland she’s never seen before. Despite its reputation, Thrones has always been as much about the little pleasures as the massive battles, and “Dragonstone” offers plenty.
And there’s so much left to explore in future episodes. What’s that priceless gift Euron’s promising his would-be bride? Will Bran get the chance to inform Jon of his true parentage? Does Littlefinger stand a serious chance of turning Sansa against her own flesh and blood? “Dragonstone” may heavily broadcast some future developments, but it only teases at others, and at this late stage, it’s important for Thrones to do both. As much as we all want an ending, a few open questions to keep us guessing essentially keep us engaged. Even Game of Thrones can’t survive on dragons alone.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.