“Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore.” Jon’s (Kit Harington’s) assertion that the old grudges and hatreds of Westeros’s people must be set aside, delivered just minutes after his sister Arya dons Walder Frey’s face and tricks his entire brood into toasting their own deaths, is as desperately true as it is elusive in practice. How can the Seven Kingdoms, riven by blood feuds dating back thousands of years, full of revulsion for the barbaric Free Folk newly arrived in their lands, and ruled by lunatics like Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy, ever hope to stand united against a threat most of them don’t believe is real?
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‘Dragonstone,’ the quiet and contemplative premiere to Game of Thrones’ penultimate season, gives us time to ruminate on the question. Helmed by series stalwart Jeremy Podeswa, the episode is replete with awe-inspiring spectacle but at its best in the margins. From the Brotherhood Without Banners bedding down for the night in the derelict home of the father and daughter whose kindness the Hound repaid with a mugging in season four to the lonesome labors of Samwell Tarly, bedpan scraper, the quieter stretches of ‘Dragonstone’ benefit from a gorgeously subdued command of color. The clay-hued skin of the dead farmer and his daughter, the indistinguishable contents of the Tower’s bedpans and dinner bowls, the dusty light that filters through the windows of the castle where Stannis Baratheon’s short-lived and little-loved reign began in fire and blood; these humble images are made as arresting as the flight of dragons over the sun-bright sea.
Things Fall Apart
The Hound standing transfixed by the consequences of his thoughtless act of brutality lies at the heart of the episode, and after the muddled moralizing of season six’s ‘The Broken Man,’ it’s a welcome exploration of violence and its place in the world. Redemption, if it exists, can’t be found at the end of a sword, no matter if you’re killing the guilty or the innocent. Likewise, what good does forgiveness do the dead? Remorse, though, is not just self-flagellation but the promise of a different future, and in a world with a past so indelibly bloody, perhaps regret is the best anyone can hope for.
Arya, meanwhile, is headed not north to her family but south to Cersei and the end of her hit list. Her chance meeting with the friendliest Lannister patrol in history, a collection of charming oddballs accompanied, for some reason, by Ed Sheeran, seems like a natural point of no return, a moment at which the complexity of good and evil, punishment and mercy, is so self-evident that to defy it is to wilfully embrace nothingness. You’d have to be as cold as the Night King not to feel a twinge of heartache when that cross-eyed soldier who makes his own blackberry wine frets about his father out alone on the family’s fishing boat. Every connection forged strengthens humanity against the coming night, and every throat slit for revenge or honor leaves it weaker and more profoundly alone.
The Beginning of the End
And what a night it promises to be. While Daenerys presses her palm to her native soil for the first time in her life, while Sansa and Jon bicker over the rule of the North and Cersei broods over a map worthy of a supervillain, plotting with the (still kind of boring) Euron Greyjoy to unleash hell on her seemingly numberless enemies, a storm gathers beyond the Wall. Bruised clouds swirl over the tundra like the blood that pours from the elevator in Kubrick’s The Shining, denuding everything until the screen is nothing but blowing snow and the ghastly silhouettes of the King and his deathless army, resurrected giants looming above the tide of wights like mountains made of bone and rotten flesh.
Even were Westeros not weakened by years of senseless bloodshed and the scheming of power-mad nobles, it would face a battle that might well swallow it whole. Now, with its armies decimated and its every inch of soil soaked in gore and hotly contested, it teeters on the brink of oblivion. Perhaps the answer to its endless wars is a not a savior bearing fire and blood but a worn and beaten man who once lived by violence blistering his hands to bury his victims in the frozen earth, his old self laid to rest beside them.