“When I was a child I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people.”
Lord Varys’s (Conleth Hill) spin on his history of serial treachery is at least in part a bid to save his skin, but by now we’ve seen the man stick his neck out time and time again for no possible personal gain; at his core, he means what he says about serving the people ahead of the throne. He has no castle, no name, no sigil, and no house to back him. His schemes have brought him no riches or personal glories, and as the men and women sitting on Westeros’s thrones marshal their forces and brood over their claims, his thoughts are with the men and women who’ll fight their wars and die for their ambitions. It’s a touching image, this unlikeable man devoting himself to people who, if they know his name at all, despise him.
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“Stormborn” does much of the heavy lifting the season premiere elected to eschew, giving us the shape of things to come with Jon’s (Kit Harington) departure for Daenerys’s court, Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) laying out of the grand plan to conquer the Seven Kingdoms, and Cersei (Lena Headey) calling her bannermen and mulling the question of how to contend with Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons. The sequence set in the Red Keep’s undercroft among the skulls of the long-dead Targaryen dragons is ghoulish and somber, not just a reminder of what became of the last Targaryen dynasty but a mortal threat to the lives of creatures we’ve watched grow from hatchlings over seven long years. The bolt Qyburn’s (Anton Lesser) machine puts through an ancient dragon’s skull is a sickening period on the scene.
Small moments of joy and camaraderie buoy the episode above the sometimes exposition-heavy and claustrophobic atmosphere of its courtly scenes. Arya’s (Maisie Williams) run-in with Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey), as unshakably good-natured as ever, gives us yet another culinary insight into the nature of craftsmanship and art as well as the sight of a Stark getting good news for the first time in seven seasons.
Arya’s decision to abandon her quest, at least for the moment, and head back to Winterfell to be with her family feels like a splash of cold water after a hundred-yard dash. Samwell’s (John Bradley) haphazard commitment to giving his all to the fight to cure Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glenn) greyscale, proof as ever that he’s Westeros’s all-around best guy, is equal parts tear-jerking, nauseating, and hilarious as we watch Sam, face screwed up in comical concentration, saw through Jorah’s suppurating flesh as part of a dangerous and agonizing procedure to cure the mysterious disease.
But the episode’s standout is the tender love scene between Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). Smartly fleshing out its longer, more traditional shots with quick snippets of small tics and tremors — Grey Worm’s hand curling, Missandei looking down the length of her own supine body — the sequence is rich and warmly human. Grey Worm struggles with his identity as a killing machine and his physical maiming. Missandei’s assertive direction helps him overcome his hesitancy, and the scene ends as he goes down on her with sweetly studious concentration. We see this last from Missandei’s perspective as she blisses out, looking down with adoration at the man she’s loved for so long and can finally touch. In an episode full of former slaves staking their claim, these two people finding comfort in each other is unquestionably the feel-good moment of the hour.
All the while the kingdom’s tangle of old grudges, sacred oaths, and infighting feels more perilous by the minute, especially after Daenerys’s carefully-laid plans to take King’s Landing with a slow, peaceable siege erupt into flames during the episode’s heavy metal album cover of a climax. It’s well and good to try to spare the world a holocaust of dragon fire, but no one ever waged a war and came out of it clean-handed. Just ask Arya (Maisie Williams), whose long-awaited reunion with her direwolf Nymeria is cut short when the wolf rejects her and vanishes back into the frozen forest with her pack. Could time and distance have cut the bond between girl and beast? Sure, but so could Arya’s unnatural powers, a metaphorical sublimation of how far she’s gone from her humanity in pursuit of revenge.
If the sea battle between the Greyjoy fleets often fails to root us in the perspectives of its characters or create a sense of intelligible space, it succeeds at delivering an impression of tightly-packed carnage and mayhem on a smaller, more frenetic scale than what ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ served up last season. Euron (Pilou Asbæk) and Yara (Gemma Whelan) fighting through and around the Greyjoy footmen boiling over the deck reads like a gory game of hide-and-go-seek with the bodies of screaming men the only shelter available. Cinders rain from the sky as burning masts and rigging topple into the melee. It’s a literally hellish spectacle, complete with gore-smeared close-ups of Euron’s cackling face as he hacks his way through the roil with an ax embellished with kraken tentacles.
The battle’s emotional cost, too, is difficult to stomach. Surrounded by torture and chaos, Theon (Alfie Allen) is forced to relive his breaking at Ramsay’s hands. Allen’s twitching, horror-struck face fades from cripplingly aware of his own failure to pure numb horror as he faces down his uncle across the deck of Yara’s flagship. Whelan’s tearful scorn and Asbæk’s deranged grin give the scene an ugly emotional heft as Theon breaks and runs, hurling himself into the sea where he clings to a piece of driftwood as his uncle’s fleet sails away with plunder and prisoners in tow, defeated as much by his own memories as by his enemies’ blades.