Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. I have no knowledge of what is to transpire in this story. Any views or content expressed are solely personal theories, opinions and insights.
The wait is over and we can all take a deep sigh of relief — we’re back in the game. Aside from an opening scene that nobody could have predicted, the premiere episode, Dragonstone, picked up right where last season left off. There were not many surprises or curveballs to contend with, but rather an obvious progression of the powerful alliances being formed and impending wars on the horizon. Now, what we are seeing more than ever before, is an awareness amongst most characters — an awareness of what is to come. As a result, and what we saw in this episode, is quite a bit of strategic planning. Cercei is turning a King’s Landing courtyard into a map of Westeros to plot out her enemies; Sam is trying to ascertain whatever information he can to help with Jon’s game-plan in the North; and perhaps most powerfully, the episode ends with Khaleesi at Dragonstone, ready to start mapping out her own game-plan, she asks “Shall we begin?” The game being played has evolved, and to stand a chance in this new game, people are realizing that wit, strategy and knowledge will be more critical than ever before.What is also interesting, and particularly unique to this premiere episode, is the many different dynamics that were presented. A typical Thrones episode feels more unified from scene to scene — even if they are halfway across the world, characters feel as though they are participating in the same game. But, in this episode, things felt disparate from one scene to the next, particularly because of the varying dynamics offered. Arya is committing a mass murder while The Hound is having a major transformation; Sam feels alone and isolated at The Citadel while Khaleesi arrives to Dragonstone with her massive army. It felt like people were on very different pages, but not in a bad way. Each character is inching closer to realizing the roles they will play in the great game that is to come, and episode one did a wonderful job to set this stage. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
THE NORTH REMEMBERS
Am I watching the wrong episode? Are we seeing a flashback to show the moments prior to Arya killing Walder Frey? What is going on here? Don’t panic — Walder Frey hasn’t come back to life and this is not a flashback. Rather, it’s good old Arya continuing to utilize the ways of the Faceless Men, and this time taking out pretty much all of House Frey. Killing Walder Frey in the finale episode of last season was not enough — Arya has now devised a plan to get all the men of House Frey into the hall, before orchestrating a mass execution. No amount of revenge will ever make us feel better about The Red Wedding, but this was pretty damn good. More satisfying than watching the Freys die were the words that Arya left them with, “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.” This is a powerful reminder that Arya will always be out there, a lone wolf, with the potential to take out her enemies at any given moment. Before the scene ends, Arya instructs the remaining Frey girl, “Tell them winter came for House Frey. The North Remembers.”
After leaving The Twins, Arya stumbles upon a group of young Lannister soldiers that have headed into the Riverlands after hearing about the massacre. (Yes, that was Ed Sheeran, and he definitely felt out of place). No doubt, the Lannisters are enemies to Arya, and it appeared that she was originally joining the unsuspecting group to add their names to her kill list. She looked over and saw that none of them were carrying their swords and we got the feeling that she might make her move. But then emotion set in. Often in the Thrones world, characters are defined by the house they fight for the colors they wear. And based on this, Arya would have, and almost did kill these men. But we saw something more — we saw that they were people, just like you and I, with emotions, families and desires. For so long, Arya has been living in a very black and white world. She has names on her list and an objective to cross those names off. This scene was significant in that it blurred those lines for a moment and also offered a more human side of Arya — one where we saw her smile, laugh and seem to enjoy the company of the people around her. This goes back to the larger question — the one that asks who is Arya really? Is she nobody — a cold, ruthless killer? Is she Arya Stark — the girl that was raised with strong values and morals? Likely, she is somewhere in between, and in a short period, we saw both sides of her — the side capable of ruthlessly killing those who deserved it, mixed with the side capable of judging it wrong to take the lives of these innocent men just because they were wearing Lannister colors. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this as Arya goes after bigger kills (i.e. Cersei) — to what extent, if any, will Arya be willing to sacrifice her morals to get the kills she so desperately seeks?
The game of strategy plays on as Cersei creates a larger map to be able to visualize all her enemies. She points out the obvious — they are surrounded by enemies on all sides. The Martells to the south in Dorne, the Tyrells to the west in Highgarden, the Starks to the north in Winterfell and now Khaleesi to the east at Dragonstone. The irony is that Cersei finally holds the Iron Throne, but is perhaps more weak and vulnerable than ever before. Jaime points this out and appears more realistic to their weakened position, but Cersei, as always, is out for blood. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess how things will play out with Cersei and Jaime and whether or not they will stick together.
As predicted, Euron Greyjoy shows up to King’s Landing to try and strike a deal with the new queen. He will offer her the Iron Fleet, presumably the most powerful naval force in the world, in exchange for her hand in marriage. On paper, it sounds pretty good. In their eyes, they’ve both been betrayed by their family members, they both want revenge and they share a common enemy. Together, they could accomplish a lot — but Cersei points out that she cannot trust him — not yet at least. He promised to come back with a present to show his good intentions. One can only assume that he will now be on a quest to take out one of Cersei’s enemies and maybe bring her back a head or two. In all likelihood, Cersei and Euron will join forces as it seems like neither of them have great alternatives.
A HOUSE DIVIDED
After defeating the Boltons and reclaiming Winterfell, things were looking up for Jon Snow in the North. But through a more discerning lens, one could see that Sansa was displeased with her brother becoming King in the North and Baelish doesn’t help that situation one bit. Things picked up right where they left off in the North and tensions are running high between Jon and Sansa. As Jon addresses the northern houses, a difficult question is presented — what is to become of the castles of House Umber and House Karstark, the two northern houses that betrayed the Starks and fought for Ramsay. It is proposed that they be stripped of their houses and that the land should be presented to other, more loyal houses. However, Jon points out that the Karstarks and Umbers have fought alongside the Starks for thousands of years and that he will not disregard this history because of a few traitors. He is correct and noble in his decision, but so too were Ned and Robb when faced with similar decisions, and they both ended up dead. Realizing that maintaining the loyalty of your men is more important than being fair, Sansa challenges Jon and does so publicly. Jon is firm on his decision and lets Houses Karstark and Umber back into the fold.
Behind closed doors, Jon and Sansa bicker some more. Jon does not want Sansa to undermine him publicly and Sansa wants Jon to listen to her more. #SiblingProblems. Realizing an opportunity to capitalize on this discord, Baelish swoops in and tries to further his agenda with Sansa. However, having become much wiser in recent days, Sansa is not interested in hearing it. However, she must keep him around as he controls the Knights of the Vale and they need all the men they can get. Baelish is of course still a major X-factor and it is challenging to figure out what it is that he truly wants. In the finale last season, he came right out and told Sansa that he wants her and the Iron Throne, but it’s hard to take anything Baelish says at face value.
Elsewhere in the North, Bran and Meera arrive at the Wall, just after Bran sees the White Walkers continuing to march. As if an army of the dead wasn’t enough, they’ve now got three of the giants on their side as well. To defend against the White Walkers, Jon dispatches Tormund and the Wildlings to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, the easternmost castle of the Night’s Watch. Originally, the Night’s Watch built and manned 19 castles along the Wall, but as the White Walker threat dissipated over the years, so too did the perceived importance of the Night’s Watch. As a result, they’ve gotten less and less men and slowly abandoned most of the castles they were once guarding. Today, Castle Black is the only real castle the Night’s Watch maintains, but Jon has now sent men, led by Tormund, to guard Eastwatch-by-the-sea. Because it is the easternmost castle along the Wall, it is very isolated, and should be very eerier to see for the first time.
At the Citadel, Sam has gotten more than he bargained for. After how things left off in the finale episode with Sam arriving at the magical Citadel, one might have thought he’d be knee-deep in all kinds of ancient books, learning the secrets of how to defeat the White Walkers. The reality could not have been further and Sam has been given the most disgusting responsibilities at the Citadel. As a sidenote, it was interesting (and out of place, in my opinion), to see the way the director of this episode delivered this sequence. Typically, Thrones is shot and cut in a very classic and formal manner. For this segment, though, the director offered a 30-second montage of repeated quick cuts to show the monotony and ridiculousness of Sam’s unenviable responsibilities. This style of shooting felt totally out of place and not something we’ve ever seen in an episode of Thrones. But don’t let this choppy segment distract you from some of the key takeaways here.
First, let’s not forget the very first thing that producers chose to show us inside the Citadel — those astrolabes. We still don’t know exactly what they do, but they seem very important. I wrote a piece on this after the finale last year, and it’s very interesting to consider. Moving on from the astrolabes, Sam had a very interesting conversation with the archmaestar, in which Sam was basically told to stop worrying. As the archmaestar explained, there have been many times throughout history where people thought the end was here. He referenced the Long Night, the coldest and darkest winter that ever came, and brought the White Walkers with it, threatening to wipe out all of humanity. He also referenced Aegon’s Conquest, when Aegon arrived to Westeros and presented the possibility of wiping everybody out with his dragons. It was interesting perspective from the archmaestar, who made it clear that he did believe Sam that the White Walkers were coming. To his point, though, winters come, winters go and life moves on. But he may be wrong about this one. What was also interesting was his reference to the Citadel serving as “the world’s memory.” Over the thousands of years, there has been a tremendous history of events, and it is the maestars of the Citadel that record, preserve and ultimately retell this history, truly acting as the world’s memory. Will it be Sam that will record and eventually tell the story that is unfolding before our eyes?
Tired of washing poop buckets, Sam takes matters into his own hands and steals a few of the locked up books. To no surprise, he learns that there is a lot of dragonglass to be found at Dragonstone. This will be invaluable information to Jon, who already told his men at the beginning of the episode that they must find as much Valyrian steel and dragonglass as possible. Will this dragonglass be the very thing that gets Jon to Dragonstone? Will this be the basis for Jon and Khaleesi to meet? But back to Sam… While making his rounds for pickup, he is nearly grabbed by a man with a disfigured arm. We quickly realize that this is Jorah and his greyscale disease has gotten pretty bad. The assumption is that he’s come to the Citadel to try and find a cure, but it’s unclear whether he’s being held against his will. He asks if Khaleesi has arrived to Westeros yet and it is unknown whether he will reunite with her.
IN THE FIRE
In the Riverlands, The Hound continues to ride along with Thoros and Beric Dondarrion and they stumble upon a small farmhouse that The Hound stayed at with Arya. As a refresher, a farmer and his daughter lived in the house, and provided food and shelter to The Hound and Arya. On their way out, the Hound wounded the man and stole his gold. Arya hated The Hound for doing this. Of course, nobody was thinking about this so many seasons later, but Thrones once again shows its masterful storytelling, as this comes back to haunt The Hound years later.
His character evolution in full swing, The Hound immediately recognizes the house and suggests that they stay away. He was obviously troubled by the memory of what he had done, which was only worsened when he saw the two dead bodies. The old Hound would not have cared — killing and dead bodies was a way of life for him. But the new Hound is showing that he can still be human. As Beric said to him last season, there’s still time for him to do some good.
Later, The Hounds looks into the fire with Thoros and sees not only The Wall, but also White Walkers marching. This is significant for several reasons. First, it reaffirms that validity of the Lord of Light and those that are following it. If The Hound, a man that has shown no interest in religion and has cursed the gods his whole life, is now seeing visions in the flames, then there’s something to the Lord of Light. Second, there is a great irony here, in that The Hound absolutely hates fire after his brother, The Mountain, burned his face as kids. The Hound has stayed away from fire at all costs, and his willingness to now not only get closer to the fire, but to accept the flames and see visions in them, speaks great volumes to the changes he is going through. Moved by what he has seen, The Hound decides to bury the two bodies and he even makes an attempt at a prayer. The evolution we are seeing of The Hound is spectacular and though it still seems unclear what role these three will play in the coming wars, it is clear that it should be a big one.
And so we end at Dragonstone, in many ways the place where it all began. To appreciate the enormity of Khaleesi’s arrival at Dragonstone, it is critical to understand the history of this castle. For hundreds of years, the Targaryens lived in Old Valyria and ruled over much of the land with their dragons. However, about 500 years ago, a Targaryen girl named Daenys had a dream that Valyria was going to be destroyed. She told her father, Aenar, about the dream and he decided to relocate his family to a small island off the coast of Westeros, naming it Dragonstone. Aenar became known as Aenar the Exile, a nickname given after he deserted Valyria. History would remember his daughter as Daenys the Dreamer, after her dream proved to be true. 12 years after relocating, Valyria was wiped out by The Doom. Just like that, all of House Targaryen (and their dragons) was wiped out, except for Aenar and his family who had moved 12 years prior and built Dragonstone. Over the next 100 years, the Targaryens strengthened their bloodline from the seat of Dragonstone.
After 100 years on Dragonstone, Aegon Targaryen had a plan that would change the world forever. Along with his two sisters, they flew their three dragons from Dragonstone to the Westeros mainland with the mission to subdue all of the independent kingdoms and unite them into the Seven Kingdoms. Aegon’s Conquest was successful and after conquering Westeros, he became the first king of the Seven Kingdoms. Aegon decided to build a new castle to rule from, and symbolic of the first location he landed when he flew from Dragonstone, the new capital city of Westeros he built would forever be known as King’s Landing. And while Aegon’s Conquest is arguably the most important historical event this world has ever seen, the important takeaway here is that it was from the castle of Dragonstone that Aegon planned his entire takeover of Westeros. 300 years before Stannis did more recently, it was Aegon that stood over the wooden map table and strategized how he would conquer each kingdom of Westeros. It is incredible to imagine Aegon Targaryen, standing over that map and figuring out how to conquer Westeros. Now, 300 years later, it is Khaleesi that has arrived at Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of House Targaryen, faced with very same task of figuring out how to conquer Westeros.
It is also significant to note that Khaleesi was born at Dragonstone, making her return all the more powerful as she is truly coming home. During Robert’s Rebellion, as the rebels got closer to King’s Landing and the Targaryens were at risk, the Mad King sent Khaleesi’s mother to Dragonstone for protection. She went with Khaleesi’s older (and now dead) brother, Viserys, and during the night of a great storm, gave birth at Dragonstone to Daenerys. The storm was so legendary that it earned her the nickname Daenerys Stormborn. Now, years later, things have come full circle as Khaleesi returns home to the place she was born, the place her ancestors built.
What was also quite special about Dragonstone in this episode was the way it was presented. We’ve seen Dragonstone many times throughout the years, but it’s always been a very zoomed-in version of it. We’ve really only gotten to see Stannis in the map room, along with a few other rooms here and there, and it has generally been a dark presentation of it. But, what we’ve never gotten is context. We’ve never zoomed out to understand the enormity or grandeur of this castle. But, that’s exactly what we got in this episode. As Khaleesi takes her first step onto Westeros, we see the full context of the island and castle, with its extravagant architecture. As Khaleesi’s dragons fly overhead, we finally get the feeling that they are exactly where they are meant to be. And as the episode comes to a close, Khaleesi stands over the table, ready to get to work, she asks “Shall we begin?” With Dragonstone being quite close to King’s Landing, Khaleesi is within definite striking distance of the capital. The Iron Throne has never been closer.