Whenever Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the newly minted King of the North, seeks guidance, he thinks back to the words of his deceased father, Ned Stark. When it comes to whether he should punish the disloyal houses of Karstark and Umber, who fought against his rightful rule in last season's Game of Thrones episode “Battle of the Bastards,” he chooses not to hold the children responsible for the mistakes of their parents, and bulldozes his way past the more vengeful desires of his sister, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). Yes, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has seized control of King's Landing and summons Jon to take a knee before her, and yes, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has finally returned to her ancestral home at Dragonstone, but “Yesterday's wars don't matter anymore,” Jon announces. Winter is here, women and children will learn to fight alongside men—a prospect fully backed by the fiery young Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey)—and gold is irrelevant. Only dragonglass (and Valyrian steel) can slay the marching armies of the dead.
Jon's proclamation echoes Ned's own stubbornness and naïveté in more ways than one, and much of “Dragonstone” settles into finding the ways in which history both repeats and embellishes itself. After all, Jon, like Ned, was always far removed both from politics and the South; there's a good reason for Sansa to sound equally bitter and admiring when she speaks of the lessons she learned from Cersei and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Ned and Jon might believe that everything “before the word 'but' is bullshit,” and might earnestly prioritize putting down the relentless Night's King above all else, but that's not the reality of the world he lives in.
One need look no further than Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to understand as much. Even as Westeros begins to collapses around her, she masquerades as her latest victim, Walder Frey (David Bradley), in the episode's opening scene, using his face to host a follow-up to the Red Wedding, one in which she invites “every Frey who means a damn thing,” and which results in their ghastly, blood-coughing deaths after she poisons all of their drinks. Jon recognizes all the terrible things that befell his family, but he sees a greater evil. Arya can't get past the first part. She's a vivid example of the truism that those who don't learn from the past are bound to repeat it, which is an especially chilling thought given that her next target is Cersei.
Cersei, too, remains fixated on playing the same old game, much to the horror of her brother, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). (“Are you afraid of me?” she asks. “Should I be?” he says, half-joking, and standing at a distance from his former twincestous lover.) The physical loss of an arm forces Jamie to regularly comprehend his new reality, as well as that of the world's. It's a small wonder that he's less reckless and more open to treaties with the aggrieved Tyrells now that he can't use force to solve all of his problems.
Even after six seasons, Game of Thrones still doesn't know what's most important to its own story.
Cersei, however, teeters on the edge of delusion, commissioning an artist to paint a giant map of Westeros on the floor of her war room, as if that might somehow preserve the way things were. She boasts that she's Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, leaving Jaime to sheepishly correct her (“Three, at most”), and she keeps her mental losses at a distance, chalking off the death of her last child as a “betrayal” rather than consider why Tommen Baratheon might have felt shamed enough to kill himself. Most dangerously, she entertains an alliance with the usurping King Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk)—though perhaps that's intentional. Standing beside Euron's flamboyant psychosis (“I thought we rightful monarchs might murder [our disloyal family members] together”), she looks downright benevolent.
While these dramatic scenes and larger-than-life characters manage to keep things moving, the remainder of “Dragonstone” suffers from too literally echoing the past, or confirming what little remains from George R.R. Martin's books. There's a somewhat unintentionally comic montage with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), for example, that sums up weeks, if not months, of his training with the maesters in Oldtown—day after day of routinely cleaning out chamberpots, staring longingly at the forbidden books kept under lock and key, within which might be the recorded secrets of how the First Men once stopped the undead. Despite this accelerated pace, Sam does nothing more than write down the information he learns about Dragonstone in order to send it to Jon. These brief glimpses of life in Oldtown seem secondary and unimportant compared to the war the series insists is all that should matter.
History has its place, but it must not overshadow the present, and director Jeremy Podeswa often forgets this. The episode's big climax comes with nearly six minutes of silence, as Daenerys makes her way home after so long abroad. The quiet is supposed to emphasize the unspeakable emotions—how, for example, a queen must hold herself in check. But instead of keeping the focus close on Daenerys, filtering the sequence through her eyes, he luxuriates on the grand and imposing architecture of Dragonstone, often shooting from such a distance that the people in the present become secondary to the locale and whatever it must have meant in the past.
What “Dragonstone” reveals is that even after six seasons, Game of Thrones still doesn't know what's most important to its own story. The redeemed “Hound,” Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), comes across as the worst sort of fan service, resurrected because he's beloved as opposed to vital. This is even more apparent thanks to his alliance with Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), a rather unremarkable man who, for some reason, the Lord of Light keeps resurrecting. After much aimless wandering, the two men gaze into a flickering fire and see a vision of the undead army circumventing the Wall. Now, says Dondarrion, the two have purpose, and yet there's nothing here that hasn't already been covered by Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and, really, Jon Snow himself. These characters, with their seemingly redundant purposes, make portions of the episode feel bloated and unnecessary—which, given this seventh season's abbreviated seven-episode run, feels somehow less forgivable than all the usual table-setting.
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