The end is in sight. The final moments of “Dragonstone” show us a somber, clear-eyed Daenerys setting foot on for the first time on the land she intends to rule — in the very castle that she was born in, before being whisked away to a life in long exile. With Stannis’ death, Dragonstone has apparently been abandoned; Dany and her retinue, including Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm, are here to bring it new life. In a nice touch for the castle that has been abandoned in the narrative, as well, the episode reveals to us a new and very logical detail about the citadel: It’s a trove of dragonglass (obsidian), which will be a crucial weapon in the war against the Night King. The computer-generated moment where Dany’s three dragons descend upon Dragonstone with proprietary recognition is a breathtaking moment of wonder in a show that, seven seasons in, still manages to be surprising.
“Game of Thrones” has always been a monumental undertaking, but with exactly two seasons left to go its task seems especially staggering. “Dragonstone” evinced some of that struggle; most of the episode is given over to moving characters around the board. The show is so aware of this that Cersei and Jaime are literally standing on a painted map of Westeros in their one major scene, and Dany and Tyrion end the episode by looking over the famed war-planning table of Dragonstone, a carved map of Westeros in tabletop form. If you count the opening credits, that’s three maps for the viewers to process this week. “Game of Thrones” wants to make sure you have your bearings.
And rightly so: Because now the families, the battle lines, and the alliances are all scrambled. Jon and Sansa’s address to the noble families of the North is in the hall of Winterfell, but at first blush it could have been Castle Black. Euron Greyjoy is pleading for Cersei’s hand in marriage in King’s Landing; Bran and Meera find their way to the Wall, where Dolorous Edd takes them in. With Dany at Dragonstone, Arya somewhere in the Riverlands between the Twins and King’s Landing, and the Hound now with the Brotherhood without Banners, we’re really going to need those maps.
The Hound, with Beric and Thoros of Myr, has the most poignant scene in the episode when the Brotherhood happens upon the farmhouse from Season 4’s episode “Breaker of Chains.” Inside the farmer and his daughter Sally are mere corpses, starving to death before apparently the father put them both out of their misery. In “Breaker of Chains,” the Hound stole the farmer’s remaining silver and left them for dead, over Arya’s protestations; three seasons later, he’s nearly undone by seeing their horribly preserved corpses, still embracing each other. The Hound has no illusions about his own role in their deaths, and when Thoros and Beric try to justify the Lord of Light’s choice in immortal warriors, the Hound says, “There’s nothing special about you… I’ve met better men than you and they’ve been hanged from crossbeams or beheaded or just s—t themselves in a field somewhere. none of them came back… There’s no divine justice, you dumb c—t. if there was you’d be dead, and that girl would be alive.”
Thoros wakes up in the middle of the night to find the Hound burying the two in the frozen ground and then moves to start helping him. Director Jeremy Podeswa frames the two opposite each other, working in symmetry, as the snow gusts around them. It’s a moment that underscores how meaningless and costly so much of this game has been for the average inhabitant of Westeros — the land’s indifference to the men, and the weather’s bitter impact, have to be painfully combatted before either the Hound or Thoros can make the farmer and his daughter’s deaths seem even a little bit more dignified or meaningful. And then when he gets to the moment of saying a prayer, the Hound cannot even remember the words.
“Game of Thrones” has lost a lot of its characters who are capable of feeling the horror of Westeros in a way the audience can understand (mostly because at their most poignant, they get killed). It’s especially marked in the episode’s cold open, where Arya — disguised as Walder Frey — kills his entire household without breaking a sweat, sparing just the Frey female sitting next to her. It has a dash of righteous indignation to it, sure, but Arya’s also becoming rather comfortable with mass murder. Where, in “Breaker of Chains,” she wanted to treat the farmer and his daughter right and the Hound doomed them, here in “Dragonstone” she’s calmly massacring dozens and he’s slaving over one futile grave.
It’s really nice to have the Hound back.
One thing that has been hard to understand, from Season 6 to Season 7, is exactly how much time has passed. Samwell Tarly has been in Oldtown so long that he even has a surprisingly funny, upbeat montage to show for it — a tone that is quite uncharacteristic for the show, but a welcome note of physical comedy in a drama that can otherwise be so gloomy. But elsewhere, Cersei’s hair hasn’t grown anymore, but Tommen is apparently buried for long enough that she’s willing to start hearing marriage proposals.
That might just be the verdict on “Dragonstone” — outside of the moments that are very good, the plotting is a bit workmanlike and expository, reflecting just how much heavy lifting the show needs to get done this season. Sam’s discovery of dragonglass at Dragonstone is really interesting, as a detail, but rendered in a surprisingly inert way onscreen. Jaime and Cersei’s conversation about Tommen in King’s Landing is so stilted that it seems absent of emotion; both wield more energy when it comes time to talk politics. And although the dynamics between Sansa, Jon, and Littlefinger are as exciting as ever, there’s just a tad of repetitive wheel-spinning dogging them in this premiere, especially because Littlefinger’s intentions toward Sansa have never been more opaque. (Does he want to be her husband or her dad? (Or both?))
But overall it is really exciting to be back in this world now that the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know how it is going to end; for all of its silliness — including this week’s ridiculous Ed Sheeran cameo — “Game of Thrones” still has a lot of poetry to share with the audience.