Monday, 24 July 2017

TV Review: A brilliant Game of Thrones looks into the past to strategise its future

S07E02 - "Stormborn"

Contains Spoilers.

After a premiere that was more content to tread water than actually swim, Game of Thrones' seventh season finally feels as if it's begun. "Stormborn" is a cracking hour of television, one that pushes every character onto their next path in ways similar enough to form a tight core to the episode but different enough to still land with some excitement. The fact that it all culminates in a huge battle on a blazing ship doesn't have anything to do with this being such a strong episode for the show, in fact it's everything that came before that allows "Stormborn" to feel like such a runaway success.

The episode kicks off with Daenerys, so we will too. Finally allowed to speak more than three words, her first real conversation comes in the form of an interrogation of Varys, bringing to light a part of the show's history perhaps we'd all forgotten. Varys is almost renowned for abandoning his leaders when he stops agreeing with them, double crossing them and venturing to the other side of the battle. What's to say he won't just do the same whenever Dany doesn't see eye to eye with him? It's a riveting scene - even more so for the way Dany shuts Tyrion out when he tries to diffuse the tension, this isn't his moment - and Emilia Clarke and Conleth Hill act the hell out of it. I'd comfortably label it the pair's strongest dialogue led scene in a very long time, the kind of focused, verbal sparring match Game of Thrones used to excel at but now rarely indulges in. It was great to have that back again.

There's also the undeniable thrill of seeing so many characters in the same scene. Check out the occupants of Dragonstone's war room: Dany, Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, Missandei, Olenna, Theon, Yara and Ellaria. Even just seeing them together feels like momentum, so to have them strategising over their plans to invade King's Landing is exciting in all the ways last week's premiere wasn't. Characters are plotting their course, they're talking about what they're going to and, in a rare success for Game of Thrones, it feels legitimately thrilling. There's a certain flair to Mark Mylod's direction in the Dragonstone war room, the way the camera cuts to so many faces, picking up so many reactions. It would've been very easy for an episode like this to slip back into mundanity and feel like more place holding, but instead it feels momentous.

While Dany looks into the past to question Varys, Cersei thinks back to the previous Targaryen ruling of King's Landing to help her prepare for the upcoming war. After a mixed bag of an attempt to rally supporting houses to her side, she retreats to a dungeon under the city with Qyburn to discover his latest, dragon-killing weapon. Again, Mylod's direction here is stunning. Cersei stands next to the skeletal remains of the Mad King's biggest dragon, her whole body not even reaching the height of its skull. As well as giving Cersei and the Lannisters a kind of back up defence and helping to even the playing field, it works as foreshadowing - is this the size Drogon will be by the time Dany attacks? Will we get a similar shot of Cersei standing by his freshly killed head? There's something about this sequence that oozes suggestion and warning, a very one-sided war is starting to look more balanced.

This idea of reflecting on the past to assist the future crops up elsewhere, too. Sam helps to treat Jorah's greyscale out of respect for his father, who he served during his tenure at the Night's Watch. The scene is annoyingly played for humour again - Sam is more than comic relief, guys - but it connects with the rest of the episode far better than his time last week did. When Jon receives a raven from Tyrion inviting him to Dragonstone, it's his fond memory of Tyrion that helps him overlook the idea that it could be a trap. We know that it isn't, of course, but it's nice to see characters in Game of Thrones take precautions again. This is a war, after all, Sansa is right to be cautious. Jon leaves anyway, sided with Davos, and makes his way for Dragonstone in what could lead to the most exciting character meet the show has offered yet.

Perhaps the episode's biggest surprise comes in the form of Arya Stark, though. A character I had already written off as lost after last week's dire attempts at moving her forward, Arya undergoes a serious course correction here. Her first scene with Hot Pie is jarring in that, yet again, she feels like an entirely different character - something the show could be exploring cleverly, yet isn't - but it's saved by its ending with Arya learning that her brother has reclaimed the North. She decides to go there instead, temporarily (I think?) abandoning her plan of killing Cersei, but soon runs into Nymeria, her old Direwolf whom she forced to flee back in season one. As Arya stares into her eyes, the wolf eventually leaves again, but this has left Arya with a sense of optimism - the moment she learns she has family remaining, her previous companion returns to her side, even if only for a moment. I stand corrected, there's hope for the youngest Stark girl yet.

"Stormborn" eventually concludes with the Greyjoy fleet coming under attack by Euron, and it doesn't quite stick the landing. The battle is too sudden, not pulling off the same shock effect as the sensational "Hardhome" did back in season five. The action is supposed to come across as frantic and unorganised, and this is reflected in the editing and direction, but it doesn't make for a particularly thrilling sequence. There's too much going on over too small an environment, leading to a mess of small moments that fail to coalesce into one larger whole. Still, what the battle represents for the show's future is enticing enough for the sloppy execution to be forgiven. Dany had her plan set out, and she won over her council. Now, she's lost her biggest fleet and can't connect with one of her most useful armies. Remember I said this one-sided battle was starting to even out? Game of Thrones seemed to be falling into a predictable route to its endgame, but "Stormborn" lands as a jolt to the system, both acknowledging the past and shaking up the future. More like this, please.

Notes -
  • Euron singlehandedly took out not one but two of the Sand Snakes. I think I might start rooting for him. Thank the Gods for that.
  • No Bran and no Hound this week. I can't say I missed either.
  • That scene between Grey Worm and Missandei was stunning. Game of Thrones' handling of nudity has frequently been problematic, but here it turned the naked body into a connection between two people who have previously been ignoring their longing for each other. It's such a beautifully filmed, delicately acted sequence that one of these two will definitely be dead by the season's close. God Damn it.
  • Dany met Melisandre here, too. The amount of characters arriving at Dragonstone is racking up by the minute, so I guess it's handy that we just lost a few. Maybe there always has to be a set number of people there, as we lost Ellaria, Yara and Theon we're gaining Melisandre, Jon and Davos. Seems like a worthy trade to me.
  • The cut from Jorah's greyscale peeling to the food in the tavern was brilliant. Absolutely disgusting, but brilliant.
  • Nymeria was huge. Seriously, huge. That's what happens when a Direwolf roams free and eats lots, folks. Gimme one.
  • It's a shame the final battle didn't really click, or else this would've been one hell of a calling card for Mylod as a director. Most of his work here was superb, perhaps action simply isn't his forte.

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