“Stormborn” is one of those Game of Thrones episodes where everybody talks a lot about what they’re going to do, but they don’t actually get around to doing most of it. It’s about setting the table for what’s to come.
This means it’s also one of those episodes where seemingly three weeks passes in every scene transition. Dany will order Tyrion to send a raven inviting Jon Snow to Dragonstone, and then in the very next scene, he’ll be reading that missive. To the show’s credit, it’s realized that we’re too late in the story for a lot of screwing around. But all of this implied momentum suggests the story is moving at a faster clip than it actually is.
“Stormborn” is also hurt, just a bit, by the way the show seems to be trying to conserve its budget for later in the season (about which more in a bit), which results in a giant sea battle that’s just a little hard to understand at some key moments.
All of this might sound like complaining, but it’s not. Episodes like this are necessary in the grand scheme of the show, but they do leave the viewers feeling as if they’ve watched an entire episode of things that are about to happen, rather than an episode of things happening. And yet because the show is so near to the end (by most accounts, there are just 11 episodes total left after this one), it gains a certain power from that proximity, lending greater weight to every choice made.
Here are eight winners and four losers from a good but mildly uneventful episode of Game of Thrones.
Winner: storytelling concision
One of the biggest things that hurt Game of Thrones in its fourth and fifth seasons was that its story was spread so far and wide that it was all the series could do to check in on everybody in an episode, much less go back to someone facing a weighty choice. That led to incredibly decompressed storytelling, akin to a daytime soap opera, where characters would fret and stew about the same problem for weeks at a time, then eventually move one step forward in solving that problem.
In seasons six and seven, however, the series has figured out a way to hack that problem: It’s just collapsed a bunch of its stories into each other. Now when you check in on Dany, you’re also checking in on Tyrion and Olenna and Varys, etc., etc., etc. Thus, the series can keep going back to Dragonstone, and when it does a scene focused primarily on Missandei or Grey Worm, it’s nevertheless still spending time with Tyrion and the others.
This allows the show to feel like it’s moving forward much more quickly than it actually is. Pretty much all that’s happened this season is that characters have gotten places they were always going to go. But because they’re doing so in slightly new permutations and groupings with every new week, it feels like a lot is happening. It’s pretty crafty, and I’m impressed with how skillfully the show pulls it off.
Loser: the Daenerys coalition
Now, this is only a short-term setback, I imagine, especially since Team Dany is sending a bunch of her forces to try to take Casterly Rock. But Tyrion’s plan to strike King’s Landing with the Greyjoy fleet and the Dornish, while the others in Dany’s army complete their task, goes up in smoke because nobody was counting on Euron Greyjoy popping up out of the darkness.
Dany, apparently not having realized there are 11 episodes left, rather thinks that taking Westeros will be easy. Now, granted, she doesn’t know about the White Walkers just yet, but she also clearly underestimates the wiliness of Cersei, or the willingness of similarly desperate players to try to get on Cersei’s good side. The loss at sea is going to weigh heavily on Dany’s chances — especially since she seems to have also lost most of the Sand Snakes (making further reinforcements from Dorne less likely) — and will presumably buoy Cersei’s hopes.
All is not lost, and Dany has many more cards to play. But this is a tough way for things to turn out in the first major battle in whatever we’re going to call this new war. And perhaps the biggest loser of all on Dany’s side is...
Loser: Theon Greyjoy
The guy drops his sword and leaps over the side of a ship when Euron has Theon’s sister Yara in his clutches. I know the show is doing something about trauma with Theon, but dude, c’mon. It’s your sister. The fate of everything is at stake!
Winner: the Euron/Cersei not-yet-alliance
Euron promised Cersei a prize, and it appears that prize will be a good portion of Dany’s fleet. That should be more than enough to put the queen’s mind at ease as she heads into battle against a rival who has dragons.
She’s simultaneously preparing to battle back Daenerys with all of her other wily knowhow. Qyburn is putting together some sort of giant spear gun to take down the dragons. And even as Jaime seemed a little skeptical of her plans just last week, he’s nevertheless working hard to help keep people on her side in the battles to come. The big win over Dany’s side in the concluding battle should help shore up her relationships with, say, Randall Tarly and those who join him in having cold feet.
Granted, she’s once again signed up with the worst of the worst. Euron’s sneak attack involves a healthy dose of horrible, brutal death, implied rape, and pillaging, and it’s just more red ink on Cersei’s karmic ledger. But this is Game of Thrones, where karmic debts aren’t always paid, as surely as the Lannisters no longer pay their own debts. Cersei is still probably the ultimate loser of the show, but any time you count her out, you do so at your own peril.
Winner: the show’s budget
I don’t know that I’ve seen an episode of the show quite this cost-conscious in a long time.
Much of it was shot on existing sets, cutting between shots of the characters talking to each other. There were very few of the sweeping exteriors that have defined much of the series’ look. And even the big action sequence — that sea battle — was set at night (when it’s easier to get by with less impressive computer effects) and shot in a bunch of disorienting medium shots that also presumably kept the budget down. (My kingdom for a wide shot that just tells me what the hell is going on.)
This is a common TV trick when you know you’re going to be spending lots of money on a later episode. And considering that we should have some even bigger battles coming, it’s pretty clear why Game of Thrones held back just a little here. But the true winner is HBO’s coffers.
Loser: coherent action sequences
I can already tell I’m going to be in the minority on this, since the consensus of the rest of Vox’s Game of Thrones viewing club was that the battle at the end of the episode was pure bananas fun. But I found it largely incoherent, and shot and edited in a style that only enhanced how incoherent it was. Call me a spoilsport, if you must.
The problem here isn’t that director Mark Mylod goes wide so rarely, to let us see the full scope of the battle. It’s that the battle starts from a place that’s largely expected (there was no way we were cutting to the Greyjoys at sea without seeing Euron attack), then doesn’t bother to do anything interesting with the basic scenario. It’s largely a rout of the Daenerys Alliance, but the sequence does a poor job of setting up the geography and stakes of what’s happening.
By the time Euron gets the best of Yara in a swordfight, I was completely confused as to how and why any of it was happening. The cutting is so frenetic, and the camera angles so all over the place, that the simple flow of the battle gets lost in the murk. (This is where setting the battle at night actually hurts matters.)
There are definitely reasons to create so chaotic a sequence — it simulates the random horrors of battle, after all — but it’s also very, very hard to do in a way that simulates chaos while still keeping the audience up to speed. I can tell you the broad strokes of this battle, but few of the smaller moments that are supposed to add up to those broad strokes.
I’ve had this complaint about Game of Thrones action sequences before, but rarely does the show blow a sequence on a scale this large. And to be sure, it has some cool moments and shots (Euron landing on deck on his giant, toothed boarding rail; a giant missile whooshing right by Yara’s head). But the overall effect left me waiting for something a little more straightforward.
Winner: negative partisanship
If you haven’t read Vox’s Dylan Matthews’s piece on just why Donald Trump’s presidency seems to be based so heavily around trolling, you should do so, because, amusingly, it also applies to Game of Thrones.
The reason so many are so slow to sign on to Team Dany — even Varys at one point in the past — is because her dad was so terrible that he’s scorched the earth for the name “Targaryen.” Dany could be the greatest ruler in existence, and her family name would always be a hindrance with everyone from Randall Tarly to Davos Seaworth. Cersei’s main play, in fact, isn’t to highlight her own good qualities but to scare everybody about what Dany’s bad qualities are — better the devil (or political alliance) you know.
It is, in short, negative partisanship, the idea that you act more against another party than you act for your own. And it applies in monarchies as well, apparently.
Winner: Sansa Stark
For a while there, it almost seemed as if this entire season in the North was going to be spent on Jon saying stuff to his gathered bannermen in the same damn room, while they initially grumbled at his decisions, then were won around via his beautiful speechifying. But thank God it’s not. That would have gotten boring very quickly.
Instead, Jon is off to meet with Dany, both to ask for all that dragonglass contained on Dragonstone and to weigh the possibility of an alliance with her. (She wants him to bend the knee to her; he’s not yet so sure.) And while he’s away, he’s going to put Sansa in charge of the North in his absence. He even beats up Littlefinger when the lech suggests he’s taken a romantic interest in Sansa!
Sansa will step aside when Jon comes back, but for now she’s in control, which is something she’ll probably be pretty good at. It also means that the leaders of all of the Seven Kingdoms’ most fearsome military powers are women — for the moment, at least. The series has been trending this way for a while, and this new choice should only play up its lady power vibes.
Winner: people who’ve been watching the show weekly since the pilot
There’s something intensely gratifying about the way this season is making callbacks to old moments from the show, the way it’s pulling in all sorts of bits and pieces from its very earliest days. The line Tyrion uses at the end of his missive to Jon — meant to make the latter recall the two’s first meeting — feels all the more momentous for having the weight of years behind it.
This is something I love about television. When a moment is properly built to and nourished, it can feel monumental, no matter how tiny it is. If you’ve been watching this show since 2011, these callbacks are having that effect.
(Of course, the show feels the need to point out each and every single one of them, which gets it a few points taken off its final score. But other than that, it’s great!)
Winner: Arya and Nymeria fans
There are few reunions in the show that have been building for so long as that of Arya and Nymeria, her direwolf who was chased off into the woods all the way back in the show’s second episode. In the books, Nymeria has popped up a few other times with other characters, but in the show she’s mostly been a mystery.
Yet there she was, standing proud, majestic, and tall, above a pack of wolves. Arya recognizes her at once, and even if Nymeria isn’t quite there yet, you can see where these two will be destroying all of Arya’s enemies in an episode or two. (My colleague Andrew Prokop thinks this is the last we’ll see of Nymeria — and he may be right — but I just can’t imagine the show not at least bringing the big beast out one last time to save Arya in her moment of need.)
This is another one of those great, momentous callbacks, and it might be the episode’s best, even if we only get a couple of real looks at Nymeria. (The show’s direwolf special effects have always been a bit dodgy — perhaps because it’s harder to make a creature from our reality look bigger than it is to just invent an animal out of whole cloth.)
Winner: Hot Pie
It’s Hot Pie! He’s still around! He’s learning the ropes of the inn trade! He’s presumably the subject of one of those proposed Game of Thrones spinoffs, a Cheers-esque sitcom called Hot Pie’s Place!
He’s also passing along valuable information to Arya about the fate of the Boltons, then chuckling about how he can’t believe he ever thought she was a boy, because she’s pretty. He’s not the hero Westeros wants, but he just might be the hero Westeros needs
Losers: those of us with less-than-strong stomachs
This makes two weeks in a row when the show has shrugged and simply gone for the gross-out moment. Weirdly, both have involved Sam.
Last week, he was scrubbing out chamberpots and the like. This week, he’s helping treat Jorah’s greyscale with an ancient remedy he found in a book somewhere, which involves peeling off some of the infection (and the pus-riddled grossness beneath) and then applying some sort of something to it. We don’t get to see it because the show immediately cuts to people eating, because it thinks that would be funny. (To be fair: It is, kind of.)
Here’s hoping you weren’t eating yourself when that scene popped up, or that if you were, your stomach wasn’t made uneasy at the sight of it. We’ll see if Game of Thrones makes this a three-episode trend next week.
Other winners: Jon Snow, for making decisions very quickly; the raven postal service, for continuing to make deliveries in a time of strife; Jim Broadbent, for delivering exposition with the best of them; Melisandre, for once again getting herself into the middle of something; Grey Worm and Missandei, for finding love in a hopeless place.
Other losers: The Sand Snakes, for obvious reasons; Littlefinger, for obvious reasons; Sam, for continuing to get stuck in the most disgusting situations; Varys, for almost certainly getting burned alive at some point in his future; the Game of Thrones cosplayers I saw at Comic-Con, for failing to recognize the sheer cosplay magic that is greyscale Jorah.