Seven Observations about Season Seven
The wait is over! The penultimate season is here. The fans rejoiced and could not even wait; most viewers watched during the episode’s first showing of the evening. The numbers bear it out: 16.1 million viewers watched, out of which 10.1 watched on Sunday night as it ran, with all others watching the two replays that immediately followed, with HBO Go crashing from so much traffic. As the most-watched premiere in HBO’s history, even those who would not normally number amongst the Fangirls and Fanboys tune in and are concerned about the fate of Westeros.
If you’re reading this, first, congratulations on your intelligence and discernment; and second, I assume you’re already familiar with the show and saw the premiere. So, let’s just jump into some observations - seven to be precise - one for each season so far.
1: The Opening Scene - “The North Remembers” or “About F**king Time!”
Like all addicts, I have been eagerly awaiting the first hit. That first post-HBO-logo moment that sets the stage for everything to come over the next several weeks. We are at the Twins. Walder Frey is hosting a…wait, at the end of last season Arya killed him. WTF? Within second, Fangirls and Fanboys are thinking, “Wait! That’s Arya! Oh no! She isn’t going to? Is she? She is! She IS!” And we have a repeat of the Red Wedding in reverse. She kills “every Frey worth anything.” House for a House. As they are dying, even before they are aware they are dying, she tells the gathered enemies of her family, “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.” Something tells me that’s going to be a theme of the season, but remember there are several “one wolves” throughout the series. She then tells Frey’s granddaughter to tell those who come to investigate the massacre, “The North Remembers.” She then walks out, knee-deep in dead Freys, and heads out for King’s Landing. And the good guys win one (for once).
As an opening scene, it sets a triumphant tone for a series that has seen atrocities visited upon damn near everyone and anyone the audience cares about. To watch GoT is to be scarred. Being a fan of this show leaves a mark. Season seven says that payback is beginning. This also moves the series finally in the direction of narrative closer. Thus far, GoT has been a medieval telenovela based on a game of risk. But now we are at endgame. Most of the minor players have been cleared from the board and quite a few of the major ones, as well. The lines are now pretty clearly drawn. And although nobody is safe, it seems like we might enjoy more of this season than previous ones. And I mean literally enjoy.
2: Roll Call!
The first episode takes us through most, if not all, of the remaining players, just to check in and remind us where we are. The whole episode felt like a recap that also moved the plot forward with every scene. The Night King and his army of White Walkers? Check. Tormund Giantsbane and the wildlings? Check. Bran Stark and Meera Reed? Check. Sam, Gilly, and Baby Sam? Check. Beric and Thoros and their fellow followers of the Lord of Light (now including Sandor “The Hound” Clegane)? Check. Littlefinger is here, so is Dolorous Edd, and even Jorah Mormont’s greyscale-covered arm. We even get a few minutes at the end with Daenerys, Tyrion, Missandei, Varys, Grey Worm, and the dragons.
Everybody is here and lined up. All living Starks and Lannisters accounted for. Folks we have not seen in a while are starting to come out of the woodwork (in some cases literally), which leads me to wonder, when will we see Hot Pie again?
3: What about the Hound, Though? Seriously, What about the Hound, Though?
This is GoT at its finest. A few seasons ago, I was waiting for the Hound to die. Arya or somebody was going to kill him and the happiness quotient in the world would increase. Now, he’s back, in the last few episodes of season six, a changed man.
But not a convert who now walks around talking about how the Lord of Light changed him and made him a better person. No, GoT gives us the gift of a beautiful, complex character, and if I ever meet Rory McCann, I will buy him a drink, give him a hug, and thank him for his acting. He’s a nihilist who refuses to apologize or even acknowledge the possibility of past errors. The world is what it is. No expectations, no apologies. And yet, when Beric, Thoros, and the Hound arrive at the house where he tormented and threatened a farmer and his daughter, he does not want to enter. For one of the first times in his life, the Hound is encountering shame and regret. They enter the building and find the bodies, apparently, the farmer killed his daughter then himself when the food ran out. Later, as the storm grows, Beric awakens to find the Hound outside, digging a grave to bury their bodies. He attempts to recite the prayer for the dead, but can’t remember it. Instead, he says, “I’m sorry. You’re dead. You deserve better.” The Hound is having second thoughts about justice in the universe. In previous seasons, he would have said nobody deserves better - we all will die, probably not at a time or manner of our own choosing. This is a Hound developing a conscious (which often gets you killed in GoT), but who does not give up his own point of view, remaining cynical about everything but wanting to make the world a better place without knowing how.
He is asked to look into the fire the next morning in order to help him understand how the Lord of Light works. Instead, he is granted a vision - The Night King and the White Walkers moving down the North towards the wall. Theologically speaking, this is accurate - the first thing all prophets do is declare how unworthy they are. Most don’t want to be prophets. Jonah flees and is eaten by a whale and spat up on the shore three days later in an attempt to get him to agree to prophesy. His vision is also accurate - we previously saw at the beginning of the episode what he predicts. The Hound, already interesting, just got more interesting. I love this guy!
What happens when he and Arya meet up again?
4. Ordinary People Versus the One Percent of Westeros
Another thing GoT does very well is show how the game not only devastates those playing it, the small folk, the ordinary people, the folks just trying to live in Westeros and elsewhere are also chewed up and spat out by the game.
Arya rides through the woods and meets a group of Lannister soldiers. It is a dangerous moment, and not just because Ed Sheeran is sitting there singing, but because she does not know what they might do to a young woman traveling alone (not to mention they are Lannister soldiers) and because they don’t realize she is far more dangerous than they. She is the one who just killed the Freys, whose castle they are riding to because of the massacre.
Then, one of the soldiers begins talking about missing his father and fishing with him to make a living. Another admits his wife had a child, but he does not know if it is a boy or a girl because they won’t use a raven to send messages to common soldiers. He hopes it is a girl, though, as he believes girls take care of their fathers in their old age, but boys ride off to seek their fortunes. This belief also implies the soldier expects to see old age, not always a likelihood for soldiers in Westeros.
Arya tells them she is going to King’s Landing to kill the queen and they all laugh. Suddenly, the whole circle becomes a group of young co-workers and their guest having dinner together. These men fight for the Lannisters, but that is not who they are. Harder to kill people you like.
The same holds true for Samwell. As one person posted on Twitter, six seasons of violence, rape, gore, and abominations, and the most disturbing thing GoT has shown is Sam’s daily routine montage. Sam is at the Citadel to become a Maester, but his duties include emptying the chamber pots of the elite and then feeding them food that looks the same going in as going out. The montage is beautiful, as it shows the endless repetition of his days, serving the elite as part of his training. We are not shown his “important” work - just the daily drudgery. GoT has always been sympathetic to the ordinary people, as often the tools and the victims of those playing the game.
[Tangentially, the most ambiguous moment in the episode comes in a scene between Samwell and Archmaester Ebrose (Jim “Slughorn” Broadbent, himself, back in fantasyland!). “We are this world’s memory,” the Archmaester reminds Samwell, viewing the big picture when others are simply looking at what is in front of them. He reminds Sam of previous wars and disasters, concluding, “It wasn’t the end. None of it was…Every winter that ever came has ended.” Two possible ways to read this scene - bad things are coming, but they, too, shall pass, and Westeros shall ultimately endure. OR, the new element is the Night King and the White Walkers. Taking the long view means ignoring the new reality which actually could be the end. So, either we endure or we end, and the winner will be the person who understands this and plays the game to win under the true reality. Sam discovers that Dragonstone (also the title of the episode) contains a huge treasure trove of dragonglass, which can kill White Walkers. Our chances of enduring just got better, since Samwell recognizes the nature of the threat and now moves to counter it, rather than relying on the past and one’s position in society to protect and endure.
5. The Show Is Ultimately an Exploration about Good Leadership, or “They’re Dead - You Have to Be Smarter!”
Jon Snow decides not to punish the families of those who stood against the Starks in the North. “No son will be punished for his father’s sins,” he insists. Sansa wants the families that did not support the Starks to be punished and replaced by those who did support. Jon wins that battle, but chastens Sansa for challenging him in front of the gathered families. She reminds him that he is the series’ third King in the North (after Ned and Robb) and they both died, even though they were good leaders loved by their followers. “You have to be smarter than father; you have to be smarter than Robb,” she tells him. He is just, he is ethical, he is a good king. But that is not enough to win the game of thrones. You have to be a better leader.
Cersei dresses in black and stands on a map of Westeros. She tells Jamie they are setting up a dynasty that will last a thousand years. He is incredulous. Their children are dead; their family scattered. “A dynasty for who?” he asks. “Of the two of us,” she responds. Cersei is not doing it for the future, she sought power for its own sake. She does not know what to do now that she has it; she only knows how to get and hold onto it, not how to use it. Cersei values power for its own sake, not for Westeros and what she can do with it. In the end, she is a terrible leader, seeking an office for which she is not fit for purposes of self-glorification. She is not happy in her role. It is interesting that the Queensguard, dressed in gold armor for previous monarchs, now dress in black armor with silver highlights. The throne room, once full of people, now holds only soldiers in two rows when Euron Greyjoy comes to offer his services and hand.
We have seen a variety of leadership models in the series. Jon and Daenerys come closest to good governance, and even they make mistakes. The episode ends with the Daenerys’ fleet arriving at Dragonstone. Behind her the gathered armies of the many different peoples who have thrown their lot in with her. Jon has shown himself to also inspire others. But for six seasons the show has demonstrated that betrayal, bad judgment, and sometimes even just the weather can bring good leaders to bad ends. Jon and Daenerys must be smarter, or the game will go on long after them until just Podrick and Hot Pie remain, duking it out to sit on the iron throne.
6. Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves
Many folks have pointed out that most of the major remaining players of the Game are women: Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, Cersei, and the delightful and deservedly loved Lady Lyanna Mormont (I would follow her into battle, into meeting and into hell - she’s that inspiring!), and women who lead. But Jon Snow, wearing his “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt under his robe, announces he expects the women to train to fight and to join in battle. Some of the older warriors object to this. Lady Lyanna Mormont (to whom I swear fealty forever) announces she has no intention of sitting by the fire waiting for news of battle but will be leading her men into the fray. “We cannot defend the North with only half the population fighting,” Jon announces: Lady Brienne of Tarth clearly sitting in the council offers proof positive that women can and should be fighting too. (May I also add, tangentially, that Tormund Giantsbane’s flirting with her is one of the highlights of the scene? His unrequited, but playful, crush makes both characters more complete - yet another thing GoT does well). Cersei Lannister is far more dangerous than any of the men in that circle without even having a sword.
GoT has always been an equal-opportunity narrative. Arya does what Robb and Jon could not and avenge the family against the Freys. Lady Lyanna Mormont (whom I hold up as a role model for my daughter) is the most inspirational leader the series has shown. Even Yara Greyjoy, not seen in this episode, is ten times the fighter and leader her brother and uncle are.
The biggest growth has shown up in Sansa, who tells Jon to be careful going up against Cersei. “You may be the military man,” she tells him, “but I know her.” Cersei is as dangerous in her own way as the Night King. And yet, Sansa states in a moment of self-awareness, she “learned a great deal from Cersei,” lessons in real politic and how not to behave. Few shows treat all of its female characters with this much respect while still being known for a ridiculous number of topless women in almost every episode.
7. Women Looking at Maps - That’s the Other Signpost
When we first see Cersei, she is having a map of Westeros painted on the floor and studies it as Jamie enters. “I’m the queen of the seven kingdoms,” she tells him. “Three kingdoms at best,” he informs her. A map is a representation of the world, showing the relationships between places and peoples. Cersei stands over it, looking down, seeing only what she must conquer. There is no affinity between her and the thing she stands upon. It exists for her to stand upon it.
In contrast, at the end of the episode, Daenerys and Tyrion enter the Chamber of the Painted Table on Dragonstone, last seen when Stannis Baratheon was planning his assault on the mainland of Westeros, so the series has already established this room as the place where campaigns are planned. The eponymous table is carved in the shape of Westeros with a three-dimensional map of the land and cities, landmarks, and geographic figures incorporated, although it is currently in disarray.
Think about it - Cersei consults a 2D map of the kingdom, Daenerys is shown consulting a 3D map to plan. The tables become metaphors to their approach to power, ruling, and conquest - Cersei standing over a representation, neither knowing nor understanding what it is she is doing, while Daenerys stands at a waist-high table that is more realistic and allows for expansive thinking about how to invade and conquer. Their maps are respective metaphors for their approaches to the coming battle, and if I remember my Wrath of Kahn correctly, the person who thinks in three dimensions against two wins every time.
Fasten your armor and seatbelts - it’s going to be a fun and bumpy ride.
Editorial photograph courtesy of a Google image search.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes. To purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.