“Dragonstone” is a homecoming. For Game of Thrones, that means something very different than for the standard alma mater. In Westeros, it means throne rooms, dead bodies, and lush locales in which to do the same thing we do every season — try to take over the world. But the show starts its seventh season with an episode about being away, coming back home, and reflecting on what’s changed, within and without, since you left.
“Dragonstone” announces that motif in a typically lethal fashion, but with a rare cold open. After meeting his end in last season’s finale, Walder Frey (David Bradley) nevertheless sits at the head of his table once more, presiding over a gathering of “every Frey who means a damn thing.” In the throes of this family reunion, the architect of The Red Wedding is oddly self-effacing, joking and jovial as he welcomes his distant relations to sip on his finest wine.
But his toast to the Freys’ victory slowly turns sour. He starts to praise his kinsmen for beating the Starks, for killing mothers and leaving children as orphans, and something unsettling hangs in the air. Men begin to cough and spit up blood. They start to drop, one-by-one, until the last of the Freys lay dead in their own family home. It’s then that “Walder” removes his face to reveal Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), continuing her campaign of brutal revenge. She instructs the few survivors to tell everyone that The North remembers, before taking her badass stroll through the carnage she created.
For Arya, returning to Westeros means a chance to right wrongs, to use the skills she learned from the Faceless Men to avenge her family and start checking off names from her notorious kill list. But her mood changes when she sets out for King’s Landing and comes across a group of ordinary soldiers who share with her their food, wine, and wistful remembrances of their own homes.
It’s the type of scene we see far too little of in Game of Thrones as the series approaches its endgame. It doesn’t advance the plot. It doesn’t give us any new details about political snarls or the advancing undead. It simply elucidates a little more of this place and the people in it. The soldiers, dressed in enemy garb, are friendly and generous, not bastions of evil merely because they’re sworn to the wrong house. They speak with her about wanting to return home themselves and longing for their own families.
One has a newborn child waiting for him at home, though he doesn’t know whether it’s a boy or a girl yet. That sort of information is a luxury a soldier doesn’t have when he’s far away on patrol. But he wants a girl, because girls take care of their fathers, while boys just go off to “fight in another man’s war,” words that weigh on Arya.
It’s a potent scene, one that touches on the other theme of the episode — guilt. Arya winces at the thought that she couldn’t take care of her own father, and that she’s been responsible for more than one death in another man’s war. These soldiers, ones not noble or highborn enough to know their children when called to war, are the sort that die when the Starks and Lannisters lock horns.
Arya’s been made harsher by this world and made hard by the things she’s seen and the losses she’s sustained, Still, surrounded by these fragile lives which are held in the balance by more powerful men, Arya doesn’t take their lucre; she doesn’t take their lives, and a small piece of the little girl who once yearned to leave Winterfell and now wishes she could return to it as it was, remains.
It’s no coincidence, then, that “Dragonstone” sees The Hound, aka Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), return to a familiar place as well. He finds the home of the humble farmer whom he robbed over Arya’s objections back in Season 4’s “Breaker of Chains.” The Hound tries to dissuade his compatriots from hunkering down there for the night, clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of having to confront the consequences of his actions.
But Winter Has Come™, and there’s just no avoiding it. Within the house, he finds the corpses of the farmer and his daughter, presuming that they starved to death with no money to buy food in these harsh environs. The sight has an effect on him.
Like Arya, The Hound has changed a great deal since he first stopped here. He’s a man who questions the existence of divine justice in a world where Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) can be brought back to life while better men stay dead, where little boys have their faces shoved in fire places, and where brutes are invited guests in poor farmers’ homes and are allowed to rob them and leave them with nothing.
But whether it’s the words of Septon Swearingen or the vision Thoros reveals to him in the fire, Clegane is starting to believe in something, if only that his actions, the ones he wrote off as meaningless, had consequences, and he’s starting to feel the pain of their ripples. In the middle of the night, he goes to bury the people he left in such a state. He doesn’t know the right words, but he gives them his own benediction — this was their home, and they deserved better.
Jon (Kit Harington) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) are settling in back home as well, but finding themselves at odds. Their conflict centers on the two castles nearest to the last White Walker attack, which belong to families who sided with The Boltons in The Battle of the Bastards. Sansa argues that the traitor families should be stripped of their castles and they should be given to those who stayed loyal to the Starks, as a punishment for the former and reward for the latter. The new King in the North, however, has other ideas.
Jon Snow knows what being punished for your father’s supposed misdeeds means, and he’s not keen on the notion of inherited sin. Those castles are family homes, the importance of which Jon and Sansa understand all too well. Only now do the erstwhile siblings find themselves back within the welcoming confines of Winterfell after having been kept away for so long. With that in mind, Jon has a young woman and a younger boy from the rebelling families pledge their loyalty to House Stark and affirms that those homes are still theirs.
Sansa is, understandably, a bit annoyed by this. In a frank but welcome moment, she tells Jon that he has to be smarter than Ned and Robb were. There is a nobility to Jon, a kindness and a decency that have marked him as one of the few worthy individuals in this sea of snakes and backbiters. But Westeros is a place where decent people get killed and naive people get taken advantage of. Sansa knows that better than anyone.
Rather than standing on ceremony or relying on honor, Sansa’s ready to do what’s necessary to survive, whether it’s pretty and clean or ugly and unfair. Jon looks skeptically at his adoptive sister when he thinks she’s speaking admiringly about Cersei (Lena Headey), but Sansa understands now, in a way that she didn’t fully back when she was Cersei’s “little bird,” how hard it is for people like her to survive and thrive in this harsh world, and it requires a little more perspective than even Jon’s had to contend with.
The importance of seeing beyond the immediate, of seeing the bigger picture, is one that The Archmaester (Jim Broadbent, making his Game of Thrones debut) imparts to Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) at The Citadel. In a wonderfully shot and edited sequence, the episode expertly contrasts the wondrous library Sam walked into at the end of Season 6 — full of the promise of enlightened study and the keys to defeating the White Walkers — with the ingress and egress of various fluids that Sam is now forced to contend with on a seemingly endless basis. The life a maester-in-training is more scatological than philosophical, and the rhythms of the day-to-day start to wear on the young Tarly.
But when he asks the Archmaester to allow him to read the forbidden texts, Doctor Strange-style, he’s admonished — in the wry, playful, slightly oblivious way that only Broadbent can muster — to keep some perspective. Sam cites the oncoming horde, noting the urgency that warrants bending a few rules to let him glean useful information to send onto Jon. But the Archmaester demurs, noting that throughout Westeros’s history, men have claimed the end is nigh, and that this too shall pass. The Citadel is Sam’s home now. It’s unlike other places, and the maesters are unlike other men. Their mission is not so worldly or prosaic as to countenance such urgency.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a show if everyone just did what they were told, so Sam snatches a key from one of his ever-excreting superiors and sneaks a few forbidden texts into the room he shares with Gilly (Hannah Murray) and Sam Jr. Sure enough, they contain useful information. The most important tidbit is that there is a cache of the dragonglass — the very material that Jon tells his bannermen is desperately needed to fight the White Walkers — located at, you guessed it, Dragonstone.
That’s where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), dressed in her new cosplay-ready finery, lands at the end of the episode. It is a homecoming for her too. Dany is returning to the place where she was born, a land of vibrant, rocky beauty, dragons carved on walls, and echoes of the ages. The sequence of her arrival is uncharacteristically wordless, with even the sharp-tongued Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) remaining quiet and reverent at such a moment.
Dany’s return to the seat of family power is an overwhelming, tactile experience for the queen-to-be. She kneels and caresses the sand. She reaches up and pulls down one of Stannis’ banners. She walks into the throne room where her father and her father’s father and so on and so on have sat. It is something to be felt, not spoken of. The Mother of Dragons is finally back, back where the Targaryens lived for generations. As she surveys the intricately-carved table filled with little armies and little people, the only words she offers to christen this last chapter of Game of Thrones is “shall we begin?”
As the final pieces start to fall into place, all over Westeros, monarchs and monsters, brutes and bastards, potentates and peasants, are making their way home. Each of them wonders how much longer they’ll be able to stay and how much longer the places of they call home will stand, as winter finally arrives.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: We see a glimpse of Jorah (Iain Glen) in The Citadel, asking after Dany. He’s presumably following her orders to find a cure for his greyscale by seeking the aid of the maesters in Oldtown. If his illness is left to fester, his liver might end up weighing a little more than that of the drunkard on the Archmaester’s table. We also see Edd Tollett (Ben Crompton) fulfilling his duties back at The Wall. At least he has the brains to ask a few questions before letting in any old scrubby teenager claiming to be a long lost Stark child.
So Long and Thanks For All the Blackfish: As noted above, while they don’t die on screen, we learn the fate of the farmer and daughter that Arya and the Hound met back in Season 4, and it’s, uh, not pretty. There’s also a sudden dearth of Freys in the Riverlands this week. Arya’s scary when she’s revenging.
Line of the Night: “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.” Sansa Stark will tolerate none of your bullshit.
This Week in Lore: Apparently the current Westerosi faithful weren’t the first to forget what dragonglass can do. Sam reads in an old book that the Targaryens used it to decorate their weapons without knowing its purpose. Just another reason to check out your local library!
What Kind of Proposal Is That?: After being reminded by Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) that she’s only queen of three kingdoms, tops, Cersei is in need of allies and finds an odd one in Theon and Yara’s troublemaking uncle, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk). Jamie bristles at the ruffian’s thinly-veiled putdowns, and Cersei rebuffs his offer of marriage, but Euron promises to find her a gift to convince her to marry him and seal their alliance. My bet’s on a “World’s Greatest Queen” mug — you know, something from the heart.
Lady Mormont For President: When Lord Glover (Tim McInnerny) questions Jon’s command that all the women of Winterfell, not just the men, be enlisted to fight The Night King, the Littlest Leader in the North shuts him down in typically fiery fashion, making clear in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t need his permission to defend The North. If Lady Mormont (Bella Ramsey) were in charge, the White Walkers would have been defeated in Season 1 and we’d all be having Hot Pie’s animal-shaped bread by now…