'Game of Thrones' Recap: Secrets, History, and an Actual Endgame
Game of Thrones is back on HBO, with a Season 7 premiere, "Dragonstone," that brings the Long Winter of Westeros right to our doorstep. As our various plot threads start to weave together, I've decided to break down episodes by House or affiliation to track how they'll all converge and leave no potential Thrones theory or clue uncovered. Let's go Sam Tarly on this episode:
House Frey (or: Arya's possibilities are endless)
The episode opens on something we've been waiting for since Season 3's Red Wedding, when House Frey teamed with House Lannister to take out Robb Stark's army and hold poor Edmure Tully hostage. Walder Frey appears, making us believe we're in a flashback, but there are hints of suspicious activity: this is second feast in a fortnight, the members of House Frey are treated to Arbor Gold wine (a.k.a. wine made in the Arbor, perhaps the best place to live in Westeros), and the speech subs "stand together" for the full "We Stand Together," believed to be the house motto. As Walder's speech turns to how they should have "pulled the root" off the Stark line when they slaughtered the mother of five children, Arya reveals herself and the Freys sputter blood and die.
You probably remember where we last saw Arya Stark, smiling over a dying Walder Frey in the finale of Season 6. This season, it looks like the Faceless Men also have some sort of magical way of changing body shape, because that was David Bradley reprising his face-role as zombie Walder Frey. The eldest and grossest member of House Frey was not an Arya-Stark-sized person, and when we've previously seen Arya take on new faces, at least the body proportion added up. Rule-breaking, or power-demonstration? Whatever the case, this season, Arya -- or any Faceless Men left to be revealed -- could literally become anyone. I wonder if Arya saves those faces, and how long they keep outside of a (temperature-controlled?) Hall For Faces.
The Army of the Dead (or: doomsday is on the horizon)
From a large snowstorm emerges the Night King, leading the Army of the Dead south toward The Wall. We can see three giant wights, a new and terrifying prospect for the faction, but we initially don't see any indication of exactly where they are. Later in the episode, Jon speculates that the closest place to breach The Wall from Hardhome is the castle Eastwatch-By-The-Sea, one of many Castles built along The Wall that are supposed to be manned by The Night's Watch, but have been abandoned as The Watch dwindled back to Castle Black.
Eastwatch-By-The-Sea has played a larger part in the Song of Ice and Fire novels up to this point -- it's where Stannis garrisoned before coming to Castle Black, where Melisandre had a vision, where a few members of the Night’s Watch are still stationed, and where the Hardhome rescue boats launched from, as Castle Black had no ships or port -- but this is the first time the show has set up the location, and for what appears to be Season 7's major conflict: a clash with the Army of the Dead at the abandoned castle. But this is the first time the show has set up what appears to be the major conflict of Season 7: a clash with the Army of the Dead at Eastwatch-By-The-Sea. That is, if we believe what The Hound sees in the flames later in the episode.
The Night's Watch (or: is The Wall really that strong?)
In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, there are more details about the magic that defends The Wall from the dead than there are in the show. From the show, we've only recently learned from Wight Benjen (aka Coldhands), when he dropped off Meera and Bran near the base, that the defensive structure is bound by an enchantment that prevents the dead from crossing. We assume that since Benjen also had a dragonglass shard in his heart like the Night King, this rule applies to White Walkers as well. But here's the twist: Bran, being an inexperienced Three-Eyed Raven, entered a dream where The Night King marked him, allowing the army of the dead to cross into the Weirwood Tree fort. Expect this method to be how The Night King weakens The Wall magic, if not outright destroy it.
This week, Edd, now acting Lord Commander with Jon out of the Night's Watch picture, meets Bran and Meera outside The Wall. Bran tells him the Night King is coming -- knowing with his psychic powers that Edd was at the Fist and Hardhome -- and Edd decides that's good enough to bring Bran inside. If we just saw the magic seal of The Wall being broken by someone marked by the Night King crossing it, it happened with very little fanfare.
House Umber and House Karstark (or: why everyone at Winterfell was screaming)
Remember these two lesser houses of the North from earlier in the series? Both Stark Bannermen houses rallied behind Robb Stark in the War of the Five Kings, but in season three when Robb was making poor life decisions, he beheaded Lord Rickard Karstark after he murdered two Lannister children in the dungeons of Riverrun. Greatjon Umber dies at the Red Wedding, leaving Smalljon Umber in charge of the house when Rickon, Shaggy Dog, and Osha flee to Last Hearth (and House Umber) in Season 3. This all comes to bite the Starks in the direwolf butt when, in Season 6, House Karstark pledges loyalty to the Boltons and Smalljon Umber makes a deal with Ramsay that leads to the death of Rickon, Shaggy Dog, and Osha. On the bright side, we saw Tormund end the life of Smalljon Umber in the Battle of the Bastards, and this week we learn that Herald Karstark also died at the Battle of the Bastards, off-screen.
These two Houses of the North are at the basis for the first spat between Sansa Stark and newly anointed King of the North, Jon Snow. Jon knows the two castles of the family, Last Hearth (Umber) and Karhold (Karstark) are the furthest North and will be important if The Wall is breached. Sansa thinks that since the majority of House Karstark and Umber have been wiped out and because their previous heads of house betrayed the Stark name and sided with Ramsay Bolton (no mention of poor Rickon, who could not run serpentine) that new Houses should take over the castles. Right in front of all the North, Jon takes a stand saying that he will not punish the sons and daughters of old houses for the actions of their fathers.
At the end of the deliberation scene, we're introduced to young Ned Umber and young red-headed Alys Karstark who both take the knee and re-pledge fealty to House Stark, maintaining their claims over the houses and lands of Last Hearth and Karhold.
House Stark (or: bastard and sister are in-fighting)
For now, we'll put Jon Snow in the category of "House Stark" until his true parentage is revealed to other characters in the show. We find Jon leading Winterfell in his usual way: a single focused gaze on his goal that often makes him blind to the feelings of those around him. Sansa has matured into a Southern Westeros political mind, and the contrast between the two styles of leadership causes immediate friction.
Jon values honor on an individual scale where Sansa would probably value winning over all else. This becomes clear when Jon receives a raven from King's Landing, telling him to bend the knee to new Queen Cersei, and Sansa, with a certain amount of reverence, describes how Cersei doesn't stop until she kills all of her enemies. Sansa says she's learned a "great deal" from the queen, and that Jon is too obsessed with the Night King (worth noting: everyone agrees on the name of this previously unseen uber-threat -- is it in the Westeros Encyclopedia Britannica?) to see her as a threat. Jon thinks "The north needs to band together, all the living north," and is sure the Lannisters won't march North now that winter has come.
Sansa is also keeping Littlefinger around so she can control the Knights of the Vale while being very certain that Littlefinger is continuing to lust after her. It's not in either of these character's past histories to act past each other like this, so I'm wondering if both Sansa and Littlefinger are playing a longer game of trust-chicken that Sansa isn't willing to share with Brienne.
House Lannister (or: a subtle spoiler for the future)
Cersei has her map, and Jaimie is skeptical about a Euron, alliance, but the biggest insight about House Lannister actually comes from that Ed Sheeran cameo. Arya happens across a group of Lannister soldiers while traveling south to King's Landing to continue crossing people off her Murder List. The soldiers offer her some rabbit and we spend a few minutes with them humanizing the smaller folk of Game of Thrones. Notably, one soldier points out all the things he wanted to see in King's Landing, but was disappointed by and included "The Dragon Pit" which we haven't had mentioned on the show before, but will be, mark my words, the location of a key event in one of the final episodes of this season.
House Greyjoy (no: Euron makes big promises)
Yara and Theon were no-shows this week, but Euron Greyjoy sails into King's Landing with the Iron Fleet he talked about amassing last season. Basically, he wants Cersei to marry him so they can all kill their families together. True love.
This does not impress Jaime, who mentions the "Greyjoy Rebellion," where Euron burned part of Casterly Rock (in the books, it was specifically Lannisport, home to the official seat of House Lannister, but here is just Casterly Rock) and that brazen act lead to his banishment from the Iron Islands (only to return and kill Balon Greyjoy, his brother, which we saw last season). That doesn't line up with the books, where Balon Greyjoy banished Euron because Euron had raped and impregnated the third Greyjoy brother Victarion's wife. Probably better to name-check Casterly Rock, a new an inevitable stop on the Season 7 ride.
Euron and Jaime verbally spar, but none of it seems to sway Cersei, who concludes Euron cannot be trusted. The Greyjoy takes this better than expected, and vows to return to King's Landing with a gift for the Queen that will convince her to take him as a husband. My guess: he's either taking the action to Ellaria and her Sand Snakes or the Tullys. Good money is on the Sand Snakes having a bad couple of weeks in the future.
The Brothers Without Banners (or: spoilers in the fire)
Last season, this roaming group of soldiers picked up a reluctant Hound who learned the hard way that building churches was no good for a man of violence. This week, we continue the Hound's character growth by returning to the peasant house where Sandor Clegane and Arya met a farmer and his daughter (in Season 4, Episode 3, to be exact). That confrontation ended with The Hound stealing money from the peasants because they were weak and wouldn't survive winter. Bad news: he was right.
The man killed his daughter while they were starving, according to Beric Dondarrion, and this revelation of meaningless causes Sandor to question god. Not one of the Seven -- RIP High Sparrow -- but R'Hllor the Red Fire God that both Thoros and (absent) Melisandre worship. The Hound receives a direct answer to his existential quandary from the flames. He sees the Army of the Dead (thousands of them) passing a mountain that looks like an arrowhead (Fist of the First Men) on their way to a castle by the sea (Eastwatch-By-The-Sea). Now that the Hound knows there is a god and that god wants Sandor Clegane, he gets all regretful and decides to bury the two peasants he damned two seasons prior.
House Tarly-ish (or: Oldtown poop duty)
Eventually, this will become a section for House Tarly as Sam decides to re-enter the conflict at large, but this episode… it's shit. As a maester in training, Sam has the bottom rung job at the Citadel, serving food and cleaning up people's feces that are deposited in surprisingly similar looking bowls. This is one of the first time Game of Thrones employed a montage to pass the time -- Oldtown makes history with fecal matter!
The cool thing is that Oldtown poop duty is ripe with plot connections and Easter Eggs. First, we get introduced to Jim Broadbent as an Archmaester, who lays down some facts on Sam -- namely that without The Citadel and record keeping, humanity would be like dogs unable to remember past their last meal. "We are this world's memory," he says. This comforts the Archmaester, who, unlike Sam, is not as worried about the upcoming Long Night and White Walker invasion. He name checks Robert's Rebellion (the war that put Robert on the Throne that precedes the series) and further back, Aegon's Conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, that lead to the Targaryen rule. He's mentioning them as major points where people were worried it was the end of the world that inevitably ended up being just a big change. Basically Arch Maester is #Unimpressed by everything that isn't dead Maester Weyland's liver.
After Sam sneaks "Legends of the Long Night and Other Dr. Seuss Stories" out of the forbidden corner of the school library, he gets to drop more Easter Egg knowledge to Gilly and a significantly older looking Little Sam. Big Sam learns that there's a mountain of Dragonglass under Dragonstone, the ancestral home of the Targaryens, which he recalls (from Season 5, Episode 5) Stannis telling him about it -- so he writes to Jon. Interestingly for show watchers, Sam flips through a page that pictures the Catspaw Dagger, a dagger we haven't heard named, but have seen before: formerly Littlefinger's weapon of choice before it fell into Lannister hands, the Catspaw was used by Bran Stark's attempted assassin in Season 1.
Why it's in a book about dragonglass we don't know -- is it possible it's a Valyrian steel dagger with dragonglass decoration made by the Targaryens? I'm going to say yes.
House Mormont (or: did you recognize that shadowy profile?)
Sam's biggest discovery at Oldtown isn't even one he's realized yet. One of his duties, it seems, is collecting empty food bowls from the sick, including one cell holding a Greyscale-ridden man asking Sam if the Dragon Queen had arrived yet. This is, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont.
House Mormont also gets a feminism shout out as young Lady Mormont absolutely schools the head of House Glover who scoffs at putting a spear in his granddaughter's hand. Every man, woman, and CHILD will be trained to fight on Bear Island, says Westeros' tiniest badass (yes, even in an episode where Arya killed all the Freys).
House Targaryen (or: taking us places you probably forgot we've been before)
You'd be forgiven if you thought "Dragonstone" was a new location when it shows up in this episode. When Stannis previously inhabited it (hence the flaming stag banner shot that made it into the Season 7 trailer), we didn't see much of the exterior of Dragonstone. We did see the map room (where the smoke baby was conceived) and we've seen some of the quarters where Team Stannis stayed between the defeat at Blackwater and their departure to the Iron Bank of Bravvos (then to The Wall and their doom, alas). We've also seen some of the dungeons of Dragonstone, thanks to Gendry and Davos's short stays there.
This season of Game of Thrones, we're going to see more of Dragonstone as it becomes Dany's seat for her conquest of Westeros. That means a lot of exposition in other people's scenes about how Dragonstone is the seat of the Targaryens, where Daenerys was born (during a horrible storm, hence Daenerys Stormborn) and how they were run out before Stannis took then abandoned it. All of that was important to build up the emotion of Dany's silent tour of expensive new Dragonstone sets. All those sets are no investment mistake; It might end up rivalling Winterfell in how many interesting character meetings are set there in the next couple of weeks. But, of course, this is all just the beginning.