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Game of Thrones’s New Hard-Edged Morality

We discuss "Dragonstone," the first episode in the seventh season of HBO’s fantasy series.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Each Monday, Clio Chang, Sarah Jones, Alex Shephard, and Ryu Spaeth will discuss the newest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is in its seventh and penultimate season. Join us as we chat about the latest plot developments, Ed Sheeran, and the possibilities of ice dragons.

Ryu Spaeth: Winter has finally come, and with it the world of Westeros has been pulled through the looking glass. We open in the Twins, but this time it is the Freys who are murdered en masse by a shape-shifting Arya Stark, in a retributive reversal of the Red Wedding. A portcullis opens at The Wall, an echo of the very first scene in the first episode of season one, but this time it is from the Wildling side, where Bran Stark awaits entrance. And finally, in the episode’s last sequence, Daenerys Targaryen, after six seasons of delving into deserts and fighting distant wars and generally going the wrong way, lands at Dragonstone, both her birthplace and birthright, accompanied by a fleet of ships, Tyrion Lannister, and three dragons. The pieces are in place: Where do we go from here?

Alex Shephard: This was a table-setting episode if there ever was one, as well as an attempt to quickly dispatch with as many loose threads as possible. Jaime is going to Highgarden, which is probably not good news for the Queen of Thorns. Euron Greyjoy is going to Dragonstone to fetch a prize for Cersei, which is probably not good news for Yara Greyjoy, the Sand Snakes, and/or Tyrion. No show has excelled at creating so many blissfully odd couples as Game of Thrones, and it seems like we’re getting a few: the Wildlings and the Brotherhood without Banners are about to link up, as are Sam Tarly and Jorah Mormont. And now that Sam has discovered the mountain of dragonglass buried beneath Dragonstone, what else does he have to do in the Citadel except heal Jorah?

Clio Chang: Daenerys’s return to Westeros was one of those moments that only a long-ass show like Game of Thrones can deliver. We’ve all been waiting for this to happen for the last six years, which we are gently reminded of in the “previously on Game of Thrones” flashback to skinny Ed Sheeran (Viserys). The scene may not have been as satisfying as Arya getting revenge on all the Freys, but it was a nice gesture to the epic nature of the series. Get ready all you sons of Westeros: The dragon queen has finally landed.

One quibble: When Dany gets to Dragonstone, she just waltzes right into the freaking castle. The door is unlocked and not a single person is there to ask for ID or to send a raven. Dragonstone was abandoned by Stannis Baratheon when he went off to die (maybe) in a cold field. The island always felt like a slight to Stannis, since Robert Baratheon bequeathed it to him only after giving his younger brother, Renly, Storm’s End, the ancestral Baratheon castle. But did Stannis hate the place so much that he didn’t even leave a single soldier there? Some peasant to just make sure the doors are locked? Why aren’t there squatters? Why is there a whole castle up for grabs for a dragon queen invader to take?

Sarah Jones: The guiding rule of Game of Thrones appears to be that most of the characters are dumb. Is this a deliberate choice? Who knows! But the emptiness of Dragonstone did not particularly surprise me. Of course it’s empty! Of course Stannis left no one there to guard it; convincing yourself that you’re a messiah isn’t conducive to making common-sense decisions. Of course Cersei sent no one to guard it; she’s always been better at talking than at thinking. Regardless: Dragonstone is now Dany’s. This means that she not only has dragons, she also has dragonglass, and that means, eventually, that Cersei and Jon Snow are going to have to either take it from her, or make an alliance in the name of collective good.

And then there’s Sansa. I’ve always been fond of Sansa. Sansa-hate seems based on the fact that she was, until recently, an average teenage girl who found herself in an unexpected and impossible situation. Sansa may not be particularly bright, but again, who on this show is? Even Tyrion has made stupid, stupid decisions. In last night’s episode we got a sharp-tongued, impatient Sansa, who sees right through Littlefinger and makes difficult but necessary points to Jon about avoiding the mistakes of her father Ned and her brother Robb. But her arc going forward isn’t clear. There’s no clear role for her to inhabit once Jon and Cersei and Dany remake the world order. Further: it’s not clear if Sansa herself has designs on a specific role. She should probably figure that out soon; Westeros isn’t kind to indecisive people. I’m Team Sansa, but she needs to get her act together and fast.

Ryu Spaeth: My prediction is that Sansa’s newfound admiration for Cersei, combined with Arya’s turn as an assassin, are going to form one of the main thematic threads as the series reaches its denouement, which is that they’ve all been so traumatized, and have become so disillusioned with integrity and honor and every other noble principle that simply quickens the path to the grave, that the show will end with no more good guys at all.

Ed Sheeran is definitely not a good guy. It helps that he is a Lannister soldier, because he quickly became the character I most want to see die, occupying the void filled by the High Sparrow.

Sarah Jones: The only way for the showrunners to redeem themselves for the Sheeran cameo is for them to allow him to be either roasted or eaten by a dragon. Maybe both! Use your imaginations.

Alex Shephard: I only recently learned who Ed Sheeran was, and while “The Shape of You” and “Galway Girl” are both crimes against humanity on par with the Red Wedding, I just don’t have it in me to hate what I think is one of the best scenes in the show’s recent history. Also, I think that Ryu is wrong about what the show is doing with this scene. The whole point is that Arya is tempted to just slaughter these sad little farm boys who miss their dumb home, but she realizes that if she does—after she accepts their food, which is guest right—she would be no different than Walder Frey. IS THAT REALLY WHAT YOU PEOPLE WANT????

The show is walking a tightrope with Arya right now. Her slaughter of the Freys was disturbing and psychotic. But while the Starks are all finally learning that their father was a doofus who thought that honor would save them, they’re also honing a hard-edged morality that’s much more appealing than Ned’s sanctimony or Frey’s nihilism. The scene with Arya and the least-appealing member of Taylor Swift’s squad is tied to the burial scene with the Hound—it’s there to show how much she’s grown.

Sarah Jones: I liked it when she kills the Freys. I cheered from my couch. Anyway, I just think if you’re going to try to humanize Arya Stark, Ed Sheeran is not the way to do it, with his humble face and his weirdly pure voice.

Clio Chang: The real crime of Ed Sheeran is that we are talking about Ed Sheeran, instead of the very good show we have all come to know and love, Game of Thrones. But if we must talk about the Sheeran-Arya scene, I agree with Alex here. I’ve always found Arya to be the most relatable character in the series. And if we start cheering on Arya killing dozens of Freys at their own table, what has become of us?

Ryu Spaeth: I agree that the show appears to be heading toward some vision of a common humanity, but it is humanity at its most common denominator: a species fighting for survival against another species, one that ambulates and hisses but is basically the anthropomorphized version of an existential threat like climate change. The politics of Game of Thrones is ultimately a politics about collective action problems. It is just reversed to play out as a winter apocalypse instead of global warming, which is why when the Hound peers into the flames, all he sees is ice. It’s looking pretty grim for both us and Westeros, but at least the White Walkers don’t have ice dragons.

Alex Shephard: Mark my words. Before this season is done, they’re getting an ice dragon. I don’t know how! But they’re getting one. And it’s going to rule.