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“Game of Thrones” has entered its penultimate season and time is running out for showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to resolve the remaining story arcs. As such, “Dragonstone” was an episode which focused primarily on putting the pieces in place for the rest of the season and eliminating distractions.

This was most clear in the opening scene, in which Arya (Maisie Williams) poisoned the male members of House Frey as revenge for the Red Wedding. Benioff and Weiss wasted no time in eliminating these characters, starting the season with a cold open and telling the audience that only the main players in the story matter from this point onwards. This is an understandable approach and from a plot perspective it was fitting that Arya was the one to kill the Freys, given that she narrowly missed out on reuniting with her family because of them in season three.

However, whilst the scene made sense in the context of the narrative I didn’t appreciate its execution. I accept that Arya is able to swap faces with people that she has killed, (even though we were never explicitly told how this is possible), but it doesn’t make sense that by swapping faces with another person Arya also takes their voice, their physical dimensions (weight, height, etc.), and their other body parts.

When Arya removed Walder Frey’s (David Bradley) face and revealed her own she did so using his hand – this was clearly shown to the audience and for the life of me I can’t understand why. If you’re going to do something like this then at least make the rules consistent so that I understand what’s happening; don’t expect me to buy in simply because I know I’m watching a television show. The voice and height issues are annoying but I can ignore them because there probably isn’t a better way to film these kinds of scenes, but as a director you don’t have to show me another actor’s hands when they’re supposed to belong to Maisie Williams! Just don’t show the hands!

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I know this seems like a small issue but it took me straight out of the experience and immediately destroyed the excitement I was feeling about the show’s return. I get that most viewers will enjoy the story payoff and that’s completely fine, but personally I can’t separate the content of a television show from the fact that somebody made a decision to include that content when filming and editing, and these considerations are always on my mind while I’m watching.

I will say that the wider issue of how the Faceless Men take people’s faces is one that the series created for itself long before this episode, so at this point they’re stuck, but I think this scene could’ve been done better and it shouldn’t have opened season seven because all it did was remind me about how badly Arya’s arc was handled in season six.

Following this scene we saw the White Walkers for the first time this year, bringing winter quite literally with them. This was a visually brilliant scene and it helped to bring home the fact that they are the real threat as we come towards the series’ end. The only issue I had here was that it wasn’t clear if the giant that the camera focused on was supposed to be Wun Wun (Ian Whyte).

The giant had an eye missing which would make sense because Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) took Wun Wun’s eye out with an arrow in season six, and the fact that the scene was one of Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) visions means that it could have taken place in a future where the Walkers have gone past The Wall and taken Winterfell (presuming that for some reason Wun Wun’s body hasn’t been burned). However, if the giant was supposed to be Wun Wun then a stupid error was made, because the eye that the giant was missing was the opposite one to the one that Ramsay shot out with his arrow. It’s a small issue because as I said there’s no confirmation that the giant is Wun Wun, but it did look an awful lot like him and it seems coincidental that the giant that was shown was missing one of its eyes.

Bran then woke from his vision to find that Meera (Ellie Kendrick) had dragged him all the way to The Wall. There’s not a lot to say about this scene other than the fact that Hempstead-Wright’s acting is still woefully bad and the character remains as annoying as ever.

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We then cut from The Wall to Winterfell where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) disagreed on what should be done with the ancestral homes of the houses that sided with Ramsay in the Battle of the Bastards. Jon didn’t want to punish the children for the crimes of their fathers so he had the new lords of houses Umber and Karstark make oaths of loyalty to him rather than giving the castles to houses that were already loyal to him. I enjoyed this scene because both sides of the argument made sense and they reflected the experiences of the characters making them. Sansa has been influenced by pragmatic thinkers like Cersei (Lena Headey) and Tywin (Charles Dance) so it makes sense that she should have a ruthless edge about her when it comes to politics, whereas Jon has been trained in battle and knows that he must try to keep as many allies as possible in order to win the war to come.

It was a decent scene and I like that Jon and Sansa are challenging one another because they both have a lot to learn, I just think that the tension the showrunners want us to feel isn’t really there as of yet. If we’re supposed to believe that Sansa would side with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) over Jon simply because Jon doesn’t respect her opinion then I’m sorry but that’s not going to happen. Sansa’s arc could definitely lead her to villainy by the time the series ends but I think it’s much more likely that she would side with someone she loves rather than the man who killed her aunt and abandoned her with a rapist. I know this is “Game of Thrones” but Sansa siding with Littlefinger doesn’t seem like a twist that would feel earned and therefore it shouldn’t happen.

I also think there’s a bigger issue that this scene presents which is that Littlefinger as a character is completely lost right now. In the past he’s been one of the best schemers on the show and he effectively started the conflict that set the series into motion, so it’s a shame to see him pining over Sansa. There’s still plenty of time for him to come into his own again, but with the War for the Dawn on its way he feels like a character that has run his course on the show at this point.

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In the South, Cersei explained that without the Freys the Lannisters are devoid of allies and in fact have enemies in every direction. There was a lot of exposition in this scene and it was mainly an exercise in reminding the audience about supporting characters and their intentions, but I did appreciate it for what it was. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei talked for the first time since Tommen’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) suicide and it was good to see them address the fact that all of their children are now dead.

Then came one of my favourite scenes of the episode in which Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) made his claim for Cersei’s hand in marriage. This scene worked for many reasons, the main one being that the character seems to have been given a reset. I wasn’t one of the people who disliked the character in season six, but I was aware that many book readers thought that he was handled poorly and should’ve felt more important on the show. This scene went some way to acknowledging this as Euron came across as a much more charismatic and playful antagonist, delivering the best lines of dialogue in the episode.

This scene also served a purpose from a narrative perspective as Euron promised to deliver a gift to Cersei in order to prove his usefulness. This gift could be any number of things, but the main theories flying around on the internet right now are that Euron will bring either Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), or Dragonbinder to Cersei.

When I watched this scene I thought it was supposed to be obvious that Euron was talking about Tyrion because the episode entitled “The Gift” in season six referred specifically to everyone’s favourite Lannister. This would make sense because in the teaser for episode two there are fight scenes which seem to be taking place at sea, presumably between the Greyjoy fleet and Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) fleet. Still, with that said Ellaria also appears in the teaser with Daenerys and was responsible for the death of Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) so she would be an equally pleasant gift for Cersei. I think either of these options would be interesting, but personally I hope that the gift isn’t Dragonbinder as I don’t think the show needs to introduce any more objects or characters into the story at this point.

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Speaking of introducing unnecessary characters, we then cut to Sam (John Bradley-West) in Old Town. These scenes felt very alien on a show like “Game of Thrones” but I will admit that they were fun in their own way, even if they did go on for far too long (a bit like this review). It’s good to see some world-building on the show even though we don’t really have time for it, and Jim Broadbent is a great addition to an already stellar British cast.

Nevertheless, at this point Sam is more of a plot device than he is a character and having him act as comic relief doesn’t hide that fact. He’s on the show to read books and find out information rather than having other characters discover things naturally, cheapening reveals which should feel important. The fact that he’s sending Jon a raven telling him about Dragonstone is cool because it means that we’re going to see Jon and Dany interact, but it still feels incredibly forced.

When these scenes were finally over the focus was once again on Arya. I’m very conflicted about this scene because I think it might have been my favourite of the episode but I also think that Ed Sheeran’s appearance considerably devalued it. The thing I liked about this scene was that it felt like it was there to develop Arya as a character and to build on the opening scene, allowing us as audience members to question whether or not Arya was right to do what she did to the Freys. Arya was allowed to let her guard down and enjoy herself because the Lannister soldiers welcomed her and were genuinely friendly, which is rare on “Thrones”, but this also played into the fact that many of the people that she killed earlier might have acted in the same way in a similar situation. It reminded us that soldiers fight wars that they didn’t start and that many of them just want to live normal lives, even the ones who kill good people. In this sense I thought it was a clever scene and it was fun to watch because it wasn’t clear what was going to happen.

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On the other hand, Ed Sheeran’s appearance in the scene made me question whether or not it was written for Arya at all. The fact that the scene started with him singing and proceeded to do a close up on his face made me feel very uneasy, and I think it was a very badly executed cameo. He was an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise awesome scene and I don’t understand why he had to be there. The fan base and the audience are already established so the showrunners didn’t need to go out of their way to tarnish their credibility. If Sheeran wanted to appear that’s fine – he’s a big name and a cameo doesn’t hurt – but he shouldn’t have been centre stage in the way that he was. Again, I want to make it clear that I liked the scene, but Sheeran definitely made it worse.

After the break we saw the team-up of The Hound (Rory McCann), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), and Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) make their way north. This was one of the better sequences of the episode and it was smart of the writers to show how far The Hound has come by having him revisit an event from his past. A lot of character development happened in this scene as Sandor overcame his fear of fire, looking into the flames and having a vision of a battle involving the White Walkers which was seemingly taking place at Eastwatch (where the Wildlings are headed). He also showed remorse for leaving the man and his daughter to die in season four and by burying them paid homage to the Gravedigger character in the books. This was a well written scene and although the character went from A to B pretty quickly I think this is something we’ll have to accept from the show going forward.

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Finally, the episode culminated by turning its attention to Daenerys, first by having Jorah (Iain Glen) ask about her at the Citadel and then by showing her arrival on the shores of Dragonstone. This final sequence was excellent, with the decision to omit any dialogue until the final seconds enhancing it as a whole and giving the moment a distinctly epic fantasy feel. It’s a big moment in “Game of Thrones” because we’ve been waiting for Daenerys to arrive in Westeros since the very first episode, and it was one which was worth the wait in my opinion. I think this is one of Emilia Clarke’s best performances in a “Thrones” episode because she takes her time to let the character breathe; to take in the scenery and convey the significance of the scene to the audience. I can take or leave the dialogue at the end – ‘shall we begin’ is a bit on the nose for me – but I loved the sequence and it concluded the episode on a high note which is always important for a weekly television show.

So, overall I enjoyed “Dragonstone” for what it was. Season premieres are always difficult to get right, so whilst I had issues with its execution I appreciate that a lot of work was done to advance the plot and entice the audience back into the world of Westeros. It was a disjointed episode because we had a lot to get through and key characters are still geographically separated for now, but I expect that as the season progresses people will either die or come together to make for an easier viewing experience.

7/10

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