Game of Thrones isn’t what it used to be. That’s no judgement on its quality, but purely an observation: the show moves now. Gone are the reams of exposition delivered against feasts of food or flesh. There's no time for spare information. Without published novels to guide it (or trap it in canon), and with with stratospheric production costs putting every minute of screen time at a premium, the show’s barrelling through its final thirteen episodes, which has a range of effects.
For one thing, pretty much every episode will contain significant plot developments - a welcome change from the glacial pace of season 5, the final season married to a specific book. It also means character development, nuance, and detail get the short shrift, and scenes can feel a bit rushed. But then, all the major players are well in place already. Everyone knows each other, either personally or by reputation; at this point, the writing staff could place nearly any two characters together and they’d have at least some shared history.
With the introductory guff out of the way: to Westeros, and BMD’s belated first recap of the season!
In keeping with the show’s new lease on pace, this week’s episode kicks right into the long-anticipated meeting of Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen. Or at least, it almost does; there’s some clunky blocking and dialogue editing to be had on the approach to the queen’s new castle, and naturally the Northeners have to be greeted by a dragon. Davos’ blunt introduction of Jon Snow is a wonderful counter to Missandei’s poetic heraldry for the Dragon Queen, and it’s just one of the many elements making Jon uneasy about the whole endeavour.
The main conflict at Dragonstone, of course, revolves around the terms of Danaerys and Jon’s uneasy alliance. While viewers will be shouting at their screen to just get on with it (and/or get it on), they each have fairly well-founded wariness over the potential detente. Dany didn’t get where she is today through partnerships, she got there by herself, and she’ll be damned if some White Walker fairytale will get her to give up her troops and her ships. Jon, meanwhile, is stubborn about his (entirely true) fairytale as ever, demanding assistance in the North immediately. These characters - probably the most proven leaders in Westeros, at this point - both need each other, but neither will accede to each other’s needs. (If only Dany knew the irony in her telling Jon that she’s the last Targaryen.)
That’s what Tyrion’s there for. Jon’s reunion with the dwarf is warm and witty as expected, though demonstrative of Tyrion’s narrative heavy lifting in this episode. In just two scenes, he negotiates a deal between the two self-crowned monarchs - Jon gets his dragonglass, and Dany gets some goodwill, I guess. That’s where we stand going into next week: a mining operation. And as a side note, I’m glad someone finally acknowledged that dragonglass is just obsidian. Everybody has different terms for things around the Seven Kingdoms, but trust Tyrion to know the proper names for things.
Up on the parapets, Melisandre seems to be writing herself out of the show, but she surely has some final act to deliver into the story. Carice van Houten has been terrific on the show, and it’d be a shame to see her go without some last demonstration of the Red Woman’s strange power. There’s definitely something being set up around Dany discovering that Jon’s come back from the dead with Melisandre’s assistance. I’m not sure what the significance of that will be, but I guess we’ll find out.
At King’s Landing:
Again: no “prisoner at sea” scenes for Yara and Ellaria and the one remaining Sand Snake whose name the show never bothered to make me learn. No, their passion play is limited to Euron Greyjoy dragging his “gift” through the streets of King’s Landing, in scenes cruelly mirroring Cersei’s own shame parade from a couple years ago. Euron, the monument to toxic masculinity that he is, doesn’t care about these mighty women, but Cersei fucking despises them. (She also clearly despises Euron, as he will likely discover violently at some point in the future.) So powerful is her hatred that she poisons What’s-Her-Name in front of Ellaria, locking up the former matriarch to watch her daughter die and rot, an act of vengeance made all the crueller by Cersei’s firsthand knowledge of motherly attachment. Yep - that’ll do it.
All that vengeance, of course, makes psychopathic Cersei super-horny for some brother-meat, and she doesn’t even care that people know about their incest now. It’s clear the show is setting up Cersei’s arrogance to be a fatal weakness, but she’s gotten away with it this far. Perhaps the return of Mark Gatiss’ Iron Banker heralds some clouds on the King’s Landing horizon. The Lannisters are deep in debt to Game of Thrones’ biggest financial institution, and it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the Bank to start funding another house if it seemed more likely to profit. At first it seems like Gatiss, demanding restitution from Cersei, isn’t long for this world, but by the end of the episode, it becomes clear Cersei plans to pay those famous Lannister debts using money from elsewhere.
At Casterly Rock:
We get to see Casterly Rock, for one thing, even if it’s mostly deserted and in the midst of a mini Helm’s Deep battle between the Lannisters and the Unsullied. It’s incredible and testament to the show’s New Pace™ that a battle scene this large and elaborate is covered in montage. It’s a weirdly Ocean’s-style sequence, with Tyrion explaining his plan while it’s being acted out, and it’s over before we even really see it begin. There’s only really a single shot of Euron’s fleet appearing to bust up Grey Worm’s fleet. That’s some efficiency, right there. But then, the battle’s meant to be short, because:
Well, shit - the Lannisters took Highgarden. I’ve no idea what the distances and timescales are in this episode, which sees Jaime and Euron apparently teleporting around Westeros and yet also has Jaime talking about the Unsullied having to march “all the way” across it, but the show long ago gave up on the geography of troop movements in favour of the meaning of them. I’m okay with that. At any rate, the Tyrells are out of action, cutting off yet another of Danaerys’ key allies. Bugger.
Also out of action: Lady Olenna Tyrell, who I’m sure fans will miss acutely. Dame Diana Rigg’s final scene is as barbed as any she’s had over her multiple seasons on the show, with the Queen Mother deploying a few more tactical expletives about the much-hated Lannisters. Her death is the second historically ironic poisoning of the episode, though luckily for her, Cersei and Jaime didn’t know she’d orchestrated Joffrey’s death until now - otherwise, her death would have been considerably more painful. Instead, she gets to enjoy a more or less dignified death, on more or less her own terms - a rarity on Game of Thrones. And if Olenna is as canny as I give her credit for, she will have hidden away the Tyrell fortune somewhere Cersei can’t get it - as that is surely the second reason for taking Highgarden in the first place. Maybe the venerable lady will get yet another last laugh.
Not much happens in the North. Sansa is doing fine work telling people how to store food and insulate armour, though that doesn’t stop Littlefinger (now, notably, shorter than Sansa) from giving her some hard-learned advice. His “fight every battle everywhere” monologue is actually pretty sound counsel, given that it’s how he lives. It’ll be curious to see how that advice pays off.
We also get to see Bran’s return to Winterfell: a teary reunion for brother and sister, though Bran wants nothing of his Stark inheritance. He’s got a new purpose following his Jedi training, even though Sansa doesn’t quite understand what a Three-Eyed Raven even is. His second sight certainly creeps her out, though, and I expect it’ll do more than creep people out by the end of the season.
Jorah is cured of Greyscale, just like that, ready to scamper back to Danaerys’ side like the loyal puppy dog that he is. His coverup of Sam’s treatment doesn’t go far, though, and Sam gets chewed out with faint praise by Maester Jim Broadbent, as expected, despite having demonstrated just how great at his job he is. His “reward”: he’s ordered to make copies of some old, disintegrating scrolls. But they’re just some old scrolls. They probably don’t mean anything.
Theon Greyjoy, Westeros’ great survivor, gets dredged out of the sea to face his judgement and to further tease audiences that he might someday, somehow, find redemption. Poor Theon.
Winners and Losers: Cersei just keeps racking up wins this season - getting revenge on the Dornish, taking Highgarden, getting laid. Jon gets a little win by getting the material part of what he wanted at Dragonstone. Jorah wins big-time by getting cured of Greyscale, entering the Millions Of Colours world once again. Danaerys loses a sizeable portion of her fleet of ships. Oleanna both loses and wins by getting one final little barb in at Cersei before her death.
MVP: Tyrion, for brokering a deal between two of the more stubborn characters in Westeros. Plus, a lifetime achievement award to the great Dame Diana Rigg, whose presence on this show will be missed.
Conspicuously Absent: Tormund and company, hiking north to a likely death at the Wall. Arya and no company, hiking north to a likely welcome at Winterfell. The Hound, likely still feeling sorry for himself somewhere. Genndry Baratheon, still building up ridiculous upper body strength by paddling his boat around the ocean.
Births, Deaths, and Marriages: RIP one forgettable Sand Snake (presumably), one unforgettable Tyrell matriarch (presumably), and many unnamed Lannisters, Tyrells, and Unsullied (definitely). No births, unless you count Jorah's unexpectedly renewed lease on life; no marriages, much to Euron Greyjoy's dismayjoy.
Wild-Assed Predictions: Sam finds a medical solution to the White Walker problem in those old, crumbling scrolls. Jon's obsidian-mining mission opens up a volcano underneath Dragonstone, making Danaerys look all the more imposing and releasing the subterranean dragons from Reign of Fire. Ellaria Sand remains forgotten in her cell until winter arrives, at which point her daughter's decayed corpse reanimates and kills her. King’s Landing gets repossessed due to non-payment of mortgage, followed by a Westeros-wide economic recession. Theon Greyjoy becomes the last survivor of the show and limps, dickless and friendless, to the Iron Throne.
Commitment to Craft: Kudos to the art direction team for realising the previously unseen Casterly Rock for such an abbreviated sequence. I daresay we'll see more of it in the near future, though. Also, whoever designed Danaerys and company's fancy new black costumes is absolutely killing it.
Banter Is Coming: “There are always lessons in failures.” - “Yes. You must be very wise by now.” (But nearly anything out of Olenna’s mouth, to be honest.)