Until Euron Greyjoy’s (Pilou Asbæk) attack on the Targaryen-allied Greyjoy fleet at the end of “Stormborn,” this was a fairly talky episode of “Game of Thrones.” This is a show where a gory pirate ambush can still count as an establishing action. And though this season still feels as though it’s in setup mode, a fair amount of that talking got at a larger question that has often fallen by the wayside in the battle for the Iron Throne: What should a ruler’s power be based on? What’s most moral? What’s the most resonant appeal in urgent times? And what source of authority will prove most sustainable?
If “Game of Thrones” is going to hold Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) on Dragonstone for the time being, if only so Jon Snow (Kit Harington) can have time enough to ride south and meet up with her, the series could do worse than to stage philosophical debates between her followers, such as the ones that took place tonight.
While it has been exciting to see Dany’s coalition come together, it’s an inherently unstable alliance. One faction made up of Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) is in it for revenge. Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) has essentially thrown in with Dany out of opportunism: She dreams of being Queen of the Iron Islands. And Dany’s closest adviser, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and the adviser she trusts the least, Varys (Conleth Hill), want to believe that they’re backing the queen who has the best chance of bringing decent governance back to Westeros.
For all the drama of Euron’s attack, which takes the perpetually underdeveloped Sand Snakes out of commission, its main function is to whittle down the factions in Dany’s alliance. With Olenna, Tyrion and Varys having survived the battle without being killed or captured, Dany will be forced to choose the positions articulated by an older, more experienced noblewoman and two men who have walked unusual paths to becoming populist reformers.
What makes for good dramatic tension here is that everyone is correct. Tyrion is right that if Dany turns her dragons loose on King’s Landing, killing tens of thousands of people and invoking both the specter of the Mad King and Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) use of wildfire, she will inspire terror and hatred. Olenna also has a point when she asks Dany: “Peace? Do you think that’s what we had under your father, or his father, or his? Peace never lasts, my dear.”
Dany has experience terrorizing people, and she’s aware of the limitations of that approach. She has less experience truly pulling a society together. When Varys tells her, “I choose you, because I know the people have no better chance than you,” he’s outlining a rather large gamble — one that, as Dany makes clear, could be deadly.
For the moment, though, the idea of a benevolent monarchy clearly resonates with Dany. She may decide that she likes Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) prophecy better once Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) explains that the nouns involved are gender-neutral. But the thing that really sways her is Melisandre’s tale of what Jon did in the north, the risk he took in letting the wildlings through the Wall in an effort to place their common humanity over the cultural differences that have divided them from the Northerners. Jon’s experiment is in a risky place as he leaves his sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) as the ruling Stark in Winterfell and rides south to meet Dany. But part of the value of Jon’s effort at social engineering may be the way it allows him to bring in new allies even before this volatile mix of peoples has settled into a steadier formation.
Further south in King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are making a nationalist pitch, one that Tyrion has anticipated from Dragonstone.
Cersei appeals to the self-interest of the former Tyrell bannermen by telling them horror stories about Dany’s time in Meereen, painting her younger rival as an out-of-control populist.
“You remember the Mad King. You remember the horrors she inflicted on the people,” Cersei says, sounding awfully like a contemporary American political attack ad. “She crucified thousands of noblemen in Slaver’s Bay. When she grew bored of that, she fed them to her dragons.”
Meanwhile Jaime, attempting to recruit Samwell Tarly’s* (John Bradley) father Randyll (James Faulkner) to be his chief general, adds a pinch of xenophobia. “She brought the Dothraki to our shores. The Dothraki! In Westeros, for the first time in our history,” Jaime warns Randyll. “Do you fight with us, or with foreign savages and eunuchs?”
The comparisons to our present are obvious but less interesting than the dilemma established within the show itself. From Dany’s experience with two Dothraki khalasars, we know that Dothraki culture is fundamentally different from Westerosi culture: The Dothraki are nomadic, whereas the people of Westeros are intensely bound to their home regions; they pillage rather than farm or mine; and their governance system is more fluid than Westeros’s purports to be. It’s no small thing that the Dothraki have come to Westeros, and it will be no small thing for the people of these two very different cultures to adapt to each other, especially without the clear and present threat that pushed the wildlings and Northerners together under Jon Snow’s leadership.
Jaime’s wrong that the Dothraki are “savages.” But he’s right that Dany’s invasion represents something unprecedented in Westerosi history. Even if Dany wins, it will take a monumental effort to merge these different societies into something functional.
Beyond the options of benevolent monarchy or xenophobic nationalism lies a tradition of personal honor and fealty. Randyll Tarly may not be much of a father, but he takes his oath and lifelong friendship with Olenna Tyrell seriously. Jon Snow believes he can leave Sansa in command of Winterfell because of tradition: Her blood gives her the qualifications to fill an ancient position. Family is even enough to turn Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) off the path of revenge in hopes of reuniting with her family at Winterfell, although the ghost of a bond isn’t enough to reunite her with Nymeria, her long-lost wolf.
Yet Euron Greyjoy’s attack at the end of this episode may seem to moot all of these traditions. It’s an argument that debating theories of governance all fall by the wayside when your ship is rammed, your daughters are murdered and your fleet is in flames.
Certainly, Euron’s ambush serves to undermine heroic fantasy narratives in an incredibly sad way**: Rather than rising to the opportunity and saving his sister, as he might if he were in a more conventional story, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) jumps into the water to save himself. The torture Theon endured at the hands of the late Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) has broken something in him for good. What might have been an opportunity for Theon to redeem himself of his cowardice in a more traditional fantasy adventure is, in this one, an opportunity for both him and his sister to be brutally slaughtered.
Say the worst happens: Qyburn’s (Anton Lesser) giant crossbows kill Dany’s dragons, Euron destroys her fleet, and Euron and Cersei share the Iron Throne. Their victory would quickly turn not merely to ashes but also to ice. They aren’t people who think of tomorrow or of what they’ll do with power once they’ve secured their own persons and destroyed their enemies. The real twist in “Game of Thrones” is that ruling a country, as opposed to winning one, isn’t a game at all. The people who act as though this is only a matter of moving pieces around on a chessboard may be left with the spoils. But it will literally be spoils if they can’t think of how to rule: Winning that way doesn’t get you anything that feels like an actual victory.
*Speaking of Sam, I appreciate the series’ commitment to funny grossness in his storylines this season. Though the episode doesn’t really explore whether Sam’s experimental treatment of Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glen) greyscale is leading Sam down the path that Qyburn took, the cut from Jorah’s mortified flesh to the contents of one of Hot Pie’s (Ben Hawkey) creations was pretty terrific.
**I did appreciate the episode’s other subversion of genre and “Game of Thrones’ ” own practice: a sex scene between Missandei and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) that felt genuinely charged without dissolving into pure ogling, that focused on both characters’ anxieties and emotions, and that put a premium on Missandei’s pleasure. Old shows, it seems, can develop new skills this late in the game.
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 12: Actors Kit Harington and Rose Leslie attend the premiere of HBO's "Game Of Thrones" season 7 at Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
See the cast of ?Game of Thrones? at the Season 7 premiere