*** WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD ***
It was perhaps inevitable that with the final stages of the great game approaching that various story threads would begin to fold upon each other, and Stormborn is predominantly an exercise in smoothing out the rough, overlapping edges.
Stormborn is perhaps the most exposition heavy episode the show has ever produced. Hardly a moment goes by without one character having to lay out the complicated backstory and various motivations of another. It’s a necessary exercise; even dedicated fans can struggle to keep up with every minute detail of the characters’ histories.
Last week’s episode showed the clearly emerging political divides in Westeros and this week the distinctions are distilled even further. On one side we have all the characters we hate – led by Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy (now in full swashbuckling pirate mode). On the other is all the people we’re rooting for – Daenerys, Tyrion and The Queen of Thorns all set for a rendezvous with Jon Snow.
Thankfully the bloodbath that concludes this week’s episode even lanced off a few members of team Daenerys/Jon that we never really warmed to. The Sand Snakes never really were defined beyond their weapons and few watchers will mourn their passing.
But most intriguingly, Euron’s surprise attack throws a giant spanner in Tyrion’s best laid plans of besieging King’s Landing, winning the Iron Throne and keeping Daenerys on it for the foreseeable future. In one fell swoop her most powerful fleet and an entire kingdom’s ruin are swept off the board.
With a Dothraki horde, an Unsullied army and three dragons at her disposal, Daenerys still has the firepower to bring the Seven Kingdoms to heel. The problem is that her current philosophy of ruling matches that of Varys – rulers should try and serve the interests of their people.
The Dothraki are largely a destructive army – they’re great at rampaging through villages, murdering and pillaging, but not really adept to a siege warfare mentality. The Unsullied are excellent at hand to hand combat, but as Daenerys’ conquering of the cities in Slaver’s Bay showed, they need a way into a city before their skills can be used effectively.
The great flaw with both assets is that they are foreign fighting forces. The Targaryens may have ruled Westeros for hundreds of years, but not too many of the Seven Kingdoms will be satisfied placing a new one on the Iron Throne for too long with an invading army to try and keep the peace.
It makes you wonder what Daenerys exploits in Meereen were really supposed to teach her. Towards the end of the first season, Daenerys balked as her husband Khal Drogo rampaged through Essos collecting the funds and personnel required to launch a full-scale invasion. It was clear that the horror of warfare was too great a price to pay.
In Meereen, she spent the best of two seasons attempting to placate a restless population and only managed to do so with a great show of power and force with her dragons. At the time, this seemed to signal a shift in her mentality from benign ruler to conqueror, but upon returning to her ancestral homeland she has slipped back to her former ways.
This series has never shied away from displaying the full gore and unpleasantness of war (the final sequence of this episode is an example of the often gratuitous extremes it goes to), and it seems clear that the road to the Iron Throne will require more blood to be shed.
Cersie Lannister appears to hold no such qualms. Jaime’s entreaty to the Tarlys spells bad news for the Queen of Thorns and the remaining Tyrells. Game of Thrones consistently returns to the theme of supposedly loyal bannermen grasping to take power from their lords – the Freys and the Boltons being the two greatest examples. However, given how things ended up for those two families they may want to think again about a deal with the Lannisters.
But the most touching moments of the episode belonged to Arya. After a couple of years isolated in assassin school, she now has time to catch up with international pop stars, her long-lost direwolf and Hot Pie. Exactly how her face-switching skills will help when she gets to Winterfell and presumably needs to eventually fight White Walkers is unclear, but Hot Pie’s baking tips were shown to pay off.
As the final episodes of the show tick away, it’s becoming clear the show is not just concerned with smoothing out the overlapping contours, but tying up the loose threads too.