One of the great hopes and great fears in life is that the people around us will see us for who we truly are. When push comes to shove, the masks we wear, the titles we bear, the icons and ornaments we surround ourselves with, can be pierced by those perceptive enough to see past them. In Westeros, as in all places, that means sometimes those closest to us see the best and most human parts of who we are; sometimes it means they see us at our weakest and worst, and sometimes they see who we used to be and are no longer.
That’s the case for Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who in a well-orchestrated moment of panic, finds herself surrounded by wolves in the middle of the forest. The leader of their pack emerges, and it’s Nymeria, the direwolf Arya sent off long ago to spare her from Cersei’s (Lena Headey) order of execution. Arya asks her beloved old companion for that sort of recognition. She offers her hand to her now full-grown pet, asking Nymeria to come back with her to Winterfell. But while the gesture is enough for the lupine brood to leave her alone, Nymeria is too far gone to return from whence she came. It’s been too long, and Arya’s not her master anymore. “That’s not you,” the young Stark calls after her onetime protector.
Maybe Nymeria recognized the same thing in Arya. Some welcome news of Jon’s (Kit Harington) return convinces Arya to put off regicide and set out for home. But as her 10,000 yard stare when Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey) tries to talk to her confirms, she’s not quite the same either. She is a killer, one who makes pies of a very different sort, and who scarfs down bread and drinks ale like a warrior. After so many false starts, so many missed connections, Arya has the chance to finally go home, but the young woman poised to return to Winterfell is much different than the little girl who left it. With all that’s happened, there may not be a place for her there any more than there is for the direwolf who once defended her.
But sometimes recognition of who we used to be is the thing that changes our fortunes for the better. When Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) is examined by the head of The Citadel (Jim Broadbent, once again putting the arch in Archmaester) he’s told that there’s nothing that can be done. The fate that awaits Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke), own former protector seems to be either suicide or a life of lost sanity among the Stone Men of Old Valyria.
Noble Sam (John Bradley-West), however, realizes that the man who sits before him is Jorah Mormont, the son of the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a man to whom Sam owes his life. While Jorah declines the opportunity to write to his family — people who’ve considered him dead for years — that recognition of who he is and where he comes from, is enough for Sam to once again step outside the strictures of The Citadel and attempt a dangerous technique to treat Jorah. The ensuing scene is painful to watch, as Sam slices and peels the stony infection off of Jorah’s skin, but it’s a sign that even the things that seem harsh and brutal can be signs of mercy and caring.
The same is true for Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), who share a tender goodbye before the Unsullied go off to war. “Stormborn” finds a characteristically unique way to turn a potentially cliché expression of love into something more indirect and thus touching when Grey Worm explains his feelings to Missandei. He speaks of her as a weakness, as someone who cuts through his bravery, with the unspoken implication that, for the first time in his life, she gives him something he’s afraid to lose.
In response, Missandei shares intimacy with him. It’s not the closing frames of their love scene, which will no doubt help fulfill HBO’s mandatory nudity quotient, that make the scene potent. It’s what precedes it, when Missandei starts to undress her lover and he tries to stop her. There is an insecurity for Grey Worm in the shadow of his mutilation, a fear that the sight of his abuse will turn away the woman he cares about most.
Instead, Missandei gazes at him, and he gives into her loving embrace, revealing himself in the process. She sees him as he truly is and exposes herself the same way. They accept one another, consummating their love not just in a show of gratuitous flesh, but in the sharing and acceptance of the parts of ourselves we worry about showing to others.
Daenerys’s usual business on Game of Thrones has been projecting strength, not sharing perceived weaknesses. But now it’s time to make a decision to pierce through all that pomp and posturing, about who she is and who she wants to be. After having reached Westeros, Daenerys must decide whether to lay waste to King’s Landing and seize the Iron Throne by overwhelming force, or if she intends to rally support and earn the trust and respect of the noblemen and other people she means to rule instead.
When surrounded by her advisors and allies before the great map table of Dragonstone, she echoes the words of her advisors. She tells the assembled that she does not wish to be queen of the ashes, a phrase she borrows from Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion (to his understated delight). The phrase itself an echo of a conversation between two of those present before her, offering their counsel. For the time being, Dany seems to be following her advisors’ suggestions, intending to lay siege to King’s Landing with forces from Dorne and The Reach while attacking Casterly Rock with the Dothraki and Unsullied.
Still, Lady Tyrell (Diana Rig) sees Dany for what she is, and maybe even sees a bit of herself in the Mother of Dragons. Olenna decries worrying about the whims of the general populace, whom she dismisses as unruly children. She disdains the advice of “clever men,” and she tells the Breaker of Chains that she outlived them all by ignoring them. Lady Tyrell recognizes that Dany is not a sheep (or a shark), but a dragon. Daenerys Stormborn made it this far not through political maneuvering, but through shows of force and determination. Game recognize game, even in Westeros, and when Daenerys’s plan falls apart in the episode’s finale in a fiery fashion, it remains to be seen whether she’ll return those ashes in kind.
Nevertheless, the episode ends on an action-packed note, but one that is just as revealing in its own way. All seems well as Yara (Gemma Whelan), Theon (Alfie Allen), and Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) set sail for Dorne. The Sand Snakes are lying in hammocks claiming dibs on killings in King’s Landing. Yara and Ellaria are flirting and getting comfortable. And Theon is fetching more ale. The plan seems to be unfolding nicely until fire rains across the sky. Ship tears through ship on the rocky sea. And Euron (Pilou Asbæk) comes careening down himself on an ornate plank made to look like a dragon, full of wild bravado and lunatic fury.
It’s the usual Game of Thrones spate of murder and mayhem — often chaotic, always brutal, and full of chills and spills both exciting and empty. The climax of the sequence, however, and what makes it more than just a visually arresting bit of fire and swashbuckling, is a standoff between the three members of Pyke’s royal family. Euron holds Yara hostage by the blade of his axe, and calls on his nephew, whom he derides as a “cockless coward,” to challenge him for her life.
Unlike Grey Worm, Theon is torn down, not accepted, under the yoke of his mutilation. His uncle’s taunts serve as a reminder of what was done to him. Theon looks around and sees more torture, more cruelty, and all his abuse comes flooding back. He’s made great strides since the horrors inflicted on him by Ramsey ended. He has sought to do right, to humble himself, to do better and be better. He is fearsome in battle when we first see him, fending off attackers and slinging his blade furiously, seemingly becoming the man he wanted to be.
But when confronted by the fearless madman who crashes onto ships and heckles his family members, Theon winces at the fear that his uncle has exposed him, shown him to be Reek once more. In that moment, he believes himself forever unable to shed the mantle of that damaged young man who once fancied himself the heir to King Balon. In the moment of truth, he flees, unable to face so many reminders of what he was and what’s been done to him.
That is the heaven and hell of being “seen.” It can mean understanding and acceptance, cutting away the fears and insecurities that hinder us. It can mean recognition: as a dragon, a warrior, or simply a man whose name still means something. Or it can mean rejection, a confirmation of everything we fear and try to outrun. In Game of Thrones, no one stays hidden forever, and the reveal can be transcendent and triumphant, or it can be nasty, brutish, and short.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: Sam’s father Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner) makes his way to King’s Landing for an audience with Queen Cersei, and his gruffness is much more palatable when directed at the Lannisters rather than poor Samwell. Hot Pie also returns for the first time since his chance encounter with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), offering compliments, news about the North, and more great baking tips that you can read in his forthcoming cookbook, Someone’s in the Kitchen with Hot Pie. Last but certainly not least, as mentioned above, Nymeria makes her dramatic return in “Stormborn”, boosting the show’s dwindling direwolf supply.
So Long and Thanks For All the Blackfish: Along with scores of assorted Ironborn casualties, two of The Sand Snakes — Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Nymeria Sand (Jessica Henwick) — meet their ends at the hands of Euron in the closing moments of “Stormborn”. Nymeria Sand joins Loras Tyrell in proving that the worst death sentence in Westeros is being cast on Iron Fist.
Line of the Night: “You chose an auspicious day to arrive in Dragonstone. We’ve just decided to pardon those who once served the wrong king.” Dany sure knows how to turn her advisors’ words against them, huh?
This Week in Lore: Thanks to a quirk in translation, the fabled “prince who was promised,” as described by The Red Woman, can, in fact, be a prince or a princess. If only all gender equality could be achieved through proper grammar.
Just Don’t Ask Me To Call It “Honest Loyalty”: In the episode’s opening scene, “Stormborn” does well to have Dany confront Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) for his role in the attempt on her life and his past shifting allegiances. Varys makes a good case for himself as having done what he had to do and giving his loyalty to the people in the humble circumstances from which he arose. Daenerys sets herself apart from her predecessors by seeing his value despite his slippery loyalty, but asking him to tell her when she’s failing those people, not plot behind her back. And hey, she throws in a threat for good measure, because what good would this show be without some feisty throne room banter?
When Essos Sends Its People, They’re Not Sending Their Best: It’s noteworthy that Cersei seeks to rally support for her reign and defense by casting Daenerys’s armies as savage foreigners come to sully these noble lands with their strange ways and crazy passports. Thankfully, this is all fiction, and no real leader attains or sustains power saying that sort of thing.
That’s Not What I Meant When I Said “Bring Me Something Dornish”: Euron’s great gift to Cersei seems to be the two Sand Snakes responsible for Myrcella’s death. I have to admit, it’s a good ploy. There’s nothing that Cersei loves more than getting revenge on the people who hurt her children, though I don’t imagine they’ll sit still long enough to be giftwrapped.
Have Some Tea and Bend the Knee: Jon’s off to Dragonstone for a sit-down with Daenerys, despite the objections of literally everyone he tells about this decision. Sansa (Sophie Turner), quite reasonably, implores Jon to send an emissary instead, but he demurs and says that a king must be sent to meet a queen. It’s a thin excuse to get Jon and Dany in the same room, but hell, we’ll take it.