A good measure of whether Game of Thrones is feeding you a placeholder episode is to imagine trying to spoil it for a close friend who has yet to watch. After the series opener, ‘Dragonstone’, I was left scrambling for ways in which I could ruin the viewing experience for virgin eyes. Daenerys arrives at Dragonstone? Not exactly news. Cersei schemes against everyone? Change the record. Jon Snow makes a brooding, portentous speech about the White Walkers? Got the t-shirt. And it took a fair time for season seven’s sophomore effort, ‘Stormborn’, to tread new ground, but, when it finally did, it was in a heady blaze of sex and violence.
For its first half, ‘Stormborn’ is more House of Cards than Lord of the Rings. Jon Snow, Sansa and Littlefinger and busy politicking in the North, whilst Daenerys makes the solid decision to reach out to the King in the North. In the next episode we may well get the most coveted meeting of characters, Jon and Dany, since the show began: let’s just hope that Jon brings the requisite paperwork. But whilst this plotline was progressing slowly, and in a manner relatively inexorable given the events of season six’s conclusion, it burst into life in its closing scenes, as the Greyjoys descended into bloody, fiery civil war. The Mother of Dragons’ plan to have the Iron Islanders and Dornish (essentially the shows most expendable characters) lay siege to King’s Landing was, quite literally, scuppered, as her fleet was sunk by mad uncle Euron. In a week when Dunkirk is invading cinemas, it was satisfying to see Game of Thrones give a maritime masterclass on the small screen.
In the sleepier climes of Oldtown, however, things are heading in a distinctly metafictional direction, almost as though Samwell Tarly is channelling Martin Amis (but if the final shot of the show is Sam setting quill to paper and writing out ‘The Game of Thrones’, I shall be thoroughly disappointed). Distracting himself from the absence of his girlfriend and step son – about whom no reference has been made – Sam embarks on an excruciating attempt to cure Jorah Mormont’s greyscale. With precious little running time remaining in the story, there must be some purpose to Sam’s attempts to cure Jorah, otherwise, just like the bedpan montage in the previous episode, we’ll be washing our eyes out for nothing.
As with the series opener, there was a degree of checking-in across Westeros. Arya has ditched Ed Sheeran and discovered that Jon is now in charge of Winterfell. Cersei and Jaime are entreating Randyll Tarly, such is their dearth of allies. And, in the opening scene at Dragonstone, some of the show’s most charismatic characters – Varys, Olenna, Ellaria, Melisandre – sat around a table and explained their motivations. It seems likely that a rift will develop in the encampment between Tyrion (pragmatic, strategic) and Olenna (vengeful, experienced) to mirror the ideological divide between Jon and Sansa in the North.
But exposition has never been Game of Thrones’ strong point (even when accompanied by gratuitous sex and/or violence) and the show is on surer footing from the moment Euron rams his trireme into Yara Greyjoy’s hull. The saga of the Iron Islanders is Game of Thrones in a nutshell: a strong, if broadly drawn, female lead, taking on a villain too heinous for reality, whilst a subtler protagonist – Theon – rises through their carnage. The moment when the Artist Formerly Known As Reek makes the sensible decision to abandon his sister and, (again) quite literally, jump ship, is the moment season seven really starts. Finally, we’re seeing quite how much of a direwolf eat direwolf world it really is.
Game of Thrones airs on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am and then again at 9pm.