Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

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Now that is how you do an establishment episode. I mean, if you have to do an episode where everyone’s laying out their goals and strategies and alliances, as opposed to an episode where people just go after those goals and strategies and whatnot, then “Stormborn,” written by Bryan Cogman, is the way to do it.

For one thing, “Stormborn” isn’t as structurally plain as usual. It doesn’t spend 15 minutes in Winterfell and then 15 minutes in Dragonstone and so on, so that the pieces move a little further in their separate spheres, and sometimes resonate with one another but often not, eventually to build a more intricate domino design for the crescendo. Now that everyone’s on the same continent, more or less, and everyone’s on collision courses, an episode can more naturally flow back and forth.

Speaking of crescendos, “Stormborn” marks the first major battle that comes out of nowhere. “Hardhome” still has it beat in terms of just about everything except Greyjoy count, but the climax of “Hardhome” arises out of the scene. Things build and build, and it becomes clearer and clearer that a battle is about to take place. In “Stormborn,” a bang above deck is all the warning we get, and suddenly the Yara Greyjoy fleet is smack dab in the middle of Euron’s Iron Fleet, and the party begins.

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Directed by Mark Mylod, the battle of the Greyjoys is a cartoonish mayhem that gets by as well as it does thanks partly to the visuals. For such a contained sequence, “Stormborn” packs a lot of exciting images into the flurry: the silhouette of Euron’s gigantic ship approaching through the night, the man himself riding a boarding plank as it’s lowered onto Yara’s vessel, a body hanging from the prow in the stillness that follows. It never looks like the budget has limited how many people or ships are in the fight, although it does feel a little tight, because there’s only one ship that matters.

Beyond that there’s the structural drama. What this attack represents is more powerful than the attack sequence itself, which is a double-edged sword, but let’s start with the positive. If what we see is any indication, Euron has decimated Yara’s fleet and cut it off before it was able to fetch the Dornish army. So Euron has effectively severed Dany’s connection to her navy and one of her armies as well as one of her sworn kingdoms. He’s also personally kidnapped the heads of two kingdoms in rebellion. And depending on how Dany reacts, he may have provoked her into battle at King’s Landing.

Oh, and Euron rescued us all from the Sand Snakes. I’m on his side on that one.

It’s hard to think of a sequence that more vividly demonstrates the problems with the later seasons than this battle incorporating characters from five different seasons. Theon Greyjoy is the most well developed character on that stage, and the action comes down to him. Euron, with Yara underneath his ax, goads Theon into attack. But Theon is overwhelmed by the violence all around him, and instead he jumps overboard. Shot in medium against the black night with orange sparks floating around him, Alfie Allen’s face glowing orange on one side and dark on the other, it’s a beautiful moment just slightly under-realized—again, what the action represents is almost more moving than the action itself. But the only other character who comes close to living up to the moment is Yara, this warrior woman who can’t help but let slip a tear as she watches Theon confront the horror and abandon her.

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The stakes for her aren’t death, at least not immediately. Ellaria and Yara have been kidnapped by the very worst of the Ironborn, a tribe known for raping and pillaging, but they’re apparently not in much physical danger yet beyond confinement. Euron and the Sand Snakes are, and two of the latter pay with their lives, but it means nothing, because they mean nothing. Nobody could ever be bothered to imagine the Sand Snakes beyond personalized weaponry and fake-aggressive quips, none of which were very convincing, and now they don’t even register as dead weight. In their honor, Euron mugs and cos-plays up a storm. He’s exactly as silly as the Sand Snakes ever were, but it’s not the flamboyance that does him in. They all had the misfortune of showing up too late, after the more intricate seasons. At a certain point, Game Of Thrones started barreling toward the end, cutting itself down to—contra Ian McShane—exposition and battles, and it lost too much of its life (not to be confused with “too many of its lives”). It started taking shortcuts, like the construction of a fleet of a thousand ships, and the result is we’re finally in the great game, the giant continental battle for Westeros, the one plot uniting (or soon to unite) all the characters, and there are still some insurmountable gaps in the dominoes.

But even without the battle, “Stormborn” is a far more exciting establishment episode than “Dragonstone.” It spends most of its time hopping back and forth among three different war rooms with a couple diversions to Oldtown and the Riverlands. And within those war rooms, “Stormborn” isn’t just taking things for granted or skipping to the point where all the characters are neatly sorted onto two sides. The opening sequence asks the surprisingly illuminating question of why Varys supported Viserys. Dany wants to know how precisely Varys has served her from afar, and if his habit of betraying the rulers he serves is a warning. A cutaway shows Tyrion, after trying to intervene on his friend’s behalf and being interrupted, silently darting his eyes back and forth, like he’s following the volleys in a tennis match.

Conleth Hill has his best material in ages and owns it. He practically hisses at the imperious dragon queen. “Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes, I’ll use them.” He’s in danger and knows it, but he gambles on hard truth and it pays off. But it’s no surprise Varys does well in a scene like this. What’s really interesting is what it reveals about Dany: first that she’s the only one in that room who would think to question Varys’ actions over the course of the series, and second that she learned from her treatment of Jorah. She had her most trusted counsel exiled for a past betrayal, and he remained her steadfast servant. She can’t afford to be too soft—“If you ever betray me, I’ll burn you alive”—but this time she finds wisdom in mercy, two words I hadn’t thought to associate with Dany before.

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There are all kinds of great complications like that, burs that finally make these strategy sessions stick. Ellaria and Tyrion have bad blood over Oberyn’s death. Randyll Tarly is so strongly committed to his oaths to Olenna that he walks out of a meeting with Cersei still intending to serve the Tyrells against her. Littlefinger and Sansa lock eyes at Winterfell, the only people in that room who really know the political personalities under discussion. Now, the episode could stand to be even more procedural, because Dragonstone feels as sparsely populated as ever. Where are those Dothraki hordes everyone keeps talking about? Does Dragonstone have stables? I’ll never say Game Of Thrones has gotten too nitty-gritty. But at last it’s stopped waving away all the knots. Everything basically winds up the way you’d expect, with Jon heading to Dragonstone to scope out Dany while Cersei more or less successfully marshals some Tyrell bannermen and some Qyburn inventions for the defense of King’s Landing. But it doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion.

Even Samwell is lining up on the appropriate side of the gameboard. His letter to Jon helps convince him to visit Dragonstone, and his ties to Lord Commander Mormont make Sam risk his standing at the Citadel in order to treat Jorah. Unfortunately, Oldtown is once again full of shortcuts and tonal miscalculation. Two episodes in and Sam’s already doing what it took Arya a season to try at the House Of Black And White, and all for some guy with the same last name as his old boss. The sequence where Sam carves off Jorah’s infected tissue in secret, stopping every few moments to shush his patient, is presented as comic relief why? Jorah reels back into a diagonal close-up whimpering like a dog. Yellow pus oozes to get those good gross-out laughs. Is the substance of this operation funny to anyone on its face?

The Arya subplot makes up for a lot, though. At first she’s so aloof as to make you wonder whether there is any of the old Arya in there. She’s sitting there with her old friend Hot Pie, gorging on freshly baked bread, and she’s stuck in a terrible monotone. She barely answers his questions. She’s a ghost of herself. And then Hot Pie gives us the key to Arya’s whole thing this season so far: She didn’t know that Jon had defeated the Boltons. I have a lot of questions about who knows what—for instance, news of the Frey massacre doesn’t seem to have traveled in quite the way Arya planned—but this lines up with what the red cloaks told Arya in “Dragonstone.” They don’t send ravens to people on the road. So maybe it’s plausible that Arya wouldn’t have known about her brother until now. And suddenly her awful single-minded mission of vengeance makes sense. She chided the Freys for leaving one Stark left because she really did think she was the last one.

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And now she has the real dilemma: press on to King’s Landing, where I have no doubt she could get as close to killing Cersei as anyone else, or double back to Winterfell to reunite with her family. She takes a moment and heads home. After all this time, the little girl who watched her father get beheaded, who was captured and impressed as her enemy’s servant, who was captured again and taken to the site of her family’s massacre, who enrolled at assassin school, who went blind, who dropped out to pursue vengeance, the woman who endured all that by focusing on her hit list can be swayed from her course by the prospect of her family and her home. I can’t think of a more optimistic outcome than that.

Stray observations

  • “Stormborn” is written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Mark Mylod.
  • At Dragonstone, Dany says it “doesn’t feel like home.” I’m not sure King’s Landing will either, but good luck.
  • I had her pegged for an encounter with the Brotherhood, but Melisandre shows up at Dragonstone and signs onto Team Dany. Saliently, Missandei corrects the literal interpretation of her prophecy. It does not refer to “the prince who was promised.” The word in High Valyrian is gender neutral.
  • The Winterfell scenes are still too flat—stock opposition characters, programmatic Jon-Sansa debate—but there are two highlights. First, Davos reading the letter from Dany can’t help but recall his tutor Shireen. Second, Jon says he’ll leave Winterfell in Sansa’s hands until he returns, and the show cuts to Littlefinger smiling so wide you could see it from the Wall.
  • A Game Of Threats: Which do you think will come to pass, Dany burning Varys alive for betraying her and/or Jon killing Littlefinger for touching Sansa?
  • Qyburn’s newest invention, a giant ballista, is no wildfire, but it does worry me for those dragons.
  • If the title “warden of the south” and all its attendant privileges and whatever is enough to get Tarly to turn on his oaths, then I’m surprised he held out this long.
  • I’ve already talked about Sam and Jorah’s illicit nocturnal disrobing scene, but there’s a much better one between Grey Worm and Missandei. They’ve been treading water, really, repeating the same dialogue every few episodes, but Grey Worm’s “Now I have fear” speech is a very good incarnation of that dialogue. More importantly, they finally hook up, complete with him allowing her to see him fully naked. Unfortunately, now I’m worried one or both of them won’t be around for much longer.
  • R.I.P. two of the Sand Snakes, Barbara and Barbarah, I believe. (The third one, Barbra, is captured with Ellaria.)
  • What do you make of the wolf scene? A pack of wolves, including a giant one, surrounds Arya in the woods, but Arya talks them down. She wants Nymeria to come home with her, but instead the wolves retreat. And Arya says to herself, “That’s not her.” It’s not? It’s a giant wolf on the road to King’s Landing, which is about where Arya set Nymeria free. Is Arya just telling herself that? She seems genuine. Maybe this is just foreshadowing for Nymeria’s triumphant return? (Update: It’s a callback to Arya telling her father “That’s not me” when he lays out her future as wife in a frilly dress. It implies that, like Arya, Nymeria is now wild and on her own track.)

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