Well, here we are again, my friends. And while "Dragonstone" was preoccupied with a lot of the table setting -- literally and figuratively -- that will guide us through this seventh season and send this show rushing toward its conclusion, it also asked some of the big questions that undergird the race for the Iron Throne. How do you build durable alliances when some of the parties to those alliances have suffered grievous material and psychological hurts? How do people who have turned into monsters, either by trauma or simply for others convenience, go back to being human beings again when the need for their monstrousness has been exhausted? And what do you do when your needs align, but not the larger ideological projects behind those needs?
"Dragonstone" isn't exactly subtle about the parallels between Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), newly installed as Queen in King's Landing, and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who is not the Stark supreme in Winterfell and has mixed feelings about her new position. The similarities between the two women are alternately harsh and heartbreaking, and they reveal the reach of the misogyny that has deformed both of their lives.
Both women have legitimate grievances, however many events have overshadowed the primal sources of their anger. Cersei and Sansa were both staunch believers in romantic ideals and courtly fantasies; they both dreamed of being married to kings. In both cases, those girlish dreams were eclipsed by the marital rape Cersei experienced at the hands of her husband, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), and the sexual abuse Cersei allowed her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) to inflict on Sansa. Sansa would suffer further, harsher trials at the hands of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), who married her to cement his claim to Sansa's family home, tortured her sexually, enlisted Sansa's foster brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) in the rituals Ramsay used to humiliate her and ultimately murdered Sansa's brother Rickon (Art Parkinson).
Given what they've been taught about the world around them, it's understandable that they've responded to brutality with brutality. Each woman has disposed of a hated husband with murder: Cersei solicited Robert's death during a hunting expedition, while Sansa fed Ramsay to his own dogs to make sure he was really gone. They're each cunning manipulators who have proven themselves willing to sacrifice many lives to their own ends. Cersei responded to threats with what was effectively state terrorism last season when she used wildfire to destroy the Great Sept of Baelor, while Sansa exploited her half-brother Jon Snow's (Kit Harington) impulsiveness to lay a brilliant military trap for Ramsay Bolton.
The question for each women in this season of "Game of Thrones" is how far Cersei continues down this path, and just how long Sansa is willing to walk in her footsteps.
In King's Landing, Cersei is dangerously isolated, and not simply by the fact that she's burned so many people from great families that she's scraping the bottom of the barrel by entering into a calculating courtship with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) in the hopes of winning his fleet. The woman who once justified herself by arguing that she was protecting her children is now making a nest of their ashes, dreaming of glory for herself and her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) with no thought of tomorrow, no consideration for the conflagration that will follow if they die without heirs.
This episode of "Game of Thrones" didn't have an aggressively obvious plot twist or dramatic moment. For my money, though, Cersei and Jaime's conversation about their dead children was as horrifying as some of the bloodier violence the show has employed. Coster-Waldau hasn't always been the series' strongest actor. But the expressions that broke through Jaime's controlled mask as he heard his sister describe her son Tommen's (Dean-Charles Chapman) suicide as a betrayal, rather than a tragedy his mother caused by killing Tommen's wife Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) were hugely unnerving.
This center cannot hold, even with the defense of the Greyjoy fleet that sailed off in search of a "priceless treasure" with which to win Cersei's heart. Euron Greyjoy may be the obvious madman in this negotiation, but Cersei's worldview no longer bears much relationship to reality, and her morals have become detached from decency. We've already learned that it doesn't take a dragon to burn down the center of a city, just a determined and furious woman.
Up North, Sansa's blood is running colder, and not merely because of the snow swirling around the main yard at Winterfell, where Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) is still casting yearning glances at Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Sansa tells Jon that she learned a great deal from Cersei, and she obviously feels some of the same vengeful impulses.
One of the reasons Jon and Sansa's debate about what to do with the Karstark and Umber castles is so painful is because they're both correct. Jon understands far more viscerally than Sansa can that preserving the human alliance against the Night King must come before all other concerns, and the principle that no child should be punished for their father's crimes is just. But at the same time, his solution includes no prospect of reconciliation or justice for Sansa. Maybe he's right that there isn't one, that the men who betrayed her most dearly are dead and there is nothing left for Sansa to take.
But for human society to be worth ruling after the Night King is defeated, there has to be some sort of reckoning for all the wrongs that have been done in this bitter conflict, and not the sort of score-settling Sansa's sister Arya (Maisie Williams) is doling out in the South. And if the ranks of humans break at a critical moment because of another betrayal or unhealed wound, the war between humanity and its enemies could still be lost. Jon Snow might not be terrible at ruling, but he hasn't cracked the code on these sorts of questions any more than contemporary society has.
Speaking of Arya, it's lovely to have her free of Braavos, and not just because I was going to stick someone with the pointy end of something if she stayed there. Arya's experience in the House of Black and White was flattening, and now that she's back in Westeros and returning to her own dimensions, we can see just how much she was crumpled and damaged along the way.
Arya used to be one of the characters whose face we looked to in order to understand the cost of the struggle for power. When Yoren (Francis Magee) covered her eyes so she wouldn't see her father's (Sean Bean) execution, it was because he and we understood that she was still innocent, despite her fight with Joffrey, despite her dreams of learning to fight with a sword rather than curtsy like a lady. But now that cost is counted out in the faces of the serving women Arya spares as witnesses to her massacre at the Twins. Her own smiling face as she walks out of Walder Frey's (David Bradley) hall, having poisoned the men who killed her mother, brother and sister-in-law is the visage of someone who has become blind to anything but her shrinking list of names. That sequence is highly effective, and it's heightened by the later scene where Arya comes across a small group of Lannister soldiers looking to undo the chaos she unleashed at the Twins. They offer her the first bite of rabbit and share their blackberry wine because, as one baby-faced young man in armor tells her, "My mother always told me to be kind to strangers and strangers'll be kind to you." They miss their fathers and their wives and their newborn babies. They laugh when Arya tells them she's going South to kill the queen.
Arya's own face, with its round cheeks and its wide eyes, has become a false testament to her innocence. Sansa may share Cersei's experiences and exalted position, but Arya shares the Lannister queen's obsessions. If the question for Sansa is whether the older Stark woman can be wiser than the woman who molded her, for Arya it's whether she can learn to see something other than vengeance. I know plenty of "Game of Thrones" watchers and readers of George R.R. Martin's novels believe that Arya will be the "little brother" who is prophesied to kill Cersei. If that is in fact Arya's destiny, it won't be a glorious victory for Ayra, but a dreadful damnation.
And as it turns out, the person who is walking the path that both Stark women need to learn from is not another queen, nor a fine lady, nor even a very effective lady night. It's Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), the disgraced, burned, profane fighter who turned his back on his station the night Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) burned Stannis Baratheon's* (Stephen Dillane) fleet.
Unlike Arya, who is wreaking new wrongs in search of what she thinks is right, Sandor is making amends as best he can. When he, Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) bed down in the house where Sandor robbed a family while he was on the run with Arya, they find that they're dead, the daughter killed by the father who committed suicide to save them from starvation. After he gives them a decent burial, Sandor bungles his prayers. His rough "I'm sorry you're dead. You deserved better, both of you" is more eloquent than any priestly words, and more true. What he's giving the family may come too late, but it's the sort of decency Sansa craves, even if she can't articulate it.
Also unlike Arya, who has regained her vision but lost her ability to see the world, Sandor is brave enough to step up to the flames Thoros offers him despite his fear of fire, and to articulate the vision he sees within it of an army of the dead on the march. If the only thing we know for sure after "Dragonstone" is that winter is very much on the march, at least this episode showed us that the challenges facing our characters are as high as the cliffs around Daenerys Targaryen's (Emilia Clarke) ancestral home, and as multilayered as those folds of rock. We've begun the journey, and it is going to be formidable.