'Game Of Thrones' Review: Uneasy Alliances And Major Casualties Rock 'Stormborn'

(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we'll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

If last week's season premiere was all about establishing the parameters of the Game of Thrones endgame, "Stormborn" was all about letting us see where the final players stand. This was an hour of uneasy alliances, hostile meetings, and grand planning. No one has enough friends and everyone has too many enemies. And there's only room in the Seven Kingdoms for about half of these characters.

But "Stormborn" also lights the match that ignites the war, thrusting us into the final conflict between these various kings and queens. Alliances are hazy when the episode begins, but after the events of the final scene, everyone is going to scrambling to find a buddy or a thousand. Fast.

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The Red Priestess and the Spider

Team Targaryen's dream team of warriors and advisors was built over six seasons, with the Mother of Dragons assembling her crew from every corner of two continents. From the outside looking in, it's an unstoppable force. No one in the Seven Kingdoms can stand against this crew.

But as is always the case with Game of Thrones, things are never easy and they are certainly never simple. "Stormborn" offered a glimpse at the tiny fractures that any all-star grouping has to deal with. With so many major players in one room, each of them with a different perspective and world view, clashes are inevitable. Everyone comes from a different place, both literally and figuratively. How do you oil that engine? How do you align the team?

This chapter took time to focus on two independent operators working in conjunction with Daenerys Targaryen: one a longstanding member of the crew, and the other a newcomer (but not a stranger to Dragonstone). In one corner, you have Varys, the spy master who has been pulling strings since the first season. In the other, you have Melisandre, the red priestess ready and willing to latch onto any powerful figure who can fulfill her prophecy. He serves the realm. She serves the lord of light. Neither of them necessarily serve Daenerys.

As the Mother of Dragons makes clear in this episode, that could be a problem. The last thing a conquerer needs is a weak player on the bench, someone willing to put another cause above their own. Varys, whose interest lies with the common folk who are ground in the gears of the great game, will serve the leader who will keep the people safe. Melisandre, whose interest lies with preventing a genuine end-of-the-world scenario for all of Westeros, will serve the leader who seems to fit the checklist of "prince who was promised" attributes at any given moment. You will not find two more powerful allies on the continent, but you will also not find two players more willing to shift their alliances as the wind blows.

But unlike so many others on the show, Varys and Melisandre rarely act maliciously. They have incited violence and murder (and she burned a young girl to death as part of dark magic ritual), but they are operators who work in favor of the big picture. They don't think about tomorrow – they think about the next generation. Their evil deeds, as they see them, are in service of a true Greater Good.

So how do men and women like this, who believe in a picture so much bigger than a king or queen who will serve for a lifetime and then die, serve someone with such a narrow goal, like, you know, conquering Westeros? As Varys learned after his heart-to-heart with Daenerys, and as Melisandre will learn if she sticks around, very carefully.

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The Wolf and the Dragon

After all these years, how satisfying is it to hear Daenerys Targaryen say the name "Jon Snow"?

As we sprint toward the endgame, the surviving Game of Thrones characters are being thrown together. The walls are closing in and everyone has to pick a side or die. It's as simple as that. And right now, the new King in the North and the invading queen in Dragonstone are being pushed together, both because they have reasons to ally and because they're linked by an unlikely ally: Tyrion Lannister.

Down in Dragonstone, Tyrion tells his queen that Jon is a leader to be trusted. Up in Winterfell, Jon tells his bannermen that Tyrion is a good man. Those on the receiving end of these statements are rightfully skeptical. Sure, Jon has every reason to hate the Lannisters, but he's King in the North – why would he give up his kingdom to an invader? And sure, Daenerys is sitting on the mountain of dragonglass the North needs to fend off the White Walkers, but doesn't Jon remember what happened to his grandfather when he was summoned to meet the last Targaryen king? He was burned alive.

In fact, the mere suggestion of Jon meeting with Daenerys leads to the second time Sansa questions her brother's (secret cousin's) decisions in public. Team Stark may be the most noble players in this game, but they've never been ones to hide their emotions. This is what gives them their strength (the North values a straightforward, passionate leader), but it's also what led Eddard Stark to lose his head (because passion doesn't equal intelligence). The truth is that Jon and Sansa both have the right instincts, but these two really, really need to learn the value of talking about shit when no one else is watching.

But Daenerys, while more cool-headed than her secret relative to the north, is also one to let emotions fuel her judgment. As we remember from past seasons, she's reacted to injustice with her own form of Targaryen justice, which felt satisfying and righteous in the moment. But now, it's coming back to bite her.

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The Kingslayer and the Lord of Hornhill

Remember last season, when Arya watched a group of actors in Essos perform a play retelling recent Westerosi history where the details were distorted beyond belief? Now, we're seeing something similar across the Narrow Sea in King's Landing, where Queen Cersei Lannister attempts to rally allies to her cause by speaking of Daenerys Targaryen's atrocities. Crucifixions. Burnings. Mass slaughters. From a close-up point-of-view, these were fist-pump moments. From a distance, they are the work of a woman who shares the bloodline of the Mad King. A monster. Time and distance are the greatest enemies to truth. And perspective is a viewing glass unique to each and every individual.

While Olenna Tyrell has thrown her support behind the Targaryen invasion (and we'll touch on that in a moment), Team Lannister is counting on her bannermen abandoning the decimated House Tyrell and supporting the crown. While Cersei speaks of Daenerys and her foreign horde to rally the patriotism (so to speak) of the lords of the Reach, Jaime Lannister tries a more direct approach. He pulls aside Randyll Tarly, the ill-tempered father of Samwell Tarly, and makes an intriguing proposition: join them, and House Tarly will take what was once House Tyrell's. And he'll get to lead the crown's forces in the coming war.

We haven't spent much time with Lord Tarly, but we know what he's all about. Order. Strength. Tradition. Anything that deviates from the norm is to be cast out to the Wall. Anyone not born south of the Wall is to be thrown out with the garbage. And Olenna, an old woman whose family vanished in a flash of wildfire last season, has thrown in with someone here to upset the scales. Randyll Tarly is not his eldest son, an imaginative thinker and a compassionate creative. He's a warrior. A soldier. A believer in the status quo. We can see which way the wind is blowing here.

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The Queen and the Mad Scientist

There are many dangerous men in the Seven Kingdoms, but Qyburn may be the most dangerous of them all. Cersei's Hand of the Queen is content to lurk behind the curtain, continuing the experiments that lost him his Maester's chain and finding great success. He transformed Gregor Clegane into an undead monstrosity who obeys the whims of his leaders. He orchestrated the wildfire explosion that thinned out almost every single major player in King's Landing. And now, he has a possible solution for those pesky dragons.

In a word inspired by medieval Europe with touches of magic and mysticism at the fringes, Qyburn represents a new and dangerous breed of villain. Here's a guy who never looks to the past, always has one eye on the future, and has no scruples about the ethics behind his various experiments and projects. Paired with the ever-ruthless Cersei, he's a quiet force to be reckoned with.

Right now, Cersei Lannister is surrounded on all sides by people (and kingdoms) who want her dead. That's a problem. But right now, she also has a guy who can build weapons capable of shattering a dragon skull, as he proudly shows off in the crypts beneath King's Landing. As the walls push in, there is one player who will burn everyone without thinking twice...and she has a literal mad scientist in her employ. Anyone who counts her out of this war, even with her lack of support, clearly hasn't watched her long and bloody climb to the Iron Throne.

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The "Queen of the Ashes" and the Queen of Thorns

In one of the most satisfying Game of Thrones scenes in some time, Team Targaryen's Dream Team assembles in the Dragonstone map room to plot their war. Daenerys Targaryen. Tyrion Lannister. Varys. Grey Worm. Missandei. Olenna Tyrell. Ellaria Sand. Yara Greyjoy. Theon Greyjoy. Watching these clever minds assembled under such unlikely circumstances is a thrill. This disparate group of people are all here to support a new queen, but their motivations for doing so run the gamut. For many of them, they don't love the mother of dragons as much as they hate the Lannisters. But you know the old saying: the enemy of my enemy...

While this crew bickers and sneers and makes it very clear what they think of one another, Daenerys reveals the game plan. The Greyjoy fleet will take troops from Dorne to conduct a siege of King's Landing. Meanwhile, Unsullied forces will slip around to the other side of the continent and take Casterly Rock, the seat of House Lannister. It's a bold move, one that will take Cersei out of the game completely. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

It's when the room clears that another wrinkle enters the picture. Daenerys, never one to turn down guidance, has a one-on-one with Olenna. The wise and witty leader of House Tyrell warns her against trusting Tyrion, noting that clever men end up dead. Whether this is an old woman who has seen it all sharing some honest advice or part of a grander plan to do to House Lannister what they did to her family remains unknown. All we do know is that the dream team is in flux. For every advisor who sees a relatively peaceful path to victory, there are those actively encouraging the "Queen of the Ashes" route that Tryion strongly advised against.

As the season sprints ahead, Daenerys has a difficult choice to make: how much of the Seven Kingdoms will she need to destroy if she wants to claim them for her own? After all, every act of violence can be a tool wielded against her, a reminder of the Mad King's reign of terror. "Stormborn" takes its title from Daenerys' name (Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen), granted to her after being born in the midst of a massive storm. But it also refers to the storm that is brewing right now. How big will that storm be? And where will Dany direct its destructive powers?

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The Translator and the General

In an episode of television so devoted to wheeling and dealing and planning a massive war, "Stormborn" also found time for one of the most tender moments in the show's run. Grey Worm, the eunuch slave soldier, and Missandei, the freed slave-turned-translator and advisor to Daenerys Targaryen, consummated their long-simmering relationship in a sequence that was sweet and soulful and erotic. Quite frankly, it's the kind of sex scene that Game of Thrones could have used more of throughout its run, a scene where the pleasure of simply being with the one you love is the focus.

Grey Worm's shame in revealing his mutilation, and Missandei's acceptance of it, are genuinely beautiful moments. And the nudity, Game of Thrones' speciality since day one, feels less exploitative and more about two people finding the courage to be intimate with one another. It's a sequence that doesn't bode well for their survival (aren't all lovers in fiction doomed?), but it's necessary. Characters we love are about to start biting the dust very soon and moments like this are a reminder of why we love them. And why it hurts when they're chewed up and spit out by the game.

Oh, and while Missandei is certainly not winning the game of thrones this week, she does quickly learn that Grey Worm is more than capable of taking care of her in bed despite his mutilation. So maybe she's the real winner this week?

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The Maester-in-Training and the Knight

I've written before about how satisfying it is when disparate Game of Thrones characters collide in unexpected ways and how watching two completely different characters with such compelling and complex backstories interact is the kind of magic trick that only a show this huge could pull off. It's entirely possibly that Jorah Mormont and Samwell Tarly may be the greatest unexpected pairing in all of Game of Thrones.

The unspoken links between these two are incredible. Jorah Mormont, the knight who served Queen Daenerys until he was exiled and accepted back into the fold and then sent to find a cure for the greyscale that will drive him mad and then kill him. Samwell Tarly, the sweet and intelligent "coward" who was sent to the Wall and then to the Citadel. Jorah, who was exiled from Westeros by Eddard Stark, the (adopted) father of Sam's best friend, Jon Snow. Jon Snow, who wields the sword of Jorah's father, the late commander of the Night's Watch. And who now commands the North. And is counting on Sam to learn how to repel the White Walkers. Sam, whose curiosity and compassion leads him to attempt a dangerous procedure to cure Jorah's greyscale, one that looks like it will put the knight through extraordinary pain if it doesn't kill him.

An aging knight and a heavyset thinker. Bound by fate and coincidence and secret bonds. Sam was there when Jeor Mormont was killed by his own men and couldn't stop it. Isn't he bound to help his son? Meanwhile, up in Winterfell, Jon is interacting with Lyanna Mormont, one of Jorah's relatives, on a daily basis. This twist of connections and relationships makes Game of Thrones complicated, but it also makes it great. This ensemble is bound in ways they do not yet understand (and may never understand). But we do. And decoding the complexities, examining how they came into contact with each other, is such a pleasurable puzzle.

Oh, and Sam's experimental greyscale treatment may be the single grossest thing to ever happen on Game of Thrones and that's saying an awful lot. Yeeech.


The Traveler and the Baker

After wiping out House Frey and emerging as the champion of last week's game of thrones, Arya took a bit of a break and met up with an old friend this week. It's been a few years since we saw Hot Pie and "Arry" has changed an awful lot since he made her a loaf of bread shaped like a wolf. Yet, we see a flash of the old Arya when she encounters her old friend while stopping at a tavern. The young girl, the innocent tomboy who dreamed of being a knight, has become a murderer and a living weapon. But she's still Arya. She is not "no one." So seeing a friendly face is a pleasure. Hot Pie escaped the frying pan, but he didn't follow his friends into the fire. He's happy to be alive and working and baking all day and man, it sure feels nice to see someone just being happy for once on this show.

For the plot, it's also useful exposition. It's through Hot Pie that Arya learns that the Boltons have been defeated and that Jon is King in the North. After finishing her delicious (and presumably hot) pie, Arya's plan to head south toward regicide is postponed in favor of heading north toward a family reunion. With Bran finally south of the Wall, it won't be long before the Starks are reunited at home. Hopefully. Maybe. Knowing Game of Thrones, a boulder will fall on one of them at some point.

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The King in the North and the Mockingbird

Jon Snow has learned the lesson that Eddard Stark learned too late: you don't trust Petyr Baelish. Ever. Sure, Littlefinger rode to the rescue and was the only reason the new King in the North survived the Battle of the Bastards. That earns him a place in Winterfell's great hall amongst the Stark allies. He's earned that much. The Lord of the Vale is a useful guy to have around in public, even if he's just going to stand in a corner and not contribute to the conversation (although we know that Littlefinger just thinking is scarier than just about anything else on the show).

In the crypts beneath Winterfell though, the gloves come off. While Jon stands before Ned Stark's tomb, Littlefinger steps out of the shadows to remind him that he was the one to return Ned's remains to Catelyn from King's Landing. That's got to count for something, right? But that doesn't erase his betrayal of Ned. It doesn't erase how he sold Sansa to the Boltons. So Jon does what every member of Team Stark should have done a long time ago: he roughs the son of a bitch up a bit.

Like Daenerys crucifying the slavers a few seasons back, it feels good. It feels right. It feels just. But like Cersei telling that story to her court with the benefit of time and distance, this is another unwise emotional outburst from a leader who really should learn to keep himself in check. Littlefinger doesn't forget things. He gets what he wants. And with Jon riding south with Davos to meet with Daenerys, he's left Littlefinger alone with what he wants above all else: Sansa Stark.

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The Assassin and the Direwolf

For years, fans of both George R.R. Martin's books and its television adaptation have wondered what became of Nymeria, Arya's direwolf who narrowly escaped execution way back in season one after an altercation with Joffrey. This is how we know the end is in sight: Nymeria came back. And she has her own pack now.

If would have been too easy, too silly, for the grown Nymeria to recognize Arya and immediately return to her side as a loyal pet. But the moment they do share is powerful, two wolves who have been through hell and back sharing a look of recognition before going their separate ways. Arya will never get Nymeria back. Those days are long gone. Maybe she should take this as a warning – everything has changed and the days of her youth will never come back. She's heading home, but nothing is the same. The familiar comforts vanished with the summer.

But what are we to make of Arya's final line: "That's not you." Is she talking to Nymeria? Or is she talking to herself, a reminder that she's heading in the wrong direction, that she should be going south. At this rate, both directions seem like bad options.

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The Greyjoys and the Vipers

"Stormborn" concluded with the first battle in the new war over Westeros and, in a surprise turn, it was a resounding defeat for Team Targaryen. Yara Greyjoy's fleet, transporting Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes back to Dorne, came under fire from Euron Greyjoy's ships and the results weren't pretty. Two of the Sand Snakes lay dead, their corpses on display for all to see. Ellaria and Yara were captured by Euron. Theon leapt into the water rather than face his uncle and rescue his sister. In the episode's final image, a large portion of Daenerys' navy burns as the lord of the Iron Islands sails away with two valuable hostages. For now, Dorne has been taken off the table. Since Euron was fighting in Queen Cersei's name, Team Lannister has struck a decisive below against the invasion. Just like a Lannister to get someone else to do their fighting for them...

While not as grand as past battles on Game of Thrones, the engagement between the Greyjoys and the other Greyjoys was fairly exciting and predictably brutal (this show does love its close-ups of faces being smashed!). However, it's also (let's all say it together now) problematic in a few ways. It's fine that Yara loses the battle and has her fleet destroyed. That's just Game of Thrones being Game of Thrones. It's not fine that this is another example of a woman being put in peril so Theon can have a character moment. It's a pattern at this point, and the only thing driving him forward. Couldn't he have made the leap to avoid the battle, not because he was forced to look at a mad man threaten his sister and challenge his masculinity? The Theon Greyjoy storyline has had its fits and starts for years now, but this is getting repetitive.

It's also worth noting that, by killing off two of the Sand Snakes, this battle helped further sweep Dorne under the rug, which has been in the works since the downright disastrous season 5 arc that introduced the southernmost kingdom in Westeros. How this show botched some of the best characters in the novels so badly remains a discussion fans will be having for years.

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The Players

Last week's champion, Arya Stark, wasn't a contender this week because she spent all of her screen time eating pies and meeting old pets and deciding to forego her assassination mission to go home and see her family. Not going to win the game of thrones with that attitude, young lady.

Up north, Team Stark continued to be a disorganized mess and rightfully so – they're the only group on this show that's doing anything about the undead invasion and they're being pulled in every direction. They're going to be right when all is said and done, but their eyes are not on the ball.

Daenerys Targaryen? Nah. The fractures in the dream team are too clear now and phase one of her invasion plan was wrecked by Euron Greyjoy before it could even begin. She may take Casterly Rock yet, but King's Landing is safe. The Dragon Queen flopped into the war like an amateur.

So maybe the right answer to to the whole "who is winning the game of thrones?" question is Euron Greyjoy, who enjoyed a decisive victory over his family members, abducted the Dornish leadership, and wiped out a portion of the Targaryen fleet. Plus, he proved himself to be a beast in combat, wiping out his fair share of opponents without mercy.

But the problem is that Euron is also a psychopath. And an easily manipulated psychopath, at that. This battle only happened at the prodding of Cersei, who knew exactly what would happen...and she didn't even have to lift a finger to slap Daenerys right across the face. Plus, she's got Qyburn building dragon-killing machines. The winner this week is quite clear.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister