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(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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