GoT’s season opener ‘Dragonstone’ puts the human in inhuman

Seasons seven and eight of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which entail a cold Winter-driven denoument, were always going to be a swift affair. The show-runners had a mere 13 episodes, rather than the usual two-season haul of 20, to wrap the series up (for scripting and financial reasons, never mind that George R.R. Martin still actually needs to write the rest of it). And the shortened span was always going to make the new season's scenes and storytelling more concise, cryptic if abrupt, and therefore more stunning. But nothing would prepare you for the bait-and-switch in the opening scene. Enough said. We really don’t want spoilers for this one, for GoT is all about the highly effective bait-and-switch-revelation trope. But here’s a tantalizing spoiler, though, in two words. Ed Sheeran.

There’s an undercurrent of truth and compassion in this season premiere. Truth about how reality works. Sansa and not-so-much-half-brother Jon Snow share some poignant moments that show how real-world politicking can coexist with sincere love and camaraderie. Sansa has grown and matured politically, we already know that. But she now has a tactical wisdom about her that is forbidding. You will love how she now continues to interact with Little Finger, her former mentor, with unassailable disdain and authority even though she is obliged to him for his day-saving assistance at the Battle of the Bastards. Perhaps declarations of love really do weaken your position and power. Although Euron Greyjoy doesn’t seem to think so.

GoT always had an intelligent blend of brutality and humanity, be it in the way the so-called Jaqen H’Ghar (the Seven rest his/her soul) always had a touch of empathy and honour alongside his cult’s unfeeling and stoic ways, or in the revelation that Jamie Lannister was being coldly human when he broke his oath to murder his murderous king, or in how the Hound was able to murder a butcher’s boy and yet feel remorse at the lynching of his peace-loving benefactors. But this season, this symbiosis between the Machiavellian and the Humanitarian is up a notch, in a way that is very authentic and appealing.

Sheeran’s incidental appearance as a good-natured Lannister soldier feels like a formidable insertion of the finer feelings into the barbaric world of the GoT mise en scene. He has barely a line or two to utter, but his presence — if you are familiar with his lyrical oeuvre — is enough for you to catch the show-runners’ drift.

There isn’t as much urgency, in the trajectory of the episode, about the fact that Winter is coming. Yes, it’s referenced amply and its threat does, as usual, hold sway over arguments between characters – the opening shot of the second scene, where the Ice King makes his sluggish appearance along with the army of the undead, is chilling. But Winter has been coming for quite a while now, and now that it has come, you start to wonder whether the actual bite can be as bad as the protracted bark. Of course, GoT’s bark-protraction-for-intensifying-bite-payoff is legendary. So, you never know.

Daenerys Targaryen’s homecoming is cinematically compelling, albeit jaded in terms of the narrative. Dany, whose only purpose in life seems to be carry a self-important momentous demeanour at all times, accompanied by too heroic a soundtrack that sounds more kitsch with time, needs a more time-scale-adhering narrative. Still, her meditative stroll astride Dragonstone’s rocks is powerful inasmuch it suggests a triumphant return home. And I thought the shot of Dany caressing the map-table at Dragonstone beautifully mirrored Cersei’s customized painting of the Westeros map on the courtyard. And again, Jaime is the perfect human foil for Cersei’s Machiavellian designs. Spare a thought, too, for the beautiful coincidence that Dany, a contender in human politics, is now Queen of a region that houses stupendous reserves of Dragonglass, the essential substance that can vanquish the inhuman Whitewalkers. Irony or unity of opposites?

Speaking of time-scale non-adherence, why have the Whitewalker-led undead still, in interminable transit, not reached the Wall? Through the time it took the Greyjoys’ to construct 1,000 ships from scratch, through the battle between Jon Snow and the Boltons, through Varys’ repeated oceanfaring? Why are they so slovenly, if complacent? If they could materialise at the Three-eyed Raven’s hideout in a jiffy, what’s taking them so long to breach the Wall? If I sound annoyed as a storyline-consumer, it’s because I am.

Sandor Clegane’s arc has always felt a bit incongruous to the GoT narrative for a while now. Once his tryst with Arya Stark came to a close, you’d think his purpose in the narrative was served. But the show-runners clearly cherish his character, having brought him back last season, for no apparent reason, to band up with a bunch of pacifists and then join the ultra-religious Brotherhood. But here’s the thing. The Hound has always been his own man, free of delusions of any kind, a realist in the best sense. And so, to use him as a vessel to explore the relationship between compassionate faith and brutal rationality was genius. And that comes through nicely in an overtly long scene involving some fire-gazing, grave-digging and elegy-delivering.

Cersei and Jaime are the only remaining Lannisters. Yes, she’s The Queen, but monarchs are insignificant in the face of marching death. Still, Lena Headey’s sneering lips and arching brow bolster the relevance of local politics even in the face of metaphysical dangers. Sure, death approaches. But we fight amongst ourselves because that’s all we know and can be expected to care about. The world of human politics is all we can handle and manipulate, so we’ll be number 1 in the realm we know. If this underscoring of resigned stoicism, something the character of the duty-bound Stannis Baratheon exemplified, is a deliberate facet of the show’s screenplay, then bravo, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff.

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