Who among us hasn’t bailed headfirst from a flaming ship being ransacked by pirates at the exact moment someone needed us most? Don’t be too hard on Theon Greyjoy, the most brutalized character on Game of Thrones next to Sansa Stark, whose violence-triggered PTSD overwhelmed him and left Yara helpless in Euron’s grip in the final moments of Sunday’s episode, “Stormborn.”
The lingering effects of Ramsay Bolton’s months of physical and psychological torture proved overwhelming for Theon in the heat of battle as Euron’s fleet ambushed Yara’s. Two of Ellaria’s Sand Snake warrior daughters, Nymeria and Obara, perished seconds before—less a comment on Euron’s swashbuckling than an eleventh-hour out for two characters the show never knew quite what to do with. (That the “bad pussy” scene was still their most memorable moment two seasons later spoke volumes.)
Their deaths, Theon’s dive, and the enormous blow dealt to Daenerys’ armada came as shocks, but welcome ones in an otherwise suspiciously satisfying hour. Until those last few moments, you might have called “Stormborn” uplifting, hopeful, even heartwarming. Which, what? Is this still Game of Thrones?
There was swooning romance in Grey Worm and Missandei’s first lovemaking scene. Arya reunited with Hot Pie (how adorably he’s grown!) and her long-lost direwolf, Nymeria. Sam uncovered an experimental cure for Jorah’s greyscale. And Jon appointed Sansa warden of the North, satisfying her burning itch for recognition and leaving him free to finally ride to Dragonstone and face Daenerys—the long-awaited meeting of fire and ice.
Ellaria Sand and Yara Greyjoy enjoyed a few precious seconds of queer, horny bliss before Euron rudely impaled their ship on the way back to Dorne. (As for Ellaria’s line to Theon as she seductively traces the space between Yara’s legs, “A foreign invasion is under way”—well, it’s a step up from “you want the bad pussy.”)
The fissures we anticipated among Dany’s crew of headstrong advisors fizzled as soon as they appeared. Tyrion and Ellaria buried their grudges against each other, despite her murdering his niece and him indirectly causing her husband’s death. And Daenerys confronted Varys about his past betrayals—that little matter of selling her off to Khal Drogo, then arranging for her assassination in Season 2—but made peace with him, too.
His intentions were often opaque before joining her, especially in contrast to Littlefinger’s self-serving ambition. But Varys indeed has always served the kingdom, not a ruler. As he reiterates here, his loyalty is with the common people of Westeros, and whichever king or queen best serves them at the moment. It’s the most explicit character vindication Varys has ever been granted.
Even Melisandre gets a free pass for her mistakes with Stannis upon waltzing into Dragonstone. There, she unloads a key piece of the endgame to Daenerys: the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised who saved Westeros from the Long Night. Or, quite possibly, princess. Missandei confirms years-long fan speculation that the word for “prince” in High Valyrian is gender-neutral. Now we know that either Jon Snow or Daenerys (or both—that’s a whole other thing) could be the hero reborn to save Westeros from eternal winter again.
It all goes so bizarrely, swimmingly well until Euron’s attack. One crucial piece of plot after another falls perfectly into place, aligned according to how the board must be set by season’s end. For a show that has prided itself on unpredictability, it can all seem a little too neat.
But Theon’s plunge into the sea—and the knowing, wounded look on Yara’s face before it happens—add weight back to the proceedings. The show has sometimes struggled with committing to consequences. And for the number of relentlessly brutal scenes between Reek and Ramsay it relished, it has spent comparatively little time on who Theon is now. Theon’s relapse was a welcome reminder that trauma cannot (or at least, should not) be written out for convenience.
In an episode full of easy forgiveness for past slights, sometimes to the point of skepticism—would someone as vindictive as Ellaria, who murdered an actual Barbie princess out of spite for the Lannisters, really be so easily swayed to trust Tyrion?—it was a much-needed dose of reality.
Arya’s scenes this week also gently reminded us of the toll her new life has taken. Introduced via the greatest scene transition in Game of Thrones history—Sam hacking off layers of Jorah’s skin straight to Arya slicing into a warm, flaky pie—Maisie Williams clocks in an all-time performance as the young Many-Faced Assassin.
Her eyes radiate the same coldness we’ve come to know since she left the Hound for dead, even when reunited with her old pal Hot Pie, now living out his bliss as a baker. There’s been much hand-wringing over the state of Arya’s soul lately, especially after her revenge tour in the Twins. And she did seemingly absorb the role of a literal dead woman from the books, Lady Stoneheart, whose sole purpose is revenge.
It’s no wonder Hot Pie asks her, “What happened to you, Arry?”
But here, Arya comes back to life. After learning from her friend that the Boltons no longer hold Winterfell and that her half-brother Jon Snow is now King in the North, Williams’ face practically defrosts. Arya leaves the tavern immediately—and chooses life over death, riding north to her family instead of south toward revenge on Cersei.
It’s a hugely moving scene, knowing Arya’s history of being just minutes away from lost family members. (Sansa at the Vale, and her mother and brother at the Red Wedding.) Her reunion with Nymeria, the beloved pet direwolf she sent off into the wild after Cersei ordered her killed for biting Joffrey’s arm, is just as sweet. By now, Nymeria is fully, gargantuan-grown and leading a wolf pack all her own. She’s changed, just as Arya has.
Arya pleads with her to come north and be her companion again. But in a touching bit of symmetry, Nymeria simply walks away. What Arya says to her then—“That’s not you”—is what she told Ned about herself (“That’s not me”) when he told her she’d grow up to be a lady back in Season 1. The little girl who took fencing over dancing lessons and disguised herself as a boy for a year is an assassin now. And Nymeria is no longer a pet.
It’s the most satisfying scene of the hour, next to Jon Snow doing us all a solid and throttling Littlefinger for five glorious seconds. Petyr Baelish should never be underestimated, but he is getting careless. Revealing his love of Catelyn, then Sansa, to Jon in front of his dead stepfather’s crypt, right after demanding gratitude for a last-minute appearance in the Battle of the Bastards, betrays a new level of overconfidence.
If this were a cop show, some grizzled veteran would warn us that the serial killer is about to start making mistakes. And if this hour established anything, it’s that consequences do (sometimes) still matter. With the vindication of Varys and Littlefinger largely relegated to smirking in dark corners, we’d bet something is coming for Littlefinger—and not just winter.