Game of Thrones review: is Daenerys falling out of favour?

Her totalitarian thirst for power seems more uncomfortable as she edges ever closer to ruling the Seven Kingdoms. Warning: this article contains spoilers. 

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The new season of Game of Thrones began with a call-back to the first ever episode. A royal procession arrives to bleak, snowy Winterfell from the gilded luxury of King’s Landing; the representatives of House Stark dutifully line up to greet them. In that first season, we saw a big, mostly happy family ­– Ned, Catelyn, Jon, Theon and all five Stark children – line up to greet Robert and Cersei Baratheon, beaming and giggling. Now the only ones left to greet Jon and Daenerys are Sansa, who has earned herself the title of Lady of Winterfell, and Bran, who has acquired “whatever Bran has” – and neither look happy. And just like the last time, Arya is late, having separated from the pack to get the first glimpse of the royal army on horseback. “Winterfell is yours, your grace,” a cold, regal Sansa says, welcoming Dany by echoing the words her father said to King Robert – but with a great deal more sarcasm. Dany is bright and warm, but her smile soon fades.

This first episode of the new season served to reintroduce us to Thrones’s sprawling cast and their various positions on the board: it’s been more than 18 months since the last episode of the show aired on TV, and though many committed viewers have spent the last few weeks rewatching old episodes, the majority could do with a refresher. So we begin in the North, as Jon, Dany, Sansa, Bran and their attendants plan for the Great War against the army of the undead. Winterfell, which began as a generous home for a family of nine, now has to somehow accommodate tens of thousands of soldiers (on-site igloos?) as well as a wide selection of the series most familiar faces: from both Tyrion and Jaime Lannister to wandering souls like Varys, Brienne of Tarth, Podrick, Ser Davos, Gendry and Samwell Tarly. The goodies are assembling in the seat of the North, and as die-hard fans know, we’re just a couple of episodes away from a much-anticipated battle sequence. Let’s hope they get to work forging all that dragonglass.

Next we pop in on rejected Pirates of the Caribbean character Euron Greyjoy and the Golden Company, as he brings Cersei the sellswords she needs to take the Iron Throne (beating up his niece Yara in the process). In King’s Landing, Bronn is still fucking around (literally), Qyburn is still inexplicably, infuriatingly malevolent, and Cersei is still pregnant and backstabbing,  showing no signs of following through on her promise to help defend the North. An excursion led by Tormund and Beric Dondarrion discovers a White Walker at Eastwatch, in a moment of overt, tropey horror.

The pace of Thrones has increased exponentially since season one; but the plot seemed to pause in this opener. Some fans might be frustrated by a dialogue-heavy, action-light hour so close to the show’s ultimate finale, but it felt right to allow the characters to breathe before diving back in to the Great War. Thrones is, after all, a show built on drawn-out arcs of power struggle between well-drawn, charismatic characters: they are people first, chess pieces second.

So we were treated to warm, human scenes like Jon’s stab at riding a dragon, more kisses between him and Dany, and Arya’s attempts at flirting with Gendry. Arya began as one of the series’ most spirited, playful characters, but her obsession with her ongoing Hannibal Lecter-inspired masquerade ball of death has risked draining her of her humanity, so it’s nice to see her sense of humour on display as she teases Gendry. “I always knew you were just another rich girl,” he jokes of her new station. “You don’t know any other rich girls,” she shoots back.

Sam’s role is re-established as he tells Jon of his true parentage, and his claim to the Iron Throne. And all the while, clashes with fan favourites Sansa and Sam subtly question Daenerys’s right to rule. That opening callback sequence quietly draws parallels between Dany and Cersei, and Dany’s totalitarian thirst for power seems more uncomfortable as she edges ever closer to ruling the Seven Kingdoms. Fire and blood might win wars, but they won’t win you friends.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Jon: “Where’s Arya?” Sansa: “Lurking somewhere”. +2 to Sansa
  • Bran barely lets Dany and Sansa exchange names before interrupting. “We don’t have time for all this. The Night King has your dragon. He’s one of them now. The Wall has fallen, the dead march south.” An extremely rude and weird power move. +21
  • Lord Umber! Lord Umber. LORD UMBER! My heart. My tiny prince. You served the North well. +59
  • The wonderful Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island returns with the specific purpose of making Jon feel like shit about himself. Good on you Lyanna Mormont. “You left Winterfell a king and came back a – I’m not sure what you are now. A lord? Nothing at all?” +38
  • Sansa: “What do dragons eat, anyway?” Dany: “Whatever they want.” Begrudgingly, +9 to Dany. She won this round.
  • OH WAIT THE DRAGONS AREN’T EATING. Sansa was right again! +4 to Sansa.
  • Tyrion: “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding. Miserable affair.”  Sansa: “It had its moments.” Brilliant. Still smiling peacefully to herself about Joffrey’s death four seasons later. + 31
  • Tyrion to Sansa: “Many underestimated you. Most of them are dead now.” +12 to Tyrion for his observational skills, and +29 to Sansa for being the bad bitch to prompt this iconic line.
  • Sansa to Tyrion: “Cersei told you her army was coming north to fight for you? And you believed her?  I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” Sansa is the only one who immediately sees through Cersei’s bullshit – she knows her game plans better than even her own family. +92
  • Jon asking Arya if she’s ever used her sword. No, she survived the last eight years thanks to her pretty smile. -112 you absolute dolt.
  • Jon: “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone.” This is a very bitter sentiment from a very stupid man. -98
  • Jon stupidly believing his sisters are still fighting over things like embroidery and boys like they did when they were preteens. -52
  • Arya on Sansa “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.” + 18. Inject the sisterly support directly into my veins!
  • Cersei: “That’s disappointing. I was told the Golden Company had elephants.” +16
  • Cersei using a man for sex whilst letting him believe he was using her for sex. + 37
  • Cersei: “You might be the most arrogant man I’ve ever met. I like that. But now I want to be alone.” +14
  • Cersei believing she can afford to not fight against the dead. -166
  • Dany on Sansa “She doesn’t need to be my friend but I am her queen. If she can’t respect me…” RESPECT IS EARNED, DAENERYS!!! I believe It was Tywin Lannister who said, “Any man who must say, ‘I am the King’, is no true king.” - 61
  • Gendry risking it all for Arya, barely concealing his newfound interest in her, teasing her about her privilege, being one of the few handsome AND nice AND funny men on this show. +41
  • Arya mercilessly ribbing him in return. +37
  • Jon: “I never wanted a crown.” WE GET IT JON YOU’RE NOBLE AND ALSO INCREDIBLY BORING. -21
  • Sam, smiling gratefully as Daenerys tells him she murdered his entire family. -13
  • Sam, immediately questioning Dany’s suitability as a ruler after hearing of her lack of mercy. +16
  • Sam: “I’m talking about the King of the bloody Seven Kingdoms!!!” A true Ron Weasley moment. +4
  • Sam: “I had a High Septon’s diary. Bran had… whatever Bran has.” +5

Which means this week’s baddest bitch is Sansa Stark – my new favourite to sit on the iron throne. The loser is Cersei, forever and always, but Dany and Jon are losers too.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special