It ends with a naval battle as grandiose as any we've seen in the series. But the strong second chapter of Game of Thrones' seventh season – "Stormborn" – navigates even more treacherous waters. In scene after scene, the episode focuses on the need to forge alliances, both political and personal – a task as dangerous as it is vital.
Even before Euron Greyjoy's fleet strikes in that stunning final sequence, Daenerys Targaryen is striking a delicate balancing act between her many advisors. It's a motley crew: Her longtime friends Missandei and Grey Worm; Tyrion Lannister; the spymaster Lord Varys; Yara Greyjoy and her brutalized brother Theon; vengeful Ellaria Sand and her lethal daughters; wise old Olenna Tyrell; and now the Red Woman herself, Melisandre. She's the one who urges the Mother of Dragons to take on her prophesied role as the Prince(ss) Who Was Promised. (The messiah is gender-neutral, it turns out.) Many of these people have tried to kill each other over the years; some of them have tried to kill Dany herself. Yet if the future Queen hopes to conquer the Seven Kingdoms, this cobbled-together coalition must hold as well. It's a fine showcase for playing all these actors off of one another. (The bawdy interrupted flirtation between Yara and Ellaria alone is worth the price of admission.)
At Winterfell, Jon Snow's councils are no less contentious. Confronted with two letters containing information crucial to the great war to come – one from Samwell Tarly, alerting him to a massive cache of White Walker–slaying dragonglass on Dragonstone; the other from Dany, requesting his attendance on the very same island – the King in the North decides to kill two ravens with one stone. Virtually everyone, from Sansa Stark on down, objects to him personally meeting the Mother of Dragons, but he's as headstrong as the Targaryen regent is imperious. Leaving his sister in charge as the last Stark in in the North quells some of objections, but it also presents her former mentor Littlefinger with one more chance to manipulate her away from watchful eyes. The bullshit he serves Snow about how sad he was to see Ned Stark die shows that Lord Baelish is the same old schemer he always was; he may be a long way from King's Landing, but his game continues.
But amid the maneuvering, you'll find some of the show's most touching moments to date. The scene between the valiant Unsullied eunuch Grey Worm and Missandei, for example, manages to be sexy and sad at the same time. Actor Jacob Anderson carves the warrior's conflicted emotions – his desperate love for this woman, the fear this unknown feeling strikes into his heart, his deep-seated shame over his mutilated condition – into every line on his face. Nathalie Emmanuel, meanwhile, imbues her half of the scene with wide-eyed desire, not just for a physical connection, but for the man she loves. "I want to see you," she insists when he tries to stop her from removing his clothes. The line echoes dialogue from another of the show's most romantic moments – the subterranean tryst between Jon Snow and his wildling lover Ygritte in the Season Three standout "Kissed by Fire.". In both cases, nudity is treated not just as a means to an end, but as a way for people to make themselves vulnerable and prove they trust each other.
Arya Stark, meanwhile, experiences not one but two heart-stirring reunions. She meets her old friend Hot Pie at the inn where he serves up the best bread in Westeros – as well as valuable intel about Jon's defeat of the Boltons and new reign as King in the North. He doesn't even charge her for the meal. "I'm like you," he tells her sweetly as she heads home to her family instead of south to kill Cersei. "I'm a survivor." Let's hope he's right. And on her way north, the young Stark encounters Nymeria, the direwolf she forced to flee in order to escape the Lannisters' wrath way back in the series' second episode. Actor Maisie William's already Betty Boop-sized eyes seem to double in size when she sees the gigantic beast; not even the animal's decision to depart rather than rejoin her one-time master takes away the joy of the meeting.
Back in the Citadel, Sam is continuing to break the rules that stand in the way of doing the right thing, this time by conducting a risky, and extremely disgusting, operation on Ser Jorah Mormont in an attempt to cure his greyscale infection. While Sam's dad is off playing power politics with Cersei and Jaime, the son he rejected is risking his own life to save a stranger. "The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives" is a Stark saying, but this maester-in-training would no doubt recognize its wisdom.
So would Theon Greyjoy, but the tragedy is he can't act on it. Sailing south to Dorne with his sister and the Sand Snakes in order to rally their army, he finds himself in the middle of a gruesome, fiery battle with his uncle Euron's fleet. And when Yara falls into the pirate king's clutches, his nephew flees rather than fight. It wasn't long ago that she risked her life in an attempt to rescue him from a different sadistic captor; when the moment comes to return the favor, Theon leaps into the ocean instead. The sadness of it all is written on both siblings' faces. There's no neat redemption arc, no valiant sacrifice, no blaze of glory – just a broken man, drifting among the flotsam and jetsam as Euron's victorious fleet sails away, one more piece of human wreckage. When Tyrion warned Daenerys's allies against turning the Seven Kingdoms into a slaughterhouse, this is the kind of carnage he had in mind.
Watch Rob Sheffield revisit 'Game of Thrones' most gamechanging moments – from the Battle of the Bastards to the reddest wedding of them all.
Previously: The North Remembers