This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers. Ye be warned.
Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 1
Sometimes, we can wait what feels like lifetimes for an event, such as the excruciating 13-month winter away from Game of Thrones’ gloriously blood-red sun. And sometimes it is an actual lifetime, as Daenerys saw in the quiet grandeur of leaving her first adult handprint on Westerosi soil. It will not be the last.
But however long the actual period of anticipation can be for any object of desire, nothing surpasses the satisfaction of a wait’s end. And the cold open to tonight’s Game of Thrones season 7 premiere was just that. Normally a sequence that could be saved for a closer, Arya Stark drinking to her own health in a world free from Freys will likely become the stuff of TV legend. And it was offered up as not even the night’s main course; it was an appetizer, a dish of vengeance served neither hot nor cold. It simply was delicious as each and every one of those Frey bastards croaked, one right after the other.
This sequence is the concession in the premiere toward the knowledge that we’ve entered the endgame. After all, Game of Thrones season premieres are notorious for their stately and regal pacing (i.e. some fans always complain they’re slow). And while this episode mostly maintains that heavy emphasis on exposition—a bit too much during the King’s Landing scenes if we’re being honest—as a whole, the hour flew by with extra tender loving care given to character dynamics. Presumably, it comes with the territory of nuking half the cast with green fire and ended contracts.
Still, there are moments of immediate ruthless and narrative efficiency, which signals that there is little road ahead of us, and it will be paved in the bodies of slaughtered characters, the beloved and hated alike. Yet for tonight at least, it is a sequence of pure delight.
The episode does not play coy. Every viewer has the image of Arya in sheer ecstasy etched into their memory as she held Walder Frey’s body, convulsing in each wondrous death rattle. As soon as Walder Frey’s face opens this evening’s festivities, it’s obvious this is Arya, and she is going to take the entire Frey family line with her. And special props to David Bradley, who slyly inhabits a different character in spite of relishing Walder’s familiar, booming awfulness. Admittedly, I had long assumed that like the bad blood in Scotland that emanates to this day from the Celtic Massacre of Glencoe (one of two Scottish influences on the Red Wedding), the Starks and North would for centuries henceforth despise any man or woman named Frey.
It turns out that I was wrong since there will be no more Freys. Period. In an amazing turn of perspective, the same room in which we despaired at the sight of beloved Starks and unborn children die becomes a room of macabre catharsis—and both instances involve the wholesale slaughter of unsuspecting families. But screw it, they all had it coming… right?
In any event, as Arya steals the whole show, at least during the premiere, I hope that she also made sure to off that nasty little band from the Red Wedding too. That way Will Champion could’ve also enjoyed his very own cameoing Game of Thrones death.
But as one music superstar fan dies, another is born in Arya’s next scene when Ed Sheeran appears as a Lannister soldier singing a ditty that not-so-surprisingly catches Arya Stark’s ear. Like her, I did not recognize it, and Ser Sheeran informs us that it’s a new song. Considering this is a world where there appear to be only two other musical compositions of record (“The Rains of Castamere” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” for those keeping count), this is a really big deal. Yeah, Arya, you do need to investigate that!
Upon sitting with Lannister men, we are informed on a few intriguing details. First, Arya is now tough and brave enough to not only be traveling alone (something that terrified her in season 4), but to do so on the King’s Road. Part of the reason it took her forever to get anywhere in the early seasons was because she always had to stay off this war-torn highway. Yet here she is marching toward King’s Landing.
It’s intriguing, as I assumed she’d head North once she heard that Jon Snow and Sansa Stark have retaken Winterfell, and that she has living blood relatives. But no, vengeance has consumed her so completely that she is heading toward King’s Landing and her final major targets: Queen Cersei Lannister and Ser Gregor Clegane. She even confides as much to these soldiers, who in addition to enjoying pop star-quality musicality are also the kindest and sweetest hearted band of brothers this side of a Spielberg movie. For once, there is nary a threat of violence against Arya’s body by total strangers in Westeros. What a novelty.
Nevertheless, Arya can’t resist telling them that she still intends to kill the queen. It’s fascinating to watch Maisie Williams in this moment for there is noticeable disappointment flickering in her eyes as they laugh it off. Surely, what kind of teenage naive would actually volunteer a penchant for treason? But these boyos take it in better stride than protestors at a production of Julius Caesar. This is a disappointment to the she-wolf, because even after hearing their sob stories, Arya seemed to covet the idea of them taking offense or raising a sword against her. Nothing like a good workout of fencing and dismemberment. But it wasn’t to be. Maybe that’ll come next week as Arya’s story continues to unfold in such bloody good ways.
Farther to the North, Arya’s siblings make good on that teasing in the press of a “Jon vs. Sansa” season. In their very first scene, conflict is immediately and publicly sown when Sansa vocally disagrees with her king over sparing the ancestral homes of the Karstarks and Umbers. In the scene, Jon rather progressively reveals he is going to draft women to fight his wars. The moment itself is curious since it seems he hasn’t learned much from the successful mutiny at the Wall that took his first life. Rather than convincing his vassals that they absolutely need women to fight for them, he simply decrees that they shall, and then shrugs at the opposition.
Thank the Seven for Lyanna Mormont. The Lady of Bear Island proves to be a better communicator than her king as she shuts the opposition down like the pint-sized, woke little warrior that she is. But Jon again shows a tendency to be his adopted father’s son when he forgives the Karstark and Umber heirs without batting an eye or even extracting a tax.
The scene is meant, I suspect, to show the humanity of Jon and the curdling cynicism that is growing in Sansa. While obviously, Jon’s folly in the moment is having made this decision apparently without consulting his sister or any potential counsel, the living Karstark and Umber faces are presented as wholly good and desperate for Jon and the North’s approval and kinship.
That’s all well and good, but that feels more akin to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss drawing heavy handed lines in their conflict, as opposed to George R.R. Martin’s patented ambiguity. If the heirs really were this young and eager to please, they almost certainly are then susceptible to their own family’s adult advisers who might be less forgiving. Consider that while Lord Karstark and Lord Umber died at Bastard Bowl, the men who confided in them about betraying the Starks are still alive, and likely whispering in these children’s ears since Jon refuses to punish his enemies. Seven Hells, even Ned Stark knew to take Theon Greyjoy as hostage after the Iron Island uprising.
Honestly, this is not that far removed from Jon ignoring Stannis’ advice and keeping Ser Alliser Thorne at Castle Black, as opposed to whichever Night’s Watch post placed the maximum amount of distance between them.
But in the context of this show, I suspect that the lingering doubt that should be placed on Umbers and Karstarks will be swept under the rug, and Jon is humane for sparing their families, and Sansa is cruel for wishing anything but that. Yet Sansa in the end is worthy of her own doubt, if for no other reason than she continues to keep Littlefinger around. While I do not think she’ll betray her brother, it is troubling that she tells Brienne that “I know exactly what he wants,” because so do we. He wants to be king with her as his wife. The quickest way of achieving both goals would be making Jon Snow disappear.
While I don’t think Sansa is consciously thinking about this, on a subconscious level it is worth at least pondering over. Jon is wrong to not heed his sister’s advice after she saved the Battle of the Bastards from his blundering. But he has one small point: It does sound like she admires Cersei Lannister more than she considers Jon’s verifiable fears. And she even sounds like the Lannister Queen when she condescends dripping disdain toward Petyr Baelish. He deserves it, but it is still a more Lannister like confrontation than it is of a Stark dealing with her aide. Then again, Sansa did note the last two Stark patriarchs ended up without heads, and if Jon continues governing like he did at the Wall, his might vanish again one of these days.
As for the real Cersei, the big takeaway of the evening is that she is joining forces with Euron Greyjoy. This is fairly remarkable since Euron proves to be as lousy a negotiator as he does a tactician. He boasts of his derring-do and of setting Lannisport ablaze, but as Jaime Lannister so wryly points out, it led to the slaughter of many Greyjoys… plenty of them at the Kingslayer’s hand.
Euron’s retorts are charmingly hilarious for audiences. “It was getting too crowded, anyway.” But his mismanagement of the Greyjoy Uprising is not that different than his more recent power grab on the Iron Islands. He claims to be a cunning man worthy of Cersei Lannister’s hand in marriage, but he so fumbled his ascension in the Kingsmoot throne that he let the best Navy in the world be usurped right out from under him by his niece and eunuch nephew.
And here he is pretty much pledging allegiance to Cersei on an offer of marriage that she did not consent to, nor will she. While she might actually be flattered by his interest, and that she is now called the most beautiful woman in the world again (take that Margaery, ye corpse!!!), but Cersei has gone her entire life resentful that she was born a woman and condemned to be a bargaining chip via her bridal bed. She will never take another husband again, and especially one as uncouth as a Greyjoy.
He has only two points in his favor: He knows how to push Cersei’s “Must Kill Tyrion” button, and he has a Navy. He might hail from a tiny and unimpressive island, but like the fighting English at the height of its empire, his isle has the best maritime military out there. Well, other than the one he let his niece steal… and he gave up his second-best fleet to Cersei without any guarantees in return.
Truly, these Iron Islanders will always be the also-ran, “the South shall rise again!” types of Westeros. Oy.
As for Cersei and Jaime themselves, Cersei might enjoy having a suitor of a kind in Euron, if only to annoy her twin-cest lover a little more. However, theirs is the real romance, even as it bleeds out. Jaime wants to talk about the death of Tommen, their last son, but Cersei is dancing around the room of her very own life-sized Dungeons & Dragons board, lamenting enemies everywhere. “Olenna, the old cunt, another traitor; enemies to the North, Ned Stark’s bastard has been named King in the North, and that murdering whore Sansa stands beside him.”
The more she whines, the more Jaime looks at her in pain, seeing the spectral shade of the Mad King he once slayed in a different shape. While she is surrounded, she is also being consumed by total power and the madness it’s wrought on her psyche. Talking about a dynasty that will reign a thousand years when all of her children are dead, and it is unlikely that she’ll never have another (certainly legitimately, as her taking a husband is remote), is not Tywin-like. It’s Aerys Redux.
They’re all that’s left, and instead of drawing closer, Cersei retreats further into her delusions of power. If Varys was right to say in season 2 that power is a trick on the wall, Cersei is running headlong into it. And Jaime can’t stop her, not when she’ll throw Tyrion’s name at him if he even raises the smallest of objections. Their path is a doomed one, and it’s all the more grim that only he is faintly aware of the encroaching shadows.
Speaking of doomed tracks, it looks like the Citadel of Oldtown is not working out for Samwell Tarly. Look, freshman year is difficult for everyone in college, but none of us had to muddle under the weight of Edgar Wright-esque quick-cutting while scrubbing chamber pots. By hand.
To make matters worse, his headmaster isn’t Dumbledore, nor is he even Professor Slughorn, despite being played by the same actor. Aye, Grand Maester Jim Broadbent adds a magical touch to the proceedings, but as Game of Thrones writers have teased, this ain’t Hogwarts. This teacher sounds more like Michael Crichton’s Ian Malcolm, and not the cuddly fun one that Steven Spielberg and Jeff Goldblum softened for viewers. Nay, this is someone who looks at ecological Armageddon, be it climate change or White Walkers, and shrugs just as Crichton did to the real existential threat, or as how Malcolm would at human extinction. “Meh, history goes on, the world goes on, and life will find a way, even if it kills us all in the process.”
Thus for whatever flowery words Broadbent has about the value of knowledge and education, and how history and science prevents us from being as mindless as dogs who have no understanding of what came before them or what will appear afterward, it all comes to “who cares, maaan? We’ll all be dead in a hundred years, anyway.”
So Sam takes it on himself to steal some extracurricular reading that gives him what is hopefully not the last major plot advantage from this entire Oldtown detour: There is a mountain of dragonglass beneath the foundation of Dragonstone. Suddenly, calling it Dragonstone has a lot more clarity, no?
This is the most crucial of the many teases for the final battles to come. There are few more. Sam unwittingly is serving Jorah Mormont in his final days as a greyscale leper, which will likely prove pivotal when Sam needs to make a hasty exit and drop out of school. And the Hound is vaguely bemused at the irony of hanging out with a bunch of fire-worshippers, who then convert him with visions of the White Walkers marching on Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. (Which poor, poor Tormund and the wildlings were just given thankless command over as Ice Giants arrive. Sheesh.)
Yet the most important and obvious one is Dragonstone itself. The seemingly barren rock that Stannis chafed upon for decades is a welcome site of homecoming and reunion for Daenerys. She has not laid foot on any of Westeros, save for Dragonstone, and even then it was as an infant, less than a week old when she was spirited to Essos for a miserable state of existence with Viserys Targaryen. “The Dragon,” indeed.
So her return to Dragonstone is one worth lingering on. The moment itself is lifted straight out of the vastly underrated Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where Kevin Costner wallows in the surf beneath the Cliffs of Dover like a three-year-old. Which is all the more remarkable since he sounded about as authentically English as John Wayne.
But Dany’s fun in the sand is a little bit more sedate. She simply places her hand on the soil. It’s a simple gesture but it speaks volumes. Daenerys Targaryen is laying hands on Westeros for the first time… and it’ll never be the same again. No matter how this ends, the Seven Kingdoms and mayhaps the Iron Throne itself will be distorted, devastated, or even liberated in unknowable ways. But that transition has begun.
Benioff and Weiss are keen on underscoring this. As Daenerys nor Tyrion have any lines before the final closing second of the episode. The Silver Queen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and Khaleesi of the Dothraki Sea walks wordlessly through a Dragonstone that can finally be realized on an impressive budget after its scale was ignored in seasons 2 and 3. This includes a wall worthy of Hardian’s for Daenerys to walk along, and a new throne room that may sit upon a vast army of Dragonglass.
It’s all so much, even chatty Tyrion keeps mum as the queen has her big, quiet moment. And poignantly, Dany strides right past her new throne and into the war room. She has more important things to do than worry about vanities.
Daenerys now owns the world’s largest supply of Dragonglass and actual dragons. The weapons needed to vanquish her foes, both human and dead. She will be the arbiter of all’s fate. And even if she has heard nothing of White Walkers, she is clear on this fact as she stands above Stannis’ very own Dungeons & Dragons tabletop layout (it’s almost like this show was created by nerds). And then she says, “Shall we begin?”
Yes, Dany, we shall. And it’s about damn time, at that.
As a whole, season 7 has started with confidence and bittersweet acknowledgement. Yes, like all season premieres this erred on the side of exposition and setup. But that last line Daenerys offers Tyrion is as much a promise to viewers as it is to the Seven Kingdom lords who are about to have their world rocked in a haze of dragonfire and silver hair. The end is nigh, and it is time to make good on the promises made way back in season 1. The dragons have landed; the dead are moving; and Dany’s come home. She’s never really known Westeros, and we don’t know what she’ll do with it. But in the final 12 episodes of Game of Thrones, she is going to rewrite all the rules.
For that, enjoying this final episode from the old playbook is worth savoring, like fine Arbor wine. Just make sure Arya’s not the one buying.