It’s been a longer wait than usual – any previous season and we’d have had the finale a month ago – but finally, Game of Thrones is back. Of course, it’s not just the scheduling that’s different; there’s also three less episodes this year, meaning that after ‘Dragonstone’ there are only 6 more left for the season. All of which, coupled with the repeated promises from the cast and crew in interviews for a breakneck pace, meant that big change was expected in episode one. But in the end, the pace was far slower, and far more familiar for a season opener. And it was a great episode because of it, because basically nothing happens.
I mean, obviously, a lot happens. Any hour-long drama has to have something happen, and Thrones has a lot more to play with than most. But in terms of the bigger picture, and in terms of what’s expected to unfold this year, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Perhaps it’s due to the consolidation of the various plotlines – with less ground to cover, more time can be spent in each place – but it had far more in common with earlier episodes of the show than with the headlong rush of season 6. You’d expect the pace to increase exponentially as the season goes on, but for now it’s just good to get an episode that sets the scene.The episode begins with an initially perplexing cold open, of Walder Frey giving a toast to his house. Is it a flashback? That possibility is soon extinguished by his mention of ‘two feasts in a fortnight’, thus setting this somehow after his de… oh, of course. I’m sure that many viewers would have come to the realisation that it’s Arya at the same moment, just in time to fully appreciate the context of Arya’s derisive speech as Walder, mocking them for their role in the Red Wedding.
The whole scene was a fantastic way to start the season, and is a rare big moment where the narrative logic isn’t obviously off. The Faceless Men can – as far as we know – be anyone, can wear any face, and depending on your interpretation of the scene where Arya goes blind in ‘Mother’s Mercy’, that person doesn’t even have to be dead (unless you saw it as just a hallucination; as Jaqen says “To someone, the faces are as good as poison.”). The exact process by which a face is accessed seems far more straightforward (and far less bloody) than the books, but regardless, there’s been nothing so far that suggests Arya can’t just become Walder Frey, or anyone.
The real question I had on my mind after that scene though, is whether, from a meta perspective, she should be able to be anyone. If or when she kills Cersei as she means to do, is there then the potential for her to ‘be’ Cersei, almost like Loki ‘is’ Odin at the end of Thor: The Dark World? It’s a timeless fantasy/sci-fi idea, the ability to disguise oneself as another, but there do need to be limits, especially when the wider plot rests on the genuine personalities of the various characters. Three years ago, Arya disguising herself as the King or Queen would be an amazing possibility; this close to the end, it’s a daunting one, as shockingly compelling as it would be to see her try.
While we’re on Arya, it feels remiss not to at least mention the cameo that’s polarised the internet. I’m far from a fan of Ed Sheeran musically (let’s not be coy, his lyrics have a questionable relationship to masculinity, and his melodies are a bit dull), but as cameos go, it was good enough for me. The whole scene played out similarly to many of the show’s previous campfire scenes with soldiers sitting around talking; he got his ‘moment’ with his singing, and then faded into being more of an extra for the rest of the time, while the other actors were more prominent in the dialogue. Perhaps the whole ‘it’s a new one’ line was a bit on-the-nose, but it wasn’t that bad. And as for the song, it’s both plucked from the books, and has the potential to foreshadow big developments later on this year, but we’ll leave that for now. Down in King’s Landing, the real Cersei – until Arya wears her face – is now of course in total control. Everyone directly opposed to her is dead as of ‘The Winds of Winter’. There’s no more Margaery to spar with, no High Sparrow or Kevan Lannister to contend with, no Pycelle to be a general irritant, and no Loras to suggest even the slightest possibility of the longevity of House Tyrell, whose only goal now is revenge. And of course, on top of all these deaths, no more Tommen. Even after finding out what’s she done, Jaime is still there with her, but it’s her reaction to Tommen that suggests he is beginning to separate from her – psychologically if not physically. “He betrayed us”, she says, and you can see the same look on his face as he had when she was going after Tyrion for Joffrey’s murder in season 4.
Back then, it seemed illogical for her to actually see Tyrion as the culprit, and more likely for her to just see the opportunity to have him killed instead. But her mental fortitude has always been visible, in that she shapes her own reality around the objective facts. Tyrion was responsible, because Tyrion lived, and Joffrey died. Tommen has betrayed her, because he left her of his own free will. No matter why he left her – because she allowed him to watch, alone, as she massacred many of those he cared for – or how. The reality for her was that Tommen left her. Jaime, though, has progressed throughout the show in such a way that, even if he had a similar perspective at the start – and that’s not really the case, as can be summarised in his infamous line, “The things I do for love” – he certainly doesn’t have that perspective now. Tommen didn’t betray them; Tommen killed himself because he had nothing left to live for.
Jaime is the sort to rarely show that kind of emotion, but he seems a man still in private grieving, who has found that the only person he could lean on doesn’t think he should be grieving at all. Instead, Cersei’s focus is on ‘the wars to come’, to borrow the phrase of Mance Rayder, yet as with the rest of it, her view seems somewhat blinkered. Jaime made good points about the Tyrells allying with Dany, and that’s without mentioning the not insignificant matter that Cersei murdered their future. I’d wager that they would ally with Dany even if she seemed like the losing side, just for a chance to avenge Margaery, Loras, and, yes, even Mace Tyrell.
So Cersei needs allies. It’s here that the episode does have a few issues, as the only ally really left turns out to naturally be Euron Greyjoy. Now, does it makes sense for her to turn to him? Sure. Does it make sense for him to turn to her? It does, and he’s mad anyway so it wouldn’t even have to. But the real flaw of the scene was in compounding the utter ridiculousness of that ship-building idea from season 6. The timelines of each part of each episode aren’t meant to line up accurately; one part can cover a few days while another can cover a few weeks. But really, how long are we expected to believe it took to build 1000 battle-ready warships? A couple weeks or months? If they were smaller longships perhaps it’s feasible, but the ones we were shown were fully armoured galleys (there ends my knowledge of medieval naval terminology).
Whenever something like this gets questioned, the hypothetical response is always ‘this world has dragons, anything can happen’. But anything does need to have a semblance of reality, else what’s the point? The whole issue for Stannis was entirely that he needed Salladhor Saan for his ships, as he couldn’t just construct his own fleet out of nothing, and after Blackwater, he still couldn’t make another fleet and just try again a few weeks later. Anyway, where exactly is Euron going? My money would be on Dorne, as out of Cersei’s enemies, the Dornish are the only ones remotely vulnerable. Though there is again the issue of the fleet; how does Euron intend to get it out of Blackwater Bay, given Dany’s rather large fleet is meant to be just round the corner, figuratively speaking? Oh well.Thoughts of Cersei seem to be in vogue for Starks, because while Arya heads to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, Sansa seems to modelling herself on her. The comparison is an interesting one. It was raised innocuously by Michelle Fairley in Sky Atlantic’s pre-episode show recap, something which intrigued me, and then the point was rammed home in the episode itself, as Sansa said that she had ‘learnt a lot’ from Cersei. The connection is a particularly compelling one, linking back to Sansa’s time in King’s Landing, and, more importantly, offering a suggestion it won’t be plain sailing for the Starks for now. Even though Sansa withheld Littlefinger until the last moment, she was ultimately responsible for rescuing the battle.
Sansa, until the reveal of Jon’s true heritage is shown to them, is the one with the Stark name. Yet it’s Jon in command, and Sansa, as before, is side-lined, while still forthright in her contributions to discussions. The idea of Littlefinger convincing her to go against Jon seems odd, given she now holds sway over him, not the other way round (Her line, “No need to seize the final word, Lord Baelish. I’m sure it was something clever”, was superb), but the idea that she backs her own views as the right way forward makes perfect sense. As she intimates herself in the episode, it’s not that she’s trying to undermine him, but that she simply has different views. How large a potential split between them goes will depend on the decisions to be made, and the choices Jon makes.
On the one hand, it looks an awful lot like Jon is going to be Ned Mk.3, following Robb’s failed attempt, valuing honour and loyalty above all. In this instance, I actually thought that he was right; if the North needs to work together to defend itself, it makes no sense to cast out relatively large houses if their new Lords and Ladies pledge fealty. But as evidence of his approach to command, it does set him on the path of the two other Starks before him. On the other hand, surely it would be a bit much to see a third Stark brought down by their naivety? At a certain point, they’d surely learn their lesson.
Further into the North, the scene immediately following the credits marked a kind of retread of the scene that ended season 2, with the White Walkers and their army marching en masse. Only this time, the mass was rather larger, and now included reanimated giants too. If the scope and size of that army is growing, I’m still holding out for the show to finally feature the ‘ice spiders, big as hounds’ in some way. The Wights have been shown enough to not have the shock factor so much anymore, but showing great big spiders scuttling towards people would certainly bring that shock back.
That army, meanwhile, was glimpsed in visions by both Bran, who by going beneath the Wall carrying the Night King’s mark may have caused irreparable damage to the Wall’s magic, and more significantly, by Sandor Clegane in the flames. His scenes mourning the loss of the farmer he had stolen from in ‘Breaker of Chains’ and his daughter Sally brought a new angle to a character defined by his veil of apathy. It’s not the first time he’s acted on emotion and empathy, but it’s a rare time he actually lets his guard down and shows it.While the Wights march inexorably southwards, and while Jon and Sansa plan war at Winterfell, Sam has settled at the Citadel, as shown through a particularly unpalatable montage of, as those online have rhymed it, ‘soup and poop’. The Harry Potter reference with Jim Broadbent as Marywn denying him access to the restricted section of the library was amusing, but overall, Sam’s plot is still stuck in a sense of futility. There’s no way he can complete full training as a Maester in time to return to Castle Black before the ‘Great War’, yet completing that training was the whole value of sending him to the Citadel. With his discovery of dragonglass under Dragonstone, there is a clear direction to his arc outside of his training, but it does seem like a storyline that can only be cut short, either by his departure to the North, his fast-tracking as a Maester once Marywn realises the true horror, or perhaps if he’s forced to flee should Randyll Tarly come for him and Heartsbane.
The final scenes of the episode rammed home the slower pace of the episode, as it was only then that Dany reached Dragonstone, in a near-10 minute scene simply showing her finally walk on Westerosi ground, before heading into the castle, through the throne room, and into the familiar ‘map chamber’ that was the main set for Stannis’ time in the castle in previous seasons. The added interior and exterior locations and geographical context add tremendously to the atmosphere of Dragonstone, and reinforce the idea of what it previously stood for centuries before the main narrative.
The episode ends with Dany’s first words of the episode. “Shall we begin?” After episode one of the season, we certainly have.