“Shall we begin?” After a torturously extended hiatus, Game of Thrones’ seventh season fittingly kicks off with a homecoming in “Dragonstone,” as the Mother of Dragons lands in Westeros and sets foot inside her family’s ancestral home — a holy grail moment six seasons in the making. The premiere episode doesn’t break the wheel so much as reacquaint us with all its moving parts. It concretely lays out the stakes facing each hero and villain, and peers into the inner conflicts of some who’ve changed the most. Now we know where the pieces landed after Cersei’s game-changing wildfire blowup last season. Now the endgame finally begins.
The deadly meat pie Arya baked for Walder Frey in last year’s season finale was just the start of her revenge tour in the Twins. After slitting Frey’s throat, she wears his face to deliver a speech in front of the gathered members of his House, then watches as they choke and spit blood after sipping poisoned wine. Revenge suits her well. And the thoroughness of her punishment for House Frey—she slays every last traitor who took part in the Red Wedding—is irresistibly satisfying. But a little alarming, too. (Less alarming than Ed Sheeran’s face materializing suddenly at a campfire; more alarming than actor David Bradley’s spot-on unraveling from the craggy Walder Frey into a fiery impression of Maisie Williams as Arya.)
The episode contrasts Arya’s cold, sweet bloodlust with two more characters known as killers, but who’ve lately wrestled with compounding guilt and a nagging sense of morality: Jaime Lannister and The Hound. Jaime now struggles to operate in spaces he once fit into easily. At his sister’s side, as she courts the allyship of Euron Greyjoy, the Kingslayer is aghast at the backstabbing treachery Yara and Theon’s pirate uncle is known for—just as his old buddy Brienne would be. The dynamic between Cersei, Euron, and Jaime here is striking, a showpiece scene for how much Jaime has changed: in a room of so-called villains, he’s suddenly the voice of reason.
Sandor Clegane, meanwhile, faces down the living (er, dead) consequences of his old ways. A Riverlands farmer whose money he stole while traveling with Arya starved to death; his body, and that of his little daughter, sit frozen in the corner of their home. A chance return to the scene with Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion of the Brotherhood Without Banners leaves Sandor reeling, albeit gruffly and silently. He buries the dead, a gesture rendered even bleaker by his reiterated lack of belief in a higher power. It’s a beautiful scene that dovetails effortlessly with some necessary plot-pushing via his vision in the flames. He glimpses oblivion of a different kind there, as the Night King’s army floods south of the Wall in the near-future. From Sandor’s description, that’s likely near the Wall outpost Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, where Tormund and his wildlings are now headed. Now it seems the Brotherhood will be riding there soon as well.
Humanizing moments like this have come steadily for Sandor and Jaime, sometime-villains and perfect examples of the show’s ability to draw unexpected depth from unexpected characters. (To say nothing of the former’s still-spectacular gift for one-liners and takedowns: “You think you’re fooling anyone with that topknot? Bald cunt” is like, a god-tier insult.) Arya, meanwhile, has become harder in her quest for revenge. Not that we’re complaining: her new stated mission to kill the queen in King’s Landing is a promising new thread, hopefully at odds with the wheel-spinning drudgery of her Braavos storyline from last year. It’s already off to a rousing start: Her snarled directive to Frey’s wife to spread the word that “the North remembers” was a fist-pumping jolt of exhilaration, smartly unleashed in a rare cold open.
Sheeran’s surprise musical cameo, on the other hand, was a jolt of a different kind. The pop star is by far the most recognizable guest to have teleported to Westeros, after members of Coldplay, Sigur Ros, Mastodon, Of Monsters and Men, and other musicians. His booking was a gift to his scene partner Maisie Williams on behalf of showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who announced the guest appearance in March at SXSW. “For years, we tried to get Ed Sheeran on the show to surprise Maisie, and this year we finally did it,” Benioff said at the time. Williams is a superfan, though; other viewers’ mileage will understandably vary. I found his presence unobtrusive enough to keep focus on what was a refreshingly atypical scene for the show, one that dwelt on the personal lives of nameless Lannister soldiers usually relegated to two-second death scenes in the background. (Soldiers don’t receive ravens?! The outrage!) For others, Sheeran’s high-profile mug might have easily overshadowed the offbeat nature of the scene. Not a tragedy per se, but still a shame.
Arya’s target Cersei, meanwhile, has almost entirely shut down after the loss of her last child. It’s been said again and again that Cersei’s only redeeming quality was her love of her children; without that, nothing bars her from leaning recklessly into her worst instincts. Thus, her summoning of Euron Greyjoy. Cersei is the first unmarried woman to sit on the Iron Throne, but she isn’t planning to stay single long. And Euron is bad news, in case the slouchy black leather didn't tip you off. But he is just about the only guy left in Westeros with a thousand-ship fleet who doesn’t already loathe the Lannisters. Cersei’s desperate enough: She’s backed into a corner with enemies to the west (the Tyrells, understandably miffed she blew up their heirs), the south (the Sand Snakes in Dorne), the north (Jon Snow, whom she demands ride south to bend the knee to her) and now in Dragonstone, where Daenerys has reclaimed the Targaryens’ ancestral home.
She isn’t quite at a point of self-destruction to say yes to his proposal, though. On Jaime’s advice—after Euron rudely boasts his advantage as a lover with not one, but two hands; the nerve of this guy—Cersei turns him down. Euron promises to return with a “priceless” gift to convince her. There are a few good guesses as to what the gift could be: in the books, for instance, Euron owns a dragon horn called Dragonbinder he claims he lifted from the ruins of Valyria. He also claims that with the horn, he “can bind dragons to my will.” He’s never proven as much, but the offer just might entice Cersei. If it does, let’s hope Euron spells out the fine print: the horn kills whoever blows it.
At Winterfell, newly appointed King in the North Jon Snow has a little sister problem. Littlefinger’s efforts to sow discord between Sansa and her half-brother seem to be working. But only because what he tells her is true: Jon does owe the victory at the Battle of the Bastards to Sansa. Sansa’s intel on their enemies, particularly Cersei, is first-hand accurate and thus invaluable. And she makes point after valid point about how trusting and merciful Jon can really afford to be; her advice stings, but rings especially true in light of what killed Ned and Robb Stark. She argues that the ancestral homes of the families who betrayed Jon—the Karstarks among them—should be taken away and given as reward to families who stood loyal. Jon rebuffs the idea, insisting punishment enough was already dealt on the battlefield.
Having “no punishment for treason, no reward for loyalty,” as Sansa puts it, is indeed a pretty questionable method of ruling. The effectiveness of these scenes, though, comes from the fact that Jon is right, too. Undermining him in public helps no one, especially his already tenuously united ragtag forces. (Many Northern noblemen objected to fighting alongside wildlings, even after the Battle of the Bastards; there’s also resistance from some old fogey here to the idea of women being welcomed into the army—at least until living treasure Lyanna Mormont shuts him down: “I don’t need your permission to defend the North.”) And it is just slightly disturbing to hear Sansa reading from Cersei’s bad-ruler playbook: taking away a family’s ancestral home as punishment is exactly what the queen did to the Tullys last year in Riverrun.
But Sansa understands what Littlefinger is after; she finally says as much in this episode. She also spent six seasons being controlled, manipulated, and abused by selfish men. The North does need the Knights of the Vale, and a show does need drama. But letting Sansa be swayed against Jon by Littlefinger for much longer runs the risk of negating already-established character growth. The Sansa who escaped Ramsay (a daily hell that, remember, Littlefinger arranged) is already a more Machiavellian player of the game of thrones—that’s exactly what this exchange with Jon reinforced. If she’s aware Littlefinger is manipulating her but continues playing into his hands, the inconsistency becomes glaring.
In Oldtown, home of TV’s liveliest montages involving chamber pots, Sam has discovered a mountainous store of the White Walker-killing obsidian known as dragonglass right under Dany’s new digs at Dragonstone. That’s an invaluable discovery, likely the first of many to come from the Citadel. (A cure for greyscale seems in short order too, as Jorah has somehow landed himself in Sam’s orbit.) And it couldn’t come sooner: Bran’s vision as he and Meera reach Castle Black, like the Hound’s vision in the flames, seems to show the White Walkers already south of the wall. That future isn’t far off. Which means Jon will set out to Dragonstone and meet Daenerys as soon as Sam’s raven touches ground.
Jon coming face-to-face with the Mother of Dragons is a moment some Game of Thrones fans have waited decades for. Ditto her emotional homecoming onto Westerosi sand and procession into her family’s throne room. (A special round of applause to costume designer Michelle Clapton for the regal, battle-ready, dragon scale-tinged number she wears here.) Daenerys has made it clear in the past that she intends to destroy every House of Westeros, even the Starks. How will she take to Jon, her unwitting nephew? We can’t wait to find out.