Even though this isn’t yet the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’ (eight are planned in all), almost all of HBO’s marketing for the series has shifted to emphasize that the end is near and we’re in the final act of the story. Just as most of its seasons have begun, the new premiere spends about an hour suggesting that a lot is happening in George R.R. Martin’s elaborate and convoluted fantasy world without much actually happening on screen.
Truth be told, the closer we get to the ending, the more concerned I feel. It’s been very clear for several seasons now that the ultimate climax to this story will be devoted to the White Walkers invading Westeros. As I’ve mentioned a few times previously, I find the White Walkers to be the least interesting, and frankly cheesiest, thing in the entire show. Fortunately, we don’t devote very much screen time to them in the season premiere. Nonetheless, even with just a brief glimpse, their presence is felt looming over the rest of the narrative. This is meant to evoke feelings of dread for the characters, but it leaves me dreading how the whole show will inevitably turn into endless scenes of characters banging and clanging swords with dumb CGI zombies.
In terms of action, the premiere peaks early, before the opening credits even come up. We open on a scene of intentional confusion. Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley), last seen having his throat slit by Arya Stark, is somehow alive and well without explanation. He has invited (demanded, I’m sure) his entire family to a huge banquet to celebrate their good fortunes, and even seems to be in an uncharacteristically good mood. As he raises a toast to all the extended family who helped him murder Robb and Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding, it slowly dawns what is actually happening. Sure enough, the wine is poisoned. Everyone in the room, aside from Frey’s young wife who was told not to drink, coughs and gags and keels over dead. It wasn’t Walder Frey at all, of course. Arya reaches up and tears off the mask, revealing herself. She instructs the survivor, “Tell them the North remembers.”
North of the Wall
A storm approaches, slowly devouring the land. Walking and riding horses within it is a huge army of White Walkers, including a several giants who have turned.
Bran Stark sees this happen in a vision while warging. His friend Meera pulls his sled all the way to the Wall. The Night’s Watch guards open the gate to question them, and are skeptical when Meera announces Bran’s identity. Bran proves himself easily and warns that the Night King is coming. The guards allow the two of them through.
Jon Snow orders the men of the Watch to search high and low for dragonglass – one of the few substances known to kill White Walkers. Controversially, he also announces that women and children will be trained to fight. Every hand is needed. Young Lyanna Mormont gives one of her knights a verbal lashing when he suggests that only men are suitable for combat.
Because the Watch is desperately short-handed, Snow asks Tormund and the Wildlings to man castles along the Wall. This doesn’t go over well with everyone in the room. Jon and Sansa have a public dispute when he also announces that the surviving Karstarks and Umbers – two families that betrayed the Starks – will be allowed to keep their homes and kingdoms. The traitors died in battle and Jon will not punish the sons for the sins of their fathers. The past is behind them and they need to move forward now. He makes the new heads of both families swear loyalty to him and is satisfied that it’s enough. Sansa thinks this is a bad call.
After the meeting, Jon receives a raven message demanding that he go to King’s Landing and pledge his own fealty to the new queen. It’s a charade, obviously, as Cersei knows he’ll never do that, and would certainly have him murdered the second he stepped foot inside the city even if he did. Sansa warns that Cersei will stop at nothing to kill the both of them, but Jon is more concerned with the impending threat of the White Walkers and can’t be bothered worrying about what’s happening a thousand miles to the south. Again, Sansa thinks he’s being short-sighted.
Brienne attempts to train Podrick at fighting but he’s still not particularly good at it. Tormund is noticeably smitten with Brienne.
Baelish continues to hang around Sansa, being a creep. She knows his intentions and is dismissive of him, but allows him to stay around because she and Jon need his Knights of the Vale.
Now queen, Cersei has an artist paint a map of the seven kingdoms on the floor of a room in the palace so that she can survey not just all the territory she supposedly rules, but more to the point can assess all the challengers to her thrones. As she discusses with Jaime, she has enemies to the north, enemies to the south, enemies to the east and the west. Everyone is ready to tear her down. Aware that Daenerys is en route across the Narrow Sea with Yara Greyjoy’s fleet, and that Tyrion is her chief advisor, she blames Jaime for letting Tyrion escape after he murdered their father.
Jaime wants to talk about the death of their son, Tommen, but Cersei coldly shuts down that conversation. She has no time for the weakness of emotions. Jaime points out that, without children, the Lannister dynasty ends with them.
Convinced that she needs stronger, better allies for the wars to come, Cersei invites Euron Greyjoy to sail to King’s Landing with his newly rebuilt armada, which he claims is the strongest in the world. Jaime is not impressed with him. He thinks the Greyjoys are trash and this would be a poor alliance, but Cersei is interested enough to hear out his proposal.
Euron cockily makes clear his intent to marry the queen. Cersei declines, saying that he has betrayed allies in the past and is not trustworthy. Euron takes this as a challenge to win her over, and promises to return with a priceless gift that will impress her. I assume that said gift will be the head of one of her enemies. Cersei seems amused even as Jaime scoffs.
Sam Tarly finds his training regimen with the brotherhood of maesters to be less than ideal. Essentially, he’s trapped in indentured servitude, performing grueling manual labor such as scrubbing disgusting chamber pots and serving equally disgusting meals of slop. (As an extended montage rather unsubtly compares the two, it’s hammered home that the meals aren’t much different from the contents of those chamber pots. What goes in, comes out.)
Sam begs the Archmaester to allow him access to books on the White Walkers locked away in a restricted section of the library, arguing that he’s the only man there who’s actually seen a White Walker in person. The other maesters don’t believe his stories. Even though the Archmaester knows he’s telling the truth, he’s not impressed. As a historian, he knows that generation after generation have feared one apocalypse or another bringing the end of their worlds. And yet, “Every winter that ever came has ended.”
That night, Sam steals the Archmaester’s keys and absconds with a handful of the restricted books. Pouring over them with Gilly, he finds a reference to a mountain of dragonglass beneath the Targaryen castle called Dragonstone. Realizing the importance of this, he sends off a raven to notify Jon Snow.
The next day, while serving meals to the inmates of a sanitarium wing of the Citadel, Sam is frightened when an arm covered in scales reaches through the door slot and nearly touches him. A voice on the other side of the door asks if the Dragon Queen has arrived yet. Obviously, this must be Jorah Mormont.
As Arya rides toward King’s Landing, she hears singing in the woods and comes across a small camp of Lannister soldiers sitting around a campfire. One turns around and – what the what?! – it’s Grammy-winning pop sensation Ed Sheeran! His presence is decidedly disconcerting and can throw a viewer right out of the episode, but fortunately he only has a couple lines of dialogue and doesn’t embarrass himself. (Nor does he show any of his stupid tattoos.) Still, the stunt-casting is distracting.
These soldiers are unimportant men, sent to keep the peace in troubled regions. They don’t know who Arya is and assume she’s just a random traveler. They invite her to join them for a meal and are perfectly friendly, sharing stories of the lives they’ve left behind back home. Arya learns that not all enemies are necessarily bad people. When one of the soldiers asks why she’d want to go to such a miserable place as King’s Landing, Arya announces that she intends to kill the queen. Assuming that she’s joking, the men all have a good laugh.
Meanwhile, the Hound is trekking around in the company of the Brotherhood Without Banners. He isn’t pleased by this, but then the Hound isn’t pleased by much anyway. The group comes across an abandoned farm house that the Hound recognizes. Back in Season 4, he stole what little money the farmer had and left him and his young daughter to die. Sure enough, they did. It appears that the farmer killed the child and himself to end their misery before they starved to death. The Hound says nothing about any of this to the Brotherhood but clearly feels a lot of guilt about it.
In a conversation with Beric Dondarrio, the Hound questions why the God of Light would want to keep resurrecting such an unimportant and unimpressive man as him from the dead. Dondarrion has no answer. One of the other brothers suggest that the Hound look into the fire they’ve just lit. The Hound is skeptical; he has no use for gods. However, after a few seconds of staring into the flames, he sees a vision of the Wall, a castle on a mountain near the sea, and the dead marching. He’s unsettled by this.
That night, one of the brothers discovers the Hound digging a grave for the farmer and his daughter. He silently agrees to help, and they throw the two bodies in.
The episode ends with Daenerys, Tyrion, Varys, and their army (including three dragons) arriving at the castle Dragonstone, which is built upon a mountain of dragonglass they have no idea the value of. The place had been Stannis Baratheon’s base of operations and has been abandoned ever since his death. In a very long, extended wordless sequence, Dany walks through her family’s ancestral home until she stops at the throne, which is also made of dragonglass. Tyrion follows behind. Dany finally breaks the silence by asking, “Shall we begin?”
The fact that the very last words of the episode ask if it’s ready to begin is almost comically typical ‘Game of Thrones’. The premiere is a whole lot of setup without any sign of payoff. That will come later, of course. This show has always been a slow burn. Nevertheless, with the news that both this season and the last will be shorter than normal (only seven this year), I kind of expected that maybe the narrative might develop more sense of urgency and speed up a little. Apparently not.
I suppose I can live with that. The premiere is a decent enough episode. I have no complaints, beyond being baffled by the Ed Sheeran cameo. At the same time, the only standout moment happens in the very first scene, leaving the rest as a very drawn-out denouement, which feels like the opposite of how an hour of episodic television ought to be structured.