The long wait is over. Game of Thrones returned Sunday night with a terrific season 7 opener that featured nearly every major character and set the stage for a brutal clash of queens and an epic end game in Westeros. There were maps, mass murder, surprise meetings, an unexpected callback, sibling tension, an improved Euron, and even more maps! We start with—
The Twins: Wait, when is this scene taking place? Is this a flashback to the Red Wedding? Is Walder Frey still alive somehow? As Frey gives his speech honoring the death of Robb Stark, it rather quickly becomes apparent something is amiss. At the Thrones premiere screening in Los Angeles last week, viewers were tittering almost immediately during this “cold open” (placed before the GoT credits quite deliberately to make viewers think it might be a flashback). How long were you fooled? Not very, I suspect. You’re all seasoned GoT pros at this point, right? “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe,” says “Walder” as his confused men barf blood. All it takes is one terrible feast, and your Yelp reviews never recover.
Arya triumphantly whips off her mask, like a psychotic Ethan Hunt, her seemingly impossible mission of killing all the Freys complete. Lucky for Arya there wasn’t one soldier in the room who was like, “You know, I’m just going to pretend to drink this wine, I’m trying to cut back on drinking, been working on bettering myself.”
Thrones smash-cuts to the credits. There’s nothing like kicking off a new season with hundreds of people being killed by a teen girl who is, of course, our hero. If that isn’t GoT for you, not sure what is. Arya has leveled up her murderousness once again and we cheer. Yet also wonder: We learned from reading Harry Potter that murder tears the soul apart. Is this murder making Arya into somebody we might not love as much? Actress Maisie Williams wonders about this in our interview this week. It’s been on her mind the past few years — will Arya ever do something to really turn fans against her? Not today, at least.
This question is very subtly raised again in Arya’s other scene when she’s on the road and stumbles onto Ed Sheeran as a singing Lannister soldier (fun fact: This ballad was sung by a drunk Tyrion in the books). This is one of my favorite scenes in the episode despite Sheeran, who felt out of place. Musician cameos in previous seasons (like Sigur Rós and Will Champion) disappeared into the fabric of the show; you would never know they were significant unless you were super familiar with their faces, and even then you might not notice. Sheeran’s appearance is the closest the GoT has felt to having a contemporary Special Guest Star Cameo moment. Fans on Twitter were itching for Arya to kill him.
Still, Sheeran’s impact was brief. We’re quickly pulled back into this moment of Lannister soldiers behaving precisely how we do not expect — they’re sympathetic and friendly and relatable and bummed about their lack of r-mail access to keep in touch with their loved ones. I suspect the writers want us to feel for these soldiers who will presumably face Dany’s army at some point. For a moment, we even start to worry, not for Arya, but for them — what’s she going to do? Will she kill them like the Freys? Again, it raises the question of how far Arya will go.
In the end, she bluntly reveals her intentions: “I’m going to kill the queen,” which the men laugh off. This is a breaking news alert for us. Fans have assumed that Arya would go home to Winterfell, not King’s Landing, but with her newfound confidence at striking down tyrants she wants to take out the biggest level boss in Westeros. (Next: The Euron-peon Union)
King’s Landing: Speaking of which, Cersei is having her patio painted with a giant map of Westeros so she can visually keep track of everybody who hates her — and she doesn’t even know about Arya yet! She literally strides across the Seven Kingdoms like she owns the world, stepping on the little people at her feet. Jaime looks disturbed at her new James Bond villain decor as she lists her enemies. Can you imagine if Cersei had dragons instead of Dany? She’d just roast everybody so nobody would be left alive to threaten her. Jaime tries to temper Cersei’s Donald Trump-ian impulses, pointing out she can’t just piss off everybody; you need at least some allies to rule. Cersei has one in mind, but Jaime’s not going to like it.
Enter Euron Greyjoy 2.0, all black leather pants and low-cut pirate shirt, looking a bit like an R-rated Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time. (No, George R.R. Martin fans, Euron still doesn’t have an eye patch, which, in the books, the character wears just for the hell of it; I think that would be one pirate trope too far.) I’m very curious to hear the reactions to his physical and personality makeover. I’m a fan. Euron last season was like an angry ambitious warrior, something we’ve seen before on this show and others. As showrunner Dan Weiss points out in our interview with actor Pilou Asbæk about his return in this episode, “We haven’t had somebody with a rock star swagger who doesn’t give a s— before. Everybody in this world cares very deeply — whether they’re awful, wonderful, or, most of them, somewhere in between — they all care deeply about the politicking and give a lot of thought into everything they do. To have somebody traipse onto the stage with a swagger and the attitude that Euron has, it’s a lot of fun and lets a lot of air into the room.”
Euron wastes no time. He pitches himself to Cersei, not treating her like a queen worthy of respect, but like a woman in a tavern he’s hitting on while she sits right next to her boyfriend (in this case, Jaime). Euron has seemingly been reading pick-up artist forums and is peacocking and negging all over the place, trying to demonstrate his social proof. The man’s totally showing up next time in a fedora. He can’t help but test Cersei’s boundaries by advancing on her, watching The Mountain step protectively forward. He amusingly insults Jaime’s lack of hand and suggests Cersei kill her brother. Even his apparent praise of Jaime for his combat skills years ago is actually a subtle put-down — Jaime before his dismemberment was a very different man, and they all know it. Jaime may have privately engaged in some delightful Seven Kingdoms trash talk with Cersei, putting down the Iron Born to Cersei as “bitter, angry little people.” But he recognizes the desperation of their situation and, despite his misgivings, knows that they have to accept any help they can get.
Euro declares he’s willing to do some work on speculation, saying he’ll bring Cersei a gift. The Lannisters are cool with this. They have nothing to lose. What will this gift be, we wonder? (Next: Sansa, you’re spoiling it, you’re spoiling everything! )
Winterfell: In the Great Hall, Jon Snow deals with a matter before the Northern lords — what to do with House Umber and Karstark after they betrayed the Starks to side with Ramsay Bolton. Jon declares they will be forgiven since the traitors who made the decision are dead and now they all need to band together to fight the army of the dead. But here comes Sansa, objecting to his judgment like a lawyer for the prosecution, wanting to throw those adorable teen lord-lings out of their castles and into the freezing winter for their relative’s betrayal. She presses the issue, making Jon look weak. “So there’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty” is a devastating line. But she’s breaking The Godfather’s famous rule for governing siblings: “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family.” Remember what happened to Fredo.
Jon looks tormented. Well, moreso. And GoT fans who went from vehemently anti-Sansa to totally pro-Sansa over the last couple seasons prepare to sharpen their tweets — How dare she humiliate the King in the North! Jon stands firm and lets the young Karstark and Umber kids remain. I wonder if Lyanna Mormont will have playdates with them.
Littlefinger watches a fuming Sansa during this. He’s lurking in the shadows like an ex-pimp Emperor Palpatine: Yes, let the anger flow through you Sansa! Join me and we’ll rule Westeros as husband and his inappropriately aged wife!
Jon mopes up to Sansa and they have a very natural-feeling chat about his verdict. His leadership is both progressive and traditional. Arming women and sending Wildlings to man The Wall is revolutionary thinking for this country. Yet his handling of the traitors feels like classic Ned Stark. Sansa’s objection is understandable — her hatred of Ramsay still burns so bright that anybody who helped him is automatically her enemy. More logically, she’s learned a bit from Cersei (and presumably from Ramsay too, even if she’d never admit it — he said he’d always be with her, remember?). Both Ramsay and Cersei annihilate any perceived enemies. Sansa’s correct that Jon needs to avoid the naive mistakes of Ned and Robb, but in this I side with him anyway — he needs a united North, and his decision in the Great Hall is the type of move that makes people love their leader. Still, Jon could have avoided all this if he spoke to Sansa about his decision in advance.
Later, in the courtyard, Tormund leers at Brienne as he prepares to leave for Eastwatch, because that’s what he does. Meanwhile, Baelish sidles up to Sansa, trying to play on her fears and aspirations. “Why aren’t you happy?” he whispers. She’s totally onto him and doesn’t want to hear it. I love her line as she dismisses him: “No need to seize the last word; I’ll assume it was something clever.”
Castle Black: Briefly at the gate, Bran meets Dolorous Edd and gives him a quick Sherlock-esque mind-freak cold reading. He doesn’t say anything to prove he’s a Stark, like Edd asked, but does prove he creepily knows a bunch of things he shouldn’t, so they decide to bring him in. (Next: MasterChef)
The Citadel: Hope you didn’t have soup for dinner! Too late? Samwell Tarley has finally arrived in the Land of Books and Decorative Chains to read to his introvert heart’s content, and his mean ol’ maester (played by Jim Broadbent, slipping seamlessly into this world … unlike some people) has put him on latrine and kitchen duty like an Old Town episode of Dirty Jobs. It all opens with a unique sequence for Thrones. Normally the show’s editing style is classical and formal, but here director Jeremy Podeswa uses rapid cutting of Sam’s gross-out jobs for a comedic effect we haven’t seen before.
Co-executive producer Bryan Cogman has pointed out that Sam has found himself in an “anti-Harry Potter” story line: “Sam shows up to this amazing place where he thinks he’s going to get all the answers and all his talents are going to be put to good use. But this ain’t Hogwarts, and the maester is not Dumbledore.” There’s even a Hogwarts-esque restricted section of the library where books are hidden away for advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts. Sam steals a key and begins his studies. If only he had an invisibility cloak and a Marauders Map, this would be a cinch.
Samwell quickly discovers that there’s a lot of White Walker-killing dragonglass at Dragonstone castle (appropriately enough) and plans to send a message to Jon. When you think about where the other characters are, this move has all sorts of intriguing potential outcomes.
We get a jolt (the premiere audience literally yelped) when Ser Jorah, of all people, grabs Sam from a cell where he’s apparently being kept. Jorah wants to know if Daenerys has arrived in Westeros yet. He’s also probably wondering who she’s dating. It’s not clear if Dany’s arrival will trigger something for him or if he’s just trying to keep up on current events. It’s also not clear why Jorah is there. On this week’s EW podcast breaking down the GoT premiere, Darren Franich and I concluded that Jorah is presumably being contained like a medieval leper due to his contagious greyscale — he’s being kept separate from the population and given basic humane care as he waits to die.
Later, Broadbent’s maester explains the perspective of his organization on world events. They apparently keep themselves removed from world affairs, which is pretty monastic for quasi-scientists. Westeros is facing the bizarro universe version of global warming and its top minds are content to sit on the sidelines. You would think they’d want to actually be useful. Then again, given how many people in Westeros are murderous thugs who use their swords instead of their minds, all these Citadel nerds probably see winter is coming and think: Screw ‘em.
The maester notes that through the ages, no matter many times doomsayers thought the world was going to end, The Wall has held back the forces of evil each winter. That sounds like potential foreshadowing, with echoes of Potter once again. Remember that line in Sorcerer’s Stone? “As long as Dumbledore is around, Harry, you’re safe.” (Next: Dragon’s Den)
Riverlands: Speaking of letting people starve, here we come to a wholly unexpected and hauntingly filmed sequence with The Hound that’s probably my favorite part in the premiere. Who predicted the Game of Thrones season 7 opener would have a major callback to the poor farmer from season 4? Exactly nobody. We don’t know what happened to Gendry but we totally get closure on that guy! A refresher: The Hound and Arya were once helped by a kind man and his daughter, and The Hound repaid this generosity by striking him and stealing his money, declaring that the farmer is weak and winter is coming and that they would just starve anyway. Arya really hated The Hound for this.
So when The Hound finishes bald-shaming Thoros and they come upon this familiar farmhouse, his first instinct is to bolt, noting the occupants don’t want their company. But the farmer and his daughter are long dead, having killed themselves to avoid starving. Is their fate the Hound’s fault? He sure didn’t help. It’s impossible to know if this outcome would have happened anyway.
This leads to an intriguing debate with six-time resurrection champ Beric Dondarrion, who in addition to wearing Euron’s eye patch has totally out-messiah’d Jon Snow. The Hound is angered by the fact of Beric because he’s seemingly walking proof that a higher power exists. But if that’s true, as the timeless and impossible question goes, why does he/she allow such horrible things happen to good people? The Hound wants to know why Beric has been saved (and, I suspect, why he’s been spared so far as well). The Hound has come a long way from the man we met in season 4. The Brotherhood reassured him last season that it’s not too late for him to do more good than the harm he’s caused. He sees those bodies in the corner and wonders if that could possibly be true.
Suddenly I want a scene between The Hound and Jaime Lannister — two men who are nothing alike but have been on a rather similar moral journey over the course of this show. Also: By raising the question of Beric’s purpose so pointedly, the scene strongly suggests that this minor character — whose importance in the series has never been clear — has something crucial to do before the show is over.
Dragonstone: One of the cool elements of this episode is how many different scene tones we get. There’s the mass murder surprise of the cold open. Strategy sessions. One-on-one intimate chats. And here is something entirely different: an almost wordless visual feast. Back in season 2 when Stannis Baratheon resided in Dragonstone, the setting was mainly staged with a distant exterior shot CG-shot and the carved wood table map room. Here we see GoT’s season 7 budget on full display, with a gorgeous sequence of Daenerys landing her landing party on the shore and ascending the stone stairs to reap her birthright. The lingering of this sequence drives home, without dialogue, how momentous this is for her character. From the very first time we met Dany, she’s wanted to return home. (Also, what other drama would have its top-billed star, Peter Dinklage, spend the premiere just silently observing?). I do wonder why nobody had taken up residence here after Stannis left. This is some high-class beach-front property when most Westeros residents live in shacks, somebody would at least rent it out on AirBnB.
We also get a preview of Dany’s rad new throne room full of dark dragon scale detail. She peers at the Westeros table map, just like Cersei looking her her floor map earlier, and lowers the boom: “Shall we begin?”
Oh, we so shall! Already this season we have significant characters meeting on screen for the first time (Euron and Cersei; Bran and Dolorous Edd; Jorah and Sam). There were a few absences, too, but they’ll be around next week (like Theon and Yara Greyjoy, along with Ellaria Sand). We promised before that season 7 has a faster pace than previous years. We didn’t feel that so much in this episode, but strap yourselves in for the weeks to come.
Be sure to check out the rest of our GoT premiere coverage: Maisie Williams on that cold open, Pilou Asbæk on Euron’s return (coming shortly), and myself and Darren Franich have our Game of Thrones Weekly podcast (with our “Dragonstone” episode coming Monday morning).