It has been over a year since we last saw our Westerosi favourites and the first episode of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, worked to catch us up with all the main players and center us back on the journey for the Iron Throne, and to fight the White Walkers.
One of the greatest surprises of the season six finale was Arya Stark’s murder of the duplicitous Walder Frey, crossing another name off her doom list. In this cold open, she stays focused on the Frey’s when with one swoop she murders them all with poisoned wine, as she ‘borrowed’ the face of Walder Frey and summoned all the family members together for a banquet.
The House of Black and White plot seemed tedious and long last season, but we would gladly relive that if it meant that Arya learned this amazing assassin skill - to change her face, meaning that as the show progresses, any one of the people we see (remember they have to be dead) could be Arya in disguise.
Later in the episode, Arya meets up with a group of Lannister soldiers - one of whom is played by none other than Ed Sheeran! We hear Ed Sheeran singing before we even see his ginger locks. The scene is small but significant, Arya clearly looks up to killing this band of brothers and taking their supplies, but something human in their interactions and them sharing information about themselves, that allows Arya to let her guard down and simply just spend time with them. If anything, this proves that Arya is not just a stone-faced killer, she has not let go of her human empathy.
Sidenote: Are we all upset that Arya is going south to King’s Landing, when the great Stark reunion is taking place in the North?
Bran’s visions have always been prolific, from his visions of the future (the wildfyre in King’s Landing), to the past (the reveal of Jon’s true parentage) to the present (his visions of the Night King). This time, however, Bran’s visions showed a harrowing image - the White Walkers (with the addition of a few fallen soldiers from the Battle of the Bastards, even the giant Wun Wun) walking over green grass that turns into snow as they step on it. As most of the land beyond the Wall is already snow, does this foreshadow the White Walkers coming South?
Even though the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Dolorous Edd, questions Bran and Meera before letting them come through the Wall, he might have just doomed all of Westeros by this action. Last season, when Bran was touched by the Night King in his vision, he was marked, and therefore the White Walkers were able to break through the enchantments in the Three Eyed Raven’s cave and henceforth kill all the occupants - except Bran and Meera. That same mark might be what breaks the enchantments of the Wall and allows the White Walkers to begin their raid in Westeros.
The remaining Stark children are having a bit of a power struggle. On the one end we have Jon Snow, who believes that the children of the traitorous Northern lords - Karstark and Umber - shouldn’t have to pay for the crimes of their fathers and should not have the land taken away from them. While Sansa believes that the land should be given to the families that were loyal to them. It’s okay that they disagree on this point, it’s not okay that they do it in front of all the other lords, sowing discontent, and the fact that they are not an united front.
Jon and Sansa are by far the ones with the greatest leadership experience and potential, together their shared knowledge could rule kingdoms, but they would first need to start respecting and trusting each other first. Sansa is right in saying that the nobility of Ned and Robb is what cost them their heads, Jon would need to be smarter, more strategic, in how he handles matters. She has witnessed the reigns of Robert, Joffrey, Littlefinger, Cersei, Ramsey. Jon, on the other hand, is right in saying she shouldn’t be undermining him in public. The two of them need to start discussing battle plans beforehand, and work together as a unit.
Special shout out: Lyanna Mormont who shut down one of the Northern lords who spoke against Jon’s call that all the women need to fight in the war. This character keeps getting better, the more we see of her.
The current occupant of the Iron Throne, Cersei Lannister, doesn’t seem to be ruling over much. As she walks over her map of the seven kingdoms, Jaime comments that she is ruling over three - for the most. And Cersei reiterates that she has enemies everywhere - the Starks, Daenerys with Tyrion, Olenna and the Martells, just to name a few. But help comes in unexpected places - and Euron Greyjoy is definitely unexpected.
Fresh from rebuilding his armada (remember Yara and Theon stole his fleet last season) he offers his hand in marriage to Cersei and promises to align with them in the wars to come. But Jaime and Cersei have seen too much and are wary of trusting a Greyjoy, as they should be. Euron promises to give Cersei a invaluable gift in order to win her heart. What could the gift be? Tyrion? Gendry? A dragon?
We are in for an interesting season with the Lannister twins, as Jaime looks like he is not truly on board with whatever Cersei is cooking up. What will happen when Jaime comes face to face with Tyrion? Will this finally be the season where Jaime gets over his Cersei obsession? And how will Euron fall into this awkward love triangle?
In Oldtown, we have our trusty Samwell Tarly, doing his utmost to get his training as a maester while still learning what he can about how to defeat the White Walkers. After tediously trying to get access to the Restricted Section of the library (tapping into his inner-Hermione Granger) he manages to find a few books about the use of dragon glass in defeating the Walkers and he learns that Dragonstone is just bursting at the seams with dragonglass (obsidian). Sam promptly writes to Jon about this new information that he learnt. Could this be what engineers the meeting between Jon Snow and Daenerys?
We also see as Sam is working in the infirmary, the mangled hand of Jorah Mormont reaching out to him from one of the cells, which we can assume is him in quarantine, asking Sam if the Dragon Queen had arrived yet. It looks like Jorah is in the right place to find the cure for his greyscale, it also means that he and Sam might be able to work together to get Daenerys and Jon defeat the White Walkers.
When we pick things up with our favourite cussing outlaw, the Hound, he is still with the Brotherhood Without Banners. The troupe, on the journey North, stop by a house that the Hound had previously visited when he was travelling with Arya, in season four. At this home, the Hound beat the father and left him and his daughter to fend for themselves, much to Arya’s protests. This time we see the father and daughter that the father had probably ended the daughter’s life and then his own after they had been starving to death. It’s a horrific story, and one that even the Hound struggles with.
Later in the episode, the Hound buries the bodies, and we can see how he has changed over the past few years, more so, his own trajectory mirrored against Arya’s - who has become more ruthless. The Hound however, has become more humane, more empathetic, even so much as to feel shame for his past actions and to dignify the victims with a decent burial.
The Hound has an intense fear of fire, which the show has made clear, ever since his brother, Gregor (The Mountain) pushed his face into a fire which caused the burns. It is ironic (as he points out) that he ends up travelling with a group of fire worshippers and even more so that when Thoros of Myr challenges him to look into the fire, he sees a vision of the Wall and a ‘castle by the sea’. The castle by the sea, might be Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, one of the watchtowers of the Night’s Watch that Jon Snow sent Tormund to man, earlier in the episode. We can assume that the entry point for the White Walkers will be Eastwatch-by-the-Sea which does not spell good things for Tormund.
Notably absent from the large majority of the episode and only appearing six minutes before the end, we see our breaker of the wheel, spanner in the works, queen of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen appearing on Westeros soil.
She lands at Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of the Targaryens and the place from where her ancestor Aegon first conquered Westeros. We see embarking on the shore, tearing down Stannis’ Baratheon banner, admiring the map of Westeros table, along with her advisors - Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, Grey Worm.
The first words she utters is “shall we begin”, and just like Beyoncé in Crazy in Love with “are you ready?”perhaps sets the tone for the entire series. The Thrones are back, and are we even ready for the wildfire that this season promises to bring?
One of the things that Game of Thrones always does well is to simultaneously make us interested in different stories surrounding different characters at different locations. Storywise this episode depicted it well, it helped us to reorient ourselves with the characters and their various plots while still moving the story along.
The cold opening scene alone, shocked us into remembering that this is Game of Thrones, the show constantly keeps us on our feet, that may sometimes lull us into a sense of security before it pulls the rug from under us. Why not begin the episode with a massacre and end it with a character saying, “shall we begin”? The show is able to overturn narrative structures, spin it around but still make it seem authentic to the story that they are telling.
This was an excellent first episode, a chance for the show to announce it’s arrival back into the hearts of the fandom, and the zeitgeist as a whole, while still moving forward the stories of the characters that we have invested in these past seven seasons.