Or "The One With Ed Sheeran," as Friends would have called it
WARNING! This is literally all spoilers. Like, all of it. Except for this paragraph. Proceed at your own discretion etc. We’re going to recap and review every episode of the new series of Game of Thrones whether you want it or not – we’re great big GoT geeks (books, TV, board games, card games, all the merch…) and will take any opportunity to talk about it. Just a quick note – because the show is now so very big and spread out we’re going to structure this more by location rather than by the flow of the story. We hope you’re okay with that, and if not we can talk it over with some mead.
We open this series at the Twins with the sneering face of the previously-very-dead Walder Frey (???) at a feast. You would’ve thought that everyone might be a tad more suspicious that their patriarch – a curmudgeon of such transcendent proportions he murdered hundreds of people at a wedding because they accidentally insulted him once – would be more suspicious, but no matter. In short time it’s revealed that (shock!) it was actually Arya (Maisie Williams) in disguise the whole time and she’s managed to poison and kill every last remaining Frey (sparing the women) – hooray! It’s a flashy, satisfying opening – albeit one that doesn’t stand up to any kind of close scrutiny – that manages to push Arya further down her increasingly dark and malevolent vengeful rabbit hole while giving her a platform to show off for her fans (and we are very much Arya fans).
That being said, there’s a slight irritation here, like an itch in the middle of your back, where in a world “where no one is safe” Arya’s plot-armour seems to grow ever thicker. She got fully shanked in the ribs last season and shook it off like a graze and now she seems capable faceless-manning wherever she pleases with little danger and no consequence. Don’t get us wrong, we love Arya (favourite character over here) but it seems like her arc has lost any sense of “grounded.”
For instance – in her next scene, Ed Sheeran-gate announces itself with a neat little call back to book readers as the loveable/lamentable (delete as appropriate) pop star seemingly serenades a tree in the arse end of foresty nowhere. He’s chilling with a small group of Lannister soldiers apparently investigating the murders at the Twins even though they’re on their own, not by the Twins and seemingly not with an obvious Lannister regiment (don’t… don’t question it too much).
Your assumption as a long-suffering GoT fan with now well-established PTSD and attachment issues is that the Lannister scum are about start something unsavoury – but they turn out to be a bunch of normal dudes pining for home. While you have to appreciate GoT is still, after all of these years, able to play an effective red herring, this means that Arya has managed to stumble across the only portrayed Lannister soldiers to date who aren’t sociopathic rapist murderers.
While the Ed Sheeran casting is distracting it’s also short-lived and ultimately quite forgettable in what’s an otherwise decent scene. It’s tremendously on the nose, even for a show as flamboyantly unsubtle as Game of Thrones, but it’s saved by some decent performances (a cameo from Thomas Turgoose was a pleasant surprise!) and genuine heart. In latter seasons GoT has eschewed pretty much all of the morally-grey ground its characters previously occupied for a more traditional good/evil dichotomy (“Fuck ‘em til they die,” anyone?) so it’s good to see that the show is still willing to portray people as multifaceted and not just caricatures, or extensions of house-based stereotypes.
Next up, in a different part of the marshy wilderness of the Riverlands, we check in with The Hound (Rory McCann), Beric (Richard Dormer), and Thoros (Paul Kaye) as they lead the Brotherhood Without Banners northward at an apparently glacial pace (considering they ended last season geographically near Brienne and she’s now in Winterfell… GoT geography will be an eternal gift to pedants). They stop by a ramshackle farm, long-abandoned by the thoroughly dead father and daughter decaying in the corner. We last saw these unfortunate souls back in series 4 when the Hound and Arya passed by on the way to Eyrie post-Red Wedding. He robbed them – “They won’t survive the winter anyway,” he said, well… he wasn’t wrong.
There are a couple of things to unpack here – first the Hound’s vision in the flames; he’s an almighty cynic but even he can’t deny the power of Thoros’s flames as he describes visions of the Wall in what’s a well-played tease for the episodes to come. Secondly – this is, surprisingly perhaps, the best and most satisfying segment of the episode, at least from a more traditional drama and character perspective. Rory McCann’s Hound has long been one of the most complicated and fascinating characters in the series and has taken the “monstrous brute with a heart of gold” paradigm in a direction all of his own. He is the cipher through which we see the true cost of war, the real price that’s paid by the game of thrones, and the ebb-and-flow of his cynicism, disgust, fear, and apathy at the world around him will hopefully continue long into the series. The shot of him and Thoros braving a blizzard to bury the smallfolk he all but killed when he robbed them all that time ago is a haunting one.
It’s a veritable party up in here (albeit a very serious, very cold, not very fun party) with Jon (Kit Harington), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), many many angry old men, everybody’s favourite angry young girl Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) and even Brienne and Pod (Gwendoline Christie and Daniel Portman) who have seemingly borrowed Littlefinger’s time machine to travel 1000 miles upriver since last season.
Jon is trying his best to unite a room that would quite happily cannibalise itself under normal circumstances. He’s King of the North (yay!) but he’s got the literal army of the damned to fight (boo!) so it’s time to get serious about the whole leadership thing. He sets Tormund of Tarth off to defend Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, notable for being the Wall’s main port and also Hardhome adjacent (i.e. Hardhome, where this happened).
So here’s betting that Tormund meets his maker come the end of the season. Jon also continues his streak of befriending small children – this time the spawn of Karstark and Umber whose families went to the dogs with Ramsay Bolton during the Battle of the Bastards – to the consternation of Sansa who, at this point, is just Cersei-lite with better hair (very similar hair, in fact, to Season 1 Cersei as a side note). She makes the harsh but fair point that Jon needs to be less like Ned and big bro Rob to win this fight, but after dying once already the rules are out of the window so far as Jon goes.
Overall, the North, like much of everything else, is purely setup this episode, establishing where all of the pieces lie and what the challenges are ahead. There are some decent scenes where everyone hates on Littlefinger (and some Brienne-Giantsbane action) and the power dynamic between Jon and Sansa has some real dramatic promise that will hopefully pay off. Oh, we also get an obligatory look at the ever-shuffling army of the dead – now complete with ice giants – who are clearly taking the long way round as Meera (Ellie Kendrick) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wight) finally arrive at the wall ahead of them. You know Bran, the guy who was marked by the Night’s King so he can now walk through the magical force fields that have kept the kingdoms safe for Millennia? Like the one that keeps the Wall standing and everyone behind it un-murdered?
Yeah, that Bran.
Next we check in with everyone’s best friend Sam Tarly (John Bradley), now a Maester in training at Oldtown, who proves, once and for all, that everyone does indeed love a montage – even the shit-shovellers. It’s a gross-out sequence as the resident Mr. Comic Relief deals with the one thing more terrifying than the swarming undead – old man poo. It drags on a little and feels like filler, but with Game of Thrones now so thoroughly dark and dreary across every storyline there’s an understandable need to break it up somehow.
John Bradley absolutely owns this part so it’s always good to see him (season 6 had a serious Sam deficiency) and he seems to have taken on a new role this time around as Mr. Exposition. His conversation with the ever-excellent Jim Broadbent as Maester Marwyn expands on the White Walker mythology in a way that the show desperately needs, as does his pilfering of some supremely convenient textbooks on Valyrian Steel (including a diagram of what looks a lot like Littlefinger’s dagger in series 1) and a dragonglass cache on Dragonstone – aka the two known materials able to turn White Walkers into slush puppies.
Part of Sam’s sorry new position is to feed the sick (which they keep in windowless boxes apparently!?) and suddenly it’s guest star time as Jorah “Goopy” Mormont (Iain Glen) thrusts his arm through the door hatch, looking for all the world like he’s just been woken up from the Matrix. Life clearly hasn’t gotten easier for the resident Back Luck Brian of Planet Westeros (Earthos?) as the universe itself has now seemingly friendzoned him, leaving him muttering to himself, friendless and abandoned, in a dank prison box slowly being consumed by sentient rock snot. Here’s expecting things to get better sometime soon however: we know of one case of “cured” greyscale so far and that was Shireen Baratheon (AND WE DON’T THINK ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THAT! She’s FINE, probably in school somewhere…) who lived, of all places, on Dragonstone – Sam’s new obsession and Daenerys’s new home – amongst a doubtlessly magical assortment of Valyrian artifacts and potions. Expect worlds to re-collide soon.
Now to King’s Landing, where Cersei (Lena Headey) rules as queen and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) seems inexplicably chill with everything; all of his kids are dead, his sisterloverqueen is circling the drain of madness and has killed everyone, but yeah, let’s just keep on keeping on. As Cersei makes abundantly clear while striding about her nifty freshly-painted map mural – the Lannisters are pretty boned. They have no allies, no money, no prospects, and pretty much everyone wants to see them dead.
“But we have a plan,” she announces, skirting over Jaime’s half-assed attempt to discuss the recent suicide of their remaining son – something which, again, he shakes off surprisingly easily.
Turns out that plan is Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) – who’s had a haircut, a wardrobe change, and apparently a personality transplant – who they’ve invited to court to discuss potential alliances. Euron is now firmly in Secondary Villain territory as he chews up the scenery, mocking Jaime whilst asking for Cersei’s hand in marriage. It’s a ballsy move and a lot of fun to watch too – who doesn’t love big bastard viking pirates! – and when Cersei refuses his proposal he promises to return with a gift, which probably spells bad news for at least part of of Dany’s cross-continental navy later in the season. With Walder Frey, Roose and Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey, and Tywin now all feeding the worms (or the dogs) GoT had a desperate shortage of the sort of old-school boo-hiss villains that helped make the show the phenomenon it is today, so it’s good to see Euron swaggering happily into that role (and no, we’re not counting the the Night’s King which is still the grander existential threat rather than an actual character, or Cersei who has thankfully always been a more nuanced kind of monstrous).
And now the closer – with the episode titled Dragonstone we were always going to end up here at some point and so we see Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) touching down on Westerosi sands for the first time since she was a wee fugitive baby, with her dream-team squad of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), and Varys (Conleth Hill) in tow. In a dialogue-free sequence we see them arrive, ascend Dragonstone (now looking spectacular since we last saw it in season 4, the bigger budget and jaw-dropping location work on the stunning Zumaia beach in Spain working wonders), enter the throne room and watch as Dany takes her rightful seat with a simple message: “Shall we begin?”
It’s an understated but powerful sequence, full of rich imagery and plenty of promise, particularly as Dany and Tyrion survey the mass wood-carved table of Westeros (upon which Stannis previously made shadow-babies with Melisandre). Having said that, it’s undermined with an awful lot of questions like – really, Stannis, the renowned and celebrated military commander, just left his home seat with no guards or garrison? And he left the all of doors unlocked? And in the entire time it took Dany to literally sail across the actual world, Cersei (or Jaime, or anyone) didn’t think to maybe pop over for a look?
Also, while the “silent” opening works artistically – and it’s reassuring to see that showrunners Benioff and Wise are still eager to try new things so close to the end-game – it will always feel like a missed opportunity to have the likes of Peter Dinklage, and also Conleth Hill, with whom he’s always had fantastic chemistry, and not to make use of him. It’s testament to Dinklage’s talent that he’s still able to emote so much with 3.5 seconds of silent screen time, so here’s hoping he gets to chat smarmy shit all up-and-down that eye-catching table in the episodes to come.
And that’s that! A solid opener all-in-all: not on a par with the season one or season four premieres but Dragonstone did its job and did it well. Game of Thrones seasons always tend to start quieter and build – there are always so many characters, locations, and plotlines to re-introduce and advance that it couldn’t really be any different, though with it being just a 7-episode series this time around (!) expect things to pick up very quickly.
Until next week!
Main image & all Game of Thrones images © HBO