Setting Up the Chessboard

“Game of Thrones” is back. We’ve waited over a year to be able to say that, and it feels so good. Spoilers Below! If you haven’t seen episode 7.01, “Dragonstone” do that before proceeding.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s begin. The finale of season six, “Winds of Winter,” was an all-time classic episode. It’s one of the best in the show’s run (I had it No. 3), so that is what people were likely waiting for when the new season premiered. But that’s setting the bar a touch too high for a premier episode.

“Game of Thrones” typically has somewhat of a rythmn. Finales are about wrapping up loose ends and making sure we know where everyone sits. Of course, the last finale also featured a lot of action, but typically that’s been the pattern. Premiers are about setting up the chess board and moving the pieces into place. That was the case with “Dragonstone,” an episode that began with a lot of action but quickly settled into a familiar pattern.

When last we saw Arya (Maisie Williams), she was settling family debts by killing Walder Frey (David Bradley). So that made it a little strange when Walder Frey appeared at the start of last night’s episode, throwing a bash for his whole family. Instead, it was a ruse. Arya, having mastered her faceless man training, was able to impersonate Lord Walder to wipe out House Frey. It was a chilling moment, particularly how calm Arya was, but it was a long time coming. Then, of course, Arya traveled on her way to King’s Landing to scratch another name off her lift, and along the way found a band of Lannisters. Of course, in a bit of stunt casting, one happened to be Ed Sheeran, offering a bit of pre-dinner entertainment. It will, no doubt, inspire a million memes, but had little to do with plot.

At King’s Landing, Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) are reunited and alone. While Cersei talked about being queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Jamie correctly pointed out it was “three at best.” But that doesn’t stop her from scheming. Tyrion once said of his sister, “You love your children. It’s your most redeeming quality.” And Cersei does love her children, or did. But with all three of them gone, she’s grown colder. Jamie still loves Cersei, but his concern for her grasp of reality and their position is showing. But Cersei has a plan.

Enter Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk). When last we saw him, Euron was being proclaimed king of the Iron Islands, and ordering his people to build him a giant fleet. He’d originally planned to take that fleet to Daenerys Targaryn (Emilia Clarke) and ask for her hand in marriage. When that plan was denied, he turned his gaze to King’s Landing. Upon arriving with his fleet, he makes Cersei a few grand promises about her enemies, throws plenty of shade at Jamie (“I’ve got two good hands”) and offers himself in marriage. His initial proposal was rebuffed, but Euron offers to return with a gift.
The question is whether Cersei would actually consider that proposal when Euron returns — and whether that would create the rift between her and Jamie that could lead to fulfillment of the prophesey. Many, including myself, have thought Jamie would be the one to kill Cersei. Could we be seeing the road to that outcome? It certainly seems possible.

Will Jon Snow buck the trend?Meanwhile in the north, King Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has to set about the hard task of ruling. That means ordering all the north to prepare to face the White Walkers and the Army of the Dead. That gave us a great moment to hear from the show’s MVP, Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsay). I think that girl needs to have at least a couple lines of dialogue in every episode. But the sequence also showed some of the cracks in the Stark family unity as Sansa (Sophie Turner) openly questioned Jon. This is a rift that has potential to grow, and began prior to them taking back Winterfell. Sansa is a strong woman, and as she said last night, learned a lot from Cersei. She loves her brother Jon, that much is clear, but she isn’t fully devoted to him. And with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) hanging around and whispering in Sansa’s ear, that rift could continue to grow.

At the Citadel, Sam (John Bradley) has had better times. A few minutes into watching him dump and clean bed pans on repeat, you had to wonder if he was missing the wall. He’s also struggling to find someone to believe in his urgent warnings about the walkers. He seemingly finds that person in Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent), who then throws cold water on his concerns by saying the Wall has stood through it all. (As our friends on “Talk the Thrones” pointed out, that was a bit of an error in Westeros history…). Nevertheless, Sam persisted in getting the books he needed. Doubtless his search for answers will point Jon in a crucial direction.

But Sam’s interlude was also key to learning that Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) is still alive, and is following the orders of his queen in seeking treatment. But it’s unclear how successful that treatment has been. I doubt we’ve seen the last of Jorah.

It would be easy to say that Daenerys won the week. Since we first encountered her, she has longed to go home and sit on the Iron Throne. For six seasons she worked hard, built her army and made plans to take back what is rightfully hers. She only appeared in a few minutes in the premier, and only had one line of dialogue, “let’s begin,” but it was a big moment. Heck, the whole episode is named for this moment, her arriving home to Dragonstone, the place of her birth and the castle that once belonged to Stannis.

She is back in her ancestral home and making plans to finish her campaign. It’s a big moment, and one that sets up a lot of the conflict for this season. Clarke’s performance was great, and it was a moment that gave me chills as a viewer. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

If Daenerys’ homecoming was the winning moment, my favorite moment came from an unexpected show of growth for Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann). When we first met The Hound, he seemed like a dark and vicious killing machine. But what we’ve seen in “Game of Thrones” is that nothing is black-and-white. Previously we’ve seen different sides of characters like Jamie Lannister that gave the audience a new appreciation for them and their humanity.

After The Hound was left for dead at the end of season four, it was easy to think we’d seen the last of him. But when he appeared again last season he was a slightly different person. Sure, that brutality and strength are still there, but it’s the way they’re deployed that has changed. We saw that again last night.

The Hound was confronted with one of his darkest moments, when he stole silver from a father and daugther who took him in and shared their food with him. Arya warned at the time that it was wrong, and he noted they wouldn’t survive the winter. But seeing their bodies there, it did something to The Hound. There was a touching moment when he buried them. It doesn’t erase all the bad he’s done, but it shows he’s on a different path.

As Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) have said repeatedly, they’re all there for a reason. And when The Hound looked into the flames, overcoming his fear, that purpose became clearer. It was a sequence that could easily be overlooked by many seeking a big movement of the plot. But, for me, those are the kind of quiet, world-building moments that I’ve always loved about this show. To me, that was the best moment of the premier.

The Wars To Come
So where do we go from here? Each week I’ll make a few predictions about what’s to come. For this week, I see a reunion coming quickly, one we’ve longed for since season one. It certainly seems like Arya is about to see Nymeria again! Also, based on the hints dropped in this premier, I think the rift between Jon and Sansa will continue to grow, and Jon will cross paths with Daenerys before the season is out.


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