In a slow burn season opener, ‘Game of Thrones’ reminds us of what little story it has left to tell.
It’s far easier to be overwhelmed by the excitement generated by the return of Game of Thrones than to keep the season 7 premiere at a distance, where it can be studied with more clear eyes. We’ve never been in this position before, having had to wait such a long time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. 385 days is a long time for any fandom to wait, let alone the monstrous fandom of television’s fantasy juggernaut.
There’s blaming anyone for being through-the-roof excited about what “Dragonstone” has to offer. It’s a perfectly fine episode of television and will likely be remanded to the middle ground of Game of Thrones hours. Like many a season premiere before it, season 7’s opening salvo does a lot of checking in on where we left our favorite characters and plenty of setup work to get them primed for the wars to come. It serves its purpose, albeit slowly and with a few chunky extras — everything from bed pans to Ed Sheeran.
Outside of its delightful cold open, in which Arya Stark lays waste to what remains of House Frey, there isn’t much to the episode beyond some political maneuvering and reminders of the tensions at play in the previous season. Jon and Sansa are working out how they will rule together in The North, Cersei is in a dark, isolated place following the death of her last remaining child, Samwell Tarly has found the shittiest job in Westeros, and Team Daenerys is so overwhelmed by their landing at Dragonstone that they are rendered speechless. In their defense, we’ve never seen Dragonstone look so impressive, nor have we seen Dany’s dragons look so massive as they do while flying around it. Even Tyrion, the most loquacious character the Seven Kingdoms have ever seen, is without a single line of dialogue.
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It’s all a bit boring if we’re being honest. At least by Game of Thrones standards. In context, that’s par for the course for season openers. From “Two Swords” in season 4 to “The Red Woman” in season 6, each season opener has been a slow tour of Setuptown. Yet, for each premiere’s lack of pizzazz, they have one thing in common: a wealth of intrigue in the details. Even more than its predecessors, “Dragonstone” is littered with foreshadowing and vague notions of what awaits in the next six episodes.
All of which makes what comes after this week’s spoiler warning particularly fascinating. For those who are brave, it’s time to dive into the juiciest of details, add in some dangerous speculation, and talk about what some of these finer details mean. Because if “Dragonstone” has given us anything, it’s three huge ideas to think about as we go forward.
The Consequences of Bran
At the end of last season, Uncle Benjen (né Coldhands) dropped Bran and Meera off next to a Weirwood tree what appeared to be a mile from The Wall. Aside from this being kind of a dick move (as evidenced by how exhausted Meera looks in this episode when they make it to The Wall), he doesn’t depart without dropping a few magical knowledge bombs. The most important of which is the fact that there are magic spells carved into the base of The Wall that prevent any of the dead (including himself) from passing into the Realms of Men. This would also apply, we assume, to The Night King and his army of the undead, seen in this episode to also include Zombie Giants.
Later in the episode, we’re told in a conversation between Sam and Archmaester Ebrose (played by the inimitable Jim Broadbent) that as long as The Wall stands, everything is going to be alright. It’s not the end of the world, he explains. The people of the world have been convinced that the world is ending many times. But as long as The Wall stands, men will survive. Interesting point, Archmaester, but have you considered a future in which The Wall isn’t standing? I have. I remember the events of season 6’s most emotional episode, “The Door,” in which Bran Stark was marked by The Night King in a vision, thus breaking the protective spell that secured The Three-Eyed Ravens Weirwood base camp. It was Bran’s folly, and that icy burn mark on his left arm, that allowed The Night King to crack open the secure bunker like a walnut and murder a bunch of things that we love.
It doesn’t take a mad scientist, an Archmaester, or one of the books in The Citadel’s forbidden zone to do the remaining math. One way or another, The Wall is in trouble and it’s probably Bran’s fault. If this bit of foreshadowing weren’t enough, “Dragonstone” provided even more Wall-centric talk to drive home the theme. Jon is sending Tormund and the Wildlings to Eastwatch -by-the-sea, the seaside castle at the edge The Wall. The Hound is looking into the flames to see the army of the dead marching toward said castle. And since the season 7 trailer showed us a snowy battle, this is a puzzle with only four pieces. If there is any character that is under great threat in season 7, it’s The Wall.
The Importance of Dragonstone
Many a polygon was committed to making Dragonstone (the castle and birthplace of our Stormborn Queen) look impressive. It makes sense, as the ancestral home of the Targaryen Dynasty has a very important role to play in the war between the living and the dead. We find this out through Sam’s studies, which is likely to be our main source of explanatory exposition throughout the season. The realm needs dragon glass and Valyrian steel to defeat White Walkers. And since there’s only so much Valyrian steel to go around — between 10-15 blades at last count — it’s dragon glass that will become a hot commodity. Luckily there’s a mountain of the stuff at Dragonstone, as we learned from Stannis during his brief chat with Sam in the library at Castle Black in season 5. We’re reminded of this as we watch Sam wind down with some light reading after a long, hard day of sloppy sound effects.
Sam’s discovery sets up what will undoubtedly be the biggest meet cute of season 7. In his quest to protect the realm, Jon Snow is going to have to head to Dragonstone and convince Daenerys to give him some of that sweet black rock. What’s even more interesting is the political meaning behind the seat at Dragonstone. During the rule of the Targaryens, Dragonstone was the seat of the heir to the Iron Throne. Rhaegar Targaryen, who you’ll remember as Jon Snow’s real father and Dany’s big brother, was the last Prince of Dragonstone. So we’re likely to get Jon and Dany meeting at a castle to which they both have a bit of a claim. Not that it will matter. She’s got the dragons and he lacks ambition. But it’s interesting, nonetheless.
Lannister debts are mounting
Elsewhere, Jaime Lannister may be the most reasonable person south of The Twins. In fact, we can already see the tide turning in the war for Jaime’s soul as he speaks with Cersei about how they plan to proceed. “We look like a losing side,” he explains to a sister that isn’t hearing it. Following Arya’s cleansing of House Frey, the Lannisters are left with very few options. Cersei’s plan is to align herself with the clown prince of the high seas, a very swarthy Euron Greyjoy. He’s the last game in town when it comes to siding with the Mad Queen of King’s Landing.
What’s most interesting about the events at King’s Landing — more so than Euron’s super douchey, but entertaining speech — is what we can already see happening to Jaime Lannister. He’s still with his sister in practice, but it’s hard to say that he’s with her in spirit. He knows that even though the Lannisters have one of the most fearsome armies in all of Westeros, they aren’t going to stand a chance against Daenerys without some help. Every time Nicolaj Coster-Waldau breaks out his long, sullen stare in this episode, we move closer to what we expect to be the final break between Jaime and Cersei. A break that occurred long ago in the books. It might take the bulk of the season to bring this tension to a head, but Cersei is laying the groundwork for losing her brother. And beyond that, we can’t forget the massive army that’s coming for her. Or the Iron Bank, to which the crown is deeply in debt. If she loses the allegiance of her brother on top of all that other stuff, Cersei will be in real trouble. The kind of trouble that cannot be thwarted with Euron’s many gifts.
Some lingering questions…
Did we see Arya decide to change course?
When she happened upon the group of Lannister soldiers, Arya claims to be headed south to kill the Queen. Nice. But it stands to reason that we’re also owed a reunion with her siblings at some point. Did the conversation about wanting to go home with the surprisingly friendly Lannister men change her mind? Or is there something to come that will lead her back to The North?
If they’re selling us tension between Jon and Sansa, it’s not working.
The end of season 6 suggested that Jon and Sansa would be at odds in their rule of The North, especially if Littlefinger has anything to say about it. But in their walk-and-talk, all I saw was two siblings working things out in a constructive manner followed by Sansa exerting brilliant political control over Littlefinger. The show is either not trying very hard to sell this Stark family tension or it’s hiding something. What does Littlefinger have up his sleeve that will drive a wedge between the Stark kids? Perhaps some information about Jon’s parentage? It’s something to watch very closely.
Tormund and Brienne forever.
What more is there to say on this subject?