As the culture-defining fantasy series returns for its final season (winter), I’ll be recapping each episode. Obviously, spoilers will follow.
Time makes fools of us all — especially the Game of Thrones characters whose foolhardy past actions are now staring them in the face. In many ways this season premiere re-stages King Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell in the show’s very first episode. Now, Queen Daenerys Targaryen arrives with her vassal — and lover — Jon Snow and their armies, reuniting many fan-favourite characters and inviting a reckoning with the past.
But they’ll have to do it quick smart. As Bran Stark said, as close to impatience as a Three-Eyed Raven can be: “We don’t have time for all this.”
Game of Thrones might have become one of the few truly influential cultural touchstones in a constant stream of content; but with only six episodes to go, ever, this season opener didn’t feel clever. Instead, it’s both sluggish and overstuffed with moments that seemed to serve the audience and not the story.
Tyrion Lannister desultorily roasts Lord Varys with yet another eunuch joke and disses Ser Davos Seaworth’s onion sigil. There’s a flirtatious moment between Arya Stark and her erstwhile companion, studly blacksmith and champion rower Gendry, which seems to confirm a popular fan theory. Down in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister swigs wine and is vexed that her new mercenaries, the Golden Company, did not bring war elephants, but rakish pirate Euron Greyjoy negs Cersei into bed anyway. And Tormund Giantsbane protests that he isn’t a wight — “I’ve always had blue eyes!”
Most stupidly of all, there’s even time for a dance with dragons, followed by that awkward moment when your pet watches you make out with your boyfriend.
Sansa Stark began Game of Thrones as what Daisy Buchanan would call “a beautiful little fool”: beguiled by the courtly romance of Florian and Jonquil, innocent of the ugly ways of the world. And it was King Joffrey’s royal fool, Ser Dontos Hollard, who helped Sansa escape King’s Landing back in season four.
But now, as the Lady of Winterfell, Sansa has evaded plenty of people who thought they were clever. Smugly stupid Cersei Lannister. Cersei’s vicious son Joffrey. The devious Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, who sold Sansa into the nightmare of marriage to sadistic Ramsay Bolton.
As Jon reunites with his long-lost little sister Arya in the godswood, he can’t resist spoiling the episode’s tenderest moment with a little whinge about Sansa’s brutal way with a side-eye: “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone.”
“She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met,” retorts Arya, a graduate of the House of Black and White.
It pains Sansa to see Jon — never famous for knowing stuff — thinking with his little brain, not his big one. And the council scene in which Jon tries to sell his decision-making to the northern nobles is excruciating to watch. Fan-favourite mini salt shaker Lyanna Mormont tears Jon up: “You left Winterfell a king, and came back a… I’m not sure what you are now.” As Ser Davos later struggles to explain to Tyrion and Varys, the northerners are “stubborn as goats”.
As Hand of the Queen, Tyrion spent last season making terrible strategic blunders: from attacking an empty Casterly Rock to risking lives by bringing a wight to King’s Landing to convince Cersei to join the war against the Night King. Yet it was Tyrion who was hustled: having bought his sister’s unlikely pregnancy claim, he declares to the northern nobles that Cersei’s, like, right behind them with a Lannister army.
“And you believed her?” Sansa replies witheringly to her technically-still-husband. “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.”
The smartest parts of this episode were its echoes of past and present, and the way they’re woven together like tree roots in the fur-swathed person of Bran ‘Three-Eyed Raven’ Stark, who sits in the Winterfell courtyard throughout the episode. Remember how Bran entered the Cave of the Three-Eyed Raven, where the roots of the overlying weirwood tree had merged with the ancient greenseer’s body? What if Bran did not move from the courtyard because he, too, has become one with the weirwood? Bran is… a potted plant! (When this thought occurred to me, I laughed stupidly. C’mon! It is known!)
Seriously, though, Bran was at the centre of this episode. It opens as little Lord Ned Umber, last survivor of the northernmost noble house, clambers to get a good view of the incoming royals — just as Bran once did. And the episode ends as Ser Jaime Lannister arrives in Winterfell as a rogue defector, locking eyes with the adventurous climbing boy whose life he changed forever.
Sent home to evacuate Last Hearth — the first castle in the path of the oncoming Night King’s army — Ned Umber is later found horrifyingly undead, skewered to a wall: the gruesome centrepiece in a White Walker spiral of severed limbs. Lord Beric Dondarrion puts down the child wight with his flaming sword, setting the whole spiral alight.
This motif belongs to the Children of the Forest. Last season we saw how they carved spirals into the cave under Dragonstone; and in season six, Bran watches, in a spiral of standing stones around a weirwood tree, as the Children created the White Walkers by stabbing a man with dragonglass. Now, the White Walkers use this motif too: in season three, Jon and the wildlings come upon a spiral of slaughtered horses.
One fan theory is that the shape represents, and conjures, winter itself; another is that it echoes the Targaryen dragon sigil, suggesting the Night King could have once been a Targaryen. But what if the Ned Umber sculpture represents Bran himself? As a greenseer who created a quantum connection to the Night King in a stupid moment at the weirwood spiral, Bran represents the twisting of past with present, life with death. (RIP Hodor.)
The past also entangles the present in a callback to the sexposition that made the series notorious. Ser Bronn of the Blackwater is interrupted in a brothel by Cersei’s creepy half-maester Hand, Qyburn, who commissions the wily sellsword to travel north and assassinate Cersei’s two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. Throughout the series Bronn’s material pragmatism has warred with a genuine fondness for both Lannister lads. Will his love of gold win out?
Theon Greyjoy, meanwhile, continues his redemption tour by rescuing his sister Yara right back. She promptly greets him with a Pyke kiss; but then gives him her blessing to return to Winterfell. Theon has made some of this show’s worst decisions, and reaved only humiliation and torture. “You’ve always known what was right, even when we were all young and stupid,” he told Jon last season, to which Jon reminded him, “You’re Stark, and you’re a Greyjoy.” They can’t be disentangled.
Jon should recall his previous words now that he knows he’s a Stark, and he’s a Targaryen.
Samwell Tarly, just a tad upset to learn Daenerys had dragon-roasted not only his hated dad Randyll but also his beloved brother Dickon, needs only a little push from Bran to head down to the Winterfell crypt, where he delivers the revelation that Jon, not Daenerys, is actually the rightful king of Westeros. Jon deflects his shock at having committed auntcest by getting mad at Sam for impugning Ned Stark’s honour.
But then Sam makes perhaps the cleverest observation of anyone this episode: “You gave up your crown to save your people — would she do the same?”
Of course not. But then it wouldn’t be Game of Thrones if everyone were clever.