[This review of the seventh season premiere of Game of Thrones contains some spoilers, but it's not a recap.]
For six seasons, talk on HBO's Game of Thrones was all about the impending arrival of winter (literally and metaphorically). Winter was coming, we were frequently reminded, pretty much until last June's finale brought with it "The Winds of Winter" and suddenly winter was here.
That's why the pivotal line in Sunday (July 16) night's seventh season premiere, for me at least, came from Jim Broadbent's newly introduced Archmaester Marwyn in a conversation with John Bradley's Sam, still freaking out about white walkers and the impending undead apocalypse.
"Every winter that ever came has ended," the Archmaester observes.
This marks a new way of viewing things for Game of Thrones, and probably speaks to HBO's attitude toward the inevitable as well. As cataclysmic as we've been led to imagine that winter would be — especially for those in the North — and as epic as we imagine the clash for the Iron Throne — the one we've been building to for six seasons — is likely to be, it's not going to be permanent. The Citadel will remain. Maesters will still study. Men will, presumably, remain atop The Wall protecting people to the south. Ballers will inexplicably remain Elizabeth Warren's favorite show.
Put a different way, "Winter is here, but the end is coming" and even if HBO is frantically scrambling to develop prequels and spinoffs and offshoots, Game of Thrones is only two shortened seasons away from being over. Most of Sunday's premiere followed from things set in motion last season, but it's now impossible to deny that Game of Thrones is a show that has made the turn and is entering its homestretch or that the looming finality has changed the show.
There's been some sense of concern that the seventh season of Game of Thrones would follow in the footsteps of several previous shows to get picked up for two concluding seasons, offering a lot of set-up in the penultimate season but leaving the real action for the final season.
In that light, it can't be denied that "Dragonstone" is what Game of Thrones premieres have generally been, which is to say primarily table-setting, or at least examining the position of the chess pieces on the table in preparation for larger future movements.
"Primarily" table-setting, of course, not "entirely."
The opening, pre-credit scene of Sunday's premiere was decisive, shocking and satisfying. It was also somewhere between a continuation and an out-and-out repeat of "The Winds of Winter," one of the show's busiest episodes ever. As a reminder: Cersei blew up much of King's Landing and took the Iron Throne after Tommen took a plunge. Daenerys completed her alliances and finally headed toward Westeros. Arya got some Red Wedding revenge. Everybody hailed Jon Snow as King in the North and Sansa looked worried about her marginalization. Bran embraced being the Three-Eyed Raven and learned some very important information about Jon. And Sam got a library card! It was a great and crazy episode. Think of Sunday's opening scene as part of that nuttiness, but then think of the credits as truly the start of the premiere.
If last season's finale was about dramatically placing characters in new circumstances, the start of the new season was about letting the characters reflect on whether or not they're content with what they've achieved at this point in the game. Spoiler: Nobody's content because nobody's exactly gotten what they want and if anybody were content, there's always the looming prospect of the undead on the march, led by the Night King. The premiere could have been titled "Don't Get Too Comfortable."
Also, table-setting needn't be bad television when you have characters who are, at this point, so beloved — and I also appreciate how many of the pleasures of Sunday's premiere really can't be spoiled in a review, because they're about how moments are played, rather than what happened in those moments.
We've had so much miserable and revenge-driven Arya for so long that it's a joy to see Maisie Williams smile, however briefly, and however murky the context.
We've had our response to Jaime and Cersei become so conflicted and so muddled by how many awful things they've done, but maybe it's how many awful things they've done to people who are even worse — and it's always compelling to watch them, however briefly, pondering consequences and reflecting on the number of casualties the Lannister family has sustained. Also, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey are really great.
We've watched Jon and Sansa go through so much before being reunited that their dynamic has become a fascinating dance in which neither entirely knows the trauma the other has seen and neither entirely knows the other's capabilities and how ready or well-suited the other is to rule. As Sansa has grown up; Sophie Turner has become interesting and strong enough as an actress that she's elevating Kit Harington's normal one-note grumpiness.
Then there are the simpler pleasures.
Like even if you hate Sam, and I know some people find him a whiny pill, it's hard not to be amused by the masterfully edited scene illustrating his increasing disillusionment with his duties at the Citadel.
And how is it possible that absolutely everything Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) does makes me want to cheer? I'm not sure there's any character on all of TV who has developed such a high ratio of awesomeness-to-screentime so quickly. Lyanna's never just standing around in the back of a scene. You know that when she's there, she's going to do something great.
Plus, there were strong introductions or reintroductions for characters. I hadn't really developed an opinion on Pilou Asbæk as Euron Greyjoy, but he made the most of his scene in the premiere, coming across like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn character, only probably evil. And Broadbent, to nobody's surprise, fits into this ensemble flawlessly.
Not everything happening in the premiere worked. I'm feeling like the interaction between Tormund Giantsbane and Brienne has become pure fan service and doesn't benefit either character. Where we find The Hound so far is a storyline that I'm not sure would make any sense to me if I hadn't read George R.R. Martin's books. At least one favorite character didn't get a single line in the premiere and another didn't even make an appearance. And we didn't spend any time in Dorne! [One of these complaints may not be real.]
There are very few shows that can deliver as much action and excitement as the season six Game of Thrones finale and there are perhaps even fewer shows that can make a table-setting episode this much fun, so it's all the more bittersweet that not only is winter here, but the end is in sight.
Season seven of 'Game of Thrones' premiered on Sunday, July 16, on HBO.