Warning: Game of Thrones Season 7 spoilers ahead.
It starts with a song. Arya Stark, having just taken her revenge on the men who had slaughtered her relatives at the Red Wedding, is riding her horse through a tranquil forest in the Riverlands. The setting is idyllic: Sunshine streams through a light mist. There’s a babbling brook. There’s also, in the near distance, music: a man, dulcet of voice, singing. “And a chain and a keep are nothing,” the balladeer croons, “compared to a woman’s kiss, for hands of gold are always cold, but a woman’s hands are warm.”
Arya, intrigued, follows the strains of the song. She finds their source in a group of Lannister bannermen, clad in their armor and mail, gathered around a campfire. The singer himself, a redhead, is—wait, is that Ed Sheeran?
And, yep: It is totally Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran, denizen of Westeros. Ed Sheeran, who with his fellow armored friends offers Arya a bit of meat, and a swig of wine. Ed Sheeran who laughs, gently, when she grimaces at the drink’s strength. Ed Sheeran who is duly shocked—and, then, thoroughly amused—when hearing that Arya is voyaging to King’s Landing in order to “kill the queen.”
In an episode of Game of Thrones that involves, in no particular order, a child murdering a roomful of men; The Hound, seeming to have faith in something; Sansa Stark enjoying a mood that verges on cheerful; and, it must be mentioned, a whimsically dada set piece themed around fecal matter, the most surprising event of all might have been the Westerosi debut of the guy responsible for delivering, unto the world, “Shape of You.”
The Sheeran cameo had long been known of, sure. But here, finally, it was. And it was jarring. Not just because, you know, Ed Sheeran laughing about the death of Cersei Lannister. The appearance was jarring, more specifically, because Ed Sheeran existing in the same world as Cersei Lannister. Game of Thrones is a show, after all, that highly values insularity as a reflection of its carefully constructed universe—a universe so unable to conceive of anything beyond itself that characters refer to it not by a name, but rather as, simply, “the world.”
HBO’s version of George R.R. Martin’s book is a TV show, yes, and TV shows have actors who give interviews to Vulture and run Instagram accounts dedicated to their Pomeranian puppies and go on to star in that ridiculous Terminator sequel and otherwise serve as embodied reminders that “the world,” as presented, can never be fully contained as such. But in another way, Game of Thrones has gone out of its way, to the extent any show can, to preserve the integrity of its universe. Each episode, after all, begins with a sweeping tour of that most literal expression of world-building: a map. Each scene emphasizes, in its way, regions’ distinctive languages and weapons and culture and clothing to create an environment, overall, of immersive specificity. Each Sunday, for seven years now, Game of Thrones has invited viewers into an alternate reality that is so meticulously constructed that, for the hour, at least, the real world—with its own intrigues and injustices and plaintive music—falls away.
And then: Into all that, as the show premiered for its seventh season, stepped the man who is currently famous for filling the ears of the denizens of that latter world with the insight that “the club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go.”
Sheeran’s appearance in the Riverlands, the region at the center of the Game of Thrones continent, is perfectly fine, as a performance. He’s obviously a very good singer. He blends in nicely with the other actors who had been recruited to sit around that campfire. Had he been simply Ed Sheeran, actor from Framlingham, instead of Ed Sheeran, singer who—will—be loving you—’til—we’re 70, the musical scene would have been, simply, a lovely little palate cleanser after Arya’s grisly vengeance-taking. And one of the episode’s important moments, as my colleague David Sims pointed out, of easy humanity breaking through the show’s omnipresent war.
Had the show, as well, been more subtle about its latest cameo (Game of Thrones has, over the years, featured cheeky appearances from its executive producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who lent their faces to two of the death masks in the House of Black and White, and from Benioff’s parents, and—controversially—from George W. Bush, who made an unauthorized debut in the show as a head on a spike), the scene might also have suggested easy charm rather than strange Sheerancentrism. Musicians, in particular—among them Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Coldplay’s Will Champion, and members of Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, and Mastodon—have long popped up on the show, to un-jarring effect. But those appearances have been relatively subtle. They have been appearances more than cameos, in the sense that they were simply there, without winkily announcing their presence.
Not so Sheeran’s. This was, in every way, a cameo: the highly recognizable hit-maker in the land of the Freys, his presence presented as a plot twist in itself—a fitting follow-up, thematically, to Arya’s face-swapping form of justice that had revealed itself in the scene that opened the episode. Sheeran’s appearance, the face from the one world showing up in the other, was played for the audience’s surprise and delight. It reveled in a very particular kind of irony.
“Pretty song,” Arya says, as she rides up to the knights’ campfire.
The show’s camera zooms, in a tight shot, onto the face of the warbling bannerman. Ed Sheeran! the camera points. Ed Sheeran! it wants to make sure you are fully aware. And then: “It’s a new one,” Ed Sheeran replies, as the camera hovers for an instant longer.
The line does nothing to serve Arya’s story or Game of Thrones’s. It makes no sense, this “new one,” coming from a Lannister knight Arya has only just met. It makes sense only in the “yep, that’s totally Ed Sheeran” kind of way. “It’s a new one” is a sly commentary on Sheeran’s prolific output, and perhaps on the recording industry he is part of, and very definitely on the interplay between the world of Westeros and the world beyond its borders. (The song itself was in fact written by Ramin Djawadi, Game of Thrones’s composer, using lyrics that came from George R.R. Martin’s book.) What the line is not, though, is purposeful in any way but the meta.
Which is especially striking in “Dragonstone,” an episode that is otherwise so much about world-building and plot-furthering and storytelling—an episode that, tellingly, emphasizes in particular the meaning of maps. The episode found Game of Thrones’s current queens, Cersei and Daenerys, developing their strategies with the help of massive versions of those mini-worlds. Cersei had hers painted onto the ground in a tiled courtyard in King’s Landing; Daenerys encountered hers, complete with three-dimensional pieces, in an abandoned palace on the island once home to Stannis Baratheon. What the maps didn’t depict, however, was the other kind of geography at play in the episode: the stuff far beyond the reaches of the Narrow Sea. Sheeran made his appearance in Westeros, Benioff and Weiss explained, at a panel at South by Southwest earlier this year, for a simple reason: Maisie Williams, the actress who plays Arya, is a fan of his. Sheeran was invited on the show—and thus into “the world”—the showrunners revealed, “as a surprise for Maisie.”