Is it just me, or is “Game of Thrones” getting to be a lot of fun? Last night’s Season 7 première jumped right in, beginning not with some noble slog through icy effects and mysticism but with our old friend revenge, served in goblets. Walder Frey, the Stark-murdering bastard we saw Arya kill at the end of last season, is having a party. “You’re wondering why I brought you all here,” he barks. “Since when does old Walder give us two feasts in a single fortnight?” Well, he doesn’t. Even if Frey weren’t dead, he’d have P.T.S.D. about dining halls. It’s shape-shifting Arya under that face, insulting him even as she inhabits him! Well done, kid. She serves everybody wine, lavishly identifying them as “every Frey who means a damn thing” and “the men who helped me slaughter the Starks at the Red Wedding”—there’s a lot of exposition in this episode—and then, as they drink, she begins to enumerate their crimes. Comprehension, or at least alarm, begins to dawn on the faces of the assembled, because of Arya’s provocative remarks and also because their insides are melting. (Between her gallons of poisoned wine and her labor-intensive son-filled murder pie, Arya’s getting to be quite the chef.) “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe!” she says, smiling, and then ripping the Walder Frey face off. Hello, little wolf. She tells one of the survivors of this mayhem—a startled young woman nearby—“When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North Remembers. Tell them Winter came for House Frey.” Delicious. Cue titles!
Oh, it’s good to be back, spinning madly across those ancient-style maps and gleaming armillary spheres. The rest of Season 7, Episode 1—“Dragonstone”— proceeds in a jolly combination of plot advancement and plot explanation, with visual glories and horrors accompanying. In the show’s two final, shortened seasons, much has to happen: throne-jockeying is reaching a fever pitch now that all the ships are pulling into Westeros, dragons are a-flapping, White Walkers coming for us all. We encounter them after the titles: the Great Deathly Inevitable. In an eerie scene, the world’s least fun army clatters along, all bones and dead horses and cosmic clouds of snow. Is one of them Ed Sheeran? No, worse—one is Wun-Wun! Oh, dear Wun-Wun, noseless and grim. Sorry, old fellow. In the next scene, we see Meera and Bran approach the Wall, warning of Walkers, and be admitted through.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow, stubbled pinup King of the North, is with his assemblage of nobles and co-strategists, talking about dragonglass and feminism. Dragonglass kills White Walkers—“We need to find it, we need to mine it, we need to make weapons from it,” he says, lustily—and women need to help drill and fight. Young Lyanna Mormont, backing him up on the idea of women being warriors, continues to kick ass and draw respectful nods; then they decide that the Free Folk will defend the Wall and sort out who gets to occupy which castle. “You want us to man the castles for you?” Tormund Giantsbane says, in his sole non-eyebrow-wriggling scene in several episodes. “Looks like we’re the Night’s Watch now.” But should the Umbers and the Karstarks, who have been iffy compadres, get to stay in their castles? Jon says yes, Sansa says no, and the room gets awkward, with its sole smile coming from Littlefinger, for whom Snow-Sansa dissent is like Love Potion No. 9.
Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Queen Cersei is having a map of the Seven Kingdoms painted on the floor. That’s a good move—last year, I ordered one in the mail, and it didn’t show up till the season was over. Cersei can’t afford to take that kind of chance. The floor map makes her look a little crazy, but who’s around to judge? Just Jaime, and god knows he’s seen everything. Cersei and Jaime have a chat over the new floor map, involving more exposition than any relationship could or should handle, and the resulting dialogue isn’t exactly Edward Albee.
“Our little brother, the one you love so much, the one you set free, the one who murdered our father and our firstborn son,” Cersei says—Tyrion, to you and me—is sailing with Daenerys across the Narrow Sea, she tells him. She walks around the map, identifying where all their enemies are: basically, the whole floor. Jaime responds that their son King Tommen committed suicide last season.
“He betrayed me!” Cersei says. At first, this response seems petty, sure. But remember “Shame!,” the High Sparrow nightmare, and the garbage-chucking? Oy. They’re both right. Cersei goes on to say that since the Freys have been murdered (news travels fast!), the Lannisters need reinforcements. And they’re running out of not only Lannisters but allies. Cue Euron Greyjoy and his makeover! Next thing we know, we see the world’s sexiest bunch of ships, as if Cobra Kai from “The Karate Kid” were a fleet of boats.
“The Greyjoys! You invited the Greyjoys?” Jaime says. Poor thing. Nobody wants to have the Greyjoys over. It’s just Euron, the new king of the Iron Islands, she assures him—she’s thinking of marrying him. Jaime, I encourage you: get out of this hellhole. Go find Brienne of Tarth, build a romantic hut for two, and open a nice defending-and-avenging business. Up in the Throne Room, where they have an audience with Euron, Cersei has open flames and candles all over the place. (We get it, we get it! You murdered everybody with fire.) What does Euron have to say for himself?
Oh, plenty. The new and improved Euron—shorter hair, perhaps a touch of eyeliner, fitted black clothing—looks like a coked-up Pacey Witter starring in a production of “Spring Awakening.” And he’s got a bit of Pacey’s roguish joie de vivre. He explains that his niece and nephew have taken some ships and allied with Dany, the enemy. It’s nothing compared with what Cersei’s been through, he says. “But still—it bothers me.” He spreads his arms wide and smiles. Since their disloyal relatives are all fighting for the enemy, he says, beaming, “I thought we rightful monarchs could murder them together.” The camera cuts to the Mountain, impassive within his giant bucket head. Euron and Jaime dislike each other, so Euron brags about how many hands he has.
“Two good hands,” he says, waving ’em around.
“You murdered your own brother,” Cersei says.
“You should try it—it feels wonderful,” he says. He’s fun, all right. Then he runs off to get Cersei a “priceless gift.” “I won’t return to King’s Landing until I have that for you,” he says. What on earth will it be? Somebody’s head or appendage? The Hand of the (other) Queen? Gendry jumping out of a cake? Unclear. In the books, reportedly, Euron is pure evil, so black-hearted that he makes Ramsay look like Shirley Temple. Here, they’re trying to make him a good-timey sort of evil. We shall see.
I had high hopes for Samwell Tarly’s Citadel adventure, as did Sam Tarly himself. Inevitably, because Sam is an unlikely hero, and because “G.o.T.” likes to Reek Greyjoy us once in a while, our dreams of books and skylights were dashed, and the Citadel scenario turns into a literal fartfest. In perhaps the least jaunty montage of all time, we see and hear Sam glopping around his new home, amid chamber pots, latrines, revolting stews, and more chamber pots. Did I mention the retching? There’s lots and lots of retching. John Bradley may get a special Emmy for retchwork. I don’t know exactly what Sam’s job is—he also shelves huge books in the library, rolls carts, and assists with autopsies. If nothing else, it makes me more appreciative of the summer I spent at Taco Bell.
Back at Winterfell, there’s still a bit of va-voom between Raised Eyebrows Giantsbane and Lowered Eyebrows of Tarth, who have a fun, weird little moment in the courtyard that ends with Pod getting shoved into a snowbank. The chemistry between Littlefinger and Sansa, on the other hand, is a snowbank. She’s clearly had it with his bullshit, which is a relief. But I’m confused: for a sleaze and a powermonger, Lord Baelish is not putting his heart into the wooing that’s instrumental to his plan. He was obsessed with her mother; she’s young and beautiful; what’s the problem? His plan seems to be coldly stating his case unconvincingly and insistently. Is this effective? It is not. Littlefinger had a big win recently, when he saved Sansa and her family from certain death, but he’s lost some steam. He needs to regroup.
And I need to regroup, or at least try to stop cringing, after the scene that follows, in which Arya horses up to Ed Sheeran, who is singing in the woods in the Riverlands with his soldier buddies. Ed Sheeran is wearing armor and a cape, but he’s still got the same old Ed Sheeran face and the same eerily combed orange hair, and he’s singing an Ed Sheeran song.
“Pretty song,” Arya says.
“It’s a new one,” he says, smirking ickily. She sits down and gets handed a rabbit on a stick and some blackberry wine. What could be a scene that helps us empathize with Arya’s particular isolation and unusual adolescence is derailed by depressing celebrity-crush awkwardness—Ed Sheeran’s jarring presence is about as natural as Davy Jones on “The Brady Bunch,” saying “How ’bout the flip side?” If they had to have Ed Sheeran on, couldn’t they have made him the guy getting an autopsy at the Citadel, or one of the lesser Freys, writhing and clutching his guts? Another question: When Arya’s trotting around the woods all alone, why does she wear her own face? I’d muscle around in a Clegane face, grunting and stealing people’s food.
The Hound, a.k.a. Sandor Clegane, stars in the episode’s most mystical and mystifying scene—especially for those of us who have only a dim memory of his travelling companion. Beric Dondarrion, you may or may not recall, is the co-leader of the Brotherhood without Banners, along with Thoros of Myr, who has brought him back to life several times. (You know—that guy!) Travelling north, Dondarrion and the Hound revisit a farmhouse where a farmer and his daughter had once given Arya and the Hound shelter, and the Hound had stolen the farmer’s silver; now, it seems, they have died of poverty-related starvation and murder-suicide. Oof. After a philosophical chat, Dondarrion, a fire worshipper, makes the Hound, who already hates fire, stare into some flames and have a vision, and he does—it involves ice, the Wall, and a castle. George R. R. Martin recently made a spoiler-ish remark about all of this that makes me fear fire as much as the Hound does.
Remember Jon Snow talking about dragonglass? Well, well. Look who’s found the mother lode. Casting aside his retching and chamber pots, Sam Tarly has sneaked into the forbidden section of the Citadel’s library, stealing a big old ring of keys, and he and Gilly, with kid in tow, are poring over books. One of them tells him where there’s a huge trove of dragonglass: Dragonstone! It’s almost too easy. He’s got to tell Jon Snow! But how? And guess what else he discovers, back with his cart and his buckets of slop? The horrible greyscaled arm and sultry lovelorn voice of Jorah Mormont! “Has she come yet? The dragon queen,” he pants. The plot thickens. (Now, enough with the poop, showrunners. Point made.)
Nobody can deliver a glorious ending like Daenerys, whether she’s walking through fire, being borne aloft by crowds chanting her name, flying on a dragon, or god knows what else. (Dramatic drumbeats are inevitable.) In this episode’s final scene, Dany and her rowboat of intimates—Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei—are rowed up to the sandy shore outside Dragonstone, ships trailing behind them. The Targaryen homestead, forbidding and gray atop a steep cliff, is not unlike like Castle Grayskull: big, giant dragon heads, scary doors, the whole shebang. Home at last! We hear majestic singing, proceed through the grand entryway, examine the busted-up throne room and the tiny ship models. Dany smiles her placid smile. She’s the most sensible Targaryen to inhabit it in a while, and she knows it. “Shall we begin?” she asks. Why, yes, we shall.