If you have designs on a dynasty, the first thing you have to do is get yourself a sweet map, according to Game of Thrones.
That was one lesson from the Season 7 premiere of “Game of Thrones,” as the story’s two most powerful queens plotted on opposite sides of Blackwater Bay. But there were others: Shared leadership is best shared out of public view. Be decent to people, lest you later find their skeletons in your closet. The pursuit of knowledge can be a filthy business.
And if your cantankerous uncle unexpectedly invites you to a festive party, with lots of toasting and wine, maybe let him take the first sip.
Sunday’s episode, largely picking up where the Season 6 finale left off, sketched out the contours of the clashes to come, suggesting some possible paths of convergence and identifying free agents who will fill in the gaps.
After years of billowing story and cast, it was striking to note how the action hinged mostly on people we have been with from the beginning: Cersei and Jaime Lannister; Jon Snow; Sansa, Arya and Bran Stark; Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion. Even the Hound — now riding with the unkillable Beric Dondarrion and Thoros, the Myrish red priest with Brooklyn bartender styling — has been around, off and on, since the pilot.
The world of the show is smaller, too, as suggested by those maps. Pretty much everyone of note is back in Westeros, a land at least nominally ruled by a woman who has been around King’s Landing long enough to know that claiming the Iron Throne and keeping it are two very different things.
“It’s ours now, we just have to take it,” Cersei told Jaime, walking over a freshly painted survey of the empire she plans to keep in the family for a millennium.
What family? Jaime wondered. All our children are dead. And with enemies in every direction, how are we going to stay on top without any allies to help us? “We can’t win this war alone,” he said.
Cue the pirate king. Euron Greyjoy arrived last season aiming to kill his relatives and take control of the Iron Islands. He was largely successful, tossing Balon off a bridge and being named ruler, but Yara and Theon took off with the boats and pledged them to Team Targaryen. Give me some ships and I will give you the world, Euron told his minions then.
We saw the result on Sunday, as Euron arrived with his new fleet and plans for an alliance via a marriage proposal. “Here I am with a thousand ships and two good hands,” he said, clearly annoying Jaime, but even he would have to admit it’s a pretty funny line. (Pilou Asbaek struck an agreeable note of malevolent arrogance — his Euron could be a fun villain.)
After Cersei declined Euron’s offer, he promised a “priceless gift,” saying he won’t return to King’s Landing until he has it. Any guesses what it might be? My first thought was Tyrion, Euron’s gift pledge coming, as it did, right after talk of traitorous relatives and the joy of murdering your own brother. Plus Tyrion has a knack for getting captured (Catelyn, Jorah). I suppose a dragon would be the most priceless gift of all, but that seems impractical. Something that thwarts dragons, perhaps? (Giant strips of dragonpaper?) Feel free to share your theories in the comments.
A big question going into the season was what a childless Cersei might look like, maternal devotion long being her one tether to whatever remained of her humanity. On Sunday she looked fairly power-obsessed and spiteful, grousing to Jaime about traitors and eying “a dynasty for us,” which is an interesting interpretation of the dynasty concept. That said, I thought she was a goner last year and look what happened then. I don’t think her tactics will pay off in the end but in the short-term, at least, I’m done underestimating her.
We also saw Cersei’s instincts on display in an unexpected place: Winterfell. That’s where the seeds of Stark conflict glimpsed last season blossomed awkwardly in front of everyone, as Sansa took issue with the decency Jon showed toward formerly treasonous Northern houses.
Jon wants to restore the peace and ensure the loyalties of the families best positioned to defend against the White Walkers. Sansa wants revenge — let’s kick those traitors out and give their castles to families who deserve them. It was the kind of cold logic she picked up from Cersei, and Sansa confirmed as much a little later.
“You almost sound as if you admire her,” Jon said.
“I learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replied.
Jon could still prove to be too noble for his own good, like Ned and Robb, or too dismissive of the threat the Lannisters pose. But I’m more concerned about Sansa. Her Cersei obsession leaves her vulnerable to Littlefinger, still skulking in the shadows of Winterfell with his own Iron Throne dreams. Strategically, it was hard not to side with Jon on the castle issue, especially after we saw the grateful Umber and Karstark children who won’t be tossed out of their homes.
More broadly speaking, he remains focused on the big picture — which according to Bran’s wintry vision, now includes zombie giants — while Sansa remains mired in traditional rules and the cycles of vengeance that have kept the blood flowing in this story.
It’s a quality she shares with her sister, who kicked off the episode’s cold open, perhaps a meta commentary on the best way to serve revenge.
Was the wine itself cold? Probably not, but it did the job. The Frey family was decimated within a few fateful gulps amid a brief recap of what they were paying for: Stark murder, mostly, but also just bad hosting manners. “Slaughtered your guests after inviting them into your home,” Arya, as Walder, reproached. (It, like the Son Pie she served Walder Frey before killing him, was foreshadowed by Bran’s Rat King story way back in Season 3.)
“Tell them winter came for House Frey,” Arya instructed one of the women she spared. It’s a first-rate catchphrase for a ruthless assassin, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about her soul. We’re reminded that the Stark girls have suffered plenty of trauma, from witnessing their father’s execution through multiple rounds of physical and emotional abuse. As they grow into ever more powerful women, will they resist or lean into the dark forces and experiences that have shaped them?
Arya originally planned to go to Winterfell, but apparently changed her mind once she heard her kill-list target is in charge in King’s Landing. I’m going to kill the queen, she told Ed Sheeran and his soldier friends.
Jon, as ever, is looking northward, but circumstances may be pushing him toward Dragonstone. On Sunday he announced his first major defense initiative as King in the North: An enormous dragonglass mining effort. Samwell Tarly later learned, between his maester orderly rounds, that large stores of the substance, which kills White Walkers and which we know as obsidian, are at (surprise) Dragonstone.
And who is currently at Dragonstone? Jon’s aunt, also known as the other powerful queen in this story, who has moved into her ancestral home and has a nice map of her own.
In sparkling sunlight, Dragonstone looks more majestic than it did during Stannis’s gloomy tenure. The dragon-wing rooflines seem more graceful, perhaps because the castle somehow knows a Targaryen has returned but more likely because C.G.I. aesthetics have improved since Season 2.
After some light redecorating, Daenerys and Tyrion adjourned to the map room, which the greater Thronesweb tells me is called the Chamber of the Painted Table, and is where Aegon Targaryen planned his conquering campaign hundreds of years ago. More recently it was where Stannis held his meetings and where, you might recall, Melisandre seduced him into conceiving a fratricidal shadow-baby back in Season 2. (About right where you’re standing, Dany — you might want to move over a couple feet.)
“Shall we begin?” the Dragon Queen asks Tyrion. This being the former occupier of Meereen, we could be in for a lengthy stay, though she seems more motivated since she emerged from that flaming temple last season. Besides, we only have 12 more episodes to go — so if she’s ready, so am I.
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