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Game of Thrones season 7 premiere: 8 winners and 5 losers from “Dragonstone”

Winners: Daenerys Targaryen and the show’s editing team. Loser: Narrative momentum.

Game of Thrones
Lena Headey stars in “Welcome Back, Cersei!”
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

From a triumphant Frey feast turned bloody to Daenerys Targaryen returning to her ancestral home, “Dragonstone,” Game of Thrones’ seventh season premiere, is filled with moments long foretold that, nonetheless, lose a little of their power for essentially repeating dramatic beats from the season six finale.

Then again, the season six finale was one of the best episodes the show has ever come up with, so it’s not like this is a bad thing. Copying off the paper of the smartest kid in class can usually net you a B or B+ if you do it just right, and that’s where “Dragonstone” lands — not the best Game of Thrones episode (or even premiere) ever, but certainly far from the worst.

It’s a rollicking, surprisingly humorous hour that seems designed, mostly, to make you glad the show is back. It can deal with major plot developments a little later.

So are you glad the show is back? I certainly am. Even when I can’t stand Game of Thrones, I love Game of Thrones. It’s a weirdly addictive show, deeply fun to watch even when it’s being over the top in its grimness, because there’s always something happening.

So where is everybody as season seven begins? Let’s check in on them, and take a look at who’s on top and who’s scrambling to keep up.

Winner: Daenerys Targaryen

Game of Thrones
She’s gonna love that throne. I guarantee it.

Does Dany do much of anything in “Dragonstone”? Nope. But people can’t stop talking about her!

Cersei knows Dany is headed toward Westeros, with Tyrion and three dragons at her side. Jorah grabs Sam at the Citadel, asking him if the queen has yet arrived. And, hell, the episode is named for her ancestral home, to which she returns at its very end. (The castle turns out to be built atop a bunch of dragonglass, which Jon needs desperately — and you can see where this is going.) This episode is about Dany, even if she doesn’t appear until its last 10 minutes. Even Tyrion — arguably the show’s “protagonist,” whatever that means — is now completely in her service.

That’s how you know you’re a winner, right? Your name is on everybody’s lips? Dany doesn’t even have to talk to make an impression in this episode. Her stroll through Dragonstone is mostly silent, save for a couple of moments, and when she comes to Stannis’s giant, now-abandoned table map, running her fingers along it, director Jeremy Podeswa makes the connection clear: today, Dragonstone; tomorrow, the Seven Kingdoms.

Loser: narrative momentum

So, since the circumstances of me seeing this episode for the first time matter, I might as well explain.

I was able to watch “Dragonstone” at the official premiere of season seven, with the cast in attendance, with audience cheers rising to the rafters any time anything happened in the episode, which was projected on a big, big screen. Furthermore, the episode was preceded by a performance by the “Game of Thrones orchestra,” led by composer Ramin Djawadi. If ever there were a time to be primed to love an episode of Game of Thrones, it would have been then. And, indeed, I loved it!

But when I talked over the episode with some folks after the screening, I realized something: Not much had actually happened in the episode, which was mostly a pause after the calamitous events of the season six finale, or an outright reiteration of them. (The Arya scene that opens the episode is terrific — but it’s also more or less a beat-for-beat repeat of the scene where she killed Walder in the season six finale.) The series took a bunch of narrative momentum out of season six’s back half and largely squandered it.

To be clear: This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I liked the episode. Game of Thrones usually begins its seasons with episodes like this one, where the characters take their time to think about what just happened and take stock of what’s to come.

But those premieres all opened seasons comprising 10 episodes, which gave everything more room to breathe. With just six more episodes left in this season, it’s much easier to see the big wall that is the season finale coming up ahead.

Winner: Arya Stark

Game of Thrones
Arya hatches a desperate plan.

Arya has been through a lot in this series, having lost most everyone she cares about and reinvented herself into a stone-cold assassin. So it’s kind of nice to see her having a good time for once, even if her idea of a good time now involves “murdering everyone loyal to the Freys.” (She lets the Frey daughters and servants live. Good for you, Arya.)

I could quibble (again) with how the opening sequence is just a repeat of something the show’s already done, but it’s so fun that I just can’t.

There’s David Bradley, making one last appearance as villainous old Walder, having the time of his life playing a version of Walder who’s actually played by Arya. There’s the way the scene waits to let this particular penny drop. (At my screening, a slow ripple of laughter spread through the audience as people figured it out, and it was magical.) And there’s Arya’s confident stride out of the room at the sequence’s end, married to a triumphant cut to the credits and that famous theme song.

And Arya doesn’t just kill a bunch of her enemies. She also gets to hang out with some soldiers who are vaguely Lannister-allied but really just want things to return to peace and quiet, so they can hang out with their families. This is one of the better scenes of the episode, and Maisie Williams is so good at just sitting and listening to these guys, taking in what they say.

Also, one of them is played by Ed Sheeran!

Winners: the musicians of the Seven Kingdoms

Long burdened with only being able to play “The Rains of Castamere” or “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” the musicians of the Seven Kingdoms now have another hit to add to their rosters, one first performed by pop star extraordinaire Ed Sheeran. (I didn’t catch its title and will wait for the internet to settle upon one.)

Winner: the less-loved fourth book A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, published in 2005, is a challenging read. Where the other books in the series are high on character turns and big plot twists — at least so far — Feast is largely a thematic exploration of the cost of war on a medieval society, on the way the whims of the rich trample the lives of the poor, and on the way endless cycles of vengeance have a way of permeating themselves throughout a culture. It was written at the height of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it shows.

But that also leaves the book feeling a bit like an outcast. It’s always the one that diehard fans of the books have to defend as being George R.R. Martin’s biggest literary gamble, or as the one where not a lot happens but the characters gain a lot of depth or whatever.

Consequently, it’s the book that’s been least faithfully adapted by the show so far. It, for instance, introduced Dorne and the Sand Snakes, but the show has pretty much just left their plot from the books behind entirely. Similarly, major plot developments in that book (like a certain major character turn) have been completely ignored by the series.

So color me happily surprised that the series is finally nodding more toward Feast this late in its run. In the Arya storyline and the scenes of the Hound at the house of those poor people he left to starve to death several seasons ago, the series checks in with how those not in power feel about this endless cycle of war and chaos. And surprise: They’re not happy about it!

This is also something Sam’s storyline touches on, thanks to Academy Award-winning actor Jim Broadbent as the Archmaester. Though his speech about the impermanence of power and the need to preserve knowledge is presented as an impediment to Sam learning everything he needs to know about the White Walkers, there’s a kernel in there about how little any of this squabbling matters. Lives are brutish and short enough as is. Why make them any more so?

Winners: the Game of Thrones editing team

Game of Thrones
Sam’s life isn’t going so well right now.

Speaking of Sam’s time in the library, that early montage of his life of drudgery — emptying chamber pots and reshelving books and eating horrible meals — is a highlight of the episode, thanks largely to the clever, enjoyable work from the show’s editing team, which both gives a playful rhythm to Sam’s time at the Citadel and neatly boils down how horrible most of his waking hours can be.

Loser: Jorah Mormont

The Citadel also turns out to be where Jorah has been living, now locked away from the world, where his greyscale can’t hurt anyone. His desperate grasping at Sam in hopes of learning whether Dany has landed in Westeros made for an effective jump scare, one slightly ruined by Iain Glen’s name showing up in the opening credits — thus causing me to keep wondering when he was going to pop up. But it neatly underlined how pitiful and awful his circumstances have become.

Loser: Sansa Stark

Up at Winterfell, Jon and company are confronting a pretty weighty question: How do they deal with those who swore their allegiance to Ramsay in the Battle of the Bastards? When you consider just how long the Karstarks have been a thorn in the Starks’ side (since season three!), it would make sense to punish the bannermen that turned against the Starks harshly.

This, as it turns out, is what Sansa proposes. Strip the lands and titles from families that turned to the side of the Boltons, then give those lands and titles to Stark loyalists. It doesn’t matter that the people who actually turned against Jon (or Robb, or Ned, or...) were all killed in battle. Children will suffer for the sins of their fathers, because lessons must be learned.

Of course, Sansa chooses to bring this up at the worst possible time — in front of all of the bannermen — which only causes Jon to accuse her (rightly!) of undermining him. And she doesn’t get her way anyway, because Jon isn’t having it. Which means...

Winner: Jon Snow

Game of Thrones
The King in the North! *waves tiny pennant*

Sigh. Do we have to?

One of the things Game of Thrones has often struggled with is really showing the audience why its chosen two — Jon and Dany — are the “great leaders” their most loyal followers always say they are. It will occasionally feint toward doing so, by having Dany, say, emerge from a full-scale inferno unburned and unharmed (which would get me to fall in line with just about anyone), or by having Jon show off his supposed military prowess and/or stupid courage.

But the show mostly falls back on having a character say, “Wow, you’re a great leader!” and then either Jon or Dany say, “I know.” This isn’t so bad when you’re in season three, but it’s a problem when you’re in season seven and the race to the Iron Throne (and/or a less dehumanizing system of government) is heating up.

The writers clearly know this, however, and they’ve finally started giving Jon some leadership moments to match when, say, Dany ended the slave trade all those seasons ago. (It didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, but it was the right thing to do. Winner: Daenerys Targaryen’s historical legacy.) Here, Jon’s choices include introducing gender parity to the North’s military (a decision that makes young Lady Lyanna Mormont very happy) and refusing to punish the survivors of the Bolton loyalists (who are mostly kids) for the sins of their parents.

These are the right decisions, and Jon explains them well enough to win over even his skeptics and his half-sister/cousin (who tells him he’s good at being a leader, because we need to make sure to underline that point). But, geez, do we really have to do this? I liked Jon better when he was inspiring and handsome, but also kinda dumb.

Loser: Littlefinger

Littlefinger continues his hapless quest to woo Sansa, and not only is she not having it, but she’s completely onto his game, as she confides to Brienne. My prediction from last season that she kills him this season is looking better and better.

Winners: Cersei Lannister/Euron Greyjoy shippers

Were you, for some reason, hoping you’d get to watch Pilou Asbæk and Lena Headey, two of the show’s best actors, who play two characters who couldn’t have less in common, share some screen time together? Were you hoping that meeting might blossom into love? Because if you were, this episode delivered in spades!

Cersei’s brother neatly outlines how screwed she is in an early scene. The Dornish don’t like her. The Starks don’t like her. Dany is closing in from the east. And the Tyrells out west don’t like her either. Worse, the Tyrells don’t have to actively work to destroy her — they can just cut off their supply of food to starve her army and horses. The number of houses allied with her, Jaime admits grimly, is maybe three.

So Cersei considers an outside-the-box alliance with Euron, who simply wants to destroy Yara and Theon — and also to marry Cersei. He’s got so much to offer! Ships! Charisma! Two good hands! Mostly ships!

Now, if you’ve been rooting all this time for Cersei and Euron to hook up, this scene may have disappointed you, since she rejects his proposal, sending him scurrying to bring her “something special.” (My guess: He somehow thinks he can get his hands on Tyrion.) But everybody knows love in Westeros blooms most beautifully when the stakes are high and everybody’s backs are against the wall. Eursei may happen yet!

(I also love how Podeswa rhymes the early scene of Jaime and Cersei stalking about that massive, floor-covering map of the Seven Kingdoms with the late one of Dany and Tyrion at Stannis’s war table. The Lannisters stand astride the country like colossi, but their power is mostly illusory — they mostly gain it from trampling everybody. Dany has only a foothold, but she literally reaches out to touch the country with her hand, which Podeswa shoots with great affection. One of these people has the right approach. The other doesn’t.)

Loser: Jaime Lannister’s pride

Game of Thrones

I hope Euron doesn’t think he’s going to make it to the series finale’s end with that crack about how he can provide Cersei with two good hands. Nobody on this show can survive an ironic foreshadowing.

Winner: the Night King

How long has he been walking toward the Seven Kingdoms, methodically marching with his army of the dead? Did he forget that all he has to do is head south? Did he stop to check Mapquest? Regardless, he’s a winner because even if he’s taking his sweet time, he’s still got the biggest, bestest army of them all, complete with undead giants and some really cool walking skeleton designs. The Night King might not yet be king of the Seven Kingdoms, but if I’m honest, he’s the king of my heart.

Other winners: The Hound, for overcoming his fear of fire to gain prophetic gifts; Beric Dondarrion, for realizing he’s just a patsy in some cosmic game; the Lord of Light; the show’s casting directors, for convincing Jim Broadbent to stop by; Lady Lyanna Mormont, on general principle; winter, for arriving; Ed Sheeran, for somehow convincing people he should be on the show.

Other losers: The Seven, who are really on the outs lately; Bran, for having basically nothing to do until the Army of the Dead shows up; that rabbit Arya and her new friends eat; Theon and Yara, for having to stay on the boat, apparently, since we don’t see them debark at Dragonstone; your reviewer, for admitting he loves the Night King.

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