The long wait is over, but a Long Night might just be beginning. Game Of Thrones has returned, with one of its strongest season openings ever and a mouthwatering taste of what lies ahead. And it’s notable, this year, that women are the ones largely driving the narrative. After years of being mistreated, raped, killed, exiled or denied their dues, Westeros’ ladies are taking power back.
[NOTE: This piece will have be discussing this episode in a general way, but contains absolutely no plot spoilers]
Let’s recap where we were at the end of season six. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) recruited Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and his Knights of the Vale to rescue Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and his men from Ramsay Bolton’s trap at the Battle of the Bastards. When Snow then captured Bolton at Winterfell, it was the sight of Sansa that stopped him beating his prisoner to death – and it was Sansa who got the satisfaction of killing Bolton, setting his own starving hounds on him as he had used them on others. That’s one way to get closure. Jon and Sansa, raised as brother and sister, deferred to each other when discussing who should lead House Stark, but with her support he was elected King of the North. Sansa’s still trying to get Jon to take her seriously as an advisor though, and Littlefinger is going to try to drive a wedge between them.
Season seven quickly returns to Winterfell, and without giving much away there’s an absolutely lovely moment where tiny Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) once again proves that she’s the most formidable leader in maybe the whole of Westeros. Think about it: if this ferocious 12-year-old hadn’t thrown her weight behind Jon Snow last season he would be lying in a ditch somewhere, and she’s still leading the other northern Lords around like oxen. The looks of quiet solidarity and respect that both Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Sansa give her when she speaks – seriously, look out for them – are the best low-key moments of this episode. It’s also nice to see Brienne in a place of near-safety for once: she’s valued, and Jon makes plans that visibly give her a boost. As a tiny comic aside, the wilding Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) is still smitten, following her around like a giant ginger puppy. It’s adorable.
Further south, Lena Headey’s Cersei sits on the Iron Throne, but her seat looks shaky. Her brother/lover Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) plays the get-a-grip friend. He returned at the end of season six and saw her crowned; a moment to inspired seriously mixed emotions since it meant that their third child must have died. Now he has to wonder why Tommen took his own life and left Cersei to take the throne, and he asks how she thinks she’ll keep the throne with enemies in every direction. Cersei has a plan – of course she does – but after six seasons of this show we have to assume it won’t work out as she hopes.
Of course the air-punching finale of last season saw Arya (Maisie Williams) terminate the cowardly, treacherous Walder Frey (David Bradley) with extreme prejudice. There’s a callback to their encounter in this episode, just in case you weren’t done glorying in her transformation from hurt tomboy into badass assassin. She’s back in the Seven Kingdoms, and it’s a fair bet that she will cause some chaos and a fair bit of death – but who’s still on her list? And can she show mercy as well as murder?
This is the penultimate season of Game Of Thrones, and that means that pieces are finally (finally) moving together. After years of wandering about in the desert and complaining about people stealing her dragons, Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) defeated the Masters of Mereen and secured her conquests in Essos. Her reptilian babies are fully grown now, and her alliance with Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) – another formidable lady – means she has the ships she needs to get to Westeros. With a thousand ships she can carry three dragons, a Dothraki horde and her Unsullied troops with her, and take back her birthright. But for those rubbing their hands in glee and planning a coronation, might wanna hold off on ordering the canapes a little bit longer.
Still, Daenerys’ armada at last carries all the final pieces onto the right continent. At the end of last season we saw the bereaved Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), Queen of Thorns, conspiring with the grieving Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), against Cersei and the Lannisters. If they can hook up with Daenerys then she’ll have control of the biggest armies in Westeros, as well as one of the biggest navies and the only dragons. Soooo, something will probably go horribly wrong. We know this, right? This show does not make things easy. In fact, it’s a sadistic bastard of a story that breaks our hearts ten times a season. Major characters may not be dropping dead quite as frequently now, as the core cast has been refined and honed, but what deaths there are hurt all the more for it.
That’s just the tip of the plot iceberg for this episode, of course. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is settling in to the Citadel and learning that training to become a Maester is pretty shit, and we can look forward to meeting Jim Broadbent’s Archmaester Marwyn there. Jonah Mormont (Iain Glen) was last seen heading off in search of a cure for greyscale; Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) has a brand-new fleet to rival his niece Yara’s, so brace for naval battles; and the Hound (Rory McCann) has fallen in with the resurrected knight Berric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer – no relation to Natalie). And north of the Wall the Night King is still building an army of the dead, with the winter increasing his strength.
To quote Winston Churchill, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning. The pieces are moving fast now, the armies are coming together and we can expect lots more murder, intrigue, warfare and dragons this season. Winter is here, and it looks bloody brilliant.