‘Game of Thrones’ Recap, Season 7, Episode 1: Castle on the Hill
With author George RR Martin writing his next A Song of Ice and Fire entry at the same pace Bran Stark runs a 5K, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are officially the captains of this ship, steering this story through its two final, abbreviated seasons and into some version of the ending Martin dreamed up in 1994. And make no mistake, the end is coming; “the great war is here,” our major players are converging, and time is rapidly running out. So naturally, this season seven premiere, “Dragonstone,” devotes more than a solid minute to Samwell Tarly sifting through shit in The Citadel.
But really, at this point what better metaphor is there for watching Game of Thrones than a poop montage? We trudge through the sludge and the gruel, the unpleasantness and the hard labor in the we hope we get access to the restricted section, where all the really good stuff waits. Take, for example, the best scene of the episode, between Jaime Lannister and his sister Cersei—siblings who have their own shit to work though, it just also happens to be flaked with gold—who strides across a map of Westeros like the giant she so clearly sees herself as. Cersei is First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, and quite certifiably insane, a combination of character traits that means very little when enemies continue to close in from every corner of the globe.
But Cersei’s also the daughter of Tywin Lannister, and that dude drowned an entire family in their home then told someone to write a damn song about it. Daenerys has three 747-sized dragons, true, the Martells control the grain and livestock, yes, and Dorne does have a grip on the world’s supply of sexy people with vaguely Brazilian accents. But Cersei Lannister—as Sansa Stark so helpfully points out to Jon Snow in this episode— has the advantage of not giving a single, solitary shit about anyone or anything, as long as it gets her closer to complete and utter control. Case in point: she hops into bed, almost literally, with the Greyjoys and their mad pirate leader Euron, who may or may not have sailed through Valyria to learn dark magic.
As Euron Greyjoy, Pilou Asbæk still occasionally verges too close to a Captain Jack Sparrow impression for comfort, but overall was a vast improvement over the “let’s go murder them” mess he was in Season 6. His appearance before Cersei in the Red Keep’s throne room read as more intriguingly unhinged than embarrassingly underwritten, and his promise to return to King’s Landing with a “priceless gift” is fodder for fan-theorists who remember there is, allegedly, ways to slay a dragon. Not to mention Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is still doing some of the best face-acting on television as Jaime Lannister; he says about twelve actual lines throughout “Dragonstone,” but manages to grind his jaw so contentiously toward Euron I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t burst a blood vessel.
Which is nothing compared to the looks of sheer uncertainty being thrown around up north at Winterfell, where Jon and Sansa have apparently agreed to communicate through shadowy sideways glances. Jon, for his part, is trying his best to lead in the aftermath of the muddy cluster of death and awfulness that was The Battle of the Bastards. He stations Wildlings along The Wall—Tormund’s “looks like we’re the Night’s Watch now” was great—and declares that all able bodies, despite gender, will take up arms against the advancing White Walker threat, much to the stone-faced delight of walking internet meme Lyanna Mormont. Jon also pardons both the Karstarks and the Umbers—two houses that betrayed the Starks in favor of the Boltons—and gifts them their rightful strongholds, despite the fact they sided with a goblin bastard who fed his baby brother to a pack of dogs. Sansa, who has come a long way from stitching pillows and writing about Joffrey in her diary, disagrees in front of the entire northern council. “That is my decision, and my decision is final,” shoots back Jon, who himself has come a long way from being dead.
In the corner, Littlefinger waits in the shadows looking like he would straight up poison a small child in exchange for a halfway decent sandwich. For what it’s worth, this is Littlefinger’s natural state.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her entire family, the littlest Stark, Arya, is making her way to King’s Landing, carving a path of death and vengeance along the way. Now, outside of Sandor Clegane roasting Thoros of Myr’s top-knot so hard he can now literally read flames, this was a largely uneventful episode in terms of forward movement. But there is no denying Arya put a decisive end to one of Game of Thrones’ longest-running threads. The Red Wedding— still the most “fuck, that’s terrible” twist in a show that is 90 percent “fuck, that’s terrible” twists—has been avenged. Arya not only fed Walder Frey’s sons to him before slitting his throat, but stole the Lord of Riverrun’s face, H’ghar-style, and poisoned his entire family. “When people ask you what happens here, tell them the North remembers,” she tells a cowering Walder-wife. “Tell them winter came for House Frey.”
Which, taken out of context, is a stone-cold line to close an incredible set-piece. But context does exist, and Arya’s Season 7 debut leads to a few follow-up questions about the validity of The House of Black and White’s training program. Arya has gotten pretty good at being a Faceless Man; she’s not just slipping on skin, she’s inhabiting these people, down to their height, weight, and gait, busting out a pitch-perfect David Bradley impression that would absolutely kill at a Harry Potter party. But thanks to the overcrowded nature of Game of Thrones, we saw Arya do little in Braavos other than clean corpses and get whacked in the face. She went from custodian to super-sleuth with one fight with The Waif. That’s like spending a summer getting beaten with a stick in a basketball locker room but leaving as LeBron James.
No matter. Arya has a kill list to finish. She’s headed to King’s Landing to “kill the queen,” stopping along the way to prove that in addition to the violence, torture, and constant dread the residents of Westeros also have to put up with the existence of Ed Sheeran.
While Arya ponders how easy it would be to murder seven men at the same time around a campfire, her siblings bicker over leadership semantics, Bran and Meera arrive at The Wall, and Brienne trains Pod in the art of swordplay while dodging Tormund’s visible erection, Samwell Tarly is the only person properly preparing for humanity’s greatest threat. Namely, the horde of blizzard wizards and their army of the undead lumbering from the icy north.
Sam—after running into an imprisoned Jorah Mormont, who despite his slow transformation into Rockbiter from A Neverending Story is still hopelessly devoted to Daenerys—discovers some key information in a book titled Legends of the Long Night. If Legends is accurate, there is a stockpile of the White Walker-slaying material known as Dragonglass hidden underneath Dragonstone.
Which, as luck would have it, is exactly where Daenerys, Tyrion, and Co. just landed, three actual dragons in tow. After what feels like a lifetime, the last remaining Targaryen has arrived in Westeros, striding into a fortress built on Blackwater Bay by her ancestors more than 500 years ago. And thank goodness Game of Thrones still has the budget of several small countries, because what a gorgeous fortress it is.
“Shall we begin?” Daenerys says in the closing seconds of “Dragonstone,” before touching a table that I really hope someone bleached after Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre used it to conceive a shadow demon. This war began a long time ago, is all I’m saying. For Daenerys, it’s catch-up time.
Vinnie Mancuso writes about TV for a living, somehow, for Decider, The A.V. Club, Collider, and the Observer. You can also find his pop culture opinions on Twitter (@VinnieMancuso1) or being shouted out a Jersey City window between 4 and 6 a.m.