SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the episode yet, please come back later.
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The premiere kicks off with a cold open, winter is here after all. Walder Frey is seemingly alive; my first thought was that it must be a flashback to after the Red Wedding? No, Arya wasn’t done with the Freys. She didn’t just want to cut off the head of the snake, she poisons their chalice, bringing every Frey down in the confines of the very room they brutalised her family. It was a great opening scene reminding everyone that Arya Stark is truly back and now she has the power of the faceless assassin with her, “The North Remembers” she warned.
Following the theme tune, Bran watches through his vision as we are reminded of the scale of the White Walker army, it is now at least three GIANTS strong. I loved how they shot this scene; I wasn’t sure what I was looking at as a clouded storm engulfed the horizon but then the wind began whistling followed by soft footsteps. The Night King is leading his army to the south and it is the fiercest we’ve ever seen them. The North is blanketed in snow and ice, the ravens are white and winter has truly arrived.
At Winterfell, Jon’s compassion triumphs as he pardons the Umbers and the Karstarks for Smalljon Umber and Harald Karstarks’ treasonous support for Ramsay Bolton. In a passionate defence of their kin, Jon professes: “I will not punish a son for his father’s sins” an utterance that takes us back to Jon’s treatment as a young bastard in Winterfell ostracised by Catelyn. Sansa rebukes his decision and we see the seeds of an internal conflict begin to brew, with Littlefinger smirking in the shadows of that very room, as he always does.
Arya’s actions sent shockwaves through Westeros and reached none other than Cersei and Jaime; Frey was their last ally. There is an indication that Cersei is becoming the Mad Queen. What was once her reason for living, her son Tommen; she now claims “betrayed her” by committing suicide. Cersei is turning inwards and even Jaime is starting look at her like an old lover he barely recognises. Jaime warns her they desperately need allies and yet she postures by tasking Euron to prove his worth to her. It will be a sight to behold when we see Cersei find out that Sansa and Arya are both alive and simultaneously crushing her plans of ruling the seven kingdoms; despite her best efforts to find them for the best part of six seasons. Ned would be proud; they did what he never could, persevered through the vicious and violent politics of Westeros.
The premiere has a very clear goal; to set up the arcs for each narrative moving forward and it does that beautifully. Next, we meet Sam, in all his glory, training to become a Maester, no wait, he’s gagging from all that faecal matter he’s been tasked to clean up. The fast-cut scenes depicting Sam’s disgusting chores made me a little sick in my mouth yet I couldn’t help but appreciate how well it was edited to make me feel that way. At a certain point, I couldn’t tell the difference between the food he was serving and the excrement he was cleaning up.
Desperate to learn about the White Walkers, Sam enters the restricted section of the library and discovers the basis of Jon’s potential alliance with Daenerys; there’s a mountain of Dragonglass beneath the ground at Dragonstone and they must mine it if they are to fight the army of the dead. Jorah’s greyscale makes a little cameo, now covering his entire arm. Will Sam help him find the cure?
Arya wanders upon a group of Lannister soldiers as she travels south towards Kings Landing to “kill the queen”. She finds Ed Sheeran serenading his pals; they ask her to join their little feast. This scene almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the Westeros that we know. In a rare light-hearted moment for Arya, she genuinely smiles for the first time in a long time. She knows how the world works, and it no longer frightens her.
Sandor Clegane is now with the Brotherhood; a changed man, a regretful man. One could argue he is at his weakest point emotionally just like Beric and Melisandre were when the Lord of Light revealed himself to them as he now does to The Hound. Another stand-out scene in this episode is seeing Sandor Clegane’s redemption arc arrive at its natural conclusion. The Brotherhood happen to stay overnight at the little cottage Arya and Sandor arrived at in ‘Breaker of Chains’. The skeletal remains of the father and daughter who once fed Arya and Sandor lay in a corner clutching each other; in a rare act of empathy, The Hound decides to give them a proper burial.
The episode ends with Daenerys arriving at Dragonstone, her ancestral land. One of the most anticipated and delayed storylines in television history reaches its final phase, “shall we begin?” she asks. Please do. For an episode that had the narrative restriction of having to set up the new season, I have to say it balanced them well and managed to be quite compelling.