Game of Thrones season 7 premieres with a succession of fulfilling payoffs even as the series sets up a number of conflicts yet to come.
There are few television series these days that can be described first and foremost as consensus shows. That is, a show that feels like pretty much everyone is watching and talking about at the same time, as evidenced by the enormous output of online discussions before and after every episode, not to mention the rampant live tweeting during. Now that we're all living in Peak TV, there only seems to be one show that reliably manages to reach that level of sustained engagement, and Game of Thrones has done so for quite some time.
Over the past six seasons, HBO's increasingly ambitious adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels have become more than Sunday night entertainment. They've blockbuster-ized television unlike any other show, and they've altered what viewers can expect from a premium cable channel. As Game of Thrones readies the end of the series ahead of Martin's novels, HBO is already sowing the seeds for the future of its programming by continuing down the path forged by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The channel has already brought in the likes of Westworld, has incited the idea of a Watchmen adaptation that might offer an actual viewpoint instead of slavish devotion to the source material, and is in the process of devising a (or a few) Game of Thrones spinoff series.
Thankfully, for those who are in it for some high-end fantasy for an hour a week, there's plenty of intrigue going on in Westeros, now that season 7 has arrived. With Cersei sitting on the Irone Throne, Jon crowned the King in the North, and a pair of siblings in either situation set to simmer thanks to such appointments, the new, shorter-than-usual season brings with it a batch of episodes guaranteed to play the game of thrones like it's never been done before.
What 'Dragonstone' ends up delivering, then, is a season premiere that's not altogether unlike past premieres in the series. There's undoubtedly going to be some conversation around the internet about expecting this shorter season to move at faster clip than seasons past, but after watching an all-around enjoyable and entertaining hour of table setting, you'd have to ask yourself whether or not a hastened pace would actually make for better viewing. In the case of the season 7 premiere, the answer would have to be "no."
Daenerys eventually made landfall at the end of the hour, and following a lengthy scene completely devoid of dialogue, she opted not to take a seat upon the throne of her ancestral home, and former residence of Stannis Baratheon, and instead headed straight to the war room, where she finally addressed Tyrion with the question: "Shall we begin?" It's all deliberately done and in keeping with how Benioff and Weiss have conducted the story for over six seasons now. While it seems plausible that Dany could have run roughshod over a weakened and vulnerable Cersei and taken King's Landing in one fell swoop (of a mighty dragon, anyway), Game of Thrones resists the temptation to immediately begin spewing fire when it can slowly turn up the heat on all its characters, as the season marches toward its (earlier than usual) climax.
As such, 'Dragonstone' makes good on all the work that the season 6 finale 'The Winds of Winter' did in getting its characters to where they are now. Not much time has passed since then, as the deviously entertaining cold open denotes. Arya is still at The Twins, and no one is the wiser that she served up the sons of Walder Frey to their father before slitting his throat. She follows through by poisoning the men of House Frey in her most daring assassination yet, telling the survivor that the North remembers, setting into motion the episode's various deep callbacks to seasons, story lines, and seemingly innocuous encounters past.
The cold open itself is a bit of a trick of time, as the appearance of David Bradley at first suggests it might be a flashback of some sort before some not-so subtle tells reveal the truth long before bodies start dropping. Elsewhere, as the episode does the rounds at The Wall, Winterfell, The Citadel, King's Landing and more, the characters seem as preoccupied with the past as the episode itself is – that is until the future presents itself as the more pressing concern to the likes of Jon, Sam, and Cersei.
The anticipated tension between Jon and Sansa manifests itself quickly, as she presses for the Karstark and the Umber houses to face severe penalties for their betrayal of the Starks, but Jon refuses to hold children responsible for the traitorous intentions of their now-dead fathers. Furthermore, while Sansa is intent on avenging past wrongs, Jon is looking to build an army capable of defending from the threat marching toward The Wall. Part of the tension is in Sansa's recognition of the same kind of virtuousness that got Ned and Robb killed, a fact that she thankfully calls him out on. Still, during their discussion, there's reason to believe the strain of their differences will strengthen their bond, as Sansa illustrates she's now more or less immune to Littlefinger's manipulations, cutting off his inevitable riposte by saying, "No need to seize the last work Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever."
Like Jon, Cersei is looking to the future – though mostly at her enemies that must be squashed. In order to do so, she entertains a proposal from Euron Greyjoy and his fleet of ironborn, but ultimately gives him no more consideration than she does Jaime, the father of her now-dead children. As the "last Lannisters who matter," Cersei and Jaime form yet another example of Game of Thrones preparing for the future by scrutinizing the past events that got the surviving characters to where they are and points them to wherever they will soon be. Cersei's committed to retaining her power, partly because she has nothing else to live for, and while Jaime implores her to mourn their children, it's clear she can only continue to look ahead lest she lose herself in remembering all that was lost.
In the end, 'Dragonstone' didn't turn up the heat on the narrative pacing of Game of Thrones and considering what an entertaining hour the series offered up at the start of the penultimate season, it's a good thing it didn't. After all, with Sam's discovery of a huge deposit of Dragonglass – after a good talk with Academy Award-winner Jim Broadbent – and the Hound's vision of the Night King's likely point of incursion, in between the requisite time spent in the main story lines, the premiere expertly set up another season's board for a thrilling game that lies ahead.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'Stormborn' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Macal B. Polay and Helen Sloan/HBO