Box office is down at theaters this summer amidst tired franchise offerings. But on Sundays, at the same 9 p.m. hour, TV is proving how it has caught up to cinema. On one hand, there’s Twin Peaks, an auteur’s acid trip courtesy of David Lynch, and at 10 episodes into his 18-hour Showtime revival of his classic 1990-91 ABC series, I’m confident saying it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on a screen – any screen – in the last year. Of course, the other show that has changed television is the one you’re here to read about: Game of Thrones.
While TV has certainly told epic stories before, the scale and expense of Game of Thrones dwarfs them all. Last night’s penultimate premiere featured some shots I imagine would cost an entire episode’s budget on another show. But it is precisely its fantastical grandeur that makes it safe to say it is at the forefront of a new form, the TV blockbuster. The scope, coupled with the down-to-earth and realistic characters, make it both broad and deep. “Dragonstone,” the premiere episode of the show’s penultimate (and shortened) season, acted as a pivot toward the grandiose endgame that George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books upon which the show is based, hasn’t even told yet.
As Gandalf would say, “The board is set. The pieces are moving.” This premiere moves quite like its seasonal siblings, with the focus primarily on foreshadowing and flag-planting, to the point that the last line (Dany saying “Shall we begin?”) acts as an in-joke. The episodes is named as such because the titular location becomes a nexus point of many of the characters due to its Targaryen origins and preponderance of dragonglass, the only material capable of killing White Walkers.
Thanks to cast pruning and the narrowing of the series’ later books, three sides have emerged: Jon Snow and the North, Cersei Lannister and what’s left of the Seven Kingdoms, and Daenerys Targaryen and her allies in the south. Each leader has a retinue of familiar family and advisers, setting the stage for the final conflict over the Iron Throne and, if there’s anybody left over to rule, the Great War against the Night King.
Cersei eliminated all her enemies in a fiery blaze last season, leaving her childless and her twin-lover Jaime in fear of her. What’s a Mad Queen to do with power and no scruples? Find more enemies to kill of course. That’s not a problem, because as Jaime points out, the North has declared their independence (again) under Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen is sailing to Dragonstone with her dragons and an armada, and the southern kingdoms have joined her in rebellion. Cersei is left to ally with the only other player on the board, the equally-mad king of the Iron Islands, Euron Greyjoy.
The Greyjoy subplot shows both the strengths and weaknesses of narrative consolidation. In some cases, it is a very necessary and even welcome shortcut to avoid belaboring the story. In others though, the show takes shortcuts that the books refuse to, to the former’s detriment. In this case, book Euron is set up as a fierce opponent all his own, with his proposed alliance with Cersei seemingly an invention of the show’s, although we can’t be certain given that Martin has yet to finish the last two books in his series. It seems more of a way to give Cersei a fighting chance against overwhelming odds and, to be fair, Euron’s desire for a queen does come from the books themselves. That said, PoorQuentyn has way better ideas for what Martin’s going to do, namely “The Eldritch Apocalypse” and with textual evidence to back it up. It’s the nature of the beast but I am disappointed that we’re losing what’s (hopefully) to come in Martin’s novels.
By contrast, the Hound subplot was quite strong thanks to its call-back to a seemingly random event from his endless treks around the Riverlands with Arya in season 4. Traveling with the Brotherhood Without Banners, they find shelter at the same farm whose residents the Hound mugged and left for dead. Sure enough, they died. The Hound’s decision to bury their bodies contrasts well with his previous decision to rob and abandon them.
As with Arya, the young Starks have grown up and now are taking charge just as winter arrives. Bran and Meera are greeted at the Wall by good ole Dolorous Edd, bringing them one step closer to Winterfell. Jon sends the Wildlings to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to man the Wall in preparation for the White Walkers. But the Hound sees in the flames that the Night King and his undead army are already headed to that castle, intending to bypass the Wall altogether.
One of the best parts of Martin’s series (and something he is proud of) is the abundance of well-written female characters. In some ways, the show has played up that element (Sansa watching Ramsay Bolton’s gruesome death was pure fan service but audiences’ desperately wanted it, so it worked perfectly). The show continues on that theme in the cold open, where we’re back at the Twins and Walder Frey is giving a speech to his many male progeny. I’ll admit, I wondered exactly what we were watching for a good 10 seconds before it clicked that this was Arya perpetrating a reverse Red Wedding, an event foreshadowed but as-yet fulfilled in the books. The revenge of women isn’t just about their station. Rather, their overarching struggle to break free of bondage represents what the Martin and the story have always been concerned with: “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” Making use of all the ways society’s classifies people is used expertly by Martin to create relatable underdogs who we root for. On the other hand, Arya’s scene with Ed Sheeran and His Merry Band Of Friendly Lannister-ites felt like a pale imitation of Martin’s writing, though I did appreciate that Arya was able to have one decent, non-violent encounter with someone. And with Lannister soldiers no less, which I guess was the writers’ clumsy point.
Last and kinda least is Sam’s time in Oldtown, which was the equivalent of Arya and the Hound’s previously mentioned meandering season 4 Riverland wanderings but sped up x100. Given there are 12 episodes left after this, I appreciate we didn’t have to watch a season of Sam emptying chamber pots and doing a variety of other monotonous and/or gross tasks (though I consistently appreciate how interested the show is in bodily functions). Speaking of which, of course it’s during an autopsy that the season’s biggest addition Archmaester Marwyn, appropriately played by a Hogwarts teacher in the form of Jim Broadbent, blithely promises the Wall will always stand (uh huh). One of my favorite moments was the effective jump-scare that revealed the fate of Jorah Mormont, as his greyscale-afflicted arm jutted out of a medieval isolation chamber beneath the Citadel. Even without seeing Iain Glen, the pain and longing in his voice as he asked Sam if “the Dragon Queen” had arrived yet was powerful.
My biggest takeaway from the season 7 premiere was how normal it felt. With only 12 episodes left in the entire series and plenty of promises made in the press about the phenomenal pacing this season, the first hour was relatively rote. But I have a feeling we’ll be missing this era of normalcy as the show continues to make moves that change the game ahead of whatever light or darkness is at the end of this tunnel.