"Shall we begin?"
Seven hells, yes! After a longer-than-ever wait between seasons (for a smaller than ever run of episodes) Game of Thrones has returned – and so, for that matter, has Daenerys Targaryen, heir to Aegon the Conqueror and rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. The Mother of Dragons has finally touched down on her ancestral soil to reclaim what was once hers. The premiere of the show's more-anxiously-anticipated-than-ever seventh season, entitled "Dragonstone," concludes with a five-and-a-half minute wordless sequence depicting her arrival at the island fortress that gives the episode its title. When Dany utters those three words and the show smash-cuts to the closing credits, the message is clear: The game is on at last.
Not that the waiting for winter to come was ever boring. If it's a neatly summarized story you want, one that proceeds neatly from beginning to end with no detours or delays, read a wikipedia article. The fact is that without the preceding six seasons' many twists and turns, few of this premiere's many beats would have an iota of their impact.
Take the council of the King in the North, for example, where Jon Snow rules alongside his sister Sansa Stark. It's super satisfying to see the two of them safe together after so many seasons apart or in danger. A look at all the friendly faces around them – wise Ser Davos Seaworth, loyal Brienne of Tarth, randy old Tormund Giantsbane and supremely cool young-ruler Lyanna Mormont — makes it even more fun. (Also, a hearty welcome to Alys Karstark and Ned Umber to the Little Lords and Ladies Club – along with Lyanna, they form a makeshift badass Royal Mouseketeers of the North.)
But the complications add a lot, too. Much ado has been made of the unhappy glances exchanged between Lady Stark and her scheming éminence grise Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, both during the Season Six finale and the trailers for Season Seven; indeed, comments by actor Kit Harington during the run-up to the premiere teased a "power struggle" between the two siblings. (Or half-siblings. Sort of. It's complicated.) For those of us loyal to House Stark, what a treat it was to see their conflict was primarily a matter of policy, with Sansa wanting to punish rebellious Northern houses and Jon seeking to maintain continuity. Their subsequent conversation was less Michael Corleone warning Fredo not to take sides against the family and more a loving brother and sister trying to do right by their shared cause. Another scene in which Her Ladyship dismisses Baelish like a woman on Twitter fending off a creep in her mentions proves she's no longer his to manipulate – yet her insistence that she "learned a great deal" from Cersei Lannister, the architect of so much of their misfortune, demonstrates a cynicism and savvy the male Starks have lacked.
Cersei herself, meanwhile, has a skeptical brother of her own to deal with. Jaime has not strayed from her side by any means, but his questioning of her motives and tactics shows how low she's sunk. With her reign underway, she's as eager to take on the many enemies she's collected over the years as she is reluctant to dwell on their son King Tommen's death. The Lannister Queen has already moved on to her next big scheme: securing the allegiance of Euron Greyjoy, the new King of the Iron Islands. Played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk – who brings a sociopathically sexy swagger to the show that we haven't seen since Pedro Pascal sunk his teeth into the Red Viper – this cocksure corsair spends his entire audience with Her Grace subtweeting the Kingslayer. He cares little if the rest of his family dies. Cersei may send him off to prove his mettle, but they already have so much in common.
But despite Cersei and Euron's best efforts, there are still far more Greyjoys and Lannisters left in the world than Freys. That treacherous house meets its end in the pre-credits cold open – emphasis on cold – in which Arya Stark, posing as the late Lord Walder (the Faceless Men have taught her well), poisons every male member of the family responsible for the Red Wedding. "The North remembers," she says to Walder's child bride as she strides out of the banquet hall. It's a revenge long in the making, and it's a dark delight to behold. But a later scene, in which the lone wolf comes across a small squad of young Lannister soldiers (including one played by pop star Ed Sheeran) and spares their lives, proves she's not the monster she sometimes pretends to be.
In this, at least, she resembles her old partner Sandor Clegane, now hooked up with the Brotherhood. Once one of the most fearsome and nihilistic warriors in Westeros, he's still got a nasty bark, but he's saving his bite for those who really deserve it. This means not only gazing into a red priest's fires and seeing the army of the dead on the march, but also coming to terms with an innocent man and child he condemned death back before he and Arya split up. The shot of their two skeletal bodies, the father still holding his daughter in his arms, is as sad and sobering a moment as the show has ever delivered.
Yet despite the cast of dozens (seriously, we haven't even touched Samwell Tarly's bedpan-and-broth montage, or Bran Stark's arrival at the Wall), the real protagonist of this episode is the audience. From the very first season's inuagural scene, we've known the White Walkers were coming – and from that season's parting shot, we knew dragons had been born. For over half a decade we've simply waited for the pieces to come together, while countless characters fought and died in ignorance of the big picture. How fitting, then, for this episode to feature not one but two gigantic maps – the boards on which the game of thrones is played. We're getting closer and closer to the moment when the major players see the whole thing for what it really is.
Indeed, like the small-scale replicas of the Seven Kingdoms studied by Dany and Cersei, "Dragonstone" was the Season One model in miniature. After Arya's lethal prologue, the main action began with the march of the Night King and his army of zombies, and ended with the arrival of the Mother of Dragons and her reptilian children. The show has essentially scripted our anticipation of this grand convergence from day one – a huge difference from basically every single other great show of the era, which kept audiences guessing at the endgame. Game of Thrones is designed to make us the greatest players of all. We're finally beginning to reap the rewards.
Watch Rob Sheffield revisit Game of Thrones' most gamechanging moments.