“Shall we begin?”
Since we only have thirteen episodes of Game of Thrones left, it’s tempting to complain that much of this first one seems, at first blush at least, a little self-indulgent. Arya (who has somehow managed to make bloody, brutal revenge a little dull, she’s done it so often) obliterating the repugnant House Frey with such ease; Ed Sheeran popping in with a bland new ditty (Galwesteros Girl?); the Hound’s somewhat unpredictable conscience making one of its sporadic visits – come on guys, I thought. Move it along! You don’t think the Night King’s hanging around knocking out ballads or apologising to skeletons, do you?
But, thinking out loud (sorry), it turns out these moments are as important in their own way as any battle. Ok, the Ed Sheeran cameo is jarring because, like him or not, he’s there because he’s an international pop star not because he has anything to contribute to the story, but so soon after her mass Freyicide, his band of Westerosi buddies are essential to reminding increasingly amoral killing machine Arya (and the rest of us, hardened by years of this show’s ruthlessness) that there is still humanity and life and decency out there and, even in the Seven Kingdoms, people don’t always have to be enemies or victims; sometimes they can just be people too.
The Hound’s lesson is along similar lines. Faced with the all-too-vivid consequences of past misdeeds, he offers up an atonement of sorts, albeit too little too late for the unfortunate skeletons, and a reminder to the audience that Arya for her part has humanised him too. Which is just as well, since if there’s to be a Cleganebowl, we need to be able to root for one of them, eh?
Sam’s endless pee, poop and soup montage, however, may be a step too far for me; did finding the Dragonglass book or what became Jorah Mormont really require so many “comedy” bedpan shots? Still, these are minor quibbles over what is, on the whole, a cleverly-structured, gorgeously-shot, calmly measured but hugely significant start to the season as, while Arya, the Hound and Sam all learn lessons which might help their chosen sides and everyone else plans for War in earnest, the show demonstrates that it has learned a lot of lessons of its own.
In what’s left of Kings Landing, Cersei plots and flirts with the charmless Euron Greyjoy that they might “as rightful monarchs, murder (Team Dany) together.” Jaime’s disgust and incredulity are magnificent, the one thing he and Euron having in common being their (delightfully meta) contempt for the Iron born. After years of Theon and the Greyjoys getting on the audience’s nerves, it may be fan service for Jaime to acknowledge that they’re “angry, bitter” people “not good at anything” but it made me smile. (And simultaneously wonder if, with Daenerys and Tyrion’s help, they might prove him, and the rest of us, wrong.)
At Winterfell, meanwhile, Jon – still a Snow for now, but given Bran’s arrival at the Wall to creep Edd the eff out, possibly not for much longer – lays out his plans for the defence of the North, and never mind Sansa and Jon, Lyanna Mormont is the true queen as far as I’m concerned. I’ve written a lot about Game of Thrones’ terrible attitude to women over the years, but Lyanna – and Sansa, Brienne and Davos’s smiles as they watch her – is a reminder that a lesson’s been learned there too. As last season suggested, the show seems to have grown out of its casual misogyny; sisters, be they Northern, Southern or Dragonborn, are now most definitely doing it for themselves.
Although that’s not entirely without its challenges, at least as far as the Starks are concerned. Sansa and Jon arguing in front of the Northern lords isn’t a good look for anyone (except Petyr Baelish, for whom it’s tremendous) but their scene afterwards is quite sweet and even a little comforting for those of who are worried Lady Stark might mean the King in the North any harm. And for those of us worried about the influence of others who do, Sansa’s dismissal of the slimy, malevolent Littlefinger afterwards is a joy: “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.” HEE.
With the few remaining Great Houses manoeuvring into position then, Daenerys’ arrival at the eerily silent, beautiful Dragonstone to resurrect House Targaryen is a terrific, apt way to finish up. I’ve no love for Miss Born to Rule, but her return home has been a long time coming, and its quiet power ends a great episode on a momentous, majestic note. Brilliant.