Game of Thrones: Season 7, Episode 1 – Dragonstone

“Shall we begin?”

(SPOILER ALERT!)

In these ratings-hungry times, most genre shows tend to open their new seasons with slam-bang episodes full of action. There’ll be lots of explosions, or a giant space battle, or hordes of marauding zombies. Game of Thrones, secure in its audience, doesn’t need to do that (well, maybe the zombies), and its season openers tend to be more sedate. With its multitude of major characters and intersecting, complex plotlines, showrunners Benioff and Weiss usually choose to catch us up on where they all are, what they’re doing, and what they’re planning to do next. It’s like the opening gambits in a game of chess.

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In this respect, the opening to the show’s penultimate season, Dragonstone, didn’t entirely surprise, as vignettes  caught us up with practically every major character who isn’t dead (which is a lot fewer than there were), without really advancing the overall plot yet. But as ever in this artfully crafted show, those vignettes were often things of beauty in themselves. Benioff and Weiss were on scripting duties as is customary, and reliable veteran Jeremy Podeswa directing.

One of the show’s main strengths is the depth of its characters, and the often cracking dialogue between them. In this respect, Dragonstone didn’t disappoint – although if it was the show’s trademark sex and violence you were after, you were out of luck here. In an ep seemingly dominated by the show’s most powerful players, it was the ‘little people’ whose interludes impressed the most.

Take Samwell Tarly, presented here in a blackly funny montage as we learned that his Maester training consists, at this point, of emptying gruesome bedpans and serving soup in bowls that look disturbingly similar. If it was nudity and gore you were after, this was the only place you’d find it this week – providing you were satisfied with an autopsy of an elderly Maester. But that scene also introduced us to a new character, Archmaester Ebrose, played thoughtfully by the ever-excellent Jim Broadbent. Can there be many venerable British character actors who haven’t been in this show yet?

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Sam’s main preoccupation was the White Walkers. As well it should be, with that disturbing scene of their undead hordes, now accompanied by several skeletal giants. I’ve said in the past that I find the show’s unstoppable supernatural menace one of its less interesting plotlines, but fair’s fair, this lot look damn scary.

More compelling, though, was the journey southwards of the ever more badass Arya Stark. Pausing only to briefly wipe out the entirety of House Frey (that Faceless Men disguising trick must be really good to make her look the same height as Walder), she’s on her way to King’s Landing, with the stated aim of killing the Queen. This she disclosed to a comradely but disbelieving bunch of Lannister soldiers she met in the forest, who she didn’t kill even though one of their number was Ed Sheeran.

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That was actually a great scene. In a show that tends to concern itself with the machinations of the powerful, the ordinary people of Westeros don’t often get a look in. And yet, as we saw here, they’re the ones who really bear the brunt of their masters’ wars. The soldiers were a likeable bunch – great to see This is England’s Thomas Turgoose as one of their number. Mind you, having seen more than a few war movies, I can be fairly sure that all that talk of getting home to wives and children means they’ll not make it out alive.

Case in point, the Hound’s return to the farmhouse he robbed way back in season four. He’s as surly and rude as forever (I loved his snarl to Thoros, “you bald cunt”), but his increasingly troublesome conscience showed a character who’d developed from the bastard who’d robbed the inhabitants way back then. Rory McCann continues to make him one of the show’s most interesting characters (as he is in the books), and his revelation in the flames this week seems to put him firmly on the side of the good guys. If he can figure out which ones those are.

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Probably not the increasingly few Lannisters, who this week were agonising about their legacy over a giant map of Westeros. The map seems to have been a recurring motif in this ep, perhaps to give viewers a broad perspective of the geography (in case they hadn’t noticed it in the opening credits of the last six seasons). You also got to see it in Sam’s books, and Dragonstone’s abandoned strategy room. It does at least hammer home the point that this is a whole landmass at stake, I guess.

The dialogue, as ever, crackled throughout. Dastardly but charismatic Lord Flashheart-alike Euron Greyjoy was a delight in his irreverent negotiations with Cersei (it’s probably wrong, but I find Pilou Asbæk rather attractive). It was also a delight to see Littlefinger fail to get the last word with the increasingly assertive Sansa – “I’ll just imagine it was something clever”.

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Still, it’s looking like trouble might be brewing for the King in the North, with Sansa openly challenging him in front of his loyal bannermen. Well, credit to Sophie Turner – Sansa seems a more credible leader to me than the ever-surly Jon Snow. That scene also brought a welcome return for the unexpected breakout character from last year, the still fierce Lady Lyanna Mormont. In a week when a fair few genre fans seem to be having conniptions over a female Doctor in Doctor Who, Bella Ramsey’s spitfire of a performance is one of many in this show that demonstrate women can be as fierce (or more!) than men.

Probably the best of the character sketches though was the lengthy, virtually wordless  sequence of Daenerys Targaryen finally arriving back in her homeland, taking possession once again of her ancestral seat. Not for nothing was the episode named for it. That sequence had some beautiful visuals, counterpointed brilliantly with the faces of Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage conveying powerful emotion without so much as a word.

“Shall we begin?” was her only utterance, and the ep’s perfect closing line. The pieces are in place, and for the penultimate time, the game’s about to begin. On the strength of this ep, it looks as enthralling as ever.

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