The show makes a cracking return with its women all on the warpath
Spoiler alert: Please do not read this review unless you have watched season seven, episode one of Game of Thrones, which airs again tonight on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 9pm.
The world has changed since Game of Thrones last aired. In the distant history of last summer, we awaited the likely election of the first female president of the United States, the shock pivot of the Brexit vote had yet to sink in, and although we stood at the crossroads of sanity, we took much assurance from the fact that, however its force might be gathering through Europe and beyond, the music of Ed Sheeran was mostly escapable. In an opening episode crackling with energy, excitement, and – refreshingly – an equitable distribution of wit, David Benioff and DB Weiss boldly addressed each of those points, some more discreetly than others.
In an unusual pre-credit sequence, it initially looks like we’re covering old ground. Why, there’s the recently dispatched Walder Frey, hosting another gloomy party for his murmuring knuckleheads, being uncharacteristically generous with his wine, the good stuff. This, of course, is Arya Stark, avenging angel and ace impersonator, tying up some loose ends. “Tell them the North remembers, tell them winter came for House Frey,” she says, as the Red Wedding butchers choke on vintage poison, ending her compendium of zingers with a smirk. It’s nice to see Arya enjoying her work.
Like her, almost everyone is on the move, none more dramatically than that shuffling legion of the undead, the White Walkers, moving in a black cloud of menace. Winter has come, and death shall have much dominion. At Winterfell, newly appointed King of the North, Jon Snow, has made this his main priority, calling for immediate mining of Dragonglass (essentially White Walker Kryptonite), while briskly advancing gender equality: now, both men and women must be trained to fight.
Feminism in Game of Thrones has always been a surging theme – as in chess, the queens are the most powerful figures – and when the prepubescent Lady Lyanna Mormont speaks in fiery support of the motion, you can’t help but cheer. “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me,” she opens, shutting down a mansplainer. “And I don’t need your permission to defend the North.” She may be precociously bellicose, but this young girl can conceive of another world, in the future, where a woman can grow up to play the lead in Doctor Who.
Inspired by such example, perhaps, Sansa Stark is also leaning in, and her rather ruthless ideas (burn all traitors) are undermining Jon’s progressive forgive-and-forget policies. Jon sulks. How should he rule, he mopes; by listening to his sister? “Would that be so bad?” replies Sansa.
Ask Jaime Lannister, who joins Cersei, his sibling-lover, on a freshly painted map of the known world, where she has both the outfit and emotional warmth of a chess piece. They need to talk about Tommen, he says, their dead son. Like Jon, here is another man keen to articulate emotion, while, like Sansa or Lyanna, Cersei is more occupied with brute business. With enemies now at every point of the compass, their options are limited. Their only new ally is Euron Greyjoy, giving a performance of bug-eyed, guffawing evil by Pilou Asbæk, clearly aware there is a vacancy for a hammy psychopath.
In the cloistered halls of the Citadel, Sam Tarly seems to be undertaking the worst internship ever concocted, retching over bedpans and slop bowls in a gross montage, while hoping to research White Walker combat. Here we meet Jim Broadbent, as the arch maester, a rationalist preaching sobriety in an era of political nuttiness. “People thought the end was near,” he says of surprise successions, over the messy post-mortem of a debauched maester. “But it wasn’t. None of it was.” This is good advice. Keep calm and carve on.
The episode ends with the wordless procession of Daenerys Targaryen and her expanded entourage to reclaim her gloomy ancestral home, Dragonstone. “Shall we begin?” asks the all-conquering queen, with the satisfying punch of a new season that has so regally set out its stall. And yet, she might have learned a cautionary message, not from the arch master, but one lowly minstrel.
In a satisfying parallel, former double act Arya and the Hound face the consequences of their violence; him at the scene of an earlier crime, her at the campfire of some Lannister-affiliated expendables. The latter might have been more affecting if the emotional depths of these sweet boys (one has a dad, another has a baby) were not so flavourlessly generic they could have come straight from an Ed Sheeran song. But there among them, in a land sympathetically without Twitter, is the actual Ed Sheeran. Singing.
“It’s a new one,” he chirrups. Behold, Daenerys. Look what happens when there are no more worlds to conquer.