game of thrones dragonstone review 7

(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we’ll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

Game of Thrones season premieres are always about table setting. Where is everyone right now? What are they doing? Where are they going? What do they want? With a cast this large, it’s a necessary evil – the dominoes must be meticulously assembled before the first of them can be flicked, triggering an avalanche of war and betrayal and desperation and misery.

“Dragonstone” is no different, but there’s something different going on here this time around. With that deep bench of characters massively reduced following the violent events of last season’s finale, this is the rare premiere that managed to set every important table and touch on every character of consequence in a single hour. This may be a shorter season, running only seven episodes instead of the usual 10, but it’s already moving faster. The board is already set. The pieces are in place. When the credits roll, the engine of violence and conflict is ready to chug forward in record time.

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The Warg Beyond the Wall

We don’t spend too much time with Bran Stark and his long-suffering caretaker-by-default Meera Reed in “Dragonstone,” but two important developments surround the newly christened Three-Eyed Raven. First, after years spent honing his skills beyond the Wall, learning how to look into the past and present through a psychic connection with the old gods and their weirwood trees, the youngest surviving Stark boy is finally on the road home. Meera and Bran encountering “Dolorous” Edd Tollett,  the reluctant but (let’s face it) more-qualified-than-most Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, provides that unique surge of satisfaction that only Game of Thrones can provide – characters from completely different corners of the show, people who have no business crossing paths, unexpectedly meet and tighten the show’s already complex web of connections and relationships.

But Bran’s brief appearance this week was about more than just getting him back across the wall and into the relative safety of Castle Black. We also bear witness to his latest vision and it’s a doozy: the White Walkers and their army of the undead are on the move. And they have giants. Zombie giants. Even as Daenerys plots her invasion and Cersei schemes and Jon Snow grapples with keeping a fractured kingdom in check, it’s a reminder that everything that makes Game of Thrones the greatest modern fantasy tale (Intrigue! Politics! A gray sense of morality that undoes traditional archetypes!) is about to be thrown straight against the most traditional fantasy villain of them all: an army of pure evil with nothing but destruction on its mind.

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The King in the North

Working our way down south, we find Jon Snow, the new King in the North, proving himself to be very much his father’s son. Or rather, proving himself to be very much his adoptive father’s son, as last season finally revealed that he is the offspring of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, raised as Eddard Stark’s bastard to hide his parentage from a vengeful Robert Baratheon. But no one besides Bran (and a conspicuously absent Howland Reed) knows this long-hidden truth, and Jon is able to take advantage of his Stark heritage to rally the North for the wars on the horizon.

The Lannisters are sending threatening ravens from the south. The White Walkers and the wights are amassing to the north. Jon, no stranger to being without a home, forgives the families that allied with the Boltons because they’re all in this together. Much to the delight of the young, steely (and effortlessly scene-stealing) Lyanna Mormont, the King in the North orders his banner men to begin training their women and girls in combat. They’re going to need everyone in on this one. It’s a step forward for a medieval society where women have always been treated as second class citizens and perhaps even a response to the critics who have accused the show of misogyny in the past. This new generation of younger leaders, led by people like Jon and Sansa Stark, are prepared to invert the backwards laws of their fathers.

Desperation breeds progressivism. The world is upheaval and it will be remade. Of course, the big question now is who will be alive to personally oversee that remaking when all is said and done.

“Dragonstone” keeps Team Winter is Coming nice and busy – Tormund and his Free Folk warriors are sent to man the abandoned castles along the Wall, taking on the roles of the men they have battled for centuries. Sansa and Jon clash over who gets final say in their decisions and seem to reach a compromise. Littlefinger lurks about, the only reason they’re in Winterfell in the first place but still the least trustworthy man in Westeros. Brienne is training Podrick in the art of combat (or rather, in the art of getting his ass kicked). Davos is being Davos – the most level-headed man on Game of Thrones is probably the finest ally the emotionally-driven Starks could ask for.

But while Cersei seeks power and Daenerys seeks her birthright, the Starks and their allies are preparing to battle for their survival and their survival alone. The Lannisters are surrounded by enemies of their own making, but the Starks? They’re just in a pincer-grip of bad luck and geography. Their words have come true and winter is here…but so much more is on the way.

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