'Game Of Thrones' Review: Arya Stark Wages War In A Captivating Season Premiere

(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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The Queen in the South

Down south, Queen Cersei does what she does best: she plots and she schemes and she gets shit done. The most frightening thing about Cersei is that she's as sane as she is dangerous. Despite foolish decisions in the past, she knows what she wants, she always has a plan, and she is ready and willing to sacrifice anyone (except Jaime) to make it happen. Daenerys may have a dream team of advisors and soldiers backing her up, but Cersei Lannister has Cersei Lannister – her total commitment to her mission makes her the most dangerous adversary in all of Westeros.

We catch up with her in a new map room in the Red Keep – the continent of Westeros has been painted (and mostly finished) across an open courtyard, allowing the new queen to literally lord over the lands that she considers her birthright. But as she makes clear to Jaime, no longer a member of the Kingsguard and now the general of the royal army, they are literally surrounded by enemies: a vengeful Dorne, a vengeful Highgarden, a vengeful Dragon Queen, and a vengeful North. Jaime, always the more level-headed (but no less vicious) of this incestuous duo, points out that Cersei needs allies. And fast.

Enter Euron Greyjoy, looking one guitar away from being an '80s rock star. With the death of Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones needed a new splash of undiluted crazy and the new king of the Iron Islands, who killed his brother before attempting to turn his sword on Theon and Yara last season, is ready to ally with the throne. He just, you know, would like to be king as well. But Cersei is a master of dealing with crazy. It's her speciality. She turns down his offer of an alliance, citing his past treachery. In return, Euron rushes off to win her trust. Cersei gets what she wants: the strongest navy in the Seven Kingdoms and no new crazy husband. She plays the game and she plays it well.

And while this scene is ultimately about plot, about maneuvering Euron into the corner of Team Hear Me Roar, it's the details that make it sumptuous. The dialogue between Jaime and Euron is a thing of vicious beauty. During the Greyjoy rebellion, Euron personally witnessed the Kingslayer cut down his own kin and he was nothing short of impressed. Jaime is disgusted that this pirate, this scoundrel, would look up to him, a man that murdered members of House Greyjoy. Jaime isn't crazy, but he's certainly a hair or two away from evil. In his more psychopathic allies and adversaries, the one-handed knight sees reflections of himself and his past deeds. He killed a king to save a kingdom, while Euron killed a king because why the hell not? Once again, Jaime Lannister stands with one foot in two worlds. He's vile enough to be seen as kin to Westeros' most awful citizens, but self-aware enough to feel really shitty about it.

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The Trainee at the Citadel

In an episode so focused on plot, Samwell Tarly's maester internship at the Citadel in Oldtown provided some much-needed comedic relief. Via a Breaking Bad-esque montage, we bear witness to his new existence: rather than learn about science and medicine and defeating ancient evils, he's changing bedpans and cleaning out toilets and re-shelving books and cleaning up after dissections. It's a hilariously miserable, repetitive existence, once again making Sam Westeros' most unfortunate punching bag. By the time the montage is cutting fast enough that Sam's daily meals of broth begin to resemble the contents of the bedpans he's cleaning out daily, we're fully immersed in his new world of repetition and misery and so, so, so much poop. Honestly, no segment on all of Game of Thrones has felt more in tune with the graphic and upfront work of George R.R. Martin, whose prose rests on a mountain of feces and gore and feasts.

But while Sam may be a coward, he's a coward on a mission! He pulls a Harry Potter, sneaks into the library's restricted section, and makes off with books to help him learn more about the White Walker threat. And he learns something big: the island of Dragonstone is home to a massive deposit of Dragonglass, material that can kill the otherwise unstoppable White Walkers (something Sam knows from personal experience). Of course, Dragonstone isn't empty. It's only, you know, occupied by an invading queen who has no reason to bow to the requests of the people she plans to conquer. Welp.

And now, a few other notes about the Citadel. First, Oldtown has officially joined the locations highlighted in the opening credits, which inspired much cheering and fist-pumping from the group I watched the show with. Second, one of the maesters training Samwell is played the great Jim Broadbent, which means that he'll surely have a great deal to contribute to the season beyond kind-of, sort-of being kind to Sam and asking him to weigh organs.

And oh, there's a mysterious man with a skin condition in a cell at the Citadel, wondering if Daenerys Targaryen has made landfall yet. If your beloved queen ordered you to find a cure to your incurable condition, wouldn't you journey to the center of all knowledge and research in Westeros? Welcome back, Jorah Mormont.

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The Hound and His Demons

Sandor "The Hound" Clegane is probably the best and richest character on Game of Thrones. He's a summation of the show in general: a violent brute who thrives on murder, but whose past traumas make him as tragic and pathetic as he is terrifying. Sandor is a pathetic creature, transformed into a monster by the world around him, unable and unsure of how to change or even if he's capable of changing. He exists in a deep well of grey – you cannot love him and you cannot hate him. You can only pity him. You can only find him fascinating. And yeah, you can laugh a whole bunch because he's probably the funniest character on the show and actor Rory McCann is a treasure.

Pairing Sandor with the Brotherhood Without Banners is an inspired choice. How does a man with no direction and no mission gel with a group of outlaw vigilantes who have dedicated their lives to a very specific mission with a direction dictated by a god who has brought their leader back to life time and time again? Sandor himself has witnessed this firsthand, having killed Beric Dondarrion back in season 3...only to watch red priest Thoros of Myr bring him back from the dead like it was no big deal. But the Hound's cynicism may be faltering. After staring into the flames at Thoros' request (literally facing his one and only fear), he sees a vision of the undead amassing north of the Wall. Could Sandor Clegane, the Hound, the ultimate nihilist, find purpose in the upcoming war against the dead? Can a broken man fix himself? Can an unmovable object be nudged?

Baby steps. Thoros later finds Sandor burying the bodies of the dead father and child they found in the home where they're sheltering for the night. We know that the Hound (and Arya) stole this family's money back in season 4. We know that this is what almost certainly killed them. Thoros doesn't know this, but he knows his new ally (friend?) is in pain. He's fighting his demons. The two of them bury the bodies, putting two souls to rest. Or maybe three. Because Sandor Clegane, for the first time in his miserable, bloodstained life, looks like he has a purpose.

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The Invader in Dragonstone

There's no dialogue when Daenerys Targaryen finally sets foot on Westerosi soil for the first time since she was an infant. She has nothing to say when she returns to Dragonstone, the Targaryen castle where she was born during a massive storm and carried away from by a few remaining allies as it became clear that Robert Baratheon's rebellion was going to be a successful one. There's no need for words. After six seasons (and for the Mother of Dragons herself, a lifetime), Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen is finally home.

Team Fire and Blood make their way into the stronghold without saying a word, pausing only to tear down a banner left behind by the late Stannis Baratheon. They're a dream team of warriors and thinkers: Daenerys, the steely conquerer and her trio of dragons; Tyrion Lannister, the smartest and cleverest man in Westeros; Varys, a mover and shaker and spymaster who knows every dark corner and every secret; Missandei, a translator and advisor fueled by total loyalty; Grey Worm, a skilled general who owes his freedom to the woman issuing his orders. Wearing snazzy new uniforms, this dream team has finally achieved what we've been promised since the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. The Targaryens are back. And they're gathered around that totally rad war table where Stannis and Melisandre once conceived a shadow baby.

Daenerys and her new stronghold (and old home) don't have much to do in "Dragonstone," but they loom over the episode like the shadow of an incoming tsunami. From here, Daenerys will conduct her war. From here, Tyrion will betray his own family. From here, the war against the White Walkers could be won, if only the armies of the north could have access to that deposit of Dragonglass. From here, the end game of Game of Thrones will begin. And things are looking very, very good for Team Fire and Blood.

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The Assassin in the Riverlands

"Dragonstone" begins with perhaps the most satisfying cold open in the show's history. Walder Frey, who died last season after unknowingly devouring the flesh of his dead sons, is somehow alive. And he's gathered every notable member of his house in one place for a feast. It's time to celebrate their accomplishments! How they have defeated their enemies! How they control the Riverlands! How they murdered a pregnant woman and a mother of five after inviting them into their home! By the time Walder gets to this part of his speech, his entire family has already drank the poisoned wine served to them. And then Arya Stark pulls off his face (Braavosi assassin Hogwarts training FTW) and tells the only survivors that the North remembers.

And like that, the formerly pint-sized Stark girl has removed a piece from the board and has actually entered the game of thrones as a proper player after six years of just trying to survive on the fringes. House Frey is dead and may it rot in hell. Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon were evil, but they were also psychopaths. The Freys were just craven opportunists, useless scoundrels with too much power and too little talent. It's telling that a single wily young woman could take them all out.

Of course, Arya's journey to the dark side is probably something we shouldn't be cheering. Should we be happy that the young tomboy of the first season has grown into the most talented assassin in the Seven Kingdoms? Surely not. But revenge feels good. Watching her avenge Eddard and Catleyn and Robb and Talisa feels good. That's the moral complication at the heart of Game of Thrones, isn't it? We abhor violence until it feels like justice. Until it feels good. What will become of Arya Stark when she's killed her enemies? What will be left of her?

Still, Arya's little pow-wow with a group of young Lannister soldiers feels like a necessary diversion, a reminder to her (and to us) that the little folks are just cogs in a machine. The foot solders wearing red and gold have no real stake in the machinations of Cersei and her ilk – they just have a job to do and they miss home and they like singing songs and they're played by English pop stars in cameos that work far better than they should. Game of Thrones is about the men and monsters at the top of the heap. It's helpful to be reminded of the ordinary folks they chew up and spit out every single day.

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The Players

So, who is currently winning the game of thrones? The obvious answer seems to be Daenerys, who has arrived in Westeros with her dragons and her army and seems poised to conquer everything in her path. And yet, she hasn't actually done anything yet. Check back with me next week.

Up north, Jon Snow and his team are getting their act together, but they're between a Wall and a hard place. They have too much to worry about to even think about the game right now. Jon may be noble and good and possibly the fairest ruler on the show, but he's not a player. Sansa, with her heated reaction to House Karstark and House Umber, also needs to start thinking about the bigger picture rather than the petty squabbles. Sorry, guys.

Down south, Queen Cersei takes herself out of the running by stating the obvious: she's surrounded by enemies and short on allies. Maybe Euron could change her position in the weeks ahead, but maybe that will only propel the leader of the Iron Islands to the top of the heap, not the queen herself.

Samwell? Ha. Hahahahahahaha. When the game of thrones is decided by library research and cleaning up poop, Sam will be the clear winner.

Honestly, only one character emerged from this episode in a position to achieve their goals: Arya Stark. Not only did she singlehandedly wipe House Frey off the face of the continent, she is heading south, blending in, and seems poised to do the impossible: assassinate the Queen. If anyone can do it, it's her.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Arya Stark