"Maybe I'm not the most pleasant man."
Director Jeremy Podeswa has long been Game of Throne's magic band-aid, getting us through eventualities like the introduction of the Sand Snakes, the revelation of Melisandre's great-grandcougar agedness, and the resurrection of Jon Snow. Who better to helm a premiere that aims to pull a Flavor Flav and prep us to fight the powers that be?
Podeswa's "Dragonstone" excels well beyond hype. The first episode of season seven is a success from the cold open—in which the late Walder Frey utters the line every actor dreams of speaking: "You're wondering why I brought you all here"—to its ludicrous, showboating, and breathtaking last scene—in which a mute Peter Dinklage makes the easiest 2 million in history. Every bit player gets their day. Even the "previously on" segment is unusually arty and the opening credits get to unveil some big surprises (Welcome to the show, Oldtown! And welcome back, Dragonstone. It's been a while).
In a fitting tribute to the sadly departed George Romero, the episode starts off with a phalanx of zombies shuffling onward. A trio of rare survivors—Meera Reed, Bran Stark, and Dolorous Edd—meet outside the Wall, after which the action turns to Winterfell. Jon Snow, the new king in the North, divides the labor of defending the realm up between women, children, and ginger-beardos, only to be challenged on that count by his sister. Sansa demands that he punish the unworthy vassals and rule as a tyrant, lest he wind up like Ned, Robb, Catelyn, and Hillary. We're supposed to buy that the home game conflict this season is between Sansa Stark's pampered traditionalism and Jon Snow's peacenik "loaves and fishes" Jesus-isms. But, to my mind, there's no way the Starks are going to turn on one another now that they've come so far to be together again. That they may spite one another isn't the sign of the latest in a long string of betrayals—it's simply family.
"Rocks, bird shit, and a lot of unattractive people"
I don't like this Howard Finster–looking map that Cersei Lannister is standing on as she lectures her brother Jaime about loyalty in times of internecine warfare between dynasties. It's not just that it looks weird to see the map from the opening credits flattened and Technicolored; it's that this scene is charged with rehashing in dialogue what it could be showing us. Which is precisely what the next scene does do, as horny Viking and erstwhile mini-boss Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) arrives in a fleet of ships whose sails bear the spooky likeness of an upside-down octopus. But how did the Ironborn build so many in such a short time? And when did he manage to give himself such a swank Sinead-cut? (I know, I know, repeat to yourself it's just a show, I should really just relax.) Asbæk is clearly the man, an actor who looks exactly like an action figure of himself. But as Euron skulks away promising to do mischief to appease his queen, we know we will never hate him like we did previous heel Ramsay Bolton. That kind of odium only comes once a lifetime, don't ask it of us.
We catch up with Samwell Tarly via some remarkably well-deployed _Requiem for a Dream_-by-way-of-Edgar-Wright speed-edits of bedpans and vomit. And we're introduced to his thesis adviser at the Citadel courtesy of newcomer Jim Broadbent, who delivers the pep talk we've all been aching for during these many months: "We can forgive them for thinking it was truly the end, but it wasn't. None of it was… Every winter that ever came has ended. Be a good lad, clean this up." Thank you, sir. And Sam: Interning is rough, stick with it.
Legends of the Long Night
The second half of the episode is mostly given up to developments for lifelong second bananas like the Hound and Littlefinger: Brienne knocks her squire about, Jorah Mormont shows up in an Oldtown leper tank, Petyr Baelish chews up some scenery opposite Sansa, who is not having it ("No need to finish—I'll assume it was something clever"), and Arya chows down with moonlighting popstar Ed Sheeran, Pete Postlethwaite's son Billy, and what I assume are the surviving members of the Decemberists. But most movingly, we check in with Sandor Clegane, whose uncharacteristic sentimentality—"I don't like you, but you're not bad"—is dangerously close to founding a fellowship. It's also a pretty transparent plot device when homedog stares into the fire, and you can pretty much hear the Dungeon Master reading from his notebook when he tells Thoros and Beric Dondarrion that they must journey to the Wall, just like the plot says.
Between seasons, it was easy for fans, staring numb at all the assembled pieces on the board, to wonder how long it would take the characters to get wise to dragonglass, the Night King, Jon Snow's highborn parentage, and so on. Samwell Tarly grasps most of it in a glance, meaning that "Dragonstone" has spared us an enormous amount of exposition and that his MFA may actually be worth something in Westeros. As for Daenerys's triumphant march into the base left vacant by fallen Stannis, well, it's a set piece played without dialogue. The castle looks amazing, the throne looks like something the coolest Renaissance Fair girl in town would wear on a ring and the last line, "Shall we begin?" is as metal as it is meta, which ought to be the goal of any ambitious bard shooting for prime-time.
Game on, my fellow freefolk. Death to all kneelers! Now can anyone please tell me what happened on Twin Peaks?