Spoilers ahead for the Game of Thrones season-seven premiere.
The four-minute cold open of the seventh season of Game of Thrones is the most satisfying beginning of any Game of Thrones season to date, more concise than the pulse-pounding White Walker attack that kicked off season one, and more fraught with suspense than even the discovery of an (allegedly) dead Jon Snow in season six. For starters, it delivers a full array of great GOT trademarks: wine poisoning, Walder Frey being an asshole, tons of blood, and, best of all, Arya Stark ripping off a face — in this case, Walder Frey’s — to avenge one of the show’s most grisly betrayals.
Anyone who revisited the season-six finale (or, for that matter, watched this episode’s very strategically edited “Previously on” sequence) knew immediately that the Walder Frey sitting before his assembled family and allies couldn’t be the real Walder Frey, who died after Arya slit his throat last season. But even if you caught onto what was happening before the poison-vomit started to gush, the sight of Arya acting out part two of her Red Wedding revenge plan, then sliding off her Frey facade and declaring, with action movie hero pithiness, “Tell them winter came for House Frey,” is the kind of jump-to-your-feet-and-applaud moment that elicited deservedly excited tweets from Game of Thrones fans. (Admittedly, some of the glee may have worn off later in the episode, after Ed Sheeran showed up to perform his latest single, “Thinking Out Loud and Wondering: How the Hell Did I End Up in Westeros?”)
Even if you didn’t know the entire backstory behind Arya’s Inigo Montoya moment, the opening twist gives the episode a go-for-broke summer blockbuster vibe that is enjoyable on its own terms, and, fitting, too, since the series returns smack in the middle of July. But what infuses this moment with emotional heft — and what separates it from the GOT openings of seasons past — is the fact that it’s been such a long time coming. After three-plus seasons, we finally got to watch a Stark stick it to the Freys for the Red Wedding, and do so in the room where it happened, while echoing the language Roose Bolton used upon killing Robb Stark. “Tell them winter came for House Frey” is the new “the Lannisters send their regards.”
The scene is reminiscent of more than just the Red Wedding, too. It echoes previous moments in Game of Thrones, all of which add to the sense that what Arya does here is almost predestined. The wine wipe-out of House Frey involves two things — poison and play-acting — that have been recurring motifs in the show’s narrative, particularly when murder is involved. In the season-three episode “The Lion and the Rose,” in which the Purple Wedding unfolds, Joffrey drinks poisoned wine and instantly expires. Before his death, he and his wedding guests watch a tasteless play based on the War of the Five Kings, one that involves a partial reenactment of the events of the Red Wedding, specifically the death of Robb.
Arya didn’t witness that particular retelling of Walder Frey’s treachery, but last season, she watched another play in Braavos that revisited the same event. She also was commanded by Jaqen H’ghar to poison the rum of Lady Crane, the actress who played Cersei in said play, a mission that Arya tried to carry out but ultimately aborted.
What she does to the Freys in “Dragonstone” feels like a culmination of those moments. The fact that Arya uses wine to do the homicidal deed may be the most efficient way to bump off so many people at once, but it’s also a nod back to what happened to Joffrey, whose Lannister family played as much of a role in orchestrating the Red Wedding as the Freys did.
That she presides over the feast while playing the role of Walder Frey — basically engaging in some theater — is reminiscent of the show’s earlier plays, as well as Arya’s long-proven ability to assume other identities. Even before she acquired the ability to don and remove masks like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, she could move through the world without attracting much suspicion. On numerous occasions, she has managed to avoid detection as a member of the Stark clan. But in this kicker of a cold open, Arya uses her ability to slide under the radar to her advantage while also totally owning her identity. She makes a point of preventing Walder Frey’s very young wife from drinking the wine, partly, perhaps, because she wants to save a woman who’s already suffered enough by being married to that scoundrel, but also so that someone will put the rest of Westeros on notice. “When they ask you what happened here,” Arya says to her, “tell them that the North remembers.”
From the very beginning of Game of Thrones, all the way back to season one when she was training to sword fight, Arya has wanted to prove that she’s a formidable force to be reckoned with and taken seriously. The beginning of Sunday’s premiere proves that, once and for all. In the words of another TV antihero with a taste for vengeance, Arya Stark is the danger. The next time she’s the one who knocks, she’ll be standing at Cersei’s door.