Game of Thrones openers, like revenge, are a dish best served cold. In a twist on last season’s is-Jon-all-dead-or-mostly-dead plotline, season seven begins with the disorienting sight of Walder Frey — seemingly very dead, not to mention pie-filled, at the end of last season — throwing a feast for his extended family. Walder isn’t much of a party guy, which adds to the oddness. But then the candles, the close-ups of hands and goblets, and the creeping sense of unease begin to hearken back to a certain wedding once held in the Twins’ banquet hall. Perhaps you, too, screamed at your TV, “ARYA IS WEARING WALDER FREY’S SKIN FACE” as he bid his kinsmen to “stand together” so he could congratulate them for violating the Starks’ guest right, before they Freys started gurgling blood and dropping to the floor.
Family is one of the great themes of Game of Thrones — what we owe them, what we inherit from them, what we carry with us, and what can be released — and this episode weaves variations of that theme through every plotline.
Arya wipes out “every Frey who means a damn thing,” but spares the women of the clan so that, like the maesters of the Citadel, they can serve as “the world’s memory” and tell everyone that winter came for the Freys. Meanwhile, over in Winterfell’s Great Hall, her siblings clash over whether the Umber and Karstark clans should lose their castles for their patriarchs’ betrayal in the Battle of the Bastards. Sansa has more of her father’s bright-line sensibility: Treason deserves punishment and loyalty reward. But while Jon reminds her that he has always adhered to Ned’s key lesson — that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword — he refuses to punish a son for his father’s sins. This may be because, as a bastard, he’s never worn Ned’s mantle very easily — or because, you know, he isn’t really Ned’s son.
What are we to make of Jon’s ultimate decision to keep the Umbers and the Karstarks in their ancestral homes? The episode definitely underlines that Jon needs to listen to and respect Sansa. This comes through even more strongly in the later scene when Sansa and Jon privately discuss the southern Cersei threat; after all, the big chip on Cersei’s shoulder, and one of the great wellsprings of her bitterness, is that the men in her family never listened to her. (And Sansa has learned a lot from Cersei …) However, I came away from the Winterfell scenes thinking that the show, at least, is behind Jon’s decision about the castles, if not the delivery. In a scene where Sansa, young Lyanna Mormont, and the warrior Brienne are such important presences, and where Jon has just made the very #woke proclamation that the North will train women to fight in the Great War, it seems meaningful that the Karstark and Umber called up to swear allegiance are a young woman and a boy. Jon has already — successfully, I’d say — made the argument that the wildlings need to be incorporated into the Northern army if they’re to have any hope of beating the White Walkers. Free Folk, women, children: Jon the Bastard is building the army of the future. Of course, #wokeness does not always translate to #notdeadness in Westeros. But maybe adding some Dothraki will help? After all, Jon has just told all of his followers how much they need dragonglass … and over in the Citadel, Sam just learned that Dragonstone is full of it … and oh, look, Daenerys just happens to have arrived at her ancestral home. How very convenient.
At several points, the episode contemplates the family ties that must be shed in order to move forward. Remember that when Yara and Theon came to Daenerys last season, Daenerys reminded them that they all — Tyrion included — had “evil fathers,” whose legacies they would undo by making the world a better place than they found it. (Whether you believe Dany is up to the challenge is a whole ’nother question.) In this episode, Sansa tells Jon that she misses Ned and she misses Robb, but that they made stupid mistakes and Jon has to be smarter than them both. Over in King’s Landing, Cersei echoes her pupil when she asks Jaime if they should spend their days mourning the dead children they loved when they’re the only flesh-and-blood Lannisters left “who count” (baby bro Tyrion having hitched his wagon to the dragon). To Jaime, who hasn’t even been able to mourn his baby boy Tommen properly, the notion of establishing a “dynasty” when all your children are dead seems ludicrous. I think Jaime would be happy to leave all the titles and the wars behind and just, like, live on a farm somewhere, but Cersei needs a narrative to hook into. She has never been able to sit still. (I still think Lena Headey was never better than in season two’s “Blackwater,” where you could just feel her itching to jump out on the ramparts herself.)
If Cersei can no longer be the mama bear she was born to be, at least she can be the daughter Tywin raised her to be. Euron Greyjoy — a.k.a. Goth Pacey — continues the familial theme when he comes a’courtin Cersei with his “big cock” (which he was planning to give to Daenerys, until, presumably, his niece beat him to it). Euron offers his similarly “treasonous family members” as a proof of their compatibility, and suggests murdering some of them would be a delightful way to get to know each other. However, Cersei refuses, so Euron says he’ll return with a big mysterious present — and yes, it’s probably someone’s head.
Sometimes, though, family bonds are a glimmer of something like hope in a cold, wintry season. The Lannister soldiers whom Arya comes across on her way to King’s Landing talk of their love for their faraway parents and children, which is what lets her relax in their presence. It’s seeing the corpses of the farmer and his daughter — whose silver he robbed in season four, knowing full well he was levying a death sentence — that seems to break something loose in the Hound. He buries them in the night, offering the best prayers he can. And even though Daenerys has a not entirely easy relationship with her mad ancestors, pressing her hand on Dragonstone sand feels like a true homecoming for a woman who’s been wandering the world her entire life.
All in all, a rich beginning to what’s sure to be an exciting season. See you back here next week — I’ll just be here sloppin’ some poop-and-soup till you get back.
Scattered Thoughts and Questions
• Love, love, love Jim Broadbent as the Archmaester. However, I’m going to go out on a weirwood limb and say that for someone who just gave a long speech about what folly it is to believe you can see the course of history, he seems awfully sure about the Wall being unbreachable.
• Do you think Littlefinger will just be leering in corners for the rest of the season? I loved Sansa’s withering putdown, but I worry that, just as she’s warning Jon not to treat her too flippantly, she risks curdling Littlefinger’s creepy affections in a way that’s going to come back to haunt her.
• Now that Tormund is headed off to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to defend the Night’s Watch castle against the encroaching White Walkers, does that mean no more opportunities for flirty, longing looks at Brienne?
• Speaking of gingers and fan service: Yes, it’s very sweet that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss brought Ed Sheeran to serenade Maisie Williams, but it pulled me out of the world of the show so intensely, I wish they’d skipped it. I don’t think it helped that Sheeran was palling around with a band of Lannister soldiers who seemed like they took a wrong turn out of a Disney Robin Hood movie. I am very much here for GOT scenes where a group of strangers don’t turn out to be totally awful (not to mention respectful of the legal Westerosi drinking age), but I spent the whole time wondering when someone was going to stab someone else and then being confused when no one did.
• Exactly how much time has passed since the end of season six? I find it hard to believe that Cersei and Jaime wouldn’t have talked about Tommen at all if several months had passed, but then again, Euron has already built a fleet and Baby Sam looks about ready to get his driver’s license.