All images: HBO

After last year’s incredible, explosive, monumental season finale, last night’s quiet season seven premiere almost seems like a PG fantasy film... even despite it beginning with bit of mass murder. But watching it closely, you can see the new problems that will plague the characters this season, and will likely lead to their downfall—assuming an army of the dead doesn’t get them first.

“Dragonstone” won’t go down as one of the show’s grander season premieres, as it’s more interested about reestablishing where its main characters are before rushing into the game’s “final round,” as it were. It’s certainly understandable, and since we had to wait an extra four months before the new season began, it’s probably not the wrong choice, either. But it’s hard to think about the explosive (often literally) events of the season six finale and not find “Dragonstone” a bit too sedate and prologue-y.

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Which is funny, because the actual prologue of the episode—one of the show’s few pre-credits scenes—is so full of death. Arya, now masquerading as Walder Frey himself, calls a feast and invites every single Frey involved in the Red Wedding. Once they’re all there, “Frey” raises a toast to them, and their accomplishments, and how they slaughtered the Starks, and by that point dozens and dozens of Freys are dying because they’ve all been poisoned.

So when I say the season seven premiere was quiet after another gig in Arya Stark’s Westerosi Murder Tour, it should tell you exactly how quiet things were. Jon and Sansa address the Stark bannermen. Bran and Meera are let through the Wall. Cersei and Jaime get ready for war. Sam empties chamberpots at Oldtown. Euron Greyjoy offers an alliance to Cersei, based primarily out of a shared desire to murder family members. And the Hound takes a good, long hard look into the Red Priest’s fire, and what he sees is ice and death.

Even if these scenes didn’t follow the simultaneous murder of 50 people, there’s still a disturbing undercurrent to them. Okay, Sandor getting a vision of the White Walkers and their armies crossing through the Wall where it meets the sea—that’s not so much an undercurrent, it’s straight-up rapids. But more disturbingly, Jon and Sansa’s alliance is already starting to show cracks when the holds of Umber and Karstark are brought up. Jon wants to give them back to their families, despite the fact their houses betrayed the Starks and fought for Ramsey; Sansa wants to give them as rewards to families who were faithful. The two squabble in front of all the lords to everyone’s consternation, until Jon decrees he’s going to do it his way.

Sansa does not like that, although Petyr Baelish likes that Sansa doesn’t like it, which should tell you all you need to know about how problematic this is (Littlefinger actually looks aroused by seeing Sansa tell Jon he’s making the wrong decision in front of all his bannermen). Even when it’s revealed that “Lord Umber” and “Lady Karstark” are just two kids who couldn’t have possibly been complicit in their parents’ actions, it’s clear Sansa doesn’t find their ages or innocence relevant at all to the discussion.

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It may sound like Sansa is being harsh here, and she certainly is. However, whenever a Stark makes a decision because it’s right instead of what’s best, it ends up getting him killed, and Sansa is quick to remind Jon of it. “You have to be smarter than father,” she tells him. “You have to be smarter than Robb.” Truer words have never been spoken to a male Stark, but Jon’s unilateral decision implies that he won’t be taking Sansa’s practical advice if it doesn’t match his sense of honor, which will almost certainly lead him on the path his father (uh, uncle) and brother (er, cousin) took. As Sansa showed last season, she’s more than capable of acting on her own when she knows Jon wouldn’t approve. If they’re already clashing now, it’s only going to get worse—much, much worse.

Meanwhile, Cersei is so determined to reclaim the Seven Kingdoms that she’s not only willing to fight simultaneous wars on all sides, but ally herself with Euron Greyjoy, who we’ve been told will be the most horrible person on the entire series—yes, even worse than Ramsay Bolton. He appears already oozing depraved malice, especially when he suggests an alliance by marriage to the queen and then when she declines says he’s going to get her a gift. (The only question is whether he’ll be bringing that gift back alive or dead.)

Marrying a homicidal psychopath like Euron is an objectively awful idea, and Cersei knows it, but she doesn’t care. Now that Tommen is gone—the last real reason she was playing the game in the first place—all she has left is the game itself. She has the throne, but not the seven kingdoms, and she doesn’t care what she has to do or who has to suffer to get them, including herself. Cersei is not a well woman; when Jaime mentioned they haven’t talked about their son’s suicide, Cersei replies, “He betrayed me!” Given that Cersei’s most redeeming feature has been her love of her children (her cheekbones a close second place, of course) this utter denial of Tommen is profoundly disturbing. Jaime’s unwilling to believe she’s lost to him, so he tries to support her—and thus her seemingly unwinnable wars. And so many people are going to suffer horribly because of the emptiness inside Cersei, and the desperate, futile things she’ll do to try to fill that void.

One thing Cersei has going for her is that she isn’t emptying and clean shit-filled chamberpots all day, which puts her ahead of Samwell. Having arrived in Oldtown to study at the Citadel to become a Maester and research the first White Walker invasion, Sam has been relegated to the shittiest jobs at the Citadel, literally. It’s the weakest storyline in the episode, because Sam has to endure a lot of grief, including some from new addition Jim Broadbent as Maester Marwyn, and gaze longingly at the library’s restricted books section before he steals an elderly maester’s keys, steals some books, and discovers that Dragonstone, the ancestral home of the Targaryens in Westeros, is sitting on a huge pile of Dragonglass (the White Walkers’ kryptonite, along with Valyrian steel).

But by the end of the episode, Dragonstone is under new management. Daenerys, having finally left Essos in last season’s finale, finally steps foot on Westeros, and its almost as satisfying to see the emotion with which she kneels to tough the ground, and then explores the ex-Baratheon stronghold. (Conveniently, and somewhat goofily, after Stannis was defeated, apparently every single living soul in the keep fled, so there’s no one to disturb Dany’s tour). Also satisfying: When she enters the room containing the table that’s the giant map of Westeros, looks at it austerely, and asks her advisors and generals, “Shall we begin?” Presumably that beginning won’t include shipping some unknown bastard in Winterfell an extra-large helping of Dragonglass, at least for a while, but even seeing Dany in a Westerosi set is still exciting on its own.

For me, the most interesting element of the episode was Sandor Clegane, ex-Hound, still traveling with the Banners Without Brotherhood. The group stops at what appears to be an abandoned house, but it makes Sandor very uncomfortable. There’s a good reason for this, as he and Arya visited it back in season four, episode two. The farmer and his daughter offered them shelter, but the Hound beat the man and took his silver, later telling Arya they’re going to die anyway. He was technically correct. When the group enters the cabin, the corpses of the father and child are in the corner; clearly starving, the father killed his daughter to spare her the pain, and then killed himself.

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It’s the perfect embodiment of all of Sandor’s past sins as the Hound returning to haunt him, to see whether the changes he’s undergone since meeting Brother Ray are real or transitory. He buries the bodies and attempts to say a prayer to the Seven gods for them, but ends up eulogizing them in simpler, much more heartfelt way. It’s a wonderful moment in the Hound’s narrative journey, even though—or maybe especially because—he starts railing against Beric and Thoros of Myr about why their Red God keeps resurrecting Beric Dondarrion unlike the poor farmer’s daughter. Beric doesn’t know, but Thoros tells Sandor to look in the flames… where he sees ice, snow, and an army of the dead arriving at the Wall… and then marching past. Sandor has always been afraid of fire after his brother Gregor dunked his head in one when they were kids. Sandor seeing a vision of the White Walkers in the fire feels momentous, somehow.

Either way, bad things are clearly going to happen. Maybe “Dragonstone” didn’t deliver the action, drama, and utter WTF moments that the show so often rewards us with, but it’s set the stage for the events of season seven, which I don’t expect to be disappointed by. Do you realize at some point, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targayen, and Tyrion Lannister are going to be in the same room? To crib a line from Alex Cranz, that’s a moment I’ve been waiting 20 years for. I can certainly wait a few more weeks.

Assorted Musings:

  • David Bradley did a great job as playing Arya in disguise as Walder Frey. It really show when the bodies were dropping to the floor when he had Arya’s creepy joyfulness at watching her enemies die instead of the grim satisfaction of an old man.
  • How long did Arya have to pretend to be Walder Frey to get all the Frey men to come to that feast? Surely it would have taken at least a few of them several days right to get from their castles back to the Twins.
  • Now that Bran has become the Three-Eyed Raven, Isaac Hempstead-Wright is playing him completely differently. He’s infinitely more confident, even if he’s not sure how great his powers are, and he knows his responsibility and has accepted. He talks like he’s operating on a different playing field from everyone else, which he kind of is.
  • Littlefinger may be the king of manipulation, but Sansa has what he wants, and this Sansa has Littlefinger wrapped around her little finger. Watching her shut him the hell down was delightful.
  • Turns out Jorah Mormont is staying at the Citadel with Sam, just in the “people with terrifying, incredibly contagious diseases” level. He’s locked in a cell and only his arm is shown on-screen, which is covered in greyscale. I honestly have no idea where his storyline is going, because it doesn’t particularly seem like curing greyscale as on anyone’s agenda there.
  • Bad guy fashion update: The Mountain’s new helmet looks pretty great, and the ships in Euron’s armada are very intimidating.
  • So a guy named Ed Sheeran was the singing soldier in this episode and this was apparently a big deal? I don’t need details, I just felt other people like me, who are contentedly ignorant of who Ed Sheeran is, should be aware.
  • Line of the episode, courtesy of Tormund Giantsbane, salaciously talking to Pod after he watches Brienne beat him to the ground: “You’re a lucky man.”
  • Next week on Game of Thrones: Is that Nymeria?! My god, I can’t wait until next week.
  • The White Walkers have at least two very undead giants in their army. I repeat: Things Are About to Get Very, Very, Very Bad.