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'Game of Thrones' Season 7 Premiere: 'Shall We Begin?'

<em>"Pinot Noir!/Lann-is-star!/Have-I per-haps gone too-far?"</em>: Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) takes a sip or twelve of wine in the premiere episode of <em>Game of Thrones'</em> seventh season.
Helen Sloane
"Pinot Noir!/Lann-is-star!/Have-I per-haps gone too-far?": Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) takes a sip or twelve of wine in the premiere episode of Game of Thrones' seventh season.

We'll be recapping Season 7 of HBO's Game of Thrones here on Monkey See. We'll try to turn them around overnight, so look for them first thing on Mondays. And of course: Spoilers abound

After a deck-clearing, barn-burner (Sept-burner, technically) of a season finale like "The Winds of Winter" — a towering achievement by any metric, not least of which, you know: body count — you'd be forgiven for expecting a season premiere that would concern itself with placing Game of Thrones' scattered, wildfire-singed gamepieces back on the board, methodically and meticulously.

And yet: Things are ostensibly speeding up, right? This seventh season is an abbreviated one — 7 episodes, not the usual 10 — and we've got only a total of thirteen episodes to go. Granted, some of those later episodes will reportedly clock in with runtimes that'll seem positively Apatowian, but the point is: Now is not the time for shilly-shallying.

No, now is the time for plot threads to tighten, for the show to speed headlong toward its shattering conclusion. The fun, world-buildy elements will inevitably fall away as the series picks up speed in the homestretch, and we'll learn what the show's really about.

Because Game of Thrones has a big decision to make. It prides itself on its nuanced, morally gray worldview, where people make hard choices not because they are Good or Evil, but because they are human and flawed, and the conditions they face demand such choices. The battles for rule of the Seven Kingdoms are fought between weak, opportunistic people striving to stay alive. There have been dastardly villains, surely, but the story of Game of Thrones thus far has been that human cruelty can arise in the most surprising places, from even the purest intentions. That layered understanding of human frailty is what makes it all so satisfyingly complex, and thoughtful, and resonant.

But then you got them ice-zombies.

The Night King and his army of the dead are not complex, thoughtful or resonant. They're Ultimate Evil, and they're coming. Has the show spent six seasons getting us invested in the question of just whose butt will end up perched on the Iron Throne, only to toss it all aside for a final Tolkienesque showdown between the Good People and the Evil Not-People? Will everyone just put aside their differences to fight the Undead Ice Monsters and then call it a day?

Strap in. We're about to find out.

Mission: Unpotable

First up: A cold open. That ... circles back to business we thought concluded last season. At The Twins, Walder Frey gathers all the men of House Frey for a feast. For a moment we think: Flashback? But then we remember that Arya Stark still has her magic Mission: Impossible masks (and magic shoe lifts, evidently, and magic shoulder pads, and magic old man hands).

Arya does a passingly good Walder. She's got the humorless chuckle, the leering sneer. The drinks are served — "the finest Arbor Gold" — which boasts flirty, herbaceous notes of grass and green apple with a lingering finish of poison. Arya goes off-script as she reminds them that they slaughtered the Starks at the Red Wedding, but by that point the crowd's too distracted by their organs' liquefaction to notice.

"Tell them winter came for House Frey," Arya tells a nonplussed server, before walking towards the camera, away from a scene of slaughter, and letting a slight smile play on her lips just at the last moment. Which is to Game of Thrones what "What you talkin' bout, Willis?" was to Diff'rent Strokes.

Intro Map! Kings Landing! Dragonstone! The Twins! Winterfell! The Wall! Oldtown! No disorienting zoom across the Narrow Sea! Probably ever again! Let that sink in!

Raising Bran

Bran has a vision of the oncoming horde of evil unkillable ice-zombies, which now count some ice-zombie-giants among their number. The Night's Watch grant him entry into the tunnel below the Wall, on account of he's got a cool new sled and he tells people who they are, and what they already know.

Cut to: Jon Snow addressing the crowd at Winterfell, passing on information they can use about dragonglass (finally!) and the need for everyone to prepare. (No reunion with Bran, quite yet.) Li'l Lyanna Mormont gets another opportunity to display her consummate badassery, and there's the first sign of what will surely become a growing rift between Jon and Sansa, who very publicly disagrees with Jon's show of mercy toward two Houses who did not back him against the Boltons.

We will see more of this, I suspect: Characters who cannot let go of their obsession with the old, internecine struggles of the Seven Kingdoms pitted against characters who are instead oriented toward the future, and the war with Ultimate Icy Evil. Sansa shows herself to be preoccupied with old grudges - which will make her a very popular figure in the North-- and Jon has his eyes on the icy future.

"We still have a Wall between us and the Night King!" says Sansa. Put a pin in that; it'll become important later.

Mapper's Delight

In Kings Landing, Cersei had commissioned a fabulous map room, the better for her to stride across the breadth of Westeros like a boozy giant. Jaime visits, and they conveniently exposit their position: hemmed in from all sides. From the East: Daenerys and her armada are on the way. From the South and West: Dorne and Highgarden have joined her. From the North: Ned Stark's bastard. From the North-Northwest: the town of Otisburg is yeah no never mind, joke for six people.

Jaime brings up Tommen, which sends Cersei reaching — clutching, really — for the merlot. He insists that they need allies if they're to survive.

Cut to: Euron Greyjoy's ships sailing into Blackwater Bay.

Euron stands before the Iron Throne, looking like he's stopped by the Flea Bottom Hot Topic on his way in. (Seriously: Leather pants on a seafarer? Do the Ironborn not chafe?) Euron's being set up as this season's Boltonesque villain, and it shows: Dude doesn't quite twirl that mustache of his, but he comes close. I am officially not picking up what this guy is putting down. He proposes to Cersei, she refuses, and he vows to return with "a gift, a priceless gift." (Tyrion in chains, is my guess.)

Maester Maester

At the Citadel, poor Sam is saddled with the grueling duties of being a Maester-in-training, which involve a percussive montage of poop, urine and soup. It's a digestive-tract "Cell Block Tango" basically. We meet the Arch-Maester, played by the great and good Jim Broadbent, who seems cool and aloof and perfectly sensible, but is not about to let Sam into the ... RESTRICTED AREA OF THE LIBRARY. But at least he believes Sam's story of White Walkers, by virtue of his cool aloofness and sensibility. Which is something, but not much of it.

The Arch-Maester delivers a nifty little speech that affirms his sanguine worldview: Everyone always thinks the world is ending, but it never does. Here's the important bit: "The Wall has stood through it all."

That's it: Call your bookie. Put your money down on the The Wall crumbling to the ground sometime this season. I say episode seven.

Of course, Sam breaks into the RESTRICTED AREA OF THE LIBRARY and sneaks out a couple books. (In an earlier season, all of this library business would have taken three to four episodes. You know it would.)

At Winterfell, the Tormund-Brienne whatever-it-is inches forward, as Sansa shuts down Littlefinger's wheedling in a way that feels deeply satisfying.

Arya meets up with a band of soldiers — including, yes, let's just move past this, Ed Sheeran, because the world is a confusing and off-putting place — who offer her food and conversation and Sheeran-singing. The point, I think: These are nice kids who are just doing a job, which might begin to abrade the edges of Arya's calcified, vengeance-driven worldview.

Hounds of Love

The redemption arc of The Hound continues apace, as we revisit a location from the season 4 episode "Breaker of Chains," in which Sandor stole silver from a kindly farmer and his daughter. There follows a philosophical discussion between Sandor, Beric Dondarrion, and Thoros of Myr, which ends with Sandor staring into the flames and having a vision of the Night King's army. And deciding to bury the bones of the farmer and his daughter, because he's now the kind of guy who does things like that. (Did that sound glib? Because this was a nice, underplayed moment, and I'm glad that they're finding time for pure characterization even as we're barreling towards the end.)

Back in Oldtown, poring over his plundered library books, Sam makes a discovery: a mountain of dragonglass below the ground at Dragonstone. The next day, he makes another discovery: Jorah Mormont, with an advanced case of greyscale, languishing in a cell.

Dragonstone. Daenerys and her armada arrive on the shore, and the Mother of Dragons proceeds to demonstrate an entirely new eldritch power: the ability to walk across wet sand in a chunky heel.

She returns to her ancestral home as the score swells and the camera zooms. They walk into the Targaryen throne room — a confined place of cool shadows utterly unlike the sun-blasted plains we've come to identify with her — and the map room where so many of Stannis Baratheon's doomed plans were hatched.

"Shall we begin?" she asks. But it's not a question.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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