Welcome, my friends, to the beginning of the end. For years of confusion, mayhem, war, betrayal, love, tragedy, and triumph, we’ve been on this journey towards the home stretch of the final two seasons. And now, with the premiere episode “Dragonstone,” it’s finally upon us. At last, we’ll see who will survive this dark and terrifying night, who will live through the winter that has finally arrived. Who, among these shattered and broken families, will rise again to rule, and who will be consigned to the darker pages of the history books of Westeros. This was a wonderful return to this universe, filled with just enough familiarity to help us as we brace for the coming changes. Old friends and foes, all slowly being remade. The cruelty and cunning of Cersei grown more sharp, the wisdom and warrior spirit of Jon, grown more strong. Yet as they grow focused, others are changing.
Even though we’re just beginning this season, the blood runs thick and freely right off the bat. Arya Stark, not content with the life of Walder Frey, in one fell swoop decimates House Frey, using all of the tools that she learned from the Faceless Men. Wearing the face of their leader, killing with their cups, her vengeance is as cold and implacable as the winter that preceded it. After finishing last season with a face of near-ecstasy as she struck down Walder, Arya’s campaign of murder and her trail of death continues. Yet this episode, more than any other, perhaps gives pause. For the first time, Arya breaks bread with Lannister soldiers. It’s an odd move, and even at the onset she’s sinister, suspicious. But this time, it’s different. Instead of seeing the darkness inside them, she sees the kindness of strangers, the sadness of soldiers. These aren’t the monsters that she’s slain before, they’re simply men, pawns in the great game, and for once, it gives her pause. This was some of Maisie Williams’ best work. She grows leaps and bounds with each season, and it’s smart that the writers have adjusted her accordingly. Yes, she still has a bottomless thirst for vengeance, but there’s more humanity in those eyes now.
It’s a similar feeling we get when we see the Hound, Sandor Clegane. A different man than he was once — no less gruff, no less angry, and yet a man who now feels remorse, turning his loathing of the world inward. Forced to confront a house filled with his past sins, the Hound is changed yet again by a strange and unnerving confrontation with Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. It’s here, in this house filled with the ghosts of his victims, that Clegane gazes into the fires that he fears as much as those ghosts, and sees the terrors coming. Rory McCann manages a storm of conflicting emotion — anger, guilt, bitterness, fear, and even a touch of wonder. So it’s here that once again, his course will change. He buries his victims, buries his sins, and emerges from the fire… not purified. Never that. But with purpose.
And while we take satisfaction in the travels of Arya and Clegane, the world turns and kings and queens plan for their coming wars. Jon Snow must piece together the North, while trying to deal with the newfound confidence — and possible conflicts — of Sansa. He’ll forge an army out of any able-bodied citizen, man, woman, or child. He’ll forgive past sins to regain old allies, all the while navigating his new inner circle. Sansa, with ideas and plans of her own. Tormund, who will travel to the Wall to become the first line of defense. And all the while, from the shadows, Littlefinger does what he does best: he watches, and he waits, and he schemes.
We end with Daenerys Targaryen, home at last. An army, a fleet, a trio of dragons. A force cobbled together by frail alliance, but for the strength and faith of her inner circle. At last, returned to Dragonstone, where she wanders its abandoned halls, Tyrion patiently at her side. There is silence but for their footsteps, the start of a new chapter in her long journey. While this moment didn’t give us much in terms of their development, the simple fact is that the return of Dany is a massive change for this world. There is more, of course. Sam seeking forbidden knowledge in the halls of the Citadel, but finding the most unexpected of our old friends, Jorah Mormont, afflicted and waiting for his queen. Bran and Meera, finding the Wall and seeking to find sanctuary while giving warnings. Out of the mists and the snow, the unstoppable march of the white walkers of all shapes and sizes. So many disparate threads, frayed for years, finally seeming to come together. As the queen says… shall we begin?