Game of Thrones is back. Winter is here, as evident by the oncoming army of white walkers, complete with ice zombie giants, to the north of The Wall. This premiere was momentous to say the least, and not because of the apocalypse bearing down on Westeros. It’s huge because of the scattered character moments we’ve been building to for years. Game of Thrones is a perfect example of emotional catharsis in long-form storytelling. It’s the definitive reason why television can tell a better story than any movie ever could.
In season one, episode one, Daenerys Targarian has been exiled from Westeros for her entire life. She and her brother seek to return home and reclaim their rightful throne, but it will take an army to do so. She starts out as a pawn, used to marry into command of the Dothraki army. Instead, both her brother and Khal Drogo die and she takes command. She continues to sweep eastward, racking up more and more titles along with more and more followers. Finally, she has the army and the ships to travel to Westeros where, for the first time in her life, she sees her ancestral home Dragonstone.
Arya Stark has been on the run since the end of season one, seeking out her family so she could be safe again. She thought she would be safe with her older brother Robb, but when she arrived where he was at the Twins, the Red Wedding had just taken place. Both Robb and her mother were dead. She gave up on searching for family and instead sought the skill to extract revenge on everyone who attacked her family. She trained with the faceless men and returned to the Twins, where she slits Walder Frey’s throat, wears his face, and poisons all of his men who participated in the Red Wedding.
The Hound was escorting Arya to her aunt in the Vale when they came across a simple farmer and his daughter. The farmer offered them pay and room if they stayed to help with his farm. Instead the Hound stole from the farmer and left. After being left for dead by Arya, he was found by some kind pacifists and nursed to health. When those pacifists were killed, he took up arms once again and joined the Brotherhood Without Banners. On their journey northward, they take a night to rest in that same farmers home. The Hound discovers the farmer’s body clutching his daughter’s. He chose death for them both over starvation. That night, in the freezing cold, the Hound gives them a proper funeral.
These three moments form the backbone of the seventh season premiere of GoT, but also perfectly exemplify the specific thrills of well-executed long form storytelling. We were there when Arya was with her family in Winterfell. We know how much she loved her brothers, her mother, her father. We’ve been with her, hoping she would catch up with her family, agonizing when she missed them yet again. We were there when she made her list of people she’d like to kill, even when she didn’t have the skill to do it. We saw her train and we saw her kill the Waif and walk away from the house of Black and White. It’s been a long trip, but every step along the way feels in line with who Arya is at that point in time (give or take a stabbing on the street) so that when she kills Walder Frey in the sixth season finale we’re excited for her to begin executing her vengeance.
And so she kills an entire house. A moment that’s arguably bigger than her emotional journey. This one is cathartic for the fans, as the Red Wedding remains THE pivotal moment of Game of Thrones. A painful reminder that the game is dangerous, and being good will not guarantee victory. For a lot of fans, their faith in their favorite characters wavered. Are any of them safe? Is this show just going to continue hurting me?
And then Walder Frey called his family to dinner.
Wait. Wasn’t he dead?
And then he calls his men “brave” for stabbing a pregnant woman to death.
Wait. That’s Arya!
Because we know the rules, the character, as well as we do, the show doesn’t need to tell us what’s happened until after it’s already happened. The same goes for the Hound and that father and child. Even though I didn’t explicitly remember he had stolen from these people, it became clear immediately that he knew who they were. After his own near death, and his time with Ian McShane, it’s clear the Hound has changed in at least one respect. No body should be left out in the cold. Watching this cold blooded killer bury these two on a night that feels cold just to watch makes it clear that the character we thought we knew has changed. He’s getting softer. But we know the world; it’s so well drawn, and we wonder if this will make him weaker in the fights to come. And there are many fights to come.
Which brings me to Daenerys. For the entire run of the show there has been Westeros, and there has been Daenerys. They talk about each other, but they don’t intersect. They are on different continents. They have promised her arrival since the first episode and this week it finally came. Friggin’ finally. It wasn’t explosive, it was quiet. She steps on the beach, walks past the picturesque rocks, and comes upon the coolest throne in the seven kingdoms.
Finally she comes to her war table and with a few words snaps everything to come into focus.
“Shall we begin?”
Everything before this point was prologue. It moved all of the characters into place so they could be the people they need to be here at the end, but it didn’t feel that way. Jaimie needed to be trapped with Brienne to distrust Cersei. Cirsei needed to lose her kids to become the Queen. John needed to join the night’s watch to learn of the white walkers, and he needed to die so he could leave them. Every victory they gain, every homecoming and meeting between characters, sweeps us off our feet because both we and the characters have been waiting for these moments.
There isn’t much time left either, which means a lot more of these moments are in the works.
PS, but also, like, Stannis bumped uglies with the red woman on that war table right? Eeeeeewwwwww.