Like an ex-politician with a hot take on Brexit, Game of Thrones is back. The first episode of this seventh, and penultimate, series – ‘Dragonstone’ – saw the entire ensemble of familiar faces return, as the finely poised situation in the show was laid out for all to see. The first six seasons charted the War of the Five Kings, but now, with the Targaryen heir returned to Westeros, and the White Walkers almost at The Wall, we are heading towards the War of the Two Wars – and ‘Dragonstone’ is the start of an inexorable motion towards the show’s final showdown.
But by Game of Thrones’s own rollicking standards, ‘Dragonstone’ moves at a rather glacial pace. After an extended absence, that’s justified narratively by its need to reorient the viewer to the state of play in Westeros, following the events of ‘The Winds of Winter’, which wiped out a whole chunk of the Game’s remaining competitors. That’s why, rather than the standard three plotlines followed in an episode, we get taken on a breakneck tour of the Game’s surviving players, often only for a few minutes.
As ever, some of these storylines are stronger than others. Arya opens the series by committing minor genocide against House Frey (fair enough, their hats were terrible) but then has to endure the indignity of eating spitroasted rat with Ed Sheeran (who, to give him credit, delivers an acceptable performance, but is too distractingly Ed Sheeran for his own good). In the North, Jon and Sansa bicker like siblings (even though they’re actually cousins), whilst Littlefinger schemes and Lady Mormont continues to be the fan’s favourite five foot fighter. In King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime enjoy a ponderous conversation about their lack of friends, before meeting with the deranged Euron Greyjoy, who looks and sounds rather too much like Lars Ulrich. With friends like him, who needs enemies?
Meanwhile, in Oldtown, Samwell Tarly delivers us an excruciating bedpan-cleaning montage, followed by a close encounter with Ser Jorah Mormont, now fully consumed by greyscale. The show's least engaging double-act, Bran and Meera, make it to The Wall, where they’re greeted by a sceptical looking Edd. The Brotherhood Without Banners troop sulkily through the chilly waste of the North, whilst the Hound is having visions of White Walkers breaching the last line of defences. But, whilst that’s all very ominous, the episode concludes with Daenerys returning to her family home – the titular Dragonstone – in a wordless sequence that shows us the height and breadth of the castle’s keep. And, as Sam has already informed us, there’s a mountain of dragonglass there for the looting.
If that summary felt like a rather breakneck trip through the politics of the Seven Kingdoms, it’s never quite reflected in the episode. Unlike Shireen Baratheon, it never quite catches fire. It’s a bit like a cocktail party where you’re so busy with meeting and greeting, you don’t have time for drunken debauchery, scheming and defenestration. Something of the chutzpah of Game of Thrones is missing from this confident, slightly complacent, opener to series seven.
And whilst it does an excellent job reminding us what makes the show tick – given we’ve all been off watching Line of Duty and Love Island – with only 12 episodes left in the entire Game of Thrones saga, do we really have time to spend watching a monkish scholar weighing dissected organs? Putting aside Arya’s Lucrezia Borgia act (which is really just a continuation of her Titus Andronicus moment from the end of the previous season) ‘Dragonstone’ is lacking in the series’s signature sex and violence. It will come, no doubt, but with so much still to resolve in just two abbreviated seasons, I wish they’d get on with it. We’ve waited a long time to see Lannisters immolated by dragons; only a show as sure-footed as Game of Thrones would dare make us wait longer.
Game of Thrones airs on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am and then again at 9pm.