This should go without saying, but this episode review is spoiler-laden. Stop reading if you’re not caught up.
The first six seasons featured exactly three male protagonists who were classic fantasy-fiction heroes, warriors who were courageous, chivalrous, and honorable. Each of these men died grisly deaths, and one of them has done his best to die twice. Ned Stark blundered headlong into a decapitation, Robb Stark won every battle but lost his war, and Jon Snow was assassinated by his “brothers,” resurrected, and then promptly launched a suicidal solo charge against the entire Bolton army.
The lesson here? The Stark men (yes, Snow is still part-Stark) need just a tad more cynicism in their lives. Enter Sansa, who’s adopted the mirror image of Cersei Lannister’s mindset. Cersei sees enemies on all sides. So does Sansa, and she knows that not even a thousand miles of frozen ground renders her family safe from Cersei. Sansa’s saved her brother once, she has Littlefinger whispering in her ear, and she’s radiating deep distrust and profound unhappiness. As I’ve written before, one of the persistent themes of the show is the extent to which honor divorced from realpolitik is suicidally foolish, while realpolitik divorced from honor makes a person monstrous. We’ve seen this war in Daenerys’s soul. We’re seeing it now in Sansa’s.
The stunning opening scene, where Arya wiped out the Frey family in one chilling moment, should remind viewers that forces are never quite as unbalanced as they seem. In “Game of Thrones,” murderers are more potent than commanders. Going into the season there was some concern that all the drama was gone. Daenerys’s dragons were unstoppable, Cersei was under siege, and the North was finally united. To borrow a historical analogy, D-Day had happened, the outcome was no longer in doubt, and all that’s left is the bloody march to victory. Not so fast. I still think Cersei ultimately loses the great game, but she is a murderer without peer, and that makes her arguably the most powerful player left on the board.
Finally, can we just pause for a moment and admire the cinematography of the series? Daenerys’s MacArthur-esque ”I have returned” moment was beautifully shot, and the sight of the dragons soaring above Dragonstone is a shot that fans have been anticipating for the better part of a decade. It didn’t disappoint. But lots of science fiction and fantasy shows nail those big moments. “Thrones” nails the small moments also. The Hound’s bleak and mournful burial of a father and daughter he’d long ago left to die illustrated a truth that the show captures so very well. People can change, but their past haunts them still.