Warning. SPOILERS are ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about episode one of the final season of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Now.
Still reading? Good. Let’s get started in an unlikely place — church. A few weeks ago my pastor said during his sermon, “No one can control the consequences of sin.” One of the great deceptions of the enemy is the idea that you can get away with evil deeds, that you can manage your own compromises. You cannot.
The opening flashback scenes of the show took us back to a moment last season that I thought mainly stood on its own as a symbol of the war within Daenerys Targaryen’s soul — is she the ruthless daughter of the Mad King or is she the noble liberator who is going to “break the wheel” of oppression in Westeros? That moment was the brutal execution by dragon fire of Randyll and Dickon Tarly when they refused to bend the knee after their defeat in battle. Rather than imprison them, she give in to her worst instincts and roasted them.
Well those moral chickens came home to roost when she met Samwell Tarly, Jon Snow’s faithful friend and the man who helped discover Jon’s true lineage. She met him to thank him for saving Jorah Mormont, and she ended up disclosing one of her worst crimes. Samwell’s father was cruel to him, but he loved his brother. John Bradley plays Samwell, and he did an outstanding job conveying the change in emotions, from acceptance at his father’s death to true grief and anger at his brother’s execution.
That moment meant that the disclosure of Snow’s true identity — as a Targaryen and the true heir to the Iron Throne — happened when Samwell was distraught, when he could plant seeds of doubt in Jon about Dany’s true character. Samwell put the question to Jon plainly. “You gave up the crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”
And thus we saw the questions in Jon’s heart. He is the show’s honorable man — honorable sometimes to the point of foolishness. Daenerys is the show’s conflicted hero, torn between her quest for vengeance and her desire for justice. It was a masterful moment, and it illustrated that one moment in time — Daenerys’s impulsive decision to burn her honorable opponents rather than imprison them — could have consequences that turn the course of history. She did a terrible thing, and she can’t control what happens next.
The other key conflict in the first episode was between Sansa and Daenerys. Sansa’s character arc is one of the more fascinating of the series. She’s journeyed from starry-eyed young princess to perhaps one of the coldest and most shrewd characters on the show. She is every bit Daenerys’s intellectual and strategic equal, and despite Dany’s dragons, she is not intimidated in Dany’s presence.
Finally, the first episode demonstrated the qualities that have made Game of Thrones a cultural sensation. It gets the big and the small things right. The opening scene capture the awesome might of Dany’s army, but it also captured the significant changes in her expression when her dragons shocked and awed the people of the north. Her slight smile when the people screamed in terror showed that Dany is perhaps just a bit too much in love with her own power. At the same time, the brief second between Sansa’s shock at the sight of the dragon and her obvious grim determination showed that she is and will be a match for Daenerys in the episodes to come.
As for the rest of the show, it was rather typical for a first episode. There were reunions (Jon and Arya’s meeting was both touching and ominous — she sent a message that she believe him to be a Stark before anything else), and there was a bit of table-setting. Cersei is at King’s Landing, reinforcing her army with the Gold Company. Euron is by her side. And they’re collectively preparing to deal with whoever emerges victorious in the conflict in the north. Yara Greyjoy is now free and sailing to the Iron Islands. Theon is heading back to the north to fight by Jon’s side.
The episode ended with a reminder that the true enemy is still on the march and with a significant meeting — as Jaime Lannister rode into Winterfell he spotted Bran Stark, the boy he paralyzed in the very first episode of the series. Jaime’s reckoning awaits.