So THIS happened last night.
So THIS happened last night. Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

The seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones appears in a decidedly different America than the sixth season did. It’s a different Westeros, too: With Cersei’s destructive ascension to the throne, the show’s been stripped of a lot of supporting characters and side plots. We embark upon the final 13 episodes (seven this year, and six more to come) with the show's storyline clearly focused and the central conflicts reemphasized.

That’s not to say things are now proceeding at a breakneck clip. “Dragonstone,” the Season Seven premiere that aired last night, was still basically as slow-building and ponderous as Game of Thrones has ever been. But everything we saw—apart from that jarring cameo by a tapioca popster—felt significant, with little of the discursive footnotes and distractions that have marked the show so far. For example, are we entirely done with Essos? Could be.

It’s a good thing we’re finally getting to the meat. The show’s central notions of power and how it gets transferred (either by blood, inherited or spilled, or by money and the military might that comes with it) could potentially tell us a lot about this particular political moment in time—not that that’s ever been the intent of the story, which was first devised by George R.R. Martin more than 20 years ago and has more to say about the War of the Roses than, say, the Cold War. But the other big TV show of the moment, that awful drama playing out on the news networks on a nightly basis, is revealing shocking things about the corrupting influence of power and the sickening measures unscrupulous men will go to in order to preserve it. By comparison, Game of Thrones has its work cut out for it.

If you get upset about spoilers, there are some of those after the jump.

Walder Frey: still great at hosting parties.
Walder Frey: still great at hosting parties. Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

The tone of the new season, one hopes, is established in the opening scene, a photo-negative of perhaps the most traumatizing moment of the series. In this Red-Wedding-in-reverse, we see Arya Stark getting her revenge, Face/Off-style, on the entire Frey clan. Is this the trend of things to come? Will this seventh season be about the Starks getting theirs back? It seems a little naïve to think so, but it's not totally crazy. Despite their family numbers decimated, each individual remaining Stark has grown incredibly powerful. And Arya, with the ability to put on dead people’s faces and take on their identities, might be the most powerful of all, other than Bran.

North of the Wall, we’re reminded of the stakes. The army of the dead advances, steadily, but we’re also reminded that the vastness of this television world means that all kinds of geographical and time-related rules can be bent to suit story needs. Where are the White Walkers coming from? Where are they going? How long will it take them to get from point A to point B, and, like, shouldn’t they be there by now? Despite presumably not needing to eat or rest, the White Walkers and their zombie soldiers (now including giants!) are taking their sweet-ass time to get to the Wall. Which gives time for Bran and Meera to get there first. Will Bran’s Night King-touched presence on the other side of the Wall permit the White Walkers to breach it? There didn't seem to be any clue this could be the case.

At Winterfell, the Northern families consolidate under Jon Snow, who instructs the leaders to enlist their women to fight alongside the men. Jon and Sansa disagree on whether to forgive the Karstark and Umber families; Jon decides to welcome them back into the fold, which in this universe is probably going to be a mistake. What’s more interesting is how the two half-siblings differ in outlook: the Cersei-influenced Sansa wants to stamp out any remaining traces of betrayal, while Jon, still stuck in the Ned Stark school of thought, recognizes they’re gonna need every man they can get. In the real world, Jon is right, but as the show so often reminds us, this is not the real world. Elsewhere in the castle, Brienne lets Tormund distract her for long enough to let Pod get a glancing blow on her shoulder. This is signal enough that something is going to happen between Brienne and Tormund. Will that something be actual sex? Probably not—my guess is that Brienne will brush Tormund off until he gets fatally wounded in battle, and they share a dramatic scene as he dies, during which she realizes she kinda likes the guy.

I know youre queen and all, but someone has to say it—youre rocking a serious case of red-wine teeth.
"I know you're queen and all, but someone has to say it—you're rocking a serious case of red-wine teeth." Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

In King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime avoid their feelings. “We never talked about Tommen,” Jaime even ventures, at which point Cersei goes straight for the wine. Cersei does not seem to be particularly enjoying her newfound power—she even seems to have a fatalistic streak that suggests she knows it will all be over soon, and will end messily. But there is hope, of a grimy and desperate sort, in the form of Euron Greyjoy, who shows up with “a thousand ships and two good hands.” He’s going to bring her a present. What could it be? I predict someone’s head. That’s the sort of present Cersei likes.

Sam’s down in Oldtown, scooping poop and filing books. The quick-cut montage suggests that Game of Thrones is up to its old junior-high scatalogical tricks, making viewers feel nauseous with a wink and a smile. (Question: do only some of the books in the Citadel library have chains on them? Their anti-theft system seems a little inefficient.) It’s unclear why the show spent so much time on the effluence of the Citadel’s population, unless it’s to point out the irony that this bastion of learning contains all the knowledge in the Seven Kingdoms, and yet they still haven’t figured out indoor plumbing. But the really important stuff had little to do with chamber pots or swollen cadaver livers. In a noticeable change from the ever expanding rosters of past episodes, we only meet one new character of note this hour: Jim Broadbent’s Archmaester, who seems to believe that everything will work itself out. The Wall’s been standing for ages, so why would it fall now? Either he’s right, or Sam’s gonna have to convince the whole of Oldtown that things are more serious now. In the meantime, we know where Jorah Mormont is, and he is not looking well.

The most notorious moment of the episode comes in the Riverlands, where Arya meets a clutch of Lannister soldiers, one of whom is… well, you know by now. The musical thumb sings a lousy song with a two-note melody, but Arya seems pretty into it. The stunt casting is surprising, though: Is HBO trying to get more 12-year-old girls to watch this show? That doesn’t really seem… appropriate? (See previous paragraph on Oldtown and its piles of feces.) Regardless, Arya learns that the Lannister army is actually pretty disillusioned, and there might even be some nice fellows beneath those red capes. Ser Sheeran even calls King’s Landing “the worst place in the world.” When Arya tells them what her plans are, they laugh. Could she win them over? This is a noticeably pleasant moment in the horrible life of Arya Stark—the show, which is so often keen on pointing out the vileness and violence of human nature, is now suggesting that, deep down, most people are a-okay. If this is the direction the show wants to bend in its final 13 episodes, I’m actually good with that.

Sorry I caused your deaths. This six-inch-deep grave is the least I can do. Lets hope the White Walkers dont find you!
"Sorry I caused your deaths! This six-inch-deep grave is the least I can do—let's just hope the White Walkers don't find you." Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

This curve toward kindness continues with a lengthy sequence following what has become the show’s most interesting character: Sandor Clegane, AKA the Hound. This guy has really been around the wheel a few times, and has learned lessons along the way. Now teamed up with Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrian, he’s on his way to—well, I don’t remember, exactly, but somewhere probably cold. The Hound has gained wisdom from his mistakes, which separates him from many of the show’s other characters. And now the show suggests he has some sort of ability with fire-visions, which, like, shrug. That whole Lord of Light angle always seemed kinda dumb to me, but the show’s been working on this mysterious magic for a while. I was more interested in the Hound’s skill with a shovel and a eulogy. More Hound going forward, please—he is the unpretentious heart and soul of this show. And we all know he has to fight the Mountain at some point.

Daenerys at Dragonstone.
"It's so much more uncomfortable-looking than I remember." Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

We end with a gorgeous, near-dialogue-free passage on Dragonstone, where Daenerys returns to the stony island of her birth. As dragons swoop overhead and her attendants follow wordlessly, Dani passes the sloped rock throne and goes right into the war room, where she hovers over Stannis’ table-map of Westeros. “Shall we begin?” she asks. Seven hells, Game of Thrones—YES, let’s begin. Now that you mention it, we've been waiting 61 episodes for this shit to begin! The show, poop jokes and mass Frey murders aside, seems to be softening into a more heartening, traditional story, which at this stage in the game might be out of necessity. It would be stupid to think there’s not going to be any heartbreak in the next 12 episodes, but things are finally, finally looking up for the Starks and for Dani and all the other “good guys.” Is the show, as it’s done so many times before, going to pull the rug out from under us again? Of course it will—to what degree, exactly, seems to be the biggest question. But with the story approaching the finish line and all the extra threads tightening or getting snipped off altogether, Game of Thrones feels more full of purpose than it has since the first season. If this first hour of Season Seven didn’t move as quickly as I wanted it to, there’s really not any room for it to slow down at this point. These next six episodes will probably feel like they’re on greased rails… and then we’ll have to wait, again, for the final season.