It’s the middle of July but make no mistake: Winter has arrived. Game of Thrones made its triumphant return to the airwaves last night with the premiere for its penultimate season. Needless to say, with the endgame fast approaching, fans are expecting each episode to deliver two HOLY SHIT moments minimum. In that regard, last night’s episode, “Dragonstone,” didn't disappoint. Anyone who was expecting this episode to be lightning paced was probably let down but, c'mon: We’re in the final stage here, yes, but it’s still just the beginning of the end. The table still has to be set, and this new episode did that perfectly.
Theres a ton of takeaways from the premiere, namely in the way the series two big storylines—Daenerys versus Cersei and Jon versus the White Walkers—are being positioned to collide. Dany just touched down on the eponymous island of Dragonstone, which is where Sam has just learned a sizable deposit of Dragonglass is located, i.e. one of only two substances known to defeat White Walkers. The path is set for Jon Snow to sail there and learn that he isn't a Snow at all, he's a Targaryen, son of Rhaegar. Which would effectively make Dany the Dragon Queen his aunt.
Even in a more deliberately paced episode, watching the very large world of Thrones contract as dozens of disparate characters get further drawn together is thrilling. The show and its various arcs are more unpredictable than ever. But that excitement waned and mutated into anxiety. Short episode order notwithstanding, we now have a full season of GoT to go, and on this series that means a sword of Damocles will be dangling over all our favorite characters' heads. The same exhilaration a new episode of Thrones brings also carries dread along with it, because even in an endgame following the deaths of many a "good guy," the few heroes left standing are still making the same types of mistakes. And in George R.R. Martin's world, it's far more likely for the hero to die after committing a grave mistake than it is to see good triumph over evil.
Cersei's hubris is so unchecked right now the story's practically telegraphing her grand downfall. But Cersei got this far off of being underestimated and ruthless in exploiting her enemies' doubt in how calculating she really is. Dany has dragons sure, but after five seasons of wins, going up against Queen Lannister could provide her first L. Similarly, I'm troubled by Arya diving headfirst into her Hit List before even checking in on Winterfell (maybe she's unaware there's a Winterfell to check in on?). Killing off the Frey family for their part in The Red Wedding was cold, beautiful vengeance. But Cersei ranks about 117 spots higher in terms of formidability. In boldly telling Ed Sheeran that she's going to kill the queen, Arya's hubris is in effect, running just as rampantly as her enemy. This won't end well for someone and it may be the person whose death would fuck us up the most. And what gift is the sleazy swashbuckler Euron planning to bring Cersei?
Meanwhile Jon and Sansa are towing the line between understandable sibling push and pull, with both making valid leadership points but Sansa having the ultimate trump card in highlighting Ned and Robb's honor and over-investment in human decency is what got them killed. Littlefinger is clearly lurking in the corners waiting to exploit the weak link in their bond. It feels like Jon has to make it to at least season 8 but will Sansa be the next Stark to go down?
Overall, with season 6 serving as the last chapter before the true endgame, it created a rare sense of safety and assuredness toward characters we knew simply had to play a part in the series climax. But now that we're reaching that point, all bets are off and Game of Thrones has returned to being one of the most anxiety-inducing shows on television. It's perhaps even worse now that there are so few characters to root for. Between Daenerys, Tyrion, Arya, Jon, Sansa, Brienne and even grayer characters like Jaime—who's looking at his sister with increasing trepidation—it seems inevitable that someone beloved won't make it out of winter alive. It's just a matter of who, how, and when.