The War of Wits Will Be Fought by the Women on Season 7 of ‘Game of Thrones’

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) lands at Dragonstone, her family’s ancestral home in Westeros just in time for winter. The Mother of Dragons doesn’t come bearing gifts, though, but arms, probably the most impressive military force yet assembled for “Game of Thrones.”

Now in its seventh season, HBO’s series adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series no longer has the books to steer it. That doesn’t mean they are riding rudderless. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill)  are pulling the strings to guide the former Khaleesi to her seat on the Iron Throne. It is a dangerous round of musical chairs where she is in competition with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the newly crowned Winterfell King in the North, who brings his army of wildlings and Northerners, and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), who is not quite Queen of the Seven Kingdoms in spite of Qyburn anointing her the “Protector of the Realm” at the end of season 6. To be fair, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is also getting ready to put in a claim. The former bordello magnate already has the Knights of the Vale looking to clean the tarnish off for him.

The action begins before the theme. At first, it appears we’re looking at a flashback. The late, not so great Walder Frey (David Bradley) is holding court in front of all the loyal men who helped him cater the Red Wedding. It takes a few seconds to suss out something’s not quite right, and the realization comes as a little bit of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) leaks into the king of the Riverlands. Even the way Frey gruffly saves his one daughter from enjoying the fine wine of victors has a little bit of the Arya smirk to it. That casual cruelty of the Freys becomes ironic foreshadowing. Williams is a very effective actress even when her character is being played by Bradley. We can see how much the actors pay attention to each other’s performances as the characters merge before she even takes off the mask. The girl has a name but she has the power of faceless nameless men. I wonder if she will incur the karma of the Thuggee-inspired assassin cult by using their tactics and skills for personal vengeance.

In “The Godfather II,” Don Vito Corleone had Genco Abbandando as consigliere, who does Jon Snow get? Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who would have made sure that Sonny never had to fish for change to pay a toll. Sansa saved Snow last season with last-minute reinforcements from the Knights of the Vale. If he had listened to her council in the first place, he wouldn’t have gotten into the triangulated mess. Yet, Jon Snow knows nothing. He admonishes her with the same “never say anything against the family again” riff the Don gave Sonny. But Sansa knows when to undermine. She learned from the best, Cersei, who victimized her as she molded her into the best the Starks have to offer as far as leadership is concerned.

The battle of wits in the race for the Iron Thrones is largely being fought between women, with Arya a wild card to be dealt from the bottom of the deck. She may very well be the one who kills Cersei. One certainly can see her outmaneuvering Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), but maybe not the woman who braved the walk of shame only to be betrayed by her cowardly son king with a righteous grieving suicide. Faced now with a fleet of the best ships of the seas as a wedding dowry, she balks over lesser loyalties. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) is a cheeky bastard, but he’s got balls, and two good hands. He ingratiates himself with the self-deprecating braggadocio of a common man made good through the forging of iron and salt.

I prefer the unimpressive rag tag warriors of the white walker force. Dog faces, all of them. The Hound, also known as Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) is now riding with the Brotherhood without Banners. Who would have thought the Hound would have the most loyal and empathic heart. Recognizing a family that committed suicide rather than starve as one he himself stole from, he doubts the very existence of Divine Justice until its burnt right into his eyes.

The food and the excrement start to look the same after a long shot of a pre-maestor’s duties. I suspect Samwell Tarly  (John Bradley-West) will thin out this season. Tarly brings an urgent problem to a hall of history, where immediacy has no place in the scheme of things. The academic class of the Seven Kingdoms knows they have time for autopsies, winters and witnessing the transformation of their resident stone man, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), awaiting the Mother of Dragons, in a startling segment of foreshadowing. But Sam is stuck between a rock and a hard job. The only way to fight the Night King and his legions of White Walkers is through knowledge and dragon glass.

The most abundant supply of dragon glass in the kingdom is at Dragonstone. Jon may bring the kind of engagement gift Dany could truly appreciate. He wants to save the world. He doesn’t appear out for himself, but the greater good. He accepted the wildlings, and was given new life by the Red Woman. I predict this to be a fortuitous union.

The final scene of the first episode shows that all is preamble in history. The cameras tease of the magnificence of Dragonstone. They reveal it in a slow caress that is more like visual foreplay. Small details on the masterfully designed set show the ornate carvings of the fortress that used to house dragons. The first episode closes with the promise of the adventures to come as Dany simply asks, “shall we begin?”

Dragonstone” was written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by Jeremy Podeswa. 

Game of Thrones” season 7 premiered July 16 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.