(CNN)The following contains spoilers about the seventh-season premiere of “Game of Thrones.”
With 13 episodes remaining to wrap up the series spread over two seasons, there’s not much time to waste. Although the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s story has never exactly dawdled, there was a bracing aspect to Sunday’s episode that every scene conspicuously advanced the larger story — or, in the case of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) exacting vengeance for the Red Wedding, fabulously paid off something that had come before.
At the forefront of it all is Jon Snow (Kit Harington), rallying the forces of the North in anticipation of battle against an existential threat from White Walkers and the Army of the Dead. Elsewhere, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) is still fighting the last war, looking for ways to consolidate power as she sees potential foes on all sides.
While “Game of Thrones” has understandably focused on those jockeying for the mantle of leadership, this episode also deviated to shine a light on ordinary folks caught up in this mystical world’s brutal struggle for survival. That included both Arya’s encounter with a group of ordinary soldiers, and her former traveling companion, the Hound (Rory McCann, simply terrific in this hour), being forced to revisit the home of a peasant whom he had ruthlessly victimized.
Even a comedic sequence involving Sam (John Bradley) fed directly into the larger plot, with his scholarly pursuits offering hope of delivering weapons that will serve Snow and company against the Night King and his horde. The writers also continue to have considerable fun with Snow’s barbaric pal Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and his lecherous interest in the towering knight Brienne (Gwendoline Christie).
It remains a genuine testament to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as their sprawling cast, that the program’s scope — from the huge armies assembled to the billowing wings of those dragons under the control of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) — hasn’t overwhelmed its human component. If anything, those storylines have become richer and more rewarding as the far-flung plots begin to intersect, bringing key characters into contact with each other.
If there was one quibble to be registered with an otherwise-splendid hour of television, singer Ed Sheeran’s cameo — playing one of Arya’s wayward soldiers — while sort of cute, felt like the kind of stunt to which the series needn’t resort. Besides, when you’re in the business of establishing a rich, dense fantasy world, there’s little sense in incorporating a distraction that breaks the spell, however fleetingly.
Then again, because of its enormous popularity “Game of Thrones” operates amid a relentless media frenzy, one that dissects and analyzes its every move, sometimes inanely, knowing that it reliably generates traffic and circulation.
Despite the weighty expectations placed upon it, “Game of Thrones” has consistently risen to the challenge. And if the season premiere is any indication of what’s ahead, this season’s arc is likely to again demonstrate that when it comes to lording over the TV universe, this one-for-the-ages drama is no pretender.
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