'Game of Thrones' Kicks Off Season 7, and the Pieces Are in Motion

Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Like its women, Game of Thrones seems to get only stronger with each episode.

Game of Thrones

Network: HBO

Daenerys Targaryen was sold by her power-hungry brother to the bidder who could most advance his cause. Now he’s dead, and she commands the largest army in the realm, not to mention the last three dragons in existence.

Cersei Lannister was married off to a drunk, philandering king by her cruel father when she was just a girl. Now she rules Westeros from the throne where her late husband once sat.

Sansa Stark was abused to no end by the second man she was forced to wed. Now he’s dead, and she’s on her way to conquering the very forces that once sought to bring down her and her family.

The seventh season premiere of “Game of Thrones” on Sunday belonged to these women. And if the opening episode is any indication, they’re ready to do whatever it takes to gain the power, justice or vengeance they seek.

(For those who have yet to see the premiere, this is your spoiler alert.)

Ever since Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) rose unburnt from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre, her nakedness a symbol of power and strength rather than vulnerability, the women of “Game of Thrones” and their stories have gradually moved out of brothels and bed chambers to the front lines of the battle for the kingdom.

And with the show now in its home stretch (next season will be the last), it appears their narratives will shape the final fate of the series.

It’s ironic given that the HBO fantasy series started in 2011 as the story of men’s quests for power and the miserable plight of women who lived in their rape-and-pillage world of blood and mud.

Call it the accidental feminism of “Game of Thrones,” but with the series’ success, television has exponentially expanded the number of high-profile series that feature multiple female leads.

The past year alone has seen major productions with female-focused narratives score major Emmy nominations, including “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Big Little Lies.”

But “Game of Thrones” was a high-stakes gamble when it first arrived, even with macho, sweaty men in most of its conquering hero/villain roles. It featured the nerdy trimmings of a SyFy channel marathon: armies of the dead, magic, jousting competitions, trees with faces, locales with names such as the Shivering Sea.

Impeccably executed story lines by creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who adapted the series from George R.R. Martin’s collection of epic novels “A Song of Ice and Fire,” rendered it HBO’s most successful series — a high bar for the home of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

Now, we’re entering the penultimate season with only seven episodes, as opposed to the usual 10. So much evil to slay, so little time. If only Westeros had refrigerators on which to display that magnet-worthy catchphrase.

There are the Lannisters to the South and the White Walkers to the North. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the woman he believes to be his half sister, Sansa (Sophie Turner), agree that these destructive forces need to be stopped, but which is the most immediate threat? It’s a question that threatens to rip apart the alliance they formed at the close of Season 6.

Wherever they decide to strike first, they now have all of the North on their side, thanks to a meeting in which all houses — even those that turned against them during Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic reign — are united behind the bastard King of the North and the only Stark they believe is still alive.

However, youngest sister Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is, indeed, alive and well and executing those on her vengeance to-do list.

Last season, she got Walder Frey, the man who killed her mother and brother at the Red Wedding massacre. But her most sophisticated and deadly form of payback yet came with Sunday’s episode.

Yet her greatest nemesis, Cersei (Lena Headey), still sits atop the Iron Throne, with the fate of the seven kingdoms quite literally at her feet. The Lannister queen has commissioned a map of the realm to be painted on her castle floor, upon which she enjoys walking while formulating her latest plan for total domination.

“It’s ours now. We just have to take it,” she says to her brother/lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as she sweeps over the map in one of those fabulous dresses that makes ruthlessness look so fashionable.

Things are tense between the Lannister twins, to say the least.

“Everyone hates us, who’s left?” asks Jaime, pointing out that the cruel actions of their family dynasty, and Cersei’s own murderous tendencies, have left them with few allies — or children. (The pair’s last surviving child, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), killed himself after Cersei blew up half of King’s Landing, including Tommen’s wife, Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer), last season.)

“Do you think I listened to Father for 40 years and learned nothing?” answers Cersei.

Enter the new ruler of the Iron Islands, the scheming Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek), who last season tossed his own brother down a ravine for his title. He wants to marry a queen, she wants his powerful armada. It’s a match made in hell that could prove fatal for everyone but them. Poor Jaime.

Daenerys (a.k.a. Mother of Dragons and, like, 20 other titles) is also crossing the ocean — finally! — from Meereen, thanks to an alliance formed with the other half of the Iron Islands’ fleet and the exiled niece and nephew of Euron, Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen).

Daenerys is headed to reclaim the Targaryen’s family castle on Dragonstone (which is made of the very stuff needed to kill the White Walkers). The fortress is now vacant after its last inhabitant, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), was killed in his futile battle for control of the Iron Throne.

She was born in the castle but has no memory of it since the Baratheons captured it from her family when she was small. With her new adviser, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), at her side, they stand above the dusty table in Stannis’ war room, as she asks, “Shall we begin?”

The Hound (Rory McCann), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Sam (John Bradley) also make significant appearances in the premiere, extending story lines that have picked up momentum over the last few seasons. Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) appears only briefly to show us that he’s finally made it to the Wall and the safety of the Night’s Watch.

As per every premiere episode of “Game of Thrones,” the pace is slow.

Setting up each new carefully constructed season — the complex weave of story lines, the huge cast, the breathtaking locations — takes time.

But Benioff and Weiss have pulled it off once again, if not with a bit more humor than in previous seasons. Example: Arya runs into a band of suspiciously friendly soldiers in the woods singing around a campfire led by none other than actress Williams’ favorite singer in real life, Ed Sheeran.

This is the second season since the series outpaced the books. But like its women, “Game of Thrones” seems to get only stronger with each episode.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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