The Sheeran cameo had long been known of, sure. But here, finally, it was. And it was jarring. Not just because, you know, Ed Sheeran laughing about the death of Cersei Lannister. The appearance was jarring, more specifically, because Ed Sheeran existing in the same world as Cersei Lannister. Game of Thrones is a show, after all, that highly values insularity as a reflection of its carefully constructed universe—a universe so unable to conceive of anything beyond itself that characters refer to it not by a name, but rather as, simply, “the world.”
HBO’s version of George R.R. Martin’s book is a TV show, yes, and TV shows have actors who give interviews to Vulture and run Instagram accounts dedicated to their Pomeranian puppies and go on to star in that ridiculous Terminator sequel and otherwise serve as embodied reminders that “the world,” as presented, can never be fully contained as such. But Game of Thrones has also gone out of its way, to the extent any show can, to preserve the integrity of its universe. Each episode begins with a sweeping tour of that most literal expression of world-building: a map. Each scene emphasizes, in its way, regions’ distinctive languages and weapons and culture and clothing and cuisine to create an environment, overall, of immersive specificity. Each Sunday, for seven years now, Game of Thrones has invited viewers into an alternate reality that is so meticulously constructed that, for the hour, at least, the real world—with its own intrigues and injustices and plaintive music—falls away.
And then: Into all that, as the show premiered for its seventh season, stepped the man who is currently famous for filling the ears of the denizens of that latter world with the insight that “the club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go.”
Sheeran’s appearance in the Riverlands, the region at the center of Game of Thrones’s Western continent, is perfectly fine, as a performance. He’s obviously a very good singer. He blends in nicely with the other actors who have been recruited to sit around that campfire. Had he been simply Ed Sheeran, the actor from Framlingham, instead of Ed Sheeran, the singer who—will—be loving you—’til—we’re 70, his musical scene would have been, simply, a lovely little palate cleanser after Arya’s grisly vengeance-taking. And one of the episode’s important moments, for that matter, as my colleague David Sims pointed out, of warm humanity breaking through the show’s backdrop of cruel and omnipresent war.
And had the show been more subtle about its latest cameo (Game of Thrones has, over the years, featured cheeky appearances from its executive producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who lent their faces to two of the death masks in the House of Black and White, and from Benioff’s parents, and—controversially—from George W. Bush, who made an unauthorized debut in the show as a head on a spike), the scene might also have suggested easy charm rather than strange Sheerancentrism. Musicians, in particular—among them Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Coldplay’s Will Champion, and members of Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, and Mastodon—have long popped up on the show, to un-jarring effect. But those appearances have been relatively subtle. They have been appearances more than cameos, in the sense that they were simply there, without winkily announcing their presence.