Game of Thrones is, inarguably, the king of the TV water-cooler. There’s no other show around that maintains total command of the zeitgeist and dominates the pop-culture conversation every week like Thrones does each season. In the fractured world of Peak TV, the HBO fantasy epic is still a show you have to watch live rather than wait to binge, such is the ubiquity of spoilers. And yet, as the series returns for its seventh and penultimate season Sunday on HBO, even avid fans could be forgiven for not quite remembering where things in Westeros last left off.
Thrones has been off-air so long—the last season premiered in April 2016—because the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted extra time to prep all the warfare on the way. They were also seeking to harness a cold-weather schedule, since the long-promised winter of the show has truly arrived. The seasons in the world of Thrones go on for years at a time—the last summer went for a decade—but Season 7 (which will run for only seven episodes) will pick up at a truly dark and cold moment for the show, where any chance for a return to the relative harmony of the show’s early episodes feels more remote than ever.
So much coverage of Game of Thrones focuses on the eponymous struggle—the bloody jockeying for control of Westeros’s Iron Throne that has raged on for years. But my favorite thing about the series, and especially its sixth-season finale, is how pointless that ongoing conflict has become as the closing episodes draw closer. In “The Winds of Winter,” the last episode of Season 6, Queen Cersei finally got what she wanted—unobstructed control of the throne—after blowing up the Sept of Baelor in the capital city of King’s Landing and eliminating her chief rivals, Queen Margaery Tyrell and the religiously fanatic High Sparrow. All it cost her was the life of her only surviving child King Tommen (who killed himself in sorrow over Margaery’s death) and whatever remained of her humanity.