July 16-- 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.
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