Review: 'Game of Thrones' heats up as winter arrives
BYBy Brian Lowry, CNN
Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT) July 17, 2017

(CNN)The following contains spoilers about the seventh-season premiere of "Game of Thrones."

The end is drawing nearer for "Game of Thrones," which explains why the seventh season premiere exhibited a sense of urgency and purpose that past openers have sometimes lacked. From the inordinately satisfying pre-credit sequence on, not a scene was wasted, serving notice that while winter is indeed here, for fans, this promises to be one hell of a summer.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. Photos: Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister Hide Caption 1 of 15 Photos: Maisie Williams as Arya StarkHide Caption 2 of 15 Photos: Bella Ramsey as Lyanna MormontHide Caption 3 of 15 Photos: Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth Hide Caption 4 of 15 Photos: John Bradley as Samwell Tarly and Hannah Murray as GillyHide Caption 5 of 15 Photos: Ellie Kendrick as Meera Reed and Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran StarkHide Caption 6 of 15 Photos: Kristofer Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane and Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of TarthHide Caption 7 of 15 Photos: Aidan Gillen as Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish and Sophie Turner as Sansa StarkHide Caption 8 of 15 Photos: Rory McCann as Sandor "The Hound" Clegane Hide Caption 9 of 15 Photos: Kit Harington as Jon SnowHide Caption 10 of 15 Photos: Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen Hide Caption 11 of 15 Photos: Conleth Hill as VarysHide Caption 12 of 15 Photos: Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei Hide Caption 13 of 15 Photos: Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister Hide Caption 14 of 15 Photos: (Left to Right) Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Conleth Hill as Varys, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm Hide Caption 15 of 15At 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.Read MoreEmilia Clarke as Daenerys TargaryenEven 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.Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister 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.