The premiere episode for the seventh season of “Game of Thrones” was, for the most part, underwhelming. Characters stayed holed up in their castles, taking stock of the calamities that took place in the finale of season six and preparing for what’s to come.
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was perhaps the busiest character in the premiere. After massacring the entire Frey house, she sets off for King’s Landing, heading straight for Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Along the way, she stumbles upon a pleasant band of Kingsguard, gathered around a fire, singing a pleasant, folksy tune.
She stops to join them, and as she dismounts her horse and plants herself next to one of the soldiers, the camera cuts to jarring, invasive close-up of the man leading the soldiers in song — a man who sports an all-too-familiar head of ginger hair.
“Oh hey, I love Rupert Grint!” someone remarks excitedly from the couch in your living room.
We all love Rupert Grint. He owns an ice cream truck and gives free lollies to children. But that’s not who’s sitting by the campfire dressed as a Kingsguard.
It’s Ed Sheeran — singer, songwriter and producer extraordinaire.
“That’s a new one,” Sheeran quips, in a moment that is so painfully self-aware it induces a chorus of groans from the guests at your watch party. You wonder whether the track drops on Spotify at midnight.
He’s not wearing any makeup, his hair is not styled any particular way. There is absolutely no effort made to disguise Sheeran’s identity. When Daniel Craig showed up in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as Oblivious Stormtrooper No. 007, J.J Abrams had the sense to conceal Craig’s identity from the audience — rather than distract it from the story.
Sheeran’s character says very little for the rest of the scene, which as it concludes, you realize was completely meaningless and devoid of any narrative momentum. Moreover, it rips a tear into the world of Westeros, breaking the spell of the meticulously crafted other-universe and bringing us back into reality.
The strange cameo left “Game of Thrones” fans with many, many questions, but one question stands out above the rest: Who let this happen?
So now, we must embark upon the ultimate whodunnit — who can we find to blame for this painfully blatant cinematic fumble? Who is guilty of letting Sheeran transform Westeros, even if only for a brief moment, into his personal castle on a hill?
There are suspects. But the evidence can only point to a single culprit.
There are many things society can blame Ed Sheeran for — the sappy playlists of overplayed guitar ballads that plague millennial weddings, even more Taylor Swift publicity than already exists and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” But can we really blame him for indulging his medieval fanboy fantasies?
Probably not. If I made $84.99 every time some 13-year-old asked Santa Claus for a skateboard with my face on it, you can bet I would fly my ass to Belfast and stand wistfully outside David Benioff’s trailer until he agreed to put me in an episode, occasionally shouting threats that I would write songs about him for my next album.
But if Ed Sheeran pitched his cameo as a publicity stunt, he certainly fell through on his promises; Sheeran confirmed his upcoming role all the way back in March, giving Sheeran and “Game of Thrones” fans alike plenty of time to forget it was even happening.
Besides, the show is already slated to conclude in less than 20 episodes — why should its showrunners bother recruiting curious, casual fans, after spending six seasons slowly building a rabidly loyal fan base? The show stands almost nothing to gain from clickbait, second-rate press headlines; it is already massively popular and doesn’t need to fight for a season renewal.
So maybe we should direct our angry tweets to Maisie Williams, as Sheeran was reportedly invited to appear as a surprise for the self-proclaimed Sheerio. The personal wishes of an actor shouldn’t be granted at the expense of the show’s quality, but Williams did, at least, earn her indulgence — she was the episode’s strongest actor, and her arc continues to unfold in the most utterly compelling ways. Had Sheeran instead interrupted Kit Harington’s already-dull storyline, the Lord of Light might have risen from the ashes and sent Jon Snow straight back to the grave. And, as was mentioned — if Sheeran’s appearance really was a surprise to Williams, then she too is merely a victim in this story, certainly not the one to blame.
“Game of Thrones” holds itself to a higher caliber than almost any other show on television, and it has no excuse resorting to parlor tricks. Sheeran’s appearance was entirely disruptive to not only the sense of time and place, but to the narrative itself. In a seven-episode season, time is limited, and wasting several minutes on a cheeky cameo is a low blow to fans already mourning the show’s impending series finale.
That’s why the real criminal in this story is HBO, and the producers who wouldn’t bet on their own show’s merit. Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis that led to an absurd splurge on the palpably unnecessary cameo — like an aging man buying a Lamborghini because his Tesla no longer suited him. But this offense felt so much more egregious, as it demonstrated a reckless misunderstanding of the show’s virtues and the expectations of its fans. Not all cameos are bad — dress Keith Richards or Paul McCartney up enough and at least they look like pirates, fitting for the delicate setting they are entering with the perils of their recognizable fame.
And that is why we charge HBO — not Ed Sheeran, not Maisie Williams — with artistic negligence. Justice will be served in a trial by combat against The Hound. Let us hope that television shows everywhere take note, and let us hope that Ed Sheeran’s acting days are long behind him.
Shannon O’Hara is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].