For some fans, the magic of Westeros faded when Ed Sheeran popped up in the Season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones. The English singer is one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and seeing a recognizable face seemed, for some viewers, to break the illusion that the world of Game of Thrones has spent six seasons creating. But Ed Sheeran's Game of Thrones cameo actually wasn't that bad. In fact, his appearance on the show actually helped solidify the purpose of the entire scene.
In the premiere, Sheeran played one of many nameless Lannister soldiers enjoying cooked rabbit over a campfire. Ed Sheeran's voice stood out like a sore thumb, and it was enough for the passing Arya to slow down and pay attention. The soldiers were on their way to The Twins, where Arya had just finished committing a massacre that put the Red Wedding to shame. But on her way to King's Landing to cross more names off her death list, she sat with this group of soldiers and had a drink. They are not princes, they are not heroes, there is no prophecy about any of these men being Azor Ahai. These Lannister soldiers are everyday people, and that's exactly why Sheeran's cameo was perfectly executed.
Sheeran's cameo lands perfectly in the middle between two of Game of Thrones favorite casting techniques. One is casting musicians as background characters, including members of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Mastodon, Of Monsters and Men, and Sigur Rós. The other is bringing in recognizable faces for short-lived but important characters. This includes Ian McShane (Deadwood, American Gods) as Brother Ray in Season 6, and Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter) as a Maester at the Citadel in the Season 7 premiere.
Game of Thrones combined these two techniques with Sheeran to force the audience to pay close attention to a background character, and he helped show Arya the possible consequences of her recent actions. Soldiers are in the background of nearly every Game of Thrones scene and many of them die. We do not know their names or their faces, we only know that they die. Arya herself just killed off dozens of men whose name she did not know prior to meeting these Lannister soldiers. Now, confronted with Sheeran's character and his fellow soldiers, she sees that each of these men have a story. Sure, they're not epic tales of magic and mystery, but they are still stories worth telling. And if it weren't for Sheeran's voice and face, probably no one would've noticed.
Despite opening with a massacre and ending with Dany finally landing on Westeros, one of the most talked about scenes of the entire premiere episode featured a group of nameless soldiers talking about their hopes and dreams over rabbit and wine. The show used Sheeran's star power to make everyone pay attention to a few soldiers and remind Arya and the audience what is at stake on her journey. The fate of Westeros does not just affect whatever royalty does or does not sit atop the Iron Throne. It also affects each and every individual living in the Seven Kingdoms.
This meeting with Lannister soldiers may force Arya to rethink how she approaches the killing of others. Or, perhaps nothing will come of it, and she'll kill all the soldiers anyway. But if she does, viewers will know that she's not just killing faceless characters. She's killing real people with lives and families who can't help the place they were born to live in and fight for. If casting Sheeran was what Game of Thrones needed to do to solidify that point, then the show made the right choice.