Monday, April 15, 2019

Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell”

For all the hype leading up to this final, abbreviated season of Game of Thrones, “Winterfell” is largely a subdued, piece-moving episode, consisting almost entirely of reunions and introductions between characters as they gather at Winterfell in preparation for the Night King’s invasion. These reunions and introductions are like an extension of the armistice summit from last season’s finale, extended to the characters who were absent from it, namely Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Sam. Now that all almost all of the major and minor characters are concentrated in Winterfell (aside from the handful remaining in King’s Landing), such reunions and introductions were inevitable, and it seems like showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss just decided to get almost all of them out of the way in "Winterfell" to pave the way for what will hopefully be more propulsive subsequent episodes.

Of course, these reunions and introductions also provide some conflict in this episode, most of it centered on questions of rule. Sansa and many of the other northern lords (and much of the common folk, it seems) neither like nor trust Daenerys. Who is she to presume to rule them? And presume she does. She tries to be pleasant when Jon makes introductions, but Sansa is cold toward her, and Dany reacts by becoming as imperious as she’s ever been, illustrated most effectively when Sansa needles Dany by asking what dragons eat, to which Dany responds, “Whatever they want.” It’s very clear they’re talking about more than dragons here. Perhaps Jon demonstrated an iota of wisdom for once and cautioned Daenerys not to announce her full list of titles upon meeting Sansa.

We saw Dany’s attitude toward her right to rule become a sticking point last season. In her previous victories against the slavers and the Dothraki Khals, she simply vanquished her opponents and either freed or enthralled those she presumed to rule, instantly winning their unswerving loyalty. In Westeros, however, things are more complicated. Not only does her name carry a lot of baggage, but Jon and the Starks are beloved by the northerners. Lyanna Mormont, following in the Olenna Tyrell tradition of speaking truth to power, puts a button on the issue: they chose Jon as their king, not Daenerys. Jon provides no strong reason for the northerners to the “bend the knee” as he did, and later, in private, Sansa suggests what none of the other northern lords would dare: that Jon swore fealty to Dany because he loves her, rather than because it is what is best for Westeros.

For her part, Daenerys seems to realize that ruling the Seven Kingdoms might be just as tricky as her stint ruling Meereen. When she meets Sam, their conversation starts out pleasantly enough, with her thanking him for saving Jorah from greyscale, but soon she discovers that Sam was related to Randyll and Dickon Tarly, whom Daenerys executed for failing to swear fealty to her. Sam, gentle soul that he is, still cries for their loss despite how terrible his father was to him, perhaps making Dany realize that viewing Westeros in Manichean terms is insufficient when the world is painted in shades of gray. On the other hand, Westeros is better without Randyll Tarly in it, so perhaps this isn't the best example for her to learn from.

Sam also complicates Jon’s view of the situation when he finally tells him about the truth of his parentage. Up to this point, as far as Jon is concerned, Sansa’s suggestion about his motivations is moot; it doesn’t matter who rules Westeros so long as they defeat the Night King. However, Sam’s revelations -- both about Jon’s heritage, and the fate of the Tarlys -- gives Jon pause. Jon might not like it, but suddenly, questions about rule matter. How do Jon and Dan compare as rulers? Who is better, fairer, more just? The one who believes it is her birthright and destiny, or the one who doesn’t want honorifics, and only cares about saving people? Sam draws explicit attention to Daenerys’s imperiousness at the end of the scene by asking a very pointed question: “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?” Jon has no response (although perhaps he's too dumbstruck by the revelation that he had sex with his aunt).

All of this -- Dany’s imperiousness, the iciness between her and Sansa, her hiding the murder of the Tarlys from Jon -- seems like it could be a prelude to making viewers feel comfortable with Jon taking the Iron Throne at the end of the series. I discussed why I’m uncomfortable with Jon usurping what Daenerys has considered her birthright in my review of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” but perhaps it won’t matter if they do as Davos suggests earlier in the episode, and marry each other. If they agree to rule together, perhaps they might even create a new throne, one for both of them. The Iron Throne is a monstrous totem, after all. It was forged by the fire from Aegon the Conqueror’s dragon, Balerion, out of the swords of the defeated rulers of the Seven Kingdoms. What better way to signal a break with the Mad King and the Targaryens of old than to make a new Throne for a new rule?

An interesting product of having so many of Game of Thrones’s characters concentrated in one location is that the length of the scenes in “Winterfell” seems much shorter than usual. Typically, an episode of Game of Thrones will feature one or two lengthy scenes centered on the characters in one of the show’s far flung locations. However, because almost all of them are now in one spot, or perhaps just as significantly, because they’re all reuniting or meeting for the first time, “Winterfell” flits about from scene to scene much more quickly than usual. Thus a lot of the reunions come across as narrative flourishes, momentary indulgences in the rich tapestry of character relationships this series has woven, rather than interactions that push the plot forward in new directions. In other words, there is a lot of fan service this week.

We can see this clearest in all of Arya’s scenes in “Winterfell,” which are nothing but a series of reunions, first with Jon, then with the Hound, and finally Gendry. All of them are sentimental, to varying degrees. Given her interests, Arya was always far closer with Jon and her brothers than she was with Sansa, and her scene with Jon honors this history while also reflecting the changes they’ve undergone since, namely that now they’re both fierce fighters, although Jon clearly doesn't realize how much Arya has changed. Showing off their swords to one another is a particularly nice touch, since it was Jon who commissioned Arya’s Needle in the first place.

Arya’s reunion with the Hound is also nice - in a way, he now knows her much better than Jon. We know from the Hound’s exchange with Brienne in “The Dragon and the Wolf” that he actually harbors some paternal feelings for Arya, and that he’s likely happy to see her here, but he’s so damaged he could never directly express these feelings. Instead, he settles for smiling with his eyes and calling her a “cold little bitch,” which is probably the highest compliment he could possibly pay her. As for Gendry, they pick up more or less where they left off, with Gendry playfully insisting that their class differences separate them, while Arya tries to dismiss them. This exchange is interesting mainly for the curiosity it solicits about the weapon she asks Gendry to make for her.

“Winterfell” ends with one final reunion, between Jaime and Bran, who last saw one another at the end of the very first episode, when Jaime pushed Bran out of a window. Like most of the scenes in “Winterfell,” their reunion is brief, and particularly muted, given that Bran is now the emotionless Three-Eyed Raven. Clearly this is a scene with larger implications for next week’s episode, particularly for Jaime, who has seemed to unwittingly jumped back into hot water again. However, after the languid “Winterfell,” some hot water would be much appreciated. Season premieres are often pretty slow on Game of Thrones, but considering there are only five more episodes until the end of the series, I hope next week's installment is livelier.

Other thoughts:

- This final season receives an entirely new opening credits sequence, one that not only features the giant hole the Night King made in the Wall, but also a trail tracking the army of the undead. It even showcases the interiors of locations like Winterfell and the Red Keep. I suppose after a two-year hiatus, there was finally time to create such an enormously revamped version of the credits sequence. Moreover, viewers are so familiar with Westeros’s geography by this point that it really isn’t necessary for the titles to show where locations like King’s Landing and Winterfell are in relation to one another (although this week we’re also introduced a new location, Last Hearth, evidently the Night King’s first stop on the way to Winterfell). The newness of this sequence is even reflected in the metal bands surrounding the sun: the first is of the Night King blasting a hole the wall, the next is of the Lannisters (seemingly depicting the Red Wedding, with a man holding the decapitated head of a wolf). The final one is of a Targaryen dragon.

- As tepid as it is, “Winterfell” still features some nice symmetry with the series’ very first episode, “Winter is Coming.” Both take place largely in Winterfell, with brief excursions to King’s Landing, and both feature the Starks lining up in the Winterfell courtyard to greet a visiting ruler. Arya’s behavior even matches – she’s late to the welcoming party in “Winter is Coming,” and deliberately absent in “Winterfell.” And each ends with an exchange between Bran and Jaime.

- At the end of the Arya’s scene with Jon, she tells him not to forget that they’re family, which made me wonder if Bran and/or Sam had shared what they learned about Jon’s parentage with either Sansa or Arya. Given Sansa’s scene with Jon later, the answer seems to be no, making Arya's dialogue a bit of foreshadowing.

- Sansa and Tyrion also get another nice reunion, one where Sansa questions Tyrion’s wisdom, although she seems to be cheating through the knowledge Bran has provided her. Still, maybe we ought to question Tyrion's cleverness as well: not only did he believe Cersei’s intention to join the fight, but his strategy for fighting the Lannisters last season was largely a disaster (Dany lost all of her Westerosi allies). His rule of Meereen in Dany’s absence was also fraught with problems. Yes, he restored Meereen to a functioning city, but it came at the cost of war with the other slave cities, a war he likely would have lost had Daenerys not returned when she did.

- Not much for Cersei to do in King’s Landing here. She welcomes the Golden Company into her employment, and Euron Greyjoy into her bed, likely because she realizes she’ll need to have someone else aside from Jaime to stand in as a plausible father for Jaime’s child, with whom she’s already pregnant. Or maybe she’s just bored. For Cersei, ruling the Seven Kingdoms seems to consist of nothing other than drinking wine and sitting in a largely empty throne room.

- Theon proves that security on the ships of the Iron Fleet is more or less worthless, since he rescues Yara just as easily as Euron decimated Yara’s fleet last season (although he does so through stealth rather than overwhelming force). Yara then grants Theon’s request to return to Winterfell to fight for the Starks, presumably in order to further redeem his heinous crimes against them. Yara then gives a clever new meaning to the Greyjoy house words, “What is dead may never die” by applying it to the undead, and then telling Theon, “but kill the bastards anyway.”

- Ironically, Cersei seems to understand the terms of Bronn's loyalty best of all the Lannister siblings, offering to pay him a ludicrous sum to murder her brothers. Bronn seems to accept the offer by taking a crossbow from Qyburn (presumably the same one Tyrion used to kill Tywin), but I’m loathe to believe he’d go through with it. I really want to continue to root for Bronn, but if decides to go after Jaime and Tyrion, he’s probably not long for this world. Perhaps he’ll give Jaime and Tyrion a chance to improve upon Cersei’s offer.

- By far the silliest scene of the episode: Jon takes Rhaegal out for a joyride with Dany, fulfilling my irrationally intense desire to see these two ride dragons together. Then they proceed to have a sex scene where, hilariously, Drogon and Rhaegal watch them keenly. The scene is largely extraneous, and a pretty strong indicator of how slow this episode is.

- Perhaps a saddle and reigns would make Rhaegal easier to control. Dany never thought to make such a set for Drogon, but it seems like it might be necessary were Jon to ride Rhaegal into battle. On the other hand, Jon’s best use might be fighting the white walkers with Longclaw. After all, his Valyrian steel sword would be useless if it's sheathed while he flies around on a dragon.

- Evidently Tormund and Beric survived the Night King’s breach of the Wall. Hurray! Also, Tormund is the recipient of the best shot of the episode, where the dead Umber child’s now-blue eyes open in the background while Tormund’s back is turned.

- Curiously absent from this episode: Brienne. Presumably she rode north with Jon and Dany’s entourage. She’ll certainly be involved next week if Jaime is put on trial for his misdeeds.

- I’d be interested in seeing some sort of interaction between Jorah and Lyanna. Is he still persona non grata with the other Mormonts? He’s her uncle, presumably.

- I half-thought Sam was going to vindictively tell Dany that Jon is her nephew right after he leaves her company. "You killed my dad and brother? Well, you fucked your nephew!"

- Jon and Sam’s scene has a couple of other nice touches as well: Jon asks if Sam had been hiding from him when Sam enters the crypt, and despite Sam’s denial, it’s immediately clear that this is exactly what Sam had been doing, because he wanted to avoid telling Jon about his parents. Also, Jon’s response to the news is to doubt that honorable old Ned would lie to him his entire life, but Sam puts it in more acceptable (and true) terms: he was protecting Jon from Robert, who would have killed Jon if he ever found out. Like with Sansa and Tyrion earlier, Sam’s knowledge of Ned’s motivation seems like a product of Bran’s encyclopedic abilities.


  1. This was a pretty decent season opener. To me it was understandable that the premiere was slow since we haven’t seen the show in two years so it’s important to reestablish our investment in these characters. Character reunions we’ve been waiting years for finally happen, new conflicts are sown amongst the characters and we get a hokey yet fun dragon flying scene with Jon and Dany (even if it ripped off the Prisoner of Azkaban).

    The way I see things, the Winterfell battle will happen in episode 3 and the remaining three episodes after that will have the survivors facing off against Cersei. Then again, following the penultimate episode structure of the previous seasons, the finale could just be a time skip showing the changes that were made to Westeros, good and bad.

    Who do you think will get the throne and who do you think will be the first to die? My moneys on Bronn, Theon, Brienne, Grey Worm or Jorah (they’re pretty much B list characters). In terms of major MAJOR deaths, I can see Arya or Sansa biting the bullet during the battle. In any other show, Jon’s scene with Sansa and Sam would set up a situation in which Dany would die, allowing Jon to step up, though considering this show’s tendency to subvert expectations, things could easily go the other way.

  2. Looks like you're right about your prediction of when the battle will be! Theon definitely isn't long for the world - what better way to prove you've found a spine than to sacrifice yourself for someone else, preferably a Stark? Grey Worm too, perhaps. We'll see.