-A review of S08E01 of Game of Thrones, entitled “Winterfell” SPOILERS!
Opening Credits and the March In:
The massive consolidation of the ‘Game of Thrones’ world which started in Season 7 has made its way to even the opening credit sequence, as our first major surprise of this episode is actually an entirely different introduction compared to what we’ve gotten for the seven seasons prior. The concept is the same, zooming around with the Citadel’s lighting to focus on specific locations, but we go deeper into the few remaining spots on the map that will matter as we head into the endgame of television’s largest show.
The break in the wall near Eastwatch with the tiles turning to ice as the pathway creeps toward Winterfell is a nice reminder of the Night King’s impending invasion, and now that all of our characters (minus the Cersei crew) are in Winterfell, we spend more time on the actual castle, whether it’s the towering Weirwood Tree in the Godswood or heading down into the crypts of Winterfell so predominately shown in all of the teaser trailers leading up to Season 8. The other spot is King’s Landing, where the tangential plot line of Cersei Lannister and her few remaining loyalists takes place. Notably, this is one of the first seasons (if not the first) to not have a cold open to start the show, instead, they gave us a scintillating recap on the “previously on Game of Thrones” segment set to a rhythmic beat and then went right into this new opening credits sequence. I may just like it because it’s different, but I definitely feel like the title sequence was really effective in communicating the urgency of the threat now that it isn’t being used to show the audience the necessary geography of Essos and Westeros in previous seasons. We know, at this point, where the Wall, Winterfell, and King’s Landing are.
Our opening scene starts a trend of striking similarities between this episode and the pilot episode way back in 2011: “Winter is Coming.” Daenerys’s magnificent army marches up the Kingsroad into Winterfell. The blaring horns in the background are the same tune as what was used with King Robert Baratheon’s arrival in the first episode, interspersed with the low bass tones of the Unsullied theme. It’s pomp and it’s warfare, and it starts a really well-made opening scene that immediately provides all of the perfect context for the themes and tones that will appear in the episode.
A young boy runs alongside the crowds watching the army and climbs a tree to get a better view, prompting a smile from Arya, who stands with the crowds nearby. It’s an innocent throwback to a time where Arya climbed a tree to get a better look at the famous knights, and Bran climbed the Winterfell guardwalls to yell down to his family about the incoming procession. We then glimpse Jon and Daenerys, riding on equal footing on their horses, side by side in the middle of a line of Unsullied soldiers. Jon looks straight ahead, serious, not bothering to make eye contact with any of his Northern people standing below him, which Arya seems to notice. Daenerys, on the other hand, notices the angry looks from the Northern townsfolk. Their reaction is clear: who are you, and why have you come to our lands? They are distrustful of a foreign ruler, and as this episode develops, it’s clear that there is some real dread about a Targaryen queen marching North with an army full of Unsullied soldiers and a Dothraki horde. She notices the stares, and Jon remarks about how difficult the Northerners can be.
However, it’s notable that Daenerys put Jon right next to her, as people like Tyrion, Missandei and Grey Worm (the latter two of whom get some racist looking stares, tough look) ride behind her. It seems that Daenerys, throughout this episode, is embracing the confident, power-couple image of her and Jon. There’s clearly no attempt to keep their affair a secret, and it actually makes me respect her more as a leader that she is so in control of her personal life. In addition, her discomfort with the stares is broken quickly when Drogon and Rhaegal roar and soar overhead, giving us a gorgeous shot of Winterfell castle and Sansa’s less-than-enthused response when they jolt past. One of my favorite shots of the episode is Dany’s smirk and increased animation in her riding after the dragons are present. It shows Emilia Clarke fully in command of her powers as Daenerys. Oh yes, this is a pro-Daenerys writer, the detractors have to suffer through it.
In the courtyard, Jon embraces Bran who has one of his thrice an episode “I’m a robot now” responses and also has a chilly hug with Sansa. When Daenerys is motioned over to introduce herself, she puts on the full flattery, commenting on the beauty of the North and of its new Lady/Wardeness. Sansa, all business, responds with a cordial “Winterfell is yours.” To Daenerys, this seems like an extreme slight, mainly because rude stares from distrustful Northerners is quite different than interacting with the North’s second-in-command, who fully knows that Dany has come North to risk her life, along with the lives of her soldiers and dragons, to protect the North. Sansa isn’t so hostile that her presence is completely unappreciated, but as we’ll see, Jon bending the knee to Daenerys and surrendering Northern independence is a problem. Both Daenerys’s confused and wounded reaction and Sansa’s coolness are entirely justified in the moment. The showrunners though, using Bran as a proxy to move the plot forward, have him blurt out “there’s no time for this. The Night King has a dragon and is coming.” This is somewhat meta, with the showrunners essentially using Bran’s line as an excuse to move us along from this pomp and circumstance. They don’t have time for this with days until the Night King’s arrival, nor do we, with only five episodes left.
Winterfell parliament commences with the lords of the North and Eyrie, Sansa stating that she called all the banners to Winterfell and Jon making a good decision to bring the remnants of the Night’s Watch down to Winterfell to aid in the final stand. The quick interaction with Ned Umber about wagons seems innocuous, but pays off in two ways. The first is that we get a spoken “my lady, my lord, my queen” statement to the three separate power figures, underscoring the issues of how what Robert Baratheon called “titles, titles, titles” will resolve. The second will be discussed when Ned Umber makes his second appearance in this episode. To Jon’s credit, it appears little Umber has done well acclimating himself to his people’s needs, potentially justifying Jon’s decisions of leaving the Karstarks and Umbers in charge of Karhold and Last Hearth (two large Northern castles) due to the century-long loyalty to House Stark and not punish them permanently for the Karstark desertion of Robb and Smalljon Umber’s open support of Ramsay Bolton in Season Six.
The same bumbling of titles cannot be said to effect Lyanna Mormont, who puts Jon on blast for bending the knee: leaving a King in the North and returning a lord to a Targaryen Queen none of them had ever met. Jon’s response is one that has permeated the show since his rise in power, a kind of patriarchal grin that is designed to gently shoot her down, as he’s done to Sansa and will do to Arya in this episode. Jon’s greatest flaw isn’t that he isn’t politically savvy, it’s that he doesn’t do enough trusting in his advisers in order to arrive at the best conclusions. He shrugs off Lyanna with what we all recognize is probably the correct response: “I did it to protect the North, we needed allies.” I think the Northern people would’ve been more supportive if he had found a way to respect the traditions of the North but also win Daenerys over. Let’s remember, Daenerys pledges to fight for him, side by side, to destroy the Night King after the ‘beyond the wall’ mission goes very poorly. Jon then bends the knee unsolicited at that point.
The Jon reunion with Arya at the Godswood one scene later has a similar tone. Their hug is nice, and you buy that their bond is a little greater than Jon’s with the other Stark children, but the talk of weaponry quickly becomes questions from Jon like ‘have you ever used the sword?’ or ‘why weren’t you there to help me with Sansa, she thinks she’s smarter than everyone.’ Arya’s response, fully demonstrating that she has shed any of the Season 7 hostility with Sansa, adequately points out that Sansa is smart, and Jon should listen. Jon shouldn’t need to be in a sexual relationship in order to listen to someone. The same condescension to Arya and Sansa is present in his exchange with Lyanna Mormont.
Going back to the Winterfell governance scene, Jon’s poorly-received “I bent the knee for the North” speech is followed up by another idiotic Tyrion moment, where he tells the Northerners that the Lannisters are on their way. Yeah, great look after all that’s happened. Tyrion’s decline in maneuvering has continued into this season. Sansa fairly asks about rationing food, but Daenerys, showing some of her conqueror spirit, responds that dragons eat, “whatever they want.” This is the episode of the side eye. As soon as one character talks, two others roll their eyes. It’s fun to watch Sansa react to Dany speak and vice-versa.
King’s Landing I:
We learned last season that there was no way Cersei was going to march her army North to fight, but her response to Qyburn is really telling about her descent into even more nastiness. She is willing to stump for the army of the dead as long as her enemies are defeated. The end of humanity does not matter as long as her enemies die as well. As we pan out, we get a scene of Euron’s ships returning from Essos, bringing the Golden Company into the fold.
For those who don’t know, the Golden Company is one of the largest sell-sword armies in Essos, often working for the Iron Bank to help recover unpaid sums of money. They are like the Unsullied or the Second Sons, but they are larger, run by commander Harry Strickland, who we meet for the first time. He obviously bristles at Euron, but hey, who wouldn’t?
Euron still has Yara on his ship, talking at her by putting some doubt about where his true allegiances lie, but also reiterating (again) that his #1 desire is to have sex with a Queen. These scenes demonstrate a carry-over problem from Season 7 of Thrones. The show knows that the pure fight against zombie-like creatures is beneath the intelligent writing and intrigue that made the series so good for so long. At the same time, the ‘go north of the wall and get a zombie to show Cersei’ plan was out of place because it was an obvious way to try to have the human conflict be the last thing we worry about. The set-up is obviously to handle the Night King first and then deal with the throne after, because the most important thing to everyone is who ends up on top at the end. The problem with all of this, now, is that none of the Cersei/Qyburn/Euron plots are very interesting at all. Euron has a ton of screen time but isn’t particularly interesting, and any intrigue about Cersei, a baby, or a miscarriage, or maybe even a deal with Tyrion behind the scenes, isn’t enough to make me care very much about the King’s Landing subplot. This extends to anything having to do with the Greyjoys. Sure, Theon rescues her. Great. (Note: if Theon’s only purpose left in the show is to parrot the line back to Jon that was given to him, something like: you don’t have to choose, you’re a Stark and you’re a Targaryen, I will be frustrated that they kept him alive for that).
Then, Cersei sleeping with Euron does feel a bit out of context. I’m not convinced that he is more or less loyal to her than he was beforehand. All it does is give us a very meme-able “I really wanted those elephants” line, and put more spark in the fire of whether she is pregnant or not. Tyrion’s conversing about seeking out a successor could matter here, we’ll see. However, Tyrion seemed pretty innocent in this episode, wrongly assuming his sister would march North. Maybe he’s just playing us, we’ll see.
Finally, there’s the scene with Bronn, where he has a sexposition scene with some King’s Landing prostitutes, and Qyburn walks in to give him a bucket of gold, Joffrey’s crossbow, and a mission to take down Tyrion and Jaime for betraying the Lannister position. This is a win-win for Cersei. If Bronn does it, great. If he doesn’t and heads North to join his friends, great: she will have rid King’s Landing of someone she definitely could not trust.
One final point on King’s Landing. Since the show has been able to drum up so much interesting inter-personal drama with Jon’s parentage and Sansa v. Dany on the Northern independence issue, I’m not sure that we needed the King’s Landing plot to continue this long. The showrunner’s likely objective in keeping human drama alive during the white walker stuff seems like it could’ve been totally achievable with the characters in Winterfell alone. Now, every time an episode cuts away from Winterfell and to King’s Landing or the Iron Islands, I will be immediately less interested. I don’t have a ton of faults with this premiere at all, but I have some pacing and planning issues in the big picture of it all.
The Northern advisers: Tyrion, Davos, and Varys all walk around Winterfell, eventually arriving at the conclusion that they should probably pitch a marriage proposal between Dany and Jon to lessen the whole ‘bending the knee’ controversy. Varys provides the “nothing lasts” line as a reminder that we still really don’t know how Dany will react to Jon’s parentage reveal in subsequent episodes. A side note is that the show always does a good job making all of the background people seem really busy doing war prep. I like that.
Regardless of the potential tenuous future in store for the Jon and Dany relationship, they’re currently doing fine, on a leisurely stroll through the encampment. Daenerys laments the lack of respect which emanates from Sansa, while Jon tries to downplay it like he’s had a bad hometown date for his season of The Bachelor. Again, in Daenerys’s defense, Sansa’s ire should not be with Daenerys herself. It should be with Jon. Daenerys is risking her soldiers and dragons to fight for the North. If anything, Sansa should be courteous and collegial with Dany, and then rip into Jon privately. But, Sansa, like Cersei, has an eye for the unpleasantly dramatic and must always embarrass Jon in front of all of the other lords. It’s not that Sansa isn’t right, or that she hasn’t been making good points, it’s just that much of this needs to be resolved privately so that Lyanna Mormont can’t take him to town publicly or so that Lord Glover doesn’t retreat to Deepwood Motte before anyone has a say.
There’s some throw-away line about how the dragons aren’t eating enough, presumably an excuse to get Dany and Jon over to them for the scene better known as GOT: The Ride at Universal Studios. It’s interesting that Daenerys just encourages Jon to climb on Rhaegal. We know that she seemed surprised that Drogon was so receptive to Jon previously, but the reason for it remains a bit unexplained. We know that the Targaryen family has a connection to the dragons, which is why, in retrospect, we know that Jon is so good with them. Surely Daenerys knows this. She may already suspect Jon having some Targaryen blood in there somewhere, but the other explanation, which is just as plausible, is that she thinks the dragons respond well to him because she does. It’s almost that because she has a psychological connection to them, they can feel that she has a romantic appreciation in Jon, so they treat him differently. However, once you ride a dragon, that dragon tends to become yours and respond more to you. You can see through the course of the flying scene that Jon quickly picks up how to fly and steer Rhaegal, prompting him to suddenly land near the nice waterfall. There’s a ton of criticism of this scene, for being a bit light-hearted, but I enjoyed it. I think a break from the intensity of what the end of this show will contain to allow Jon and Daenerys their magic carpet ride is nice. We’ve waited years for these characters to have scenes together, and I appreciate the showrunners letting their chemistry breathe, even if it’s at the expense of much needed expediency. A weird line about it being cold for a Southern girl, another line calling back to Ygritte and the cave, and Jon and Daenerys share a waterfall kiss with Drogon hilariously watching them. There’s plenty of memes to mine here, like “I won’t call him dad.” Classic.
Later that night, back at the castle, Sansa and Jon finally have the closed doors conversation a few hours too late. She asks the pertinent question: did you bend the knee because we needed her allegiance, or did you bend the knee because you love her? After Jon grins like an idiot to Sansa saying Daenerys is pretty, we don’t see his answer. Is 60-40% that bad of an answer? Like Aemon said years ago, love is the death of duty! In addition, Arya has a reunion scene with Gendry that is flirtatious and very much about the armory, and also has a rather cool exchange with the Hound.
Daenerys, meanwhile, hoping to endear herself to Jon’s main-man Sam, goes to thank him for saving Jorah’s life and seemingly offer him the Grand Maester position in the future. Sam, instead, asks for a pardon for stealing his family’s sword, revealing that he is a Tarly. Daenerys burned Randyll and Rickon? No, Dickon, that’s it, alive for not bending the knee. I viewed this as a necessary decision after the casualties Dany had taken in the war, and although it was met with mixed reception by her advisers, I don’t think this is enough to somehow place doubt in her ruling ability. It’s as if so many fans of this show, and maybe even characters, have forgotten how much good she’s done. She’s ruthless, sure, but she’s ruthless because she will be ruling over a continent of hard-ass men and women. Failure to submit after losing a battle and refusing to take the Black, as it was offered to them, results in death. That doesn’t make her the Mad King. One wonders if Sam would’ve logically felt the same way if it were a common folk that she burned alive instead of someone related to him. Also: can someone tell Daenerys that the guy whose family she roasted alive is one of Jon’s friends and present at Winterfell. You have Varys, Tyrion, Davos, etc., and not one person can let her know? Jorah fucking knows the guy. “Uh, Khaleesi, I’m not sure that you want to talk to him.” Problem solved.
Samwell immediately becomes the one to deliver the huge parentage news to Jon, however. Bran, now in 4G-LTE, knows he’s a bit too much of a space cadet to deliver this news, but Sam must give it fresh off the news that two members of his family were fried like crispy nuggets by Drogon. Jon, paying respect to Ned in the crypts, bear hugs Sam in a manner that speaks to their true friendship and Jon’s need for Sam’s counsel and advice by his side. Sam, however, delivers the news. Jon is taken aback, and in a great shot, actually steps back in shock from the news, almost as if he wants to distance himself from the truth. Kit Harrington does a nice job in this scene, as does John Bradley. Jon Snow’s first reaction is that he is upset Ned lied to him for so long, which Sam replies was necessary to protect him from King Robert.
It presents the problem we’ve long pondered. Jon tends to wear leadership decently well because that’s not what he actually wants. When Daenerys responds that people like what they’re good at in one of their first conversations, Jon replies “I don’t,” referring at his skill in both speeching and fighting, but not liking either. Jon has had plenty of slip-ups, but Sam appears to be trying to plant the seed that not only would Jon be a better King than Dany a Queen, but that he now actually has a birth right and claim superior to Dany’s. In truth, regardless of their biological connection, it still appears like a marriage between the two is the best way to deal with it. Daenerys listens to her advisers and provides a liberator’s perspective, while Jon can scale back Dany’s mean streak. The next episodes, both in how Jon handles it (he may opt to keep this a secret), and in how Dany takes the news that her claim isn’t the strongest has a ton of intrigue for me.
Bran tells Sam that he’s waiting for an old friend outside. It turns out to be a black-cloaked Jaime Lannister, who looks at Bran staring at him like he’s seeing a huge spider in his shower. We know from the preview of next episode that Jaime will be somewhat on trial to determine whether he should stick around. He is bringing one piece of definitive information, though. He has confirmed that Cersei has no interest in helping them.
Tormund and Beric have escaped the attack on Eastwatch by the Night King, and have traveled down, running into Edd and the rest of the Night’s Watch. If someone could point out why Edd would be that far East and not up at Castle Black, let me know. But! They run into each other and hilariously exclaim “he’s got blue eyes!” to Tormund, everyone jumpy about seeing some wights. They do find one though, at the center of a pinwheel of flesh constructed by the Night King. It’s the little Umber, dead while on his wagon mission and used as a prop by the Night King. This scene was spooky, and felt like old Thrones, a callback to Will the Deserter in the very first episode. I loved his burning shriek.
Overall, this episode had a ton of great callbacks, both stylistically and substantively. It also upped the character drama and felt like real Game of Thrones, which large portions of Season 7 did not. I understand Sansa’s reticence and buy her character motivations, but I also ship Dany and Jon and buy into their alliance as being the best possible governing tandem. Jon riding a dragon, though a bit breezy, was nice, and the horror-movie Night King reminder at the end was a nice set-up.
Photo Credit: Wiki of Thrones