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Game Of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1 Review: “Winterfell”

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Spoiler Alert! This review contains details about the season 8 premiere. Please turn back if you want to avoid reading any spoilers.

Fans have waited almost two years for the new season of Game of Thrones, and now our watch has ended. Or rather, now our watch can finally begin!

Clocking in at a disappointing 55 minutes – after waiting so long and with only six episodes in this final season, we frankly deserve more – this episode is all about exposition and nostalgia, tying together the pieces for us to get the ending underway, and to reunite our still-living characters.

Royalty hasn’t visited Winterfell since episode one of the series. We are invited to look back and remember everything that has changed between then and now. Arya, once precocious and innocent, watches with a smirk as an unknown child climbs a tree to get a better look at the marching army. She used to be that. So did Bran.

Ramin Djawadi’s music hearkens back to the series premiere by re-using the “The Kings Arrival,” which we have not heard since. But now it is updated, less fanciful, and overlaid with the regimented and fiery music of the Unsullied. The Northerners watch severely, stoic and judgmental, as the Unsullied march on. They don’t trust outsiders, and Missandei and Greyworm feel tangibly uncomfortable, as exotic to the North as the North is to them.

Arya, unnoticed, watches the procession. She is going to be reunited with a lot of people this episode. Some of those reunions will be warmer than others. And one will even be a little hot…

The first lines of dialogue are a touch disappointing – a bland dick joke from Tyrion, at Varys’ expense. Sansa’s later jab at how Tyrion used to be clever really rings true. The writers have not been kind to the once brilliant Tyrion over the past several seasons. The character (and us) deserves better, smarter writing. There are a few delightful zingers throughout the ep – just none from Tyrion.

In come the dragons, and there is nothing like seeing a full-grown dragon for the first time in your life. Arya feels exhilarated. Sansa’s reaction is… strange. I have to blame Sophie Turner’s acting on this one. But yes, the dragons fly in, and mama’s proud. Daenerys may feel uncomfortable in the frigid North, but at least her babies – the ones still with her, anyway – bring her comfort.

Daenerys’ position is interesting, and she must is tow a fine line. She has promised to aid in the fight against the dead of course, and as ever she must assert herself as Queen. However, her attitude is more like that of a girl meeting a boyfriend’s family for the first time. And that family is, well, strange. Emotionless Bran spouts off prophesy, murder-face Arya is nowhere to be found, and the most normal of the three, Sansa, throws shade at Daenerys from the get-go.

Awkward introductions aside, Jon finally reunites with Bran. And with Jon home, we have every person of Stark blood still living in the same place – and in Winterfell — for the first time since the beginning of the series.

Inside Winterfell’s Great Hall, the Lords convene. Poor little Lord Umber is trying his best, and he goes to gather more men, an unfortunate mistake. Lyanna Mormont is none too pleased with the presence of the Dragon Queen, and neither are the rest of the Northerners. They feel betrayed. Not only did they name Jon as the King in the North, but Northerners have historically met horrible ends at the hands of both Targaryens and Lannisters. And the North, as they say, remembers.

Sansa, bitchily, brings up a fair point – Winterfell can’t sustain food and shelter for these huge armies, let alone dragons. Sansa attempts to throw shade at Daenerys, but Dany is unphased. “What do dragons eat anyway?

Whatever they want.

Sansa, channeling her late-mother and Queen Cersei with her stubborn mean-girl act, may have been through a lot and grown considerably (although 0x100 still equals 0, but that’s just my opinion of the Stark girl). But imagining she can non-chalantly contend with the Dragon Queen is foolish. With just one line (and a wicked side-eye), Sansa is demolished.

Next, Sansa and technically-still-husband Tyrion are reunited. Considering everything Sansa has been through, it makes sense that she has put up an emotional wall, but Tyrion was never anything but good to her, in a world where she can say that about hardly anyone else. But her attitude toward him is harsh and mostly unapologetic.

Bran, meanwhile, creepy-watches from below.

At the Weirwood tree, Jon is busy brooding when Arya sneaks up on him. This is a long-awaited reunion, and the one I was most excited to see. With so much genuine emotion between the two of them, you can see through to their hearts, you can almost see them as kids again. Arya still carries Needle – Jon’s gift to her — with her. But Jon’s gotten an upgrade since last they saw each other. She does not reveal her Valyrian steel to Jon, reluctant to trust even him with most details about her life, as further shown when she severely downplays her history of combat.

Apart from the reunion itself, the scene is most important as it serves to underscore their pack mentality. Arya reminds Jon about the importance of being a Stark, which will be all the more important with the coming revelations regarding his lineage later in the episode.

In King’s Landing, Queen Cersei – still looking masterfully sharp and domineering – is feeling pretty damn great with herself. “Good,” she says, in response to Qyburn’s reveal that the dead have broken through the wall to the north. She’s sitting pretty on the Iron Throne, about to be reinforced by the Golden Company, while all of her enemies fight and die, or so she hopes.

Things aren’t quite as swell as she hoped though. Fewer men arrived than she had hoped. An acceptable amount of horses. But no elephants. And now she has to deal with Euron Greyjoy.

Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon,” Cersei preached way back in Episode 9 of Season 2. Although she’s come a long way, and developed a cruel mastery of and taste for all sorts of violence, we see that even now, even as queen she still believes the same: “The best one’s between her legs.

Euron is basically just a horny and impudent boy, swaggering through life to fulfill his whims. Although the allure of bedding the Queen is at least partially informed by the desire for power, it is likely lost on him what a power-play it is that he is able to convince Cersei to sleepwith him.

I have read some other episode reviews (written by men), and I think the female psychology here might be lost on some male viewers. Sure, it might well be true she is horny, and it might even be true that she is legitimately turned on by Euron’s arrogance (although please take notice of her diversionary response to whether he pleased her), but make no mistake: she did not want to sleep with him. We have always seen that when she is feeling lusty or desirous, she shows it. She did this for power. She did so to maintain his allegiance and his fleet. To me, the most powerful moment in this entire episode is the moment after Euron leaves the room, in which we see the restrained tears in Cersei’s eyes. She’s a queen, and an objectively horrible person, but she is also a woman.

Pictured: Euron Greyjoy not reading clear female body language.

Maybe to convince herself that sleeping with Euron was not being unfaithful to Jaime, and maybe using her typical coping mechanism of unbridled anger (coupled with her other notorious coping mechanism: wine), Bronn is interrupted from a classic HBO romp by Qyburn. Bronn honestly seems almost thankful to be rid of the awkward conversation the whores were providing, and Qyburn cuts to the chase. Use this crossbow – kill the “treasonous” Lannister brothers. Not just Tyrion: brothers, plural.

Cersei wasn’t able to follow through with her bluff at the end of last season and do away with Jaime herself. Maybe he’s the one thing in this world she still loves. And perhaps that, to her, is also a weakness. What Bronn will do, who can say? His allegiance is ever-wavering, his own self-interest always at the forefront. But he has a rich history with the Lannister boys, so I am not sure that Cersei could buy these services from him so easily. It’s also hard to look that far ahead when they’re both in the North, and Winter is here.

Back in the North, the dragon babies are barely eating. Daenerys says they don’t like the North. Can you blame these magical fire beasts for disliking a wintery wasteland where their brother died and there’s nothing fun to eat? This seems to be true for Daenerys too. Her fire needs kindling, and here there is mostly a lot of ice and silent Northerners. No open opposition (yet), no slaves to free, no one to worship her.

Except for Jon.

The dragons have taken a liking to Jon (cough, Targaryen blood, cough). Dany follows their cue. They are like puppies who want to be pet.

Daenerys decides to give Jon Snow a gift – or a test – inviting him to ride the dragon. The sequence is fun. Sure, their hair doesn’t really blow in the wind as they’re zipping through the sky, and sure it’s a little bit like watching a Quidditch match in a Harry Potter film, but it’s okay. It’s still totally worth it. Because Jon Snow is riding a dragon, and that is enough.

It’s enough for Daenerys too, and the lady is turned on at his successful flight. Although the scene’s romance is toned down by the awkwardness of Ygritte’s evoked memory – and of puppy-dragons watching them make out – the lady is turned on, and the couple (while related) is just beautiful. “Keep your Queen warm,” she purrs.

Game of Thrones: normalizing incest since 2011.

Jon and Dany aren’t the only ones trying to make heat as Gendry is at work in the forge, crafting weapons out of the mined dragonglass to fight the impending undead horde. Arya has a twofer reunion, first with the Hound. Arya has had a slew of mentors throughout the series, and as gruff and unlikable as the Hound could be — both aesthetically and because he did kill Arya’s friend the butcher’s boy at the beginning of the show – Arya did grow to care for him, and learned a lot from him that would prove to be quite formative. The Hound begrudgingly cared for her too, so it is with delicious and subtle subtext that they exchange brief curt remarks to each other. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you. Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Within that line is anger, hurt, love, amusement, and the fact that he’s even proud of her.

Once the Hound leaves, Arya and Gendry are able to cutely flirt. It’s refreshing to see Arya like a teenage girl, and it’s hopeful to dream that maybe old Robert Baratheon’s dream of uniting his house with the Starks could prove true. At the time in season one he was referring to Sansa and Joffrey, and wasn’t even aware that Gendry was his son, but now this hope, and the longstanding bond between the houses, could be solidified. And it would be adorable.

Back to Sansa’s displeasure with, well, everything, she scolds Jon about his bending the knee to Daenerys. House Glover refuses to ride to support the Starks, and that’s just one symptom of his renouncing his title of King of the North.

Truthfully, Sansa would be unhappy no matter what, and would probably be less uppity if Dany weren’t so beautiful, but she does voice the concern of the entire Kingdom. The trouble is that Jon is actually right – in times of absolute peril, the title of King doesn’t mean much — it’s just that everyone always thinks he knows nothing.

Daenerys decides to thank Sam Tarly – whom she may know is her lover’s best friend. Maybe that’s partially why she is so forthcoming with the honest truth that in one of her Khaleesi moments she burnt Randall and Dickon Tarly to a crisp. John Bradley does a phenomenal job as Sam, trying to restrain all of his opposing emotions in front of the woman who killed her family members, and who is his queen.

“Hi, I’m Daenerys. Mother of Dragons. Breaker of Chains. Killer of your family. Nice to meet you.”

Three-Eyed Raven Bran chooses this moment – either strategically or out of a complete lack of emotional understanding – to recruit Sam to tell Jon about his parents. Sam doesn’t really want to do this, but it is important, and it is also retaliation against Daenerys.

He finds Jon in the catacombs, which is a dramatically wonderful place to hold a scene about lineage. Sam drops the L+R=J bomb on Jon, who is not Jon at all but Aegon Targaryen, 6th of his Name, and the rightful heir to the throne.

This is huge news for Jon for about a hundred reasons, and Kit Harrington nicely acts through processing the information. He doesn’t want to be King, but he does want what’s best for the realm, and this is information he cannot ignore. Unfortunately, he won’t have long to process these new facts before more dire events get underway.

As the episode wraps up, we need to prepare ourselves for the impending doom that’s coming in the rest of the brief season.Beric Dondarrion and Tormund Giantsbane enter the creepy snow castle of the Umbers. There are quite a lot of blood-stains, but no bodies. We know what that means.

Inside is little Lord Umber, nailed to the wall with bloody limbs in a spiral. A message from the Night King. As the creature comes to life and is lit ablaze by Beric’s flaming sword, its inhuman screams are truly horrifying. This is what we must now prepare for.

To really finish off the episode, Jaime finally arrives at Winterfell. As he comes face-to-face with Bran, both of them having transformed as characters so utterly, the episode really strongly bookends the mirroring of the first episode. Had Jaime not pushed Bran out of the window, no one would be where they are now.

A few more thoughts:

  • This episode did not have a lot of action, but the rest of the season is sure to be very dense and serious, so this was like the foreplay we all needed.
  • An updated intro focuses on the few places on the map that still matter. We are introduced to the visual of the Last Hearth, as well as the catacombs beneath Winterfell. The opening is intricate and visually impressive, feeling like a theme park ride.
  • I would love for Jorah and Lyanna Mormont to meet.
  • Jon complains that Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone. Arya defends her, saying that she is the smartest person Arya knows. I think that Sansa has grown very much as a character, but she started as a weak and whiney, spoiled child and now she thinks she is superior to literally everyone. Of course she would have learned that from Cersei, who mentored her whether she likes it or not. So Jon is correct. In a way, Arya is too, but when you compare Sansa to everyone else Arya has spent a lot of time with – with the exception of Tywin Lannister – she might be right.
  • Theon rescues Yara. Somehow. And easily. In an entire fleet of ships, Theon and some men infiltrate and rescue her without much fuss. What was the point of her getting captured to begin with? Now she wants to take the Iron Islands back. Good. She sends Theon on his way to fight for the Starks. He’ll have some reunions there too. I look forward to his death.
  • The Stark bannermen are piling in. But Davos preaches caution regarding the Northerner’s loyalty. He proposes a proposal: “A just woman and an honorable man.” But Varys is not convinced. “Nothing lasts,” he says. He’s right. The relationship is doomed, and the show itself is coming to an end.
  • The episode is titled “Winterfell,” and not just because that is the convergence of most of the action, but because it is where the show began. Dragons, Targaryen blood, the Iron Throne, and everything else wouldn’t mean as much to we the viewers if we hadn’t followed the journey of the Stark family in the way we have. Certainly there have been seemingly endless other characters and houses to follow, but the Starks were our gateway into the world, and this episode took pains to show how far everyone has come specifically through a Northern lense.
  • Jon Snow has just found out about his Targaryen blood, but that doesn’t make him any less of a Stark in sensibility. In terms of honor, decision making, sense of duty, and emotions, he reminds me of Ned more than ever.

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