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Game of Thrones Season Premiere Recap: Family Reunion

Game of Thrones

Winterfell
Season 8 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****

Game of Thrones

Winterfell
Season 8 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

The final season of Game of Thrones starts where this whole madcap, fire-infatuated, snow-covered, incest-propaganda-film of a series originally began: at Winterfell, with a royal procession, and a small boy climbing to take in the sights, his eyes large at the sight of thousands of Unsullied marching through the gates. Of course, this time it isn’t Bran gazing out in wonder, and it isn’t Arya scampering underfoot, in awe of the fighting men and their swords. Those two are much older, wiser, far more serious, and filled with the unhappy knowledge brought about by adulthood and experience.

The Game of Thrones showrunners promised us that this last season would have echoes of the first, and it did. There was Gendry, back swinging his hammer in the forge. Sansa pouted in a jealous huff just as marvellously as she did when Arya shot a spoonful of slop across the table at her during King Robert’s feast at Winterfell. And don’t forget that artistic array of body parts, courtesy of the White Walkers, exactly like GOT’s first-ever opener. Like that episode, this one was all about set-up, putting the chess figures in the right spots so they can attack at a moment’s notice. Except, where the first episode (and season) operated with a kind of “this can go anywhere” whimsy, the showrunners are now beholden to a legion of fans, George R.R. Martin himself, and of course, their endgame. There isn’t much wiggle room.

Still, this episode lays its chips out admirably. The (few living) Starks have finally reassambled at Winterfell, where they haven’t been all together since before Jon left for the Night’s Watch and the shit hit the fan. When Jon last saw Bran, the boy was in a coma. When he last saw Arya he handed her Needle, with the now slightly ironic advice that she “stick [people] with the pointy end.” The siblings’ (err, supposed siblings) reunions are as joyful as you might expect—especially considering how beautifully Jon once protected and doted on them—though strangely detail-free. (“Arya, where the hell have you been and how did you become a master swordsman over the past seven years? Please, share even one detail of the obviously harrowing journey that began when you were a mere girl and ended with you turning into a vengeful psychopath.”) Arya looks even happier to see Jon than she usually does while murdering people. Bran, in his typical deadpan three-eyed raven fashion, insists on ruining a perfectly lovely family moment by interjecting that there is no time to waste, that the Wall has fallen, and the Army of the Dead is coming. But what he lacks in dinner party small talk he makes up for in a joke! Jon: “You’re a man.” Bran: “Almost.” Ha! (Get it? He’s only kinda half human now. It’s a very funny joke to wargs.)

As for reunions, we’ve got plenty. Sansa and Tyrion, former spouses who have never, by the way, formally or informally annulled their forcefully arranged marriage, are back together on the Winterfell battlements, where Tyrion rightfully points out that Sansa kind of left him in the lurch by disappearing at the exact moment Joffrey was murdered. Like every other reunion this episode, there’s a lot of verbal dancing around the other, sliding in jabs about past affronts but also offering side-smiled remarks of backhanded admiration. (“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.”) Tyrion and Sansa’s balance, however, feels a little off. Yes, Sansa is 100 percent right that Tyrion is a fool of a Took (I know, wrong fantasy series) to have trusted that Cersei is truly sending her entire army North to help the Targaryen/Stark armies out of the goodness of her heart. (Please also note that Sansa, a woman, is the only person to ask the very practical and holy-shit-important question of what all these damn people are going to eat.) But Tyrion was as kind to her in their sham marriage as anyone could have been. In many ways, he kept her alive during that year in King’s Landing. That Valyrian steel rod is so far up Sansa’s rear that she can’t see straight, and her striking out at Tyrion feels harsher than one might expect.

Arya’s meetup with Gendry sizzles more loudly than that molten dragonglass forge he’s working in when she wanders down for some help building what looks like a double-edged staff, similar to the one she used to kill the Waif (or the Waif used to kill her, depending on what theories you subscribe to). The writers may be aiming to pair her off with one of the only men who ever cared for her without expecting something in return, though I shudder to think of Arya, with her rock-solid feminist bona fides, being paired off with anyone at all. Her rapprochement with the Hound, however, didn’t come close to the usually high level of banter we expect from one of the best roadtrip duos this series has produced. That said, here’s hoping Arya names her new weapon “Cold Little Bitch.”

Aside from the all the small bits (Theon rescues Yara a little too easily! Dolorous Edd is alive and well! Lyanna Mormont has another speech!) the episode presents three overarching problems. The first, and most perniciously irritating, is Sansa’s childish annoyance with Jon’s new-sworn fealty to Daenerys. The annoyance itself is understandable—Jon has upended the entire order of the realm without consulting her. But the demonstration is beneath a woman as smart as Sansa Stark. The sighs, the eye-rolling, all petty signs that a penis-bearing crew wrote this episode and didn’t consider that Sansa—who, bear in mind, has been abused, raped, imprisoned, and forced to spend time with the icky Robin Arryn—wouldn’t whine like a small child just because Daenerys is pretty. Sansa poses valuable questions—how will Daenerys earn the respect of the leering, weary Northerners?—but her preoccupation with Jon’s title isn’t befitting a woman clever enough to call in the Knights of the Vale and snatch victory away from Ramsay in the Battle of the Bastards.

The second problem belongs, oddly enough, to Bronn, who apparently marched straight out of the seventh season’s Dragonpit and into a brothel full of Lannister lackeys mooning over all the crispy soldiers Dany’s dragons laid waste to. Jerome Flynn, who plays Bronn, hinted that viewers wouldn’t like Bronn very much in season eight, which indicates that he just might take the bulging chests of gold Qyburn has offered him and head North to kill both Tyrion and Jaime (with a crossbow, natch Cersei), who also happen to be the closest things to friends that a man like Bronn might ever have.

Surely Cersei wants Tyrion dead, despite now knowing that he didn’t murder Joffrey. But Jaime? If anything, Cersei’s fury seems to have cooled this episode, while she sits almost entirely alone in that echoing throne room. She’s desperate, as evidenced by the fact that she lowers herself to sleep with the only character more idiotically detestable than the Sand Snakes. (In her defense, she also has a very little to do, and Euron has slightly toned down the Jack Sparrow impression. And this is entirely unconnected, but Euron has never Euron-ed so hard as when he blurts out, “How do I compare?” after screwing Cersei. Such a sad, pathetic little man.) Ordering Jaime’s death sounds like a very Cersei thing to do, but following through on it, not so much.

But still, we need some movement between Winterfell and King’s Landing to keep Cersei tied in to the narrative while the Night King approaches: Bronn’s dilemma connects the two camps and will certainly create some allegiance-shifting in the future. (Remember for a moment how Bronn snuck up on Pod in the Dragonpit episode and jokingly slid a knife in front of his throat. Now imagine how easily Bronn could infiltrate their camp without ever raising an alarm.) All the action is hovering around Winterfell right now, but let’s not forget that the ultimate path leads to the Iron Throne.

Of course, the main thrust of the episode, if you’ll pardon the expression, centers on the unbridled lust that links Jon and Daenerys, despite their similar DNA.

Their dragon ride is, admittedly, a spectacular feat of CGI (if you want to see just how pathetic the setup looks for the actors, check out Emilia Clarke’s behind-the-scenes green screen Insta post) and injects a bit of whimsy into an episode that needed to march a lot of characters into place in very quick fashion. It also nails down the fact that their relationship is more than just sex, that the two share a bond, and that unlike any other man, Jon could dare to ride a dragon with Dany and see the world from her unique vantage point as a ruler and a maverick. (I did worry for a brief moment that the two might march off into a cave behind that waterfall where he’d ravish her in a scene far too similar to the meme-spawning legend that is “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”)

However, it’s also, ahem, a wee bit discomfiting to watch a nephew and his aunt gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes, wondering exactly when they might learn the truth about the nature of their familial relationship. In the best sequence of “Winterfell,” Sam greets Daenerys with delight, reveling in the praise she delivers about his treatment of Jorah’s greyscale. For a man constantly belittled as a coward, this is a defining moment of shifting self-perception. But Dany’s delivery of the news that she slayed his father and brother sends Sam off onto a tear that colors how he delivers the news to Jon that he is “Aegon Targaryen, sixth of his name, protector of the realm and all of that.” (John Bradley handles all of this magnificently, telegraphing Sam’s anguish and relief and utter confusion over his cruel father’s death in the flutter of his eyelids and quickening of his breath.)

Unfortunately, the episode’s two greatest faults hover around this disclosure. The first is that Bran practically gave himself a hernia in season seven when he told Sam that Jon must know the truth about his parentage as soon as possible, but then lets enough time go by that Jon goes off on a dragon-riding adventure before egging Sam on to spill the beans. What were they waiting for? How did Sam move about Winterfell without Jon knowing he was there?

The other oddity is that Jon doesn’t immediately worry about the fact that he’s been committing incest. Yes, such behavior is tolerated slightly better in Westeros, and the news that his whole life is a lie does take top billing, but still. Who wouldn’t eventually clap a hand to his mouth and sputter something about how the two have been intimately acquainted in a very unfortunate way?

Sam’s confession doesn’t just push the case that Jon is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, it also encourages Jon to think of himself as a better fit. Because Sam is (justifiably) riled up about his father and brother’s execution, he makes the pinprick-sharp point that Daenerys, whom Jon earlier reassured Sansa is “not like her father,” doesn’t understand the importance of mercy for the powerful. In Westeros, it’s the Mother they pray to for mercy. Daenerys may have been the Yunkai’s “mhysa,” but on this continent she’s just a foreign tyrant.

Messages From the Ravens

• Jaime made it all the way to Winterfell incognito, only to bump into the one person in Westeros that he happened to push out a window. Does the Three-Eyed Raven hold grudges?

• That scene of sword comparison between Jon and Arya is oddly drawn out for such a tightly wrapped episode. Why hand her Longclaw and make such a fuss about it if she won’t eventually end up the owner of that sword?

• We barely see Brienne in this episode—she’s standing wordlessly behind Sansa when Jon and Dany ride into Winterfell—but she will surely play a pivotal role in determining Jaime’s fate.

Game of Thrones Season Premiere Recap: Family Reunion