I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.
This review contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 1, titled “Winterfell.” To recap where we left off, check out our review of the Season 7 finale, and for more on the Season 8 premiere, watch our Dragons on the Wall video above, or download the podcast version of our premiere breakdown here.
It’s been 20 months since a new episode of Game of Thrones graced our screens – the longest wait for a new season fans have had to endure since the show debuted. Maybe you’ve spent that time scouring the internet for intel on what might happen in the final six episodes, or perhaps you’ve been dodging every teaser and promotional photo to go into the last season completely Unsullied; either way, if you’re anything like us, you’ve probably been anticipating this episode for a long time – which might explain why it feels a little anticlimactic.
Full disclosure: I had the opportunity to watch this episode at the show’s New York premiere on April 3. That has given me more time to ruminate on it than I’ll have when cranking out reviews for the rest of the season, but my immediate reaction upon walking out of the screening is pretty aligned with how I feel now. The Season 8 opener has a number of spectacular and satisfying moments (some that feel like outright fan-service and others that are completely earned), but it also feels like a lot of set-up considering we only have five episodes after this installment to tie up a tale that George R. R. Martin has been wrestling with for decades at this point.
There’s still evidence of the narrative corner-cutting that proved so divisive in Season 7, where it seems like showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are so concerned with getting their characters from A to B, the logic of their journey becomes secondary (Theon’s rescue of Yara without breaking a sweat seems like a total rush job). Plus, Sansa and Arya’s mistrust of Daenerys plays a lot like conflict for conflict’s sake (much like the friction between Sansa and Jon did) when all of our heroes are aware that they currently have much bigger priorities than worrying about who’s bending the knee to whom.
There’s certainly the sense that this premiere is the calm before the storm. It’s entirely possible that the next five episodes will be a roller coaster of death, destruction, and drama that won’t let us catch our breath, and in that way, it feels reminiscent of the Season 6 opener, “The Red Woman.” We’re setting the table for a larger feast to come here, and while there are plenty of tantalizing morsels in this hour, it doesn’t quite add up to a completely satisfying meal after almost two years of GOT deprivation – but let’s face it, it’s still better than most TV shows ever get.
As expected after last season’s cliffhanger ending, much of this episode focuses on Jon and Daenerys’ newly-cemented status as Westeros’ most attractive power couple, and how everyone around them doesn’t quite know how to feel about it. Tyrion, Varys, and Davos think a wedding is the best course of action, because that’s generally been every “lonely old man’s” default plan in the Seven Kingdoms when it comes to forging a lasting alliance. Meanwhile, the Northerners all seem pretty salty after naming yet another King in the North who looks content to throw away all of his power and strategy as soon as he meets a gorgeous foreign woman. (The men in the Stark family certainly don’t seem to learn from past mistakes as quickly as the ladies.)
The Northerners are somewhat justified in mistrusting a Targaryen, given what Dany’s father did to Jon’s uncle and grandfather not so long ago, but the show has already spent far too much time pitting Sansa and Jon (and Sansa and Arya) against each other over the past couple of seasons just to heighten the tension. Here’s hoping that the remaining Starks all get on the same page before the Night King rocks up to their door. Someone needs to start trusting Jon’s instincts after everything he’s been through.
It’s no surprise that Jon finds out the truth about his lineage in the first episode, although his immediate response – that it’s “treason” to suggest he’s the rightful heir instead of Dany – isn’t the reaction we might’ve expected him to have when faced with that information.
Jon has never had any real desire to rule. His leadership roles have generally been thrust upon him whether he wants them or not, so it’s not a shock that he seems to have little interest in the Iron Throne. It’s also not a shock that he’s more concerned about how Dany might react to the news than about any incesty implications. (Sibling incest is obviously frowned upon throughout the realm, but marrying cousins seems par for the course among many of the great houses, so aunt and nephew probably isn’t the ickiest combination to be faced with.)
Quick theory time: It’s worth noting that the show has been emphasizing Daenerys’ unpredictability and more extreme tendencies for a while now, between the way she executed Randyll and Dickon Tarly and the way other characters have been perceiving her choices of late (particularly Tyrion, but also Sam and Sansa here). This seems to be setting up some kind of Mad Queen turn – a twist some fans have been predicting for several seasons now – which might necessitate Jon killing her to save the realm, but that feels like a misdirect, especially since it’s being telegraphed so heavily.
Despite her sometimes questionable decision-making, Daenerys has been cognizant of the history of madness in her family and the impact of her father’s violence since that pointed conversation with Barristan Selmy in Season 5, so it seems far more likely that she might be forced to reexamine the lengths she’s gone to in pursuit of power (and whether it’s been worth it) when faced with someone who theoretically has a stronger claim than her. But given that the entire premise of the show is predicated on the idea that no one deserves power just by being born with a particular name or earlier than another person, maybe Jon will be the one to convince her that she’s the best candidate for the job – or better yet, that they should trash the monarchy altogether and install a democracy, the way the Night’s Watch has chosen its leaders for centuries. The fact that Dany encourages Jon to ride Rhaegal (poetic, considering he’s named after Jon’s father) before even learning about his Targaryen blood is proof that their bond is strong, and makes for one of the most joyful moments of the episode, even if Jon’s go-to romantic cave move is a little stale now. (Sorry, Ygritte.)
In any case, because the writers and the audience know that our heroes will soon have bigger wights to fry, it seems likely that all of these potential sources of angst and infighting will be resolved by episode 2 so that everyone can keep their eyes on the prize during the Battle of Winterfell, which is likely coming in episode 3, given that the White Walkers have already reached and decimated Last Hearth by the time Tormund, Beric, and Edd (yay!) get there. (That reanimated Ned Umber moment was a deliciously spooky jolt in an otherwise fairly talky episode.)
Where Are My Elephants?
Because so many players have been taken off the board, it’s pretty incredible to realize that most of the action in the premiere takes place in only two key locations – King’s Landing and Winterfell, with a quick detour to Last Hearth – after so many years of the characters being spread across every corner of the map. The show elegantly illustrates this with its snazzy updated opening credits sequence, which actually takes us inside Winterfell and the Red Keep for the first time, as well as showing us the Night King’s progress across Westeros now that the Army of the Dead has broken through the Wall.
But the King’s Landing scenes can’t help but feel like a distraction here when there’s so much going on at Winterfell – yes, the arrival of Harry Strickland and the Golden Company will no doubt play an important role in the conflict to come, and yes, it’s amusing to see how invested Cersei was in the idea of having elephants at her disposal, but Euron’s showboating feels far less engaging than the writers obviously think it is. Lena Headey plays the hell out of her scenes, as usual – you can sense her resignation and weariness over once again being corralled into bed by a man she disdains just because she doesn’t have any better allies or options at the moment – but the less said about the convenient way the other Greyjoys are handled this episode, the better. (Clearly the showrunners wanted to get Theon back to Winterfell before the battle, but what was the point of Euron taking Yara in the first place if rescuing her was that easy?)
And does anyone think that Bronn would actually consider killing Tyrion and Jaime just for a little more gold? It all seems like a handy contrivance to get the three of them back together for the final battle (which I’m not opposed to).
The Pack Survives
Aside from Jon’s long-awaited dragon ride, most of the episode’s other high points come from its many overdue reunions. While Jon’s moment with Bran is fittingly anticlimactic (played with a dry humor, but also kind of heartbreaking if you think about it for too long) it’s still touching to realize that Jon greets his “little brother” in exactly the same way he bid farewell to him way back in episode 2 of Season 1, with a sweet kiss on the forehead. (That’s far from the only callback in the premiere, which is full of references to past episodes.)
But the best reunion is undoubtedly Jon and Arya’s – something Maisie Williams admitted Arya’s been “pining for” in our recent interview. It has its own bittersweetness, since it’s obvious that Jon still had an image of Arya as his scrappy little sister and not a hardened killer who has had cause to use Needle once or twice, but after so long apart and with Jon literally dying before he got to see Arya again, it’s a moment of catharsis that feels earned and is thankfully worth the wait.
The same is true of the first time Arya gets to glimpse a dragon – something we know she’s dreamed of all her life, between her fascination with the dragon skulls beneath the Red Keep back in Season 1, and her knowledge of Visenya and Rhaenys, sisters of another Aegon Targaryen. It’s a subtle moment, deftly played by Williams, and the awe is clear on Arya’s face when most of the other Northerners are cowering in fear. Here’s hoping Jon takes her for a ride on Rhaegal before all’s said and done.
Arya’s reunions with Gendry and The Hound are also pitch-perfect, and while Arya definitely seems too wild and disinterested in domesticity to believably settle down with anyone, it’s still adorable to see the banter between her and Gendry. Even if she doesn’t want to ever be a proper lady and get married, she’s undeniably been longing for a pack to call her own after years separated from her family, and at least she and Gendry have a mutual respect for each other that we’d like to see continue, even in a platonic capacity.
Sansa and Tyrion also get a layered moment to reconnect for the first time since Joffrey’s wedding, with Sansa now arguably far more confident and poised than her erstwhile husband. She smartly calls BS on Cersei’s promise to help Dany and Jon in the war against the Army of the Dead, and gets in one of the most perfect putdowns since Lady Olenna died, witheringly observing that she used to think Tyrion was the cleverest man alive.
It is a little strange to see how neutered Tyrion has become – both strategically and in terms of snark (literally making eunuch jokes, as Varys points out) – since he joined forces with Dany, relegated to obsessing about his queen’s love life rather than being an active participant in the action. (Over at Slate, Inkoo Kang has an incisive take on how the show has sidelined Tyrion in recent seasons.) You have to wonder if the writers are plotting some kind of eleventh-hour reveal with Tyrion having made a deal with Cersei – something fans have been speculating about since we cut away from their conversation in the Season 7 finale, since that would at least explain why such a previously vital character now seems like such an afterthought.
Luckily, the one person who knows the truth about Cersei’s double-cross comes riding into Winterfell in the episode’s final moments (security has really gone downhill lately). Jaime has now abandoned his sister and plans to warn Jon and Daenerys about her backstabbing ways, so he and Tyrion are due for a very interesting conversation in episode 2… after Jaime faces Bran and reckons with all the questionable things he’s done for love, anyway.