April 15, 2019
‘Game of Thrones’ Returns to ‘Winterfell’ With a Busy Hour of Table-setting and Doomsaying
Game of Thrones is back with its eighth and final season…which means that a series known for its unwillingness to take any prisoners no longer has a reason to let the castles stand and keep heads on their shoulders.
The season premiere, “Winterfell,” follows the grand series tradition of moving pieces into place before the proper storm begins. And there are many, many pieces, even as the game table itself has shrunk to only two key locations: Winterfell, stronghold of House Stark, and King’s Landing, stronghold of House Lannister. Oh, and the army of the dead, wherever they happen to be at the moment.
/Film’s resident Westeros experts Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson will be examining these final episodes together, discussing the merits, debating the issues, and maybe even harmoniously agreeing on this grand conclusion. Join them below.
Invasions of the North
Ben: Northerners don’t take kindly to strangers, and it’s hard to blame them: Ned Stark’s father and brother were murdered by Daenerys’s father, the Mad King, before the show began, and they’ve heard tales of the Targaryens and their dragons torching cities (did you notice that imagery on the astrolabe during the show’s slick new title sequence?). So it stands to reason that Dany would receive an icy reception from Sansa and the rest of the North, especially when paired with the fact that Jon has now renounced the King in the North title they thrust upon him. But while the Northern suspicion struck me as valid (the Queen does have a Lannister among her ranks, after all), I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we’ve heard all of these suspicions voiced before. I’m wondering how much of that repetition was because the showrunners knew it’s been almost two years since an episode has aired, so they’re just hammering home the dynamics as they kick off this season. Did all of the strategic conversations in the North – even between Sansa and Jon – strike you as overly familiar?
And a bit farther up the map, Tormund Gianstbane and Beric Dondarrion somehow survived the collapse of the Wall (shh, don’t worry about the specifics!) and made it to Last Hearth, the ancestral home of the Umbers. There they meet up with Jon’s old pal Dolorous Edd, the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and discover the Night King has sent them a message in the form of one of this episode’s most memorable visuals: Ned Umber’s blue zombie eyes opening over Tormund’s shoulder. Why would the Night King think to leave a message for anyone when all he’s concerned with is marching south and wiping out humanity? The show doesn’t seem interested in questions like that…at least not yet. But a flaming little boy with appendages attached to the wall in a circular pattern around him sure makes for an arresting image. What did you make of these two different Northern invasions?
Jacob: I think that lil’ Umber turned into flaming pinwheel zombie was one of the most unsettling things the show has ever put on screen and ties right into what we’ve heard before: the White Walkers have a thing for being “artists.” So I’ll allow it, even if I’m not sure who the intended audience was for such a spectacle. Honestly, I’m just happy that Tormund lives to breathe another day, at least for now. His glorious beard gives me life, Ben. Life. And while we do see him and Beric dive away from the collapsing wall in he previous season finale, you are correct: how the hell did they climb down the wall in record time, especially with Eastwatch, and presumably its lift system, decimated? Call this the season 7 hangover – the show ain’t got time to bleed, er, deal with questions like that anymore.
As for the other northern invasion, I feel like I’m going to be more positive than you on this one. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a Targaryen (well, besides Jon) in the North, and it’s a big, historic, monumental deal. Even if some of this feels familiar, I can’t help but feel like it’s also totally necessary. We’ve heard of the Northern distrust of anyone from the Southern kingdoms before, but this is the first time we see that distrust, which feels entirely justified from their point of view, actually play out among everyone and not just a select few. With that said, I can’t say I’m looking forward to Daenerys vs. Sansa this season. She’s rightfully suspicious of the Dragon Queen, but damn it, an army of zombies is coming!
Jacob: Hey, Euron Greyjoy is back! And no one, not even Cersei, is happy to see him. Part of me appreciates this guy’s role on the show: the man with so much power (that navy!) that he cannot be ignored, but also a man so vile and irritating that even his staunchest allies can’t stand to be in the same room for very long. To me, Euron’s punchable face is a feature, not a flaw – it emphasizes how few allies Cersei has left that she has to literally sleep with this son of a bitch to keep him happy. I’m still not sure if I totally buy Cersei letting him into her bedroom (I’ll get into that more below), but I love that we’ve reached the point where so many people have died that the Queen has to ally herself with this guy to ensure victory…and to transport 20,000 mercenaries across the Narrow Sea. Ben, did Cersei’s repeated, hilarious line about her disappointment with not having elephants feel like a meta-quote from the showrunners? Because you damn well know something had to be cut from the budget and elephants feel like the first thing that would go.
Of course, the bigger news here is that Theon finally gets his act together and rescues Yara, a mission that goes off without a hitch and ends almost too cleanly. She’ll go retake the Iron Islands, giving Dany and Co. a place of safe harbor if necessary, while Theon will return to Winterfell to fight alongside the Starks and presumably face his demons. Honestly, this felt more like an excuse to get Yara out of the way and to position Theon in a place where he can get a redemptive death. Am I being too cynical about this?
Ben: I have a feeling we’re dealing with a case of Chekov’s Elephant here: the show can’t in good conscience mention them that many times only for them never to materialize, can it? Maybe Daario and the Second Sons can find a way to transport elephants over to Westeros and join up with Team Dany, because the look on Cersei’s face would be priceless.
And I don’t think you’re being cynical about Theon and Yara, just practical. The show is fully in the endgame now, and this is one of its last opportunities to move those chess pieces into place. Everyone’s focusing on Winterfell, but Yara’s thinking one step ahead. I loved her plan because it’s a nod to the show’s bread and butter: ancient houses jockeying for position, swooping in for a power grab when the moment is right. But yes, Theon’s totally going to die.
Dany and Jon
Ben: After temporarily defusing tensions from Lyanna Mormont and the rest of the Northern lords, Jon and Dany take a walk through the Winterfell grounds, where Dany expresses concerns about their situation. The pair have grown comfortable enough around each other that the Breaker of Chains can shoot Jon a subtle look, one that means, “Hey, boyfriend, I can only do so much here, so help me out, won’t you?” But intriguingly, Dany ends the conversation by saying, “If [Sansa] can’t respect me…” just before they’re interrupted by Dothraki riders. That’s one hell of a thought to be left unfinished, especially considering how the Mother of Dragons has treated those who oppose her.
That interruption, of course, leads Dany and Jon to their big dragon flight moment. The only dragon riders in Westerosi history have been Targaryens, and that still holds true in this episode, even if our characters don’t know it yet. But while the visual effects look better than they did during the escape from Meereen’s fighting pits back in season 5, this struck me as something the showrunners wanted to be a fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing moment…and I kinda wasn’t feeling it? Maybe it’s because the dialogue leading up to it didn’t land for me, or maybe it was that their final destination, while a great place for a kiss, didn’t seem to provide any answers to how to feed Drogon and Rhaegal, which was ostensibly the reason for the trip in the first place. What did you think about that moment? And here’s a curveball follow-up question: do you think Varys’s ominous observation from the battlements (“Nothing lasts.”) could be planting a seed for an inevitable split between this “handsome couple”?
Jacob: Oh, I’m starting to think this couple is doomed. No romance lasts on this show. At least, no happy romance. The final scenes (we’ll get there soon enough) really send that home, too.
I liked the dragon flight more than you, mostly because Kit Harington does a fine job of riding an amusing line between exhilaration and terror. While the scene doesn’t exact answer any questions, it’s my kind of cheese: two pretty people kissing in front of a waterfall, complete with a wacky animal reaction shot! Look how happy they are! Which translates to “look how doomed these fuckers are” in Westerosi.
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