Winners: Jon Snow! Cersei Lannister! Circular narratives! Losers: Daenerys Targaryen! Narrative urgency!
Game of Thrones returned with “Winterfell,” a season eight premiere that gave fans everything they could have wanted and more, a terrific start to the series’ final run of six episodes.
[Opening a secret door in the wall, I quietly beckon you over to me, then hold a finger to my lips to indicate we should stay quiet.]
After the season seven finale “The Dragon and the Wolf” promised fans a final season that would collapse most of the action into two locations by moving most of Game of Thrones’ far-flung characters to Winterfell and King’s Landing, the season eight premiere did just that, then reveled in all the characters seeing each other again for the first time in literal years.
[We descend a seemingly endless staircase, and I hand you a torch, then whisper: “We can only speak safely in the crypts. There are ears everywhere else!”]
The episode very deliberately rhymed with the series’ very first episode, which aired all the way back in 2011. From the central premise of a large retinue arriving at Winterfell to individual shots, the whole episode gave the series a distinct feeling of coming full circle, something that will hopefully continue throughout this final season.
[“We can speak freely now,” I say. “I think they’re gone.” I look back over my shoulder at the sound of skittering pebbles clattering in the dark. “Probably just a rat. Now, anyway, didn’t you think this episode was just a little … boring? Some of the reunions were cool to see, but the filmmaking was listless, the pacing was all out of whack, and that dragon flight? Get outta—” And that’s when the sword goes through my throat.]
So let’s look at these seven winners and eight losers from Game of Thrones’ wonderful [“really kind of dull,” my voice rasps, gurgling with blood] season eight premiere!
Winner: circular narratives
Lots of TV shows try to find ways to make their final seasons reflect their first seasons. On one level, it’s human nature to look back on how far you’ve come after a long journey. And on another, it’s fun to add little winks for the longtime fans.
But on still another level, it’s a quick and easy way to buy a little gravitas you maybe haven’t earned. Just nodding toward the start can really make the audience feel the weight of the end, and it doesn’t take that much effort to pull off.
That’s perhaps doubly true for Game of Thrones, a show that can always emphasize just how far it’s come by reminding viewers that when it began, many of its young actors were literal kids. The first few shots of the season eight premiere — of a young boy running through a gathered crowd at Winterfell, followed by shots of Arya Stark watching the procession of warriors coming to the North — might make you think of how young Isaac Hempstead Wright (who plays Bran Stark and was the boy running through the crowd in the pilot) and Maisie Williams (Arya) were way back when.
But the way the story spent seven seasons expanding all the way out to encompass seemingly all of Westeros, before collapsing back down to Winterfell and King’s Landing in this episode, also has a pleasing kind of circularity to it. The final season premiere started by putting most of the major characters in one place; give or take a Cersei, we’re right back to having everybody hang out together in Winterfell again.
That could give Game of Thrones’ overall arc a feeling of an up-and-back, as the show returns to the place it started, with little having changed. But enough gigantic events have happened throughout its run that bringing everybody back to Winterfell feels almost inevitable on some level — as if before the end, we had to come back here and get as many people within its walls as possible. Speaking of which …
Loser: the ground-level political realities of George R.R. Martin’s books
In 2013, io9 interviewed George R.R. Martin about his Song of Ice and Fire series, the books that gave rise to the TV series. Martin pointed out something that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about his wise king Aragorn near the end of The Lord of the Rings: He ruled wisely. And Martin’s entire career can be summed up by what he said next:
What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs?
Martin is really, really interested in these questions. (He’s brought up some variation of the above musing on Aragorn’s reign in every interview I’ve ever read with him.) The fourth and fifth books of his series, in particular, are fascinated by how difficult it is to rule, compared to how relatively easy it is to conquer. Daenerys Targaryen finds herself bogged down in endless petty squabbles and feuds, Jon Snow is ultimately betrayed by the men he’s supposed to be leading, and Cersei Lannister keeps watching whatever power she still has slip from her hands.
The TV series started down this path but eventually decided it would be easier to lean into spectacle, greasing the skids to send its characters colliding with each other and, eventually, the White Walkers. Where Martin is fascinated by how complicated it is to be in power, the TV show has a harder time not making power seem like its own reasonable end.
All of which is to say that the premiere spends at least some amount of time on the question of how the North is going to feed a massive army, to say nothing of two dragons. (“What do dragons eat?” Sansa asks, before Dany says, “Whatever they want,” in a line that should have come complete with a laugh track.) But those questions are quickly abandoned in favor of other things.
To be sure, these concerns could all come up again. But this episode’s brief return to the nitty-gritty problems of ruling after conquering only underlines just how far Game of Thrones has left those problems behind in the name of simplifying its narrative.
Winner: Jon Snow (sigh)
Oh boy did Jon Snow get the winner’s edit in this premiere. (The “winner’s edit” is a term from reality TV, where savvy viewers can usually pick up that a certain contestant has a good shot at winning whatever competition is at hand, based on editorial choices made to highlight certain aspects of their personality. Really good reality shows use familiarity with the winner’s edit against their viewers.)
Not only is Jon humble enough to say that he doesn’t want to be king, over and over again, to many different people — a sure sign in a story like this that he’s gonna be king eventually! — but he also finds out from his ol’ buddy Samwell Tarly that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, with a more legitimate claim than his new girlfriend Daenerys.
Now, Game of Thrones never met a fantasy trope it couldn’t delight in subverting, but this feels like a lot for the show to pile onto Jon at this late a date, which suggests to me that it’s prepping us either for Jon to rule or for him to die in episode three. (Weirdly, there’s not a lot of space between these two options.) But you have to consider his arc in tandem with …
Loser: Daenerys Targaryen
Game of Thrones has never quite figured out just how many consequences to foist upon Daenerys’s dragon-mothering shoulders. It sort of did a riff on her struggles to rule in Essos from the book series, but it has often seemed to have little to no interest in her progress beyond how many more soldiers she might add to her army.
So it’s a little wild that Game of Thrones decided that its final season premiere was the time to make Dany face some real consequences, in the form of her being forced to inform Sam that she ordered one of her dragons to burn his father and brothers to a crisp (one of those apparently important plot events I had forgotten even happened — thanks, “Previously on” package!). I understand why these consequences are happening now, and I get that they function as one of the final trials Dany might have to face on her way to the throne. I even understand that this is kinda sorta a version of the politicking I claimed to miss in the series just a couple of points above.
But the scene inevitably lands with a thud, because Dany and Sam have no relationship with each other, she has no real reason to be all that upset that she had his father and brothers killed, and all we know of his relationship with them is that it was pretty miserable. I mean, yes, even if your immediate family is the worst one alive, you’ll probably have some feelings if they’re all executed after failing to win a battle against a trio of dragons, but that doesn’t mean the audience you can’t see who nevertheless watches your every move has to have those feelings too.
Loser: whatever that dragon ride thing was
On my way out of Game of Thrones’ season eight premiere event in New York City, I had a number of conversations about the episode with friends, critics, and other folks I knew in the crowd. And though opinions ranged wildly, with mine tilting toward the more negative side compared to everybody else, there was one thing we could all agree on: Jon and Dany’s romantic dragon ride was extremely silly.
Winner: Sansa Stark
I have to say — of the major Game of Thrones characters who are still alive at this point, Sansa is the one I probably would have least predicted to survive all the way to the final stretch of the story, way back when I started reading Martin’s novels in the early 2000s.
In that first book, Sansa is a bit haughty and presumptuous, and then she later becomes a prisoner of a tyrant. You can almost hear Martin mumbling to himself, “Arya. She’s more interesting.”
But over five books and eight seasons of television and a whole lot of trauma (because this story …), Sansa has become one of the story’s most interesting, complex characters. She’s a true student of the game of thrones, having learned so much from Cersei, Tyrion, and Littlefinger, among others.
But where some of those characters (particularly Cersei and Littlefinger) have shown immense cruelty, Sansa has maintained a vaguely humane streak and a fierce loyalty to her family that tempers whatever desire she has to destroy everyone else she ever meets.
Or, put another way, there’s a scene in this premiere where Arya — Arya! — calls Sansa the smartest person she knows, declaring that you underestimate Sansa at your own peril, and I found myself thinking, “Yeah, that seems about right.” She’s had one of Game of Thrones’ most consistently satisfying character journeys.
Loser: Tyrion Lannister
I’m not immediately clear on why Tyrion is even on Game of Thrones anymore. Ever since the show hooked him up with Dany, it’s struggled to use him effectively. Occasionally, he’ll offer her a good bit of advice, and that season seven scene with him facing off against his siblings was pretty fun. But the show mostly seems to be keeping Tyrion around to tease one final confrontation with Cersei, a prospect that is slowly leaking all of its tension, as evidenced by the way he does essentially nothing of consequence in the premiere.
Okay, it feels a little weird to call Bronn a “winner” when we only see him in one scene, alongside three naked women. It’s a pointlessly salacious bit that feels like the show’s most, er, naked callback to season one, with a brief moment of setup when Qyburn interrupts to tell Bronn that if he just kills Tyrion, a whole bunch of cool stuff will be his. But Bronn! He made it this far! I can’t quite believe it either!
Winner: Cersei Lannister
In a purely objective sense, Cersei is not a winner. Her plan — wait for the White Walkers and Jon and Dany’s army to destroy each other, then pick off whoever’s left — isn’t bad, but it’s also pretty pointless, because we know how distinctly unlikely it is that the final two characters left standing will be Cersei and the Night King. Game of Thrones is not going to do that. So at some point, Cersei’s plan has to fail in order for the story to finish in a satisfying fashion.
But then you watch Lena Headey swan around a scene, making bedroom eyes at Euron Greyjoy while simultaneously threatening to kill him, and you realize that we have only a few episodes left to enjoy Cersei Lannister, the show’s most fascinating character, and Headey, the actress behind the show’s single best performance.
I hereby decree that for all six episodes of Game of Thrones’ final season, Cersei Lannister is a winner. Even if she conclusively loses. Or dies. [The crowd cheers.]
What’s it gonna take to get Cersei some elephants???
Winner: Euron Greyjoy’s pirate voice
Whatever Pilou Asbæk is bringing to this performance should be bottled and sold in stores.
Loser: narrative urgency
I’ll give the premiere this: I didn’t once question just how the characters got where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, like I did for most of season seven. Now that all of Game of Thrones’ characters are in two locations, the show’s timeline has room to breathe again. So we’re no longer watching one scene followed by another that, logically, has to take place months later. Instead, we’re watching scenes that flow into and inform each other, without the need to compress and expand time as the story requires.
But maybe the result is too much room to breathe? I appreciate that this premiere needed to function as a bit of a breather, but it seems to have almost no narrative urgency. It exists solely to bring a bunch of characters back together who haven’t seen each other in ages. (And, like, I’m not made of stone. Arya and the Hound!)
Game of Thrones used to be better at this kind of storytelling, with its individual episodes still working as episodes thanks to thematic links between the characters and the always present sense that the characters were working toward something.
That’s not really the case here. I don’t know what the characters are working toward beyond “defeating the Night King someday,” but the complete lack of detail surrounding when this might happen beyond “sometime in the next five episodes” means that Game of Thrones no longer has anything like urgency or dramatic stakes. What it has is the element of surprise, a trick it already overrelies on.
Anyway, all will be forgiven if the next five episodes are pulse-pounding. But this premiere felt a little like the show resting on its considerable laurels. It’s earned some of that, but not too much, okay?
Loser: Last Hearth
Not only is Last Hearth overwhelmed by the Night King’s army, but this happens immediately after it shows up in Game of Thrones’ opening credits for the first time ever.
But hey, at least the castle gets to play host to the episode’s coolest shot, as the ice-blue eyes of a zombie boy pinned to the wall open and glow in the darkness, just over the shoulder of the warriors sent to scope out the area. It’s by far the premiere’s slickest moment. But that brings me to…
Loser: filmmaking choices
Don’t get me wrong. Premiere director David Nutter doesn’t do a bad job. All the episode’s shots are solidly staged and framed. They convey the information they need to convey as efficiently as possible. But they also have little impact. Let me try to show you what I mean.
Check out these shots from the opening procession, with the characters marching into Winterfell. We should be at least a little excited to see Jon and Dany ride in, right? Well, this shot doesn’t really nurture that feeling:
How about the Hound? What’s he doing here? What are we trying to say about him?
And how about this one? If you didn’t already know this was Gendry, would it convey in any way that he’s an important minor character in this whole saga?
And when the camera cuts back to Arya watching all this, there’s little attempt to convey her emotionality around this moment, beyond what we see on Maisie Williams’s wonderfully expressive face.
Again: This is all fine, but Game of Thrones’ scope increasingly feels like it has overwhelmed the more human elements of its story. The aesthetic of all of these images seems to boil down to, “C’mon, people! We’re losing our light!” Game of Thrones is best when it balances the epic and intimate, and even at the level of individual shots, it increasingly struggles to do that.
Winner: circular narratives
The thing about ending where you began is that you can send the characters on a journey, split them up, tear them to pieces, then reunite them, and when they come back together, there will be something almost impossible to describe about how satisfying those reunions can feel.
That satisfaction extends even to reunions where Game of Thrones has done a poor job of explaining how long it’s been since certain characters saw each other — like I could have sworn Arya and Jon bumped into each other last season, but nope!
And when the show does underline just how long it’s been, as when the final shot of the season eight premiere mimics the final action of Game of Thrones’ pilot by bringing Jaime and Bran back together for the first time since the former pushed the latter out of a window (thus setting Bran on the path to becoming an all-seeing master of time and space and losing Jaime a whole bunch of stuff, including his hand), the show doesn’t need to try to be epic. It simply is.
For as much as I grouse about Game of Thrones, it’s often casually stunning in a way that no other TV show comes close to pulling off. I’ll miss it when it’s gone. But for now, we have five more episodes to watch people living out their lives against the sweep of imagined history.
I’m still rooting for Cersei. And for Jaime and Brienne to kiss. And for Sansa to just get outta Westeros already.