REVIEW: Game of Thrones – Season 8, Episode 1: “Winterfell”
* Note: The below piece contains SPOILERS *
Game of Thrones is back, baby.
It has been almost two years since the events of Season 7. The death of a dragon. The crumbling of the wall. The truth about Jon Snow’s Targaryen heritage. And now Season 8 has arrived, and winter with it. Will the Night King annihilate all life on Westeros? Will Jon and Dany’s relationship yield under the competing pressure of Targaryen dynasty? Will Cersei continue to sit upon the Iron Throne? The TV show we all love is coming to an end, and hopefully, these questions will be answered.
Directed by David Nutter (who was also in the director’s chair for season-best episodes like “The Rains of Castemere”) and co-written by Dave Hill (who also wrote “Hardhome”), showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are bringing out the big guns for Game of Throne’s final season, opening with “Winterfell”; a solid introduction to the biggest televised event in modern TV history.
“Winterfell” boasts a new intro title sequence, starting from the destruction of the wall, through the titular Stark home, and all the way south to King’s Landing. This episode, and the entire season, will primarily focus on these landmarks – the North and the South – as the impending doom slowly makes its way through Westeros. We don’t see the Night King and his army in this opening episode, but we feel his presence. He’s coming, and I don’t think my tighty-whiteys are ready for it.
The episode opens with a young northerner making his way through the snow-laden landscape of Winterfell, hustling through mass crowds and scaling over obstacles to join the supposed parade. The sound of hooves trampling the ground and soldiers clad in armour marching side-by-side fill the air. For a better vantage point, the child scales a tree, almost Bran-esque in Season 1, and bears witness to the vast army entering his city. Queen Daenerys and her allies have arrived in Winterfell.
But this is anything but a warm homecoming for Jon and Dany. This is Sansa’s house, and the northerners are stubborn people. “You want their loyalty? You have to earn it”, Davos warns Tyrion. There’s a coldness between Sansa and Dany, a bitterness fuelled by The Lady of Winterfell’s obligation to care for her house, and for her people. A white-haired, dragon-breeding foreigner will have a long way to go in acquiring the trust from her counterpart. But does she actually need it? It’s a confrontation that will be fleshed out in further episodes, and it will be interesting to see how Sansa warms to Jon’s new lover (and aunt, don’t forget…)
There is also the issue of Jon’s self-relinquishment of his title. In the final episode of Season 6, the Northerners proclaimed Jon ‘The King in the North’; an unworthy honour for a supposed Westerosi bastard. But Jon, by swearing allegiance to Daenerys, has discarded this honour. “Your grace? But you’re not, are you?” Lady Mormont taunts to Jon Snow. It seems Sansa will have a huge part to play in the forthcoming episodes in reinforcing the Northern trust in her brother and his new Queen.
We then head South to King’s Landing, where Qyburn informs Cersei that the dead have broken through the wall. “Good”, she nonchalantly replies, looking out as the Golden Company arrives in the capital. Cersei is as enigmatic as always. Her motives are questionable, as per, but they also fail to make much sense. What good is there to come of her plan? To rule on the Iron Throne when the dead are annihilating everyone and everything in their path? Is she actually pregnant? It will be interesting to see these questions being unravelled as the season goes on, but there is one thing for certain: Lena Headey is sublime as the wine-flagging Queen.
“Winterfell” is very much an episode of eagerly-awaited reunions. There’s the double reunion of Arya and The Hound/Gendry, one cold, the other flirtatious; there’s Sansa and Tyrion, who finally meet after Joffrey’s morbidly rewarding death; and there’s also Jon and Bran, where Jon comes to the realisation that his younger brother is absolutely bat-shit crazy. But the most affectionate was the 7-season long reunion of Arya and Jon, a heart-touching moment fans have been waiting for since Arya’s migration south in Season 1. Set against the appetising backdrop of Winterfell’s Godswood, the showrunners handle this monumental moment with true grace and compassion. The pair compare swords; Arya still has Needle, Jon shows off his Valyrian steel blade, and they warmly embrace each-other in such troubled times. It’s a scene for the ages.
But Season 8’s opening episode is perhaps the weakest we have seen the writing thus far, an issue that ultimately comes as a consequence of the limited time available for the show to wrap up. The discreet blossoming relationship between Dany and Jon (ewww, incest) is shown in full force during the episode through a misjudged sequence as they soar through the bitter Northern skies, Dany piloting Dragon, Jon barely holding on to Rhaegal. It feels incredibly forced and half-assedly handled (not sure if that’s a word but I’m using it anyway). Jon riding a dragon should be a monumental task, but the stakes never feel real. It’s a moment fans have been waiting for since learning of his true heritage as a Targaryen, and to see it just brushed off in the opening episode feels like a kick in the teeth.
They disembark their dragons and stare at a nearby waterfall. “We could stay for a thousand years”, Dany says, Jon looking somewhat disinterested. There are parallels here to Jon and Ygritte’s moment in the cave in Season 3 (“We should have stayed in that cave” marked her final words). But Jon and Dany are no Jon and Ygritte, and this relationship pales in comparison to what fans were treated to in Seasons 2-3. Of course, the chemistry isn’t there this time around, which is hard to come by seeing as Harrington and Leslie married each other from their experiences on the show, and with little time left of the season, it seems a monumental task to make fans feel the gravity of their relationship in the episodes to come.
But the most frustrating moment comes during Sam and Jon’s encounter down in Winterfell’s crypts. This is the moment we have been waiting for. Sam, in a fit of rage following Dany’s confession that she charcoaled his father and brother (resulting in a wonderful emotional response by John Bradley) tells Jon of his true heritage. That he is half-Stark, half-Targaryen. That Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie. The result? Underwhelming. Without much convincing, Jon shrugs it off, and the scene moves to the next. I’ve never been kicked in the balls, but I’d imagine it feels like how I felt during that moment.
Flaws aside, the episode concludes with a spine-chilling horror sequence that is executed to perfection. Beric Dondarrion, Tormund, and co. navigate through the darkly lit Last Hearth, swords in hand ready for what might await them. There’s blood, but no bodies. But what waits is something truly harrowing, a dismembered Ned Umber pinned to a wall; a human wagon-wheel with ice-blue eyes piercing the darkness. Beric sets it alight, only to ignite the cryptic message that the Night King has left for them. That he has come. That the age of men will be tested like never before.
Winter has well and truly arrived.