GAME OF THRONES 8×01: "WINTERFELL"

A small boy is running, excitedly, scrambling nimbly to higher ground in order to get a better view of this most exciting day. It’s not every day, after all, that a king and a queen ride for Winterfell, ahead of a procession of their entire retinues. The important people have all gathered in the courtyard to formally greet the visiting dignitaries, and all the common people have turned out to watch.

(“Where’s Arya?” someone asks—but Arya is always somewhere else.)

The ruler of the realm dismounts their horse, and is greeted by the customary words: “Winterfell is yours, Your Grace.” Later in the episode, there will be a meeting at the Godswood. There will be frolicking with naked whores in a brothel. Respects will be paid to the dead in the Winterfell crypt, where the Lord of Winterfell will be offered responsibilities that he doesn’t really want.

Meanwhile—and more troublingly—the White Walkers are leaving their terrible tableaux, in which innocent children are murdered and nailed up as totems. (And those dead children, we know, will soon return as something else.)

And, at the episode’s end, a handsome but morally compromised knight will come face-to-face with a pale-faced boy, one who inconveniently knows all of his secrets.

This has all happened before. “Winterfell,” the eighth and final season premiere of Game of Thrones, deliberately takes us back to the beginning, with these (and other) callbacks to the pilot episode. (Series composer Ramin Djawadi takes us full circle as well, scoring this opening sequence to his “King’s Arrival” theme from Robert’s ride into Winterfell in “Winter is Coming.”) If we hear this episode’s title as not just a place name but a statement, we even have neat bookends for the entire series so far: Winter was coming, and then—seven seasons later—winter fell.

This is more than a structural affectation. Written by Dave Hill, and directed by David Nutter, this episode is largely concerned with looking backwards in order to gauge where these characters have come over their extraordinary journeys.

Unfortunately, as a season premiere, “Winterfell” is looking backwards somewhat to a fault, rehashing both history and arguments with which we are, by now, all too familiar. Though I don’t want to overstate my issues with either this episode or his writing in general—even the worst episodes of this show are still pretty damn good—story editor Dave Hill has been one of the most underwhelming writers on Game of Thrones. His episodes (“Sons of the Harpy,” “Home,” and “Eastwatch,” to date) have tended to be functional but largely unmemorable placeholders in their respective seasons, lacking major plot developments, emotional power, or coherent themes. “Winterfell” is another such episode: It accomplishes some necessary but thankless housekeeping, moving everyone where they need to be, and getting all the reunions out of the way. But nothing much happens, and few of those long-awaited reunions even seem to land with the power that they should. The result is an episode that feels like a box-checking prologue to the final season, not the exciting opening chapter.

I’ll also be honest: A two-year wait, and the knowledge that there are only five more episodes to come, probably makes me resent the wheel-spinning of “Winterfell” a little more than I otherwise would. Hearing characters cover the same historical ground, revise the same old resentments, and express the same old philosophies that they and we all know by heart, I felt like echoing the snarky complaint of Brandon Stark: “We don’t have time for all of this!”

But I understand how “Winterfell” happened: It’s an idea that makes sense on paper, even if the result is less than thrilling. If the episode makes us impatient as viewers, it’s because we simply know too much. We know where all these characters have been, and what they’ve been through. We know who has redeemed themselves, and who can and can’t be trusted. We know the threat of the Night King is real, and that Jon is right—at least for now—when he says it really doesn’t matter who wears the crown. (We even know the big secret of Jon’s true identity: a life-changing revelation for him that lands, for us, like the very old news that it is.)

So the way to appreciate the pleasures “Winterfell” has to offer is to constantly remind ourselves that none of the characters are such faithful, attentive viewers of Game of Thrones. The episode calls back to the beginning of the series not simply to reiterate how far these characters have come, but also to point out that we are the only ones who know how far they’ve come. For most of the characters, the beginning of this series is exactly where they last left one another.

“Your sister doesn’t like me.”
“She doesn’t know you.”

Let’s begin with the obvious: No one in the North—least of all Lady Sansa Stark—knows or trusts the Dragon Queen.

Perhaps—in our discussion of this episode that is itself about looking backwards—we should begin by reviewing some recent history, still fresh in the memory of the people of the North. Just a quarter century ago, Rickard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, was executed by the Mad King, Aerys II of House Targaryen, along with his firstborn son Brandon. It is commonly believed that the beautiful daughter of their House was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by the Targaryens. Eddard Stark, the surviving son and heir, led his people in a bloody war to successfully rid Westeros of Targaryen rule.

Then, in more recent history, Eddard Stark was himself executed by another terrible king, Joffrey I. His surviving heir, Robb Stark, became King in the North, and led his bannermen to war again, this time to rid the nation of Lannister rule. That war was lost when he, and his wife, and his mother, were all slaughtered dishonorably by Lannister lackeys at a wedding.

For a while the North suffered under the boot of more Lannister allies—this time in the form of the horrific Boltons—until Ned’s children Sansa Stark and Jon Snow rallied their bannermen to overthrow them in the Battle of the Bastards, once again claiming independence and creating a new King in the North.

Now—just months later?—the new King in the North has unilaterally decided to abandon his crown, and surrender that independence on behalf of all his people. He has bent the knee and yielded the North to the Mad King’s daughter, Daenerys Targaryen. What’s worse, her closest advisor is one of those notorious Lannisters, and they’ve promised that the whole Lannister army is marching north behind them. These dubious new rulers have rolled into Winterfell ahead of a strange and overwhelming army of exotic foreigners from across the sea, and they are riding beneath the shadow of two full-grown motherfucking dragons. 

Is it any wonder the people of the North are more than a little skeptical, and less than completely welcoming? This is a land that has sacrificed so many lives to the fight for independence that many of the great houses are being led by children, because all of the adults of those families are dead. “My people won’t accept a southern ruler,” Jon warned Daenerys last season. “Not after everything they’ve suffered.” And he was right. To the people of the North, this must seem less like a defense or a liberation, and more like an invasion.

Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) in GoT 8x01 - Winterfell

And that’s just the larger political landscape. On a personal level—and, on Game of Thrones, all politics are ultimately personal—there are grievances that can not be forgiven. Sansa Stark saw the Lannisters murder her father; she was held hostage by them, beaten by them, and given against her will in marriage to one of them. She escaped, only to be bartered in marriage to the sadistic son of the people who murdered her family on Lannister orders, a monster who raped and tortured her for months. Somehow, Sansa survived it all, and endured it all, and triumphed over it all—only to end up handing all her hard-fought power over to a bastard brother she had never really liked. Is it any wonder she might now resent his decision to hand all that power back to their family’s historic enemies?

And it must be a particular blow that she is expected to cede power now to another woman. Sansa is the eldest living Stark, but—mostly because of her gender—she sat and watched while her illegitimate brother was crowned King in the North. Cersei rules in King’s Landing. Daenerys rules from Dragonstone. Yara will rule the Iron Islands. All around her, women are breaking the Westerosi glass-ceiling, but Sansa—who deserves most of the credit for liberating the North—is the only one who doesn’t have a crown.

I am dwelling on all of this because I need to: Otherwise, you see, Sansa Stark would be driving me absolutely crazy. We spent all of last season with her squabbling with Jon, and squabbling with Arya. We heard, again and again, how she feels put upon, shunted aside, and under-appreciated.

Now, we get more of the same. Sophie Turner is very, very good (Watch the cold assessment and barely-contained bitterness she puts into the up-and-down look she gives Daenerys, just before politely yielding Winterfell to her.) But she’s not getting enough to play here: It’s just that one note of supercilious resentment, over and over again.

So it’s frustrating. But again, we need to remember where she—and everyone else—are coming from. They’ve all changed, but they don’t necessarily have reason to believe anyone else has.

Tyrion, at least, notices the changes in Sansa. “Many underestimated you,” he tells his former wife, at their first meeting since early in Season Four. “Most of them are dead now.” Tyrion is being both kind and respectful to Sansa—as he has always been—and her coldness towards him in return seems somewhat uncalled for. After all, we likeTyrion; we trust Tyrion; we know Tyrion, and we know what he’s been through. We know his motives are good, and that he doesn’t deserve her bile.

But, again, we need to remember that Sansa doesn’t know everything we know. Sansa last saw Tyrion at Joffrey’s wedding. (“Miserable affair,” Tyrion says now. “It had its moments,” Sansa responds, no doubt remembering the pleasures of watching Joffrey turn purple.) That was just four episodes after she had been forced against her will to marry Tyrion, and only two episodes after word reached her that the Lannisters had murdered her mother and brother at the Red Wedding. “Tyrion’s not like the other Lannisters,” Sansa admitted last season. “He was always kind to me.” But he was still a Lannister: He still served in Joffrey’s government; he still followed Tywin’s orders in marrying her; he was still one of her captors. When last she saw him, he was toadying to Joffrey and serving him wine. Yes, he was kind to her, but a great many people have been kind to Sansa Stark over the years, and most of them have gone on to betray her or torment her. If Tyrion served as Joffrey’s Hand, why should it be to Daenerys’s credit that he’s willing to serve as hers? And if he’s stupid enough to think Cersei is actually sending the Lannister army to help, why should she trust his judgment about anything? “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” she says now, indicating that her opinion on this—as on so many subjects—has changed.

“Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone,” Jon complains to Arya, elsewhere in the episode. “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Arya replies. I’m not sure that’s true, but she’s certainly a lot smarter than she used to be.

“You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.”

Jon and Arya in Game of Thrones 8x01 - Winterfell

With the possible exception of Daenerys, no one in Game of Thrones has changed more than Arya Stark. Dany has grown immeasurably in strength, confidence, wisdom, and power, but she has stayed, essentially, herself. Arya, on the other hand, has gone from being a bright, tenderhearted little girl to a dark avenging angel. We know Dany’s soul is still fundamentally sound—but, after all these years, and everything she’s done, we’re not so sure about Arya’s.

“Winterfell” opens, in fact, with a reminder of how much she has changed, and of everything she has been through. It is endearing and heartening to see a glimpse, here, of the excited child she used to be: She is every bit as excited to see this procession of soldiers as that innocent boy in the tree above her, and her first sight of actual dragonsclearly fills her with gleeful wonder. (Remember how much she admired Rhaenys and Visenya, Aegon Targaryen’s sisters, who rode the dragons with him 300 years ago.) We get a glimpse, here, of that little girl we met in “Winter is Coming,” who still believed in the romantic stories of heroes.

But she has changed. Standing with the common people, watching the procession as it parades into Winterfell, Arya spots three people she knows riding past, each representing a different stage of her journey: Jon Snow, Gendry, and the Hound. And they, in turn, each know a different Arya. (Jon knows Season One Arya; Gendry knows Season Two Arya; The Hound knows the Arya from Seasons Three and Four.) But the Arya each of them knows was from the first half of her journey in Game of Thrones, before she went across the Narrow Sea, before she trained to become a Faceless Man, before she learned to be No One.

And now, it seems, she is No One: She has changed so much that—to her visible disappointment—all three of them ride past her without noticing her.

Arya Stark in GoT 8x01 - Winterfell

Her reunions with these three men are each interesting in their ways. With the Hound, she is very much the dangerous, heartless assassin she has tried to become, making no apologies for having left him for dead. (“First I robbed you,” she reminds him, just in case he has forgotten.) When I wrote about that scene, in my review of “The Children,” I discussed it as a key turning point for Arya, a rejection of both the noble dream of honor (represented by Brienne of Tarth) and the violent, rage-fueled fatalism of The Hound. In neither helping him nor killing him, she chose to step outside that dichotomy and become something else altogether, sailing off at that episode’s end for Braavos and the Faceless Men.

Now, she faces him as that Something Else. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he observes. “Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Because we know Sandor Clegane so well by now, we recognize that there is respect—and even a gentle affection—in this comment. Theirs was one of the most complicated and strangely touching relationships in all of Game of Thrones, an extended mismatched-buddy comedy that was as key to each of their individual developments as the one that shaped Jaime and Brienne. So this is another of those moments in the episode when our knowledge of these characters makes us feel like their reunions are slightly skewed: The Hound really did care about her, we know, and he is a considerably better person now than he was when Arya saw him last. We hope she gets a chance to recognize that. (I mean, I can’t be the only one who hoped these two would just hug it out, right?)

Arya in GoT 8x01 - Winterfell

Her brief reunion with Gendry is equally interesting: It’s a slow shifting of gears for Arya—one that reminds us how good Maisie Williams is. She is stiff and formal when she greets him, looking very much like the emotionless Braavosi assassin she has tried to become. But Gendry remembers the tomboy who was his friend, his surrogate sister, and maybe even his crush, and he treats her as such: He teases her, calling her “milady” as he did way back at the beginning of their friendship. Very few people have teased Arya Stark recently, and fewer still have flirted with her, but Gendry does both, and you can see the dawning realization on Arya’s face that that’s what is happening. (One suspects she has almost forgotten the friendship—let alone the shared joke—but it comes back to her, and she gives one of the few genuine smiles we have seen from her in several seasons.) It’s like she’s remembering how to be a person again—a young woman with actual emotions—and by the end of the scene she’s flirting too, giving him a coquettish glance back as she leaves him.

Arya and Jon in GoT 8x01 - Winterfell

Finally, let’s talk about Arya’s reunion with her brother. I recently wrote about revisiting the first three episodes of Game of Thronesshameless plug for my book!—and it was something of a disorienting experience. I remembered, vividly, the incredibly sweet scene in “The Kingsroad” where Jon gives Arya her sword, Needle, and they exchange a sweet goodbye. It had not occurred to me, however, that this was literally the only scene these two characters were ever in together: just two minutes of shared screen-time in Seven Seasons. But those two minutes, miraculously, told us everything we needed to know: They established the loving relationship between these two misfits of the Stark clan; they showed us that Arya was the only one who really saw Jon as a full-fledged member of the family; and they showed us that Jon was the only person who really understood who Arya was.

So their reunion in “Winterfell” is a big moment, one that those two minutes made us anticipate impatiently for all of the roughly 4,000 minutes of Game of Thrones that followed. And, if it doesn’t land here with quite the emotional impact I was hoping—Jon’s reunion with Sansa in “Book of the Stranger” made me a little weepy, whereas this one did not—it was still touching to see this scary little assassin leap into her brother’s arms just like she did the last time she saw him.

But again, all the callbacks to the beginning of Game of Thrones just serve to remind us of all the things these characters don’t know. That scene is where Jon Snow left his little sister in his imagination: He had no reason to think, during all the years that followed, that she was even still alive. Now, everything he says to her just underlines these gaps in his knowledge. “Now you’re defending her?” he asks Arya, of Sansa. “You?” Because the Arya he remembers never got along with her sister, just as the Sansa he remembers wasn’t particularly smart.

And even more jarring to us as viewers is when he asks her about her sword. “Have you ever used it?” he asks her. “Once or twice,” she says, modestly, while we remember how Arya has left a bloody trail from Westeros to Braavos and back again. Her first kill was a stable boy, way back in “The Pointy End,” and since then she’s killed a lot of people. She ordered the deaths of The Tickler and Armory Lorch. She killed Lannister soldiers, and more Lannister soldiers, and outlaws. She ambushed Meryn Trant and butchered him in cold blood. She killed The Waif and peeled off her face. She killed Walder Frey‘s sons; fed them to him in a pie; killed Walder Frey himself; peeled off and wore his face; and then, just to be safe, massacred the entire Frey family. Finally, just recently, she slit Littlefinger’s throat in Winterfell’s main hall.

So Arya is underselling her experience a little. But this in itself is interesting. With Sansa—and, really, everybody else in Winterfell—Arya was eager to prove herself a formidable (if not outright dangerous) presence. Reunited with her sister, Arya started talking immediately about the people she was going to kill, and shortly thereafter she deliberately staged a demonstration of her fighting prowess for all of Winterfell to see. Here, she shows off a bit by sneaking up on her brother, but she doesn’t seem quite so eager to have Jon know how dangerous she is. Is it possible he—as her favorite brother, and the best living representative of their father’s values—makes her feel a little ashamed of the ruthless creature she has become?

I like what the show is doing with Arya so far this season. As I said in my review of the Season Seven finale, the show doesn’t have a lot of time left for the slow and subtle character development that has been its hallmark. But high on my list of things I’d like the show to deal with, here in its final hours, is some kind of reckoning with what a troubling thing Arya has become, and an answer to the question of whether she can truly reclaim her humanity.

More than any of our heroes, Arya represents one of the central themes of Game of Thrones: that an unjust and uncaring world brings corrupts the innocence of everyone within it. This, I am convinced, is one of the symbolic lessons of the White Walkers, who—as we saw in “Winter is Coming,” and as we see in “Winterfell”—take children and turn them into monsters. So, to me, the stakes of this final season—the question of whether humanity will or deserves to survive—are writ small on the soul of Arya Stark.

“You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones 8x01 - Winterfell

The last subject I want to talk about in-depth this week is the choice between Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name, and Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, otherwise known as Jon Snow.

I have been, for some time, quite dismissive of the actual game of thrones at the center of Game of Thrones. I’ve been convinced for many seasons that the show established all the complicated politics and rivalries mostly to persuade us how petty and divisive and destructive it all is. And, at this point, I’m on Jon’s side: It barely matters who sits on the Iron Throne anymore, because we don’t have the time or energy to worry about it.

But of course, the question of who deserves to rule is still of the utmost importance to Game of Thrones. In the exact same way that it matters whether Arya can regain her humanity, it matters whether Westeros can find a leader who will move it away from the brutality, cruelty, and divisiveness that has characterized it for centuries. If, as I’ve suggested, the Night King to some extent represents the human race’s judge, jury, and executioner, it’s important that the human race gets behind someone caring, decent, and empathetic.

And is that Daenerys Targaryen? I said that “Winterfell” is largely about reminding us of all the things we know that the characters don’t know about each other, and no one here knows the Dragon Queen as well as we do. (Jorah Mormont has been with her longest, but even he wasn’t there through every phase of her extraordinary rise to power. Besides, he’s besotted with her, and can’t really be objective.)

We have witnessed everything, however: We’ve followed her through Pentos, Vaes Dothrak, the Red Waste, Qarth, Astapor, Yunkai, Meereen, and back to Vaes Dothrak, before finally traveling with her to Dragonstone, King’s Landing, and Winterfell. We’ve seen her take down everyone who got in her way: her brotherMirri Maz Durrthe House of the Undyingthe Slavers of Astaporthe Second Sonsthe rulers of Yunkaithe noblemen of Meereenthe Sons of the Harpythe Dothraki khals, and the Lannister army. She’s Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen: She takes what is hers, with fire and blood, and all those who would harm her people have died screaming.

But is she a good person? Her intentions have mostly been good, but her pursuit of power has largely been based on a sense of entitlement rooted in the old, unjust power structure of Westeros. And—like Arya—she has done terrible things: justified, mostly, but terrible. She has crucified people, and she has beheaded people, and she has burned a lot—I mean, a lot—of people alive. Apart from the Night King, there is not another character in all of Game of Thrones—not Arya, not Cersei, not Joffrey or Ramsey or Walder Frey—who has racked up as high a body-count as Daenerys Targaryen.

Sam in GoT 8x01 - Winterfell

Which makes her confrontation with Samwell Tarly perhaps the most important moment in “Winterfell.” Is there a more fundamentally decent person than Sam in all of Game of Thrones? Good natured, unfailingly kind, smart and wise and ethically sound, Sam is as good a candidate as any for being the clear-eyed conscience of the show. He’s one of the crippled, bastards, and broken things who grew up in horror—suffering an appalling lack of empathy from his father—but somehow turned out decent and empathetic anyway.

And Dany burnt his family alive. I love this scene, because Dany has never really been confronted with the human fallout of her ruthless rise to power. In Meereen, she had to face a few consequences of her actions: Hizdahr zo Loraq told her about what a good man his father was before Dany crucified him with all the other noblemen (but Hizdahr zo Loraq was kind of a prick, and his father was a slaver); and a farmer came to her in tears and laid the charred bones of his three-year-old daughter at his feet (but that could be written off as unfortunate accident).

This is different. Dany didn’t care about Randyll and Dickon Tarly, and probably hasn’t thought about them since she killed them. They weren’t real to her: They were just an excuse to demonstrate her power, make a point, and convince the other lords to bend the knee. (She ignored Tyrion’s pleas to spare them, and his warning that behaving like this would lose her support throughout Westeros.) But Sam is—if not an equal—an ally, the best and most trusted friend of Dany’s lover. And she likes him, even on first meeting: He’s the savior of her friend Jorah Mormont, after all, and she’s obviously amused and endeared by his sheepishly requesting a pardon for borrowing books from the Citadel.

So it means something when this soft, kind man stands before her and cries, absorbing the genuine consequences of her brutal management style. You can hear in her voice how lame and cold-hearted her hardline excuses sound to own ears now. You can see it register on her face how her callous policy positions translate to actual pain for actual people. As I’ve argued endlessly, Game of Thrones is largely about the need to see other people as actual people—not objects and abstractions—and therefore to understand the consequences of your actions and inactions towards them. Here, Dany gets a powerful lesson in that principle from the sweetest, most empathetic man in Westeros. (So empathetic, in fact, that he can genuinely mourn a father who disowned him and wanted to have him killed.)

Sam and Jon in GoT8x01 - Winterfell

Bran (who is, incidentally, another of the Stark children who has become something of a monster) recognizes this as the right moment for Sam to tell Jon his true identity. And Bran is right: Sam is in exactly the right mood to tell his friend that he—not Dany—is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

As I said, as a big revelation this scene falls a little flat: We already know all of this, and neither Kit Harington nor Jon Snow has the emotional range to make receiving this news interesting by itself. (Jon looks sullenly burdened at hearing this news—which is how Jon looks when he wakes up in the morning.)

But to the extent that this final season will answer the question of who should sit on the Iron Throne—not who will, necessarily, but who should—this is an interesting development. Because Sam is the show’s conscience, and—even not knowing everything we know—it’s taken him about three minutes to assess Queen Daenerys with devastating accuracy. For all her good intentions, she is still addicted to ruling through fear and the ruthless use of power; she is still dangerously entitled and objectifying of everyone she doesn’t know personally, viewing them as things to be either acquired or disposed of. She is not a bad person—she has done good things, for good reasons—but she is not, ultimately, a different kind of ruler from the ones that came before her.

And Jon is, which is why the most decent man in Westeros has chosen him to be King. Jon has executed men, as he points out to Sam now, but he really didn’t have much choice: He never did it just to make a point, or to demonstrate his strength, and he never, ever, enjoyed it as Dany does. He’s accepted power, and wielded power, but he’s never particularly wanted power, let alone felt entitled to it. He’s taken it when it was for the greater good, and relinquished it when that was the best thing for everyone. “You gave up your crown to save your people,” Sam says. “Would she do the same?”

I think we know the answer to that. I don’t know who, if anyone, will end up sitting on the Iron Throne five episodes from now, but I think—here at the beginning of the end of Game of Thrones—I’ve finally picked my winner.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Welcome back to Game of Thrones, for the final time. This was (for me) a relatively short piece this week, which is partially a factor of my running late with other projects, and partially a factor of my not liking “Winterfell” very much. I hope to have these reviews up by the Tuesday or Wednesday following each episode’s airing, but my regular readers know that deadlines are a moving target for me. As always, bear with me.
  • My biggest problem with the episode is that we know so little of the arguments taking place here will matter. So much of what goes down in this episode is attributable to the fact that so few people have seen the Army of the Dead, and they probably don’t completely believe it exists. But the Night King, as we see at the end of the episode, is already making his presence known, having consumed House Umber in his path. Once he, and his dragon, and the rest of the White Walkers are rolling through the North—adding entire villages and houses and families to their army of the dead—all of these arguments will end. All the people who are being pissy now—Sansa, and Arya, and Lyanna Mormont, and all the other butt-hurt Lords of the North—will understand that they’ve been acting like children, still playing the silly game of thrones. They will see that—as Jon keeps telling them—that none of this matters. And that means, unfortunately, that “Winterfell” is an hour of largely wasted energy: It isn’t seeding future conflicts, because those conflicts will soon, and inevitably, prove irrelevant.
  • Speaking of the Night King: Looking at the horrific tableau he leaves in Last Hearth—with poor Ned Umber, who Jon spared in “Dragonstone,” at its center—it struck me for the first time how much the White Walkers like spirals. So much of this show is about the spiraling consequences of actions—particularly of cruelty, and particularly on children—that their warning to all of humanity seems less mysterious than it used to.
  • I realized this week that I have never written a word about the exquisite opening titles of Game of Thrones, except to occasionally note an addition to the map. I may try to rectify that before we’re done, but this week we get a whole new opening sequence. It’s gorgeous, of course, and I like how it actually goes inside the locations rather than just viewing them from a distance: That, too, seems appropriate given how our intimacy with this world has grown over seven seasons. My favorite thing about it may be the tiny details, however: Note how the bands around the astrolabe now feature symbols of recent history, like this one that clearly represents The Red Wedding: Before the backdrop of the Frey Stone Bridge, a Bolton-flayed-man kills a Stark-wolf, while a Lannister-lion has a Tully-fish in its jaws.
  • Astrolabe Red Wedding detail in GoT 8x01
  • I know, I skipped so much stuff this week. (I like to avoid writing about stuff that annoys me.) But let’s go over some of it:
  • Theon’s rescue of Yara was so absurdly easy that I don’t know why they even bothered to have her captured in the first place.
  • Euron is way too cartoonish a villain for this show, and I hope Cersei gets tired of fucking him quickly and has the Mountain rip his spine out.
  • Don’t even get me started on the How to Train Your Dragon date. I get that we probably need to establish that Jon/Aegon can ride a dragon. I even get that we probably need to give Jon and his favorite aunt some happy-sexy bonding time. But Clarke and Harington still have a tragic lack of chemistry, and the characters’ pillow talk is kind of painful. (“It’s cold up here for a southern girl,” Jon says. “So keep your queen warm,” Dany replies. Gag. I have never missed Drogo and Ygritte more.) Mostly, this sequence was a ridiculous waste of the precious time remaining, and a disappointing display of the special effect shop’s usually reliable powers. (The dragons still look amazing, as they always do. But putting people on top of them convincingly remains a problem.)
  •  I really do understand that Bronn’s brothel scene was a callback to Tyrion’s similar scene in “Winter is Coming,” but that didn’t make me like it any better. (I like to think this show has mostly moved beyond responding to memos from HBO’s CEO of Tits.) It was, however, a little amusing that the whores couldn’t stop talking about how many of their friends Dany roasted long enough for Bronn to get in the mood.
  • So Cersei’s commissioning Bronn to kill both of her brothers, using the crossbow Tyrion used to kill Tywin? It seems a little specifically elaborate, and it seems like she could have killed either or both of them last episode when she had the chance. And is her plan now to pass off the child in her womb as Euron’s? (That’s the only reason I can think of why she’d sleep with that guy.) Would the kid still be a Lannister then? (That’s how it works in England, for example, but Westeros has never had a queen and the rules are uncertain.)
  • I did enjoy this exchange: Tyrion: “You should consider yourself lucky. At least your balls won’t freeze off.” Varys: “You take great offense at dwarf jokes, but love telling eunuch jokes. Why is that?” Tyrion: “Because I have balls, and you don’t.” I could offer some humorless blather about how this joke perfectly illustrates the lack-of-empathy theme that is central to Game of Thrones, but really, it just made me laugh.
  • Finally, I should probably insert a more explicit plug for my new e-book, Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things: The Unaffiliated Critic’s Guide to Seasons One through Three of Game of ThronesIt’s the first of three planned volumes collecting all my long-winded writings about this show, and it includes reviews of every episode from Seasons 1–3, including three never-before published essays on the show’s first three episodes. If you enjoy my reviews, this is a great way to read them, and an even better way to support my work here at the Unaffiliated Critic. You can order the book from Amazon here.

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3 thoughts on “GAME OF THRONES 8×01: "WINTERFELL"”

  1. As always I very much liked your review.
    I'd like to add that Sansa too, has been willing to give up her own power for the benefit of her people, but she has still a much smaller perspective of who her people are. Somehow I always had a feeling that within this series empatic ruling must come from a female character, so I would find it somehow disappointing if the ruling would fully go to people from a brotherhood.
    But considering how Sansa plotted a cruel death for Ramsay (deserved, but nonetheless cruel), how much more ruthless Dany, Yara or Arya will be, I agree that because of the development these characters have made, the men who are still alive turn out to be kinder and more empatic in the end. Jaime is shown with shame and guilt this episode, the Hound is able to forgive Brienne and Arya.
    Even throughout the series, we had kind men, like Tommen and Sam, there just always have been so many villainous men that we rooted for a woman to win. Now, with Cersei as queen (and Yara, Dany and Arya as other violent options) the tables have turned from a gender perspective.
    So I too root for Jon.

  2. So – am I the only one starting to slip out of Dany's camp? I took her at her word (as did many) when she promised to "break the wheel" – which she may indeed succeed in doing. But she too seems tied to the old ways, the old patterns and is simply trying to build a new wheel. Better for some, perhaps, but not as revolutionary a visions as what her followers are committed to bringing about-
    Almost like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders being elected president and unveiling their new healthcare plan that offers everyone a 5% discount on all premiums instead of the universal healthcare for all they've been promising…

    My bet is on Jon "winning" and then having his dragon melt the iron throne.

    Really appreciated the perspective you gave that the characters don't know what we know. When I re-watched the episode, those seemingly superfluous/wasted moments became more necessary IMHO.

  3. Theon's rescue of Yara was so easy because Euron's crew is notoriously comprised of all mutes. So if they don't have any bells or other noise-makers around, there's no one to sound an alarm in an ambush; slight flaw in the plan on Euron's part, I suppose.

    I think that is not only the crossbow Tyrion used to kill Tywin, but also the crossbow Joffrey used to torment people for several seasons.

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