Game of Thrones comes back to us in quite frankly, spectacular fashion. Not that we were waiting or anything. Nah, not us. Two years. No biggie. Season eight, episode one, “Winterfell”, is very much setting the pieces in place moving forward for the remainder of the series. It’s an episode of reunions, and first meetings. An episode of progression and forward momentum. It’s an episode with a distinct air of things to come. Winter is here. And in this recap/review, so are spoilers.
First thing you’ll notice is that the iconic opening credits are vastly different. For one, we move through Westeros from the perspective of the Night’s King. From The Wall, now with a gaping hole in it, down to The Last Hearth, ancestral home of the Umbers. On through to Winterfell, and then King’s Landing. I am a big fan of essentially mapping the path of the Army of the Dead with the flipping of the blue/grey tiles as we move south. My best guess is that with most of this season is taking place in relatively few locations, an expanded sequence for both Winterfell and King’s Landing is necessary, but also very much welcome. I’d be paying particular attention to the emphasis put on the crypts of Winterfell, just in case we get some dead family members coming back in the next couple of episodes.
The credits, however, are nothing on the opening scene of the show. A clear and glorious homage to King Robert’s arrival in Winterfell from the pilot. An unnamed northerner boy climbs to get a better look, much like Bran and Arya did; whilst Arya is smiling at the young fellow, much like Ned and Catelyn were. Complete with mirroring shots and even the rousing theme of The King’s Arrival back from S01E01. So much of Game of Thrones is about patterns. Repeating the mistakes, or diverging from those, of the generation before. Such a poignant way to start the final season of an epic show, and made even more so by the end of this episode also mirroring the final scene of the pilot; but we’ll get to that later.
That said, I was not a huge fan of Tyrion and Varys’ cock and balls jokes. Since the show diverged from the books there has been a marked increase in dwarf and eunuch jokes, and I mean, sure, they have their place. But it does feel a bit gratuitous at times. I wouldn’t mind if they dialled it back, just a tad. It also took me some time to adjust to how much shade Sansa was throwing Daenerys’ way, but I’m pretty sure that residual frustration at the Arya/Sansa animosity from last season, whereas a healthy scepticism of Dany actually makes sense in this case. We also pushed very quickly passed Bran’s exclamation that the wall has fallen, and The Night’s King now has one of Dany’s dragons. Could’ve explored that moment a tad longer.
We then have a meeting of the leaders of all the great northern houses, where Liana Mormont gives voice to the collective thoughts of the north. They don’t know, or trust, this new Targaryen queen. I do love that Sansa pointed out how on earth they’re going to feed the greatest army the world’s ever seen. Hunger is far less cinematic than war, but no less deadly or less real for the time period. Tyrion makes the grave mistake of announcing a Lannister army riding north to their aid, which will be interesting next episode, now that Jamie is in Winterfell, which Sansa later points out isn’t the smartest notion: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive”.
With all these reunions, a rather enjoyable moment between Arya and Jon: “How did you survive? I didn’t.” Before a somewhat strained moment between Arya and The Hound, and then a very deliberate and specific meeting of Arya and Gendry. It looks like the blueprint given to Gendry might be the weapon we see Arya wielding in the trailers for the show. Furthermore, I must be the only person online who isn’t shipping the two of them, having always seen their relationship being much more of a sibling nature than a romantic one. But then again, that’s never stopped anyone on Game of Thrones, so we’ll see what happens there.
Moving south, in King’s Landing, it’s interesting to see how blatantly Cersei is sticking to her guns. As Qyburn tells her the dead have breached the wall, she simply says “good.” With a smile, overlooking Euron’s fleet. Speaking of Euron, he seems to finally be getting some interesting character moments, now that Cersei has allowed him into her bedroom. The most arrogant man she’s ever met, bringing The Golden Company to their aid. For those non-book readers among us, The Golden Company is a mercenary army who have famously never broken their contract, despite the notorious reputation of most sellswords. It will be interesting, with The Golden Company facing a literal army of the dead, as to whether or not they live up to this reputation. It’s also worth noting that a large portion of the internet was very, very excited to see some Elephant action when Cersei mentioned The Golden Company last season. Given that the Elephants were mentioned twice, either they’re bound to show up at some point this season, or (what I think is more likely) that’s the writer’s giving us a firm nod – yes they hear us, but no, they won’t deliver. Sad face.
Okay, Theon rescues Yara. Yara headbutts him in the face. Then they have a nice moment on the ships, where Theon is sent to help the Starks, and Yara goes to the Iron Islands to reclaim her family home, giving them somewhere to retreat to when Daenerys (quite inevitably at this point) loses Winterfell. I guess a headbutt to the face is just how the iron born greet one another? I mean, sure, he could’ve stepped up a couple of times and chose instead to run away with his tail between his legs, but still. Bit harsh. Glad I don’t live there.
Then we finally get some really, really impressive dragon flying scenes. Whilst the CGI budget has grown and grown with the show, and the dragons have grown along with it, we’ve yet to get a really solid dragon flight scene until now. This was next level, and made all the more touching given it’s shared with Jon, and ends hilariously with a dragon snorting in their direction as Jon nervously glances over Dany’s shoulder. I love that we got this moment, in the same way that Igritte and Jon got their couple of hours in the cave, before the rug is utterly pulled out from under them and Game of Thrones takes its inevitable toll for being young, pretty and in love.
It’s the meeting between Daenerys and Sam though, that propels us into the final stages of the episode. At first, it’s a pleasant encounter, but that’s quickly soured with the reveal of Randal and Dickon’s deaths. Personally, I found the writing of this scene exemplary, but some of the choices made by John Bradley, the actor playing Sam, somewhat questionable. There’s no doubt this is a difficult scene to approach, given the complicated nature of his relationship to his father, but I’m not sure being left utterly distraught would have been the way I would have gone. Still, it moves us into Jon learning his true lineage. But instead there’s a brilliant moment for Kit Harrington to truly shine. He’s presented with a clear path to the Iron Throne, and his reaction is to recoil. He doesn’t want it. Which, in my opinion is precisely why Jon needs to be king, and not Dany. As Sam himself said: “you gave up your crown to save your people, would she do the same?”
This is going to be one of the most interesting arcs moving forward in Game of Thrones final season. Whilst many of us have predicated for some time now, that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, so a Jon/Dany hookup is rather icky. What we’re not focusing on, is that this is going to greatly complicate the power dynamics of their relationship. Daenerys’ entire story arc has led to her being queen, whilst Jon has intensely disliked, yet thrived in every leadership position he has been given. Now, the two young love birds will have to face that Jon, who has submitted to Dany’s rule, in fact has a better claim to the throne, even though he doesn’t want it. Daenerys, will potentially resent him for it all the same. I stand firmly on the grounds of my prediction that Dany will in fact sacrifice herself to take out The Night’s King, admitting Jon should be the ruler, not her. Even though he’d much rather it be her. Can’t wait for this story to unfold further.
Speaking of The Night’s King, that was a rather sensational moment at The Last Hearth. I’m very much a fan of how Game of Thrones manages to highlight smaller characters before they’re killed, in order to hit its emotional beats. Similar to the Wildling mother, Karsi, whom we met and was then killed before rising as a dead zombie in the battle of Hardhome; young Lord Umber had a few lines of important dialogue earlier this episode, only to later be staked to a wall, surrounded by spiralling body parts, as a ready laid trap for the remainder of The Night’s Watch. This scene was executed brilliantly, with the boy slowly opening his blue eyes behind Tormund, and the fire spiralling out was spectacular. Those spirals have come up quite a few times in the show, not the least of which is in this episode, as well as last season in the cave where Jon showed Daenerys the drawings of the Children of the Forest. It definitely has me thinking we’re going to get more explanation of the mystical elements of the show. Perhaps even a connection between them all as well. The spirals are also somewhat reminiscent of the sigil of House Targaryen, so could we see a connection between the dragons, Walkers, and the Children of the Forest?
Finally, we have the last scene. One last reunion Jamie Lannister riding into Winterfell. Gets off his horse. Makes eye contact with Bran. Credits. Oh boy, am I keen for next week. Also, absolute shout out to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and the amazing acting he pulls out for that two-second shot of him realising who he’s looking at. Sublime. This brings an end to the episode in much the same way the pilot ended, but this time with Jamie casting eyes upon Bran, and not the other way around. Both episodes are pushed forward by a large cast meeting one another for the first time in a long time, so it’s a very fitting homage.
Overall, a sensational start to the final season of Game of Thrones. A rapidly building pace is propelling us forward, and we can see where some story arcs are going to wrap up soon, whilst others are just beginning to take shape. My guess is the battle for Winterfell which we’ve got coming up in Episode 3 will be a loss, but will firmly solidify Daenerys as someone the north can trust.
Notable characters missing from this episode are few, but I will highlight that Melisandre rode off on a secret mission, I don’t think we’ll see her until later in the season, but it’s worth not forgetting about her. The only other aspect I missed is Ghost. That poor wolf is always forgotten. Surely we can spare some of the dragon budget and throw in a dire wolf every now and again, is that too much to ask? Hopefully he makes an appearance next week. Keen as a jelly bean! 5 more episodes to go.