TV Review: Game of Thrones - “Winterfell”

Season 8, Episode 1 “Winterfell”

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Welcome to the Strange Harbors review of the final season of Game of Thrones. Typically, I tend to avoid posting recaps/reviews of single, individual episodes, but Game of Thrones is a cultural behemoth that deserves a more in-depth look at each installment, especially in its last six episodes. Each recap/review of the final season will be written from my perspective as A Song of Ice and Fire book-reader and a fan of the show. Today, we will be covering the Season 8 premiere, titled “Winterfell.” Spoilers ahead…

After eight years, 67 episodes, seven seasons, and one massive 595-day hiatus, HBO’s Game of Thrones is finally careening towards the conclusion of its epic story. Defining and defying everything we know about pop culture for almost a decade, Game of Thrones comes close to the very definition of appointment viewing. An unmissable sit-down event every Sunday night that fuels fevered theorizing and discussion the morning after, the show is tailor-made for the internet age and the FOMO generation. Against all odds, HBO’s fledgling fantasy saga grew into a watershed of peak TV -  shocking us with The Red Wedding, thrilling us with The Battle of the Bastards, and captivating us with its palace intrigue and rich lore.

And yet, something curious happened in the later seasons of the show: slipped loose from the taut coils of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Game of Thrones lost some of its measured storytelling and narrative cohesion. The series’ prestige veneer seemed to crack the most in Season 7 - teleporting characters, fonts of exposition, and shattered immersion turned it into something...different. It’s not really the show’s fault; Game of Thrones has always been about the inevitability of its endgame. Who will sit on The Iron Throne in the end? How will humanity overcome the undead threat? Climactic scenarios that seemed so distant in the early seasons have finally reared their ugly heads, and with an end date in mind and a finite number of episodes left, something had to give in order to put the pieces in place. As a result, the penultimate season came across as a stiff, workmanlike positioning of chessmen rather than the meticulously crafted story that came before, its cut corners and rushed proceedings masked by a peppering of epic action (the loot train battle, Daenerys’ last-second rescue of Jon Snow). With only five episodes remaining and with almost nothing wrapped up, one thing is crystal clear: we will never get the old Game of Thrones back. We can, however, hope for a shift back to a more nuanced storytelling now that all the pieces are in position for the final stretch.

“Winterfell,” our first episode of the eighth and final season, is also about positioning. But where Season 7 was all about robotic maneuverings, the Season 8 premiere does a much better job at camouflaging its machinations. Opening on a young boy as he climbs and scurries amongst a crowd of Northerners witnessing the precision march of Daenerys’ Unsullied into Winterfell, the episode immediately tugs at the strings of nostalgia, recalling little Arya’s similar attempt to get a better look at the arrival of Robert Baratheon and his regalia in the pilot. Despite a shiny new opening credits sequence, much of “Winterfell” is a trip down memory lane. Writer Dave Hill and director David Nutter evoke some striking callbacks, bringing many individual moments from the episode full circle: best friends Jon and Sam in the crypts echoing Ned and Robert, the Night King’s nasty surprise for Tormund and Dolorous Edd echoing the very first scene of the very first episode, and closing the episode just as the pilot did, with Jaime and Bran. One might say that it’s manipulative, but the parallels work like gangbusters to play into the audience’s emotions, especially those of us who have been watching since 2011.

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“Despite a shiny new opening credits sequence, much of ‘Winterfell’ is a trip down memory lane.”

At times, it’s difficult to fathom that so many of our characters are finally together in one place. While Daenerys completed her six year journey from Essos back to Westeros at the beginning of Season 7, she spent much of the time sequestered away at Dragonstone, still an arm’s-length away from most of the principal players. Watching her walk through Winterfell is a strange sight, and an effective visual representation of the work cut out for her in gaining the North’s trust. Much of the politicking in “Winterfell” touches upon this enmity, as those who bent the knee to Jon Snow see him as tossing away his crown for a queen they only know as The Mad King’s daughter. Perhaps Davos Seaworth puts it best in his walk-and-talk with Tyrion, “The Northmen are loyal to Jon Snow, not to her. They don’t know her. The Freefolk don’t know her. I’ve been up here awhile, and they’re stubborn as goats. You want their loyalty? You’ll have to earn it.” Daenerys, however, pretty much does nothing throughout the course of the episode to instill any kind of fealty from her new subjects. I’m not sure if she’s purposefully written this way, but Daenerys often sabotages her parlays with hard-nosed one-liners. When Sansa brings up the deadly-serious issue of food shortage, she asks, “What do Dragons eat, anyway?” Daenerys retorts, “Whatever they want.” It’s a cute remark in a meme-ready package, but it’s an egregiously awful answer in front of an audience you’re trying to win over. Is Dany really that inept of a regent, or are the writers making a sacrifice for another water-cooler quote? I genuinely don’t know. But what I do know is that Emilia Clarke and Sophie Turner play well off of each other, both concealing their bubbling mistrust under a thin layer of cautious optimism.

“Winterfell” is also a huge episode for reunions, many of them revolving around Arya Stark. What could have come across as a rote checking of boxes is instead quite delightful - a testament to Maisie Williams as she plays up different aspects of Arya’s personality depending on her screen partner. Her long-awaited reunion with Jon is particularly fun, with the former King in the North completely oblivious to what her little sister has been up to all these years. Shocked that she still has Needle in her possession, he asks, “Have you ever used it?” Arya drily replies, “Once or twice.” As a key player divorced from the main action for so long, it’s satisfying to see Arya reconnect with those who’ve shaped what she’s become. Whether it’s her awkward tenderness with Gendry or her begrudging friendship with the Hound, it’s nice to see reminders of how far she’s come. And Arya isn’t the only one to have highly anticipated reunions; elsewhere in the episode, Sansa shares a tense moment with her former husband Tyrion, throwing him a little shade: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” Elsewhere, Bran continues to stick to his robot Three-Eyed Raven schtick, showing no emotion whatsoever when reunited with Jon.

With an anxious Jon riding the dragon Rhaegal for the first time, the episode’s big setpiece was also a great reminder of when Game of Thrones used to allow its material to breathe. Fun and exhilarating, the scene didn’t really serve a huge narrative purpose, but it did play up Jon and Dany’s budding romance and serve as a meaningful character beat. However, I’m still keeping their romantic relationship at arm’s length, if for no reason other than its skin-crawling incest vibes. Going into “Winterfell,” I was also a little concerned that Sam and Bran, who deduced Jon’s true lineage at the end of last season, would keep him in the dark for a few more episodes even when the show’s economy really can’t afford it, but I was pleasantly surprised when Sam came out with the truth towards the end of the episode. I will echo Myles McNutt over at A.V. Club, though, in saying that the show’s added little wrinkle does next to nothing for me: “Sam presents Jon with no evidence, first and foremost, and he also is clearly telling Jon as a weapon against Daenerys after learning she wiped the men of his house off the map…once more extending the show’s effort to keep the plain truth book readers have been taking as fact since the series began from being accepted by the show’s characters.”

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“Lena Headey has always been a revelation on this show, and it’s particularly great to have her in the final season in her default mode: the snake-in-the-grass villainess.”

It wouldn’t be an episode of Game of Thrones, however, if we didn’t check in on all of the players. Down south in King’s Landing (maybe Queen’s Landing by now), Cersei schemes with Euron Greyjoy, hatching a dastardly plan to have the mercenary army of The Golden Company lay in wait to clean up whomever loses the war with the undead. Lena Headey has always been a revelation on this show, and it’s particularly great to have her in the final season in her default mode: the snake-in-the-grass villainess. Euron, on the other hand, continues to do nothing for me. With no disrespect to  Pilou Asbæk, who chews up the scenery every chance he gets, the Iron Islands usurper ranks a distant, distant third when it comes to irredeemably nasty antagonists, way behind Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton (who himself was a second-rate Joffrey knock-off). We do, however, get a great moment in Lannister manipulation, as Cersei incepts the idea of having sex into Euron’s head, sneakily covering for the fact that she’s once again pregnant with her brother Jaime’s child. Oh, and Yara gets rescued by Theon in this episode, in the one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene reminiscent of Season 7’s worst tendencies. How did the wayward Theon find his sister? How did they escape The Golden Company fleet? We’ll conveniently never find out.

“Winterfell” has no business working as well as it does. On paper, the Season 8 premiere does all the things that rubbed me the wrong way in Season 7 - as an episode rife with an excess of table-setting and large swaths of exposition, I was prepared to dislike it. However, through a confluence of confident scripting, nostalgic parallels, and quiet character moments, “Winterfell” gives us a glimpse of the old Game of Thrones that I fell in love with. Narrative urgency dictates that with five episodes left, this calm before the storm is the most we’ll get of happiness for our heroes; so savor your Stark sibling reunions and dragon-riding montages, because things are about to get real nasty. And I, for one, can’t wait.

GRADE: B+