Game of Thrones, Television

Game of Thrones – ‘Winterfell’ (8×01)

It would be remiss of me, as an enormous Game of Thrones fan, to let the final season go by without sharing some thoughts week on week.

I’m conscious, however, that full and in-depth critical analysis won’t truly be possible until the finale has aired, at which point I’ll be going back and starting to tackle Season 2 and working back toward the end. I have already deep dived Season 1, as you may remember, and they will probably get a polish once the entire show is completed.

My plan then, in the spirit of George R. R. Martin’s books, is to write up thoughts on each character journey and use them as a prism to explore each episode. With a show like this, built heavily on theory, escalation and payoff, this feels like one of the best ‘in the moment’ methods of reviewing the show – indeed I did just that for Season 6 in my days writing for Flickering Myth. 

Enough preamble then, and with a warning about major SPOILERS – down into the crypt we go…

JON

We have to start here, don’t we? If Jon clumsily riding Rhaegal doesn’t end up one of the series most iconic scenes, I’ll eat my dragon’s egg. Honestly, I expected Jon to learn the truth about his parentage and being heir to the Iron Throne before the battle kicks off (in 8×03 apparently) in this episode, but I was half hoping for Bran taking him on a time travel spooky trip and allow for some historical scenes, but Sam breaking the news definitely has more emotional impact and, as Bran says, Sam is one of the few people he’d believe it from.

Quite how it builds to this revelation, with Jon’s honour and loyalty to the Starks and the North being questioned by just about everyone, is neatly done but, honestly… does anyone expect Jon to *not* do the noble thing by this stage? It feels a little forced to engender some home conflict, even with Daenerys lurking around being standoffish.

DAENERYS

Speaking of whom… Dany is very detached across the entirety of this episode, which is perhaps understandable given the Winterfell populous she’s facing. She’s the sexy foreign Queen, and daughter of the Mad King, swooping in having tamed their self-crowned King of the North and acting a little like she owns the place. The North remembers, remember.

In an episode full of symmetry with pilot episode Winter Is Coming, Dany’s arrival and greeting Sansa in the courtyard is almost an exact parallel to when Robert & Cersei arrived to see Ned & Catelyn years before. The moment where she quite coldly tells Sam about killing his father & brother shows how detached from human emotion she really is – she may be Queen, she may be technically a good guy, but empathy for the ordinary people? That’s something she’s going to have to learn.

SANSA

Let’s not beat around the bush: Sansa immediately pretty much hates Daenerys from the moment she sets eyes on her. There are some interesting indications that Sansa has learned well from the late, (not so) lamented Littlefinger here – she doesn’t buy Dany’s charms and flattery, detecting she has compromised Jon’s Kingly rule in the North, and she’s far more aware of how Jon earnestly rejecting the title the common folk bestowed on him could lead to internal political problems (later proven when the Glover’s abandon the cause).

She also calls out Tyrion (technically still her husband, right?) for his naivety in believing Cersei is sending an army to help. Sansa may be brittle and hard to love, but Arya may well be right – she could be the smartest person in the room now.

ARYA

The girl who is no one does a lot of “lurking” as Sansa comically describes in this episode, but we get some key moments with Arya that pay off and set up. The arrival of the dragons at Winterfell is seen for the wonder they are via Arya’s excitement at them (much as the boy climbing the ramparts to see Jon & Dany arriving mirrors Bran doing the same in the pilot for King Robert’s retinue).

More fun comes in her interactions with the Hound and Gendry, two key figures in her past who she hasn’t seen in a long time. You can see how much the Hound influenced her (and there’s a sense he knows it) and there remains a hint of girlish awkwardness around Gendry (who she clearly has a bit of a crush on). It’s interesting how she effectively reminds Jon to remember where his loyalties lie too, with the vaguest of hints she could make him pay if he doesn’t…

TYRION

Poor Tyrion. He’s perennially put in the position of being distrusted and having to try and explain and talk people around, convincing them he’s not the enemy. Thankfully the most is made of Tyrion becoming one of the cluster of ‘elder statesmen’ around the place these days – there’s a nice sequence in which he, Varys and Davos discuss the bigger picture around Jon & Dany, given a touch of poignancy in Varys’ final warning that “nothing ever lasts”.

Maybe it’ll be different this time but Tyrion seems less hopeful these days. He might have his blinkers on with Cersei for one thing. That, or, as many suspect, he knows something about Cersei’s plans that not even Sansa can guess…

CERSEI

Though the lion’s share (pun intended) of the action takes place at Winterfell, we get some great moments here which underscores just how isolated and in some respect powerless Cersei now is. She is forced to take the swaggering, quite literally cocksure Euron into her bed in order to guarantee the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company (led by one Harry Strickland, who looks suspiciously like a younger, bronzed Jaime) sticking around.

She has plots and plans, yes, including setting up Bronn to potentially kill both her brothers when the day is done, but she looks and is covering up deep vulnerability. Quite where they’re going with Cersei is excitingly hard to predict, especially given she’s pregnant. You sense she has a major ace in the hole we don’t yet know about…

THE GREYJOYS

Euron is so much fun here. His sole motivation is getting his end away and I kind of love him for that. In a world filled with people either noble or bitter or just plain earnest, a guy swaggering around trying to get some in the midst of an impending apocalypse is great to watch.

Him dicking about with Cersei does allow for Theon’s rescue mission of Yara to happen a bit swiftly, mind; ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’ suggested a much bigger, maybe season long final arc for Theon there, a sister-saving redemption in which maybe he takes out his mad uncle in the bargain, but well… a few axe throws and she’s saved. Hmmm. Feels engineered to set up a safe haven for Jon & Dany on Pyke when they lose Winterfell more than anything, but if it allows for Theon to have a redemptive death helping save the Starks, then symbolically that may be more satisfying than the alternative.

THE DEAD

Inevitably, there isn’t much occurring with the army marching south yet. The season was always going to creep them back in – indeed they get more to do in the (awesome) revised title sequence which displays their march past the Wall, and indeed foreshadows their decimation of the Umber’s at Last Hearth, as Tormund & Dondarrion encounter a harrowing image of an impaled young Umber lord on the Night King’s sigil which could mean various things….

It’s enough to remind us the dead are terrifying, they’re marching, and it’s all going to kick off very soon…

JAIME

The sting in the tail is Jaime rocking up silently and secretly to Winterfell and we get a beautifully haunting final moment where he sees just what he did to Bran and his expression says it all. It’s the perfect conclusion to an episode which has deeply resonated with the pilot, which of course ended with Jaime pushing Bran to a fall which crippled him.

It’s this kind of narrative skill in the storytelling which makes Game of Thrones, even with all of the fantasy trappings, still a character show at heart.

NEXT WEEK…

More chickens coming home to roost, I expect. The big thrust will be Jon dealing with the truth of his lineage and the reverberations when Dany finds out the man she loves is A) her nephew and B) the rightful heir to a throne she has spent her entire life waiting to claim. Will this pull them apart irreconcilably? Possibly – just at the point the dead come knocking at Winterfell, which will surely be how 8×02 ends.

Fine start to the season though. This is a show brimming with confidence that runs like a Swiss watch at this point. Each week between episodes is going to be pretty torturous.

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