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Game of Thrones Season Eight Episode 1: “Winterfell” Struggles to Heat Up

Some fresh and shiny new opening credits for Game of Thrones‘ eighth and final season portend a very different show to follow; focused on the respective homes of Houses Stark and Lannister, the title sequence preceding “Winterfell” takes a much different approach to its visual depictions of Westerosi lands. Opening on an evocative shot of the fallen Wall before heading south to Winterfell and King’s Landing, the new credits of Game of Thrones appear to preview a show interested in the depth of a society, not just how it is built, or how its complexities form and grow over time. If the first seven seasons were about sweeping across the expanse of Westeros lands, season eight posits it is time to dig within, for the deeper secrets and truths about Westeros are meant to come to light. Specifically, by diving into Winterfell’s crypt and the Red Keep, Game of Thrones suggests a season premiere finding new depth in the histories and relationships of its families. What follows in “Winterfell”, however, is the typical late-era Game of Thrones season premiere, an hour with its priorities divided between rebuilding dramatic tension, and keeping its many narrative plates spinning in perfect harmony, incongruous goals which limit the episode’s ability to deliver poignant moments – or at least, make it struggle to make those moments feel earned and satisfying.

Frankly speaking, not much happens during the course of “Winterfell”; this is mostly an hour of happy reunions at Winterfell, with Arya getting to see all the friends and family she thought dead back in the early seasons of the show. Thematically, these scenes don’t really offer any new wrinkles in understanding Arya at this point in the narrative; save for her scene with Jon at the godswood, which really shows just how much she’s changed since anyone in her family has last seen her, Arya’s central presence in this episode unfortunately feels like window fitting, a distraction from the fact there isn’t a whole lot to do until the Night Army makes its way south to Winterfell. As a device for consolidating a lot of stories and characters into one thoroughline, Arya’s presence certainly works well; however, it’s hard not to see the strings being pulled as she moves around the town, at times emotionally manipulative (Arya doesn’t stay for Jon’s arrival to Winterfell, teasing their reunion like a reality show moment) and at other times, downright boring (just about everything her and Jon talk about after they make jokes about how long ago season one was).

“Winterfell” is a typical late-era Game of Thrones season premiere, an hour with its priorities divided between maintaining its rebuilding dramatic tension, while trying to keep its many narrative plates spinning in perfect harmony.

While these reunions are expected, what “Winterfell” lacks is adding texture to those moments of reconciliation and reunion, shying away from the layers of history and characters just waiting to be grasped, and instead hoping a few wistful shots of characters hugging and making jokes will suffice as dramatically satisfying television. It doesn’t feel like “Winterfell” is really digging its nails into the crypts of Winterfell, to come up with interesting short-term conflicts with emotional stakes; rather, as Ned and Lyanna’s statues continue their eternal watch, it’s politics as usual to generate conflict, as Jon’s message of “Titles don’t matter when there’s an undead fucking army” is forgotten by everyone in the Stark homestead.

It’s tough, because the narrative of “Winterfell” is in an awkward position; it can’t have Jon Snow confronting his true identity, or the White Walkers marching into town, over the course of its first hour – rightfully so, Game of Thrones is trying to build tension to these momentous occasions. So instead, Sansa turns into petty and questioning as a proxy for every lord of the north, Jon and Dany have their awkward magic dragon carpet ride to a waterfall, and Bran sits in his chair with his smug fucking face, waiting for the Kingslayer and Three-Eyed Raven Paralyzer (not quite as fun a ring to it) to arrive in the episode’s final seconds. After being away for 20 months, Game of Thrones is clearly feeling the pressure to deliver some juicy, fan-friendly moments, and “Winterfell” is absolutely packed with them, moments that are as predictable as they are fun to see (it may be kind of rote with unnecessary sexual tension, but it’s still nice to see Gendry and Arya exchange smiles).

The most interesting aspects of the scenes in and around Winterfell is how they’re all ticking time bombs; “nothing lasts”, after all, and the tenuous partnerships between Jon, Sansa, and Dany are already ripping at the seams. Sansa and Arya are both bristling at how horny Jon is for Dany; and with Jon’s new knowledge of his place in the Targaryen hierarchy, his little sexy dragon rides through the frozen tundras are now in a new, much more awkward context. Those are hardly the only concerns, too: once Samwell finds out Dany murdered his family when they failed to pledge to her cause, and the lords of the North find out their king’s hung up his crown again, the once-promising alliances of Winterfell are rapidly splintering, right at the very moment the Stark children are coming together again.

At the same time, what remains of the Lannister family and their alliances are being fortified, by what is probably some very weird sex between Euron Greyjoy and Cersei Lannister. Perhaps the single most telegraphed development of the premiere, it’s very obvious Cersei is going to enter another lie of lineage into the annals of Westeros history; she’s going to tell the world Euron impregnated her, all while giving birth to Jaime Lannister’s final secret baby. Ruthlessly shrewd to the very end, Cersei is once again willing to lie in the name of protecting her family – and poetically, at the very same time, Jon and company are learning the damage of doing such a thing.

Euron, on the other hand, couldn’t give a fuck less about his family, high off the thrill of procuring the Iron Fleet for himself, which he’ll use to do Cersei’s bidding until he doesn’t feel like it anymore (or so he says). His drunken conquest of power, however, leaves Theon a window of opportunity to save his sister, in what amounts to the weakest, single most rushed sequence of “Winterfell”. There are hints of a strong story here, with Euron conversing with Yara on the way back to King’s Landing; but his sudden arrival and Yara’s immediate plan to get the fuck outta dodge and hole up at home is whisked away in the current of the events surrounding it, a brief, ineffective interlude to the evening’s other proceedings.

There are ways to construct an hour of television so it doesn’t feel like a bunch of boxes being checked off, which “Winterfell” absolutely embodies at times.

It’s not surprising “Winterfell” struggles to assert itself as anything more than a reunion episode; however, there are ways to construct an hour of television so it doesn’t feel like a bunch of boxes being checked off, which “Winterfell” absolutely embodies at times. It’s really not until the final act of the hour, when Samwell trips over his face and Tyrion stumbles over his own dumb ass, that it feels like “Winterfell” is putting its foot ever-so-slightly on the gas; Sansa and Samwell asserting their positions in the stronghold are the only moments of “Winterfell” that offer any intriguing or surprising elements (especially once Dany casually floats the idea of burning Sansa at the stake), the rest mostly serving as a bookmark for reminding the audience where everything stood at the end of last season (nobody mentions Littlefinger though, which is interesting – I’d love to hear what Varys thinks of the end of his reign over the machinations behind the crown).

With the stakes so high as Game of Thrones begins its final season, it is reassuring to see the show briefly pause and reflect on its return; but using a number of meaningful reunions as a proxy for emotionally satisfying storytelling is not a recipe for a memorable episode, which “Winterfell” is not. It is almost workman-like in its steadfast dedication to reinforcing its position in the larger narrative; like Bran smirking in every corner of the titular location, “Winterfell” thinks it is deeper and more resonant than it actually is, over-reliant on inert nostalgia and teasing Big Moments, at the expense of a unique, or even satisfying, arc for the hour.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • one interesting development at King’s Landing: Bronn’s ironic threats come true as he’s contracted to take out Jaime and Tyrion. Though I have to wonder if Cersei would really think this is a good idea? He’s totally not going to change his mind, right?
  • I know it had to happen, but the Jon & Dany Ride Dragons, Aww Isn’t It Cute sequence feels unbelievably forced. Is it just me, or do Jon and Dany not really have any actual chemistry together, both the characters and the actors playing them?
  • Arya wants Gendry to make a cool new weapon, one I’m sure she’ll want to use to kill Cersei.
  • Tyrion completely buys into his sister’s false promise to bring her troops north; Sansa giving him the big “DUH!” might be the best scene of the episode.
  • Wouldn’t be a Tyrion/Varys reunion without a nutsack joke!
  • Tyrion and Sansa discuss Joffrey’s wedding (the last time they saw each other); “horrid affair”, he says, to which she replies “it had its moments”.
  • “what do dragons even eat, anyway?” “whatever they want.”
  • Speaking of dragons; so Dany’s dragons didn’t want to eat, but they were fine with being whisked around in the name of love?
  • The Hound gets a new axe, but one of many Instant New Season Upgrades to character weapons and outfits that make this premiere feel like a new season of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
  • The Night King is back to leaving bloody symbols in random places… what the fuck is he, a bad guy on True Detective?
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    April 15, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    I actually think this is the best premiere of any season and I explain why in my opinion piece. I do like your True Detective comment.

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