Game of Thrones Recap: “Winterfell” Moves Chess Pieces Around For Season 8

Game of Thrones "Winterfell" Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenarys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in Games of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1, "Winterfell." (HBO)

Winter is here – and so is a lot of catching up – in the first episode of the fantasy series’ final bow.

At this point, it feels like Game of Thrones fans are anxiously awaiting the show’s final season less out of a sense of genuine interest in what the six episodes will hold, and more out of a sense of wearied obligation. Sure, we wanna know whether the squabbling tribes of the Seven Kingdoms will get their shit together in time to fight off the rampaging horde of ice zombies, but mostly we just want to see what happens at the end. At this point, the destination feels much more important than the journey, especially since we’ve been on that journey for so very long. Still, “Winterfell” does a lot of place-setting for the remaining five episodes to come, cementing the long road our heroes have to take towards both personal and existential survival.

Given that we’ve spent more than a year (nearly two) away from Game of Thrones, it makes sense to see “Winterfell” largely concern itself with reintroducing Westeros-starved fans to the world and its characters. Its first scene echoes a scene from the first episode of the show, in which a procession of royals approach Winterfell; this time, however, there’s a greater mixture of bittersweet tension – instead of the brighter attitude of the Baratheons, it’s the North’s new queen Daenarys Targaryan (Emilia Clarke), with former King in the North – and new paramour – Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in tow, along with her two fearsome dragons. The North isn’t happy about this: they know and love Jon, and feel he’s betrayed them by giving up his claim to the crown for the sake of Dany’s dragons and Unsullied/Dothraki armies (a point Jon takes great pains to tell everyone who doubts him). He doesn’t want to lead, and never did; at least the Seven Kingdoms.

Despite this tension, it’s still a sweet homecoming for many: he lovingly reunites with Arya (Maisie Williams) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), and quickly sets to work turning Winterfell into the staging area for a last stand against the rapidly-approaching army of the dead. Arya reunites with the Hound (Rory McCann) and equally-durable blacksmith Gendry Baratheon (Joe Dempsie), while Tyrion and Sansa (Sophie Turner) meet for the first time since Joffrey’s wedding/murder. “It had its moments,” says Sansa of the wedding; Tyrion admits to her, “Many underestimated you. Most of them are dead now.” Despite the dangers ahead, it’s admittedly nice to see some members of the Stark family finding moments of fleeting joy in their survival thus far.

Many of these characters have been through so much since they last saw one another – rape, disfigurement, incredible personal loss and growth – making these reunions particularly powerful. Even Theon’s (Alfie Allen) rescue of his embattled sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) is slight, but packed with meaning: he has a lot to atone for, not just for abandoning Yara last season due to his cowardice but to the Starks for everything he did to them. His sister, knowing him far too well, sees this in his eyes; the two must split once more, as Yara wins back the Iron Islands to act as a possible fall-back point in case the dead win Winterfell.

But Dany’s arrival brings many complications to the impending threat; for instance, the Northmen (whom Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) accurately characterize as “stubborn as goats”) won’t ride with an outsider, especially a Targaryen. Her arrival is especially messy for Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who’s owed gratitude from Dany for saving her loyal steward Jorah (Iain Glen), but is also responsible for killing his father and brother when they wouldn’t bend the knee. On top of that, Bran lets him know that he must also let Jon know the truth about his parentage: he’s not Ned Stark’s son, but the son of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark – the true heir to the Iron Throne. This throws no small number of wrenches into his plan, not to mention his budding dragon-based romance with Dany: they’re related, and he’s supposed to rule instead of her. That’s gonna make their next date pretty awkward, even without Dany’s dragons totally wanting to watch them have sex.

Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is still negotiating her shaky alliance with the slimy Ironborn commander Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), who’s offered up his army in exchange for some of that sweet Lannister lovemaking. Cersei is put off at first by his crass advances – “If you want a queen… earn her” – only to give it up that very night. (One wonders just how precarious Cersei feels her position is.) Then again, she’s in an emotionally vulnerable place, having pushed away Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the only man she’s ever truly loved, all to maintain her precarious grip on power; plus, she has her baby to think about as far as we know, though she certainly hits the sauce pretty heavily for a pregnant woman. Between literally and figuratively getting into bed with an unstable pirate and soliciting sellsword Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to kill Jaime and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) – two men with whom Bronn has an unshakeable bond – Cersei’s certainly playing a shortsighted, reckless version of the Game of Thrones.

That tends to be the overarching theme of this episode, season, and Game of Thrones in general. George RR Martin has all but admitted that the White Walkers are rough analogues for climate change – in both cases, a real-life existential threat that slowly creeps toward us while the world’s leaders are too busy squabbling over power and egos to band together to stop. Whether it’s through the Northmen refusing to acknowledge the need for cooperation against the White Walkers, or Cersei’s blithe dismissal of the entire issue as something she can tackle later for her own gain, the show’s characters face the same tragic flaws evinced by our own political leadership. And now, as Sam tells Jon his true parentage, and that he doesn’t have any choice but to try to lead – he certainly can’t pass off queenship to Dany, who may be more like her father than he realizes – even the most egalitarian thinker in the Seven Kingdoms might have to play the titular game, whether he likes it or not.

Apart from a small, but effectively creepy scene in Last Hearth with our favorite Beard Brigade – Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) – coming across a hella-spooky wighted Lord Umber (poor baby!), “Winterfell” is largely about bringing Game of Thrones back and setting up some bigger character payoffs later in the season. It’s not exactly the big, spectacular boom we expected after more than a year off the air, but I suppose we’ve got five more eps (many of which are feature-length) to look forward to.

Random Thoughts:

  • The show kicks off in earnest with a brand-new title sequence, kicking off with the fallen Wall from the end of the previous season. It’s a much smaller-scale diorama, focusing on a mere three places – Winterfell, King’s Landing, and Last Hearth – demonstrating the more centralized location of the characters and the greater urgency of their plight. The astrolabe’s different too, with dragon iconography rather than the separate sigils of each major house. The players participating in the Game of Thrones have whittled down to quite a few indeed. (Vanity Fair’s got a great piece up on how and why the title sequence changed.)
  • Bran’s response to Jon telling him “You’re a man”: “… Almost.” References to his disability, or his psychic powers, or both? Whoever he is, he’s firmly established himself as a messy bitch who loves drama.
  • I can safely say that the audience, like Cersei, is also disappointed that there are “no elephants” to be found in the show’s final season.
  • The Jon/Dany dragon ride is some real How to Train Your Dragon shit, and other than establishing that Jon can totally ride dragons too, it doesn’t quite do enough to sell us on their romance. So far, it just feels like they’re together because the story wants them to be, and not due to any sort of natural chemistry. I mean, I guess they’re both pale bores, so they have that in common.
Game of Thrones, “Winterfell” Trailer
Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!