Be warned: spoilers ahead for season eight, episode one of Game of Thrones
A few weeks ago, I seriously considered writing an article titled, “It Is Too Late For Game of Thrones”. Despite my love for the series and my enormous love for the books that the series is based upon, the sloppiness of last season’s writing stripped away any faith I had left in the show. The nonsensical plot, the complete lack of consequences, and the absurd abilities of the characters to travel from one end of the continent to the other in the blink of an eye made me pretty fearful for the quality of season eight of Game of Thrones. I never went through with writing the article, however, as I thought it best to see what the fantasy epic’s final season had to offer first. Well, after watching the final season’s debut episode, my fears have only grown.
As the name of the season eight premiere, “Winterfell”, implies, most of the episode takes place at the Stark stronghold of Winterfell, as nearly every significant character has congregated there to prepare for the looming battle against the Army of the Dead. With such a large cast, the showrunners seem unable to lend weight to the multitude of reunions present in the episode, and it feels very vapid as a result.
The main reason for this is that these reunions are incredibly short. Sansa and Tyrion, last having seen each other four seasons ago at Joffrey’s wedding, exchange only a few lines of dialogue with one another. The Hound and Arya have only a few words for each other, and Jon literally says six words to his brother Bran, whom he hasn’t seen since season one. The pacing is far too fast for any of these interactions to stick or feel impactful. It seems that writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss cast a very wide net in order to compensate for the very large cast, but this resulted in a shallow, surface-level examination of the characters. Nothing highlights this better than the fact that Tyrion making a joke about balls was some of the best dialogue in this episode.
I hate to say it, but “Winterfell” is aggressively bland. In its defense, its job is to set up the stakes and circumstances of this season, so it’s bound to be a slower episode by nature. I don’t think that this episode does a good job of setting up the stakes of this season, however. Yes, the Night King and the Army of the Dead have broken through the Wall and are rapidly approaching Winterfell, but we already knew that from last season. Given the brief scene set in the Last Hearth, the seat of House Umber, we learn that the dead have marched past that castle and will soon arrive in Winterfell, but once again, this isn’t new news and it doesn’t actually change anything plot-wise.
What I’m more concerned with in this episode are the personal, character-driven stakes. Daenerys and Sansa immediately don’t get along, but the tension between them feels artificial because, you guessed it, they barely exchange more than a few words with one another. While Jon and Dany discuss this problem briefly later on in the episode, any meaningful character moments are swapped out for a fun scene where Jon and Daenerys ride dragons together (more on this later). It’s obvious that Daenerys’ and Jon’s ability to gain the favor of Westeros will clearly play a large role this season—this episode successfully introduces this concept, at least—but I can’t help but wonder how much of this will actually matter once the murderous ice zombies are front and center.
Additionally, I should mention that the Daenerys having to win over the favor of the North plotline largely works—except for one huge problem. Sansa is upset that Jon gave up his crown and title of King in the North when he bent the knee to Daenerys, and rightfully so, because it’s causing all of the Jon’s bannerman to lose faith in him. This is a completely believable concept, and it’s even executed fairly well in this episode, but it’s completely unnecessary. Last season, Jon didn’t need to bend the knee to Daenerys, as when he did, she already had agreed to help him fight the Night King. So all of this tension between Daenerys and the North exists only because Jon made a stupid and unnecessary decision. You could call this a result of Jon’s character flaws, but it feels much more like an oversight on the writers’ part.
In general, there’s not much at stake for the characters in Winterfell in this episode. The cast mostly meanders around the castle chatting with someone here and there, but I rarely felt any sense of importance or tension. While Sansa’s and Tyrion’s conversation isn’t exactly bad, there aren’t any consequences of it besides the two acknowledging that the other exists. In terms of reunions, by far the most important and emotional is between Jon Snow and Arya, and the show actually gets most of this encounter right. It’s such a relief to see these two characters, who have been separated almost the entire series, finally be able to hug each other, and it’s one of the few scenes where the characters involved felt alive and responsive. Still, I wish this scene had been afforded more breathing room, as it’s serves as the meat between a slice of Bland bread and a slice of Rushed bread.
Speaking of rushed, there are several minor logistical issues present in this episode. Theon rescues Yara with no difficulty whatsoever and Cersei hires Bronn, the only man in Westeros who has a friendship with both Jaime and Tyrion, to kill Jaime and Tyrion. More prevalently, there’s absolutely no reason for Daenerys to suggest that Jon ride a dragon. Historically speaking, only Targaryens have ridden dragons, and neither Daenerys nor Jon knew that Jon was a Targaryen in this scene. Daenerys studied her family’s history as a child, and she has to know that any non-Targaryens who have attempted to ride dragons in the past have been severely injured at best and promptly converted into dragon food at worst, yet she seems so nonchalant suggesting that Jon ride Rhaegal, as if she and Jon are merely going for a leisurely horse ride through the country. I’m not opposed to Jon riding Rhaegal this season—he’s a Targaryen, after all, and Rhaegal is named after his father—but there’s no reason for Jon to so brazenly risk his life in this instance for no conceivable reason.
Now, there are two scenes in this episode that I actually like: the first is when Daenerys reveals to Sam that she killed his father and brother, mostly because John Bradley gives a very authentic and moving performance here. The best scene of “Winterfell” shortly follows that one, and involves Sam revealing Jon’s true parentage to him in the crypts. It’s not this reveal that I appreciated, however (we’ve known Jon’s secret heritage for some time now), but the fact that Jon, just like Sam, learns of Daenerys executing Sam’s brother and father. While Jon doesn’t mourn Randyll and Dickon Tarly, this piece of information draws into question Daenerys’ morals and their compatibility with Jon’s own morals. As Sam says to Jon, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?” This conversation does exactly what the first episode of a season should do: build tension in a palpable and believable way that must be addressed in future episodes.
Ask yourself this: will most of the other scenes in this episode be relevant later in the season? Will it really matter that Sansa said she used to think Tyrion was the cleverest man in the world, or that the Hound was barely upset that Arya left him to die? Will it matter that Euron slept with Cersei, or that Euron’s entire motivation seems to be sleeping with Cersei? There are some exceptions to this, but I won’t be surprised if most of “Winterfell” becomes largely inconsequential by the end of the series. For a season that is hyping up the largest battles and greatest conflicts of this generation of television, and for a show that only has five episodes remaining, that’s a serious problem.
To be clear, this is not an indictment of season eight as a whole; there’s still much to happen before the series concludes, and I expect things to get more exciting as the story develops. There wasn’t anything in this episode that I found to be soul-crushingly terrible, but there wasn’t anything that I found to be great, either. There were some good aspects of this episode, like that creepy Lord Umber moment in Last Hearth, the beautifully detailed new visuals in the theme song, and how Lena Headey continues to be utterly captivating as Cersei Lannister. Above all else, I’m excited to see what happens with her character in season eight.
I don’t want to hate the final season of Game of Thrones because I love Game of Thrones more than Arya loves killing Freys, and I don’t think I will hate it. Game of Thrones will undoubtedly deliver grandiose warfare and unmatched spectacle to its audience, and there’s that to look forward to, at least. But the strongest emotion I felt after watching the premiere was mild disappointment, and I can’t help but feel that that is an omen of what’s to come.