Winners: Jon Snow! Cersei Lannister! Circular narratives! Losers: Daenerys Targaryen! Narrative urgency!
Game of Thrones returned with “Winterfell,” a season eight premiere that gave fans everything they could have wanted and more, a terrific start to the series’ final run of six episodes.
[Opening a secret door in the wall, I quietly beckon you over to me, then hold a finger to my lips to indicate we should stay quiet.]
After the season seven finale “The Dragon and the Wolf” promised fans a final season that would collapse most of the action into two locations by moving most of Game of Thrones’ far-flung characters to Winterfell and King’s Landing, the season eight premiere did just that, then reveled in all the characters seeing each other again for the first time in literal years.
[We descend a seemingly endless staircase, and I hand you a torch, then whisper: "We can only speak safely in the crypts. There are ears everywhere else!”]
The episode very deliberately rhymed with the series’ very first episode, which aired all the way back in 2011. From the central premise of a large retinue arriving at Winterfell to individual shots, the whole episode gave the series a distinct feeling of coming full circle, something that will hopefully continue throughout this final season.
[["We can speak freely now,” I say. "I think they’re gone.” I look back over my shoulder at the sound of skittering pebbles clattering in the dark. "Probably just a rat. Now, anyway, didn’t you think this episode was just a little … boring? Some of the reunions were cool to see, but the filmmaking was listless, the pacing was all out of whack, and that dragon flight? Get outta—” And that’s when the sword goes through my throat.]em>
So let’s look at these seven winners and eight losers from Game of Thrones’ wonderful ["real["really kind of dull,” my voice rasps, gurgling with blood]ason eight premiere!
Winner: circular narratives
Lots of TV shows try to find ways to make their final seasons reflect their first seasons. On one level, it’s human nature to look back on how far you’ve come after a long journey. And on another, it’s fun to add little winks for the longtime fans.
But on still another level, it’s a quick and easy way to buy a little gravitas you maybe haven’t earned. Just nodding toward the start can really make the audience feel the weight of the end, and it doesn’t take that much effort to pull off.
That’s perhaps doubly true for Game of Thrones, a show that can always emphasize just how far it’s come by reminding viewers that when it began, many of its young actors were literal kids. The first few shots of the season eight premiere — of a young boy running through a gathered crowd at Winterfell, followed by shots of Arya Stark watching the procession of warriors coming to the North — might make you think of how young Isaac Hempstead Wright (who plays Bran Stark and was the boy running through the crowd in the pilot) and Maisie Williams (Arya) were way back when.
But the way the story spent seven seasons expanding all the way out to encompass seemingly all of Westeros, before collapsing back down to Winterfell and King’s Landing in this episode, also has a pleasing kind of circularity to it. The final season premiere started by putting most of the major characters in one place; give or take a Cersei, we’re right back to having everybody hang out together in Winterfell again.
That could give Game of Thrones’ overall arc a feeling of an up-and-back, as the show returns to the place it started, with little having changed. But enough gigantic events have happened throughout its run that bringing everybody back to Winterfell feels almost inevitable on some level — as if before the end, we had to come back here and get as many people within its walls as possible. Speaking of which …
Loser: the ground-level political realities of George R.R. Martin’s books
In 2013, io9 interviewed George R.R. Martin about his Song of Ice and Fire series, the books that gave rise to the TV series. Martin pointed out something that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about his wise king Aragorn near the end of The Lord of the Rings: He ruled wisely. And Martin’s entire career can be summed up by what he said next:
What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs?
Martin is really, really interested in these questions. (He’s brought up some variation of the above musing on Aragorn’s reign in every interview I’ve ever read with him.) The fourth and fifth books of his series, in particular, are fascinated by how difficult it is to rule, compared to how relatively easy it is to conquer. Daenerys Targaryen finds herself bogged down in endless petty squabbles and feuds, Jon Snow is ultimately betrayed by the men he’s supposed to be leading, and Cersei Lannister keeps watching whatever power she still has slip from her hands.
The TV series started down this path but eventually decided it would be easier to lean into spectacle, greasing the skids to send its characters colliding with each other and, eventually, the White Walkers. Where Martin is fascinated by how complicated it is to be in power, the TV show has a harder time not making power seem like its own reasonable end.
All of which is to say that the premiere spends at least some amount of time on the question of how the North is going to feed a massive army, to say nothing of two dragons. (“What do dragons eat?” Sansa asks, before Dany says, “Whatever they want,” in a line that should have come complete with a laugh track.) But those questions are quickly abandoned in favor of other things.
To be sure, these concerns could all come up again. But this episode’s brief return to the nitty-gritty problems of ruling after conquering only underlines just how far Game of Thrones has left those problems behind in the name of simplifying its narrative.
Winner: Jon Snow (sigh)
Oh boy did Jon Snow get the winner’s edit in this premiere. (The “winner’s edit” is a term from reality TV, where savvy viewers can usually pick up that a certain contestant has a good shot at winning whatever competition is at hand, based on editorial choices made to highlight certain aspects of their personality. Really good reality shows use familiarity with the winner’s edit against their viewers.)
Not only is Jon humble enough to say that he doesn’t want to be king, over and over again, to many different people — a sure sign in a story like this that he’s gonna be king eventually! — but he also finds out from his ol’ buddy Samwell Tarly that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, with a more legitimate claim than his new girlfriend Daenerys.
Now, Game of Thrones never met a fantasy trope it couldn’t delight in subverting, but this feels like a lot for the show to pile onto Jon at this late a date, which suggests to me that it’s prepping us either for Jon to rule or for him to die in episode three. (Weirdly, there’s not a lot of space between these two options.) But you have to consider his arc in tandem with …
Loser: Daenerys Targaryen
Game of Thrones has never quite figured out just how many consequences to foist upon Daenerys’s dragon-mothering shoulders. It sort of did a riff on her struggles to rule in Essos from the book series, but it has often seemed to have little to no interest in her progress beyond how many more soldiers she might add to her army.
So it’s a little wild that Game of Thrones decided that its final season premiere was the time to make Dany face some real consequences, in the form of her being forced to inform Sam that she ordered one of her dragons to burn his father and brothers to a crisp (one of those apparently important plot events I had forgotten even happened — thanks, “Previously on” package!). I understand why these consequences are happening now, and I get that they function as one of the final trials Dany might have to face on her way to the throne. I even understand that this is kinda sorta a version of the politicking I claimed to miss in the series just a couple of points above.
But the scene inevitably lands with a thud, because Dany and Sam have no relationship with each other, she has no real reason to be all that upset that she had his father and brothers killed, and all we know of his relationship with them is that it was pretty miserable. I mean, yes, even if your immediate family is the worst one alive, you’ll probably have some feelings if they’re all executed after failing to win a battle against a trio of dragons, but that doesn’t mean the audience you can’t see who nevertheless watches your every move has to have those feelings too.
Loser: whatever that dragon ride thing was
On my way out of Game of Thrones’ season eight premiere event in New York City, I had a number of conversations about the episode with friends, critics, and other folks I knew in the crowd. And though opinions ranged wildly, with mine tilting toward the more negative side compared to everybody else, there was one thing we could all agree on: Jon and Dany’s romantic dragon ride was extremely silly.