The weight of expectation hangs heavy over this premiere. Opening the final season of the biggest show on television is no small task. They resisted the urge to open with a bang, choosing instead to set the scene for the season ahead. As a result, the entire episode is a series of reunions and introductions, some very much anticipated and others quietly surprising.
S08E01 Winterfell: Spoiler-free review
The convergence of all these major characters is thrilling for those who love the show and are fully invested, but as stand-alone television it is not the most compelling viewing. One of the great strengths of the show is giving time and space for character and relationship building through excellent dialogue.
By having to squeeze a dozen reunions and introductions into 50 minutes, there is not much time for any real conversation, leaving us with one-liners and quips and relying on the fans to fill in the blanks. Not exactly the Emmy-award winning drama of yore. Not to mention that the one truly funny character, Tyrion, seems to have left his sense of humour in Meereen.
The cinematography is phenomenal, as always. The opening shots of Winterfell and the army marching are spectacular, and the CGI dragons flying over the beautiful Northern landscapes are stunning.
And somehow, they have made Cersei and King’s Landing seem even more sinister than before, with her Queen’s Guard all in black, and a darkness in the heart of the city as even King’s Landing feels the effects of Winter’s arrival and Cersei’s iron rule.
The central problem of good vs evil being distinctly less interesting than the political machinations and backstabbing of Westeros is at the forefront here. There is some gas left in that tank given Cersei’s duplicity, but the episode lacked the real political tension of its forebears.
In a television series of this size, some episodes will by necessity be used mainly to set up the coming events, but as a result it does lack a certain urgency that you would expect from a season premiere.
The series is finely poised, set up well by this opening, political intrigue and all, but as a stand-alone episode this is not the finest in an admittedly packed field of contenders.
Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic at 9PM, or available to stream now on Sky or NOWTV.
S08E01 Winterfell: Recap & discussion
SPOILERS AHEAD: Reunions, reunions and more reunions!
The last living Starks are finally back together and it’s hard not to feel all tingly inside, even if it can’t possibly last for too long. Jon and Arya being reunited is particularly touching, even if her full-throated support of Sansa has Jon flustered. And Arya reminding Jon that family must come first will pose a nice ethical dilemma once he finds out his true parentage.
Arya gets a couple of nice surprises seeing The Hound and Gendry again. The Hound isn’t looking for retribution for Arya leaving him to die, although I would definitely pay to see that fight. More interesting than the reunion is the weapon she asks Gendry to make — it looks like some sort of detachable spear or harpoon with a dragon glass blade. The weapons master on the show has teased a new weapon he made specially for this season, calling it a “show-stopper,” so I imagine this might be it.
Meanwhile in King’s Landing, Euron Greyjoy is back with the Golden Company as promised. As expected, this is firmly different from the path of the books, although the show-runners have decided to stick with the same name for their commander, Captain Harry Strickland. Sadly, no elephants have made the trip across the narrow sea. It might be cynical to suggest the dragon’s ate up all the CGI budget (where’s Ghost?!), but the elephants being mentioned twice probably indicates it will be important later in the season.
Euron’s behaviour is as unpleasant as always, and like the no-ball Eunuch jokes, his act is no longer entertaining. It looks like he is going to be a major player in the season to come, but honestly, I really would love to watch the Mountain go to town on him. Sadly, it seems Gregor Clegane only kills the characters we want to live (RIP Oberyn). Cersei has gone fully off the reservation, responding “good” to the news of wall falling, taking Euron to bed, and paying Bronn to go kill Jaime and Tyrion, with the crossbow that Tyrion used to kill Tywin. I guess we’ll find out soon if Bronn realises that gold is pretty worthless in the apocalypse.
Theon pulls off the rescue mission to save Yara, who promptly thanks him by head-butting him. Thoroughly deserved. Yara’s off to steal back the Iron Islands while Euron is distracted, and drops in that Daenerys will need somewhere to retreat if they can’t hold the North. Which doesn’t bode well for the huge battle still to come at Winterfell. Despite that, Theon is off to go fight up North, though whether he’ll get there in time is uncertain.
Back in Winterfell, Sansa and Tyrion, erstwhile husband and wife, are back together again, although a resumption of their marriage doesn’t appear to be on the cards. The one-liners may be a sign of the show’s decline since Benioff and Weiss ran out of books to adapt but sometimes, just sometimes, they really pay off. Sansa has taken the opportunity of Littlefinger’s death and Tyrion’s new-found seriousness to become Queen of the clever quip. Whether that is enough to get her on the Iron Throne remains to be seen.
If there were any doubters left, Jon’s dragon ride is the final confirmation that he is definitely a Targaryen. Daenerys pulls an Ygritte and suggests they hide in a cave forever, before laying on the cheese. Jon may be allowed to ride Rhaegal, but the dragons still know that’s their mother he’s kissing passionately. Not to mention his aunt. I guess that makes the dragons his cousins? That should be an interesting family reunion if they survive long enough to have one.
Samwell Tarly finally meets the Dragon Queen through their mutual friend, Ser Jorah. This meeting is not the happy encounter Daenerys was hoping for, having roasted his father and brother alive. Sam’s tearful reaction to the news is surprising given his well-known dislike of his father, and I wrongly assumed, his brother. Daenerys shows her usual amount of diplomacy, i.e. little to none, and her blindness to creating enemies unnecessarily is certain to haunt her in the future.
And, in the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Sam tells Jon what has been speculated for years and confirmed in season seven – Jon is Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, Protector of the Realm, yada yada. It’s hard to tell what Jon is thinking as Kit plays him close to the chest as always, although he might have been doing some mental calculations about the Targaryen family tree. More importantly, Sam is sowing the seeds of doubt about Daenerys’s right to the throne. Maybe there’s hope yet for Game of Thrones to return to its regicidal ways of yesteryear.
The unhappy band of brothers led by Lord Beric and Thormund is confirmed alive after their latest near-death experience on the collapsing wall. They meet up with our other favourite plucky survivors, Dolorous Edd and the Night’s Watch. We have our first deaths of the new season, poor little Ned Umber and the residents of the Last Hearth. The Night King is getting very experimental with his body part mandalas. Maybe he’s been watching serial killer documentaries on the long march south and has been struck with inspiration.
And there’s one final reunion, the duo that started it all in episode one, season one. Jaime and Bran. The boys are back in town. Jaime has arrived to Winterfell alone, very much without the Lannister army, which doesn’t bode well as he’s walking into a den of vipers without any back-up. The look on his face when he recognises Bran is pure gold, and did I detect a slight smile on Bran’s face? Maybe he’s not all Three-Eyed Raven after all.
The existence of the Three Eyed Raven poses some more general issues for the writers, and its not clear they have come to grips with them so much as having their hand forced. Bran reveals to Daenerys as soon as she arrives at Winterfell that Viserion, her deceased dragon, is now undead and serving at the whim of the Night King, robbing us of what could’ve been a more nuanced introduction, not to mention a key moment in the later episodes when Daenerys is forced to face her resurrected “son”. Let’s hope Bran’s presence in the future outweighs the removal of any sort of dramatic irony. Otherwise, this season could easily lose any sort of tension and element of surprise.
Compared with other season openers, this one aims for nostalgia rather than dramatic punch. Which doesn’t necessarily mean too much, as in the past the best episodes have typically come later in the season. It has a job, tying up all the loose ends and bringing everyone together, which it does serviceably if not spectacularly. Now that we’ve got all the introductions and reunions out of the way, the real drama can come to the fore, and based on the HBO preview of next week’s episode, there is plenty to come.