Game of Thrones Season 8 Premiere Recap
The season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones offered a number of long-awaited reunions. For most of its 54-minutes, “Winterfell” was a satisfying if stately table setter, with a double dragon ride and some zesty clap backs. Then the episode went into overdrive for its final few minutes, ending with a reveal many years in the coming, a grisly scene that felt inspired by David Fincher’s Se7en, and a face-to-face that brought us all the way back to the pilot.
The South Comes North
The episode opened with Arya Stark in a rare moment of timidity. She watches her brother Jon return to Winterfell alongside Daenerys Targaryen and her two armies. The north is not a territory known for trusting southerners, let alone a silver-haired queen leading an army of ferocious Dothraki horse-lords and the Unsullied. And here’s her brother Jon at the helm of a massive southern brigade. The moment is a call back to season one when Arya was just a little girl watching Robert Baratheon, his wife Cersei, Jaime Lannister and the Hound march into Winterfell. She’s a grown woman now, and much changed at that. It won’t be the only call back to that bygone era.
Jon, on horseback, doesn’t see Arya amongst the throngs of people lining the road on the approach to Winterfell. Arya is about to call out to him—but she hesitates. Perhaps it was seeing her beloved brother, after so many years, riding alongside his southern queen that caught her tongue. She’ll intimate as much later in the episode when she finally reveals herself to him.
Before that can happen, however, Jon has another Stark to reunite with—only not quite a Stark.
Jon’s reaction to seeing his brother Bran, in his wheelchair in the Winterfell courtyard, hammers home just how much emotional weight a series that has run for this long and put its characters through this much can generate. Jon jumps off his horse and embraces Bran, unaware he’s not really Bran anymore. When Jon pulls back to get a good look at him, he says, “Look at you, you’re a man.” To which Bran replies, “Almost,” in that flat Three-Eyed Raven tone that nobody much cares for. Jon seems a little crushed.
Then there’s Sansa’s frosty introduction to her new queen, Daenerys Targaryen. The usual courtesies are exchanged, and the episode’s first truly funny moment occurs. Bran, far beyond pleasantries and formalities at this point, cuts the meet-and-greet short by telling everyone they don’t have time for this. The Night King has breached the wall, the dead are coming, why are we standing around introducing each other? He’s got a point.
Cersei & Euron
While most of the episode’s drama took place in the north, Cersei was, per usual, busy plotting and throwing shade in King’s Landing. She received the obnoxious Euron and his gift—Captain Strickland and his Golden Company, the fearsome sellswords from Essos. Cersei’s disappointed her new army doesn’t come with elephants, as she’d expected (They’re hard to sail with.) Euron did Euron, tempting the Mountain’s sword by generally acting like a dog that’s yet to be house trained. Cersei still took him into her bed (after which he wanted to know how he stacked up against her previous lovers—this guy), and he promised her he’d put a prince in her belly. Yet she’s already pregnant with Jaime’s child—or so we think.
Back at Winterfell, Arya and Jon are finally reunited. There’s some talk of swords (he’s pleased to see she’s still got Needle), and he asks her if she’s had the chance to use her. “Once or twice,” she says, but one look at her face and Jon knows Needle is soaked in the blood of her adversaries. Such is the fate of a Stark, or really any survivor at this point.
They embrace, and Jon asks for her help with Sansa. He’s startled when Arya defends her big sister and calls her the smartest person she’s ever met. In the old days, Arya had nothing but contempt for the pampered Sansa. Ah but Jon, you all of all people should know things have changed. Arya tells him—in a tone that seems to surprise him—that Sansa is simply looking after the family. She then implores Jon to do the same. He’ll get quite a few suggestions along these lines during the episode, implicit in each of them is “Dany is not from around here.”
Sansa Fillets Tyrion
Another reunion—this one even zestier—was between Sansa and Tyrion.
“The last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding, a miserable affair,” Tyrion said to Sansa. “It had its moments,” the Lady of Winterfell replied, recalling, of course, King Joffrey’s very graphic poisoning. It was the episode’s best line. It might have been one of the series‘ best lines. And Sansa wasn’t done with him.
Tyrion tries to make the case—again—for the necessity of the Starks and Lannisters fighting side-by-side. Cersei is sending the Lannister army north, after all! Sansa’s gives her husband (technically, they’re still married) a withering look.
“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” she says. It was a reminder that the young lady who turned the tables on Petyr Littlefinger in season 7’s finale remains well ahead of just about everybody else in Westeros, including Tyrion.
Down in the Winterfell armory, good old Gendry is hard at work making weapons out of dragonglass. One grumpy customer is the Hound. Gendry’s made him a heavy ax fashioned from the wight-slaying mineral. A familiar voice tells the Hound to stop complaining to Gendry—it’s Arya. The former traveling companions have reunited afresh, with an apparently lovesick Gendry sort of just standing there in the background, shifting his weight from feet to feet.
“You left me to die,” the Hound says to her. “I robbed you first,” she replies. The Stark sisters! Nobody in Westeros can match the heat on their zingers. The Hound looks as happy as the Hound can look upon seeing her alive. There is respect here. Maybe even some twisted version of love. He shoves off, leaving Gendry and Arya to flirt, and Arya to give Gendry a drawing of a new weapon she wants him to make her. It’s the most romantic moment in the episode. By far.
Samwell Tarly vs. Daenerys Targaryen?
Show of hands on who saw Samwell Tarly emerging as one of Daenerys most problematic potential adversaries? Dany has come to see the budding Maester and thank him for saving her manservant, Jorah (who is, of course, standing right behind her). After Sam cycles through some aw shucks’ing, he casually mentions his family, the Tarly’s. Dany’s expression changes. Sam’s father and brother were among the men who refused to bend the knee to her. Their insolence got them barbecued. Dany has no choice but to tell Sam the truth. He begs her pardon and excuses himself, heartbroken…despite the fact his father was a colossal jerk to him.
Running out into the night Sam comes upon Bran, as always sitting there in creepy repose. “I’m waiting for an old friend,” Bran tells him, and for a few minutes, we assume he means Sam. Bran then implores the freshly grieving Tarly to run off and tell Jon the truth about his lineage, the fact that Rhaegar Targaryen is his actual father. This means Jon’s first in line for the Iron Throne. Sam now has reason enough to want Jon to be the ruler of Westeros, not Dany. So Sam rushes off to find his former brother in the Night’s Watch…
Sam approaches (read; gracelessly trips towards) Jon in the Winterfell crypt. It’s another teary-eyed reunion. Only Sam’s not crying with relief and joy, but anguish and duty. He tells Jon the truth—the plot point we’ve all more or less known about since the beginning—about how Jon actually came into this world. Like Arya before him but with fresh specificity and earthshattering news, Sam is urging Jon to ask himself the tough questions about Dany. You are the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, Sam explains. You gave up your crown to save the North—would Dany do the same now that we know who you really are?
This throws everything Jon thought he knew about himself—his entire worldview, more or less—into question. Being the son of the noble martyr Ned Stark has given Jon’s life a definitive set of codes he’s tried to live by. Remember that he nearly ruined everything in season 7’s finale by telling Cersei the truth—he couldn’t bend the knee to her and Dany—rather than lie (like literally everyone else in Westeros would have done) to get Cersei to agree to help them in their fight with the Night King. If Ned’s not his true father, if these sometimes self-defeating codes of nobility and honor aren’t literally in his blood, then who is he?
Sam’s revelation to Jon will, of course, have major consequences in the final five episodes. Will this information create a rift between Jon and Dany that undoes their alliance, their love, and the future of the living in Westeros? It’s certainly what GoT‘s creators want us to worry about right now.
As if to underscore how much all this human drama is secondary to the frightful horrors to come, our penultimate scene in the episode has us moving down some very dark corridors with Tormund and Berric. They’re at Last Hearth, the Umber’s castle north of Winterfell, south of the demolished wall. They hear someone coming in the dark and ready their weapons. It’s Dolorous Edd and his surviving men! They all have some very unpleasant business to discuss; namely, the body of Little Ned Umber. “It’s a message,” says Beric. “From the Night King.”
The diminutive ruler of House Umber is staked to a wall in Game of Thrones‘ most macabre crime scene ever. Body parts circle his body in a ritualistic arrangement created by the Night King. At first, this grisly set piece seemed unnecessary; why would the Night King waste time doing a bit of production and set design when everyone already knows he’s breached the wall and is coming for the living? But then we were reminded that the White Walkers have been sending ghastly messages in the form of body parts since literally the beginning of the series. The opening minutes of season one featured human body parts arranged ritualistically and a dead child staked to a tree—all done by the White Walkers. This latest spectacle is just one more in a long line of really awful messages sent by the Night King.
Yet for my money, the episode’s most potent moment was the very last. Jaime Lannister arrives at Winterfell, having disobeyed his queen (and sister, and lover) in order to do the noble thing, stay true to his word and fight for the living. He disembarks from his horse after the long journey north and casts a glance around old Winterfell, a place he hasn’t been to since the series’ pilot. Then he sees Bran, in his wheelchair, staring right at him. Jaime was that “old friend” Bran had been waiting for. The Kingslayer’s former life as a remorseless, thoughtless swordsman all comes rushing back, courtesy of the implacable, not-quite-human stare of Bran Stark, the former happy little child he pushed out of a window and paralyzed for the crime of seeing him commit incest. Now that‘s a Game of Thrones reunion for you.
One Final Thing…
Yes, Jon flew one of Dany’s dragons. A friend pointed out that the sequence felt a touch like the 1984 fantasy classic The Never Ending Story, which was both accurate and depressing (I’m old). One of the great things that Game of Thrones has always done with its dragons is to treat them less like fantasy creatures and more like huge, dangerous flying carnivores. Yes, Dany is their “mother,” but her dragons have always behaved more or less like the apex predators of our actual world (save for the fire breathing), capable of being trained, even occasionally collared, but never fully tamed. And then you had Drogon creeping up behind Dany and Jon while they’re kissing like he’s a nosy, territorial pet. He even seems to give them a look. Hard pass.
Featured image: Season 8: Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke. Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO