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Game of Thrones Review: "Winterfell" (Episode 8.01)

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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review: "Winterfell" (Episode 8.01)

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review   Game of Thrones   each week in a series of letters.

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Josh,

I come to you with mixed tidings. Since last we spoke, in August 2017, there are a few developments you should know about. First, on the good side, Winterfell looks really nice! Big towers, new coats of paint on every wall, and the vibe is way less…rubble-y. Honestly, you would never know it burned. And Jaime Lannister has a new hair style, which hopefully makes him happy. And he’s about to meet an “old friend,” which should be fun for him. Meanwhile, his sister Cersei has a promising new love interest, Jon Snow got some interesting news from a DNA test (or something similar, details unimportant), and Samwell Tarly is going to get to keep his sword. Oh, and the opening credits are new and I think pretty good, as long as you’re not feeling too nostalgic. So it’s not totally bleak in Westeros!

That said, not all the news is great. Dark wings, dark words, etc. There are lot of minor frustrations and annoyances and gruesome deaths, but I have to come clean and let you know that the biggest problem, at this exact moment? It’s probably the fact that the Night King and the White Walkers and the wights have burned down the wall with a wight dragon and are marching south on Winterfell with the goal of destroying humanity. And it looks like they’ll win because everyone else is arguing about who gets to go to the omelet station at the breakfast buffet first, so, you know…not ideal.

And…

I can’t do it anymore. I can’t remain calm. I can’t believe we’re back, Josh. I can’t believe we’re actually going to see the ending to this wild, beautiful, sprawling story. I can’t believe Daenerys invited Jon to ride her dragon as if this was totally normal, like she was letting some Westchester County dad at a dude ranch fantasy vacation in Wyoming mount the world’s slowest pony, instead of something that literally nobody but her has ever done for 150 years.

It’s hard to stop marveling that season eight is here at all, and once I’ve (barely) managed that, it’s hard to know where to begin actually assessing. It feels like trying to review the apocalypse, or something.

So let me start, I guess, at the best scene of the first episode, when Jon Snow finally learns his true identity. We have been waiting for this for so long, and really, he could have learned the truth by means of singing telegram from the reanimated corpse of Dontos Hollard and it still would have been compelling. The way Benioff & Weiss pulled it off was pretty good, I think. Not great, because I wanted way, way more. I could have watched Jon—do we have to call him Aegon, now?—reckon with this new knowledge for a good ten minutes, I think. Maybe that would be overkill, but this is so important: His whole identity has been shaped by the fact that he’s a bastard. And now? He’s not a bastard! He’s a king! That’s quite the 180! I’m sure we’ll get more of Jon trying to handle the fallout as the season progresses, but there’s only one shot at the very first moment of realization, and there was room to mine some more emotional territory there.

And, let’s be real…I wanted to see him get to the part where he was like, “welp, I guess I had sex with my aunt.”

Anybody else? Just me?

That complaint aside, it still hit me right in the ole gut, and it’s one of the many long-awaited payoffs waiting in store for us this season.

One thing I had my eye on in episode one was the “reality” of the action, which I know is kind of a weird and possibly pedantic consideration for a show with dragons and zombies, but I fully agree with Zach Kram’s take that the strength of the show’s early peak was how each decision had a consequence, and how that kind of devolved into crazy escapes and endless dei ex machina saving our favorite characters, and how that killed the stakes. So far in season eight, it’s another mixed bag. The idea that Tormund and Beric and the gang could have escaped the assault on Eastwatch is just insane, for one—there was nowhere to hide, they had a massive army of the dead basically staring at them, and that army is not known for mercy (unless you’re Samwell Tarly). Same deal with Theon rescuing Yara. It’s one thing to launch a sneaky ambush to free her, but it’s quite another to yada-yada the getaway, which involved stealing three ships violently and outrunning any pursuit.

It’s not flawless, by any measure. But that’s probably the new reality of post-book Thrones, and it’s not worth fixating on beyond the odd mention here or there. Aside from all that, this was an episode of reunions and set-ups. And a lot of it, frankly, echoed season seven. Arya meets Jon, it’s happy, but then it’s ominous…just like Arya meeting Sansa. We’re going to have a lot of political tension in Winterfell, mostly between Daenerys and Sansa, just like we did last year between Sansa and Jon and Littlefinger.

And apparently we’ll never stop hitting that same beat where Jon makes an extremely sensible decision, the alternative to which is everyone dying, and people just hate him for it. It made some sense at Castle Black, I guess, but come on people, a lot of you have seen the dead at this point! Bend the damn knee!

All in all, though, Josh, I liked this episode, and I think I’m going to really like the finale in general. We’ve spent the first seven seasons seeing the show change in ways good and bad, and I think by now we kind of know what we’re getting. It may not be perfect, but it’s absolutely riveting, and I think the proper way to treat season eight will be as a kind of tense, revelatory victory lap.

So. It looks like two years has not dulled my penchant for rambling on in the first letter. Better late than never, I will kick it over to you, Josh. What did you think? Will you ever get sick of watching Starks reunite with Bran, and then immediately get creeped out? (I’d support the show bringing Ned Stark back from the dead with no explanation, just so he could hug Bran and exclaim “my son!,” only to stare in bemusement when Bran was like, “I hath become a bird now, puh-paw.”) If Cersei had to play MFK with Robert, Jaime, and Euron, how would she decide, or has she already?

What else am I forgetting??? So much!

Good to be back, Josh!

—Shane

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Shane,

We’re back! I was giddy just watching the opening titles and seeing a big hole in The Wall and shouting out all the little details below Winterfell and King’s Landing while watching with friends. Because this felt like a TV event that you should gather people for, like the Super Bowl or The Great British Baking Show finale.

And while we were all waiting for Jon to find out that, like it or not, he’s a king, dammit, it was hard to beat opening scene with the Unsullied marching into Winterfell. That the camera remained with Arya, as she hid among the common people—just as she did when King Robert marched into town all those years ago—was the kind of patient, grand filmmaking that helped us fall in love with this show. The changing expressions on her face as she saw Jon (joy followed by disappointment seeing him ride alongside the queen he’s welcomed North), the Hound (a complicated mixture of hatred and something close to love), Gendry (swoon?) said as much as each of those actual reunions that followed. And they were all surpassed by her wonder at seeing those enormous dragons fly into town.

But the reunions were pretty great too. There was no glibness in her answer of “once or twice” when Jon asked her if she’d ever used Needle. She’s not proud of who she’s become, but neither is she ashamed. And there was no humor in her defense of Sansa, who she once despised. Family is why she could never be No One. She’s a Stark.

Family is a theme throughout this episode. With the Greyjoys, it’s Euron’s desire to find a confidante in Yara and Theon’s desire to save her and serve her. But it’s also what drives Theon to want to go fight for the Starks in Winterfell. (I was expecting Yara to punch Theon, but the headbutt was a nice touch.) With the Lannisters, it’s Cersei’s move to send Bronn to assassinate her two traitorous brothers. I think your MFK question actually needs to be FKK, with Jaime joining Robert on her kill list. I honestly have no idea if Bronn will be able to go through with it if he gets the chance. And then there’s that tricky new dynamic between young lovers Jon and Daenerys, more family than they knew.

We’ve talked a lot about the show’s other strength being the pairings of great characters, but there was something special about the gathering of the Big Three Advisors—Tyrion, Varys and Davos Seaworth. The Onion Knight has earned his place in that rarified company.

And Samwell’s meeting with Daenerys was just heartbreaking. He could handle the death of his father, but the idea that this woman before him—who Jon has chosen to follow—put his honorable and virtuous brother to death was just too much. When you talk about consequences of your mistakes, the Mother of Dragons had to face one of hers in the quivering face of a grieving man. It all goes back to your rigid and fluid thinking; Daenerys’ biggest flaw is when she remains too rigid, like ignoring the advice of Tyrion when he urges you to have mercy.

Of course, Tyrion has been on a bit of a cold streak of late, something Sansa so beautifully summed up in her reunion with her former husband: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.”

The Stark sisters were on fire tonight. The best line of the episode came from Arya after The Hound said, “You left me to die”—”First, I robbed you.” Runner up might be her response to Gendry’s “I always knew you were just another rich girl”—”You don’t know any other rich girls.”

It was all over too soon in 55 minutes. And with a grisly ending—I would not have put my money on little Lord Umber as the most well-known character to die tonight.

So, let’s look forward to the future. I filled out my Game of Thrones survival ballot before the premiere. No real movement on that this week, but new questions have arisen. Will Bronn kill a Lannister, and if so, which one? Was the dragonride at the waterfall the last little tryst for Jon and his auntie? Will the North warm up to the Dragon Queen or will they start chanting about a building a new wall to the south? Will Jon even try to make a claim to the Throne? Who was Arya’s weird dagger thing for? And what’s going to happen with Jaime? Has he become one of Bran’s favorite characters too?

Winter has been too long coming, Shane. So glad to be back.
—Josh

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Josh,

I would have to imagine that the waterfall tryst was the last dalliance for Jon and Dany, and not just because it has to be difficult to focus with a very large, very disapproving dragon looking on. (When this is all over, Drogon’s writing a book called Eight Rules For Dating My Twenty-Something Khaleesi, and the start of each rule is just like teenage daughter ones, but the end is always “I burn you to death.”) Of all the various plot lines set in motion tonight, there’s only one that really matters, and it’s the introduction of real, negative tension between Jon and Dany. It can be resolved in one of three ways. The first is marriage, but that now seems unlikely unless they’re both ready to go full Targaryen (or is it called full Lannister now?). The second is maintaining the current truce, where Dany is queen, Jon keeps bending the knee, and nothing changes. Not likely—Jon doesn’t love the idea of being king, and never has, but we can’t pretend that his new identity isn’t a complete game-changer. The third option, of course, is some kind of war that kills one or both of them.

We always knew that the various narratives would have to converge in time for the show to end, and because this is TV, that inevitability gives rise to a certain amount of simplification. Samwell has to go into full Khaleesi-hating mode, which is why, plot-wise, she had to kill both his father and brother—Jon needs an advisor and best friend whispering his ear that the dragon queen is a madwoman (kudos to John Bradley for a great performance, pulling off the dual emotions of anger and sadness that aren’t very common for Sam). Arya and Sansa had to unite, had to kill Littlefinger at the end of season seven, and will have to stand opposed to Daenerys even as they’re fighting the army of the dead. And everyone else, from Jaime to Bronn to Theon to the Hound, has to pick a side as the tumblers fall into place and the endgame unfolds.

One thing I think this episode did very well, in that regard, is to set Cersei up as a force to be reckoned with. With the Golden Company and the Iron Fleet at her side, she seems to be in a reasonably strong position. Granted, what she’s doing is morally abominable—withholding her forces sets up a scenario in which seemingly either she wins, or the dead win—but if you’re a psychopath who doesn’t care about sacrificing all of humanity if it gives you a shot at total control, well, it’s not a terrible play. And as you mentioned, Tyrion really, really should have known that.

You mentioned how cold Tyrion has been of late, and that’s another consequence of the converging narratives—advisors like him, and Varys, and Davos have been sort of relegated to the sidelines. The scheming and plotting is part of what made Game of Thrones so compelling during its opening seasons, but it seems like now all those smart men are basically reduced to saying, “hmm, maybe they should get married.” Again, it’s probably a little unavoidable at this stage—at some point, the top dogs have to fight—but I do think it’s interesting and a little bit regrettable that the show is slowly but surely transforming into a good vs. evil morality tale and losing more nuance with each passing episode.

Now, here’s a question for you, Josh: What the hell is the Night King up to? It would be easy to dismiss as just some monster hellbent on destruction, but characters like that don’t really exist in the GoT universe. Sure, he’s a metaphor for climate change, and sure, he’s a creation of the Children of the Forest specifically designed to fight man, but I think we’re starting to see the hints of a master plan. With his Ned Umber art installation (I stole that from Twitter, full disclosure), is he trying to communicate something to the survivors? Does it have anything to do with that one White Walker who let Sam live way back at the Fist of the First Men? Is it possible to actually negotiate with these guys? We haven’t heard them speak, but they at least communicate in symbology, and one of the things that interests me most is (hopefully) learning more of their intent. Also, it’d be cool if the Night King had his own eunuch advisor. Just saying.

Lastly, you asked about Bran and Jaime. That, to me, is going to be the most fascinating encounter next week. However, I don’t think Bran is going to kill him by warging into his brain and making him jump out of a tower, as fun as that would be. I think because Bran can see into the future, he knows Jaime is Azor Ahai, and he might actually serve as a kind of guide as the great war begins. But boy is it going to be awkward at first!

Finally, as I kick it back your way, do you want to take a first stab at how this is all going to play out? My initial guess: Jaime sacrifices himself as Azor Ahai, eventually has to kill Cersei. Jon Snow dies at the hands of the Night King, but Daenerys finishes the bad guys off, losing a dragon in the process. Armed with just Drogon, she ascends to the iron throne, a lonely queen, but bearing Jon’s child. Arya and Gendry marry and rule the north. Sam and Sansa marry and rule Highgarden, like she was supposed to once upon a time. Tyrion becomes lord of Casterly Rock, Bronn turns traitor against Cersei and gets Dorne, and Theon ends up lord of the Iron Islands after Yara dies killing Euron. And maybe, uh, Hot Pie gets the Vale.

I have zero confidence that any of that comes true. What do you think?

—Shane

P.S. — apropos of nothing, I have to point this out, which I missed the first time around and only saw later on Reddit…when Bronn is with the prostitutes at the beginning, one of them mentions “Eddy the Ginger” who comes back with his face burned off and no eyelids. So now we know what happened to Ed Sheeran.

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Shane,

We need another cameo from Ed the Ginger.

You missed a fourth possibility, however unlikely, and that’s that Daenerys recognizes Jon’s claim. Much of what has driven her is the idea that she is the rightful ruler of Westeros because of her bloodline, and that’s no longer the case. It’s hard to see the Mother of Dragons bending the knee to anyone, but it will be fascinating to see her reasoning if she doesn’t.

I hope you’re right on Bronn. He’d like living in Dorne, and if the Dornish were ever going to accept an outsider as ruler, he’d fit right in. But Sam already has a family, even if it’s not official. I can’t see him abandoning Gilly and little Sam. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gendry finding himself falling for Sansa, introducing some new tension between the siblings.

I think Jaime will kill Cersei unless Arya beats him to it. And I agree that Jaime doesn’t make it to the end. But I don’t see Tyrion returning to Casterly Rock. Hot Pie definitely gets the Vale.

As for the Night King, he’s craftier than anyone but Bran realizes. He was prepared for the dragons with both ice spear and giant chains, and he has some ability to “see” like Bran. I’m still hoping there’s a surprise there that the internet hasn’t figured out as there’s so much that’s still a mystery, like his penchant for body art.

Oh, and I’m just as disappointed as Cersei that she didn’t get any elephants.

Only five more episodes, Shane. And a hell of a lot to wrap up.

—Josh

Listen to Shane and Josh talk more about the Season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones on The Paste Podcast this week, available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify or the new app from our podcast partner Himalaya, and subscribe!

Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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