Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don't remind them of an unpleasant truth.
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: Dave Hill
Here we are, folks! It's not a fantasy anymore! Game of Thrones' eighth and final season is finally upon us, and man, are we all super excited and super sad to see what transpires over the course of these last six episodes. There have been teases of multiple main character deaths, as well as hype of what will be the longest battle sequence ever put to film or television, so if you take those two things into account, as well as the fact that the filming schedule for this season lasted from October 2017 all the way to July 2018, then we may be in for something far bloodier than all the previous seven seasons combined, and something that could go down as a historic moment in television history. Of course, this all can't happen in one episode, and D&D and several of the actors promised that season eight would not fall short of having intimate or emotional scenes, because, as groundbreaking as the action is surely to be later on, there is still plenty of conflict and discussion to be had among several of the characters, and thus, it wouldn't be right for Game of Thrones to completely lose its human core. Humanity and emotional resonance are what's at the heart of "Winterfell", the first episode of season eight: one that delivers plenty of long overdue reunions, some brand new character get-togethers, and even some unexpected twists.
Anyone who goes into this episode expecting non-stop death and destruction is fooling themselves. A major component of why Game of Thrones' action has always been so enthralling is because the show always goes out of its way to build up one of the most critical parts of the action: the characters involved. Now before, building up the action meant that an episode or two had to be, shall we say, sacrificed, for the sake of bigger and better payoffs later on. Earlier, battle-preceding episodes like "The Prince of Winterfell" or The Bear and the Maiden Fair" are considerably some of Game of Thrones' weakest episodes, not because they're poorly executed, but because they play out in a way that says, "we're mostly gearing up for that big battle that's right around the corner", and this is a bit problematic because those episodes have a difficult time standing out on their own. I want to argue though, that "Winterfell" is not like these previous "battle-hype" episodes, because it's the culmination of all our beloved characters coming together, and how, after being separate across the world for so many years, they finally return home, to the one place where it all started.
"Winterfell" makes several callbacks to "Winter is Coming", the first of which happens right during the opening few seconds, when a boy walks through a crowd and climbs to higher ground to see who's heading to Winterfell. In what is easily the most prominent callback to the first episode, everyone stops to watch as Jon, Daenerys, and Daenerys' army march up to Winterfell, mirroring the way that Robert Baratheon and the Lannisters previously marched into Winterfell. What's intriguing is how this procession has quite the opposite reception from before: whereas Ned was honored to bring King Robert into his home, Sansa doesn't even try to hide her disdain for Daenerys, a disdain that many of the other Northern lords echo when they question Jon about his decision to relinquish his title of King in the North. Establishing Daenerys as "the bad guy" is something that "Winterfell" does quite a lot of, as just about everyone who meets with her and talks with her for the first time finds a way to get on bad terms with her. This is none more true than with Sam, who learns that Daenerys executed both his father and her brother, something that sends him away almost breaking down in tears. If we were to give an acting award for "Winterfell", it would easily go to John Bradley. Bradley has always been great as Sam, but he takes it to a whole new level here: the way he tries to fight back tears is as natural-looking as I've ever seen someone on the brink of crying in a TV series.
It doesn't stop there with Sam. In what I thought was a surprising twist, Sam ends up being the one that tells Jon who his real parents are and that he is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. The season seven finale (and even the start of this episode) led us to believe that Bran would be the one to tell Jon. Having Sam be the one, though, I think is a very smart writing decision, mostly because Jon has spent a far greater deal of time with Sam than he has with Bran. Jon doesn't know how different Bran is now, so to have Bran be the one to tell him about his true lineage would not have had the same emotional payoff. Jon has complete trust in Sam, which is why it's all the more crushing for Jon to hear such life-changing news from who has been considerably his closest friend.
As expected, Jon isn't exactly thrilled to hear that he is a Targaryen and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. I suppose I could start referring to him as Aegon now, as that is his actual name, but he's been Jon Snow for so long that I don't think I'm going to break that habit now with only so many episodes left. Although "Winterfell" contains a lot of set-up for what's soon to come, something that people may not realize right away is the dangerous spot the events of this episode put Daenerys in. After all is said and done in the episode's 54 minutes, Daenerys is surrounded by opposition on all sides, and it's a massive role reversal from where she's been for the majority of the series. The Night King and the Army of the Dead are coming, Sansa and the other Lords of Winterfell do not approve of her, and now her own lover is aware that he has a stronger claim to the Iron Throne than she does. How Daenerys will react to learning Jon's true heritage and how she will respond to all this opposition is yet to be seen, but I have a strong feeling that it will lead to somewhere that will be catastrophic.
I think I should stop now making this episode sound like all doom and gloom, because "Winterfell" has some exceptionally heartwarming scenes, as well as some hilarious one-liners. No scene is more heartwarming than the reunion everyone has wanted more than any other: Jon and Arya. These two have been true to themselves through thick and thin, and that one scene between them back in "The Kingsroad" was enough to convince us that these two have always had a special friendship. While Arya doesn't share with Jon all the details about what she's been through, I think Jon would feel proud if and when he learns who Arya is now, because he's always taken a liking to her tomboy personality and her fondness for swords and killing. Arya is actually quite the reunion queen, reuniting with both the Hound and Gendry, on top of hugging it out with Jon at the heart tree. While Jon and Arya's reunion easily takes the title for most heartwarming, the one reunion to close out the episode is the most exciting one: Jaime Lannister arriving in Winterfell and getting spooked by Bran, who had told us earlier he was waiting for, "an old friend". You could argue that Jaime was the one who kicked off the series' chain of events by pushing Bran out the window, so it's fitting that things would come full circle by having these two see each other again in Winterfell, except now, both are vastly different characters.
There's so much going on in Winterfell that I haven't even written a word yet about what happens in King's Landing. Cersei greets Harry Strickland (Marc Rissmann), the leader of the Golden Company, who disappoints her by telling her they were unable to bring elephants with them on their sea voyage. Oh boy, were the Twitter jokes and complaints overflowing with this little tidbit, especially when Cersei grumbles later about wanting to get elephants. I'm not going to waste time on this. No, there will not be any elephants. Go see Dumbo if you're so upset. Anyway, it's a tough life right now for Cersei, especially when she has go so far as to have sex with Euron Greyjoy to ensure he stays loyal to her. Cersei's few allies are very unstable, and with no enemies to confront at the moment, she is, in a bizarre way, powerless. She's Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, but the title is so empty of meaning right now that there's no more satisfaction to be had. The only way Cersei will be able to feel complete is if she can destroy all her remaining enemies, but they're all so far away right now that she's basically stuck on an island with no way to get off. I am quite sure that the action will make its way to King's Landing sooner or later. What none of us know right now is who is bringing that action.
For now, all the action is in the North. The giant meeting with Jon, Daenerys, Sansa, and all the Northern lords turns out to be a lot shorter than I was hoping, and this was the main thing that had me wishing the episode was just a tad bit longer. This was the time for all the characters to talk about the impending threat of the White Walkers, and how, despite all their disagreements, they don't have time to bicker amongst each other and take sides. They're all on the same side now, and time is running out for them to get ready. Maybe we'll have another one of these giant meetings in the next episode, and if that's the case, then forget everything I was just griping about.
Two more things I want to get to wrap up, and in hopes of preventing this review from going on too much longer, I'll try to give the short version of it: Theon rescues Yara and leaves her to go and take back the Iron Islands, wanting to help fight in The Great War. While I feel this rescue mission was a bit too easy, I also think it would have been a little too predictable had it been "Theon vs. Euron" for Yara's life. If Euron is to die later this season, I still think it makes the most sense for it to be at the hands of Theon, and now without the "rescuing Yara" detail to worry about, such a final showdown between Theon and his uncle would be a lot more suspenseful.
Second thing: I am so happy that Game of Thrones finally gives some quality screen time to Rhaegal, who takes Jon for a ride alongside Daenerys and Drogon. Don't get me wrong: Drogon has been awesome, but I've always felt like Rhaegal and Viserion have never gotten the attention they deserve. I get it: CGI is expensive, and D&D couldn't just flaunt the dragons around like dancers at a strip club, but when you're one of only three dragons left in the world, you don't want people to completely forget about you. Knowing what's at stake now though, I am confident all three dragons are going to be getting major screen time the rest of the way, especially when one of them is currently undead.
Season eight has promised us truck loads of action, a gigantic number of deaths, and a finale that made the actors weep and contemplate life for hours on end when they first read it. "Winterfell" has next to no blood, nor any significant deaths, although it does give us a lot of happy moments to cry about. To say this episode was a disappointment because it didn't give us any action or death is missing the point: this is most likely the final time we will get to watch all these characters bonding and enjoying what could be the last few peaceful days of their lives. Everyone in Winterfell knows what's coming. They'll be as ready as they can be once The Night King and his Army reach Winterfell. For one last time though, Game of Thrones dedicates an episode to diving deep into the interpersonal relationship between its characters, exploring what has driven them since day one and how much all of them have changed. After seven seasons of being apart, the characters that have been with us the longest have come to meet at the place where everything began. "Winterfell" expresses where we are now by mirroring what much of what happened when Game Thrones first began. Not everything is perfect, but for what will certainly be the calmest episode of season eight, it's amazing how much happens in one place, and realizing just how far we've come.
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