GAME OF THRONES: “Winterfell”

20 months later: An hour of reunions, foreboding, and Bran creepin’.

“You gave up your throne to save the kingdom. Would she do the same?” -Sam

Finally.

Finally, the surviving Starks are reunited. Finally, Jon learns the truth about his parentage. Finally, he rides a mother-flipping dragon.

Finally, Game of Thrones is back.

The most ubiquitous parlor game of the past few weeks has been to predict who will sit on the Iron Throne when it’s all over — aside from the obvious choices, some have spun delightful theories about Gendry, or Bronn, or no one at all. But as Varys sadly noted in last night’s Season 8 premiere, “Nothing lasts” — as a viewer and reader, I’m more interested in the long game; the timeline at the end of the Appendices. What comes after the after? Will the wheel be broken? Will the Seven Kingdoms become more of a confederation? Will Jon and Dany have a baby of ice and fire (and fire) and start a new regal dynasty that will inevitably fall, as all dynasties do? Or will the Night King win, giving the series the bleakest ending possible?

But fealty is not a given; power is not power alone, despite what Cersei believes. The dominant theme of “Winterfell,” written by Benioff & Weiss and directed by David Nutter, was about earning loyalty, and what to do with it once you’ve got it. Cersei first makes this explicit (in more ways than one) when she grants Euron his reward after he brings the Golden Company (sans elephants, alas) to the capitol. Conversely, Jon has led Dany’s forces back to Winterfell for humanity’s final stand, but has squandered the goodwill of his people (and his sister) in the process. “I’m not sure what you are now,” scowls Lyanna Mormont. A lapwolf? Not a king. Not really. (Except..!) Committing to fight alongside a stranger with Dothraki and Unsullied is one thing, but with their mortal enemies the Lannisters too? A bitter pill indeed.

Jon doesn’t expect gratitude or necessarily care about his own crown, as since his resurrection his grimly single-minded purpose has been to take the fight to the Night King. He hadn’t given a ton of thought to what would come next, at least until he fell in love with Dany — though even she can’t tempt him to hide from their problems in a cave like Ygritte once did. And that didn’t turn out well, either.

A WHOLE NEW WOOOOOORLD

In his absence, Sansa has stepped up, and has not only secured the respect of the Northmen, but made her own case for, if not governing in full autonomy, becoming Queen of the Realm itself. The episode certainly teases it enough, especially in her reunion with ex-husband Tyrion, who has added more hair to his face and head every season and now resembles a Bob Ross chia pet. “Many underestimated you,” he notes. “Most of them are dead now.” True! And let’s be honest — between Dany’s imperiousness and Jon’s sad-sack… Jon-ness, a Queen Sansa would be dope. The heat of the side-eye she dishes out this week would warm the castle for a month (assuming they don’t run out of food first), and for the first time, Daenerys looks a little out of her depth. “Did you bend the knee to save the north,” she asks her half-brother cousin, “or because you love her?” I don’t think Jon even knows the answer to that, which is the entire problem.

And it’s not like there haven’t been troubling signs there, either. Sure, Daenerys is uncharacteristically playful with Jon, taking him on a magic dragon ride aboard Jon’s dad’s namesake Rheagal (a thing that just… kinda happens, strangely tossed-off after years of buildup). But the dragons are never gonna call mom’s new boyfriend “Dad,” and we’re still talking about the same woman who roasted the stubborn Tarly men who refused to kneel, as poor Sam learns in the hour’s most crushing scene. She has yet to inspire true loyalty from the Westerosi — fear, sure. Even ambivalence from some, because when you’re living in Flea Bottom, who cares who sits on the throne. But not devotion from anyone but Jon, and thanks to Sam’s overdue revelation at episode’s end, even that may be in question now. More on that in a minute.

YOU’RE NOT OUR REAL DAD

Game of Thrones has always gone out of its way to illustrate the disconnect between those who seek to rule and those who would actually rule well. With the power couple of Jon and Dany, you might think you have the best of both worlds, with both being a tempering influence on the other. Says Davos: “What if the Seven Kingdoms, for the first time in their long shit history, were ruled by a just woman and an honorable man?” But there’s also something pat and easy about that, and the fact that Benioff and Weiss take time to give us a scene of the Onion Knight and Varys talking about it all but guarantees it’s not going to happen. (Again, Sansa’s right there, guys, and she’s the smartest person Arya ever met! Which is crazy to think about!)

The show’s refreshed vibe in its final season is evident from the jump — since the bulk of the show’s characters are in one place for the first time since “Winter is Coming,” the credits map has contracted to the point that they’re now showing interiors: The Red Keep, the Winterfell crypts. Even the astrolabe has been upgraded, now depicting key moments from the series as they will be remembered by the generations to come. We’re in the endgame now, but that doesn’t mean it’s all go-go-go (sorry, Bran) — “Winterfell” stands as one of the series’ better season premieres because it’s not just moving pieces around the board, as many episodes have done, but providing years worth of emotional payoffs. No character benefitted more from this storytelling patience than Arya, who is half of some of the episode’s best reunions.

❤️❤️❤️

First, and most importantly, with Jon; after hiding in plain sight as the Targaryen retinue passes by, she finds her half-brother cousin in the godswood, and the moment is as heartwarming as you’ll ever find in the icy North. Maisie Williams and Kit Harington haven’t shared a scene since the series’s second episode — eight years ago. Looking at that moment now, I’m struck by not only how young they were, but by the genuine affection on screen. Arya made Jon rootable just by proximity. Now it’s almost reversed — it takes being in his presence for us to see the sunlight breaking through Arya’s impassive facade for the first time in years. They hug, compare swords (as you do), and — most interestingly — we see Jon fess up on screen for the first time to his own temporary death. If Arya knows he took a knife to the heart, how much of that event is common knowledge? And why aren’t people talking about it more?

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