Game of Thrones Season 8 One Year Later: ‘Winterfell’

A year after its first airing, I revisit the premiere of Game of Thrones' infamous final season and am surprised at what I find.

Proclamations of war; the vilifying of once beloved heroes; tensions mounting to epic displays of hate and anger. No, I’m not talking about the content of the final season of Game of Thrones but rather the fan reaction to it. It’s been one whole year since the six-episode eighth season of HBO’s huge fantasy series came to an end and, in some ways, it feels like it’s been at least five. The vast outpouring of hate and disappointment has tainted the once adored series forever and it feels as if this gloom in the fandom has been around for much longer. It’s hard to believe that just a little over 12 months ago there were legions of positive fans anticipating the final episodes and naming the series one of the greatest to ever grace the screen.

It’s been difficult to think about Game of Thrones without being washed up in the extreme negativity and I found watching the final episodes when they first aired to be an interesting but complicated affair. I think it’s undeniably the weakest instalment of the show but is it really that bad? The are problems at the very core of the season but does the quality really nosedive such a drastic amount? For the next six weeks, exactly one year after their first airing, I’ll be revisiting each episode of Game of Thrones’ final season away from the hubbub of the ever angry fanbase to see if the season is worthy of its infamous reputation, starting with the premiere ‘Winterfell’.

Upon rewatch I was shocked to find that the first episode of this odious season is in fact fairly unremarkable. Not in a way that indicates the potentially vapid and unsatisfying nature of the season, a thing that heralds the upcoming disarray, but quite the opposite in fact. It’s an unremarkable episode in the same way most Game of Thrones premieres are unremarkable. For the most part, it’s table setting. The laying out of the board on which the pieces will begin to move in the coming episodes. As we all were last year, if you came to this episode not knowing the reaction to the season, you’d think nothing of the instalment other than just how in-line it is to the series up to this point. There are issues with the episode to be sure but also genuinely great moments, and is only slightly weaker to the premieres of previous seasons. Although, for a final season consisting of only six episodes and a vast amount of characters seeking closure, keeping with the slow feel of old might be a problem itself.

The episode opens with a young boy racing to the Kingsroad at the entrance of the titular Winterfell, hoping to catch a glimpse at not only the ‘King in the North’ but also of the ‘Mother of Dragons’ and her exotic army arriving. It brings to mind the scenes from the pilot episode of Bran running across rooftops and King Robert’s procession arriving to enlist Ned Stark, offering a nice bookend to the series. It also reminds us that no matter how familiar we the audience become with these characters, to the smallfolk of Westeros they’re almost mythic figures to behold, and throughout the season to love, hate and fear. It’s a good reintroduction of the characters as so many of them come under one roof for the first time in this previously sprawling series. Daenerys and her faction are introduced to the remaining Starks and the Northerners are reunited. At one point during the alternating tense/heart-warming pleasantries, Bran remarks “We don’t have time for all this”. Well, apparently, we do.

Instead of moving the plot forward by any substantial degree, ‘Winterfell’ instead chooses to focus on the characters and the episode is full of reunions. And side-eye. At one point even a dragon gives Jon some side-eye. Despite taking this episode slow in a season which will become ludicrously fast-paced, sometimes it seems as if important scenes between characters with a rich shared narrative have been relegated to merely meaningful glances across a courtyard in the interest of time. Even some of the reunions feel a little condensed. Arya reunites with both The Hound and Gendry in one scene for the sake of time. After not seeing each other since the fourth season, I would have liked more between Sandor and Arya, but we’ll get that in later episodes. I’m almost surprised they didn’t have her reunite with Jon in the same scene. Just one big group hug and move on.

The Jon and Arya reunion we get is very effective and probably one of the best scenes of the season. Seeing both of these characters who have been inexorably hardened by their journeys suddenly soften in this tender scene is wonderful and, despite the weight of the past seven seasons, they feel like those young characters we met in the first season. Having them compare swords was a nice touch and the scene works much better than the Sansa/Jon reunion in season 6 because these characters actually have an onscreen history. The scene even has a nice bit of foreshadowing with Arya being able to sneak up on Jon in the middle of the Godswood without him seeing paying off – or at least returning – in a pivotal moment during the third episode.

Jon really is the star the premiere and, as I remember, the season as a whole too. I remember Daenerys’ arc taking some leaps but Jon’s having a much clearer through line, although I guess I’ll see how true that reverie is as I continue to watch and review the season. However, I’m confident in saying that the first episode deals with Jon’s struggles very well, being ably scripted by Dave Hill. He has to face the consequences of relinquishing his title of ‘King in the North’ before finding out he’s the heir not only to the North but the entire Seven Kingdoms; a revelation that pits him against his family and his lover/Queen. The relationship between Jon and Daenerys works well enough because of the conflict and intrigue it presents but the issue from last season remains that they fell in love unbelievably quickly and it sours many of their moments together.

Despite the shaky foundations on which the relationship is built, I very much enjoy the scene in which Dany and Jon ride her dragons above the frozen wilderness. It feels like a scene from some old western epic. The cowboy falling in love with a woman while they ride and race horses, but here we get the extreme fantasy version with dragons and kings and queens. The following scene by the waterfall is one of the aforementioned that fall flat because of the rushed nature of their supposed love for each other. At one point, Daenerys tells Jon that Sansa doesn’t like her and he replies, “She doesn’t know you”. Neither do you Jon! And while we’re discussing Jon, I’ll say that I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see his full reaction to learning the Wall has fallen. The structure he has dedicated so much of life to (and given his life for) and the destruction of which spells almost certain doom for the realm and all we get is him hearing the news before looking at Sansa to see if it’s true – we spend more time on her face than his – and then we immediately cut to the next scene. Some discussion or emotional reaction would have been nice.

Not all the reunions and character meetings are quite so jolly as Jon and Arya’s scene however, this is Game of Thrones after all. After years of seeing these characters rise in power, it’s fascinating to see them all collide and try to maintain everything they have gained. The friction between houses, like the Starks unwilling to bend the knee to Daenerys, and even friction within houses, with Jon and Sansa having different ideas for how to secure the North’s future, is intriguing and for a season that will amp up the scale in terms of action, it’s nice to take some time and focus on character dynamics. Dany in particular just doesn’t fit in this cold wintery setting and despite the presence of her forces, its clear she’s unwelcome. After years of seeing her in deserts and mesas, it’s bizarre to see her in the snow and it’s antithetical to her nature. She doesn’t belong there, like a naked flame surrounded by ice. Her presence is melting what is around her only for the meltwater to then threaten to extinguish the flame. The episode also offers a fun bit of foreshadowing: Daenerys doesn’t just smile when she sees her dragons overheard but instead smiles at the fear the common folk show towards them.

A scene I feel conflicted about is that between the advisers of the two core monarchs in which Tyrion, Davos and Varys walk the city wall and look over the preparations being taken for the coming battle, while also spying on Jon and Dany. Where once these scenes, such as those involving the small council, felt like the true machinations of power, that these were the actual people in control, now feel simply like a running commentary. The kings and queens are in control not only of Westeros and their followers, but of the plot too like never before. The side characters, for as snappy as their dialogue and interplay is, feel somewhat meaningless, at least at this stage. All the drama is between the major players and the supporting cast do little but watch on. It’s Sam who manages to transcend his almost irrelevant status and not only gets to be the one to finally report Jon’s true heritage but also John Bradley’s performance in the scene in which he learns Dany executed his father and brother is exceptional. It’s a fantastic scene packed with consequences and while Jorah is a character relegated to meaningful glances, his looks over to Sam during that discussion are heart-breaking.

While events in the North take up most of the running time, we do briefly travel south to King’s Landing to check in with Cersei and her band of supporting characters. I recall Cersei surprisingly and frustratingly being a nonentity this season and while I think that remains true and her season overall is quite poor, I do like what we see of her in this premiere episode. It feels like she reached the end of her arc in season 6 and we’ve been waiting for the rest of the plots to catch up in order for her inevitable downfall to take place, and in an almost meta way that’s what works for me in this episode. She’s finally obtained ultimate power so what now? Well, nothing. Not only is she annoyed at the lack of elephants among the ranks of the Golden Company (as am I) but she’s traded the throne for everything of real value in her life. She’s got what she always wanted but lost everything because of it – Jaime’s betrayal weighs heavily on her – and I think it’s only right that we spend time seeing her wallow in this despair she’s caused. She’s finally Queen but still finds herself essentially whoring herself out to Euron. He mentions King Robert and we see that Cersei is pretty much in the same position in the final season as she was in the first. She’s now Queen but still finds herself sleeping with a man she hates for power.

Euron himself is one of the weakest parts of the episode and the latter seasons of the show as a whole. As with the Dorne storyline previously, the show has taken a complex narrative from the books and simplified it too much to the point it almost feels irrelevant. There needed to be some adaptive license – those parts of the books are far too expansive – but the writers have taken it too far and Euron has ended up uninteresting and frustratingly simple for this show that previously offered much more complex villains. His entire motivation is painfully simple: “fuck the Queen”. While the performance does offer a kind of demented charisma that’s fun to watch, Euron ultimately feels like a weak villain from a lesser series.

If there are any storylines in the episode that hint at the rushed pacing and thin plotting of what is to come then it’s Bronn and Theon’s contributions. Bronn gets his first of three scenes in the season that sets up his quest to hunt down Tyrion and Jaime to secure his place in Cersei’s court, and also fills the nudity quota for the show. I’ll go on to discuss Bronn’s role in the season in later reviews but suffice it to say his limited role is disappointing. Theon’s on the other hand is much more interesting but no less rushed. He’s caught between two allegiances to his two families. In the premiere he saves his Greyjoy sister very quickly before heading off to aid his Stark brethren. It’s a decent sequence but he really manages to rescue Yara from the middle of Euron’s fleet in Blackwater Bay? It’s very unbelievable. One small detail I do like about it however is that Euron comments about using mutes to run his ship – aptly named Silence – and when Theon rescues Yara he can’t speak to her out of guilt until he leaves the ship. Yara leaves to secure the Iron Islands for Daenerys but annoyingly this turns out to be unimportant because she never ends up going there, choosing Dragonstone instead. Like Bronn, Yara is sent on a quest as a way to write her out of the following episodes because the show has too many characters for its final short season. As I’ll no doubt repeat endlessly in this series, the show’s greatest issue is the short episode count of the final seasons. The abrupt change of pace torpedoes some otherwise great drama.

After a neat horror sequence featuring the survivors from the Wall at Last Hearth, competently directed by David Nutter, the episode ends with Jaime arriving at Winterfell and laying eyes upon Bran. Just like the opening sequence of the episode, it’s an ending that bookends with the ending of the very first episode with Jaime coming face-to-face with a very different Bran than the one he pushed from that tower many years ago. As the episode came to an end and the credits began to roll, I was surprised. Surprised at how much I enjoyed the episode and the well-examined drama it contains. Yes, it’s weaker than most episodes of the show and some cracks that will grow considerably larger as the season progresses are maybe beginning to show, but it’s a solid episode of Game of Thrones. The negative reaction to mainly the second half of the season has unjustly percolated to the first few episodes and I don’t think this episode should be tarred with the same brush. As I said at the beginning, it’s a largely unremarkable episode in the same way most Game of Thrones premieres are. The show is not at the heights it was seasons before but nor is it the catastrophe the fandom believes the season to be. Which begs the question, if the premiere isn’t as bad as I remember it being and the fandom vehemently claim, is the rest of the season?

Have you revisited the show since it concluded last year? Do you disagree with my positivity over the season at this early stage? Is the season truly as bad as the Internet makes out? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt. Join me next week when, exactly one year after its first airing, I revisit the second episode of the final season, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’.

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