One Year On: ‘Winterfell’
It’s been exactly a year since ‘Winterfell’, the season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones, aired on HBO. Have we cooled down yet?
A year. So long, so short. Being an active member of the Game of Thrones fandom has been a test of patience during this time. On how many occasions can I lay witness to the same argument before I lose it? A lot, apparently. Still, the calendar tells me it’s definitely been a full year since the eighth and final season aired. Maybe someone fast-forwarded my life. You’ll have no doubt heard that the final episodes split the core fanbase with a string of controversial conclusions. If you haven’t heard, now you know. Also, where have you been? The debates are still raging in the relevant corners of cyberspace, and the news media are still forcing unpaid interns to turn them into published articles, so they’re not hard to find either. For as long as Game of Thrones provides clicks, they’ll never stop. Frustrating as the arguments are, though, it turns out I have no desire to let go. Arguing about television is a hobby and a curse in equal measure, such is life for entertainment obsessives like myself. It’s a burden I’m obligated to bear, lest I expire from boredom.
Who should have lived or died? Who deserved a happier ending? How should the story have been mapped out? Who does have a better story than Bran the Broken? It’s not my job to answer those questions, but my answers to those questions continue to develop, so preserving them in black and white for a while seems wise — especially now hindsight’s hands can guide me. The best cure for controversy is time, after all. Time to calm down and evaluate without high stakes, time to re-watch and reappraise. For that reason, and to mark a year since my favourite little fantasy drama closed for business, I’ve decided to recap each episode of season eight on its first birthday and grade them on an A-to-F scale. Endless pontificating’s a killer but I can’t leave it alone. A wealth of context has been provided since these episodes first went out, so re-watching them through the lens of the present might provide some valuable clarity. Or I might just inadvertently stoke the fires again.
Let’s find out together.
Winterfell (se08, ep01)
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: Dave Hill
Original broadcast: April 14th, 2019
In the twenty-four years I’d spent on Earth by the night of its first broadcast, I don’t think I’d ever been as excited for a piece of entertainment like I was for ‘Winterfell’, Game of Thrones’ season eight premiere. I’d come to the HBO fantasy series quite late in the day (just after season five) but I’d fallen in love with it so quickly and intensely that the wait between seasons 7 and 8 had felt like an age. I also lived in England, so even on the big day itself I had to wait for the 2am simulcast on Sky Atlantic. The adrenaline and anticipation were thankfully enough to see me through. Then I had the irrepressible urge to pass comment and feverishly theorise in the immediate aftermath, so I didn’t sleep until the sun came up. Thank god I worked for a boss who didn’t require my services on Monday mornings and didn’t force me to suffer the indignity of calling in sick just to watch the premiere.
Excited as I was, though, I hadn’t waited up all night expecting an explosive or decisive opener. Showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss had tended to prioritise methodical set-up in each of the previous season premieres, and I expected the same here — I just wanted to be there when Game of Thrones came back. The episode’s subdued tone and lack of plot urgency came as no surprise because I’d appropriately tempered my expectations beforehand. My excitement for the rest of the season wasn’t dampened, and I certainly didn’t feel disappointed either. The hype machine was out of control so the writers purposely constructed ‘Winterfell’ to manage it, and I appreciated that. Some dissenting voices said it felt slightly too perfunctory and economical, but at that moment I was just happy to be living through TV history. Much like events in the episode itself, the millions-strong community had finally returned home. We were back in familiar surroundings, back with characters we loved, and back where we wanted to be.
A year since its first airing, however, ‘Winterfell’ now sits among my least favourite episodes of the show. I should add the disclaimer that there is no Thrones episode I don’t enjoy (well, maybe except for ‘No One’) but this one is hindered by an unwelcome task or two. Reacquainting viewers after such a lengthy absence, to name but one. It’s unfortunately peppered with stilted, expository dialogue, as various characters find quiet corners of the eponymous fortress to recap their shared histories, sometimes literally stating their intentions for the audience’s benefit. Bran reminds us that the Night King resurrected Viserion and laid waste to Eastwatch, Tyrion and Sansa engage in some good-natured joshing about events in season 4, Euron alerts Cersei to his lack of reward despite diligent service, Bronn reminds us that he shot Drogon last season, Daenerys lets slip that she burned Sam’s family alive, and Sam himself blurts out the elephant in the room that Jon is a secret Targaryen. The above incidents are all stated rather plainly, unfortunately curtailing the full enrichment and dramatic potential these moments had when we imagined them in our own heads.
The episode was also lumbered with the consequences of moving the main plot thousands of miles away from its principal location and one of its best characters. Since ‘Lord Snow’ gave us the layout of Westeros’ capital city, the political landscape of King’s Landing and the psychological profile of Cersei Lannister were fascinating cases that often intertwined and mirrored one another. A hotbed of lies and betrayal provided the perfect backdrop for a mother driven by power and (in her own twisted way) family to carry out her treachery. But after she finally claimed power for herself, King’s Landing became a lonely and inactive place, with most of the action happening elsewhere. And after the events of the season seven finale, the two were completely cut off, with Jaime (and everyone associated with the North) leaving them behind. By season 8, the only companions Cersei has are Euron, Qyburn, and The Mountain — and one of them doesn’t even speak. With the White Walkers now a swarming plot device in the North (as the new title sequence showed us), the action in King’s Landing is paused while we await the results of the undead invasion. I’m sure Cersei’s got enough wine to pass the time.
Even with such sparse material, Lena Headey produces the goods. She fully absorbed Cersei some time ago. There’s a subtle beat in her miserable post-coitus chat with Euron that flashes by but adds a beautiful flicker of humanity to the increasing derangement at Cersei’s core. Lena holds Cersei’s wine glass slightly limp in her hand while straining every inch of her neck to choke back tears for Jaime. It’s a beautiful touch that gives a whiff of intimacy to a story that’s expanding in scope by the milisecond. In a split-second we learn that Cersei has everything she ever wanted but lost everything she needed in the process. And despite the absence of organic drama in King’s Landing right now, the set designs remain as rich as ever. One thing Thrones never lost was its ability to bring itself to life in immersive, innovative, and imaginative ways. The smouldering flames in the throne room, the fiery golds and deep reds of Cersei’s quarters, even Theon’s appropriately candle-lit rescue of Yara. It’s all gorgeous to behold.
To segue back up North, a satisfying and rewarding exercise you can engage in is looking out for callbacks to series pilot ‘Winter is Coming’. A boy climbs to the highest point of a nearby town to observe Daenerys’ royal procession, just as Bran once clambered up the castle ramparts to see King Robert’s cavalcade (listen out Robert’s theme in the soundtrack); Arya watches the Hound ride into Winterfell on horseback as she did once upon a time; the Starks and their servants gather in the Winterfell courtyard to receive Dany and Jon just as Ned received Robert; Jon visits the weirwood tree as Ned once did; Jon and Arya jump into each other’s arms like no time has passed; the episode ends with Bran waiting for Jaime’s arrival, aiming to speak to him about the show’s very first cliffhanger. It’s rare for Thrones to rhyme with itself so deliberately, mainly because audience satisfaction was rarely at the front of the writers’ thinking, but I suppose there’s no time more appropriate to break habits than right before the very end.
What the various callbacks reveal is that the mood surrounding this royal arrival is much darker than its twin. The histories these characters now share are so tortured and miserable that the healing effects of their reunions are only temporary. When Arya looks into the eyes of Jon, Gendry, and the Hound as they ride past, she looks into the eyes of three men she’s loved and admired — but none of them recognise her. To them, she’s just a face in the crowd. Then just as you think an (admittedly uneasy) alliance has been formed between Sansa and Daenerys, Bran interrupts them with the news that the Wall was breached and that they’re facing an imminent existential threat. Jaime arrives back in the North having escaped Cersei but is immediately confronted with one of his most heinous acts. It’s Varys who gets the episode’s prophetic summation as he reminds Tyrion and Davos that what they perceive to be “respect” from younger people is actually a covert way for them to be kept at a distance. Older people symbolise a sobering, horrifying truth, he says. One that defines not just this episode, but the events of the final season as a whole, and, as it turns out, the show’s legacy: “Nothing lasts.” Not happiness, not the warmth of reuniting with loved ones. Nothing.
The line is spoken aloud as Dany’s advisory trio stand and observe their queen with her nephew-boyfriend Jon, so now would be a good time to get to the whole “Was Daenerys always a tyrant?” question. Well, “No” is the answer, but “Yes” isn’t the answer either. Hunting for signs of her “true villainy” would completely misrepresent her character, but her actions later this season aren’t the “heel turn” they’re billed as either. Her decisions in the final stages of this story have encouraged reevaluation of her entire journey, so let’s dig in. The first time we see anything from her perspective in ‘Winterfell’ is when Drogon and Rhaegal fly overhead and frighten the Northern locals (apart from Arya, of course, who clearly wants a dragon of her own). At the time, this scene was framed as a moment of levity, and confirmation that the silly Northerners just had to wait to see how wonderful Daenerys truly was. But on this side of the massacre of King’s Landing, it’s hard to ignore the glee across Dany’s face as she watches common people cower in fear of her dominance. How does she really want these people to feel towards her?
For me, that was the difference between Daenerys and Jon in the end — they both wielded tremendous power and command over the show’s duration, but it was only ever Daenerys who seemed to enjoy the privileges and dominance that power provided. “We all enjoy what we’re good at”, she once said to Jon, only for him to reply with a dismissive and forlorn, “I don’t.” Down in the crypts towards the end of the episode, Jon argues his queen’s case by reminding Sam of his own history of executions, but Sam correctly reminds Jon that he preferred to show mercy. After his death, Jon only ever seemed to view power as a curse; Dany, on the other hand, enjoyed the feeling she got from knowing she was the most powerful person in any given room. Although, when she lets slip to Sam that she burnt his father and brother alive, responsibility bites her. Her execution of the Tarlys is an error of judgement that she can’t seem to shake off, and now Sam embodies its living and breathing consequences. She enjoyed the righting their wrong with fire, but doesn’t enjoy the feeling of a negative response.
As an aside, John Bradley-West’s performance as Sam gathered an increasing number of layers as the seasons went on — from lonely coward to fierce friend to dedicated partner to loving father to noble warrior, and more besides — and his tearful display here, as Sam accepts that he’s now the sole living male in the Tarly line, is one of his best individual displays.
Dany’s interactions with Sansa drive the only true dramatic conflict of this episode, opening up another window into the former’s current mindset. Sansa’s priority is the security of the North, but their welfare is under threat. Not because Daenerys or her forces bear them any ill will, but because her forces are taking up precious resources in winter — even with the dragons on restricted diets. “What do dragons eat, anyway?” Sansa asks in a sharp, accusing tone. Sophie Turner’s performance bristles with the kind of irritation only felt when your brother turns up with his new girlfriend and her ginormous lizards. Dany’s response (“Whatever they want”) effectively ramps up the tension, but it displays a somewhat cavalier attitude to the scarcity of food. I’m sure we were laughing along at the time, certain that the initial culture clashes would be overcome by communal spirit and mutual respect once the Night King was dispatched. But looking back, Dany’s behaviour towards the North in these moments showed not only a lack of respect, but a dwindling ability to spot friend from foe. Sansa isn’t completely justified in her frosty reception at this stage because we know her suspicion of Dany comes from ignorance rather than foresight, but it’s hard to view her prioritising her own people as anything other than pragmatic.
With that said, as much as coming to Westeros didn’t change Dany, it did trigger a dark sense of entitlement that she’d previously worked so hard to quash. That hard work paid off in Essos because her idea of justice and swift retribution placed slave masters in her crosshair — it’s a more black and white world over there. But Westeros is different. The people ruling its regions and cities are more complex figures, and they’re open to a limited form of diplomacy. It’s hardly an egalitarian society, but they’ve at least outlawed slavery. With the Iron Throne now in her sights, Dany’s quest to claim her birthright suddenly has more complicated hurdles to overcome. Ruling the Seven Kingdoms could potentially result in Sansa, Jon, or Tyrion facing the same fate as the Tarlys if they refuse to comply. Incinerating slave masters is one thing, but slave masters are in her rear-view mirrors. The common people of Essos devoted themselves to Dany without question because she erased a line of brutal fascists with fire and blood, but fire and blood doesn’t work in Westeros and the common people aren’t ready to devote themselves — that’s why the Targaryens were banished in the first place. Just as Ned Stark struggled to stamp his honourable authority on King’s Landing, and just as Tyrion struggled to control Meereen, Daenerys will never find devotion in Westeros, and especially not in the North, because the people are generally happy with their lot. There are no slaves to liberate, no common people in desperate need of a new queen, and no leaders deserving of execution. Her usual options have dried up.
(I’m going to put a pin in this for now because there’s so much more to say about Daenerys in the final season, and I don’t think this was a Dany-centric episode.)
Now, if this isn’t a Dany-centric episode, then who does it belong to? With so many of our favourites inside the same four walls, it’s hard to tell. But considering his actions essentially bookend the episode, I’d like to argue the case for Brandon Stark. The boy in the opening sequence calls back to one of Bran’s first appearances in the pilot, the closing shot is Bran staring at Jaime Lannister across the Winterfell courtyard, and his positioning throughout proceedings suggests that he’s sitting directly in the middle of the action — observing character behaviours and studying their various moves. In this episode alone he takes on the role of the audience by watching life go on around him, he takes on the role of a key plot device by encouraging Sam to make Jon aware of his lineage, and he takes on the role of an exposition bomb as he recaps the season 7 cliffhanger. The closing shot, as Jaime climbs from his horse and turns around to see the result of his actions all those years ago, has also been memed and remixed into oblivion ever since. Bran has never been my favourite character but it was heartening to see so many people embrace him in the aftermath of this new season premiere. He’s never been my favourite but he has always deserved better.
With that in mind, it’s a shame that the subsequent reaction to the final scene overlooked Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s wonderful facial acting — Jaime’s calming glance around Winterfell suddenly morphs into an expression that suggests his past wrongdoings have have flashed before his eyes in an instant. It’s hard to describe the rush of excitement I got while imagining Bran confronting Jaime in the following episode, and it all came from the regret, horror, and shame that spread across Coster-Waldau’s face in a flash.
‘Winterfell’ might well tie with a later episode for season 8’s weakest offering, and it is one of my least favourites of the whole show, but having this much to write about it suggests that, while it’s not firing on all cylinders, it’s definitely firing on most of them. There’s still so much here to interrogate and to get lost in, so much in the way of character history and context to remember and recall, and an even greater chunk to look forward to — this episode’s visit further north to Last Hearth begins as a comedy sequence, with Edd mistaking Tormund for a wight, but Ned Umber’s reanimated corpse turns it into a glimpse of what’s coming for those at Winterfell if their forces can’t hold strong. Expository and slightly stilted dialogue can’t take much away from what Game of Thrones was producing by default at this stage: good drama that was situated in a rich, dense, and immersive world, created by an immensely dedicated crew who had a wonderful eye for location and set design. And those sets were filled with iconic, multi-dimensional characters played by actors producing their very best. It felt so good to be home again at the time, and it still does now, which means the episode mostly achieved its ambitions.
— It got a brief mention during the main body of the article but I think the new title sequence deserves more than a cursory glance. Starting at the Wall this time instead of King’s Landing, and with the plot now collapsed into two locations (as opposed to several), we get to have a deeper look into how the hidden parts of the Red Keep and Winterfell fit together. We also stop off at Last Hearth for the very first time, as the icy blue squares (representing the Army of the Dead) surround the former Umber homestead.
— There are several indications during this episode that Arya has the potential to spring a surprise attack on someone. Sansa remarks that her sister is “lurking somewhere” in a manner that suggests she’s always hiding, Jon then asks how she manages to “sneak upon [him]” in the godswood, and finally she ghosts into a conversation between Gendry and the Hound. That skill might become important later, who knows?
— There’s a momentary glance between Tyrion and Bran this week that’s nice to notice in the aftermath of the season finale, especially now we know that the pair of them will be running Westeros for the foreseeable future. Bran clearly had an interest in Tyrion, and Tyrion’s actions over the next group of episodes will display his keen sense of curiosity for Bran’s story.
— There’s a pair of cameos in this episode from none other than Rob McElhenney and Martin Starr, who play Euron loyalists killed by Theon’s men during his rescue mission to save Yara. And speaking of cameos, Ed Sheeran’s character is mentioned in this episode by one of the sex workers hanging out with Bronn. Apparently poor Ed had his eyelids burnt off during Daenerys’ attack on the Lannister loot train last season.
— Speaking of Bronn, his murder mission from Cersei is perhaps the least compelling storyline of the final season. It’s now absent from the season for the next two episodes. I think this is the one storyline that really suffered from the final season being almost half the length of a normal one. It has good results, but we’ll talk about that more when we discuss ‘The Last of the Starks’ and beyond.