Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1 Review: Winterfell

The Game of Thrones Season 8 premiere echoed the series' beginning as beloved faces met in all the old familiar places.

This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.

Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1

As the end draws nigh for each of us, it is said the world appears to shrink until there is nothing left. So too does that appear to be the case with gargantuan television extravaganzas. Once a universe of seeming infinite scope and complexity, the lands of Westeros and Essos took on a constantly expanding quality for the first five seasons of Game of Thrones—and they continue to grow larger still within the pages of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Yet now as we have finished the first of just six short chapters comprising Game of Thrones season 8, it is unavoidable to note how small and intimate the series is becoming. Once a show that premiered with a vaguely dizzying amount of names in the locations of Winterfell, King’s Landing, and Essos, now even the latter continent has vanished in tonight’s echo of the series’ first episode. Presumably by the time the Dead arrive at Winterfell, the show will be downright claustrophobic.

This intent to begin drawing a curtain across the world is announced in the most visibly altered opening credits in Game of Thrones’ history. The Wall lies smashed, and therefore all locations not immediately impacted by that disaster prove irrelevant. We really only visit three models during this opening, and one of them—dear Last Hearth, a home occupied for centuries by House Umber—is sure to be missing next week. Hence tonight’s premiere can really be divided between the events which occur in Winterfell and the events that occur outside of it. So if tonight is meant to be a faint reverberation of season 1, perhaps then it should be no surprise that the all-too brief hour was stronger whenever it was back inside the walls of the Starks’ ancestral home.

Aye, the true opening of season 8 is of a child desperately trying to sneak a glimpse of Queen Daenerys’ procession into Winterfell. She is technically arriving as their newly anointed Queen and definitely their ally, and yet her reception is far colder than any received by Robert Baratheon eight long seasons ago. This is best juxtaposed by who the kid ends up running by. In season 1, it was Arya and Bran Stark both jockeying for position to marvel at the fat king and his beautiful wife, but tonight Arya Stark stands out in the open and in a decidedly more unimpressed posture.

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When I first watched this moment, I questioned the logic of Arya standing alone among the smallfolk of Winterfell’s meager streets. The look of disappointment on her face is striking there after Jon Snow fails to recognize the little sister he once adored. Now he rides right past, with his head held high and his beloved queen by his side. But in retrospect, it makes perfect sense: Arya would not wish to share her intimate reunion with her favorite brother before all of the North (or what’s left of it) like half-gone Bran Stark did a few moments later. She wants to see Jon with unjudging eyes in their presence. Still, there is another reason Arya is “lurking” about as Sansa describes; she wants to be sure this is the same Jon Snow she so unconditionally loved. In fact, they all do. The million-Gold Dragon question tonight, at least for any character meeting Daenerys for the first time, is “why would Jon Snow bend the knee to the Dragon Queen?”

It’s a fascinating prospect that we all knew was coming, but tonight, rather unexpectedly, made for better conflict than the threat of the Army of the Dead or whatever the hell was going on with Euron Greyjoy and Cersei Lannister in the capital. At the end of the day, Jon Snow looking proud (and maybe faintly concerned) on his horse by Daenerys does not seem to be a king or even a warden. In the most charitable Northerner’s gaze, he and Daenerys arrive as a romantic pairing with all the fanfare of William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution” in English history; to a cynic, he traded in his crown to be this Silver Queen’s paramour. While everyone smirked at how Sansa would receive news that Jon Snow bent the knee in season 7, it turns out she might be the most begrudgingly open-minded. And if this doesn’t give a warning flash to Jon it should.

During the fifth season, Jon cut a striking figure as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Picking bold and unpopular stances time and again, he often made the correct choice. His partnering with the wildlings still remains one of the few reasons that anyone has Winterfell to hole up in for a Last Stand of the Living. However, he made these maneuvers with a degree of self-righteousness that brought along few skeptics and wound up with a knife in his heart. It seems death has done little to change the man, and he now makes the same rash choices on a grander scale. The North desperately needs Daenerys’ dragons and support, but when Jon called her his queen, he was thinking more with his heart than his mind, and now he expects everyone else to fall in line with the decision of the King in the North of a Hundred Days.

This defining conflict is hinted at in the delicious scene of Dany’s greeting inside the gates of Winterfell. Sansa is nothing if not technically polite. Once upon a time, her courtesies were her armor. Now they appear simply to be a weapon as deadly silent as the thousand yard-stare she gives the Breaker of Chains while hugging Jon Snow. Jon likely expected resistance from the Lady of Winterfell, but one wonders how prepared he was to hear it from Lady Lyanna Mormont. Among the first to happily bend the knee to the King in the North, Lyanna can barely choose her disdain-drenched words when she snarls, “You left Winterfell a king and came back a… I’m not sure what you are now.”

The North, it is said, remembers. And they remember that it was a Targaryen, and Dany’s father no less, who burned Rickard Stark alive in his armor, and it was a Lannister offspring who later claimed Ned Stark’s head. Jon Snow is right to insist that they must band together in these dark times, but he has not thought ahead to prepare Northerners for the scope of his recruitments, or the mouths they’ll need to feed alongside the grievances that must be buried in recently vacated graves. Jon should better remember that too lest he wants to deal with another insurrection. This will of course not happen before the Night King gets there. We already know that the Battle for the Dawn comes soon during the third episode of season 8. The Great War is here, aye, but there will still be the Wars to Come before spring and Game of Thrones rests, and in the premiere’s best moments the seeds were sown tightly.

And it is not Sansa who reminds Jon Snow of this, but Arya. As the reunion I most anticipated since Jon Snow rode north of Winterfell, and the one I suspect many a viewer also anticipated, Jon and Arya’s reconciliation was a quiet affair, occurring by the Starks’ idyllic Heart Tree. Set in a happier location than Sansa and Arya’s reunion, it was nevertheless more muted than that and even Sansa and Jon’s utter relief to see a breathing family member in season 6; there’s a surprising amount of distance between the wielder of Needle and the man who commissioned the blade’s construction.

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It was the laugh line of the night when Jon asks if Arya’s ever used the blade and she demurs “once or twice,” but the sincere love found in their embrace is also robbed of some of its sweetness when Arya feels compelled to remind Jon of his roots. “Don’t forget that,” Arya says when Jon says he’s also Sansa’s family. Arya doesn’t trust Daenerys, and as the premiere continues to tease, it is not for unfounded reasons.

Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1 Review Jon and Daenerys

Not having too much to do tonight, Daenerys very much is the conqueror who is surveying her new assets. It is fair to even ponder whether she is unconsciously disappointed that she’s taken the North without uttering “dracarys,” or that she is finally in a land where she isn’t greeted as a liberator or “Mhysa.” She is here to fight the Dead, but there is a clear tension between herself and the Northerners that is echoed when she remarks to Jon that her dragons do not like his kingdom.

One of the dragons’ brothers died in these lands, and she has already heard the child has been grotesquely resuscitated as a demon-beast for the Dead, and there apparently isn’t much food for a dragon around the snowy plains of Winterfell either. There is meaning in that, for while Tyrion calls Daenerys’ dragons “fully grown,” the truth is dragons continue to grow until the day they die—provided they eat and fly well. There does not appear to be enough space for Dany’s children, and thereby the crux of her power, among these icy Northerners.

Mayhaps that is why Dany invites Jon to fly away with her on Rhageal. If so, it could have been better articulated, because the monumental moment that all viewers have anticipated—Jon Snow becoming the first and only man Dany considers worthy to be a true Bloodrider—plays false. Narratively rushed with the frivolity of a romantic comedy date night sequence, Dany rather nonchalantly allows Jon Snow to ride a baby in an event that should be profound, yet is oddly silly. The implications of Jon being a dragon rider are far greater than even Daenerys realizes as this former King in the North is a true Targaryen and the son of Rhaegal’s namesake. He may use this dragon for more than just the coming storm of the Night King. Hence the sequence playing surprisingly flat as Dany and Jon breakaway for a little canoodling while the “children” disapprovingly stare on. It’s one of several wild tonal swings slightly undermining tonight.

Cersei in Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1

The others come at King’s Landing where important information is conveyed when we learn that Euron has successfully ferried the Golden Company to King’s Landing. It remains to be seen if Cersei’s new army will actually head North with the intent of appearing after the fighting is done, and slaughtering whoever’s left, or if they will merely provide a new defense for the city after Drogon roasted most of the Lannister forces last season. Either way, these scenes are nothing except mostly an excuse to offer a showcase for the ever graceful malevolence of Queen Cersei.

Able to convey more wickedness with the slight shift of position in her smirk than a thousand blockbuster movie villain monologues, Lena Headey’s performance of Cersei remains a tremendous asset in subtlety for the series. Unfortunately, she’s left merely to play off of Euron Greyjoy, who seems increasingly like a character who accidentally got lost while headed for the sets of Starz’s defunct Spartacus series. All bellicose one-liners and double entendres, Euron is an R-rated cartoon who awkwardly seems to be trying to fill the hole left by first Joffrey and then Ramsay as the character audiences are meant to hate. If he’s hateable, it’s for the wrong reasons.

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At least his buffoonish strutting gives us some needed insights into Cersei Lannister’s current mindset. For starters, it’s obvious she still savors an arrogant man, and Euron has that in spades, more so than post-season 4 Jaime’s newfound nobility. Also, unlike the Cersei of the novels, Headey’s Mad Queen has seemingly remained relatively faithful to her twin—or at least as faithful as practicalities allow. Yet tonight she takes Euron into her bed, much like Robert was wont to do with the many mistresses Cersei deemed his “whores.”

It would seem she really is severing all ties with the rest of her family, and Tyrion is not the only Lannister brother she wishes Bronn to murder with a new bow. For while Bronn is relegated to some season 1 levels of gratuitous sexposition, the subtext is all about Cersei’s state of mind. I predict that Bronn will not even come close to using the same crossbow Tyrion held to slaughter Tywin unless it appears like Cersei has the upper-hand (which would be very bad news for Daenerys’ dragons), but Cersei has placed Jaime in the same boat as Tyrion. She views him as equally culpable for their father’s death as the brother who pulled the trigger, and it would appear she is not thinking about the future of her house since the idea of Euron impregnating her with a prince catches her fleeting curiosity.

With a glass of wine in hand, likely the same type vintage she refused in the presence of Tyrion during the season 7 finale, it increasingly appears dubious that Cersei is actually pregnant. If she is, Euron certainly did not notice, and if she isn’t, it would seem her sudden teetotaling posture was a ruse not just to keep Jaime in her bed, but also Tyrion’s guard down. Which raises the question of what else did Tyrion and Cersei discuss when the camera cut away from him falling into her trap?

It is hard to say since a lot of season 7’s entrapping setups turned out to be dead ends. The most glaring of these is the fate of Yara Greyjoy. Kidnapped and imprisoned by Euron, Yara’s capture seemed to be the great test of Theon’s life; his final chance to prove he really is a wiser if sadder Greyjoy, and not the still heavily traumatized Reek. Instead he frees her in a throwaway scene with relative ease and has whatever narrative arc was planned for him in season 7 hastily rewritten so that he can live, and probably die, by the Starks’ side at Winterfell. On the one hand, this is fine because Theon’s relationship with the Starks will forever be more interesting than that of the Greyjoys, in no small part because Theon is the only interesting Greyjoy. And on the other, it makes Yara and the Iron Islands’ entire role in the last two seasons to seem strangely irrelevant. And given how relatively annoying they are, that’s not a good thing.

Sansa in Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1

But lest this review appear to be nothing but a slew of critiques (or nitpicks if you prefer), everything that occurred at Winterfell was, again, narrative and cathartic gold of greater worth than Casterly Rock. Clearly intended to be the hour of reunions, the first episode of season 8 had many familiar faces and scene-partners facing off once more. A special highlight was Sansa Stark bumping into her first husband. Despite sitting before the same royal hearth in Winterfell’s Great Hall, the two do not truly share the screen until Tyrion approaches the Lady of Winterfell to congratulate her on the loftiness of her title.

She returns the favor to the Hand of the Queen. What’s intriguing about these two is that when we last saw them, she was as much a student of Tyrion’s sharp-tongued cunning as she was his hostaged child bride. Now an adult, it is Sansa who enjoys the sharp words. When Tyrion recalls Joffrey’s wedding as a “miserable affair,” Sansa dryly muses, “It had its moments.” One wonders if Tyrion really is so getting on in years that he could not properly appreciate such a jape. Then again, he’s in awe of the young woman who he notices is thriving after many, in fact all except for himself, wrote her off as a flighty fool in King’s Landing. Those doubters are all dead this cold morning, except for Cersei—a queen Tyrion has invited to Winterfell. He genuinely should be in awe of Sansa though, as she’s the first to anticipate the fact that the Lannisters are not coming (at least as friends). She calls herself a slow learner, but she did learn, and like Littlefinger warned, “Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind.”

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But if Tyrion’s trip down memory lane with Sansa is understated, that is nothing compared to how the Hound receives Arya. Standing by Gendry, he seems to be the first to recognize the child who left him to die on the side of a hill. His gruff attempt to feign indifference betrays how hurt he still is by Arya’s abandonment. It also allows Gendry a chance for a genuine meet-cute with the Baratheon bastard she knew in a different life. As the warmest and genuinely most wholesome moment of the night, it is Gendry instead of Jon who brings out some of Arya’s youthful girlish charm when he begins referring to her as “milady” and deadpans that she’s like every other rich girl. The smile Maisie Williams intones is infectious. Clearly meant to launch a thousand memes, the moment suggests that more than the Dragon and the Wolf, Robert’s dream of uniting the Wolf and the Stag is the most tangible “endgame” shipper’s delight on the horizon.

Jorah Mormont and Daenerys

This seems all the truer after the most important reunions turned out to involve the burden of knowledge carried by one Samwell Tarly. The first begins amusingly enough with Daenerys Targaryen coming to thank Sam for saving Jorah Mormont’s life. Ser Jorah, with few lines, looks like the cat who swallowed the cream just to be pleasantly back in the friend zone, albeit now with a lifetime’s highest seat of honor. Sam, ever the nerd, even uses this golden opportunity not to ask for a pardon from the Night’s Watch though, but a pardon for stealing a handful of books from the Citadel. Things, sadly, then take a sudden sharp turn when Daenerys realizes that Samwell Tarly is the son of Randyll Tarly and brother to Dickon Tarly, two men she sentenced to death.

Not enough credit is given to John Bradley. Often relegated to the comic relief, Bradley and Sam remain a lighthouse-sized beacon of optimism in this dreary world. Its importance is evident from the way in which we witness it evaporate in a long close-up as he attempts (and fails) to swallow his tears, his rage, and his confusion at the revelation that the happy young woman in front of him basically murdered his family. He might’ve hated his father, but to learn the old man was consumed in dragonfire after surrendering to the Dragon Queen is no endearment. Suddenly, Dany’s show of strength in season 7 looks to be a major weakness and fallibility in season 8. George R.R. Martin would be proud.

This contrast is underscored when Bran forces Sam to only then reveal their findings to Jon Snow: You are Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of Your Name. So it is that, perhaps to all’s surprise considering they were only separated for a season, Sam and Jon share the most heartfelt embrace. At that moment, Jon is trying to keep his head entirely in the game about the White Walkers. They are the existential threat of nature that is coming as sure as a hurricane. And yet, if the world does not end, there will still be troubles in it, and in classic Game of Thrones fashion, it is not in the forms we expect or want.

As Sam utters repeatedly, Jon Snow is the one true King of the Seven Kingdoms. If Daenerys’ claim on the Iron Throne is legitimate, then Jon’s is even more so. That this is unveiled in the crypts of Winterfell is a visual stroke if brilliance. As Jon grapples with the childhood-shattering truth that Ned Stark lied to him, it is in the shadow of his actual mother’s grave. For all these years, the mother he yearned to know about rested beneath his feet, and he had laid his eye’s on her stony countenance (or at least its approximation) more than a thousand times. It will likely be open to debate which is the bigger sense of horror: learning that your father lied to you about your parentage or to know that you’re destined to be drawn into another line of political machinations for control of an accursed land?

Never has a man looked more sorrowful to hear he’s the chosen one than Jon bloody Snow. It was likely as much a relief as an act of love when he surrendered his crown to Daenerys; he never wanted to be Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, nor did he want to be King in the North. Now he has leadership thrust on him again, and by a dear friend who is only too eager to push it. Surely Jon Snow wouldn’t have roasted his father alive! Surely Jon Snow will set things right when he takes his place as the rightful King of the Seven Kingdoms! The likelihood of Sam keeping this secret is next to none after learning his family is ash. As Sam notes, Jon gave up his crown for the safety of his people, but would Dany?

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I suspect we all know the answer to that given the Khaleesi’s savior complex and outspoken sense of manifest destiny. However, just as crucial as Sam’s question is one posed rather open-endedly by Sansa earlier in the premiere: Did you bend the knee to save the North or because you love her? Arya called her sister the smartest person she knows, and she just might be since she vocalizes what actually happened. After Dany saw the threat of the White Walkers, and after they slayed sweet, poor Viserion, she was all-in on defeating the True Enemy before worrying about Cersei Lannister. Jon gave away a kingdom he didn’t need to out of love.

Now that love is going to face its greatest challenge with the knowledge that Daenerys is his aunt, and he is a trueborn Targaryen. She is also an aunt whose sense of entitlement is turning to iron against Jon’s sister-cousin, Sansa. Sansa has shown Dany every courtesy, not more or less, but it’s proven to be little enough to a queen used to being adored. The North will be loathed to hear the truth of Jon’s parentage. When that gets out, and if she makes moves against the Lady of Winterfell, the number of bannermen abandoning Winterfell before the Dead’s arrival (or after it) might only grow when it’s discovered a Targaryen gave away the North’s autonomy to a close relative.

These are the conflicts that truly set the mind afire, even when juxtaposed by the sight of an actual Wight-child burning bright on Last Hearth’s wall. It is also the center of season 8’s most fascinating intrigues within Winterfell’s snow-topped walls.

As a premiere, these events allowed Game of Thrones’ season 8 opener to mimic all the previous seven: a lot of exposition and catching up with beloved characters. But for the first time since season 1, they’re catching up with each other in the old familiar places. That sense of pervasive nostalgia is intoxicating and as wistful as a wintry breeze. When we’re with the Starks—any of them, including Jon Snow who will always remain Ned’s son—it is irresistible and even poignant. Yet there were moments tonight where we left the Starks or their home, be it by sea or dragon’s air, and when that happened, the narrative contours of a George R.R. Martin-less plotting felt strained, or even ridiculous if Euron was involved.

As a whole it was a satisfying season premiere, but not quite the blockbuster that a final season promises. An excellent episode of television, season 8 still started with something missing, and I don’t mean just the spectacle. There is of course plenty of room for the rest of the series to reveal its true royal divinity, but hopefully that will be soon considering there are a meager five episodes of Game of Thrones left. Ever. Luckily, the promise of a heart-to-heart between Jaime Lannister and Bran Stark is as riveting as any ice zombie. Seriously, that brief tease of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s face is one for the meme-ing ages.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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3.5 out of 5