Game of Thrones Makes Time for Love Before War

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Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Winterfell,” the first episode of Season 8.

SPENCER KORNHABERDAVID SIMSLENIKA CRUZ

Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Spencer Kornhaber: Game of Thrones’s ending apparently has put David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the wistful mindset of a high-school yearbook editor. How else to explain this premiere’s doling out of superlatives? Jon Snow called the late Ned Stark the “most honorable” man he ever met, which is awkward because Sam was telling him Ned had lied all his life. Euron Greyjoy was named “most arrogant” by Cersei in the sole compliment she could muster after the Greyjoy PUA asked for post-coital feedback. Arya titled Sansa “the “smartest person,” and Sansa in turn said Tyrion was formerly the cleverest person she ever knew. (He lost his honorific by believing a promise from Cersei Lannister, the least trustworthy person in this realm and any other.)

This premiere may not rack up many superlatives when all the Thronesepisodes are accounted for, though. After a two-year gap and a dragon’s-feast worth of hype, fans probably wanted grand plot movements. Instead, they got a buffet of inevitabilities (Daenerys arriving in Winterfell; Jon learning of his parentage), some spooky-but-short set pieces (the Seal Team Six–like rescue of Yara; the pinwheel of severed arms), and one long sequence of lighthearted dragon-flying that evoked Harry Potter seeking a Snitch. Yet I’d argue this was the best Thrones episode in a long time. After the disastrous Season 7 channel-surfed between far-flung battlefields and contrived confrontationsThroneslooks to have re-centered itself in human relationships and a concrete timespace.

The shift was announced in the new title sequence, which not only relit the Seven Kingdoms in a wintery palette but hinted at a tweaked perspective. With the locations winnowed down to just the decimated Wall, Winterfell, and King’s Landing, the camera swooped and pried into crypts and throne rooms. It’s okay to gasp: After seven years, Thrones’s opening credits could legitimately be called iconic, and to tinker so drastically is nearly in the lineage of the show’s actual plot twists. I found myself thrilled by getting to go inside the cuckoo clock, but mostly I was reassured by the underlying implication. After so many years of sprawl, Thrones now wants to go deep, not wide.

Which means that details matter more than ever. The kid scampering up a tree at the start of the hour made for a clear callback to Bran’s climbing in the series premiere (more yearbook-nostalgia feels!). But that callback also deepened the episode-closing shot of Bran locking eyes with Jaime Lannister, the man who pushed him out a window all those years ago. Rounding out the motif of “watch out, little boy” was young Ned Umber, who requested wagons for his people and then was sickeningly crucified by the undead. All of which felt like omens about Bran’s fate. When he told Jon he’s “almost” a man, he probably was talking about his humanity. But he also, despite having the mind of an ancient being (and possibly The Night King?), is still just a kid.

That’s part of why it felt so shockingly heartwarming to see Jon plant a gentle kiss on the forehead of his long-lost brother early in the episode. This was the first in a line of tender moments between characters, many of whom were reunited for the first time in a long time. Jon and Arya shared a hearty hug; Jon and Sam were emotional about each other’s presence even before Sam dropped his 23andMe bombshell; Yara delivered Theon an affectionate skullcrack. Most memorable were Arya’s encounters at the blacksmith’s. First, the Hound called her “a cold little bitch” in a way that sounded like a compliment. Then, she met up with Gendry for an unmistakable bout of goth-teen flirting, confirming the important fan theory that she’s been thinking about his abs since season two.

Indeed, romance and sex ran throughout the episode. In what felt like another throwback to the show’s early days, Bronn partook of a gratuitous prostitute confab. After some of the least sentimental wooing imaginable, Euron coupled with Cersei. At Winterfell, Varys, Tyrion, and Davos played yentas and schemed to pair up Jon and Daenerys. Those two, of course, have been secretly dating since their cruise to White Harbor. Their dual dragon riding surely served the plot purpose of setting up future dogfighting sequences, but more importantly it was the kind of glorious ham upon which any good screen romance must be built. Jon got a better version with Ygritte on top of the Wall, but still, there are signs of life to this intra-Targaryen couple. If there weren’t, why would Drogon be staring?

Now: As Jon made like Atreyu on Falkor, audience members may well have made like Bran and screamed at their screens, “we don’t have time for this!” But the best moments of Thrones—see: all the big deaths—have been enabled by the sturdiness of the connections between characters. Focusing on relationship ahead of what’s sure to be a bloody, fiery, snowy, casualty-laden slog is smart. It’s only though caring about these knights and lords as human beings that we might get a jolt when Bronn is told to assassinate his buddies Tyrion and Jaime. We need to believe in Jonerys Snogaryen in order to be wrenched by Jon’s face when he’s informed of his parentage, which is both a complication for his political mission and his romantic life. “Did you bend the knee to save the North, or because you love her?” Sansa asked him, but the answer of course can be both. Or at least, that might be what Jon hopes.

I’ll leave you two to unpack the loyalty drama between Jon, Sansa, and the lords of Winterfell. Bonus points for figuring out which zodiac sign or spin-class logo the White Walkers assembled out of arms on that wall.

David Sims: I’m all for callbacks as Game of Thrones kicks off its final season. Remember when summer felt eternal in Westeros, and Jaime had a different haircut, two hands, and a propensity for child murder? Bran sure does, and he is ready for a trip down memory lane. But another character who’s ready to re-live some classic moments from the pilot episode is the Night King, who assembled that bloody arts-and-crafts project out of the short-lived little lord of House Umber for everyone to see. Of course, this isn’t his first dismemberment tableau. Remember that sojourn beyond the Wall, in the show’s very first scene? It featured a similarly ghastly arrangement of severed limbs. Whatever message the White Walkers are trying to send, it’s the same one they’ve been pressing for a long time.

It’s nice to know that even the mute ice zombies of Game of Thrones are ready for the show’s swan song. But to me, this episode’s shocking conclusion spoke to how much Benioff and Weiss have exhausted their bag of narrative tricks. “Winterfell” was, like every season premiere, a fine bit of table-setting that served as a helpful reminder of where every character is, so that the viewers can have their bearings when things start to get chaotic. But the end of the episode was a grim and portentous warning that the White Walkers are … still en route. After eight years, you’d think that memo had been well and fully received.

After all, why else would Jon have given up his crown for Daenerys, to the consternation of just about everyone in Winterfell? How else would Cersei be able to keep her grasp on King’s Landing without the armies of the North bearing down on her? Because of the zombies, as Jon kept having to remind everyone who kicked up a fuss with him upon his return. Nothing else matters until the zombies are dealt with. So yes, I did nod when Bran impatiently noted that there’s no time for romantic dragon-back getaways, given that there are just five episodes on the books after this one; Game of Thrones has always enjoyed a healthy wind-up before the big pitch, but I’m beyond ready for the big showdown.

Because it’s only after dealing with the White Walkers that Game of Thrones can actually dig into the knotty character dynamics that “Winterfell” laid out. Right now, Daenerys is little more than a vital cache of resources. When Sansa, Arya, or any of Winterfell’s lords and ladies (including the forever-flinty Lyanna Mormont) question why Jon gave up his kingship to follow her, he points to her big army and her even bigger dragons. But after (if?) the looming undead crisis is resolved, there are a lot of thornier questions to ask of this invading force and the long-term assistance it can provide to the people of Westeros.

I’m all for Game of Thrones questioning the heroics of Daenerys’s conquering wave. Sam was never a big fan of his bully of a father, but his reaction to the news of the Tarly family’s fiery execution was a necessary rejoinder to all the brutal spectacle of Season 7. In the aftermath of whatever battles are on the horizon this season, every ruler is going to have to reckon with the tough choices they made during the war, and Daenerys’s plan to rule through the might of her dragons isn’t going to sound like much of a change from the tyrannies of old. That’s why it’s fair for Sansa to ask Jon if he’s just doing this all for love, because while that would go over like a stone with his liege lords, his connection to Daenerys might also be the only way to usher in a peaceful future for Westeros.

But these are all questions the show is just hinting at, and with so little time left on the clock, I was hoping for something more weighty than arched eyebrows from Cersei and Jon’s blank bafflement at the news that he’s having an affair with his aunt. The deep dive into every castle from these revamped opening credits was a surprising new piece of spectacle, but it just as tellingly lacked in new information. Yes, Winterfell has a heart tree; yes, King’s Landing is where the Iron Throne is. That’s been true for eight years now, but it’s time for Game of Thrones to push forward to something that feels genuinely revolutionary. Lenika, do you see brighter days on the horizon, or will the icy annihilation wave take most of our pals away before change arrives?

Lenika Cruz: As I peer into the future, I’m sorry to inform you that looks a lot like that scene of Beric, the Hound, and Tormund creeping around the Last Hearth: extremely dark. (Like, “pause the episode, get up to turn off all the lights, and then squint hard at the TV screen” dark.) Yes, David, you’re right that for the last eight years, the White Walkers have been on the exact same path. But a lot of revolutionary stuff has happened. It may have been two years since “The Dragon and the Wolf” (arguably the worst finale in the show’s history) for us, but the Wall came down like a week ago in Thrones time. If anything, this episode made me marvel at just how much has changed since this whole journey began, which is clearly what Benioff and Weiss intended to do before they knock down the next set of dominoes.

We’ve had ages to get used to the fact that Arya is no longer a little girl playing at being a swordsman; that Sansa no longer trusts men who promise to keep her safe; that Bran is now Westeros’s most powerful computer/psychic; that dragons exist. So I liked getting to briefly grapple with these transformations through the eyes of characters who were less familiar with these truths. There was Jon’s sad, knowing look after Arya admitted to having used Needle “once or twice.” And Tyrion’s pained expression after his former wife scoffed at him for trusting Cersei. And Jon’s bewildered stare when Bran said he’s “almost” a man. And, of course, the townsfolk’s terrified reaction when Drogon and Rhaegal tore screeching across the skies of Winterfell. As the Thrones map contracts and more characters find themselves bumping into each other on the way to the armory or while gazing poignantly over the courtyard, these details will matter even more, like Spencer said.

David, you note that “it’s only after dealing with the White Walkers that Game of Thrones can actually dig into the knotty character dynamics that ‘Winterfell’ laid out.” Right now, I’m more nervous about how these dynamics will affect the living’s ability to deal with the dead in the first place. Jon and Dany’s partnership is already weakening Winterfell’s position, with the Glovers holing up at Deepwood Motte and the Dothraki and Unsullied cutting into the castle’s meager provisions. Now, the reveal that Jon Snow isn’t Jon Stark or Jon Sand or Jaehaerys but Aegon Targaryen VI, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, is going to undermine an alliance that hinges entirely on Jon’s unambiguous subordination to the Mother of Dragons.

“Winterfell” did just enough to establish Jon and Dany’s enduring, um, respect for one another while also hinting at the fragility of their collaboration. “Nothing lasts,” Varys intoned as he observed the lovebirds. Approximately at that moment, Dany was complaining to Jon about Sansa’s shady behavior toward her. “She doesn’t need to be my friend, but I am her queen. If she can’t respect me …” Dany said before trailing off, which forced me to wonder: What, is she going to try to burn Sansa, next?!? Later, Jon looked shocked when he learned Dany executed the Tarly men, and he seemed genuinely lost for words when Sam asked, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?” To which viewers across the world yelled, internally or otherwise, “Absolutely not!”

It’s been ages since Dany felt in any way like a real ruler of The People. This week, she spent virtually no time among the regular folk; she gave no inspiring speech to the Northern Lords about how she’s fighting for them, in order to earn their trust and loyalty. I realize that she chose to let Jon do most of the talking and that she’s no longer trying to amass a following, but you’d think she could’ve summoned a little of that populist magic she demonstrated so long ago at Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen. The last time she tried to talk to Westerosis about her profound desire to make the world a better place, she had to use her dragons to encourage people to bend the knee. If there’s anything that’ll wipe the forced politician smile off her face in the coming weeks, it’ll be the knowledge that someone else—even someone who’s as allergic to holding power as he is responsible at wielding it—might be herrightful king.

Lastly, I’m relieved we didn’t actually see the army of the dead this week, and that’s not only because my heart can’t take another scene of the Night King bobbing up and down on Viserion’s back. Those villains need to regain some of their mystique before the big battle arrives, and that horrific scene at the Last Hearth certainly helped (is it just me or did that awful, flaming-child swastika look a little like the Targaryen sigil?). That scene also offered a useful update on the White Walkers’ progress south. The Umber stronghold is roughly a third of the way between The Wall and Winterfell, suggesting the Night King could arrive around Episode 3 (also if episode running times are any indication, which they usually are).

There’s other stuff we didn’t really get into, like whether Cersei is going to try and pin Jaime’s baby on Euron (it seems I may have been wrong for assuming she was only fake-pregnant last season), or whether Theon’s impending reunion with Bran will be as awkward as Bran’s impending reunion with Jaime. But we’ll have five more weeks to answer these questions and more. Until next time, I’ll be thinking about the Unsullied and Dothraki sleeping in those sad, cold, Fyre Festival–lite tents.

The Atlantic

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