Game of Thrones, Episode 8.01: Winterfell

Valar dohaeris, my friends, and welcome back after an excruciatingly long wait since we closed out season seven of Game of Thrones. Nikki Stafford and myself have spent the intervening months rebuilding fortifications, hoarding food and resources, forging weapons, and otherwise preparing ourselves for the day when we would again sally forth into the punishing battlegrounds of blog reviews of everyone’s favourite prestige fantasy TV.

And today is that day! Though it is a bittersweet day, as this is the first of the final six posts Nikki and I will be doing on Game of Thrones. This all started eight years ago when she emailed me, saying she’d heard good things about this new HBO show, and she remembered that I’d read all the books so far. She hadn’t, and suggested perhaps we could blog about it episode by episode, with me bringing the perspective of a GRRM devotee, and her coming at it with no knowledge of the books.

How innocent we were then. Since then, GRRM has produced all of one new book in the series, Nikki has herself read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but the series has long since left behind its original author’s creations and ventured forth into new territory.

And now we’re almost at the end. Valar morghulis, indeed.

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Christopher: Before we get to the story proper, we need to talk about those opening credits! Same basic idea as we’ve seen for seven seasons, but startlingly different. For one thing, in case we didn’t remember that last season ended with snow falling all over Westeros, these rebooted credits let us know that winter is here, unfolding initially in stark (heh) black and white … and even when colour seeps back into the picture as we move farther south, the palette remains muted and the sky lowers darkly overhead.

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Also, the usual trajectory is reversed: for seven seasons we always began at King’s Landing, the seat of power, and then the gods’-eye view roved over all the locations that would appear in the episode. We ended last season with Jon Snow telling Cersei that thrones and crowns don’t matter in the great war between the living and dead; the graphics department seemed to have been paying attention, and started us off not with King’s Landing but north of the Wall, with a bleak image of the breach wrought by the Dragon Formerly Known as Viserion. As we pass through the breach, squares of the ground flip over like game-board tiles, turning from white snow to blue ice. My guess is that this indicates the progress of the army of the dead, and subsequent episodes will show them getting closer to Winterfell.

The armillary sphere containing the sun has also changed, and not just in the silvery sheen it now sports. The heraldry engraved on its rotating bands is different. As with previous seasons, we get three different glimpses of different images; in previous seasons, the imagery depicted scenes allegorizing the (relatively) recent history of Westeros: most specifically, Robert’s Rebellion, as we see in sequence the Targaryen dragon juxtaposed with a phalanx of armoured men, a dragon being savaged by a Lannister lion and Baratheon stag, and finally the stage triumphant. Now we have what looks like ice-Viserion laying waste to the Wall; a stylized Red Wedding, with a St. Sebastian-esque body inside a castle stabbed through with many blades and a figure holding up a decapitated direwolf head while a lion looks on; and finally, numerous dragons following what looks like a shooting star.

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In the interests of seeing how much I can glean from the credits on my own, as of writing this I haven’t yet looked on the interwebs to see what the fan readings are … but it strikes me that the final image is the most suggestive, as it hearkens back to the beginning of season two and the red comet that streaked across the sky—an omen that was variously interpreted by different characters, but accurately by only one. Osha the wildling tells Bran that it can mean only one thing: “Dragons.” And of course we know as much, having ended season one with Daenerys emerging from the fire with her three “children.” But in the image, there are four dragons. Assuming that ice-Viserion will have to get his quietus if the good guys are to win—and that he might well take one of the other two dragons with him—does this mean we can look forward to the birth of more dragons this season? In Fire and Blood, his history of the Targaryens, GRRM writes that there was a rumour that one of the former Targaryen dragons left a clutch of eggs un the crypts underneath Winterfell … might this rumour prove true?

Certainly, both the teaser and the official trailer for season eight placed heavy emphasis on the crypts; that might just have been for atmosphere, but we go somewhere we’ve never been in the pervious iterations of the opening credits—inside the clockwork buildings. When we enter both Winterfell and King’s Landing, an emphasis is initially placed on the gates as the snap into place while we pass though, a suggestion, perhaps, of the importance of these two strongholds in the wars to come. But we also pass into the bowels of each castle: into the crypts of Winterfell, and into the lower levels of the Red Keep where the skulls of long-dead Targaryen dragons gather dust. If we recall, those skulls once adorned the walls of the throne room, but Robert Baratheon banished them to the castle’s nether regions in an attempt to similarly banish memories of the Targaryens. There’s an interesting and suggestion thematic resonance here: if the Winterfell crypts do in fact contain dragon eggs, they ironically represent a space of rebirth; whereas the underlevels of King’s Landing contain only vestiges and the shadows of old power, which is possibly why the city is no longer the starting point for the credits’ tour of Westeros, but its end. Let’s remember that haunting image from Daenerys’ vision of a ruined throne room open to a snowy sky.

What did you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’m sure the fans are weighing in already as I type this first thing Monday morning, and I have no doubt the episode will have its detractors, but I thought it was an amazing return to Westeros. If you take your mind back to the very first episode of the series, we opened in Winterfell, with all of the Stark children there and Ned preparing for the arrival of King Robert Baratheon and his family, the Lannisters. This episode, which feels like 20 years later, finally finally FINALLY reunites all the living Starks, brings another royal to Winterfell, pays homage to Aladdin and How to Train Your Dragon in a single scene (ha), reveals the biggest secret of the series to the person it means most to (and yay for a beloved character being the one to deliver that news!), has a truly terrifying scene that would make horror fans stand up and cheer, and ultimately brings together two “old friends” for a final zinger of a moment. And that’s just skimming the surface.

That opening credit sequence was exquisite, but two and a half minutes later, we’re at Winterfell. And so is everyone else, by the looks of it.

The writers know that of all the characters on this show, there’s one whose death would probably cause mass mutiny, and that’s Arya. And so she’s the first familiar face the camera zooms in on, as she stands there excited to see the troops arriving, and anticipating the faces of who will pass her by. It’s a moment that could be easily mistaken for fan service—of all the people, let’s show Arya because the fans love her. But there’s so much more going on in this scene. As with much of last season, I believe season 8 will be the one where we keep going back in our minds to where they all began. Arya was the little girl at Winterfell who didn’t want to be like the other girls, who wanted to wield a sword and learn to fight, just like her brothers. They adored her, and Jon gave her Needle, the sword that has been at her side for most of the series. When she left at the end of season 1, she was on her own, wandering the countryside, kidnapped, trapped, fighting, killing, being a Girl with No Name… she’s done it all. And now she’s back where she started, having her This is Your Life moment of people going by: Jon Snow, her beloved brother; the Hound, the caustic SOB with whom she travelled much of the countryside and whose begrudging trust she earned every step of the way; Gendry, the boy who thought she was a boy for the longest time, who had been taken by the same people who were taking her away from Winterfell—he didn’t know she was the daughter of Ned Stark, and she didn’t know he was the son of Robert Baratheon. And now she watches them all parade past her, not one of them noticing her standing there, because they’d be watching the crowds for a little girl, and that girl is long gone. (Although we do see a glimpse of her for one brief moment when her face lights up with joy as the dragons swoop over the crowds for the first time.)

Jon Snow and Daenerys are in the middle of the massive number of Unsullied soldiers and Dothraki riders who march into Winterfell (and even before Sansa commented on it, all I could think was, where the heck are these guys going to sleep? What are they going to eat?) as a White Queen (in a fabulous outfit) and a Black Knight, two chess pieces on horses marching by their crowds of admirers—chess pieces, I might add, who are dressed like they’re on opposite sides of the board. I sense some foreshadowing going on here.

And riding along with them, in a carriage, is Tyrion and Varys, with Varys complaining about the cold of Winterfell and Tyrion mocking him as he always does: “At least your balls don’t freeze off,” he sneers. Varys asks him point blank why he takes great offense at dwarf jokes but likes telling eunuch jokes, and Tyrion says, quite plainly, “Because I have balls and you don’t.” Touché. I do love how these rivals have become as close as they have, but it’s mostly because they’re probably the two most cunning and conniving men in Westeros, and they both realize the old adage of keeping your enemies closest.

 

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And then the queen and her knight arrive in the courtyard of Winterfell, a courtyard that once had horses and sheep and little boys fighting with wooden swords and blacksmiths… and now has soldiers and hardened faces preparing for a war they don’t expect to win. Sitting in the middle of that courtyard is Bran, who should have been dead a long time ago, who was reported dead a long time ago, who is stoic, unsmiling, unmoving, and a warg. And the look on Jon Snow’s face when he sees him is worth the entire episode. Well, that and the resting bitch face that Sansa has perfected and gives to Daenerys moments later.

This opening scene is very grey, overcast, ominous, but also echoes and mirrors the same scene of Robert Baratheon entering King’s Landing in episode 1 of season 1. A much smaller army; a queen who didn’t want to be there; a jovial drunken king; an imp who had a much younger, clean-shaven face; a sneering heir to the throne; the Kingslayer staying close to his “queen”… the group arriving at Westeros was a very different one all those years ago, but they were coming to Winterfell for Robert to make one “simple” request of Ned Stark: to become the Hand of the King. And the moment Ned takes that job, everything falls apart. “Winter Is Coming” signalled the beginning of the great wars of Westeros; “Winterfell” is about the beginning of the end of those wars.

And then we move to meeting of the Houses at Winterfell, and of course one of my favourite characters taking a stand. What did you think of what happened when everyone was finally together in one room, Chris?

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Christopher: There was one little element that bugged me, which was that there was no acknowledgment among the northerners of Ser Jorah—who is, after all, a Mormont of Bear Island, and (I think) Lyanna’s uncle. He was once the Lord of Bear Island, until he sold slaves to raise funds to keep his young wife happy; but Ned Stark got wind and was going to have him arrested, but he fled, basically becoming persona non grata in the North. If we remember, that’s how he ended up in Essos (his young wife at that point having abandoned him), spying on Daenerys in exchange for the promise of a pardon from King Robert.

It’s been a long, long road since then … but wouldn’t his presence at Winterfell be looked at askance by the northerners? I find it difficult to believe that Lyanna wouldn’t have a sharp word or thirty to say on the matter.

Or perhaps she’s just too preoccupied with the fact that the man she helped make king threw his crown away mere months later and made the North subject to a silver-haired southerner. Certainly, her vitriol in the meeting is scathing.

Tyrion does a good job in mollifying everyone, lauding Jon Snow and citing everything he has done. It seems to be going well … until he says that the Lannister armies will soon be coming north. Peter Dinklage is great in this moment, losing whatever rhetorical momentum he has built as he realizes that news of the Lannisters’ imminent arrival likely won’t sit well with this crowd—what will all that war business and the Red Wedding and stuff.

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I’m with you, Nikki, in wondering about logistics, and it speaks well to Sansa’s maturity as a leader that she voices the question (however snarkily), though I worry that too much of this last season is going to dwell on the Sansa/Daenerys frenemy dynamic; we just got through the better part of a season’s worth of her suspicions about Arya, and her jealousy of Jon is obviously still a thing. At the same time, Daenerys’ response to her question of what do dragons eat, anyway? is pretty awesome: “Anything they want.” Even with just two dragons, having them pretty much remains the ultimate trump card.

Then we cut to the unloading of carts of dragonglass in the courtyard, as Tyrion and Sansa look on. Reunions of characters long separated was one of the highlights of the previous season, though not all of them are necessarily pleasant. It’s been easy to forget that Tyrion was forced to marry Sansa, and that her disappearance after Joffrey’s death at the Purple Wedding made things even more difficult for Tyrion—a fact she quite tactfully acknowledges. I quite loved this particular interaction. Sophie Turner and Peter Dinklage deliver a masterclass in understated acting, and Sansa once again displays her hard-won gravitas, light years beyond the callow girl we met in season one. “Many underestimated you,” Tyrion observes. “Most of them are dead now.” It is a wise observation, but it is notable that Sansa intuits something that escapes Tyrion—there will be no Lannister army coming north, because it is not in Cersei’s nature to do anything even remotely altruistic. When he responds affirmatively to Sansa’s question about whether he believed Cersei’s promise, she says, “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” And then exits.

Boom. I have a sneaking suspicion that Sansa might run out of mics to drop before we’re even halfway done this season.

Poor Tyrion. As he digests that little work of passive-aggressive poetry, he looks down into the courtyard to see Bran looking up at him with that thousand-yard stare that, I have to imagine, is really starting to freak the people of Winterfell the fuck out.

Sansa’s cruel burn finds an echo in the next reunion scene: when Jon Snow dismisses Sansa’s dislike of Daenerys by saying “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone,” Arya rejoins, heartfelt, “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.” It’s a heart-clenchingly touching tribute, and one that—unfortunately—Jon Snow will almost certainly not heed. Indeed, he gets his back up a bit, asking why Arya’s defending her … saying it a little incredulously, as he remembers how Arya and Sansa used to be, when Arya loathed Sansa’s ladylike airs and idolized her bastard brother.

There is much in this episode that calls back to the very first one: the little boy running through the crowd to find a vantage point to watch the newcomers echoing Arya doing the same thing (and indeed, as you point out, Nikki, also doing it in this episode); the pageantry of a royal visit; Jaime coming full circle to be confronted by Bran; but really, the most poignant moment (to my mind) is Arya’s reunion with Jon—after their initial deadpan exchange, delight and love creases her face, and as she leaps into his embrace, she is, for just a moment, little Arya from episode one, season one. But much has happened, and it seems in this scene that while Jon feels his own experiences like a burden, he lacks the empathy to see it in others.

But the scene ends with a touching hug and Arya’s guileless, contented smile. And from there we go Cersei getting the news of the dead breaking through the Wall … and her response is not exactly what one might expect.

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Nikki: You’re right, the family reunions are so heavy in this episode I half expected someone to show up with a picnic table and a bucket of KFC, but I’m with you: the Jon Snow/Arya reunion slayed me. It’s probably the one I’ve been looking forward to the most, and it didn’t disappoint. (I also loved how they immediately began comparing sword sizes…)

Meanwhile, down in King’s Landing, Cersei has pretty much proven Sansa’s theory correct. As Qyburn tells her the Walkers have broken through the Wall, she says, “Good.” It’s so quick, and so unexpected, that my husband actually said, “Did she just say ‘Good’?!” Well of course she did. Despite the zombie demonstration that was laid before her in the previous season, we saw with the fallout between her and Jaime that she’s pretty much lost her mind at this point and doesn’t fear the White Walkers the way she should. She’s been so obsessed with Daenerys and her dragons that the moment she discovered Viserion had been killed—and was now a wight—she probably thought she and the White Walkers are on the same side.

We cut to good ol’ Euron, who, if you recall, kidnapped Yara and took out most of her crew, and Theon jumped in the water to save himself because he didn’t have the courage/ability in that moment to save her. But he regretted it, as we’ll soon see. As Euron reassures Yara that he hasn’t killed her yet, and won’t, because he really wants someone to talk to—read: someone to brag to about the royal copulation that will soon commence, as he’s just promised—just watch her face and the hatred that crosses it. I kept thinking, oh man, if she manages to get those shackles untied, buddy…

Euron’s thousand ships dock at King’s Landing, and Euron goes to see Cersei with Captain Strickland, whom he’s recruited from the Golden Company, who tells Cersei that he’s managed to bring her 2,000 horses. But Cersei, who’s become obsessed with watching the Dumbo trailer repeatedly on Pycelle’s YouTube account, asks where her elephants are. When he explains how difficult it would have been to transport elephants over water, Cersei’s face is unchanging, but in her head you can see her standing up and screaming, throwing all of her toys at the other toddlers, and stomping out of the Red Keep. Instead, she keeps all of that inside and just glares at him. Uncle Euron decides THIS is the moment to make a romantic move on the queen, and Cersei just stares him down: “You want a whore, buy one,” she says. “You want a queen, earn her.”

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And then, you know, she sleeps with him. And complains about her lack of elephants again.

Cersei’s actions continue from her unravelling in season 7. We remember in previous seasons her love of Jaime and those sympathetic moments of a mother falling to her knees over the losses of her children. But in season 7, Jaime was in King’s Landing with her, and they argued the entire time. He was terrified by the zombie demo and wanted her to join forces with the North. She wanted to leave them alone to destroy the North. He countered that there would be only two possible outcomes: one, the White Walkers destroy the north and then continue on to them, or two, the north somehow vanquishes the White Walkers and then marches on King’s Landing to destroy the family who refused to help them. Jaime talks to Tyrion behind her back, she talks to Euron behind his, and ultimately she sics the Mountain on Jaime, who manages to get away, telling her that he’s basically done with her.

Cersei has lost Robert, Joffrey, Myrcella, Tommen, and now Jaime. Everyone has turned their backs on her, and she’s becoming the female embodiment of Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King. Euron chides her about sleeping with the Kingslayer, wanting to know how he measured up to her brother in bed, and she doesn’t let this get to her the way she used to. Instead, she’s probably just mentally compiling a list of reasons she’ll have Euron flayed later. His final comment—“I’m going to put a prince in your belly”—is a rich moment, because Cersei already has a prince in her belly, and as long as she does, she believes she’s not alone in this.

In the middle of the Cersei/Euron scenes, we get a brief reintroduction to Bronn, who reminded me of Dracula and his three brides as he prepares to have a four-way (where the women are talking about Ed Sheeran’s character from last season, which made me giggle),, interrupted by Qyburn, a mood-killer if ever there was one. He delivers a message to Bronn: that Cersei needs him to hunt down Tyrion and Jaime, and kill them both. It’s a devastating moment where we realize just how far gone Cersei is. And that Bronn is really good at what he does, and will do whatever makes him the most money. And right now, Cersei’s got a lot of it. I liked Bronn in the beginning, and over the years he’s had some priceless zingers, but I wouldn’t shed any tears if something horrible happened to him at this point. Perhaps… he’ll be reunited with Brienne of Tarth.

And then it’s back to Theon and Yara, and another redemption of Reek.

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Christopher: Considering just how low Theon was brought, I suppose it makes sense that he gets multiple redemptions—and I guess he has only one last atonement, which is to stand with the Starks against the Night King.

When Yara thanked Theon for rescuing her with a headbutt, I wrote “different families, different customs” in my notes. Still, their final moment when she gives her blessing to him to go and fight at Winterfell was quite touching … albeit a little funny as well, as Yara realizes that the motto of the Iron Islands—“What is dead can never die”—doesn’t quite work as well when the enemy is literally a horde of dead people. “But kill the bastards anyway,” is as good an amendment to the traditional saw as any.

Then back to Winterfell and its ongoing preparations for battle—Unsullied encamped outside the walls, trebuchets being readied, long lines of soldiers and supplies tramping into the castle. Tyrion, Varys, and Davos watch as the most recent arrivals, the Karstarks, are greeted, and Davos attempts to make a point. He tells Tyrion that until just recently, the Karstarks were the Starks’ enemies. Jon Snow managed to bring them back into the fold and make peace. Tyrion’s boilerplate response—“And our Queen is grateful”—misses Davos’ point. Whatever the threat posed by the Night King, northerners are still not going to easily accept Daenerys. “The northmen are loyal to Jon Snow, not to her,” he says. “They don’t know her. The Free Folk don’t know her. I’ve been up her a while, and I’m telling you, they’re stubborn as goats. You want their loyalty? You’ll have to earn it.”

Given that the Night King isn’t that far off, one might argue that the common enemy will shortly obviate whatever distrust and resentments currently exist. But Davos is thinking ahead, seeing how the bases for further conflict might be avoided on the off chance that they survive the coming battle. “A proposal is what I’m proposing,” he says, as the three advisors look down from the wall to where Daenerys and Jon are obviously at ease with each other and happy in each other’s company. The attraction between them is obvious to most, and Davos is cannier than most … a dynastic marriage might be just the thing.

Of course, he doesn’t yet know what we do—that Jon is actually Aegon, and Daenerys is his aunt, a fact that may or may not be a spoiler as the show will necessarily pose the question: just how much incest is too much incest?

But that will have to wait until the next episode; for the moment Jaenerys get to enjoy each other’s company, and hey—how about a dragon ride? (Oh, and I laughed out loud when Daenerys understood “eighteen goats and eleven sheep” as “the dragons are barely eating.” Yikes. I feel hard done by every time I have to buy a new bag of kibble for my cats. Dragons are expensive pets). There seems to be a bit of fudging here, as the understanding has always been that only Targaryens can ride dragons. So it makes sense that Jon can (clumsily) ride Rhaegal, but not so much that Daenerys blithely invites him to climb aboard. Perhaps she assumes that the dragons are now comfortable with Jon? Or so taken with his depthless eyes that she forgets that piece of family lore?

Whatever the reason, she convinces him, and they replicate a scene that I assume happens in How to Train Your Dragon 3, and end up at the base of a picturesque frozen waterfall. Daenerys is struck by the beauty of the place, and says “We could stay a thousand years.” Which, in an episode full of callbacks, is a particularly poignant one, as it recalls what Ygritte said to Jon in the grotto several seasons ago.

Their make-out scene is hilariously awkward, and will resonate with anyone who has pets—that feeling many of us have experienced when an intimate moment is made weird upon realizing that the cat or dog is watching intently. (I have to guess that the dragons are both thinking “Ohhhhh … OK, so he is a Targaryen”).

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Cut then to the forge, where Gendry and the other smiths are hard at work transforming dragonglass into weapons. The Hound’s axe is an impressive piece of work, but he doesn’t seem overly grateful, offering insults rather than thanks. And then: yet another reunion as Arya appears, telling the Hound to leave Gendry alone. “You left me to die,” says the Hound. “First I robbed you,” she points out in reply, and it’s obvious Sandor doesn’t know whether to be angry or impressed. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he asks, then allows, “Guess that’s why you’re still alive.”

“Still alive” is becoming a recurrent theme, which, after seven seasons of players being swept from the board, is not perhaps surprising. The characters who have made it this far and made it through hells both literal and figurative have earned their right to be still standing; but it also raises the question of who’ll still be standing as the final credits roll in six weeks.

Arya’s reunion with Gendry is somewhat warmer, even a bit flirtatious. Are these two about to become a thing, I wonder? In the very first episode, Robert Baratheon proposed joining houses to Ned Stark; that of course didn’t happen, but even if it had, Joffrey was not an actual Baratheon. Gendry on the other hand is Robert’s bastard; will the union of Stark and Baratheon happen after all, after all this time?

Perhaps. But awkward flirtation aside, Arya has a task for Gendry, which seems to be some sort of double-pointed spear tipped with dragonglass. Considering that she already has Needle and a Valyrian steel dagger (as Gendry points out), one might suggest that she’s being a little greedy with about her weapons. On the other hand, I have to imagine there’s all sorts of havoc Arya could wreak among the undead with just such a thing.

And then we have, finally, a confrontation between Jon and Sansa. What did you think of their squabble, Nikki?

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Nikki: I just want to add that I couldn’t help but imagine Jon singing, “It’s a whole new wooooorld” while riding on the dragon (which, HONESTLY, how do either of them stay on the backs of the dragons as the dragon spines violently undulate up and down the whole time…) with Daenerys reaching out to him singing, “Don’t you dare close your eyes!” I’ve always loved the scenes of the dragons and Daenerys riding them, but something about this scene felt a little cheesy, I’m not sure why. Though I was amused by the fact that Jon Snow rides a dragon the way the Greatest American Hero flies.

(And I also wrote in my notes, Chris, when they landed, “OMG it’s like when the cat is sitting on the end of your bed at night…”)

And this is probably as good a spot as any to say that Bran is one creepy mofo in this episode, constantly sitting and staring at people when they least expect him to be there. As I said to someone on Facebook, his storyline has always been the only kind of boring one, and this season they’ve just propped him up like a broom in the corner to remind us he’s still there (staring creepily at everyone when we KNOW he’s constantly watching them even when they leave the courtyard) but we don’t really have to deal with him. I couldn’t help but wonder if, when Drogon was watching Daenerys and Jon kissing (EW)… could it have been Bran warging and watching them? (DOUBLE EW.)

But back to Sansa. I’m thinking in the past two years Sophie Turner has used her time off well, standing in front of various mirrors and perfecting that hooded-eyelid “I am judging you” face to freakin’ perfection. Her side-eye, her resting bitch face, and her full-on shade are at their peak this season. Sansa was such a twit in season 1, and she’s a full-on warrior goddess now. I absolutely adore her.

And as for the dispute between her and Jon, she’s basically bringing to the fore what he’s been too blind to see this entire episode, but which everyone else sees as plainly as the noses on their faces: he’s brought the enemy into their midst. The northerners are all dressed in blacks and greys; she’s dressed in white. They are all northerners who live in cold and snow; she was born of fire and brought fire-breathing beasts to their lands. The Targaryens are the family of the Mad King, the family of dragons, the family that has destroyed so many of theirs. There’s no way they’re going to just accept her with open arms now that she’s shown up with Jon Snow hanging off hers. And as we’ve seen both last season and this season, Dany’s major flaw is her undying obeisance to protocol. She started off as the mother figure, the saintly leader who wanted to care for her flock; now she’s dressed similarly to Cersei (just at the opposite end of the colour spectrum) and demands you bend at the knee or she’ll bring on the dragons. She refused to allow Jon to retain his King of the North mantle, and so he’s given it up to proclaim her the ruler of all the Seven Kingdoms. And the northern folk are PISSED. Lyanna Mormont has voiced her concerns, and Ser Davos points it out to Tyrion and Varys, as you mentioned, Chris, and here Sansa takes a metaphorical sledgehammer and brings the point home.

Of course Jon counters with an excellent point: she’s brought the Unsullied to them, and without her they cannot win. She has two dragons, for goodness’ sake. But even he doesn’t look 100% convinced. Daenerys isn’t quite the Daenerys she used to be, for better or for worse. There was a time she was so attuned to her dragons she could feel their feelings; and now, when they won’t eat and my immediate thought was, “Because they’re mourning the loss of their brother Viserion,” she simply says that they don’t like the North. But on the other hand, her journey has been one through hell—remember, she’s 13 in the first book and roughly 17 in the TV adaptation of the first book—and she’s come out harder and smarter. And Jon’s right: does the North really stand a chance without her? “Did you bend the knee to save the North,” Sansa asks, “or because you love her?”

Cut to the return of our beloved Sam Tarly. Sweet, lovely Sam. He meets Daenerys for the first time and shows nothing but fealty and respect, and she thanks him for his role in saving Ser Jorah’s life. In return she asks if there’s anything she could do for him. Well, if it’s not too much trouble, he stutters… he could really use a pardon. For, you know, “borrowing” some books from the Citadel, and, you know, sort of, um, lifting a sword from his father’s palace. One that would eventually be his, you know, but… still. And that’s when the pieces fall into place for Daenerys, who at first is glancing at Ser Jorah with amusement and then suddenly isn’t. “Not Randall Tarly?” she asks. And then, with all the emotion of informing him that Baskin Robbins is out of the flavour of ice cream he asked for, she tells him that actually, Randall Tarly refused to bend the knee and her dragons incinerated him. Sam’s eyes grow wide with shock, and then he remembers his dad was a complete asshole, so he stammers that at least his brother will be lord of the castle now. And like the boss on Office Space, she’s like, “Yeeeaaaaah… I sort of immolated him too.” :::takes long sip of coffee:::

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I was a little worried he’d start running through other members of his family and she’d just say, “Yep… check… gone too… yep… oh that one fought a bit but yep…” and it would be a horrible reverse of the Stark family reunions. But instead, Sam’s bottom lip quivers and he asks very politely if he can leave.

As Sam rushes out of the crypt in tears (oh Sam…) he encounters none other than Creepy-Ass Bran sitting there in his chair. Bran knows what’s just happened below because He Sees All and, just as he did at the end of season 7, he tells Sam it’s time to tell Jon Snow the thing about the thing. And never before has Sam ever wanted to tell someone good news and bad news so badly before, especially since he just found out the bad news has barbecued his family.

And so off he goes to see Jon Snow, and as I said earlier, I’m so thrilled that the one moment of the entire series gets to be carried by the one character who never seems to have harmed a soul. In season 7 he’s the one who discovers the revelation, and now he’s the one who gets to carry that important news to Jon. But first, he wants to test his brother in arms by asking if Jon knew what Daenerys had done to his family. Jon looks slightly shocked for a moment, but recovers quickly, saying if the Tarlys hadn’t done what had been asked of them then he guesses they had it coming. “Would you have done it?” Sam asks quickly, his lips held tightly together as he knows that Jon would have never done it. He’s seen Jon faced with a conundrum, and has seen him choose mercy with the wildlings. Jon doesn’t answer, because he knows what he would say, and that it would directly contradict his lover’s actions.

And then, as the theme music begins to rise slowly in the background, Sam tells him what we’ve been waiting eight seasons to hear. What did you think of this moment, Chris? Is it what you’d always wanted it to be?

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Christopher: Tough question to answer … mainly because, on reflection, I had no idea how this moment would play out, and what the mechanism of revelation would be. They leveraged it nicely against Sam’s grief, as it gives him the impetus to argue that Jon should be the one to claim the throne. Which raises an interesting question: by the laws and logic of patrilineal descent, Jon has the far superior claim to the Iron Throne, as he is the heir of the heir. But as Game of Thrones has spent seven seasons establishing, hereditary claim is only one factor involved in crowning a monarch. The Targaryens, after all, arrogated the rule of the Seven Kingdoms to themselves by right of conquest, and had ruled for a paltry three centuries by the time Robert’s Rebellion kicked their arses out of the Iron Throne. And let’s not forget that A Song of Ice and Fire started, in part, as a dynastic fantasy based on the Wars of the Roses, in which hereditary right took a back seat to armies in the field.

Of course, the question of Jon and Daenerys could (and almost certainly will) be solved with a slew of “Save the Date” cards … but then, that brings us back to the incest question and whether Jon and Dany’s hormones can overpower the ick factor (again, I’m guessing yes).

The key question that Sam poses to Jon as they argue over whether he or Daenerys should rule is “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she?” It’s a good question, and one that I suspect will be put to the test sooner rather than later. Since leaving Meereen, Daenerys has become more imperious, more absolute in claiming her right as queen, less forgiving to those ambivalent about bending the knee (the Tarly men being a case in point where she was resolutely deaf to Tyrion’s strenuous pleas for mercy). Her preoccupation with “the people,” which was constantly foregrounded back east, seems to have gone by the wayside. The fact that she has not made any attempt to ingratiate herself or win the northerners over—why on earth did she have nothing to say in the meeting in the Great Hall?—is a huge mistake that, apparently, only she and Jon are blind to. For someone so determined to “break the wheel,” she’s starting to behave an awful lot like her ancestors.

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Fortunately or not, it doesn’t look like she’ll need to resolve this in the short term, as we’re reminded of the progress of the Night King and his army of the dead. Beric and Tormund, having miraculously survived the destruction of the Wall unscathed, lead their small band to Last Hearth—the seat of the Umbers, to which li’l Ned was dispatched at the start of the episode … a small bit of exposition whose purpose becomes horribly apparent after Tormund et al run into Edd Tollett and his small collection of Night Watch (an encounter which gives us the funniest exchange in the episode, when Edd thinks Tormund is a white walker because his eyes are blue. “I’ve always had blue eyes!” Tormund cries).

It seems li’l Ned arrived back home just in time for him and his people to be overrun by the Night King—signs of a battle in the courtyard, many bloodstains … but no bodies. When Beric asks Edd if they’d seen anyone, Edd gets grim and leads them to possibly the most gruesome piece of wall art ever. “It’s a message,” says Beric, “from the Night King.” Well, OK … but what’s the message? We’ve seen similar such designs in previous episodes—the split circle of body parts in the very first, a spiral almost identical north of the Wall in season three, and the wall etchings Jon Snow finds on Dragonstone have both such shapes displayed. Is it a message, or a calling card? Or perhaps some kind of occult incantation? And if the last option, did Beric inadvertently activate it by setting it aflame? (Sorry, I just finished teaching a course on H.P. Lovecraft, so this sort of thing is very prominent in my mind).

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One way or another, it was a delightfully creepy scene, especially when li’l Ned’s glowing blue eyes opened over Tormund’s oblivious shoulder just before he screamed.

What did you think of the encounter at Last Hearth Nikki? And what was your reaction when you realized which “old friend” Bran had been waiting for?

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Nikki: I screamed when Ned’s eyes popped open. It might be one of the most horrific scenes we’ve seen on this show—which has certainly had its share of them. No one is spared on Game of Thrones, not even small children (think Shireen). And Ned was just so damn cute at that Great Hall meeting, yet, like Lyanna, professional and acting far beyond his years. Maybe we should have figured that no one named Ned on this show is going to make it to the end of the season. When he burst into the fiery spiral I, like you, felt like I’d seen this before. To me it looks a lot like the Targaryen sigil, but perhaps that was also because it was, you know, fire. But as you say, we’ve definitely seen a spiral motif like this before. Maybe the writers are just big fans of Vertigo.

And then we return to The Creepy One, still sitting in his spot in the courtyard, unmoving, waiting for his old friend to show up. Of course, it’s not like you or me sitting in a chair in a courtyard; I assume he’s watching some sort of Tele-Vision in his mind of pretty much everyone in the world—right now, last week, next year… I doubt he’s bored. And that old friend turns out to be… the one who put him in the wheelchair in the first place. My first thought was to quote the great Senator Clay Davis: “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.” But I assume this is going to be far more complicated than a normal reunion of perpetrator versus victim: Bran isn’t really Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, none of whom resemble the person they were in season 1, he’s the most far gone. He’s barely human at this point. And he knows what’s coming and what needs to happen. If Jaime Lannister is important in the fight against the dead, the least of Bran’s concerns is his spinal injury.

Jaime doesn’t know any of this, though: he thought Bran was dead. One can only imagine the complicated emotions running through his head in this moment, not the least of which is that the person for whom he put this child in a wheelchair has turned on him and is treating him like a traitor. And, comc on, we really do want to watch Jaime blubber for a bit at the beginning of the next episode, don’t we? But once again, just like the episode opens the same way episode 1 of season 1 opened, it now ends the same way episode 1 did. But this time, instead of a seven-year-old boy looking through a window and seeing what Jaime’s doing, Bran is a young man, staring at Jaime and thinking, “I know everything you’ve done… and everything you’re going to do next.”

And with that, the first of the final six episodes is over, and we meme our way to next week, where Jon has to come to terms with he’s bonking his auntie; Tormund needs to clean out his armour; Jaime must find a way to get past that unmoving reminder of the worst thing he’s ever done (and that’s saying a LOT); and Sansa continues to perfect that stink-eye. Until then, thank you for reading!

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1 Comment

Filed under Game of Thrones

One response to “Game of Thrones, Episode 8.01: Winterfell

  1. I bet on the smith and Arya Stark as King and Queen of Westeros. He is a natural son of King Robert and she is pretty fond of him.

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