5 takeaways from "Winterfell," the final "Game of Thrones" season premiere
Winter is finally here – or at least the final season of "Game of Thrones" is. (The Night King is still taking his sweet time.)
The eighth and final chapter of HBO's massively successful fantasy hit premiered Sunday night – the first of only six more episodes for the show. Here are the five biggest takeaways from "Winterfell" – besides the fact that the "Game of Thrones" opening credits sequence is still the best on television, even better now that it's been retooled with smaller details like the Iron Throne dramatically unfolding and a fresh new hole where The Wall used to be.
1. The epic final season begins ... minus the epic
After spending a year and a half away, filming what seemed like battle upon battle – some taking as long as 55 days to film – with $15 million an episode, with only six of those very episodes to wrap up this grand, fantasy epic featuring wars on multiple fronts, viewers may have expected season eight to begin with a bang. Instead, the season premiere of "Game of Thrones" played ... exactly like every season premiere of "Game of Thrones: more resetting the board than making any big plays.
A lot of "Winterfell" was just checking back in – this was especially the case with Cersei's chapter, which revealed that, yep, she's still fickle, power-mad and not to be trusted! But now she's also slept with Euron Greyjoy, the giddiest and grossest person in Westeros, which ... choices. Bronn also received a brief check-in, both to receive a mission from Cersei to murder her brothers when the time comes and to hit "Game of Thrones" requisite naked prostitute quota for the episode.
As for everyone else, it was mostly reunion day: Arya tersely reacquainting with The Hound, Sam reuniting with Jon Snow, Arya bonding with Jon Snow – the sweetest re-teaming of the bunch – Theon Greyjoy saving his sister Yara after abandoning her last season ... only to bail yet again (though with permission this time!) to help fight in the North while Yara returns to retake their home, and Arya meeting back up with Gendry – both for business, something involving a new weapon, and pleasure (I'm just it seemed like it wasn't just the sword forging doing the sparking.)
All of this recombobulation isn't completely a bad thing – especially after a rushed and sloppy seventh season that had plenty of epic action beats but not the nitty-gritty detail to flesh in the details between the plot's bombastic bulletpoints. After all, the show earned its large following not just with big action setpieces but with its smartly written nuts-and-bolts political tensions and chess-like allegiance drama, a hand the show played hard and generally successfully Sunday evening. Plus, the emotional catharsis of seeing Arya reunite with, well, pretty much everyone was a pleasant and hard-earned delight. The show still needs the quieter moments to make the big ones actually mean something.
But with only six episodes to finish this story, it's fair to be a little disappointed that one felt more like a prelude than a premiere.
2. Maybe leave the dragon-riding to Daenerys
Sunday's season premiere was low on fireworks – save for the poor child lord of House Umber, quite literally, and Jon Snow's thrilling first ride on the back of a dragon. Or, uh, supposedly thrilling.
I'm not against levity on "Game of Thrones" – in fact, I'd argue it's a better show with moments of humanity and lightness to contrast the dark cruelty of the world, a part of why the middle seasons felt like a bit of a chore with their unending assault of nihilism, brutality and grimdark – but the entire sequence felt out of place, as though the episode felt it needed some big CGI-heavy scene to tide over fans through all the resetting of the board and all the political bantering and positioning. (And to make sure the supposed $15 million-an-episode pricetag made it to the screen in an otherwise very low-key timeout of an episode.)
Sure, we've been waiting for Jon Snow, a Targaryen, to exercise some dragon powers, but not on a random romantic joy ride – a wildly dangerous romantic joy ride, right at a moment where tenuous peace treatises and the future of humanity rests on their key leader not dropping thousands of feet to his death during some dragon drag racing with a woman many distrust enough as is. Add in that the whole sequence, instead of a sense of wonder and excitement, played as comic relief, complete even with cutesy zingers and one-liners before and after the trip – plus some not particularly special effects – and you've got a moment that might've been best fed to the dragons. (After all, according to Dany, they eat whatever they want – and they need the food.)
It doesn't help matters that "Game of Thrones" is attempting to create this emotional romance between Jon and Dany – despite the fact that the audience knows that it's gross and incest-y thanks to Jon's secret lineage. The power couple's relationship is leading to some fascinating and tense directions – with the information now getting doled out both about Jon's origins and Dany's lethal power play last season with the Tarlys – but the actual heart-thumping love story is easily the least interesting of the bunch. We may not have to worry about it much longer, however, thanks to ...
3. The Jon Snow/Dany power couple coming under fire
For the last season, and Sunday night, Jon Snow has preached that all that matters is building allies and surviving the Night King's army – even if that means bending the knee and angering the people who made him King of the North, and even his own family, in the process. But with the revelations in "Winterfell," his newfound loyalties may reach their breaking point.
The reunion between Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow was already ruined by Dany revealing to Sam that she killed his father and brother after they refused to bend the knee to her – which of course Sam tearfully brought to Jon's attention, wondering if the price of war and survival is worth the cost Dany laid down on his family, if there was not a better way and if Jon would've handled it any differently. (These scenes, both his introduction to Dany and his confrontation with Jon, were really heartbreakingly, devastatingly performed by John Bradley.) But then he dropped the most necessary of the soapy bombshells: Jon and Dany are related, which makes their idea to hide away together forever by some romantic wintry waterfalls even less appealing.
What's more appealing, however, is what these revelations will do to the story. Will Jon Snow continue to stand by Daenerys despite her rather literally scorched earth approach to recruiting troops? Especially after discovering it brutally murdered his best friend's family in the process? And while the incest will almost certainly kill off their relationship (though ... this is "Game of Thrones"), how will the two work together when Dany finds out Jon is actually the rightful holder of the throne, the thing she's been storming through Westeros to get ahold of over all these seasons? That's one of the reasons the romance has fallen flat: Who cares if they stay together as a couple when we're not even sure if they'll stay together as allies now that the dirt – past and present – has been spilled?
After their spin to Lovers Lane, Jon told Dany, "You've completely ruined horses for me." Welp, bad news, King of the North: With all this new information, I doubt Dany will give you the driver's seat on a dragon ever again. Sansa will be pleased, at least.
4. Bran Stark: the king of the buzzkills
The Stark at the center of how all this drama first began had a big night Sunday ... which is amusing considering he had very little to do at all, just sitting out in the cold and occasionally ruining some nice family reunions by muttering ominous warnings and vague guidances. Classic material for America's Favorite Angsty Philosophy Major Back Home For Thanksgiving.
But it turned out all of that waiting led to ... Bran Stark still just sitting in the cold, but dropping an even colder glare over at the newly arrived Jaime Lannister. Not quite the hero's welcome he likely imagined. One imagines Bran will have much more to say next week now that's he face-to-face with the man who pushed him out of a window, the man who helped set all of his family's misery in motion all those years ago. Or maybe he'll just keep perched outside and grumbling at people for being happy and alive.
5. The White Walkers are coming ... still
From the first scene of the first episode of "Game of Thrones," winter has been coming. And now, all these years and all these hours later, winter ... is still en route. It's like the opposite of Wisconsin weather.
The big threat to Westeros is still making its way over – where's that time-jumping that Dany used to save Jon and company last year on the other side of the wall when you need it? – though The Night King is getting closer. The show swears he is! And while the season premiere, as with everything else, was still coy on any White Walker action, there was the gruesome reveal that they're moving faster than expected, impaling the poor little lord of House Umber in the middle of a bloody spiral of limbs and turning him into a snarling, blue-eyed message to Tormund and his exploratory crew: We're closer to Winterfell than you are.
Which means that, even though this first episode was more about table-setting than the big thrilling climax viewers may have been primed for, they likely won't have to wait much longer.
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