WINTER IS HERE
‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Premiere: Jon Snow’s World Is Turned Upside Down
The premiere episode of the HBO epic’s eighth and final season gave us many reunions, a new rivalry, and some uncomfortable truths. [Warning: Spoilers]
The final season of Game of Thrones begins by mirroring its past. The Season 8 premiere, “Winterfell,” deliberately parallels moments from the show’s pilot, underlining what a different world Westeros is now from what it was just under a decade ago. Eight seasons ago, it was Arya running through the crowd, eagerly trying to glimpse the extravagant royal procession of a king and queen marching into Winterfell; now she’s grown and watches as a little boy squeezes past her to see her brother, Jon Snow, and his queen Daenerys Targaryen file in with the Unsullied and Dothraki forces.
Dany’s march into Winterfell represents a clashing of worlds that the episode at times handles by giving in to its most tedious instincts. More pointless squabbling between women who should know better? Must there really be so much Euron Greyjoy?? Still, in its most emotional moments, the episode is a satisfying beginning of the end, even if it doesn’t always feel like the show we’ve come to love and—just as importantly—fear.
Sansa vs. Daenerys Is the New Worst Part of Game of Thrones
The most baffling part of Season 7 without doubt was the artificial wedge driven between Sansa and Arya, for no justifiable reason other than giving them something to do at Winterfell while Jon courted Dany. It paid off in the end with Littlefinger’s groveling demise but left a sour taste in fans’ mouths for how contrived and easily avoided it was as a means to an end. Now that Arya has come to her senses and trusts that her sister only wants the best for their family, the dynamic seems to have transferred to Sansa and Dany.
Look, Sansa does have reason to hesitate in trusting the total stranger her brother just gave away Northern loyalties to. She’s focused on pragmatic issues ever since Jon left her in charge, counting bushels of wheat and devising better ways for the Northern forces to stay warm, fed, and therefore keep them all alive—10,000 foreign soldiers and two dragons waltzing in throws a wrench in her calculations. Plus, it’s already cost her one house’s loyalty: House Glover decides to sit out the war because of Jon’s new alliance.
It’s not like she doesn’t know how to work with enemies. This is the girl who turned to Littlefinger for the Knights of the Vale at a moment when Jon refused to consider it. There was no choice if they wanted to take back the North. Sansa knew that, and acted on it, despite having more reason than anyone to hate the person she was forced to work with. She gets it! And with the Night King coming to Winterfell, she knows the stakes are higher now than they ever were, even at the Battle of the Bastards.
Still, Jon interprets Sansa’s good sense, somehow, as an annoyance—again. He’s light-years behind Arya in this regard, and she tells him so: “Sansa is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Arya says after Jon jokes that Sansa “thinks she’s smarter than everyone.” Sansa, meanwhile, is reduced to snark and side-eye, but she does voice a valid concern: “Did you bend the knee to save the North or because you love her?” (She and Tyrion would agree that two leaders blinded by love in the middle of an apocalyptic war is bad news for everyone.)
For her part, Dany returns Sansa’s coldness with what sounds ludicrously like a threat in conversation with Jon Snow: “Your sister doesn’t like me…She doesn’t need to be my friend. But I am her queen. If she can’t respect me…” She doesn’t finish the sentence. But we (and now Samwell Tarly, sadly) know too well how Dany reacts when she feels slighted.
It’s all disappointing because of how little screen time we have left with these characters and how dramatic the stakes are now. Daenerys and Sansa have two of the hardest-won positions in the endgame. And yes, each has a reason to mistrust the other. But there’s little intrigue or momentum in their scenes together; instead we get moments like the one in this episode when each woman glares at the other from across a table at an important meeting like they're in a high-school cafeteria. Be more interesting, guys!
Is Cersei No Longer Pregnant? Was She Ever?
Sansa and Dany aside, though, the episode’s toughest moments—as they have been since his arrival—are Euron-centric. The swaggering pirate goon returns to King’s Landing with the Golden Company, the most elite army in Essos, ready to crush whatever decimated remnant of the North survives the showdown with the Night King. His theatricality dims in comparison, though, to the bombshell revelation that there could have been elephants in this episode. Where are the elephants?! Someone mutters something about how hard it is to get elephants on boats which, what? People can teleport on this show now. Like Cersei, “I wanted those elephants.”
Speaking of potential bombshells, Cersei may have let one slip in an otherwise low-key scene with Euron. The ever more austere queen of Westeros—the throne room looks uncomfortably warm these days, with six bonfires going at once and everyone newly outfitted in head-to-toe black, including the Queensguard—allows herself a moment of release when she invites Euron into her room for a rebound quickie. (Jaime broke up with her last season to join the forces up north; Cersei, exactly the kind of ex-girlfriend you’d expect her to be, responds in this episode by enlisting his buddy Bronn to kill him and Tyrion.)
Last season, Cersei revealed to Jaime that she was pregnant with their fourth child, and deliberately let Tyrion infer as much. It’s why Tyrion (naively) thinks Cersei will join the fight for humankind. Curiously, however, she’s drinking wine again in this episode; it was the unprecedented sight of his alcoholic sister turning down a glass that tipped Tyrion off in the first place. Lena Headey works a tantalizing yet inscrutable emotion into Cersei’s face as Euron touches her belly and promises he’ll put a prince in her soon. (Gross.) Did she lose the child? Was she actually pregnant at all?
Cersei’s pregnancy had always seemed to contradict a prophecy the show took special care to make sure we’re aware of. Maggy the Witch foretold in a Season 5 flashback that Cersei would only have three children of her own: “gold their crowns, gold their shrouds.” (There’s a complication with that, too, when you take Cersei’s first child, a “little black-haired beauty” fathered by Robert, into account but time will tell if we’ll ever straighten that loose end out.) If Maggy was right, it would have meant that either Cersei or the child would not live to see the other. But with tonight’s boozy development, the better question to ask may be why the show is hiding what happened.
Tyrion still believes Cersei is pregnant and therefore has “something to live for,” though Peter Dinklage’s delivery of that line leaves a bit open to interpretation. We know brother and sister brokered some kind of backdoor deal after Cersei initially refused to cooperate at the Dragonpit pow-wow—somehow, he was able to convince her to commit the Lannister forces to the cause. She double-crossed him anyway, but what did Tyrion agree to give up in return, if anything? What isn’t the show telling us?
Jon Snow Rides a Dragon, and Nobody Seems to Know What That Means
The show-stopper of the episode, though, comes with Jon and Dany’s version of the magic carpet scene from Aladdin. The queen goads her unwitting nephew-boyfriend into trying to hitch a ride on Rhaegal, the green dragon named after her brother (his dad). Jon gets uncharacteristically neurotic about the whole thing—“What if he doesn’t want me to?” “What do I hold on to?”—but eventually gives in, hops on, and has the closest thing to childish fun he’s had since dunking on Bran’s archery skills in the pilot.
Their soaring (tumbling, freewheeling) ride together on the backs of dragons through the land Jon grew up in feels like a moment from a different show. It’s romantic, it’s sappy, it’s awkward—it’s fun, even cheesy. “It’s cold up here for a southern girl,” Jon ventures flirtatiously. “So keep your queen warm,” Dany says, as each tries to out-smolder the other. It’s one crowd-pleasing moment in an episode full of them.
Jon’s ride aboard Rhaegal, of course, means more than just a pet taking a liking to its mom’s new boyfriend. The show hinted at Jon eventually riding a dragon back when Drogon didn’t flambé him alive in their first face-to-face last season. That Rhaegal actually lets Jon ride him in this episode is presumably because of his Targaryen blood. Dragons are drawn to members of the family and most dragon-riders in Westerosi history were Dany’s ancestors. (Arya recounted to Tywin the story of the first Aegon Targaryen and his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys, all of whom rode dragons, in Season 2.) Plus, we’ve seen what happens when non-Targaryens, like slave-master Kraznys mo Nakloz, try taking the reins. That guy lasted twelve seconds before being burnt to ash.
Curiously, neither Jon nor Dany put two and two together here—after Jon survives his joyride, they’re too horny and giddy to notice much of anything. But Drogon shoots Jon a lingering look, which seems to imply that both dragons can sense what these two can’t. You see why people are worried about them in a war like this.
Jon’s new dragon-driving license doesn’t do much to confirm a long-gestating fan theory about the Prince Who Was Promised and three dragon riders. In the books’ version of the visions that Daenerys had while visiting the House of the Undying, her older brother Rhaegar appeared to tell her about the Prince Who Was Promised: “His is the song of ice and fire.” He mentions that “the dragon has three heads,” which many took to refer to Dany’s three dragons.
The theory predicts that there will be a rider for each of them, though we’re one dragon short now that the Night King has killed and transformed Viserion into a fire-breathing zombie monster. Even if the show did, at some point, entertain the idea of sending three heroes riding into battle together on the backs of dragons, that outcome seems less likely now. Sorry, Tyrion.
Jon Snow Learns More About Dany Than He Ever Wanted
While Dany’s dragons probably had a good laugh over what these silly humans don’t know, Bran absolutely cannot wait to tell them. He and Sam Tarly have known since last season that Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister Lyanna Stark; that Rhaegar annulled his previous marriage to Elia Martell before wedding Lyanna; and that as their son, Jon therefore has the strongest claim to the Iron Throne. Bran’s not about to do the thing himself, though.
He pushes Sam to do it, only minutes after the poor guy meets Dany and learns that she’s murdered his father and brother for treason. Learning about his emotionally abusive father’s death elicits a mix of shock, dismay, and relief—but it’s the news of his brother Dickon Tarly’s honorable death at his father’s side that crushes Sam into tears. It’s a hard thing to watch. (No one tell Sam that the Lannister who led his brother into battle couldn’t even get his name right.)
Still, the emotion of the scene lends Sam’s talk with Jon an edge it might not have had otherwise. Sam is still reeling when he unloads the truth on Jon in the crypts of Winterfell—a fitting place, considering this is where we first heard the story of Lyanna’s death from Robert back in the pilot. The fact that he’s had sex with his aunt doesn’t seem to occur to Jon just yet; instead, he reacts with immediate, understandable pain at the discovery that everything he knows is a lie. And perhaps a bit of fear of his new girlfriend’s wrath. “That’s treason” is the next thing he blurts.
We know something has to come between Jon and Dany beyond his stronger claim to the throne. (If Jon can get past the whole incest thing, a marriage would not only solve his problem, but prove politically advantageous as well.) Maybe it will be the most obvious thing: Dany’s innate ruthlessness, which Sam just made personal. Or maybe it’s hinted at in Tyrion’s face as he watches the young, happy couple from afar. Last season ended with a hint of envy as Tyrion watched Jon enter Dany’s bedroom. And he does sound just a little bitter in this episode as he concedes they make a “handsome couple.”
Reunions: The Good, The Awkward, and the Ugly
Other reunions in this episode end on a sweeter note than Jon and Sam’s, though. Theon and his band of Iron Islanders break onto Euron’s ship and rescue Yara. The rightful owner of the salt throne vows to return home and retake the Islands in case Daenerys comes to need them—they’re one of few places in Westeros safe from the dead, since wights and White Walkers can’t swim. Theon, meanwhile, vows to redeem himself for the home and family he betrayed time and again: the Starks. He will return to Winterfell to fight alongside Jon in the war to come.
Bran’s reunion with Jon is perfectly off-putting, as Jon gushes, Bran acts like a robot, and Jon slowly realizes how weird this interaction is. Arya and Jon’s first face-to-face in eight seasons, meanwhile, is more emotive. Jon was one of few adults to acknowledge and even encourage Arya’s desire to train to fight as a girl. And it was his gift to her, the little sword she called “Needle,” that became a totem for her to hang onto in moments when she nearly forgot who she is. There is one faintly sad moment of disconnect, as Jon earnestly asks if she’s ever had a chance to use the blade. “Once or twice,” she says quietly.
The Hound and Arya is the reunion I’d anticipated the most, though—and dreaded a bit, since Arya did want him dead and might have added him back to her kill list upon seeing him again. Instead, there’s almost a sweetness in their welcome, as the two size each other up and leave a lot unsaid. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” The Hound says, trying to save face. But by then we’ve already seen a small smile on his face.
Arya once resolved to kill Melisandre for taking away Gendry, and here we’re reminded of why she liked him so much. As the gifted blacksmith forges new weapons out of dragonglass, he teases her with that swoony, Princess Bride-y line he first used when they were kids: “As you wish, milady.” (That gets a big smile out of her.) Even better, he takes her design for a new custom weapon and promises to make it reality. In the drawing she hands him, it looks like a dragonglass spear with a detachable handle. Get you a man who can do both.
The whopper of the episode, though, comes in a reunion I’d nearly forgotten to expect—Jaime’s ride away from Cersei has finally brought him to Winterfell, where the first person he makes eye contact with is Bran. I love everything about this scene: the slow dawning of mortification on Jaime’s face, the faint whiff of satisfaction on Bran’s, the fact that it seems like Bran waited hours (days?) rooted to the same spot in the snow, waiting for his moment. It’s soapy, it’s perfect.
The Night King Cometh
After all this relative calm and quiet, we’re reminded of why this can’t last: the Night King and his army have progressed to the ancestral home of House Umber, Last Hearth (the only locale spotlighted in the revamped opening credits besides Winterfell and the Red Keep). Tormund Giantsbane and Beric Dondarrion, who survived the calamity of the Wall’s crumble at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, stumble into Dolorous Edd (now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) as they search the castle. There are no bodies, only ominous splashes of blood on the floor—until we see that the Night King has claimed the life of the little Umber lord. Worse, he did it for bad art.
The young boy’s body parts splayed in a grisly swirling pattern is yet one more image that recalls the pilot; we saw horse body parts arranged the same way in the opening minutes of the show. We now know that the Children of the Forest, who created White Walkers, used similar patterns in their magic. (The Night King was created when they plunged a dragonglass dagger in his chest by a heart tree in the center of one of these patterns, though that one was made of stones, not body parts.) With a dead kid in the center, it’s a far more disturbing image.
But it’s also a welcome reminder of what we’re here to face, despite a suspiciously blissful start to this final season. Winter is here, remember? And as Varys reminds us: “Nothing lasts.”