Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Please tell me how you would write a review of this episode without spoiling anything. Go on.
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Surprise, ma bitches! We’re doing episodic reviews for this season!
First, if you’re sick of all the Game of Thrones talk by now, I get it — this thing has been hyped for two years on top of the show’s regular run, and for all that, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. This is the biggest television series out there right now, and I’m a fool if I think I can make a dent in what will surely be a blizzard of discussion about it over the next few weeks. If it’s any consolation to my readers who are sick of Game of Thrones talk, I’m planning on doing my regular two reviews per week (hold your laughter) alongside these, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on my non-Thrones fodder.
But I am going to talk about Game of Thrones, so you’re just going to have to hunker down and deal with it for a month or so.
The reason being, I’m really excited for this season. My seasonal reviews of the show were among the first on my channel, and while they need some updating (yikes, do they need some updating), I wrote them when the seventh season was coming out, so I want to do them justice here. For all the criticism the previous season received, I loved it. I felt it built very naturally off of what the rest of the show had been doing for years, and while a lot of it was predictable, it fulfilled and exceeded my expectations for what this series could be. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always been a bit cynical about it being as clever as its reputation, but it worked. It made me excited for a blockbuster-like experience in a way I hadn’t been since The Lord of the Rings. That’s a powerful feeling. And I think this season will round off the show in a similar way.
This doesn’t mean that I’m going to necessarily go back and write about all of the previous seasons’ episodes. There’s over sixty of them, are you kidding? So you’re spared that pain at least. Still have to deal with my FMA reviews, though.
Okay, episode one.
Episode One: Winterfell – ****
Part One: Way to be a Buzzkill, Bran
To assess this final season, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what this series really is. Whether you like it or not, you can’t deny that Game of Thrones builds to a final climax. This is not a procedural or sitcom overstaying its welcome; the show has been gradually pointed in a clear direction since its opening shot. The series, both the books and the show, starts in the north with the wights. The first episode even points out its main theme explicitly: while men play at being knights and kings, far bigger horrors loom in the distance, slowly getting closer. In the end, all of the machinations and deceptions and plots fail to deal with the real threat, the only hope left being the ability of characters to forgive past ills and band together. The Game of Thrones is, after all, merely a game.
While the show plays around with this theme periodically through alliances and characters learning from each other, often when they don’t want to, much of the show has glorified the petty political rivalries that seem to undermine it. I think, to some extent, that’s what created a dissonance in many audience members between the seventh and previous seasons, and while I don’t share that dissonance, I do think the constant backstabbing and exchanging of titles in the previous seasons has served a purpose. We saw this a bit in the seventh season with the novelty of certain long-running characters meeting each other for the first time, but this episode hits on their deeper importance. These characters have histories with one another. Not just vague acquaintanceships, but long-standing, bloody histories.
Yes, plenty of the more minor events and characters could have been cut without affecting much of the story (*cough*Stannis*cough*), but for the characters who are left, all of the things they’ve been through, the things they’ve seen and the things they’ve lost, wear on them. The actors do a good job of conveying that history in how the figures stand, and the cinematography helps. The opening of the episode even takes a direct callback to the first episode of the show, something Arya recognizes within the narrative of the episode. I’ve often complained about how these characters have limited arcs, and for some I’ll stand by that, but I can’t deny that these characters have been through some shit.
Aside from reminiscing, this serves as crucial buildup for the season finale: as it stands, the characters can beat the Night King. Between all of them, with their armies and dragons and ships and experience, if unified, they have a very good chance of not only standing against the army of the dead, but wiping it out entirely. At least, if that’s possible. The show is careful not to reveal the strength of the dead in numbers, but it’s telling that every moment before now, they’ve only ever attacked isolated, fragmented settlements. That’s how they operate, after all; the wights build their numbers by feeding off the stragglers abandoned by the rest of society. Literally and metaphorically, the threat increases with fragmentation. As the characters come together, they become stronger, able to supply and support one another.
Unless, of course, their close proximity fuels deep-seated rivalries and unresolved tensions.
Which brings me to Bran. Bran is an odd character and I don’t talk much about him in my earlier reviews. He’s an anomaly among the characters in that he’s the only one able to use magic at will, and aside from that, he has become narratively and emotionally distant from all of the other characters as well. I’ll confess, I don’t really care for the archetype Bran now fills as the mystic who is beyond the earthly concerns of everyone else. His insistence that he’s the three-eyed raven now and no longer Bran Stark indicates to me than Bran as a character is effectively dead. We haven’t seen anything from his perspective in a long while, and his motives seem nonexistent outside of “tell Jon who his mother is.” This was even better in the previous season when he didn’t know that Jon wasn’t really a bastard and his whole life’s mission was literally, “tell Jon his last name is Sand.”
However, I do quite like Bran serving as a source of conflict. Jon learning that he’s a Targaryen is not especially helpful — in fact, it’s actively problematic for both his political goals and his love life. The most this information can provide Jon is sleepless nights where he’s lying in bed wondering if his father ever really loved him and worrying that the woman he’s sharing a bed with is related to him and oh god oh god she’s going to kill him if she ever finds out unless Sansa kills him first because his family is a mess and the Night King cometh and he’s not qualified for any of this…
I have high hopes for Jon’s complete lack of qualifications placing him under a lot of stress and probably screwing things up in some major ways. Considering he’s effectively failed out of every other job he’s had and accidentally gotten quite a few people (and a dragon) killed, it would only be fitting.
If nothing else, I look forward to the exceeding awkward conversation where he has to explain to his girlfriend that she’s actually his aunt and he’s supposed to inherit her hard-earned job. So helpful, Bran.
Part Two: TBH, This Show Could Just be Those Dragons Flying Around and I’d Probably be Satisfied. I am a Hat of Simple Needs.
The episode is largely bereft of action, outside of one or two moments. The storm is yet to arrive and the characters are still in the planning stages of things, bonding with one another and getting assembled for the final battle. This sets up the season to have a more singular focus than previous seasons, which is perhaps merited. Even the opening titles show this transition by relegating the sprawling clockwork map of the show to only two locations — King’s Landing and Winterfell — both explored with great detail. I think a more limited series of settings may disappoint some fans, but honestly, I don’t imagine anyone who greatly disliked the previous season will have particularly soft feelings for this one. It’s shaping up to follow a similar tone to Season Seven and hone in on the promised plot developments it has built up over the years. In this kind of show, though, I think that’s inevitable sooner or later.
Perhaps, though, I only feel that way because I’m skeptical. I fully expect the series to follow a predictable climax with characters meeting their inevitable fates and a big battle that has a mixed but generally happy ending. I’ve just never seen the show as one that has the capacity to pull any major rugs out from under us; Ned Stark’s death was shocking, certainly, but if you’ve read or written enough fantasy novels, you’ll know it’s not quite the “subversion of the entire genre” that some reviewers have claimed. Game of Thrones is a vanilla high fantasy series that differentiates itself with a gritty tone, but not a lot else. It’s still fun, of course, and just because its main plot is somewhat predictable doesn’t mean it can’t still offer depth to those who seek it.
And, if this episode is anything to go on, fans shouldn’t throw in the towel on their hopes of a challenging story just yet.
While the episode doesn’t hold a lot of narrative secrets (the YouTube Easter eggers are really struggling on this one), conflict arising from the shared histories of these characters offers a glimpse at more complex narrative threads. I wouldn’t be the first to note that Danaerys is a poor leader, but where her ruthlessness has been framed as a positive for most of the series (or at the very least, part of the aesthetic), now she has to face the consequences of her actions on a small but significant level. In burning her prisoners for failing to bow to her, she’s inadvertently damaged her relationship with Sam and, by extension, Jon. Sam can’t do much in retaliation, but his story is just one of many that shows how Danaerys’ slash-and-burn diplomacy is a one-way street; she can’t go back to pleasantries once she’s gained power through violence. This is a lesson that many of the characters learn over the course of the series, and Danaerys’ initial attempts to rule with empathy have taught her not to trust any but those closest to her.
This could make her a compelling antagonist, if the show wants her to be. The most effective villains are sometimes the ones who don’t think themselves villains, and Daenerys’ arc has lead her to adopt brutal strategies in the pursuit of adulation. She considers herself a just ruler, demanding little of people and only using violence as a show of force. However, she fully expects the people who submit to her rule to truly love her, as the Dothraki and freed slaves do (though of course, as an outsider, she has a limited understanding of why those people follow her like they do). Daenerys is the sort of person who mistakes fear for respect. She’s also afraid of changing her stance or adapting her policies as she gains new information, preferring brute force to nuance, and placing a lot of trust in her war machines. She’s never really learned how to rule because she has always had something at her back to protect her. I don’t personally think that the series is likely to turn her into a full-on villain at the last minute, but as tensions mount in the buildup to the final battle, she could play a much more interesting role than Jon’s pimp/army supplier. If her allies turn on her or she makes a bad call — the latter of which is increasingly likely — then it could be her downfall.
Also curious is the role of the Mountain, who is clearly undead in some way, but not quite a white walker. The Mountain is not what you might call a significant character in the grand scheme of things, but the series has built up an ominous aura around him since his technical death. The reminder that the Mountain is still around brings to mind how many other characters have used or been altered by small bits of magic like that — the Red Woman, Cersei, Daenerys, Jon. Until now, magic was a thing restricted to far corners of the world, but with the Night King approaching, earlier experiments in magic could have unforeseen consequences.
This is also true of Bran. While the jokes about him being the strange lurker of Winterfell are perhaps merited, I also have to wonder why we still trust him. Bran Stark was a nice character, yes, but we honestly have yet to see any solid reason for why the three-eyed raven would be benevolent or even trustworthy. He’s seemed a neutral observer for the most part, yet over the last two seasons, Bran has become highly driven to figure out Jon’s parentage. One might think that birthrights and secret babies would be of little interest to a being that can see all of time, especially considering Bran himself is now distant with his family. The way he talks about it indicates that Jon learning his parentage is more important than it seems. The next few episodes will show whether it will prove beneficial or disastrous.
And then of course, we have Cersei. I’ve never really liked Cersei, but I have to admit, elephant-obsessed Cersei is quite enjoyable. I don’t buy that she’s a clever schemer; she’s much like Daenerys, but less empathetic. At this point in the story, I’m still reading her as completely off her rocker and making it up as she goes. Her driving motivation seems to be maintaining her facade and getting revenge, but she doesn’t even seem to have much drive for the latter, delegating it to Brom, who, given his close friendships with Tyrion and Jaime, is unlikely to get the job done properly. In some ways, she seems to be growing weaker, just as her council grows smaller. While her reconsidering Euron’s desire to have sex with her is a display of autonomy, it’s inconsistent with her established character. Cersei has traditionally had a good deal of patience and favored her social standing over her personal interests, at least more than most of the characters. Giving in and fucking, as one Twitter user put it, a guy with mutton chops, shows the us a glimpse at Cersei’s disheveled state of mind. She’s losing her composure, obsessed with petty trinkets, grabbing anyone within reach to do all of her jobs, and kind of into the mutton chop pirate. I’m not saying it’s likely that she’ll continue to bring up elephants throughout the season, but I hope to hell she does.
Part Three: Is it Cold in Here, or is it Just Me?
There’s not a lot more to discuss in this episode, really. Narratively, it sets up a solid foundation for the season, but it doesn’t tip its hand much. Like the first episode of the previous season, this one is largely based in buildup, setting threads for the next episode and beyond, and following through with what the seventh season laid out. In many ways, it almost feels like a second half to the seventh season, which could be what it started out as. Either way, the piece are in place, so now the real work can begin.
I can, however, address the thing that makes this show so epic, and that’s the whole feel of it. This episode feels appropriately massive considering its diminutive plot. It’s not seamless, of course; there are a few odd cuts and effects, some details that could have been executed more effectively. I’ve heard complaints about the lighting, which I think is fine, but admittedly is fairly flat in a lot of the daytime scenes.
The dragons are, naturally, spectacular. As in the previous season, they appear often enough to act like legitimate characters, which I kind of regret they couldn’t for the earlier seasons. Jon gets to ride the green one, Rhaegal, which is no big surprise given his relationship with Daenerys, the fact she only has two now, and the revelation that he’s a Targaryen. The dragon is even named after his father, though I think that speaks less to happy coincidences and more to Daenerys’ poor naming tendencies. She named her kid after the same guy, remember — a dead guy she never even met, who’s directly responsible for all of the nonsense she’s had to deal with in her life. But it’s dragons, and I’m me, so of course I love the dragon riding scene. My indifference to Jon and Daenerys’ relationship aside, it’s cool, and Jon whining like a baby about it is a wonderful prelude to a decently epic scene. I wish it went on for longer.
The tone wavers a bit in this episode, trending toward stuffy at times, but amusing in ways that I appreciate. I don’t care that naysayers think jokes weaken this series, they break up the monotony of characters listing off made-up family lineages and castles. And Tormund is magnificent. Yes, I do wonder how he survived the wall falling down and the ice zombies marching away, like, did he just have to wait for them to leave before he climbed down the stairs? Did he even have stairs left to climb, or did he have to walk to the next castle? But none of that diminishes Tormund’s magnificent role as one of my favorite characters in the series (he’s probably going to die now that I’ve said that, isn’t he?).
There are many moments with little dialogue exchange, and I quite like that. I’m sure it infuriates some audience members as the earlier seasons are fond of characters exchanging words and hiding their meanings in metaphor, but I kind of like this better. It improves parts of the dialogue and gives the actors more room to shine, plus it keeps us on our toes. With so many episodes behind these characters, all they need to do now is gesture or smile for us to figure out what they’re thinking. I love that. The scenes with Sam and Jon, Arya and Gendry and the Hound, Yara and Theon (who I definitely didn’t think was Loras Tyrell for a moment) are all powerful with long moments of silence and bare-bones dialogue.
If there’s anything that suffers a bit, it’s the sound direction. I love the music in Game of Thrones, and I was a little underwhelmed by this episode. It played only loosely on the themes of the established characters from what I could tell, which I think is a missed opportunity for the dragon flight in particular. However, I was greatly swayed by the slow version of the main theme in the trailer, so if that’s anything to go on, later episodes should prove more fulfilling.
All in all, a solid episode. Thankfully there aren’t very many, because otherwise, writing these reviews would take forever.
I say, with only one of them down…