WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 EPISODE 1 “WINTERFELL” AHEAD
It’s been a long, long wait, but the gates of Westeros have finally re-opened and the much anticipated final season of Game of Thrones is upon us. It’s been all over the news – Season eight’s first episode is one that has broken ratings records, an episode that has encouraged millions of sick days, an episode that was… fine.
Winterfell served as a way to ease fans back into a world that they may not have visited in the last two years, so offered very little in the way of major, memorable moments, but rather focused on reunions, rhetoric and firmly re-establishing where the battle lines are drawn. This resulted in a slow-paced but still entertaining outing that planted the seeds of greater things to come.
The episode’s focal point was Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her all-star armada arriving at Winterfell to join forces with the legion of Free Folk and Northmen preparing for war against the surge of creeping death approaching from beyond the Wall. With Daenerys greeted with tension and distrust from the outset, scenes involving Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) usual sullen strops, squabbles over strained resources and the sense of betrayal felt by Northerners – who had seen their chosen ‘King in the North’ Jon Snow (Kit Harington) immediately bend the knee to the dragon queen in exchange for her help in the impending war – were littered throughout the episode. While these arguments were effective in reminding viewers of the concerns and allegiances of the characters, it seemed odd that they were so prominent at a time when such matters pale in importance in comparison to the threat they were about to face.
Aside from the frequent quarrels over titles and ranks, the show spent much time on the blossoming romance between Jon and Daenerys, showing the pair grow closer as they planned strategy and took the dragons for a joyride through the skies of Winterfell, all the while Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Varys (Conleth Hill) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) did their best impression of Beauty and the Beast’s Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts by watching from afar and sagely debating the nature of young love.
Elsewhere, we saw Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) cement her new alliance with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the Golden Company following her broken promise to assist Jon Snow at battle with the army of the dead, essentially reaffirming what we were told at the end of the last season. We also saw a slew of reunions between the numerous characters holed up at Winterfell, and although some were quite mundane, fans finally got to see the long-awaited reunion of Jon Snow and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams).
As the two outcasts of the Stark family – Jon due to his ‘bastard’ status and Arya due to her individuality and aversion to anything traditionally expected of a ‘Lady’ – the two share a bond unlike any of the other Stark siblings. It was a treat to see that when these two were finally reunited, even though both had changed, becoming hardened survivors due to the adversity they had to overcome, it was clear that they still saw each other as before: The fiery young sister and the heroic, supportive brother they always loved.
With so many pieces to move into place, some elements felt rushed and glossed over, such as Theon Greyjoy’s (Alfie Allen) speedy, barely explained rescue of his sister. However, perhaps the most intriguing moments of Season 8’s premiere were those surrounding Samwell Tarly (John Bradley).
Sam’s initial introduction to his new queen, Daenerys Targaryen quickly turned sour when she informed Sam that she had killed his father and brother for refusing to accept her as their new ruler. Sam’s strained relationship with his family meant that he was able to end the conversation with respect and adherence to formalities, but was visibly shaken. Later on, in the episode’s most important scene, Sam reunites with his best friend Jon Snow and lets his distrust of their new queen show through before revealing the true story of Jon’s parentage and in consequence, his claim to the Iron Throne. The conversation ends with Winterfell’s most resonating line when Sam asks
“You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”
The auspicious timing of this revelation raises questions as to motive. Was this loyal, lovable Sam telling his best friend the truth he felt he deserved? Or was Samwell Tarly seeking vengeance for the death of his family as best he could – with knowledge and influence – casting doubt on the legitimacy of Daenerys’ claim to the throne and potentially turning her followers against her?
Overall, Winterfell is a perfectly functional episode. It does a solid job of easing viewers back into the show’s lore after a two-year absence and laying the groundwork for better things to come. However, the sedate pace and sparsity of stand-out moments make this episode an unremarkable entry in the show’s revered library.