Game Of Thrones reminds us where it all began to show what's at stake in its final season (experts)

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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

If you’re reading this, it’s possible you were among the thousands of Game Of Thrones viewers who chose to commemorate the eighth and final season by rewatching the seven seasons that came before it. There’s also a good chance that, due to the pileups of “Peak TV” or the simple fact that you’re a busy person, your rewatch might not have gotten too far past the show’s first season, or maybe even “Winter Is Coming,” the series’ very first episode. Conveniently, however, the first episode is critical to “Winterfell” in a way the following 66 episodes aren’t.

It begins with the opening scene, which oddly features a character we don’t recognize. He is a child of Winterfell, struggling through the snow to get a glimpse of something blocked by his elders. He searches for higher ground, climbing a tree in order to get the full picture of the Unsullied marching into Winterfell, flanking Queen Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, formerly King in the North. Immediately, my mind jumped to Robert Baratheon making a similar arrival in the series’ first episode, with Arya climbing aboard a wagon to get a closer look at the King and his family. It primes you to see a number of similar homages in the episode, whether it’s Bronn’s foursome echoing Tyrion’s stop at the brothel, or the Night King sending a gruesome message to echo the one left in the woods beyond-the-Wall during the show’s prologue. Both Dave Hill’s script and David Nutter’s direction are working to evoke our memories of where this story began, building to the moment when the two characters whose fateful meeting at the top of a tower concluded the series’ first episode come face-to-face for the first time since.

These parallels are not designed to be subtle. They’re conscious efforts to push us to use this lull in the action—the White Walkers and their army are unseen, except for the aftermath at Last Hearth—to take stock of our relationship with these characters. Very little of consequence happens in the episode, but ultimately I’d argue the episode makes a good argument for why that was necessary. It’s one last chance for us to spend time with these characters without the shadow of war hanging over them. It’s a chance to have the reunions we’ve been waiting for, bring characters together who have never met, and surface information that complicates the relationships that will be crucial to any war effort being mounted in the weeks to come. It may create an hour of television that doesn’t really move the needle in terms of the discourse around the show, but it’s an effective engine for investing us in the characters and their fates, in a way that simulates the experience of rewatching the entire series for those of us who didn’t make the time.

This is most true with Arya. More than any other character, Arya has been forced to abandon her past relationships, beginning with her half-brother Jon, continuing with her friend Gendry, and then finally with her captor/mentor Sandor Clegane. All three of these relationships are critical to who she has become, and are part of the foundational ties to Westeros that kept her from embracing the separation from her past advocated by the Faceless Men. And yet when these three men ride past Arya in the caravan, they are just as oblivious to her as Robert’s caravan was back in the pilot, despite the fact she was standing in plain sight. There’s a brief moment where Arya processes this slight: is it that she is still perceived as a child, invisible to these powerful people? Or is it instead that she’s changed so much that she is unrecognizable to them, not just physically but emotionally as well? The failed reunion robs her of the clarity she needs, which is why she isn’t shy about seeking them out in order to close the loop on the past and the present in order to prepare for the future.

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones reminds us where it all began to show what's at stake in its final season (experts)
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Arya’s reunions work as much on the audience as they do on Arya. We get the little thrill of seeing her reveal herself to the Hound as he’s picking on Gendry, as both simultaneously confront the girl they left behind much earlier on their own journey. For Sandor, it’s that combination of disgust and respect, knowing she robbed him and left him to die but also knowing how that speaks to the survival instincts he (always reluctantly) taught her. For Gendry, it’s realizing that Arya is definitely not a little girl anymore, playing into the nascent sexual tension that was left under the surface when they were both much younger. It’s an incredibly fun scene, and successfully taps into two relationships that fans loved, but which don’t necessarily carry a significant amount of baggage.

Arya’s reunion with Jon is more complicated. It’s an emotional reunion, and I’ve rarely felt the weight of the show’s storytelling as much as when these two characters embraced for the first time since season one. But you quickly realize that Jon has no conception of what Arya has gone through: he asks if she’s had to use Needle as though it’s a question, and seems almost alarmed at what she’s become. Jon was one of the only ones who supported Arya’s efforts to push back against the patriarchal expectations on her as a “young lady,” but he still struggles to reconcile the woman she’s become with the “little sister” he left behind. Whereas Arya’s tensions with Sansa were built on childhood mistrust, Arya’s reservations about Jon stem from a sense of betrayal, both of their personal bond and in his promises to the North. She remembers the brother she left behind, and she wonders if he still has a solid grasp on his values as he is pulled into the sphere of influence of the Queen.

If Arya’s storyline is one where we are right there with the character, experiencing their emotions, for me Jon and Daenerys’ storyline is quite the opposite. As sweeping and romantic as the How To Train Your Dragon homage may have been, I continue to feel at a distance from this relationship, a direct byproduct of the whole incest situation. And despite Jon’s arrival, neither Sam (who hides from Jon to avoid having to tell him the truth) nor Bran (who frankly just seems to be a dick about the whole omniscience situation, huh?) rush to tell him the truth, meaning we get one more full episode of ignorance before finally Sam confronts Jon in the crypts so that Ned and Lyanna can observe the conversation.

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones reminds us where it all began to show what's at stake in its final season (experts)
Screenshot: HBO

But still it doesn’t feel like it’s going to stick. Sam presents Jon with no evidence, first and foremost, and he also is clearly telling Jon as a weapon against Daenerys after learning she wiped the men of his house off the map. In an episode where Daenerys’ diplomacy with Sansa and the North in general is pretty sloppy, she’s honest and direct with Sam when she realizes what that she repaid the man who saved Jorah’s life by executing his father and brother for treason. And yet this wrinkle makes it so that Jon has reason to believe Sam could be lying as a sort of revenge, once more extending the show’s effort to keep the plain truth book readers have been taking as fact since the series began from being accepted by the show’s characters. I understand the tragipoetry that the writers are invested in here, but as someone who isn’t actually invested in their romantic relationship, it’s an example of a case where I wish the show could just confront the issue head-on, versus dragging it out and overstating its importance to the larger issues at stake in this conflict.

It doesn’t help that every other bit of interaction that we get is more interesting to me. Yes, it was impressive to see Jon and Dany flying across the North on Rheagal—the one named for his father, you see—and Drogon, but I was far more excited to see Tyrion approach his former bride Sansa, reuniting for the first time since Joffrey’s wedding as each take stock of what’s happened to them since. While the show gets some easy mileage out of Sansa’s tension with Daenerys, I’m far more interested in seeing Tyrion, Davos, and Varys confer on the right counsel to provide the young leaders, reminding us of the knowledge they represent at a time when the younger generation, their parents dead or absent, must survive their first true Winter and the war that comes with it. This is a funny episode, and there are funny moments in Jon and Dany’s story, but they remain in service of a relationship that feels cold compared to the smaller, less epic connections between characters that I care more about.

The primary goal of the premiere is to emphasize just how confined Winterfell is going to feel with the Unsullied, the Dothraki, and the entire North crowded within its walls and the tents sprawling out into the surrounding area. It’s echoed in the quite strikingly different opening credits (see above), which shrink the map of the show considerably. Where once the credits were used to show how expansive the show’s stories were, now the only locations that matter are those between King’s Landing and the army of the dead, now digging deeper into each location to show us the thrones and the interior worlds of Winterfell and King’s Landing as opposed to simply their exteriors. It’s a promise, in a way, that despite the show clearly building to a battle sequence more epic than every battle sequence that came before, Game Of Thrones is still primarily invested in the inner-workings of these communities, and in the interactions between these people. And so instead of ending with the horror movie jump scare at Last Hearth, or even the “dun dun dunnn” moment with Jon and Sam, the story ends with the same two characters who brought the pilot to a close, as Jaime Lannister warps his way up the Kingsroad to find Bran Stark sitting in the courtyard awaiting his arrival.

It is now where I must mention that I saw this episode with 6000 other people at Radio City Music Hall as part of last week’s premiere in New York City, which is why you’re potentially reading this soon after the episode aired (I will not be this fast in the future). And it was a really interesting episode to see with a large crowd and on a big screen: the soaring dragon race felt that much more sweeping, and the jokes landed that much stronger, and man did this final moment deliver. It’s one of those things where you could hear the audience gradually realize that Bran’s waiting in the courtyard wasn’t an accident, and the realization sunk in row by row right up until Jaime turns around and realizes who’s been expecting him. While the two previous scenes easily could have served as a meaningful cliffhanger, the fact they chose this scene is the best sign that the writers understand the true value of bringing all of these characters together. It’s not about the Night King’s messages. It’s not about who has the best Targaryen claim to the Iron Throne. It’s about the consequences of past actions, and the converging journeys of self-discovery that now face a test bigger than any of them had ever prepared for.

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones reminds us where it all began to show what's at stake in its final season (experts)
Screenshot: HBO

It feels weird to say that a show with this many characters and an episode with this much going on represents a show shrinking its focus, but it’s an extension of the “work” that was done last season. Much as Yara’s kidnapping was somewhat unexpected and unceremonious, so too is Theon’s rescue of Yara, mostly just freeing Theon to further repent for his past sins by returning to Winterfell to fight alongside the family he betrayed. Cersei could keep stringing Euron along, but she realizes that she really has no other allies left, in part because the show doesn’t have time for her to feel otherwise. As messy as this war might still be, the episode ends with the White Walkers marching south, Winterfell preparing their defenses, and the Golden Company on standby to clean up whoever (or whatever) remains on Cersei’s behalf. And while this does ultimately result in a lot of piece-moving, it serves as a reminder that I like (most of) these pieces, and enjoy seeing them interact, and felt that bit of electricity the show was looking to achieve by letting us spend time with them before chaos reigns.

It also reinforced to me that while there will always be a divide in how we as book readers and the rest of the show’s audience experience this story, the show has—if nothing else—established an internal history that feels equally epic and intimate, much like the books before it. It’s not nearly as sprawling and the streamlining has taken it to a climactic place that Martin seems either unwilling or unable to visit, but watching this episode felt like I felt when cracking open one of Martin’s books for the first time, with the added thrill of knowing that the end is coming. I won’t pretend that all book readers are happy with the direction of the show, or that they necessarily should be, but I think it’s pretty undeniable that adapting this story has created a feeling of finality that exudes from this premiere even if you didn’t see it in Radio City Music Hall, and even if you didn’t rewatch the entire series.

What they choose to do with that, meanwhile, remains a mystery to be solved in the weeks ahead.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back to our Experts reviews—I’ll thrilled to be bringing our coverage of the series to a close alongside Alex McLevy, capping off what has been an entire month of coverage of the show here at the site. In addition to the ongoing Month Of Thrones, I’d also recommend entering the debate on Zack Handlen’s piece on the show’s ending versus the books.
  • Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I wasn’t a huge fan of the lack of subtlety in having Qyburn bequeath such a clean “Bronn’s loyalty to both of his former Lannister charges is tested by his love of wealth and money” arc so conveniently, but his matter-of-fact discussion of the sexually transmitted infections of Bronn’s companions was some classic Qyburn.
  • Strange not to get any kind of sense of Daenerys’ emotional reaction to realizing that Viserion is a wight now? She receives the news, and then we just move onto the meeting.
  • “Nothing lasts”—a sobering thought from Varys, but a fitting one for someone who is seeing his long game with Daenerys falling into place amidst an apocalyptic threat. Curious to see what his endgame is as compared with Tyrion (who has more pride) and Davos (who’s more grounded).
  • Interesting that the Heart Tree gets such a focus in the new opening credits—it’s always been a key part of Winterfell, but we haven’t seen a lot of it, and so its time here was striking to me. It was also really noticeable in the wide shots of Winterfell, perhaps because its red color now stands out so much more against the snow.
  • I don’t know if they were thinking about this, but I guess the fact that both actors were part of the press tour ahead of the season was enough confirmation that Tormund and Beric (somehow) survived the collapse of the Wall that having them show up at Last Hearth was all the context necessary? But I do have some questions, and sort of wish we’d seen at least a bit of the preceding scenes for both them and the remaining men of the Night’s Watch.
  • We don’t get to spend much time with Grey Worm and Missandei, but the look they share as the Northerners stare at them speaks to their status as the “other,” which I’ll be curious to see if the show explores more.
  • In rewatching the pilot, they’ve definitely played a bit with the geography around Winterfell since those initial establishing shots—I’m curious how that geography comes to play in the battle ahead, since you figure they probably designed it with that in mind.
  • It’s clear that Bella Ramsey has gotten quite a bit taller since she last played Lyanna Mormont, but that suits the character’s growing confidence as the voice of the North so well that it doesn’t even feel like a continuity issue.
  • “I wanted those elephants”—Cersei, channeling Bart Simpson.
  • My kingdom to the first person to put John Powell’s “Romantic Flight” over top of Jon and Dany’s dragon riding in internet video form. (I synced it up while watching the scene tonight and it’s great)
  • I realize that spending too much time this late in the game introducing a new character that’s ultimately not that significant would be silly, but something about the matter of fact appearance of Harry Strickland combined with such a generic appearance felt weird. Even his name sounds too normal, even though I know it’s taken from the books, and so the choice to erase the middle-aged disgraced knight with something so dull is a decision I do not yet understand. But clearly there’s a reason they stripped him of any character, so we’ll see what role they imagine for him.
  • Speaking of which, it’s time to introduce a recurring feature to confront the season’s biggest book-reader-related line of inquiry.

How Much Of This Is Going To Happen In The Books?

This has been an ongoing question for the past two seasons, especially, but we’re now in the home stretch. And while I don’t want to make these reviews a full on catalog of all the things that the books may or may not do, I do think it’s something that will keep coming up as book readers confront this ending to this version of this story.

Martin’s interview with 60 Minutes tonight touched on this question, for what it’s worth, and his point about “supporting characters” speaks to the largest distinction we can make. Broadly speaking, Jon and Dany uniting the North and a collection of other characters to fight the White Walkers feels like the only way this story can reach a climax. But the show has removed Martin’s collection of suitors for Dany’s hand, shifting Euron to Cersei, giving Jon Connington’s greyscale to Jorah, removing the (fake?) Aegon Targaryen of Young Griff, and pretending that Dorne doesn’t even exist. And so the question is whether all of that storytelling could still end up with a story in which Cersei sits in King’s Landing with Euron and the Golden Company waiting for whatever marches south after the Battle of Winterfell?

My money is on Martin having a much less clean situation in King’s Landing as the drama is going on up north, but I’m curious if anyone can figure out how he could reasonably get from Point A to Point B with all of those threads.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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