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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

Game Of Thrones defined itself from the start by breaking from the traditional fantasy mold (as did its source material), subverting expectations and upending conventional storytelling tactics. So it’s somewhat of an unexpected pleasure to see just how much season eight’s opener—the final season premiere—has leaned into a classically structured bit of symmetry. From the opening shots of the anonymous young Winterfell boy rushing to catch a glimpse of Jon Snow and Queen Daenerys Targaryen, hearkening back to those moments of the very first episode in which Arya rushed to do the same with an approaching King Robert Baratheon, the series is calling back to its beginning, suggesting (at least for now) that the wheel continues to turn, sending us back into a pattern begun seven seasons prior. True, as the show has entered its later years, there have been more inspired moments of catharsis, but fewer unpredictable arcs and story beats, as a narrative nearing its conclusion is no longer attempting to shock. But the promise to break the wheel has been made; now we find out if that can actually happen.

“Winterfell” does a lot of work in a short amount of time, but unlike some previous episodes that engaged in significant table setting, it never feels too rushed or like characters are being given short shrift in the effort to hurry to the next beat. It plays as elegant, for the most part—or at least as elegant as can be imagined when you’ve got Euron Greyjoy trying to rate his cocksmanship against Cersei’s late husband and brother. The show is bringing a lot of its characters full circle, back to places they began, in order to highlight how much they’ve changed, or how much their relationships to others has. So much depends upon how they interpret the impending arrival of the Night King’s army; when nothing else matters in comparison to a looming existential threat, how much do you continue to let everything else matter?

In the North, where the people (as we’re continually reminded) are stubborn and dismissive of outsiders, the answer is: to a surprising degree. The lords and ladies who elected Jon Snow King of the North are less than thrilled that he’s bent the knee and brought this fair-haired woman into their lands, white walkers be damned. As the beloved Lyanna Mormont puts it, they support him, not some Targaryen interloper, as their ruler. Jon, well-intentioned to a fault, tries repeatedly to explain to anyone who’ll listen—his sister, Sam, this entire hall—that he had a simple choice: “Keep my crown, or protect the North.” The undead army doesn’t care who is sitting on what throne, and without all of them fighting together, they’ll die. If that means humbling himself before a Targaryen, so be it. Not that he minds so much when she also happens to be the woman he loves and is currently sleeping with. Cue Sansa’s pointed question: Did you really need to bend the knee (surely an alliance could’ve eventually happened without subservience, she presumably thinks), or did you want to for love?

Photo: Helen Sloane (HBO)

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But Sansa, as Arya is more than happy to point out, isn’t just suspicious of Daenerys. The lady of Winterfell has grown as smart, if not smarter, than all of them, as is initially demonstrated with some very practical questions about how exactly they’re supposed to feed “the greatest army ever assembled.” (Not to mention Sansa’s raised eyebrow when Tyrion assures her that Cersei said she’d be sending her armies north to fight alongside them: “And you believed her?”) These are the moments that Game Of Thrones has always done incredibly well: Bringing high-minded actions crashing down to earth with sharp-eyed pragmatism. That extends to Dany’s dragons, as well: They may not be eating much, thanks to their dislike of the North, but that’s still a lot of goats and cows to sacrifice for the giant beasts’ hungry maws. Just as the supplies and bannermen streaming into Winterfell as there for Jon, not Daenerys, so too are the local rations going to become a problem if there’s a fracture among the multifarious armies over who, exactly, is deserving of the next meal.

The question of who deserves what takes on a similar, if far more exploitative, role down in King’s Landing. Euron arrives back at the capital with the Golden Company, albeit slightly fewer than the 20,000 initially recruited (Euron’s poker games can be a bit unorthodox), and lacking any elephants, but still a massive influx of force on the side of the last remaining Lannister in power. And yet there’s a strange element of tragedy to Cersei’s decision to allow Euron into her bed, after her previous insistence that he wait until after the war was won to consummate their (supposed) nuptials. Not just because we know Euron doesn’t necessarily give a shit about Cersei or her war (when Yara tells him he picked the losing side, he avers that he might just as soon head back to the Iron Islands—“But first, I’m gonna fuck the queen”), but because Cersei has lost everyone else. She has no brother by her side, no alliances she can depend on. All she has is what could be bought—sellswords from across the sea, courtesy of the Iron Bank—and those she’s drawn close to her. She has no one to impress or respect by forestalling Euron. If it keeps him by her side, she’ll set aside whatever passes for her principles at this point. There’s nowhere and no one else to turn to.

But for others, it’s just at the moment that all possibility of relying on anyone else for support has vanished that you can be surprised. Yara Greyjoy, bound to Euron’s ship and forced to be his unwilling conversation partner, is rescued by Theon. True, there’s not much to this moment other than a fulfillment of the vow Theon made in the seventh-season finale to save his sister, but it highlights how this show will often spend years building a character into one sort of person only to demonstrate that it’s never too late for people to surprise you. For so long, Theon Greyjoy was the punching bag of Game Of Thrones, a sort of shitty Charlie Brown who not only failed to kick the football, but would then be beaten savagely with it every time he landed on his ass. As recently as last season, he would rather jump in the sea than do the brave thing. But being confronted with his past, in the form of Jon Snow, reminded him that it’s possible to find yourself again, to become the person you assume you’re too weak to embody. And after a quick headbutt, Yara forgives him; she’s off to secure the Iron Islands in Euron’s absence, and Theon’s off to the North to join the fight.

Photo: HBO

And frankly, a fight would be preferable to the dragon-ride mooning done by Dany and Jon this episode. “Winterfell” was trying to capture the magic of someone’s very first trip atop a dragon, and while it did seem like an adrenaline rush for Jon, there was a lack of cathartic thrill to the sequence. What was meant to be a swooping and viscerally moving journey (admittedly, a few shots of the Northern vistas were quite cool) came across instead like a subpar Avatar clone, complete with two people who’s relationship we’re simply not as invested in as the series wants us to be. Whether it’s a lack of feeling for their bond or a sense of hesitation because we know what they don’t about Jon’s parentage, it just doesn’t land as effectively as it should’ve. It was easier to relate to the dragons than the people, especially once the ride ended and the two exchanged some corny flirtatious banter. It wouldn’t have been out of place for either Rhaegal or Drogon to roll their scale-encased eyes.

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But “Winterfell,” in its turn of the wheel, brought back together many who had long been apart, and much as the characters tended to greet each other with the appropriate warmth (or in the case of Arya and the Hound, curses), it was hard as a viewer not to enjoy the moments of intimacy shared by those who had survived past hardships: Sansa and Tyrion’s mutual appreciation was heartfelt, before unexpectedly ending with Stark outwitting Lannister, as she calls out his naiveté in believing Cersei’s promises. Jon and Bran’s embrace, only for Jon to quickly realize, as did his siblings before him, that Bran was no longer quite the person he was.

But the best, and most gratifying, moments of reunion belonged to Arya Stark. The youngest member of the family is in many ways the most changed (her possessing the literal ability to do so notwithstanding). Her steely-eyed control of emotion has become such a reliable source of strength and enjoyment in the last two seasons, it’s genuinely moving to see her defenses fall in the face of long-lost friends and family. First, it’s the hesitating twitches of a smile playing on her face as she sees people she’d thought long gone come riding into her home. Then, it’s the way she gives herself over to happiness for these reconciliations—the easy camaraderie she shares with Gendry is nice (and had some sexual spark, seemingly unexpected on both their parts), but the full-on leap into her brother’s arms is better.

Still, the most exciting part of this episode’s conclusion wasn’t even the discovery of the little lord of House Umber impaled on the wall of the Last Hearth, coming to life to threaten Tormund, Beric, and Dolorous Edd and let them know the Night King’s army was already between them and Winterfell. No, it was Sam’s underground confrontation with Jon, where he tells the onetime bastard that his name is actually Aegon Targaryen, true heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms.. The two have been through so much for so long, so to see Jon’s joy at his Night Watch brother’s return quickly turn to ash was deeply potent. This is news that could tear apart everything—Jon and Dany, the fragile coalition of humanity amassed to fight the Night King, all of it. Jon’s too noble to keep this information to himself in the name of peace; the question is how he plans to break it to his (yikes) aunt.

Stray observations

  • Varys only has a few lines this episode, but he gets one of the best after Davos argues that a marriage between Jon and Daenerys would go a long way toward solidifying her claim to power. When Davos points out the Queen respects her elder councilmen, the eunuch candidly observes, “Respect is how the young keep us at a distance.”
  • The best part of Dany and Jon’s joyride is Jon’s quip when it ends: “You’ve completely ruined horses for me.”
  • Qyburn is sent to Bronn to make an appeal on behalf of Cersei: Make sure both her brothers die (preferably via crossbow, for poetic justice), and he’ll be rewarded with riches beyond compare. It’s too early to comment on this (part of what makes Bronn such a compelling character is the realization he could go either way), but the swordsman’s horrified expression when told one of his prostitutes would die from pox within the year was quintessential Bronn.
  • Dolorous Edd: “Stay back, he’s got blue eyes!” Tormund: “I’ve always had blue eyes!”
  • The scene with Daenerys and Sam was fantastic, mostly because Sam so rarely gets to have such a profound transformation in the course of one scene (honored and elated at the Queen’s benediction, horrified at her murder of his family).
  • The symmetry continues right up to the very end: Jaime gets off his horse at Winterfell, turns, and sees Bran—the little kid he pushed out a window at the end of the first episode—staring back at him, waiting.
  • Welcome, everyone, to the Game Of Thrones recaps for those who aren’t well-versed in the books! Admittedly, we’re well past the general narrative of the five released books, but there’s so much information in them and differences in terms of emphasis and theme that book-readers still have plenty of different perspectives in sussing out where the show is headed and discussing deviations from the source material. As such, we wanted to make sure there were still reviews for those whose only information about the show comes from the show itself. So to all of you, I say a hearty “what is dead may never die,” and I look forward to talking through the final season of this incredible show.