Game of Thrones Recap: S8E1 - "Winterfell"

We’re back! After 12 years of waiting (okay, a year and a half, but who’s counting) Game of Thrones has returned. Mirroring the reunion of long-separated characters in-show, this episode at once feels like an old friend that never left, and yet has grown and matured in undeniable, but almost imperceptible ways. Compared to previous seasons, the episode maintained the improved (if breakneck) pacing of post-book content but has characters being written more consistently with their established arcs and motivations. They even trotted out a new intro this season. While in past years, the focus was just on how expansive this story truly was, ranging across countries on two continents, the focus is now much narrower and honed in on the remaining threats.

King’s Landing

In the capital, we see Cersei overseeing The Golden Company’s arrival in Westeros without much fanfare, and to the Queen’s deep disappointment, sans elephants. With precious little time left in the series, it seems unlikely the famed Essos mercenary troop will feature as much political intrigue as suggested in the books (with much of that being shifted into Jon and Daenerys’s storyline), they do at the very least come through suited and booted under the command of Captain-General Harry Strickland. The comparatively ragtag Second Suns these are not! Sidelined sidepiece Daario Naharis can eat his heart out while we see exactly what this portends for Cersei’s grand plans.

Speaking of royal jumpoffs, Euron again asks for a downpayment on his reward for aiding the Crown and asks to bed the Queen. She reads from the Book of Olivia Pope and demands Euron earn her, and then immediately lets him into her bed anyway. While most people are, to put it mildly, bemused by Euron’s continued prominence I’m (against my better judgement) at least willing to see where the writers are taking us with his character. It seems like there’s at least one twist left in his arc, at the very least as an obstacle in the Cersei/Jaime relationship. The story would have been better served setting it up during the meandering season 5 as the series stalled for George RR Martin to finish his books, but what’s done is done. If nothing else highlighted how truly alone Queen Cersei has become, it was her resignation in letting a Greyjoy into her bed, even if it was simply to keep him around and as a tool for her alleged pregnancy.

Meanwhile, after interrupting one of Bronn’s dalliances, Hand of the Queen Qyburn relays Cersei’s offer of gold to the sellsword if he will kill her “traitorous brothers” Jaime and Tyrion. And because she has no chill, she wants him to use Joffrey’s crossbow that Tyrion used to kill Tywin to do it. I think most of us would be surprised if he took her up on the offer and betrayed his friends, especially since he got paid up front, but this furthers the idea that one of her brothers will turn the tables and be the one to kill the Queen.

Finally we were reminded that King of the Iron Islands, Euron, whose ships ferried the Golden Company, still had Yara as a hostage in his ship. This is immediately paid off as Theon leads a successful rescue while crazy uncle “Crow’s Eye” is occupied plying his wares trying to send Cersei her queenly quivers. It’s still eff Theon forever around these parts, and while I remain unmoved by his inevitable redemption arc, he did come through for once. Despite her time as a captive Yara almost immediately has a plan and decides to retake the Iron Islands while Euron is abroad to provide a fallout shelter to survive the Winter should the Northern Alliance fail. Theon however feels honor bound to return to Winterfell and help his Stark kindred. While that’s cool and all, I’d be more worried about the other Northerners if they see him first. The last thing they remember is him allegedly burning the youngest Stark heirs alive and setting Winterfell to the torch among an infestation of Ironborn captors in the North.

Sidenote: Everyone is real cool about seeing Bran alive and wheeling around. Sansa knew Theon didn’t actually burn them because he slipped up, but everyone else should be a little more shocked he’s still alive.

Last Hearth

In Winterfell, we learned when the Wall fell, Sansa called all her banners to Winterfell to prepare for the long night. Ned Umber, underaged son of the traitorous Smalljon (who died in the Battle of the Bastards) and current lord of the Last Hearth, remains a straggler and was given more horses and wagons to transport his crew. You knew from jump nothing good was going to come from that late breaking news.

Cutting to the Umber’s house seat, we find out Tormund and the plot imperative remainder of the Brotherhood without Banners survived the collapse of the Wall and have made their way to the Northernmost castle in Westeros. It’s abandoned however, with obvious signs of a recent White Walker attack. In an eerie dark, they run into Lord Commander Dolorous Edd and what’s left of the Night’s Watch also making their way south. Momentarily fooled by Tormund’s gorgeous baby blue eyes, the two parties join up to find Ned Umber’s dead body bolted to the wall with the arms of several other corpses arrayed in a now all too familiar spiral pattern of the dead. Many viewers have noted the vague similarity between this and the Targaryen sigil. It’s possible “Fire and Blood” may have a deeper meaning than we originally thought, but before we can ponder that, surprise! Little homie ain’t dead!

Well, he is dead, but not dead-dead, which is still bad news for our group as he zombies back into the fight as Tormund’s back is turned. Luckily Beric Dondarrion and his flaming sword are there to burn him, but now they know the army of the dead is between them and their retreat to Winterfell.

Winterfell

WHERE. IS. GHOST?!?!?!?! Ahem...

We start in the home of the Starks, and quite expertly mirrored the start of the series with seemingly all of the North gathered to witness the procession coming to Winterfell and the arrival of the King and Queen. They even featured a young boy as Bran 2.0 climbing around and Arya hiding in plain sight betraying her noble bearing. Not to be forgotten is the Permit Patty looks of the Northerners as they see Missandei and Grey Worm rolling through the gates, and you can tell they have clearly not seen Black people in the North before.

Jon Snow returns to Winterfell after his quest for allies (and dragonglass), and he finally gets his reunion with Bran, who he hasn’t seen since episode 2 when he was hanging on for dear life after being pushed out of the Astronomy Tower by Jaime Lannister. Any hope that Bran may have gotten some chill in the offseason and settled into being a less creepy Three-Eyed Raven was immediately blown as he remains as cold and detached as ever. He rudely interrupts the formalities between a less than impressed Sansa and meeting the family Daenerys to remind them they “don’t have time for all of that” with the Night King on the march. He does have time for an old friend, but we’ll get back to that later.

We soon find out that Sansa isn’t the only one a bit chafed at Daenerys’s presence and what that means for the political reality of the North. The trillest player in the game, and Lady Olenna reincarnated, Lady Lyanna Mormont takes time out of her busy day of giving people stank faces to read Jon for filth. We all know Jon is only concerned about the Great War against the dead, and while you’d THINK knowing their only protection from the White Walkers which had stood for 8,000 years was gone would focus them, petty is gonna petty. Meanwhile Sansa asks the QTNA such as how are we supposed to feed these extra 100,000 people you just showed up to dinner with? Did you bring food for those two fully-grown dragons with you, or did you burn all that grain from Highgarden and spend the money on winter fits Dany?

The homecomings continue as former (and technically still, depending on your interpretation) husband and wife Sansa and Tyrion get to catch up for the first time since the Purple Wedding. We get to see how much Sansa has grown, and for all the earlier haters calling her naive and dumb, she’s the one pointing out the obvious holes in believing in Lannister promises. But the real meeting we’ve all been waiting for finally happened; Jon and Arya are together again! They both downplayed what they’ve been through, but we see just how much their experiences have changed them. Jon has spent seven seasons doing everything he can to be the shield that guards the realms of men. Arya in turn did everything she could, and killed anyone she had to in order to make her way back home to her family. It’s a subtle difference in perspective that Arya invited Jon to realize before his big picture thinking misses the forest for the trees.

And then there was Gendrya!!! Sorry, got a bit excited there for a second. We see Gendry already hard at work fashioning dragonglass weapons in the Winterfell forge. Arya comes in to ask for a custom made weapon, and also to flirt, and their obvious chemistry has not changed a bit. But before that, the Hound gets to be a proud papa bear and see his baby for the first time since she left him to die (and robbed him) at the end of season 4. It went about as gruff and awkwardly as you’d expect but there was obvious love there.

While Ser Davos, former hand of the former King in the North Jon Snow, talks to Tyrion about the seemingly inevitable marriage proposal to seal their alliance, Daenerys and her boo are looking for any excuse to get out of his folk’s place and get it on. She takes him out for a date, and apparently Jon has been putting it down so good she’s letting him borrow her car with the AKA plates. She invites him to get on Rhaegal and we finally get Jon, the not-so-secret Targaryen, riding a dragon!!!!!! The dragon named after his father no less, and while we all know — and the dragons clearly know — Dany and Jon are still in the dark about his true parentage. They fly off to a cave underneath a waterfall and Dany remarks they could stay there for a thousand years in obvious echoes of the dialogue between Jon and Ygritte north of the Wall.

After getting her back broken, Dany goes with her little buddy Jorah to thank Maester school dropout Sam for curing his greyscale. Upon realizing he’s a Tarly however, she also has to not-so-delicately break the news that she flambéed his father and brother for not bending the knee. Already crestfallen, Sam is pushed by Bran to reveal Jon’s true parentage as he’s paying his respects in the Winterfell crypts.

Always on time for heartbreak, we realize this is the first time Jon has “seen” his father since they parted ways on the Kingsroad in S1E2 when Ned promised to explain about his mother the next time they saw each other. What should have been another joyous meeting between best friends is soiled as Jon is less struck by the “you’ve been playing hide Longclaw with your Auntie” news than the whole “you’re the one true King” part, and is in full denial of a man who’s been given yet another promotion he never asked for. In the space of a single conversation, he now has to grapple with the feeling that his father Ned lied to him about who he was his entire life, whether this news cripples his alliance to save Westeros and defeat the dead, the realization that the love of his life is not only now a political rival but blood family, and the weight of another crown after he just refused the first.

In our final scene we see a hooded Jaime Lannister make his way into Winterfell after finally abandoning his sister’s evil to try and fight for the living out of honor. Unfortunately, the very FIRST person he sees is Bran, who’s been sitting in the same exact spot all night, waiting for his “old friend.” See, he didn’t have time for Jon to meet the family, but he did make time for Jaime’s ass after he pushed him out of the window.

With all the callbacks, this episode did a wonderful job of subtly (and not-so-subtly) reminding us of where we started so we can appreciate just how far we’ve come. While some were expecting a bang after so long off the air, the first episode of the final season focused on setting the final pieces on the chess board, and giving us a deep breath before the final descent into madness.