The season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones looks great — not in terms of story, but just pure visual splendor — and the episode wastes no time before showing us some amazing sights. Sights such as Jon and Daenerys marching to Winterfell among a massive number of Unsullied and Dothraki, and traveling under the supervision of two dragons. The rest of the characters wait expectantly; there is a sense that big things are about to happen. Everyone seems to know they’re about to witness ... something.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”]
Don’t worry, they won’t. At least not in this episode. This is an hour set aside for the sole purpose of getting everyone together, and seeing what they need to say to each other. But it does that very well.
Daenerys and Sansa do not like each other
Welcome back to Game of Thrones, where Jon probably won’t die again for a while and fan service reigns. Tyrion and Bran stare each other down! Sansa has a zinger for everyone! Jon and Arya reunite, and there are heavy pauses in the conversation as they don’t explain how they became assassins or came back from the dead, respectively!
The good news is that HBO seems to have ransacked the Iron Bank, because just about every shot looks beautiful, and while previous seasons often rationed out the effects shots, it seems like everything is on the table visually for this table-setter.
Well, I guess they couldn’t afford elephants; I’m just as disappointed as Cersei. But the real theme of the episode may be how much easier it was for these people to be working together when they weren’t physically together. Bringing so many major characters to Winterfell means that a lot of time is eaten up by reunions and meaningful, enigmatic stares.
And of course, Daenerys and Sansa have problems with each other from the jump.
Daenerys tries to be gracious to Sansa when they meet, and Sansa tells her that Winterfell “is yours,” but there’s tension between them, and Bran picks up on it immediately. He reminds everyone what’s at stake: The dead are marching south. They have a dragon. Everything about the situation is desperate; who holds the power is not something to squabble over as humanity faces an existential threat.
But it doesn’t take long before having a “king,” a queen, and the woman in charge of Winterfell all in one room becomes an issue. No one seems to know who exactly is calling the shots, and that makes everyone uncomfortable. Plus, there are some basic, pressing concerns, such as how they’re going to feed everyone.
“What do dragons eat, anyway?” Sansa asks, after bringing up that Winterfell does not have the food stores to keep two armies — let alone two dragons — well-fed.
“Whatever they want,” Daenerys answers, and the staredown begins. Sansa is the Lady of Winterfell, but Daenerys has much more raw power at her disposal. And she has not been historically shy about reminding people of that fact.
“She doesn’t need to be my friend,” Daenerys tells Jon later, “but I am her queen.” I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that; Daenerys’ place as ruler in Westeros isn’t nearly as secure as she believes it is.
This is definitely an episode meant to put the pieces in place for the rest of the season. The Karstarks are fighting with the Starks, not against them. But as it’s noted, they’ve pledged to fight for Jon, not Daenerys. The question of who has the power, and what they’re going to do with it, is a big one. And everyone grapples with it in some way or another throughout the episode.
But then we take a break so Jon and Daenerys can ride dragons together, which has interesting implications for the future, and also looks amazing. The dragons sometimes look as if they’ve been painted on top of the mountains they fly through, but the human characters riding on the CGI dragons look seamless.
“You’ve ruined horses for me,” Jon tells her, as they land near a waterfall. Because every shot of this episode has to be wondrous, apparently. The two seem to be in love, and they kiss between the dragons and said waterfall, but at some point they’re going to learn that they’re related, and this whole thing is going to get very awkward, very quickly.
Sansa and Jon aren’t getting along, either
The next scene between Sansa and Jon makes it clear how far apart their goals have grown. Jon wants to protect the North; the sanctity of the land and its people are topmost in his mind. The crown was incidental.
But that crown was important to Sansa, as is her post in Winterfell. Things were just getting stable for her, after a very long string of everything going very poorly in her life, and now her brother comes back with a Targaryen queen. The friction between them makes sense.
Jon reads Sansa’s iciness as her thinking she’s smarter than everyone else, but he also has no idea of the trauma that Sansa went through before they came back together at Winterfell. Sansa is searching for stability and safety, and Jon doesn’t believe there can be much of either until he has enough forces to put up a fight against the White Walkers. We know how both characters got to this point, but they don’t know that about each other. A lot of these people need to have a nice cup of tea together and discuss everything in the open, because there are a lot of things that are going unsaid.
And that’s one of the consequences of bringing so many characters together in one place: They’re going to start to rub against each other in uncomfortable ways. Samwell Tarly finding out that Daenerys executed his father and brother for not bending the knee is maybe the most excruciating example of that tension. She’s been doing what she thinks is right to begin her rule, but sometimes her decisions hurt other people. You can’t wipe out a family and forget about it; those actions echo across the world.
Then, finally, Sam tells Jon who he really is, and who his parents were. But Sam’s bigger concern is that Jon really did want to protect the people, and he gave up the crown. Daenerys doesn’t care who she rolls over in pursuit of power, and Sam is the living collateral damage of that approach.
So here we are in season 8. Just about everyone is together, including Jaime, who shows up at Winterfell at the very end of episode. Bran stares at him in a creepy way, but that’s nothing special; Bran stares at everyone in a creepy way now. That being said, everyone didn’t push Bran out of a window seven seasons ago — but maybe Bran isn’t holding a grudge?
This final arrival also gives the next episode something to chew on right off the bat. Everyone at Winterfell will likely have strong feelings about another Lannister showing up.
“That fucking family,” as Bronn put it earlier in the episode — although he could have been referring to any of these families. The show has set up incest in multiple ways; new relationships; a much more subtle struggle for power between the major players who are ostensibly allies; and Cersei consolidating power ... albeit without elephants.
There isn’t much action in this episode, but it does a good job of introducing us to a new status quo before all these underlying story threads begin to combust. And it looks like HBO has given the showrunners enough money to show every single explosion that’s on the way.