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Fantasy Fandom: Back to Winterfell

We’re back to comment on the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones

This was before Daenerys ruined horses for Jon.
Vox / HBO
Note: A few years ago, during the slow season between major revenue sports (usually, in the summer), we began posting episode recaps and engaging in online discussion of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. HBO has moved the series into the spring this year, but we soldier on. We know it’s not sports and won’t interest everyone. We won’t be offended if you don’t read. And, most importantly, these posts will not cause any increase in subscription rates. Thanks for indulging us. And for those who are interested, we hope you enjoy the non-sports banter.


At long last, the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones premiered on Home Box Office Sunday night and, after making us wait for more than a year and a half, will require us to wait again for any real action. Sure, Jon finally rode a dragon. But who didn’t see that coming? “Winterfell” was an episode of reminders and reunions, of returning to the place where it all started before launching into the final excursion of what has been an eight-year journey.

By now, we know the score. The first-ever episode of the series was legendary television, packed with surprise, intrigue, and enough eyebrow-raising turns of event to captivate an audience immediately. Since then, season openers have always been table-setters without much action, and this one mostly held to form. Season 8, Episode 1 did end with some drama. We’ll just have to wait a week to see where it takes us.

Tension for the Entourage

The episode opens with a young boy chasing through the woods, weaving among adult legs and ultimately climbing a tree to get a good look at the Unsullied, the Dothraki and the rest of Daenerys and Jon’s entourage as they ride up the Kingsroad into Winterfell. The scene is a callback to the classic first episode, in which young Brandon Stark climbed the castle walls to witness King Robert Baratheon’s arrival, and in which a young and innocent Arya jostled for position but ultimately took her place alongside her family and voiced her central concern: “Where’s the Imp?” As she did in the first episode, Arya watches this procession from the side of the road. She sees the Hound and Gendry passing by and gets her first glimpse of Jon in over seven years, but she does not join Bran and Sansa in the chilly greeting that awaits the erstwhile King of the North and his Targaryen queen consort in the courtyard.

Jon embraces Bran and notes that he’s a man now. “Almost,” Bran replies. Of course, he’s more than a man, though the subtle suggestion is lost on Jon, who now more than ever, seems to know nothing. Is there anyone Bran hasn’t made uncomfortable at these reunions? Sansa greets Jon and Daenerys, but Bran interrupts the forced pleasantries to tell them that the army of the dead has breached the wall and owns one of Daenerys’s dragons. “We don’t have time for this,” he monotones. He monotones everything.

Despite Bran’s objections, the icy northern reception continues in the great hall, where young Lady Mormont confronts Jon, saying: “You left, a king. Not sure what you are now. A lord? Nothing at all?” Jon explains that he had to choose between his crown and protecting the North, and he chose the North. Perhaps it should occur to him that a more benevolent monarch would not have insisted he choose, and that he is painting his queen in a negative light. Perhaps it should also occur to him that his statement is a lie.

In Season 7, Episode 6—the much criticized “Beyond the Wall” episode—Daenerys takes some solace for the loss of her dragon, Viserion, from the fact that she has now seen the true threat of the Night King’s invasion firsthand. Here is what we wrote about the scene, in which Jon is recovering aboard a ship, while Daenerys accepts that the existential war must precede her battle for power:

Daenerys also promises to help Jon defeat the Night King. Then, when it is no longer necessary, he agrees to bend the knee to her. It’s Robb’s moon-eyed foolishness all over again.

In the present episode, Sansa asks Jon whether he bent the knee to save the North, or because Daenerys is pretty. There is your answer.

The reunions continue on the parapet, where Sansa can’t muster anything nice to say to her former husband, Tyrion. Questioning his belief that the Cersei will actually send the Lannister army north, Sansa says, “I used to think you were the cleverest man in the world,” and walks away, leaving the obvious unspoken: “And now, I think you’re an idiot.”

Though the writers put off the most anticipated reunion of the series until midway through the show, Jon finally meets Arya in the weirwood for a touching moment of re-acquaintance. He is surprised to learn that she sides with Sansa, who she calls the “smartest person I have ever met.” They compare swords, and Jon asks Arya if she is jealous of his. What is the Dothraki word for “awkward?”

Later, Arya reunites with Gendry and the Hound in the forge. The Hound insults them both before stalking off with his dragonglass axe. Arya wants Gendry to make her what appears to be a specialized spear that can either be broken down into two pieces or, perhaps, fire the top half as a projectile. By insisting on calling her “my lady,” Gendry coaxes a smile from Arya—a genuinely happy one that doesn’t contain any suggestion of malevolent satisfaction.

In King’s Landing, Cersei learns that the dead have breached the wall and says, “Good.” She is less pleased to learn that the Golden Company has crossed the Narrow Sea with only 20,000 soldiers and no elephants. When Euron suggests she should grant him a “private audience,” she replies, “If you want a whore, buy one. If you want a queen, you’ll have to earn her.” Perhaps she judges her own self-worth when she reconsiders and grants Euron that “private audience,” after all.

Cersei also dispatches Qyburn on a mission to solicit Bronn to kill her treasonous brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. The macabre irony of being asked to do the deed with the same crossbow that Tyrion used to kill the family patriarch, Tywin Lannister, is not lost on the mercenary.

Yara Greyjoy is alive. Theon rescues her, gets a head-butt for his troubles, then receives her blessing to join the fight with the Starks at Winterfell. Yara, meanwhile, is returning to the Iron Isles to prepare a fallback position for Daenerys and her forces, in case the battle for the North goes poorly. Foreshadowing, anyone?

Amid all the reunions, the first acquaintance between Samwell Tarly and Daenerys may be the most meaningful scene for the future of the Game of Thrones world. Sam is busy researching (what else would he be doing?) when Jorah brings the queen around to reward him for saving the fallen knight from greyscale. Sam asks for a pardon for borrowing some books from the Citadel and for stealing the Tarly family sword. Daenerys realizes that Sam is the son of Randyll Tarly and the brother of Dickon, and she admits she executed them for refusing to swear allegiance to her.

Sam has long been estranged from his father, who forced him to choose between joining the Night’s Watch or being murdered in the woods. Though HBO’s second casting of Dickon portrayed the character in a more positive light, in the books (and in the first casting—darn you, pointless inconsistencies!) he was cut from the image of his hard, unreasonable father, and Sam was not close to him, either. Nevertheless, when Sam learns that Daenerys executed them, he is mortified. Such a swift death for the “crime” of refusing to swear allegiance is barbaric, whether or not he loved his father and brother. He excuses himself and goes outside, where Bran tells him it is time to let Jon in on the secret of his parentage.

Why do the honorable guys get the hardest jobs?
Vox / HBO

We should all hope that if someday we are to learn that our entire life construct has been a lie, someone as gently diplomatic and unassailably trustworthy as Samwell Tarly breaks the news. Sam does not really want to be the one to tell Jon he is neither a bastard nor a Stark, and Jon does not want to hear it, not even from Sam. He does not want to hear that he is the true heir to the throne, and he really does not want to hear that he would be a better and more just ruler than the woman he loves. Jon calls it treason and insists, “Dany is our queen.” Sam seems to reach him by replying, “She shouldn’t be….You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

This would have been a fitting place to end the episode, but the show answered one tiny mystery and set up future intrigue before fading to black.

First, Tormund is alive! Because certain realities of physical well-being don’t matter on television, we were all but sure he had survived the wall crumbling around him at the end of last season. But now, we have proof. Brienne will be thrilled, no doubt. Tormund is with Beric Dondarian, exploring the vacant Umber castle, which seems to be the site of a disaster, when the group encounters Dolorous Edd Tollet of the Night’s Watch. Together they discover the dismembered corpse of young Lord Umber, surrounded by a seven-pointed spiral of detached arms, all pinned to a wall, a gory warning from the Night King. The corpse reanimates and shrieks. Lord Beric sets it alight with his flaming sword. The spiral symbol has appeared various times throughout the series and is always associated with the White Walkers. Its meaning should come into focus as the season progresses. Hooray! Exposition until the end!

The final reunion of the week promises not to be a happy one. Jaime Lannister arrives at Winterfell alone, without any fanfare, and dismounts. He surveys the bustle of the courtyard, and his eyes fall on Bran. The last time the two met, of course, Jaime pushed the then-young climber out a tower window in an attempt to conceal the Lannister twins’ incestuous relationship. Bran focuses a vacant stare on Jaime, but it is difficult to read anything into it; his stare is vacant most of the time, now. Jaime hesitates. Even if you’ve reformed your ways, what do you say to someone you tried to kill when he was only a child? If you were that child, what do you say to the man who tried to kill you? Is the answer different if you’re the Three-Eyed Raven? Does an emotionless, omniscient being crave revenge? We will find out next week.

Even if Bran forgives him, what will Daenerys think of meeting the man who killed her father? The Kingslayer’s redemption arc is about to get complicated.

Jon’s Quandary

Jon died and was brought back from beyond, but returning from death’s abyss might have been less a shock to him than the message Sam imparted in the crypts. Jon built his entire life around trying to live honorably, aspiring to emulate Ned Stark, who he believed to be his father. Though Jon began his service at Castle Black with an undeserved sense of entitlement, ultimately, he settled into doing his duty. He made friends. He helped those who did not have the benefit of his upbringing. He sought respect, but not power, only to have authority thrust upon him when his brothers named him Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Later, he set out to unite the northern lords against the Boltons, only to have them choose him as their king. He did not ask for these things. They were incidental to his attempts to honor his ideals.

Now, he knows that by the laws of primogeniture he is the rightful heir of Aegon Targaryon, and Sam has planted the seed of suggestion that he is more fit to rule than Daenerys. Knowing Jon, he won’t accept the truth, obvious as it is. He would never assert a claim, because he does not crave power. Like Ned, the only father he’s ever known, Jon values honor above all else, even though he may be confused, at times, about what honor means. Will he also, like Ned, place his trust in those who are not worthy of it?

Jon must now choose whether or not to reveal this long-kept secret to Daenerys. It is not an easy choice. How will she react? What will it do to their focus on preparing for the army of the dead? But if Sam—Jon’s best friend and the person of most unimpeachable honor in his life—does not accept Daenerys, how can Jon remain fully devoted to her?

The Problem with the Dragon Queen

In the early seasons, it was easy to root for Daenerys. She was the abused younger sister of an exiled prince, married off to a horse lord in exchange for an army to fight for her brother’s claim to the Iron Throne. Robert Baratheon sent spies and assassins after her. She freed slaves, she punished the unjust, and throngs of people called her “Mother.”

Like most characters in the series, though, she is complex. She wants the Iron Throne for the honorable goal of ruling justly, but she also believes she is entitled to it by birthright. She is impetuous and prone to violence. She crucified dozens of the nobility of Meereen. She has a list of honorifics so long it has become comical. She demands pledges of fealty and burns those who refuse to swear faith to her. She has gained followers and power mostly because she has dragons.

Jon assures Sansa that Daenerys is not like her father, Mad King Aerys, who burned all his detractors near the end of his reign and would have burned King’s Landing to the ground, had Jaime not assassinated him. You may recall that in response to attack by the slave cities of Astapor and Yunkai, Daenerys also wanted to burn cities. Tyrion convinced her to try a more diplomatic approach. As Sam discovers to his horror, she burns her detractors, just as her father, the Mad King, did. She is perhaps the epitome of the benevolent despot, but Sam cannot put his faith in a ruler who imparts such horrors on her enemies, no matter how idealistic her ultimate goal may be.

By the final season, we might have expected allegiances to be set. It is clear, after the first episode, that the playing field in the game of thrones will continue to shift.

Best lines and exchanges:

  • Sansa, replying to Tyrion’s characterization of Joffrey’s wedding as a nightmare with a nod to the boy king’s poisoning: “It had its moments.”
  • Tormund, trying to reassure Edd that he is not a Wight: “I’ve always had blue eyes.”
  • Arya, responding to the Hound’s accusation that she left him to die: “First, I robbed you.”
  • Bronn, when Qyburn hands him the crossbow to kill Jaime and Tyrion: “This F—ing family.”

Not in the Episode:

Little Sam, Gilly, Mellisandre, the Night King, reanimated Viserion, Ghost, Nymeria, Meera Reed (what happened to her, anyway? Seriously!), Lady Stoneheart (because she’s not going to be in the TV series; can we please give it up now?).


Armed with the knowledge that he is a Targaryen, and the rightful heir to the throne, Jon will:

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Keep the knowledge to himself until Daenerys accidentally discovers it, sending the assembled forces into chaos.
    (17 votes)
  • 36%
    Keep the knowledge to himself until the battle with the Night King is over.
    (17 votes)
  • 19%
    Tell her immediately, but renounce his claim to the throne.
    (9 votes)
  • 4%
    Tell her immediately and assert that the people should choose which of them should lead.
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    Other (explain in the comments)
    (2 votes)
47 votes total Vote Now