Journey to the Throne: S8E1-3; the Winterfell Episodes

I’ve been reviewing every Game of Thrones episode, and at last, we are in the final season. This post has spoilers for the first half of Game of Thrones Season 8.

Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1: “Winterfell”

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This episode has a really cool sequence where it very intentionally mirrors the show’s pilot episode. As Daenerys arrives at Winterfell, the audience is very deliberately reminded of Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell. The exact same music plays. There’s a small child weaving his way through the crowd, just as Arya did last time. There’s this slow and steady procession as Dany rides into Winterfell and the Starks recevie her. (Fun fact, the Hound is the only person to be in both processions.)

It’s a neat full-circle moment where we realize just how greatly things have changed since the first episode. Of course, what makes the scene so different is a) the makeup of the arriving army but moreso b) the arrival of the two dragons. It’s a deliberate show of power that indicates just how capable Daenerys could potentially be – much more powerful than Robert Baratheon ever was.

Speaking of Robert Baratheon, the way this scene begins it makes you consider just how many characters have died since that first episode. Five kings with the surname Baratheon have all died; Ned, Catelyn, Robb, Tywin, Joffrey, Ramsay, all dead. This sequence, despite how similar it might feel, serves only to show just how different of a world this is.

One driving force in this episode (and the rest of this season) is the conflict between the Starks (not counting Jon) and Daenerys. One very nice touch is to have the Jon and Arya reunion – the one we were most looking forward to – be darkened by the rift between Sansa and Daenerys. It should end happily, we’ve been waiting for this since Jon gave Arya Needle, but instead the reunion ends on an ominous note as Arya warns Jon not to forget who his family is. That’s powerful.

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While we’re on that divide, I do get frustrated that this episode references the ultimate happy ending I wanted – a simple, easy marriage between Jon and Daenerys. The fact that this isn’t the pairing we get is especially upsetting because it’s so common sense – if they rule together, it’s a compromise between those who are concerned with having the “true heir” of Jon and the ostensible (TO THIS POINT) hero of Westeros, Daenerys. Now the fact that the two didn’t get together isn’t to be blamed on this episode, but if the show was going to so clearly reference their being together, then the show and showrunners should have done more to justify their dissolution towards the end of the season. When Davos said in this episode “A proposal is what I’m proposing,” I shouted, “YES PLEASE!” at my TV, just because it’s such a logical solution, if perhaps a little too optimistic.. If you’re going to suggest this as a solution in Episode 1, explain why it wouldn’t work as a solution in Episode 5, right? (At the same time, it’s hardly Season 8’s biggest problem, so like, whatever.) When Tyrion, Varys, and Davos discuss the possibility of the Jon/Dany marriage, Varys writes off their input because they’re old – and frankly, that feels flimsy.

This episode also has one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, Jon and Daenerys riding Drogon and Rhaegal. I mentioned this in my post Thank You, Game of Thrones, but I love it just because it’s so fun. It just makes me so happy.

I don’t always love scenes where two separate characters meet, but I love Sam meeting Daenerys and being reunited with Jorah. Sam is embarrassed and bashful, if excessively friendly, as he always is. And Daenerys is her usual courtly self as she thanks him. Sam is outright cute as he asks for a pardon for stealing books and a sword. But the conversation takes a turn as Sam is told by Daenerys that his father was killed, which makes him sad, but then also learning that his brother died absolutely crushes him. And John Bradley-West is doing some amazing work here – watch as he slowly becomes more and more sad and tries so hard to hold it together, but ultimately has to excuse himself.

That scene really makes me appreciate his eagerness to tell Jon about Rhaegar and Lyanna, and to support Jon as a viable candidate to the Iron Throne. It makes sense for Sam to suddenly support King Jon Snow in a way that it won’t make sense for Varys to in episodes 4 and 5.

This episode basically has two cliffhanger endings. One related to plot – we see Tormund and Beric and the Night’s Watch arrive at Last Hearth and encounter little Lord Umber who has been made into a Wight. It’s definitely one of the show’s more horror-inspired moments, and the visual of Beric lighting the display on fire is striking.
The other cliffhanger is more related to character – we watch as a hooded figure arrives at Winterfell. As this person unveils their hood, we see that it is Jaime Lannister. Jaime locks eyes with Bran, who has been waiting in the Winterfell courtyard ostensibly all night “waiting for an old friend.” The dead look in Bran’s eyes contrasted with the guilt and realization in Jaime’s eyes really makes this scene worth mentioning. I don’t know if there’s any indication that Jaime would have known that Bran was alive. I’m bookmarking this scene for next post, where I’ll talk at greater length about Jaime – for now, just admire the memes that this scene created.

Favorite Line: The Sansa/Tyrion reunion did not disappoint; Tyrion points out that the last time they spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding, which he refers to as a miserable affair. Sansa wryly points out, “it had its moments.”

Favorite Scene: I do like how the intro pays homage to the first episode, but I have to pick the dragon-riding scene. Also, to my memory, it’s the first time characters ride the dragons for pleasure – usually it’s just to get away or from point A to point B – here, the express goal is to enjoy themselves.

Season 8, Episode 2: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? This is the best episode of Season 8 by leaps and bounds. Other people (myself not included) will tell you that this was the last good episode of Game of Thrones. One thing is clear, this is the show returning to a character-driven story rather than being 400% plot, and that is why it so clearly succeeds.

One of my other favorite television shows, Community, pokes fun at what they call “the bottle episode” – where all the characters are trapped (or “bottles”) in one location and the episode’s action comes exclusively from character interaction. Community’s Abed describes bottle episodes as “wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance.” In the past, these sort of episodes were done on television shows as a means of producing content on a lower budget, which might have been a motivation here, or perhaps screenwriter Bryan Cogman just wanted to tell a one-location story. Either way, it pays off well.

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This episode does a little bit of work to plant the seeds for the Bran-Tyrion alliance we see in the final episode as Tyrion asks to hear Bran’s story and the two then have a lengthy conversation off-screen. We can presume that Bran might have told Tyrion that if the time should come where neither Daenerys or Jon be able to take the throne that he could, or something like that. The two of them share a knowing look in the beginning of the next episode, so if nothing else, Tyrion supporting Bran for the throne is kind of there, even if Bran being a viable candidate is not.

Also this episode has the strategy meeting, where Bran explains that the Night King will go for him – which, okay, that makes sense – but when pressed for a reason about why the Night King will try to kill him, Bran just spouts some mumbo jumbo about being humanity’s memory. It just feels flimsy, to me. It doesn’t drag down this episode too much, so that’s okay.

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As far as Game of Thrones is concerned, it’s easy to forget that not all satisfying storytelling is bad guys getting their just deserts. Sometimes it’s characters making the right decision, or fulfilling a longtime goal. Brienne being made a knight is the endpoint of her amazing character arc. It’s something that the audience knows she deserves, but all of the characters object to. At the time we thought that her knighthood meant it was certain that she was going to die in the coming battle, but she doesn’t – which is fine, I guess.

In possibly the show’s best musical decision, we get Podrick’s song “Jenny of Oldstones.” (Also, check out the Florence + the Machine version of this song.) I love the heartbreaking way that the song is played over images of characters we love preparing for battle, potentially saying goodbye to their loved ones, and just trying to hold onto the happiness the have found just before the world comes down on them. And it feels pretty true-to-life to have Tyrion ask for someone to sing a song – presumably wanting a happy song – but instead he gets Podrick’s mournful ballad.

So let’s review – this episode is the best one of the season – why? Because its focus on character rather than plot acrobatics brings the show back to its roots. I hate to admit it, but this episode profits from all of the hasty plot maneuverings of the previous season – now that these characters have a moment to take stock and breathe just before the final battle gives them a chance to really shine. This episode isn’t about who will rule the Iron Throne or the encroaching Army of the Dead – well, it is and it isn’t. But most of all, this episode is about people.

Favorite Line: I go back and forth on my opinions about Three-Eyed-Bran, but any time he can quote a line back at the character who said it, as he did with Littlefinger last season. The way he looks Jaime in the eye and says, ominously, “The things we do for love,” – the last line of the first episode. Beautiful.

Favorite Moment: Podrick singing “Jenny of Oldstones” or Brienne being made a knight

Season 8, Episode 3: “The Long Night”

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Let me get this out of the way first; a lot of people hate this episode, which I don’t agree with. I think this episode is great.

A considerable part of the response to this episode – both in serious criticism and in memes – was the lighting, which is kind of an interesting thing because lighting is something subtle and usually not likely to draw criticism… usually. But this episode went with a slightly different color pallet – pitch black. People complained that the camera was too dark. And I’m not the first person to point this out but… come on guys, it’s the NIGHT King. He’s going to bring darkness. If anything, fans being frustrated with the minimal lighting is a good sign – it puts them in a similar position as the protagonists; uneased by the darkness, unsure of what’s going on. That feeling is most clearly present in the dragon riding scenes. It was terrifying – who knew what Jon and Dany would encounter in that blizzard? Sure, the obvious threat was the Night King on Viserion, but every time the two dragons got close to crashing into each other, it was incredibly scary.

I will say this, I don’t think this episode had quite enough significant characters die. Let’s take stock; out of our human characters, Jorah, Theon, Lyanna Mormont, Beric, Edd, Melisandre. In terms of significant individuals, it’s not exactly the cataclysmic bloodbath it was expected to be, I’d say. But on a macro-level, the army of the living is hurt, right? Well, not exactly – although significant moments are made out of the Dothraki’s blind charge and Grey Worm’s decision to close the gates and essentially sacrifice the Unsullied, both armies are still in later episodes.  We watch the survivors of the battle burn A LOT of corpses next episode, but there’s not a huge effect on the army in the later episodes. That’s my biggest gripe with this episode.

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But “The Long Night” shows its true value with its truly amazing action set pieces. Some of my favorites:

  • Melisandre arrives to ignite the Dothraki arakhs (swords)
  • Melisandre ignites the pit
  • The dragons riding in the snowstorm
  • Beric “holds the door”
  • Arya sneaks around the Winterfell library
  • THE CRYPTS COME ALIVE!

But by far, my favorite action set piece is Jon charging the Night King. It’s thrilling for a few reasons. First, the audience has been eager to see a one-on-one duel with the Night King since “Hardhome,” and who better to fight him than the apparent hero, Jon. But it’s more thrilling just from the way it’s shot. We watch as the Night King turns around to face Jon and Jon stops running and the two lock eyes, raising the stakes a little. For the briefest moment, you think the Night King is going to play fair – he’ll pull out his sword and he and Jon will duel. But just as Ramsay refused such an offer in Season 6, the Night King knows that he doesn’t have to play fair. Jon’s sprint towards the Night King leaves just enough room for hope – one wonders if maybe, just maybe, he’ll cut the NK in half with Long Claw before he can finish raising the dead. And he gets so tantalizingly close! Honestly, this scene alone is one of the best of the season.

Not to mention, the Night King’s resurrection in this case bumps up the stakes a little more. Not only does it bring back to life all of the wights who died during the battle, it also brings back the humans who died during the battle. His army only gets bigger over the course of the battle. Plus, perhaps the biggest gain for the Night King is that he gets wight-Viserion back.

Speaking of Jon, a lot of the fan response complained about Jon not being the one to kill the Night King, because that seemed to be what the prophecies on the show were indicating. I wrote about this shortly after the episode first aired, so if you want to know what I think about Arya defeating the Night King instead of Jon, you can read that here. TL;DR: the show trains you to distrust Melisandre’s prophecies from the get-go, this shouldn’t be a big deal. Plus, it’s okay for Arya to sneak past all of the White Walkers to kill the Night King – she’s doing just that for a significant chunk of the episode. It’s very well established that she can move without being detected.

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Perhaps the truest testament to this episode’s strength is just the sheer relief I felt once it was over. I don’t doubt it was because of my complete obsession with this show, but I was practically shaking. I was completely immersed. When Arya struck down the Night King, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my own peace of mind, like I could breathe again. My connection to these characters and this world was so strong and so personal that I couldn’t care in the slightest that it was Arya who defeated the Night King instead of Jon – I was just glad that we won. Perhaps that doesn’t make it the best ending, but it certainly makes it a satisfying one.

In this episode, Bran raises some eyebrows. He’s probably the most boring macguffin in this show’s history. He does encourage Theon (which I’ll get to in just a second), but he also does that vague and dumb thing where he says “I’m going now,” and then wargs into some ravens to do… nothing. Why? It’s not clear. And I do wish the showrunners gave him more clarity, especially given where he ends up at the end of the season. (Explain why the Night King wants him, explain why he’s warging as a raven, explain if he’s pulling the strings to manipulate things in his favor… but I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s next post.)

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Related to Bran, one thing I didn’t mention last episode because it’s more relevant here is Theon’s return to Winterfell and his emotional reunion with Sansa. Alfie Allen is an absolute unit of an actor – the way he humbly says “I want to fight for Winterfell, Lady Sansa, if you’ll have me,” is beautiful and sad. He’s come an incredibly long way, and somewhat redeemed himself for turning against Winterfell in Season 2. So in Episode 3, when Bran says to him “Theon, you’re a good man. Thank you,” it resonates on a deeply emotional level. It’s a perfect end to his complex character arc – dying in defense of Winterfell, not as a Stark, not as a Greyjoy, but just as a good man.

This episode has the fall of House Mormont, with both of its members getting two incredibly satisfying send-offs. Lyanna gets the dramatic and scary Attack on Titan moment where she charges directly at an undead giant, getting a chance to stab him in the eye and take him out. I was disappointed to see her go, but if you had told me after her first fiery scene in Season 6 that she was going to die while stabbing a giant in the eye, I would have believed it. Meanwhile, Jorah’s death is satisfying because it’s true-to-character – he died defending his queen, having her love and complete forgiveness, just as he would have always wanted. It’s a great ending to a great arc, and just how Jorah would have wanted to go.

Favorite Line: I do like when Melisandre reminds Arya of her “Brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes,” prophecy, but I’d be a fool if I picked anything other than Bran’s cold and yet heartfelt goodbye – “Theon – you’re a good man. Thank you.”

Favorite Moment: Jon charges the Night King. Amazing action.

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Conclusion

It’s pretty easy to divide Game of Thrones Seaosn 8 into first half and second half because of the two distinctly different stories they tell. This first half of Game of Thrones Season 8 isn’t perfect; but it’s a hell of a lot better than the second half. In fact, a lot of my problems in these first three episodes are related to much worse problems in the second half. Certain “problems,” such as Arya killing the Night King instead of Jon, disappointed fans because they weren’t what the audience had been expecting. Other elements – such as Bran’s vague importance and abilities – show where the story lacks depth. But the strong moments in these episodes, such as Daenerys’ arrival, Jon riding Rhaegal, Podrick’s song, Theon’s charge towards the Night King, and Arya defeating the Night King. I can’t bring myself to agree with people who argue that the season’s flaws outweigh the merits of such strong moments. The story of the living against the dead, is far from perfect, but it is far from bad. It gives us just enough of a taste of what perfection the show could have been, while still reminding us just how wonderful it had been.

Join me next week, as I lay into the series finale.

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