The most interesting thing about “Winterfell,” the highly awaited (and highly secretive — seriously, that title wasn’t even revealed until hours after the episode aired) start to Game of Thrones final denouement, is that it’s, well…a season premiere of Game of Thrones.
Yes, some people going in might have believed that, with a shortened season order and so much to wrap up, the show would kick things into high gear right off the bat, with either explosive revelations that shatter the entire narrative core of the show, or just explosions in general. But “Winterfell,” does not do that, at least not to the extent you would thin of a show reaching its climax. Instead, “Winterfell” simply takes the hour to fill us in on where everybody is it, re-introduce character dynamics long gone, and tease what is to come as the season progresses. So, you know — it acts like a standard TV premiere, which apparently was not enough for some people.
I’m not in the habit of calling out the opinions of others (unless those opinions are seriously toxic for other reasons), but I’ve read my fair share of tweets and full-scale reviews basically lamenting that this episode is “slow,” and that all its doing is “table setting,” and yadda yadda yadda. And though there is some validity to that thought process, I for one didn’t expect anything different form Game of Thrones this late in the game — and, frankly, completely believe this to be the right step to kicking the season off proper.
Then again, I think this might come down to what viewers are expecting from the series and, nee, what the series decides it WANTS to be, on a week-to-week basis. Sometimes it’s a rip-roaring, balls-to-the-wall action fest. Sometimes, it’s a slower paced, politics driven character drama. Personally, I’ve felt the series shift gradually to the former more and more as the story progressed, the budget expanded, and its popularity skyrocketed.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to sit here and wax poetically about how great the classic Game of Thrones was, and how it became bad once everyone else started to get into it. The rest of the internet is already here to do that for me. And, generally, I love that Game of Thrones can be this huge action epic unlike anything else on television: some of my all time favorite moments of the show (namely the end of “Hardhome,” the loot train battle in “Spoils of War,” etc.) are these huge action set pieces. I’m a sucker for that shit, truly, and removing that from the series completely would make Game of Thrones a shell of its former self.
But what also makes Thrones so special (and the medium of television so special, while we are at it) is that the series can also take the time to really delve into the nitty gritty, enhance the character work with long segments of just characters shooting the proverbial shit, and generally entertain through the power of pure, well crafted storytelling alone. And as the series has rushed to its endpoint, the time left to do things like that has waned dramatically. And, personally, going into this premiere, I was afraid that it would be the last thing on the series’ mind as they rushed us to the big dragon zombie fights.
But I’m delighted to be wrong on that front, as “Winterfell” stoked out plenty of time to have its characters just interact with each other as the interpersonal drama ratcheted up. Is every one of these sequences absolutely perfect, completely compelling drama? No, probably not — even though “Winterfell” is paced far more deliberately than I expected it to be, there’s a lot of evidence still showing that things are progressing on a far faster timeline than before (Theon sure rescues Yara with complete ease, for instance). But in its rush to finish off this gigantic story, I was afraid that scenes like Tyrion, Varys, and Daavos just reflecting on their status as the “old men” amongst the coming-into-their own youths would be put aside for more tits and dragons (although, rest assured, there’s still plenty of both of those things to in this premiere.) Instead, those sequences become the highlight of the entire premiere, in addition to other quieter scenes like Jon and Arya (FINALLY) reuniting, Sansa and Tyrion having a little ex-spouse check-in, and Sam having to come to terms with the burning of his family (with some absolutely wonderful facial work from John Bradley).
I thought these were all great sequences in the episode, and while some out there might complain that they lack narrative “urgency” in the face of a massive zombie invasion and literal life-and-death stakes, that’s only a small fraction of the show for me, and a mere portion of what has made the series a success. Not to pull out my old Lost Fan Club membership card (yes I keep it on hand and, yes, you better believe I have it lamented)…but it’s about the characters, people. It’s about having Jon finally get to talk to his beloved sister again after years apart, and about Theon finally admitting that Winterfell is where he belongs, Jamie wordlessly looking in horror and shame at the consequences that his past actions wrought. And, like what happened to Lost at its end point, I’m afraid focus is going to shift more on where the story is going, rather than how the characters in it cope with the world around them (also like Lost, I worry the final season will become a mess of poor decisions and attempts at shocking with silly revelations, but that’s neither here nor there.)
“Winterfell” might not be full of blood and guts and twists, but it’s also the first episode of a six part conclusion. Its entire storytelling function should be sowing the seeds of the drama to come, while bringing viewers gratification and joy on things they’ve waited nearly a decade for (even if, in Game of Thrones fashion, it will probably all go to shit not far from now.) And, on that front, I think “Winterfell” is a season premiere success, and I hope the start of a satisfying conclusion to this massive, massive tableau of action, sex, zombies, dragons, and — on occasion — fascinating and exciting scenes of intense drama.
OH and also a strong source of future memes in the making. Can’t forget about the memes!
The Night Is Dark and Full of Stray Observations I Couldn’t Fit Into the Article Proper:
- Quick Note That You Can Skip If You Don’t Care About The Minutue of TV Show Coverage: I want to make it clear that writing this piece does in no way, shape, or form obligate me to write weekly about the final season of Game of Thrones. Don’t get me wrong: I would love to do so and, as that snappy banner implies, intend to do so. But I have a long history of starting and stopping recaps, and depending on the obligations of my life and other works, that could easily happen once more. However, these final six weeks are going to be a substantial event in the world of pop culture, and I would have some major FOMO if I missed out on contributing to the conversation. Plus with only six episodes to cover, the obligation isn’t quite as daunting as other series, and I’m hoping the episodes themselves will be interesting enough that covering them won’t feel like a chore. This thing came out like goddamn wildfire so, if the other episodes are similar, I think you can expect to hear from me every episode. At the very least, I will have finale opinions like everyone else on the planet.
- Just in case you think I am just a huge fanboy shrill for this show, you should know I found the last half of Season 7 incredibly disappointing from pretty much every angle, and was rather worried going into this last season. That this episode contained so much about what I love about the series is a pleasant surprise, considering my low expectations.
- Seriously guys, I don’t want to sound snooty here: I’m also super into all those sweet set-pieces, and I’m very excited for the moment when they will arrive (like that much teased massive battle, for instance). But this is the first episode of a six part final season, and I didn’t expect nor did I want any huge, series altering moments here. Let the show breath a little first before it goes nuts. We will get to the fireworks factory, but we can have some other fun too in the meantime just working off the characters and relationships we have built up over nearly eight years.
- Which, frankly, is also still doing “Winterfell” a dishonest, because it’s not like nothing happened in this episode! Freaking Jon found out he’s the heir to the throne, and that’s a rather big deal that I expected the series would drag its feet on for another few episodes, at least. But I’m glad its out in the open, and I’m really curious where things will go for our little pouty former bastard in the future.
- Speaking of that scene: I feel like Kit Harrington gets a lot of shit for his range or whatever, but I still think he’s a rather underappreciated performer who is not only perfect in the role he has, but has excelled in recent years as Jon Snow took up the mantle as leader. I can really conceive him as a potential king, which I never would have expected from the character or Harrington’s performance as him back in, say, Season 2. I also think that Harrington did a great job presenting the pure shock and — frankly — horror at discovering his true lineage. It was a big moment, but I think both Bradley and Harrington did a great job with it.
- I was going to lead off by talking about the opening credits, but I got kind of ahead myself. Anyways, pretty cool, huh? The moment it clicked for me that we would getting a completely revamped new opening, I got amped. And it was a well designed opening too!
- Better recappers than I have already expounded on this, but I thought the duality and circular narrative between “Winterfell” and the show’s first episode was really cool. From the opening scene on, lot of echoes going on here. And speaking of that opening — Ramin Djwadi. Our one true king.
- Look, Lena Headey is doing fantastic work as always, but I’m going to have to differ from the consensus here and admit that Cersei’s scenes have been doing nothing for me for a while now. She is a great character when she has people to bounce off of, but King’s Landing as a setting has been a ghost town for a while now (mostly due to Cersei’s own actions, admittedly), so I just can’t get excited to see her reluctantly flirt with freaking Euron or talk shop with Qyburn as I do with all the action over at Winterfell. King’s Landing in general is just a really boring, unexciting place now, which is shocking when you consider how it used to be the location for the series’ absolutely best moments in its early years. Guess that’s what happen when all the cool people move and/or die, huh?
- But, hey, there’s at least one final cool person there, or at least was there until he assumingly departed after the events of this episode. I am of course talking about ma boi Bronn, who now has been given the wrenching task of having to kill them rascally Lannister brothers. Any other show and/or character, I would know right away where this is going, with Bronn proving just how much he’s evolved over the years by not just deciding sparing Tyrion or Jamie, but also doing something touching to save his former employers too. But A) this is Game of Thrones and B) this is Bronn, so I would not at all put it past him to kill the two with little fuss, and collect his handsome reward. And I would still be charmed by the guy! Curse you Jerome Flynn, and your easily-expelled-and-absolutely-lovable charms!
- Speaking of characters who do nothing for me now, and exude the absolute opposite of Bronn’s swagger: I get his role in the show and why it is what it is, but Bran is just a charisma hole of a character every time he pops up. I’m excited to see what Jaime does following the episode’s final shot, but I just know Bran’s gonna be like “whatever, bird powers” and just give zero fucks about it, so what’s even the point? I get why everyone ignores the little Debbie Downer — if I was the people of Winterfell, I would leave him outside on his little stoop too.
- I loved the patience and the horror movie tone of that whole sequence at Last Hearth, and I hope that tone keeps up as the Night King approaches. The whole splayed body on fire made for one hell of a Hannibal-esque visual.
- <shrug> I thought the dragon flight scene was fine. Just…fine. Then again, I kind of like Jon and Dany together (yeah, I know, I’m really surprised too.) Which certainly puts me on the “oh, what will come of these doomed lovers?!” side of the narrative that the series very much is hoping for. I’m afraid too many are on the opposite “ugh, let’s get to the zombies already!” side, though. A bunch of Brans around here, truly. SOME PEOPLE HAVE HEARTS STILL BRAN, LET THEM USE ‘EM!
- But, seriously, WHERE’S CERSEI’S ELEPHANT?!
Also published on Medium.