Game of Thrones: 8.01 Winterfell
The final season of Game of Thrones has been a long time coming and with it impossibly high expectations. While season seven accelerated the pace tenfold, it was all really just set up for the two key plot threads; the end of the war for Westeros and the greater war against the dead. The season finale The Dragon and the Wolf changed everything with Cersei's fake offer of a stalemate coming as the Night King and the army of the dead finally reached the Wall and broke their way though into the land of the living.
Over a year and a half later, Game of Thrones kicks off its final run of six episodes with Winterfell and the remarkable thing about it is how it acts like many season openers before it. The episode is more concerned with character groundwork and setting the scene for the final stages of the show rather than opening with intense battles and high stakes. And that is probably a good thing; after all, with the exception of those that have been busy 'revisiting old episodes', it has been some time since audiences were last in Westeros and the time taken to reintroduce them to the characters and the stakes at play is a wise move. It doesn't make for the most dramatic episode (it will hardly make your top ten) but it does it job with confidence and flair that other shows could only hope to achieve.
The opening titles have changed and what a delight they are, starting with the broken Wall and delving deep into the halls and towers of Winterfell and King's Landing. Gone is the sweeping majesty of several locations brought to life; instead the two key locations are developed in intricate detail, making for a more intimate sense of grandeur instead.
The next 50 minutes are relatively simple, following the arrival of Daenerys's army at Winterfell and Cersei's attempts to cling to power in King's Landing. Director David Nutter opens through the eyes of a child, following the marching Unsullied as they walk the long path to Winterfell through the small hamlet. Arya is there too, waiting for a reunion and you can't help but feel her heart break as Jon rides by without seeing her. Her sights of Sandor and Gendry following are equally fuelled with emotion at discovering two men she was close to in very different ways and long thought dead, riding at the heart of the dragon queen's forces. And then there are the dragons themselves; Arya's face is a delight as they soar above the marching armies while for Sansa, stood alone on the battlements of Winterfell, they are a forbidding sight indeed.
It is an episode packed with reunions and first meetings, some joyous, some very strained. In an almost exact recreation of Robert and Cersei's arrival in the very first episode, Lady Sansa greets the visiting monarch with unease; she clearly doesn't trust Daenerys and it shows throughout the episode. Perhaps the most cunning person in Winterfell now, she argues with Jon over giving up his rule as King in the North and is even able to cut Tyrion down when he claims that Cersei will have her Lannister forces march north to join them; he might still have hope but she is wiser too, hardened by her experiences and her strange tutelage under the late Littlefinger. But she also knows that Daenerys is needed in the greater war to come.
Jon's reunion with Bran is short and sweet but it is his encounter with Arya that is surely the most heartfelt. Even then, the joy at seeing each other belies the hint that she will chose family first, suggesting dangerously that if it comes to a choice between him and Sansa, she'll stick by her sister's side. Jon has two powerful scenes this episode; becoming the final dragon rider alongside Daenerys leads to a majestic sequence as they fly the two dragons through the snowy mountains - the shots of the two riders on the dragons has a surprising bit if ropey CGI, but it is more than made up with the stunning flying sequence. His second big moment is his encounter with Sam, finally learning the fate of his true parentage. The suggestion that he is the rightful ruler to the Iron Throne certainly shakes things up and I wonder how this revelation will go down over the course of the remaining five episodes.
And you have to feel for Sam; a reunion with Jorah and a fond thanks from Daenerys leads to the revelation that she burned his father for refusing to kneel. Giving the man Randyll was, you can feel the sense the conflict within Sam, but it is the reveal that his brother died too that seems to break him. After all, Dickon never seemed the monster their father was.
In King's Landing, the arrival of the Golden Company isn't quite what Cersei hoped for; certainly the numbers are less than Daenerys' but then she is quite gleeful at the knowledge that the dead have broken through the Wall. What's left of her enemies will enable her to triumph, elephants or not. With Winter come, it's a much darker setting than we have seen before, the throne room lit up by roaring fires and yet still empty and desolate and not unlike the hall of Winterfell. Interestingly, she heeds Euron's request to bed the queen in exchange for his allegiance, but even then she is perhaps more cunning than he realises. With Jamie gone, Euron offers at least a hint of pleasure but it is more than that. Being pregnant with her brother's child could raise the whole question of illegitimacy over her and her successor's rule. With Euron, she could claim him as the father while keeping the Greyjoy's close.
Talking of the Greyjoys, Theon finally gets a moment of heroism, rescuing his sister Yara from Euron's clutches. Head butting him for leaving her to her fate, she then offers a hand, signalling that her love for her brother is still strong, despite his betrayal. Travelling back to secure the Iron Islands, I suspect Yara's involvement in the main story might be done. But Theon's decision to travel to Winterfell to join the fight offers what is likely to be a tragic last stand for this doomed Ironborn son.
We also discover the fate of the characters at the Wall, as a surviving Tormund and Beric encounter Eddison and the rest of the Nights Watch men in the first citadel to fall to the Night King. The army of the dead are absent from the first episode, but their presence is felt in the horrific message left behind; the corpse of the young Lord Umber arranged around the circle of severed limbs. It's nasty stuff and a grim reminder that for all the infighting and distrust, greater horrors lie in wait.
And finally, we have the Lannister brothers. Tyrion finds himself in the counsel of old wise men, advising Jon and Daenerys alongside Varys and Davos but having no real power anymore. And Jamie makes it to Winterfell where he encounters Bran, the man he threw from the tower as a child back at the end of the very first episode. I suspect his path will be governed by whatever knowledge of the future Bran now holds. Back in King's Landing, Qyburn questing Bronn with killing both Tyrion and Jamie is a dark piece of delicious irony; given Bronn's ruthless nature, will he choose wealth and power or loyalty to his two friends? I'm sure it will offer some great drama in the episodes to come.
There was a lot to digest in the opening episode of season eight. I'm sure there will be those that will be disappointed by the lack of action, but Winterfell was more concerned with the fallout of Daenerys's arrival in the North and what it means for all involved. And with these new and strained relationships established, the stage is set for the long-awaited battle with the dead to come...