The opening scene of the Season 8 premiere, “Winterfell,” reminds us of a simpler time in Game of Thrones. The arrival of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) at Winterfell echoes that of Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister in Season 1. It hearkens back to a child’s excitement at seeing a royal procession and antiquated notions of heroes and villains. By the end of Season 1 we were thoroughly disabused of any fairy-tale conceptions of morality. At the start of Season 8, Winterfell has been through the worst of the War of the Five Kings, and remains under threat from the North and the South.
In “Winterfell,” the royal procession and its foreign army is greeted with silence and cross looks by suspicious Northerners. Jon reminds Daenerys, “I warned you. Northerners don’t much trust outsiders.” When her dragons appear, the Northerner townsfolk scurry in fright, causing Daenerys to smile at her show of power.
While Jon was looking for allies, the Northern bannermen have been preparing for war under the guidance of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). When they meet to discuss preparations, Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) tells Jon what they’re all thinking: “We named you King in the North.” Jon expresses his gratitude but insists that none of that matters anymore. The bannermen don’t seem convinced. Adding to their dismay, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) informs them that the Lannister army will be riding North to join their cause. When they object, he tells them, “We must fight together now, or die.” Sansa appears to be more aligned with the Northern Lords than Jon and Daenerys. As Jon and Tyrion try to placate the crowd, Daenerys looks irate. Politics has never been her strong suit and she’d probably prefer to use dragon fire to force these Westerosi lords and ladies to bend to her will.
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), and Tyrion Lannister discuss the challenge of getting Northerners and Free Folk to accept Daenerys. Davos proposes a proposal, pointing to the value of a marriage between Jon and Daenerys.
“Winterfell” is full of reunions, some warm and others more awkward. Tyrion approaches his former wife, Sansa. She expresses surprise that Tyrion would believe Cersei’s promise to join the fight against the dead: “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” Us too, but it seems like Tyrion lacks objectivity when it comes to his family.
Jon: “Where were you before? I could have used your help with Sansa.”
Arya: “She doesn’t like your queen, does she?”
Jon: “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone.”
Arya: “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.”
Jon: “You’re defending her. You?”
Arya: “I’m defending our family. So is she.”
Jon: “I’m her family too.”
Arya: “Don’t forget that.”
It appears that Jon’s loyalty might be tested when Daenerys brings up Sansa’s lack of respect for her Queen. Jon jokes, “If it makes you feel any better, she didn’t like me either when we were growing up,” but Daenerys only drops her concern when distracted by her dragons. Daenerys convinces Jon to ride her dragon Rhaegal. We like this rom-con version of Jon Snow. It’s almost strange to see him happy.
Jon: “I don’t know how to ride a dragon.”
Daenerys: “Nobody does until they ride a dragon.”
Jon: “What if he doesn’t want me to?”
Daenerys: “Then I’ve enjoyed your company, Jon Snow.”
Jon: “What do I hold on to?”
Daenerys: “Whatever you can.”
Jon isn’t the only one Arya reunites with. She finds her former captor Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and her former traveling companion Gendry (Joe Dempsie) in the blacksmith area. Though Clegane ultimately became attached to Arya and wanted to keep her safe, he behaves in his usual insufferable way. Arya responds with indifference. Gendry, on the other hand, she’s quite happy to see. When she asks Gendry to make a weapon for her, they joke with each other. There’s something beyond friendship brewing between these two.
Daenerys seeks out Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) to thank him for curing Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) of greyscale. As they talk, Daenerys realizes that she killed Sam’s father and brother after the Battle of the Goldroad. After getting this distressing news, Sam is told by Bran that now is the time he must go and talk with Jon about his true parentage.
In the catacombs below Winterfell, Jon is thrilled to see his friend Sam, but surprised he’s not at the Citadel. Sam tells Jon about Daenerys killing his family, pointing out that Jon has been merciful in similar situations. Sam reveals the truth about who he is to Jon:
“Your mother was Liana Stark and your father, your real father, was Rhaegar Targaryen. You’ve never been a bastard. You are Aegon Targaryen, true heir to the Iron Throne.”
Jon is reluctant to believe that Ned Stark would have lied to him, but Sam points out that revealing who he was would’ve been a death sentence for Jon. Pointing out that Jon is the true king of the Seven Kingdoms, Sam asks Jon, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally arrives at Winterfell, where Bran Stark appears to be waiting for him. This reunion is one we’ve been waiting for, but it will have to wait for the next episode of Game of Thrones.
Qyburn (Anton Lesser) informs Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) that the army of the dead has breached the Wall. She merely replies, “Good,” and continues to gaze out at the ships carrying 20,000 additional men for her Army. Cersei’s moral complexity has died along with her children. The last vestiges of Cersei’s humanity were shrugged off when her brother Jaime finally broke with her.
Cersei is excited about her new army, though disappointed by the lack of elephants. Looking to be rewarded for his service, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) pushes Cersei to consummate their relationship. When Cersei finally gives in, it appears Euron has outmaneuvered her. But when Euron later tells Cersei he’s going to put a prince in her belly, it becomes clear that Cersei is the one doing the manipulating. After all, she’s got a pregnancy she needs to cover for.
Pregnancy hasn’t softened Cersei and her sense of vengeance. She sends Qyburn to hire Bronn to kill her brothers, should they survive the White Walkers. Qyburn tells Bronn, “She has a keen sense of poetic justice.”
While Euron is with Cersei, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) rescues his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). After head-butting Theon when he first frees her, Yara is quick to forgive her brother for his earlier abandonment. She makes plans to retake the Iron Islands, but allows Theon to go and help defend Winterfell. It seems that Theon took what Jon Snow told him at Dragonstone to heart—he can be both a Stark and a Greyjoy.
Up North, at Last Hearth, the castle closest to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, there’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) survived the attack on the Wall. The bad news is that when they come upon the Last Hearth, its clear the army of the dead has added the members of House Umber to their ranks. The good news is that Tormund runs into Eddison Tollett (Ben Crompton) and some other men of the Night’s Watch on their way down from Castle Black.
Eddison: “Stay back, he’s got blue eyes.”
Tormund: “I’ve always had blue eyes.”
The bad news is that young Lord Ned Umber, who recently returned from Winterfell to evacuate Last Hearth, has been left impaled in the wall as a creepy message for the living.
“Winterfell” brings together various story threads to weave an interesting tapestry. When Sam reveals the truth to Jon, Sam’s previous experiences are tangible connections to this moment—just as Sansa’s concern about Daenerys carries more weight when her experience and insight is considered. Whether or not Daenerys Targaryen is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, is she the right ruler?
The writers managed to include almost the entire cast in “Winterfell.” Despite the building tension, the writing and direction had its moments of fun, with comedic dialogue and even some flirting. It was a relief to see an operation finally go right, with Theon’s rescue of Yara. It was a also a joy to see some of these long-anticipated reunions at Winterfell. Northerners may not yet be cohesive, but let’s hope the Starks remain united.
“Winterfell” solidifies our understanding of each of these characters, while finally giving us the Jon-Snow-is-Aegon-Targaryen reveal we’ve all been waiting for. Game of Thrones is sure to revel in the fallout.