The Game of Thrones season 8 premiere, “Winterfell,” set us up for drama and delivered a few major surprises.
Game of Thrones is back, folks. There’s a gorgeous new opening sequence, a few very grand entrances (and a one not-so-grand-entrance), sexposition, mean girl moments (ugh), and yep — Jon learns the thing, people. Jon learns the thing.
What happened in the ‘Game of Thrones’ season 8 premiere?
Jon and Daenerys’ combined hosts reach Winterfell. Jon is reunited with Bran, who is indifferent, and Sansa and Dany immediately seem to dislike the smell of each other. This tension grows as the Northern lords express displeasure at Jon’s decision to bend the knee to this new Targaryen queen. Later, Jon and Arya have a moving reunion in the Godswood, and Arya (definitely not flirting) asks Gendry to make her a special weapon of Valyrian steel. Tyrion, Davos, and Varys grapple with how to have the North accept Dany, while Dany takes Jon dragon riding (not an innuendo) on Rhaegal. The two share a romantic moment just between them, and two ginormous dragons who watch the entire time.
Meanwhile, Euron Greyjoy delivers the sellswords of the Golden Company to Cersei in Kings Landing. She begrudgingly agrees to sleep with him in return. Qyburn seeks out Bronn in flagrante delicto to sell him Cersei’s latest offer: Go North, kill Tyrion and Jaime with a crossbow, and profit. While Bronn deliberates, Theon rescues Yara from Euron’s ship, and the two Greyjoy siblings part on surprisingly positive terms.
Back at Winterfell, Jon asks Sansa to trust him on the matter of Dany. Dany quickly loses a potential ally when she confesses to Sam Tarly that she totally roasted his father and brother for refusing to kneel. It’s awkward and very sad, and sends Sam down into the crypts to spill everything — and I mean everything — to Jon. His true parentage, the circumstances of his birth, his dominant claim to the Iron Throne, and even his real name all come spilling out as Sam rejects Dany’s right and fitness to rule.
Jon is understandably perturbed by all of this information. But before he’ll have much time to react, a stranger rides through the gates of Winterfell, removing his hood to reveal Jaime Lannister — who immediately meets eyes with Bran, who has been waiting for him.
Oh, and Tormund, Beric, Edd, and the men of Eastwatch collide in a castle where they find the young lord of House Umber strung up, wightified, and screaming. It’s freaky as shit.
Important to note in the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere are the deliberate and effective parallels to the series’ pilot episode. Both “Winter is Coming” and “Winterfell” include scenes of a young boy clambering to unsafe heights, of the White Walker’s horribly distinctive swirling sigil of death, and of a long-awaited reunion in the castle yard.
And perhaps most tellingly, both episodes end with a confrontation between Bran Stark and Jaime Lannister — though the one in “Winterfell” is certain to end quite differently than the awful fall that changed so many lives on Game of Thrones.
In addition, a powerful motif of familial bonds laced through the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere. The surviving Starks finally reunited, the pack come together to fight for their home. On his miserable ship, Euron Greyjoy mused over his bond with his niece Yara, while Yara and Theon made their peace as brother and sister. In Kings Landing, Cersei plotted murder of her two brothers with the same weapon that Tyrion used to kill their father; and Euron, of course, made plans for a family with Cersei.
(Yeah, good luck, mate.)
But most potently is the way the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere sweeps from Samwell Tarly’s loss of his brother and father into the revelation of Jon’s true familial identity. Sam is overwhelmed by shock and grief for men who never truly accepted him. Nevertheless, their mostly needless deaths at Dany’s hands proves to be agonizing news for Sam (lost, after all, is any hope for reconciliation or proof of his worth).
So strong are Sam’s feelings that he not only confronts Jon with this information, but he weaponizes the news of Jon’s true identity against Dany’s legitimacy as queen. Though Sam’s intentions are honorable, it’s quite possibly the worst way Jon could have received this information, which not only unveils his parentage, but exposes the long-term deception of Eddard Stark, the man Jon thought was his father.
In a sense, both Sam and Jon lose their fathers in quick succession in the crypts of Winterfell. Sam hopes to gain a king from it, but for Jon, there is no recompense. A throne he doesn’t want is poor compensation for the lies he is confronted with, however well-intended. By the end of the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere, Jon has been forcibly redefined in virtually every familial relationship he has ever known. More than claims of kingship or rights, this is what most agonizes him — and what sets up the powerful conflicts in the coming episodes.
Highlight: Jon and Arya reunite in the Godswood
This long, long awaited reunion was equal parts joyful and bittersweet. Jon and Arya’s meeting after so many years and so much suffering was equal parts catharsis and tragedy. Unlike their reunions with Sansa and Bran, which played as fresh starts for the once-combative siblings, Arya and Jon actually had a loving relationship to return to. But as the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere made clear, they will both now have to recalibrate their bond in the context of their experiences.
In many ways, though their love is strong as ever, it’s clear that Jon and Arya no longer speak the exact same language. Jon confirms for Arya that he has returned from the dead, an idea that she can’t possibly hope to relate to. And Jon is almost touchingly naive when it comes to Arya’s experiences. He asks her if she has used Needle in the many years since he had it made for her; Arya’s eyes flicker almost imperceptibly when she answers, “Once or twice.”
Of course, Arya has used Needle far more often than that, and has killed many more times. She’s no longer just his feisty little sister; Arya is a trained assassin, with copious blood on her hands. Jon can’t know this, but it’s clear that he still expects her to be the mostly-innocent, lively little sister with whom he once joked about Sansa. But that past is largely lost to them, as much as both would like — and to some extent try — to ignore these changes.
And so Jon and Arya’s reunion plays as a beautiful twist of joy and loss. The Starks have reunited inasmuch as they possibly can, and they are determined to stand together. But the language they once shared, the understanding once easily intuited is gone, and some of what has been lost cannot be reclaimed. Amidst the profound love shining from both Arya and Jon as they embrace, the scene beneath the Heart Tree illustrates the gap that yawns between them now, unacknowledged but painfully present. Quietly, with few words, the scene aches with the loss of Arya and Jon as they were, and were together, and never quite will be again.
Lowlight: Sansa vs. Dany
Girlfights are stupid.
There, I said it. In the previous season of Game of Thrones, Sansa and Arya were pitted against each other in a very nearly murderous misunderstanding. Anger, resentment, fear, and paranoia bubbled between them, and then bubbled some more, swelling like a blister until a last-minute conference sent the pressure venting in Littlefinger’s deserved direction.
So it’s almost staggeringly disappointing to see Sansa once again cast as the pinched antagonist to another female character. Dany and Sansa’s dislike of each other begins with Sansa at their first meeting and balloons immediately, to the point that Dany skates near the idea that Sansa would be an untenable presence at Winterfell should she not come to heel. (Also, hi Dany, you just got here.)
If Dany’s reaction is overly strong, Sansa’s distrust is disproportionate and wildly mishandled. There may be some reasonable drama to milk from Sansa, finally finding her feet as the Lady of Winterfell and sister to the King in the North, remaining wary of Dany and her dragons. After all, Dany represents an enormous shift in the political and military paradigm on which Sansa has settled herself, and having been burned by endless traitors in the past, a conservative approach makes sense for Sansa.
But immediate and outright hostility to a power like Dany represents? That does not make sense, nor does Sansa’s tendency to prickle at the slightest suggestion of Daenerys. This isn’t about trusting Jon, or even trusting his new Targaryen queen; it’s about manufacturing drama in place of Sansa asserting herself in a calm and sensible manner.
This all plays particularly badly in contrast with the well-modulated dialogue between Sansa and Tyrion. A graceful and mature reintroduction, Tyrion praised Sansa’s intelligence and survival skills, words later echoed by Arya to Jon. But in every aspect of her interactions with Dany, Sansa acts like anything but a canny politician; she acts like a petty girl, somehow unable to hoist the mask of courtesy that kept her alive for so many years.
It’s a disappointing choice. Certainly, it’s possible that this tension may be resolved amicably, as Sansa and Arya’s ultimately was. But the renewed tendency of Game of Thrones season 8 to use Sansa as a dramatic wedge is not only exhausting, but unearned, and unworthy of a character who has fought for eight seasons to control her own fate like the lady she is.
Deaths: Shockingly, only one: Poor young Lord Umber, strung up by White Walkers with his men in a grisly tableau. We barely knew ye kid, and now we never will.
Battles: Not (yet) applicable.
Sex and romance: Bronn settled down for sex with three disinterested sex workers who may be dying of the pox. More importantly, Dany and Jon enjoyed (…I think) a romantic moment amidst the freezing but beautiful Northern landscape after their dragon ride. It’s unclear if they actually did the do, but I hope not — it’s way too cold, save it for Winterfell.
Jon: I had a choice, keep my crown or save the North. I chose the North.
Sansa: What do dragons eat, anyway?
Dany: Whatever they want.
Varys: Respect is how the young keep us at a distance so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth… nothing ever lasts.
Cersei: You want a whore? Buy one. You want a queen? Earn her.
Jon: I don’t know how to ride a dragon.
Dany: Nobody does, until they ride a dragon.
Jon: What if he doesn’t want me to?
Dany: Then I’ve enjoyed your company, Jon Snow.
Edd: Stay back! He’s got blue eyes!
Tormund: I’VE ALWAYS HAD BLUE EYES!
Jaime’s in trouble. Somebody call Brienne.
Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2 will air on Sunday, April 21 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.