20 months have passed since a brand new Game of Thrones episode last aired on television, and the show’s presence has been thoroughly missed—if the beloved characters taking over Twitter’s trending page is any indicator. I too have also missed Game of Thrones, despite my rocky history with the television series, and what I felt when the theme song swelled had only confirmed it. The beginning of the end is here, and the start is a solid one. The first episode of the final season of Game of Thrones is a collage of interesting character dynamics that set up the internal power struggle within the uneasy coalition of the living.
In season 7’s finale, the Night King had finally breached the Wall, the ancient bulwark against wildlings and White Walkers, in the most bombastic fashion—blasted to bits with an undead dragon. In the aftermath of the Wall’s destruction, the Night Watch, Northern Houses, and Daenerys’s forces retreat to the Starks’ ancestral seat. It’s a wonderful excuse to gather friends, families, and former enemies all under one roof (the episode was aptly titled Winterfell.) Reuniting characters and watching unlikely friendships thrive between strangers are the fan service many crave, and the show gives us just that. A little bit too pandering perhaps? Well, I think it’s worth it just for the good parts.
Aside from the Stark siblings finally reuniting with each other since Eddard Stark rode for King’s Landing to serve as Robert Baratheon’s Hand many years ago. There’s one particular scene I enjoyed that signified the deep history and powerful emotions built up over the years and made possible only by the journeys these characters had embarked on: The army marches into Winterfell and as Arya looks on she spots familiar faces: Jon, Gendry, and Sandor (The Hound) among the riders, but Arya stops herself from hailing them. She stands and watches, but her face says a thousand words. It this moment that allows Maisie Williams (Arya) to continue being the best among Game of Thrones’ cast.
Not all the newcomers received a warm welcome in Winterfell compared to King in the North, Jon Snow. Fellow plot armor wearer Daenerys Targaryen is met with skepticism from the Northern Houses as “The North Remembers”, and they haven’t forgotten that they had fought to overthrow Daenerys father, Aerys II, the Mad King. While others don’t take kindly to a foreigner uncrowning their newly-appointed King in the North. Is Daenerys her father’s daughter? That’s the question raised oh-so-many seasons ago. Narratively speaking, it’s odd to see that particular issue rear its head once more, as that part of her character arc was already explored and abandoned.
There is an interesting discussion to be had about the double standards Daenerys faces in comparison to Jon Snow as a ruler; is the extra scrutiny is warranted due to her bloodline or does the skepticism stem from her sex? However, one thing is sure, she’s now a less engaging character than she was three seasons ago.
When Barristan the Bold became Daenerys’s Queensguard, he told her the truth about the reign of her father, shattering the rose-tinted impression formed by Viserys’s (who was then too young to remember) tales. After taking Mereen by force, Daenerys vowed to be a ruler, not just a conqueror who brings with her fire and blood, and so she stayed. Of course, not everything went smoothly for her; she faced slave-owner-organized terrorist attacks. However, instead of allowing Daenerys to defuse the situation diplomatically, the show just ran out of time—the story demanded Daenerys to cross the Narrow Sea. She powered through the quagmire with superior firepower and remained on the same trajectory ever since.
The game of thrones continues even though Westeros faces inevitable extinction. The show is setting up an interesting parallel between Daenerys and Jon, and their different approach to the idea of birthright and responsibility. Jon Snow learns of his true parentage at the end of this episode, and for the first time, doubt is sowed between the royal couple. Varys’s comment on the finite nature of all things rings even more ominous in hindsight. The matter of succession will undoubtedly be the ultimate conflict in the final season, White Walker incursion notwithstanding.
“We don’t have time for all this!” Bran warns, and he is right. If you stop and examine the surviving characters, you’ll find that there are many whose character arcs are duly exhausted. There’s no time to squabble when the threat of White Walkers looms, and no time for forcibly extended petty drama when the season is only six episodes long. Lesser examples include Tyrion, who ran out of materials two seasons ago, now just pathetically hangs around cracking bad jokes. The most egregious case is Cersei, having reached the natural conclusion of her arc, she currently sits on the throne, alone. Queen to ashes and ghosts and whatever nameless vassals she hasn’t destroyed yet. Her only next logical course of action seems to be backstabbing the North with her newly acquired Golden Company.
There’s not much action in Winterfell, but it does what a season premiere sets out to do adequately—it properly catches up characters and audience alike, and establishes geography and motives. Pieces are now in the right place, and all parties are ready to make their first move. It may not be the most exciting episode Game of Thrones has to offer, but I have a good feeling about what comes next.