‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8.01 Review: “Winterfell”

After a long wait, Game of Thrones is back.  We returned to Westros on Sunday, ready to catch up with all our favorite characters and follow them on this last leg of their journey to meet their fates.  Winterfell, the premier episode of the current season, wasted no time in propelling things forward.

The episode begins with stoic northerners lining the roads to watch the arrival of Daenerys Targaryen and her massive army of Unsullied and Dothraki warriors marching toward Winterfell.  Blending in among the common folk is Arya.  She catches a glimpse of Jon and cracks a sweet smile.  I loved how it looked like she almost called out to him and then held back.  Subtle touches like that are one of the things that make the show great.  An unexpected figure also passes her by: the Hound.

Riding along in the column are Gendry, Grey Worm, and Missandei.  Following close behind in a wagon are Tyrion and Varys, trading barbs as usual.  The banter is a little forced and underwritten here (and in places throughout the episode) but this has been an issue for a season or two now, ever since the show outpaced the books.

If the horde of foreign soldiers wasn’t impressive enough, Daenerys’ two remaining dragons swoop in low.  The queen certainly knows how to make an impression.  Arya is clearly delighted by the sight. Sansa, watching from atop Winterfell’s walls, has a more staid expression.

The party rides into the castle, and Jon is reunited with his family. This is his first time seeing Bran since the first season. He’s struck by how much Bran’s grown, but soon seems taken aback by his younger brother’s detachment.  When Jon remarks that he’s a man now, Bran replies, “Almost.”

After greetings are exchanged and introductions are made (with Sansa coolly yet politely receiving her new queen) Bran puts an abrupt end to the pleasantries, telling them all that Dany’s dragon is now undead and in service to the Night King and that the army of the dead has breached the wall and is moving south.

The action moves indoors where the current situation is discussed. Young Lord Umber is sent back home to fetch the rest of his people so they can join the other houses, who have fallen back to make a stand at Winterfell.  Lady Mormont, as is her way, bluntly confronts Jon about abandoning his throne as King in the North and “bending the knee” (can we stop using that phrase now, please?) to his new queen.  Her words are a reminder of the distrust the north has of outsiders.

Jon explains that though he was honored, he never wanted to be king. His only concern was protecting the north and that this was best accomplished by accepting Dany as queen, thus bringing her very large army and formidable dragons into the fight on the side of the living.  Tyrion tries to assist, but in announcing the coming of the Lannister army to help, he only makes things worse.  If there’s one thing a northerner hates more than a Targaryen, it might be a Lannister.

In one of a few reunions that have been a long time coming, Tyrion and Sansa meet and have a few words about the past.  Tyrion notes that Joffrey’s wedding was the last time they saw each other.  When he remarks that it was a “miserable affair,” Sansa amusingly replies, “It had its moments.”  Sansa is skeptical that Cersei will be true to her word and lend her army for the defense of the realm and lets Tyrion know it.  “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.”

The next scene gives us the reunion that I personally have been waiting for.  Arya sneaks up on Jon as he broods next to Winterfell’s weirwood tree.  It’s a sweet, emotional reunion.  Arya shows more emotion than she has in years as a look of joy spreads across her face and the two embrace.  Time has changed these two Starks, but the bond between them is as strong as ever.  Jon is pleased to see that she still has her sword. “Have you used it?” he asks.

Her eyes convey a long, untold story when she replies, “Once or twice.”

Next, we find ourselves in King’s Landing where Qyburn informs Cersei that the army of the dead has broken through the wall and is heading south.  “Good,” she replies with a smirk.  The camera pans out to show us Euron Greyjoy’s fleet moored in the harbor where it’s revealed he still has Yara Greyjoy.  His ships hold the Golden Company, mercenaries purchased by Cersei for use in the coming war.

Euron joins Cersei in the throne room and finally weasels his way into her bed.  Their post-coital banter isn’t exactly affectionate.  Euron is the most tedious part of this, and most, episodes.  The character is flat and one dimensional.  Cersei tells him that he’s not boring, but I’m going to have to disagree.

Elsewhere in King’s Landing, Qyburn interrupts Bronn’s romp in the hay with three of the capital’s finest ladies of the night.  He bears a message from Queen Cersei: go north and, if her brothers survive the war, murder them.  I honestly don’t expect this to happen.  My guess is it’s a plot device to get Bronn into the action sooner rather than later.

Out on the water, Theon Greyjoy and a band of fighters sneak aboard Euron’s ship while he’s in the queen’s bedchamber and rescue Yara.  Once they escape, Yara decides to go back to the Iron Islands to retake their home while Euron is away, providing a place for Daenerys to escape in case things go sideways in the war against the dead.  Theon still feels the need to atone for past sins and wants to return to Winterfell and fight alongside the Starks.  Yara releases him to go.

Back at Winterfell, the Carstarks are starting to arrive.  Tyrion, Varys, and Davos are discussing the present situation. In order to make the alliance with (and subjugation to) Dany more palatable to the northerners, Davos suggests a marriage between the queen and Jon after the war against the Night King.

After getting word that her dragons aren’t eating well, Dany takes Jon to go check on them.  The two end up going for a ride, each mounting one of the dragons.  This is a scene that I expected would come later in the season.  Jon flying solo on a dragon is a big deal, because it should provide a hint to Dany that he’s more than just a northern lord’s bastard.  After their flight, the two young lovers set down near a picturesque waterfall and share what is likely to be their last relatively care-free make out session.  It ends with Jon glancing over Dany’s shoulder at one of the dragons, who looks at him like he might know something.

The next scene takes place in the blacksmith shop in Winterfell where Gendry has made a battle axe for the Hound out of dragonglass.  As the Hound leaves, Arya enters.  The meeting isn’t heartwarming.  Clegane remarks matter-of-factly that she left him for dead.  “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he mutters.  “I guess that’s why you’re still alive.”  The Hound looks her over and leaves.

Arya’s reunion with Gendry is a little more cordial, almost flirtatious.  She leaves him with a sketch of a weapon she wants made for him.

In the castle, Jon and Sansa have words about the situation with Daenerys.  Sansa is put out that Jon abandoned his crown.  Jon again makes the case that titles don’t matter.  That they need Dany’s men and dragons and that without them they’re all doomed.  Sansa remains silent and Jon asks if she has faith in him.

“You know I do,” Sansa replies.  He explains that she will be a good queen and that Dany is not like her father.  Sansa seems to perceive that Jon has feelings for Dany so she asks him bluntly whether he submitted to her so he could save the north or because he is in love with her.  The scene ends before Jon can answer.  The look on his face, though, suggests the latter.

Dany and Jorah Mormont walk into a dark room where they find Sam reading.  Daenerys thanks Sam for saving Jorah’s life by curing his greyscale.  During the the conversation, Dany realizes that Sam is related to Lord Tarly and Dickon Tarly, whom she put to death by dragon fire when they wouldn’t bend the knee.  Though his father was a cruel man, the death of his brother hits him hard and he leaves the room.

Outside he runs into Bran, who tells Sam that it’s time to let Jon know what they’ve found out: that Jon not only is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, but that he’s the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne.

Jon is in the crypts, gazing that the statue of Ned Stark, the man he still thinks is his father.  Sam stumbles nearby and Jon hears him. The two friends share a warm hug, this being the first time they’ve seen each other since Jon’s return.  Sam tells Jon of the execution. He seems to have been unware and offers Sam condolences.

Sam then reveals the truth of Jon’s parentage and his rightful claim to the throne.  Jon can’t believe that his father, Ned Stark, renowned for his honesty and honor, would lie about it. Sam points out that he lied in order to keep a promise to Lyanna and protect her son.

Stunned, Jon states that Daenerys is the queen, to which Sam replies, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

Left with that unanswered question, we find ourselves at the Umber’s ancestral home Last Hearth where Tormund and Beric Dondarrion are quietly searching the abandoned castle.  They are startled by Eddison Tollett, who is searching the castle with a few members of the Night’s Watch.  Eventually, they all find young Lord Umber impaled to a wall with body parts arranged in a spiral around his corpse. Suddenly, the boy awakens, screaming, as one of the undead.  Then Dondarrion sets the screeching corpse alight with his flaming blade and the decision is made to head for Winterfell.

Meanwhile, the episode ends with Jaime’s arrival at Winterfell where Bran waits in the courtyard.

The episode won’t go down as one of the best, but it served its purpose.  Everyone has gathered now, friends have been reunited.  As always, the CG of the dragons in flight looked incredible. Some of the humor fell flat and the dialogue was a little clunky in places, but it’s good to finally have the show back.  I’m looking forward to next week already.  We’ll have one more week to catch our breath before episode 3, which is rumored to showcase a huge battle.