On Sunday, we finally returned to an era-defining show, gone for years, that captivated the world with its high-stakes melodrama woven from familiar human fallibility.
That show was “Downton Abbey.” Because in the long-awaited Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones,” from the grand royal arrival onward, Winterfell resembled nothing so much as that great Edwardian manse of swollen emotion. Charged reunions, new conflicts and old grudges played themselves out upstairs and downstairs, inside and out, between siblings and exes, old friends and in-laws, much of it rippling outward from a haughty noblewoman no one liked all that much.
Granted, I don’t recall Lady Mary ever incinerating anyone’s brother, as Daenerys did to poor Dickon Tarly last season. And instead of the dowager countess’s bon mots, we got Bran, just sitting there creeping everybody out.
Overall it was a somewhat soapy but generally very satisfying setup for the final run of “Game of Thrones,” as the sides coalesced for the wars to come. Jon and Dany’s coalition of the living currently includes nearly everyone not named or sleeping with Cersei. She heads up the King’s Landing faction, and this week welcomed a mysterious new man — Capt. Strickland, leader of the Golden Company — onto the team and Euron into her bed, while inviting more speculation about her purported pregnancy with the departed Jaime.
Meanwhile, the White Walkers remained on the march up north, stopping occasionally for refreshments and ghoulish arts and crafts. (O.K. that part was less “soapy” than “ghastly and terrifying.”)
Nearly everyone we like has now made it to Winterfell, although they don’t always like one another all that much. Sansa and Tyrion reminisced about their cheerless but technically continuing marriage. The Hound, Gendry and Arya negotiated their complicated triangle, with a smitten Gendry displaying all the game you’d expect from a guy who’s been solo-rowing and hiding in blacksmith forges for the past few years. Jorah came in praise of Sam’s heroic greyscale treatment, but Dany ruined it by admitting she had executed his father and brother.
And all that was before the arrival of Jaime, who, at last count: once shoved Bran out a window; will be hated by Sansa and Arya (though he’d asked Brienne — also at Winterfell! — to help them); killed Dany’s ally Lady Olenna; tried to kill Dany; and by the way, made his name by killing her dad.
The point is, Winterfell is a fraught place, tense with history and the clashes of strong personalities. For most of its run, “Game of Thrones” has been defined by bigness and a far-flung story structure. But as it returns for the final hurrah, it feels constrained and claustrophobic, as people hash out their differences and drop revelation bombs within tight shadowy shots.
The constricted, almost Alamo-esque confines reinforced both the narrative notion that humanity is about to make its last stand — ideally the occupants are less doomed this time — and the thematic one that sometimes profound or painful differences must be overcome in order to solve the really big challenges.
On Sunday, most of those differences involved Daenerys, whose revelation to Sam, if the most painful, was hardly the only awkward result of the putative King in the North arriving in thrall to the Dragon Queen.
Because beyond the pageantry of the royal procession and beyond the awe inspired by the first dragon anyone had ever seen (and then the second), the defining emotions were mistrust and resentment. From the narrow-eyed glares of the Northern commoners to Sansa’s side-eyed ones, Jon’s return to Winterfell was like that time you brought your outspoken new flame home for Thanksgiving, X a billion.
Leave it to the always excellent Lady Mormont to say what everyone was thinking. “You left Winterfell a king and came back … I’m not sure what you are now,” she said. “A lord? Nothing at all?”
P.R. has always been a blind spot for Jon — his stark moral rectitude (pun intended) makes him oblivious to the fact that selling the right thing is sometimes as important as doing the right thing. And sure enough, there he was on Sunday, sticking to the same “I’m doing this for your own good” script that literally got him killed awhile back.
It was left to Tyrion, whose failure to coach Jon on his messaging in advance was only his latest advisory failing, to attempt damage control. But then he just said something else that will come back to haunt him.
We have the greatest army ever and two full-grown dragons, he said. “And soon the Lannister army will ride north to join our cause.”
(“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” Sansa told him later, speaking for all of us. Bring back the man who drinks and knows things!)
In the smaller chambers, Jon was slightly more effective. He and Sansa resumed their bickering later before reaching a fragile détente, though Sansa remains circumspect. “Did you bend the knee to save the North?” she asked. “Or because you love her?”
Jon’s reunion with Arya out by the weirwood tree was the nicest moment of the episode, the two outsiders of the Stark family coming together with more unguarded warmth than either had displayed toward anyone else, save perhaps their father Ned. (Have you ever used Needle, Jon wondered. “Once or twice,” she said.) It made up for the trademark awkwardness of Jon’s reunion with Bran, although somewhere in his three-eyed database Bran appears to have stumbled upon some self-awareness.
“Look at you,” Jon told him. “You’re a man.”
“Almost,” he replied.
In general, it probably wasn’t the homecoming Jon was hoping for. It was all enough to make you want to retreat to the countryside with your lady.
At one time there was fairly fervent fan speculation about who would ultimately ride the show’s three dragons. Dany predictably took to Drogon a couple seasons ago and then, in an upset, the Night King claimed Viserion in Season 7. That left Rhaegal, the dragon named for Jon’s father, though he didn’t realize it. (Yet.)
Sure enough, Dany coaxed Jon aboard, and after a brief bit of Dragons Ed — the neck-scale equivalent of 10-and-2 being “whatever you can hold on to” — they were off. Soon Jon had Rhaegal fairly under control, and the couple was enjoying a loins-stirring ride through the North.
It was all … fine. Look, I am not immune to the charms of new romance. That said, the whole sequence made me think about how many times I’ve told skeptical, fantasy-averse friends that “Game of Thrones” is not what they think it is. Because for a few minutes, as the strings swelled and two gloriously maned young royals frolicked on dragons above a wintry landscape, it totally was.
It also might amount to a final moment of bliss for Jonerys because the big bomb was about to drop at Winterfell.
If Sam had been feeling hesitant about revealing Jon’s true parentage to him, he was less so after he learned his new queen had torched his family. For his part, Jon seemed more upset about the besmirching of Ned’s honorable reputation than about the upending of his own ideas about himself, though he could be forgiven for a certain amount of compartmentalization.
“I know it’s a lot to take,” Sam said in a hilarious bit of understatement, before driving the wedge that only figures to get wider and more painful over the next few weeks. “You gave up your crown to save your people — would she do the same?”
We know the answer, and so does Jon. Perhaps Davos and Tyrion’s plan to package the candidates as a power couple will soothe brittle egos, although it seems unlikely — we’ve seen how well Tyrion’s plans work out these days. We’ll have to wait for next week, at least, to learn the ramifications for that, as well as to learn how he responds to Jaime’s revelation that Cersei was lying, of course, about helping out in the war against the dead. (I’m already looking forward to Sansa’s reaction.)
Down in King’s Landing, Cersei was in peak Cersei form, drinking wine, conniving with Qyburn, meet-and-greeting new mercenaries and having bored sex with her bug-eyed suitor.
Wait — drinking wine? You’ll recall she pointedly declined to imbibe when discussing her alleged pregnancy with both Jaime and Tyrion, but there she was, having a postcoital glass as she instructed Euron to collect his things and hit the bricks. So was that just stagecraft with her brothers? A Machiavellian tactic designed to inspire devotion in Jaime and credulity in Tyrion?
Perhaps, though that was a rare bit of raw anguish we saw from Cersei after Euron crassly announced his own dad-goals. The only things she has ever demonstrably cared about was Jaime and her children. Was her pain triggered by the loss of Jaime? The loss of the unborn child? All or none of the above?
One vote against its being Jaime was that she sicced Bronn on him. Bronn — whom we’re repeatedly told cares only about himself and his own enrichment, even as he’s done all sorts of heroic stuff for Jaime and Tyrion — is now officially on their collective tail. Cersei has requested that he use that infernal crossbow, the ultimate emblem of Lannister toxicity. (Or an instrument of “poetic justice,” if you’re Cersei.)
The Brothers Lannister have other concerns these days, of course, and the crossbow-for-hire subplot is probably just a means to get Bronn to Winterfell with everyone else before the big White Walker clash. But there’s one person we know definitely won’t be there: Little Ned Umber.
You might recall that we met Ned last season, when Sansa wanted to take castles away from him and another child, Alys Karstark, because their fathers sided with Ramsay in the Battle of the Bastards. Those castles, Last Hearth and Karhold, also happen to be the first the White Walkers would encounter after breaching the Wall. But Jon intervened, saying he wouldn’t punish children for the sins of their fathers.
Turns out he did Ned no favors. Losing his house probably would have been preferable to being transformed into spin art of the damned.
We first got reacquainted with the boy early on Sunday, when he told Sansa and Jon he needed more horses and wagons in order to get his people back to Winterfell. He no longer needs horses or wagons, having been turned into a flaming jump-scare machine at Last Hearth.
“It’s a message from the Night King,” Beric Dondarrion said.
That message would seem to be, get all your melodrama out of the way now. Because your real problems have only just begun.
A Few Thoughts While We Head-Butt Our Savior
• Euron wanted to keep Yara around to talk to because he was surrounded by mutes. (You might recall him explaining to his brother Balon, before he killed him, that he cut out the tongues of his crew because “I needed silence.”) But he’ll need to find someone else because Theon rescued Yara and was head-butted for his troubles. (Well, that and abandoning her to Euron last season.) As always, in a show with more than its fair share of crazy, the Greyjoys are in a special class.
• That said, they link the various threads in interesting ways. Theon is headed back to Winterfell to join the Stark cause, a fitting culmination for his continuing redemption arc. More intriguing was Euron’s clear willingness to ditch Cersei if it suits him, and Yara’s plan to head home in case Daenerys needs “somewhere to retreat if they can’t hold the North, somewhere the dead can’t go.” Could be foreshadowing; could be nothing.
• Fun fact: Sunday’s premiere was the first post-#MeToo episode of “Game of Thrones.” The show celebrated by plying Bronn with nude prostitutes. It was a “Thrones” throwback — the series has mostly abandoned the gateway gratuitous sex of early seasons — and perhaps one last kiss-off from a show that’s been known to tweak its scolders. (See also: the close-up of the venereally afflicted actor in Season 6, after complaints about insufficient male nudity.)
• My colleague James Poniewozik wrote about how as “Game of Thrones” has gone on, it has become a “dragon-delivery device,” with character and narrative development becoming secondary to spectacle. A related quibble: The dragons themselves have become dad joke-delivery devices. See Drogon’s stink eye during Jon and Dany’s date, or Jon’s quip about how Rhaegal “completely ruined horses for me.” What does a dragon eat? Sansa wondered. “Anything it wants,” Dany says. And so on. It’s a small thing, but this show doesn’t wear corniness well.
• “The last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding, a miserable affair,” Tyrion told Sansa. “It had its moments,” she replied. See? That’s actually funny.
• I’m looking forward to seeing how Jaime’s arrival shakes up things at Winterfell — we haven’t even mentioned the Jaime-Brienne-Tormund love triangle. (Tormund arrives next week.) I’m also glad the show seems to be dispensing with the reunions and revelations fairly quickly, rather than letting them hang over these last episodes, which have plenty else to sort out before this thing is done.
• What about you? Was the return to Westeros everything you hoped it would be? Do Jon and Dany have any future at all? (“Nothing lasts,” Varys intoned portentously.) Are we positive Lady Mary never incinerated anyone’s brother? (She sexed a guy to death but there was no fire — maybe she’s saving it for the movie.) Please share your thoughts in the comments.