Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1 Recap: “Winterfell”

“Winterfell,” the premiere of Game of Thrones’ six-episode final season, is much like the show’s previous table-setting season openers, shuffling the winnowed-down cast into their new positions and setting up the season’s conflicts. If there’s a whiff of sentimentality to the episode’s parade of happy reunions and dragonback joyrides, it’s offset by the thrill of finally watching the whole thing come together. The most ambitious, sprawling story in television history is in its endgame, and we’re unlikely to see anything quite like it ever again.

As Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) attempts to consolidate her power at Winterfell, ancestral seat of House Stark, and in King’s Landing Cersei (Lena Headey) plays a nihilistic game of chicken with the apocalypse, gambling that it will wipe out her enemies for her, the army of the dead marches inexorably toward its last battle with the flawed and fractious living. Aside from a disturbing sequence set far to the north at the Last Hearth there isn’t much dread to be had, which leaves even the episode’s most beautiful images slightly hollow.

King of the Ashes

“He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes,” the spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill) said of the now late and unlamented Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aiden Gillen) way back in season four. The show’s long-running exploration of human pettiness has never felt more painful. Watching these people we’ve come to know and love over the last decade butt heads over titles and castles and centuries-old vendettas is a picture of squabbling idiocy so extreme it would feel preposterous if not for its clear connection to our own society’s response to global warming.

The chilling detachment with which Daenerys speculates as to what she’ll do if Sansa (Sophie Turner) refuses to respect her is one of the episode’s most effective tension-builders. Turner and Clarke occupying the same space is thrill enough, the two actresses playing off one another with instant chemistry. Even their appearances feel naturally opposed, Turner’s sleek, streamlined elegance lending her exchange with the diminutive and icily imperious Clarke an almost stylized feeling, as though the two were animated characters drawn to evoke feelings of just-concealed rudeness and disdain.

The tensions within House Stark itself have begun to take shape, but “Winterfell” lacks the depth to mine much from the friction between Jon’s head-in-the-clouds exhilaration at being with Daenerys and her inflexible, sometimes vicious need for control. In its own way, Daenerys’s inability to share power is as myopic and dangerous as Cersei’s refusal to fight alongside the rest of humanity. Her vision of a free and transformed Westeros, of a Seven Kingdoms able to survive what’s coming, extends only as far as her own reign, her own authority, her own name.

Alone with Ourselves

Cersei’s lonely scheming far to the south is more emotionally affecting, its visual merits both smaller and more richly envisioned. The image of the queen silently giving in to Euron’s (Pilou Asbæk) swaggering advances, her martial regalia dwarfing her slender frame as she stands in a yawning doorway waiting for the pirate lord to follow her, is singularly sad. Her childish disappointment over the absence of war elephants from the ranks of the Golden Company, her newly hired mercenary army, is another surprisingly poignant touch. It would be easy for a show as tremendously wide-ranging as Game of Thrones to lose sight of the fact that Cersei was sold into a crushingly traumatic marriage as a wide-eyed teenager, and that in many ways she’ll never be anything else.

In the death and mutilation of twelve-year-old nobleman Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) by the army of the dead is another image of childhood unnaturally arrested. The little boy hanging limp from the wall of his castle is pitifully small, an omen of the childless and desolate world awaiting humanity if it should fall prey to its own infighting. Its resurrection and thrashing immolation is no easier to watch, and the emptiness of the Last Hearth around those flailing, fragile limbs magnifies the nastily intimate horror of it. No dead remain in the wake of the Night King’s army. They rose to follow it, denied even the dignity of graves to lie in, faces to be remembered by.

The episode’s final moments bring us back to the callous, flippant act of brutality which touched off the war that ravaged Westeros for much of the show’s early run. As Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) lock eyes across the snowy courtyard of Winterfell, holding the secret of Bran’s long-ago fall and maiming between them, the show reaches back to grasp one of its earliest images of human failure and evil. It’s a quiet thing, an uncertain reflection on the possibility that these people will never escape themselves, that their ugliest knee-jerk instincts and the vicious stupidity of their culture will swallow them alive.