This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.
It’s Game of Thrones season again!
Some of you may be more excited about this than others. Over the past two seasons, critical opinions of the show have dropped, but that hasn’t made much of a dent in its overall popularity. There’s a threshold at which popularity becomes self-reinforcing: people start watching the show just to see what all the fuss is about. People (like me) who don’t think it’s very good anymore watch because we’ve already invested so much time in it and we want to see how it ends. Just as people who don’t follow football will still watch the Super Bowl, people who ordinarily aren’t interested in fantasy fiction will still watch Game of Thrones.
Because of this dynamic, by now I pay as much attention to people’s reactions to the show as I do to the show itself. In fact, when I first started writing about it back in the olden days of 2017, I operated off the premise that a mass souring of opinion on the series was imminent. That prediction hasn’t been borne out to the extent I thought it would, but there’s still time. In fact, in the days leading up to the premiere, the internet seemed to be bracing itself for disappointment. Instead of linking many examples, I’ll just link one representative one, titled “There’s No Way For Game Of Thrones To Get The Ending It Deserves.”
This may have been inevitable. This is the last season – the ending – and the endings of big-ticket “television events” don’t have the greatest track record. The only one I can think of that ended on a real high note was Breaking Bad, and even then there were differences of opinion. And Game of Thrones is going to have an even tougher job of it than usual, because there’s been a set of thorny problems baked into the story they’re adapting from day one. To massively oversimplify, the Song of Ice and Fire books had three main storylines. The “A” story was the Stark/Lannister conflict and its attendant political intrigue. The “B” story was Daenerys’ adventures on the other side of the narrow sea. And the lurking “C” story was the supernatural threat north of the Wall.
It was clear from the start that the C and B stories were going to have to fold into the A one, but how? Don’t look to George R.R. Martin for answers, because he hasn’t written any yet. In the books, Dany is still in Meereen and the “Others” – the books’ name for the show’s “White Walkers” – are still north of the wall. This isn’t a just matter of unifying disparate storylines. It’s bringing multiple genres together. Characters from a story that was primarily about feudal politics are now thrust into a story about magical snow zombies. I’m not just skeptical about whether showrunners Benioff and Weiss can pull this off. I’m skeptical that anyone, including George R.R. Martin, can.
Of course it would be nice to be proven wrong. But this isn’t the first time the show has struggled with a problem like this. Season seven saw Dany’s return to Westeros, and immediately there was a problem: she had the best infantry (Unsullied), the best cavalry (Dothraki), and the best artillery (Dragons). There was no one in exhausted, divided, and dragonless Westeros who could plausibly challenge her. Many of the season’s weaknesses were the offspring of this initial issue. Now, in the final season, they have to do something even harder.
Let’s see if they can pull it off.
Last season I noted that I’d never seen a show so preoccupied with the presence or absence of genitalia as this one. That trend continues as the very first lines of dialogue spoken are another Varys eunuch joke. Pretty much the entire episode is spent setting the scene: Daenerys’ armies have arrived at Winterfell, and no one seems particularly inclined to get along. Sansa and Daenerys don’t like or trust each other, northerners don’t like outsiders in general and Lannisters in particular, and Bran presumably doesn’t like Jaime because Jaime threw him out of a window that one time.
In the midst of all this, there are reunions. This show has enough characters that anytime they move from one place to another there are at least a half-dozen of them who haven’t seen each other in several seasons. The script dutifully goes through each combination: Sansa/Tyrion, Jon/Bran, Jon/Sam, Jon/Arya, Arya/Hound, Arya/Gendry… I think that’s all the major ones. They lean on these reunions quite a bit in this episode. On the one hand, this is suspicious. The scenes are partly trading in on nostalgia value – combined with the relative lack of action this episode, I wonder if that’s due to a lack of ideas. On the other hand, this is the first episode of the season and it makes sense to reintroduce us to the cast and remind us who’s up to what.
What’s more, the scenes were pretty well done for the most part. The characters reuniting usually have some awkward history or significant character changes that happened in the interim. The Jon/Arya scene for instance: it showed both the relationship they used to have way back in season one and the changes that have happened to each since then. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and Dave Hill (the writer) doesn’t ruin it by having Arya mention that she could kill Jon and peel his face off or anything like that.
Down in King’s Landing, the first part of Cersei’s scheme is in motion. The Golden Company has arrived, twenty thousand strong but sans elephants (that sound you hear is the CGI budget sighing in relief). If I were the showrunners I would have taken the opportunity to quietly retire Euron Greyjoy between seasons, but I guess Benioff and Weiss see things differently. He’s given three full scenes worth of scenery-chewing, the first of which brings this season’s castration joke counter up to two.
Speaking of Greyjoys, Yara is Euron’s captive, until Theon and his band sneak onto his ship and cut her free. She rewards him with a headbutt followed by a hand up. I guess that’s punishment for him bailing on her last season, but I still don’t get what it was he was supposed to do in that scene. Well, as headbutts go, it was a friendly one, so no harm done. He suggests they head back to the Iron Islands, but she sees that he wants to go north, and understands. These two don’t exactly have clean records, but I still kind of root for them. By this point, they may be the least dysfunctional pair of siblings in Westeros.
Meanwhile, Bronn has moved up enough in the world to able to afford three prostitutes at once. He still doesn’t have his promised castle though, but Qyburn offers him the next best thing: a pile of gold and an ironic crossbow to take out Cersei’s brothers with. And I did rewind to make sure that Qyburn said “brothers,” plural, indicating that she considers Jaime’s heel-face turn a capital offence. I did also notice that Cersei appears to be drinking wine again. Does this mean anything? At the end of last season she was pointedly avoiding it due to her heavily implied pregnancy. Tyrion even alludes to it in his conversation with Sansa. I’m not sure what, if anything, we’re supposed to take from that.
This episode didn’t just look backwards, however. Preparations are under way for the arrival of the Army of the Dead. Gendry is melting down obsidian and casting it into weapons. That doesn’t seem like it should be possible, but I don’t know enough about obsidian to dispute it. The issue of what exactly Dany’s armies have been eating this whole time is brought up once again, but I expect it’ll just continue to be ignored. I just wish they would settle on either “this is an actual issue” or “this is something we’re not going to mention.” Right now they seem to be trying to split the difference and it’s a bit disorienting.
Near the end of the run time, Tormund and Beric investigate a castle, and learn that the wights have already reached Last Hearth, the castle of the Umbers, just north of Winterfell. During this sequence they spend rather a long time walking through empty hallways. I take notes while watching the show, and this week’s notes included “scene is very looong” no fewer than three times. Some of them could be charitably described as “deliberately paced.” You’d never guess they had just five episodes left to wrap this whole thing up.
They do wrap one thing up, though: Jon finally learns the truth behind his parentage. I’m inclined to be lenient with this scene, as it’s a bit of an unfilmable moment. I imagine they just told Kit Harrington “I need you to look shocked and confused for 10-15 seconds.” It wasn’t great, but I admit I don’t have any better ideas. Now he’s gonna have to tell someone. I wonder, who will it be? Sansa would be my guess. Then, most likely Tyrion or Varys will learn before Dany does. This game of telephone could last all season. Finally, we end with Jaime arriving at Winterfell incognito and immediately being spotted by Bran, who I guess just sits in the courtyard all day now. Cut to credits.
I honestly didn’t see anything glaringly bad in this episode. A little slow, a little uneventful, but nothing like the worst parts of season seven. There were many skillfully done character moments. It started out a bit iffy – the Starks have still not broken their habit of summoning an audience to witness disagreements that would be better kept private – but improved from there. And the teaser for the next episode seemed to indicate that the wights could be showing up at Winterfell as early as next week. If so, that’ll certainly count as picking up the pace. However, Miguel Sapochnik, who so far has been their go-to “big battle scene” guy, doesn’t direct until the third episode. So we may have to wait until then.
As for the audience reaction to the episode, I haven’t read enough of them yet to get a good picture, and I didn’t want to dawdle posting this. If there’s anything interesting there, I’ll probably have to cover it as a preamble to next week’s entry. See you then.
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