It’s safe to say that, after nearly two years away, expectations for the final season of Game of Thrones, were sky high. With only six episodes in its final season (some longer than the average episode) series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are under a tremendous amount of pressure to bring what is arguably the biggest television show in the history of the medium to an end that lives up to the seven (okay, six) seasons of subversive storytelling that came before. To their credit, the pair, along with credited writer Dave Hill and director David Nutter, delivered a season premiere that carried itself with the same kind of urgency and insistence as a group of desperate characters fortifying themselves against the coming end of the world.
Though ‘Winterfell’ was light on action — nary a White Walker was killed, let alone anyone else — the hour fulfilled its obligations to the audience through other, perhaps more poignant means. The premiere was used, ostensibly, as a vehicle for as many reunions as possible — namely between anyone in the Stark family. While the season began with the pomp and circumstance of Daenerys and Jon arriving at Winterfell with a massive army and two full grown dragons in tow, the biggest moments were undoubtedly those that have been in the making for several seasons. And given just how much George R.R. Martin (and, by extension Benioff and Weiss) likes to deny his characters such things, it is something of a genuine shock when Jon is happily reunited Arya, or when Tyrion and Sansa have an opportunity to discuss all that’s transpired between them. The shock being, of course, that no one died immediately thereafter.
That’s clearly on the way, though, as the new opening credits sequence demonstrated with its icy tiles representing the Night King and his army flipping their way toward Winterfell and its crypts, as well as the towers of King’s Landing. That the opening sequence, which once illustrated the immense geographical scope of Game of Thrones, has been whittled down to just those locations (the fallen Wall is an afterthought at this point) is, in and of itself, a potent reminder of just how close tot the end the game is, and how perilous the road to that end will inevitably be.
As an hour of television, then, ‘Winterfell’ is tasked with setting up the game pieces on the smaller board the narrative’s destructive circumstances have crafted for its push toward the finale. Spending the better part of the episode within the walls of the Stark home, as the Northerners get used to the idea of Dany and her army, is an example of the series putting its best foot forward. Though Cersei’s welcoming of the Golden Company and Euron Greyjoy (without elephants, much to Cersei’s chagrin) sets up the battle after the one that’s slowly marching its way south, it doesn’t carry the same narrative weight as what’s transpiring up north. In fact, it actually underlines just how high the emotional stakes of the series are at this point.
Euron may well be the most arrogant man Cersei has ever met, and she may well have tasked Bron with assassinating Jaime and Tyrion, but there’s little chance the audience will shed a tear should Cersei or Euron (or both) meet their end before the finale’s credits role. Winterfell, on the other hand, is ground zero for a twenty megaton emotional detonation that’s only an episode or two away. The hour, then, is essentially designed not only to disseminate some important information, it also works to remind everyone watching why they care about these characters so much.
As such, the hour doesn’t skimp with the sentiment, especially not when it’s time to get Arya and Gendry back in a room together — moments after the Hound recognizes just how much she’s changed, and into what. Nor does it fail to recognize the significance of Jon riding Rhaegal. And just in case the gravity of the moment escaped those watching, Sam’s there to tell Jon the difficult truth about his parentage.
And in an instant, the stakes of the series are suddenly, almost impossibly higher. Jon is the true heir to the Iron Throne and all that stands in the way of his claiming his birthright is an unstoppable army of the undead, a murderous queen who’s currently on the throne, and a would-be (mad?) queen he happens to be in love with. That Game of Thrones would opt to deliver that news to Jon in the season premiere is probably partially due to the truncated nature of the final season, but even if season 8 were the standard 10 episodes, it still would’ve been the right choice. Jon being the legitimate son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen is information the audience has been sitting on for too long to not see the ways in which it might pay off as soon as possible.
Jon’s earlier discussion with Sansa about never wanting to be King in the North and his reasons for bending the knee inform the way he processes the information as much as Sam revealing how his father and brother died. Though it nearly overwhelms the audience with regard to all it asks them to process, and it seems some of the show’s signature smaller, more character-driven asides are sacrificed as a result, the final season seems to understand what’s really expected of it: big, meaningful moments that effectively complicate an ending that will be expected to subvert everyone’s expectations.