Truer words may have never been spoken and they arrive, unsurprisingly, from the quietly observant Lord Varys (Conleth Hill). He is referencing most directly to the reality of growing old, of passing on from the seemingly endless fountain of youth and into the frigid kingdom of mortality. He is perhaps referring also to the romance between Queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), something that will inevitably change with time as their youth fades. It is perhaps a dark moment of foreshadowing, telling us something we already have made peace with: that the ending to Game of Thrones will be a bittersweet one.
That sentiment is also evoked in the newly revamped opening credits, which are stunning to behold. The intricate craftsmanship has somehow become even more so, in part because the credits continue to reflect the reality that the world of Game of Thrones has shrunk considerably. The only locations that truly matter are Winterfell and King’s Landing, with the Wall and Last Hearth making an appearance as well. The credits instead dig deeper into each location, prodding their walls and chambers and through formidable gates. There’s a sense of preparation in the credits as the ice from the White Walkers descends down the Westerosi neck from the now breached wall. That the credits end with the Iron Throne makes considerable sense, as the ice is slowly heading down south and if the Battle of Winterfell goes poorly for our protagonists, then perhaps the capital itself.
That sense of finality, foreboding, and a daring to hope is present throughout the episode. Weapons are being forged, winter is speeding towards the south, and the question of royal lineage is ever present. Things, to put it simply, have changed drastically. Those changes are made even sharper as “Winterfell” is acutely constructed to be a mirror to the pilot episode, “Winter Is Coming.” The opening where a young child eagerly races to observe the royal procession is a reminder of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Arya (Maisie Williams) rushing to see the Baratheons arrive to Winterfell. Here instead its Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Jon (Kit Harington). A cast of characters awaits the royal almost-couple in the courtyard, there is a pivotal scene in the crypts, and the episode has a shocking White Walker moment but concludes on a character note that harkens poignantly back to the ending of the pilot.
That final scene is a curious choice for the writers. They could have easily chosen the scream-worthy moment where young Lord Umber’s (Harry Grasby) body awakens in Last Hearth. It certainly would have served as the “oh, crap!” moment to get audiences excited for the subsequent installment (like folks weren’t already!), but in choosing to prioritize the fateful meeting of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bran the writers signaled their prioritization of these characters we have known for almost a decade. Their character arcs, interactions, and conflicts are important, certainly more so than the White Walkers, no matter how grandly they may be looming in the background.
“Winterfell” has a decent amount of ground to cover as an episode. It has to travel through a byzantine road of reunions, first-time meetings, and it has to do so without forgetting these characters’ intertwined histories. At that, it does a terrific job, setting the table in a largely organic way for how many of our characters would interact. There’s an almost brutal efficiency to the proceedings, but thankfully the actors are more than capable of emoting their consistently changing feelings towards one another. The script doesn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting and for the most part, it works.
Arya was the Stark who most treated Jon like a member of the family and Jon in turn was the Stark who most respected Arya’s desires to be something different than what – and whom – her family expected her to be. It’s a strange thing, perhaps, that the two of them haven’t had more than a few minutes of screen time in the series before this episode, but the relationship between the two has always hovered over each of them, respectively. Arya reminds Jon that he is a member of their family, that he would be wise to listen to Sansa (Sophie Turner), and in a poignant moment, asks him to never forget who he really is.
Sansa is the commanding presence in the opening episode. Having come into her own as the Lady of Winterfell, she has no qualms about making her voice heard and resonate. There’s a catharsis for her as she notes Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) naïveté when it comes to Cersei (Lena Headey) bringing her army north, looking at a man whom she had once believed to be the cleverest in all the land and know full well that there is no Lannister army coming to support them. She is concerned with ensuring supplies and rations, concerns that have been severely augmented with the arrival of the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and two full-grown dragons.
Daenerys understands that Sansa does not like her. She is acutely aware of history and why Sansa may not trust her. She isn’t that forgiving of the lack of respect, however, no matter how many jokes Jon cracks about Sansa not liking him very much, either. There is an air of uncomfortable diplomacy around a region where the reception is, pun intended, chilly and distrustful. She is trying, even if her penchant for diplomacy and trust in this episode is not much of a match for her penchant for conquest. There is a picture of earnestness, entitlement, and impatience in Daenerys at the opening of this season, understandable perhaps when one thinks of where she is as a person and what she knows needs to be done in order for her ultimate goal to even remain a viable possibility. She needs to earn the trust of the Northerners but she also needs for them to set aside their lack of trust and xenophobia if they are going to be prepared to defeat the White Walkers and Cersei Lannister after that.
She sets the discomforting aspects of her arrival North, however, to spend a few quality moments dragon riding with Jon through the gorgeous northern landscapes. It is fitting that Jon rides the dragon named for his father, even if in that moment neither of them is aware that their blissful romance (keenly watched by Drogon) is about to hit some uncomfortable roadblocks.
Sam (John Bradley) has the most heartbreaking moment of “Winterfell.” He and Daenerys, it seems, were going to get along just fine and indeed even be friends. Certainly, the offer of some position at the Citadel under a Targaryen banner on the Iron Throne was a sweet one. However, the executions of his father and especially brother hit him especially hard. The news of his father’s death shocked him and Bradley conveyed all of the complexity that a child faces when they hear of an abusive parent’s death. The brilliant, subtle shift in his expression, however, conveyed a much deeper tragedy when he realized that his brother had also been executed.
Sam’s anger and grief propelled him to reunite with Jon and spill that secret that threatens to throw the entire political order of the Seven Kingdoms into utter disarray (not that it’s in the best shape currently anyway, mind you.) Jon takes the news of his parentage exactly as one would expect he would. His entire life has just shifted on a few words. His relationship with Ned (Sean Bean) has come entirely into question. His entire life he lived in the shadow of being a bastard, he hesitated to fall in love or even be with another woman for the fear of giving birth to another bastard in the world. He fell in love and lost. He fell in love again and now she is no longer who he thought she was. Jon is standing in the crypts, right at home, but he no longer is sure of who is. The trouble is, he doesn’t have that long to figure it out.
- The new title sequence is gorgeous. Here’s to another likely Emmy win for Best Main Title Design!
- Ramin Djawadi, the handsome God of Music, mixing the “King’s Arrival” and “Dracarys” in the opening scene.
- I’ve never related more to a “Game of Thrones” scene than when the Northern folk saw people of color for the first time.
- We all share Cersei’s disappointment in the lack of elephants.
- “Once or twice.” Arya, the master of understatements.
- “It had its moments.” I’m a massive fan of #SassySansa.
- Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn) new assignment to kill Tyrion and or Jaime tears at me a bit but I can’t deny that it is, as Qyburn (Anton Lesser) put it, “poetic justice.”
- Another Bronn moment: his alarm at potential STDs from the prostitutes. Reminder: get tested every three months, sexually active peoples!
- Theon (Alfie Allen) rescuing Yara (Gemma Whelan) and then going off to join the Starks in Winterfell is a beautiful beginning of the end of his character arc. That little Greyjoy theme that swelled when the siblings embraced brought a tear to my eye.
1. Sansa’s costume when she is speaking to Jon in her quarters.
2. Daenerys’s Winter/Targaryen combination coat
3. Cersei’s fabulous golden gown.