For the past seven years, division has remained the dominant structure of the story that HBO’s prestige fantasy epic “Game of Thrones” has been telling. In the million-dollar-per-episode world of Westeros, people get separated, or at least they have until now. In “Winterfell”, the first episode of the series’ truncated final season, this pattern is turned on its head, and with that reversal, much of the inherent fun of the show disappears.
After a dramatic re-imagining of the show’s title sequence, “Winterfell” opens with a deliberate homage to the first episode of the show: a young child tramps through Winterfell while a royal procession enters the northernmost kingdom’s titular castle. But like an episode of the first season played in reverse, families are quickly reknit after years of separation. Jon Snow, now paramour to queen Daenerys Targaryen, is reunited with his little sister Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister is reunited with his would-have-been bride Sansa, Theon Greyjoy rescues his sister Yara, and even the scattered survivors of the Night’s Watch find one another among the wall’s ruins. Finally, Bran and Jamie Lannister, the man who threw him out of a window thus paralyzing him from the waist down, share a wordless reunion at the episode’s close — in a better episode this would have been the opening.
Naturally, family reunions are seldom comfortable, and tension simmers between various characters; Sansa and Dany don’t give one another the warm and fuzzies, Yara’s first impulse is to headbutt her castrati sibling, and so on.
But tension and plot momentum are not the same thing, and for the first, very expensive episode in a short final season of a series with a hyper-complex plot, “Winterfell” doesn’t advance the story much, if at all. Sam Tarley learns that Dany has executed his father and brother via dragon, and consequently Jon learns A) that he’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, B) that Ned Stark was never his father, and C) that the person he’s madly and very sexually in love with is his trigger-happy aunt. None of this is new information for the auidence. All it does is set up conflicts that viewers have seen coming for some time and already factored into their various betting pools of who will be left to rule the fictional world of GoT five weeks from now.
Here’s the rub: minus Jon learning to ride a dragon in one of the episode’s lone moments of whimsy and delight, none of this matters given the stakes of the story. The army of resurrected dead could wipe out Westerosi civilization at any moment, and neither the characters nor the showrunners seem to be keeping this in mind — the lone instance of a juvenile zombie near the series’ end seems like a last-ditch effort to keep the story alive under the weight of all these reunions.
Eight years ago, many of these actors were children. They are now reunited as adults, and in a sense what Game of Thrones has done for the characters is what the series intended to do for mainstream fantasy as a genre — unite it in adulthood. A lofty goal, and one not wholly achieved. Even if the only way to do that was to deliver Lord of the Rings with exposed genitalia and graphic violence, at least that’s someone’s idea of progress.
But the beauty of this story was always its untidiness, its willingness to rip apart main characters (or often the bodies of main characters) the same way that people often are cast apart from one another in real life. In this sense, one of GoT’s main strengths was an intrusion of realist literary tropes onto the tapestry of the fantasy genre. But now, it’s the continued character development, the literary realism curdled into soap opera, that seems unrealistic.
Watching the Stark children embrace one another after seven years of small defeats and unceremonious deaths is ridiculous. Now the characters are neatly lined up in teams, competing for a title even when the subtext of the story insists that competition and titles are ultimately worthless.
“The Song of Ice and Fire” book series on which the show was based, for all of its digressions and longwinded descriptions of meals (mmm, tasty lamprey pie) never wavers in its underlying premise: the fight over who will or will not rule is a distraction from the real civilization-threatening problem that politicians refuse to acknowledge. Insert your Green New Deal commentary here.
The show, on the other hand, seems to be doing backflips in order to keep any character from coming to that obvious conclusion. Why does Jon Snow care that he should be king —something he vociferously has said he does not want — or that he’s bedding his aunt — something he obviously enjoys very much and also that the audience is intended to enjoy watching — when extinction is on the line? Maybe more importantly, why is the audience meant to keep thinking of Tyrion Lannister as a genius for suggesting the obvious solution: Jon likes it, so he should just put a ring on it, problem solved. The earlier episodes of the series, drawn from George R.R. Martin’s completed texts, would never resort to such ham-handedness, or would at least deliver it with a little verve.
Thank goodness for Pilou Absæk, who continues to chew scenery and deliver quips as Euron Greyjoy. His performance is a reminder of just how fun the earliest permutation of the show was. His character now seems like a man out of time, a visitor from another realm, as out of place as the few remaining dribbles of sexposition that remain. Winter is here.