Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on Game of Thrones s8e1, “Winterfell”.
– Let’s start with the compelling, frightening changes to the opening titles, which we have until now relied upon to show us the vastness of Westeros and Essos from the high vantage point of the prophetic red comet. Our scope has been both narrowed and sharpened — the only three locations that remain important for our purposes are the Night Army’s path through the Wall and the death creeping south in its wake, the recently restored castle of Winterfell, and the faraway labyrinth of King’s Landing. This time, the titles take us deeper into the miniature clockwork models, showing us the crypts of House Stark and the winding spiral staircases in the towers of the Red Keep. For as gigantic and world-ending as the impending doom is, these changes seem to indicate that the story will not lose sight of its internal workings as well, and the rich character decisions that have brought us to this final chapter.
– Overall, “Winterfell” occurs as a series of long-due encounters and attempted resolutions between surviving characters, very few of which leave anybody immediately satisfied. With so few hours left to finish this story, the episode is intent to weave many of its threads closer together in the most charged manner possible. We witness the following, in no particular order:
(1) Arya’s reunions with Jon, Gendry, and Sandor Clegane. Of these three, only her interactions with the much-changed Hound feel like a chapter has closed; they spar with words and a brittle mixture of both respect and contempt, but they walk away understanding that whatever reasons they may have wanted for ending the other are long behind them. Their steel has other places to point. In the case of Gendry, however, we see hints of old attraction, complicated by both their journeys as people, their relative status, and the recognition that there are more dire matters on the horizon. And for as happy as Arya and Jon are to see each other, he doesn’t notice at first how many steps ahead of him she is in terms of the changing world order. Jon is able to read the truth in Arya’s tone when she says she’s had to use Needle “once or twice” but he’s unready yet to see how deadly she is, or to be granted a full accounting of how many people she’s murdered or had murdered. He finds himself dumbfounded that the girl who could never stop teasing Sansa is now her defender; indeed, Arya’s serving in the role of lieutenant and Jon isn’t ready to grasp that either. When she tells him to remember that the three of them are family, she’s quietly offering him protection and wisdom in the way he once did for her.
(2) Tyrion’s reunion with Sansa is more volatile still, and it seems clear that neither of them know what to think of the other anymore. Tyrion’s justifiable annoyance at the way his lady wife disappeared from the scene of a regicide, leaving him condemned to die, comes from him almost as an accounting of an unpaid bill, and Sansa essentially dismisses it by pointing out that he survived. For as curt and backhanded as she is with Tyrion about his trust in Cersei, she’s completely correct that he’s being a fool. Sansa’s rise to Lady Stark took her into the orbits of clever, vicious men including Tyrion, Ramsay Bolton, and Petyr Baelish; unworthy lordlings and monarchs such as Robin Arryn and King Joffrey; and men whose inability to adapt beyond old modes of thinking either cost them everything or very nearly did, such as her father Eddard, brother Robb, and Jon Snow. She no longer has time or patience for such men, nor should she be expected to feel otherwise.
(3) Theon’s rescue of Yara goes both exactly the way it should and not exactly as expected. Of course Yara punishes Theon for his prior cowardice, of course she extends her hand after the punishment is dealt. And as the only member of his family who understood him, she can read on his face that coming back for her only does part of the work of restoring his self-respect, that for as many pieces as Ramsay cut off of him he might still be able to make himself whole again by honoring whatever vows he once made as a hostage and ward of the Starks.
(4) Bran, or what’s left of Bran, or what’s become of Bran, spends much of this episode in full sphinx mode, offering Jon only a puzzling “almost” when Jon marvels that the child has become a man. The more potent moment is teased at the episode’s end, as Jaime Lannister returns to Winterfell for the first time since he pushed the child out of a tower window. Bran’s mind and spirit, at this point, have gone well beyond the pains of betrayal, and I suspect that there is nothing inside him capable of feeling rage at either Jaime or Theon, when he arrives. As it was when he surprised Littlefinger, the emotional substance of betrayal has been bled out of what Bran knows. They are facts for others to judge, even when the crimes have been done directly to him or those he used to call family.
(5) Although Bronn’s encounters this episode involve nobody more meaningful to him than a trio of prostitutes and a conniving ex-Maester, he’s been set up to ask himself how far he’s come from his sellsword days, and whether or not he still has loyalty to anything more than his self-interest. Cersei has pointedly demanded that he assassinate both of her brothers — with each of whom he has a great deal of history and what seemed to be a certain respect — and the question of whether he’s willing to pull the trigger on the weapon that murdered Tywin Lannister will likely seal his fate one way or another.
(6) Sam is reunited with both Jon and Jorah, and meets Danaerys for the first time, but all of this is deeply fraught by the irreversible horror of knowing that the woman his best friend has sworn allegiance to was also responsible for executing his father and brother. Sam could have easily forgiven the death of Randyll Tarly — not only was he an abusive father, but he was also a consummate military man, and Sam could have accepted that this was the way such a man both wanted and deserved to die. But having that fate handed down to poor, noble Dickon is far too much to bear, and the way it colors his revelation to Jon about Jon’s parentage is the stuff that higher tragedies are made of.
– And on the subject of that revelation, we have the other major tension of this episode, which involves the loosening grip on this world’s forms of feudalism, succession, and authority. Throughout the episode several characters provide demonstrations of what they feel titles and entitlement mean when an existential threat is marching south and butchering all life in its path. Lyanna Mormont voices the unspoken mistrust of not only Danaerys but of Jon for bending his knee to her, declaring that while he marched south a king, he came back something she doesn’t even know what to call. Later, the Glovers refuse to leave behind Deepwood Motte for the same reason, that they felt they swore fealty to a King in the North, not to the consort of a Targaryen queen. This northern mistrust of practical strategic arrangements in favor of honorable death is a longstanding trope of George R.R. Martin’s. When Aegon the Conqueror first united the Seven Kingdoms beneath the wings of his dragons, Torrhen Stark — understanding that he faced a foe who would burn every man, woman, and child to cinders if opposed — abdicated his title as King for the less regal Warden of the North. For this act of personal sacrifice and preservation of his people, Torrhen was nonetheless known thereafter as The King Who Knelt. Jon now finds himself facing the weight of that thousand years of grumbling, similar to the grudges that eventually got him killed by his brothers in the Night’s Watch when he agreed to pardon the wildlings and offer them sanctuary.
Which is a big part of why what Sam tells him has placed him in such an impossible position. After spending so much of his breath trying to convince his people, including his sisters, that titles such as king and lord are meaningless if everybody is in thrall to the Night King, what would it mean to declare he had a stronger right to the Iron Throne than even the queen he pledged himself to in both body and heart? The scene itself doesn’t even bother to address the incestuousness of their romantic relationship at this time because it’s a much less urgent problem compared to Sansa’s muted respect and Danaerys’ displeasure in receiving it, already creating a rift in a shaky alliance. It’s a much less urgent problem than that Sam wants Jon to serve as King of the entire realm because he cannot forgive his brother’s murder, and that Sam holds information capable of putting him there.
– Besides watching Danaerys further adopt the countenance of a ruler, flexing her power by showing her control over the dragons and making promises to Sam about how she will remake the Citadel, we also see Yara and Cersei with their own ideas of what it means to be a queen. Yara, for her part, is an opportunist, understanding that she can regain the Iron Islands easily and then offer it as a refuge for Danaerys in case the battle against the dead goes poorly. Cersei, on the other hand, revels in a power that comes from owing nobody her accountability. She is willing to toy with Euron Greyjoy’s lust and willing to let him indulge it, and she enjoys neither of these actions as much as she enjoys knowing that her will is what is paramount. It is difficult to tell if she truly wants anything anymore, save to remain where she is as the winner of the Game of Thrones. Cersei has gradually been co-opted by the tyrant version of herself, a creature of power existing only for its own sake, living only within its present while speaking grand visions of the future. There was love once, but love is an emotion that rules you. Cersei has lost so much now that she will allow nothing to rule her again.