The premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones, titled “Winterfell,” gave us all the plotting, scheming and fondling we’ve come to expect from the HBO juggernaut. But along with it, we also got a lot of drawn-out hugging, silent staring and several minutes of dragon joyriding which, as some fans have noted, felt like a scene from a Disney movie rather than the world’s highest-rated drama.
But let’s not judge the episode too harshly. All the reunions, while predictable, had to happen, as did all those tedious preparations for war. But if the writing feels a little less inspired, it still aims to turn our last visit to Westeros into something extra special. Much like the final season of Breaking Bad, which echoed shots and scenes from the start of the series, “Winterfell” contains a number of subtle callbacks to the pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” to remind us how far the characters have come since we first met them. They also cast a new light on our inevitable parting with them.
We open on an unnamed boy, strongly resembling a young Bran, hurrying to investigate the uproar outside the castle. Unable to catch a glimpse through the tall crowd, he proceeds to climb a tree. Once he’s made it to the top, he finally sees what all the commotion is about: a strange party is arriving in the North.
As Daenerys, alongside her Unsullied and Dothraki soldiers, enters the courtyard, she is met by the Stark family, who receive her just as they once received King Robert. Though Jon is initially overjoyed to reunite with his remaining relatives, it only takes one word from Bran—now the unemotional and distant all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven—for him to understand that what was lost can never truly be regained. These themes of change and loss persist throughout the episode, just as they did in the pilot. Friends and family that were broken apart long ago meet again at last and, much like Robert and Ned when they came together again, cannot help but suspect they are no longer the same people they once knew.
Yet while people change, their problems often stay the same. When Robert came to Winterfell and asked Ned to become the Hand of the King, the late Stark patriarch was forced to choose between North and South. With the arrival of Daenerys, Jon must make a similar choice and, unlike his father, put his trust in the right people, or the consequences will prove fatal for all.
Looking forward, the show picks up precisely where it left off. Last season, the biggest question was whether the lords and ladies of Westeros could put their differences aside to fight a common enemy. Now, the question becomes whether they can maintain their unsteady alliances and sacrifice their own selfish desires for the greater good. Thus far, Cersei has earned herself a failing grade in this department.
Despite all the makeshift truces and compromises, it is not the arrival of the Night King and his army of the dead, but rather the struggle for the Iron Throne that remains the most emotionally arresting source of conflict in the series. Rather than forcing the game of power to a halt, the White Walkers have simply changed the landscape.
In the past, we have ruminated on the dubious role of the White Walkers who, being a mindless force of evil, do not really belong in a story about moral ambiguity and political complexity. However, “Winterfell” gives us some insight into how the writers will handle this conundrum. As Cersei continues to plot against the North, and tensions rise between Jon and Daenerys, it’s becoming more and more likely that the final showdown of Game of Thrones won’t involve any ice zombies. It will be human being against human being.