Season-opening first episodes on Game of Thrones tend to be low-key table-setting affairs, but last night’s “Winterfell” bucked the trend. It crashed through both Theon’s rescue of Yara and Jon finally learning his true parentage — two major turns that early seasons would’ve likely marinated on — in a few brisk scenes. The show has always struggled with pacing: Stretching out in languid detail while covering George R.R. Martin’s books, then suddenly compressing and sprinting when it pulled ahead of its source material and found itself both pressed for time and fighting to slim down the author’s many sub plots. But for me, at least, last night hit a healthy balance, giving the moments’ their due while also quickly clearing the board for Gods-only-know what’s to come.
In fact, it was one of those very moments that provided the episode’s biggest emotional kick.
It was a smart choice to begin Theon’s story with Yara’s release. All the character work to get him to this point was done last season; the actual rescue is just mechanics. And we got some fine unspoken Greyjoy communication: Yara headbutting her brother for abandoning her, then promptly offering him a hand up to acknowledge that fact that he finally got his shit together. There was no doubting his commitment to follow and support his sister, which made it all the more affecting when she bluntly and gently read through him, giving him leave to return to Winterfell.
Along with Sansa and Daenerys, Theon has gone through one of the most sweeping, drastic and punishing arcs of any character on the show. Now he seems set to end where he began: An uncertain person, struggling to know what’s good, and to do right by both his biological and adoptive families. Except this time he returns to the beginning with the terrible knowledge of all he’s been through and all he’s done and what he’s capable of. This is the kind of thing that really makes Game of Thrones long, lumbering, often morally-brutalizing format shine: Any show could’ve presented this same scene, but it lands so much differently with the weight of all that he’s gone before.
That resource of history served “Winterfell” well in other little touches. It’s Cersei’s great tragedy that she has enough sense and humanity to despise Euron Greyjoy. Yet, watching her for seven previous seasons, we know that the pairing is perfect in a twisted way. Meanwhile, Qyburn giving Bronn his new mission in the middle of a brothel was played for surface laughs. (And a subtle dig at the boobs-and-battles vibe of the early seasons.) But Bronn’s self-interest — always a source of his charm — is now being used as a weapon to force him to kill the two people who have come closest to being comrades and friends. Meanwhile, how could Arya and the Hound’s reunion have played out, other than some weird combination of bitterness and mutual admiration and affection between two hard-bitten survivors?
Then there was Tyrion’s meeting with Sansa, probably the second-most moving moment of the episode. And how the tables have turned. Tyrion spent Game of Thrones’ early seasons as the show’s most brilliant mind. But he hasn’t had a good run of late: There was the slave masters’ betrayal of the peace agreement back in Meereen, the sacking of the Greyjoy fleet, and the taking of Highgarden. Tyrion’s years and exhaustion are showing, and when he notes that most of the people who underestimated Sansa are dead, it’s hard to miss the unspoken implication that he’s among the few still living who made that error. Sansa, for her part, knows Tyrion is a good man. But her gratitude is laced with pity as she cuts him down for trusting Cersei’s word that she’ll march her armies north to join the fight against the dead — a trust we already know has been betrayed. Sansa has arguably now taken Tyrion’s place as the “cleverist” person on the show, and as Westeros’ keenest strategist.
Last night’s episode has its weakness: Jon’s inaugural ride on a dragon and his romantic interlude with Daenerys beneath the waterfall both felt like something out of the traditional sword-and-sorcery epics Game of Thrones is meant to subvert. (Not to mention a chance for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to be all, “Look at the budget HBO gave us for the final season!”) Both those scenes and Arya’s flirtatious reunion with Gendry felt uncomfortably close to fan service — another hole the show has threatened to fall into ever since it outpaced Martin’s novels. It would’ve been more in keeping with the show’s original ethos if Jon had wretched out his guts as soon as his ride on Rhaegal’s back was over.
But in the end, those “happier” moments may have simply been setup for the show to rip the rug out from under us yet again. Not only did Sam finally return to reveal Jon’s true parentage: that Jon is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, and thus a rightful heir to the Iron Throne in his own right and a rival to Daenerys. But Sam dropped the news just minutes after learning that Daenerys executed his own father in brother with dragonfire after they refused to bend the knee.
This sets up, with steel-hard clarity, what will likely be Jon’s great dilemma of the final season: Is Daenerys actually the one to rule? Tyrion believes in her, but as just mentioned, his judgment is not exactly impeccable anymore. Jon loves Daenerys and respects her, and it’s hard to tease those two things apart and decide where one ends and the other begins. There is no rulebook for Jon now, no honor code to follow: He must simply decide for himself, because he has the legitimacy to unseat Daenerys if it comes to that.
Ironically, Sansa and Jon might make the better pairing to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Sansa maybe has too little of her father’s bull-headed honor in her, and too much of Cersei and Littlefinger’s cynical scheming. But Jon’s impasse is precisely the opposite, and in that they balance each other out well.
Daenerys, meanwhile, seems in danger of becoming another Stannis: Honorable in her way, and with a sense of duty. But also increasingly her committed to her place as ruler above all else, and thus brittle and capable of great cruelty. Jon’s taken a terrible risk bending the knee and bringing her to Westeros, stretching the North’s capacity for trust to the breaking point. Yet the necessary moment of humility Daenerys would need to reach across the divide never quite arrived last night. That she was honest with Sam was a testament to her character. But when it’s obvious Sansa doesn’t trust her, Daenery’s reaction isn’t understanding or patience but imperious annoyance. “You gave up your crown to protect your people,” Sam tells Jon. “Would she do the same?” At this point, that question is genuinely hard to answer.
Let the Great Game begin.