Game of Thrones season seven went and got in a big hurry; gone were the months at sea, the slow advances to new locations, the nail-biting buildups to great and important meetings. Looking back at the last two episodes in particular, they not only cover an astonishing amount of ground, but formed some rushed and wildly uneven rhythms that threw off the pace of the show, thrilling as they were.
Whether or not season eight will ultimately follow in its footsteps - or perhaps more accurately, attempt to address and resolve the billion plot points it’s introduced since 2011 - remains to be seen. But for better or worse, “Winterfell” seems to have rediscovered the way the show originally engaged its rabidly attentive audience: by parsing out and paying off in equal measures, encouraging viewers to lean in, enjoy and speculate with equal ferocity as this story rapidly approaches its end.
As thrilling as the prospect of beginning the war against the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) is, the people of the North are not happy to see the army of the Unsullied arriving to protect them, and are certainly displeased that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has returned from his sojourn to Dragonstone with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) at his side, having ceded his authority to a queen who they believe has yet to prove her mettle. Jon’s sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) shares their feelings, but Arya is thrilled to reunite with her brother, and especially impressed by the two dragons that accompany their war campaign. Nevertheless, one can feel the mounting tension between the show’s two biggest themes - loyalty to one’s family and serving the greater good - as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) pleads for unity with the leaders of the North, echoing a promise for more troops from King’s Landing that we already know his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) does not intend to keep.
Much like last season, the individual reunions continue to be both gratifying and multidimensional. Tyrion’s arrival as Daenerys’ Hand turns into a sweetly intimate moment between Tyrion and Sansa, who last saw one another on the day Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) died. Arya proves considerably happier to see Jon than Sansa last season, but he quickly learns that her affections do not overpower the important lessons she’s learned both while away and since returning to Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) attempts to redeem himself by rescuing his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan), but discovers that his loyalty to Jon, despite their tremendous estrangement, is just as strong. And Daenerys’ grateful introduction to Samwell (John Bradley) for saving the life of Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) quickly becomes fraught with tension when she realizes she executed his father and brother - and is put in the unenviable position of informing him of their deaths.
The increasing complexity of these relationships provides its own minor resolution as the larger machinery of the “main story” - the war against the army of the dead - kicks into high gear. Tyrion and Sansa’s respective perseverance, for example, has affected them in opposite ways, driving into Tyrion a desperate and perhaps naïve sense of hope, and into Sansa a world-weary cynicism. Cersei, alienated at the end of season seven from her brother Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), the last person she would or could claim to trust, remains undiminished in her capacity for three-dimensional chess, acquiescing to the crude and unapologetic advances of Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) in order to provide the appearance of a father for her and Jaime’s unborn child after he retrieves the army that she intends to use to conquer lands going unprotected while Jon and Daenerys fight the Night King and his growing legions. As reprehensible as Euron is, Cersei is right - he’s not boring - but her choices only consolidate the diminishing circle of people within her control, and confirm the cancerous determination to survive and prevail that has metastasized in her heart and mind.
“Winterfell” brings plenty of news that’s ominous but it’s not all bad - at least not yet. Daenerys invites Jon to ride one of her dragons, a developing skill that a betting man would argue foreshadows events to come, and the two of them share what will likely be their last easy embrace as lovers - or even as partners, thanks to Samwell’s revelation that Jon is actually a Targaryen, which means (1) that he and Danerys are related, and (2) that makes him the rightful heir to the throne. It’s precisely this sort of information, this storytelling, that has made Game of Thrones so intriguing; in addition to the meat of each episode - where people are going, what they’re doing, and so forth - characters learn and grow and are forced to deal with each new development.
How will this news affect Jon and Daenerys? What does Jaime’s arrival in Winterfell portend for him and for their upcoming battle? Where will Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn) loyalties take him after Cersei pays him to murder Tyrion and Jaime, the only two men that the mercenary might comfortably call his friends? These moments all feel inevitable. They carry their own dramatic weight, and they lead to new conflicts and mini-climaxes, but they also push forward the caravan as a whole, reasserting the overall stakes while allowing time for character development and detail. As the first episode in the series’ final season, “Winterfell” highlights the difference between the individual and greater good; in other words, it feels engineered to undermine expectations, but make no mistake - it doesn’t under-deliver.