Game of Thrones Review: “Winterfell”

John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen looking at each other in front of a snowy waterfall
John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen looking at each other in front of a snowy waterfall

Author: Cameron Fairchild

  [The following spoils the events of “Winterfell” and earlier seasons of Game of Thrones.]

Howdy, Westerosians! If you’re like me, and you’re reading this, you’ve probably already bought in to some aspect of George R.R. Martin and HBO’s monolithically popular Game of Thrones, whether that’s the books, or the TV show, or the increasingly hostile Twitter discourse between those who like it and those who’ve “never seen an episode” and “don’t get it.” I am not here, as I recap and critically examine the show, which is almost resolutely the last major television phenomenon we may ever see, to tell you you’re wrong or right for liking the books more, or hating the TV show, or whatever – I’m merely here to look at what has made this show so popular and whether or not I am personally enjoying it. I am not an absolute acolyte of the show—I’ll admit I fell off pretty hard when it moved past the books, only really checking in on it once in a while and following the story through the internet’s endless discussion of it—but it’s my aim to not disparage or praise any piece of it without good cause.

So: “Winterfell,” the first episode of GOT’s abbreviated and final eight season, and in fact the entire season, has a lot to live up to, right? People are expecting finality, and bloodshed, and dragons, and sex, I think, because this is an HBO show of the type (see also Westworld and the Sopranos and the Wire) heavily, self-consciously super into gratuitous nudity as if to say “look at us, no one else can get away with this” even though that hasn’t been true since at least the development of Netflix original programming and possibly since the dawn of Showtime (but who watches Showtime, right?).

Anyways, “Winterfell” is a competent means of re-establishing the characters, making sure all of our protagonists are still standing and well-known to the audience before the big zombie-human war that this has all sort of disappointingly built to. Maybe if Cersei actually migrates to Winterfell, as her brother Jaime does by this episode’s end, the human politicking will manage to balance the fact that all these great characters have to fight a character with essentially no personality – it’s very Marvel Cinematic Universe, really. So, who are our surviving characters? Well, there’s Jon, who is boring, and then the rest of the remaining Starks- Sansa and Arya and Bran-who-isn’t-Bran- who are all a lot more interesting. This episode gratifyingly doesn’t spend any time on the spectacle of war-making and is more invested in the remaining Starks’ antipathy to the new-in-Winterfell Daenerys, with Jon caught in the middle. Daenerys is a character I’ve always respected but think her claim to the Iron Throne is about as nebulous and entitled as Stannis Baratheon’s was, whose motivation and ruthlessness are really mostly about herself and her own ego, and its great to see that dimension in conflict with someone like Sansa, the long-suffering but deeply pragmatic head of Winterfell. The best of “Winterfell” concerns that conflict, creating a lot of great political tension between the two women. Sansa I have always loved as maybe the most cunning character in all of GOT, if more sympathetically cunning than someone like Littlefinger (who she, we all remember, decisively outwitted last season). Sansa’s motivations have always extend beyond revenge or holding onto some empty notion of power, and if the season continues to develop her dislike of Daenerys—or pushes Daenerys to come to terms with her own “my dragons will eat whatever they want to the detriment of my gracious hosts” attitude—that’ll be an exciting thing to watch.

It’s been expressed by others faster than me that the Night King is not a super interesting villain, especially when held up to someone like Joffrey or Queen Cersei (my personal favorite character, fight me), and he’s lurking uselessly in the background of “Winterfell,” too. The remainder of the Night’s Watch happen upon a kid the Night King apparently strung up as a warning sign, but dude’s got an ice dragon? Why is he leaving coy little warnings to what appears to be the last fourteen Night’s Watch guys? In terms of re-establishing external threats, the episode is pretty disappointing, and with a lack of major character deaths and a lot of re-introductions, the episode feels a bit deflated, tension-wise. That also extends to Jon Snow and his favorite aunt Daenerys’ dragon ride in the middle of the episode, which feels like a weird, useless intermission in an episode that feels entirely made up of intermissions.

As a return to the world of Westeros, “Winterfell” is simultaneously a gratifyingly patient episode filled with promising interpersonal conflicts, and an episode that, in what is, after all, only a six-episode order, feels a little bit like it’s dragging its feet. Hopefully the “biggest war scene ever filmed” rears its big garish head here sometime soon.

But you don’t care about that! You want to know who I think is going to die so you can hold me accountable when I’m definitely proven wrong, so the last space of these reviews is going to be my Theory Corner. Here’s what I’ve got, from most likely to least:

  • Tyrion’s definitely going to die. Maybe not next week, but certainly at some point. That’s just the character you kill in the climax, I’ve always felt that. Arya too, possibly.
  • The Night King is going to die. There’s no way this show, as nihilistic as it can be, will actually saddle us with this boring dude as the endgame. That’d just suck.
  • Cersei will win the Game of Thrones. As the woman who articulated the concept of “win or die” way back in season 1, and as the character whose continued existence is still the unlikeliest element of the show, I’m rooting for her. The series has by and large been about the rise and fall of the House of Lannister, but what if it’s just cynical enough to let them win?
  • Daenerys is going to order Sansa’s death. It’s unclear whether or not Sansa’ will actually die, but I can’t imagine Daenerys will take Sansa’s criticism lightly forever.
  • Jon Snow will die (again). Jon Snow may be the protagonist at this point, but should he be?

See you next week!


CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Flame On | KXSU Arts Reporter


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