It’s taken nearly two years, but the game is finally entering its final round. Last night’s long-awaited eighth season premiere was full of moments fans have been dying to see since the series began, and it advanced the story with ruthless efficiency towards its epic conclusion, too. So why did it feel so underwhelming?
Please don’t get me wrong. The season premiere wasn’t bad, although it certainly engaged in some of the bad habits that plagued the show last season. Just the fact that we’re finally watching new Game of Thrones counts for a lot! The issue is, the episode was so packed full of important moments but was done so workman-like, it felt like the show was trying to get all of these scenes done and out of the way as quickly as possible. Now, a workman-like Game of Thrones episode is still enjoyable, especially when its work includes the business of reuniting various Stark family members, showing Daenerys Targaryen adjusting to the North and vice versa, and hitting major plot points like Jon Snow finally learning his true parentage. But the episodes had so little time to spend on any one moment that just about every one of them left me wanting more.
Seriously, here’s a quick tally of what happens in this episode at Winterfell alone: Jon, Dany, and her armies arrive. Jon reunites with Bran. Bran recaps the season seven finale for everybody. Sansa gives Jon shit about bending the knee to Daenerys. The Northern lords give Jon shit for bending the knee to Daenerys. Sansa reunites with Tyrion. Jon reunites with Arya. Arya reunites with the Hound and then Gendry. Jon Snow rides a dragon. Davos tells Tyrion and Varys that Dany and Jon should get married. Dany tells Samwell that she cooked his dad and brother. Bran tells an upset Samwell to tell Jon about his real parents. Sam tells Jon about his real parents.
That’s a lot going on even if you don’t count everything happening in King’s Landing (which includes: Euron’s arrival with Cersei’s mercenary army, Cersei and Euron having sex, Bronn getting hired by Cersei to kill Jaime and Tyrion, Theon rescuing Yara, and Theon leaving Yara to go join the Starks). Most of the episode’s scenes are short and perfunctory, but good (or at least fine). But the bigger problem is that two of them should have completely knocked us on our asses—or at least knocked Jon on his ass.
Jon riding a dragon is huge, and the episode just inserts it out of nowhere. Daenerys casually invites him to fly on Rhaegal like it’s an afterthought, like she might have invited anyone who happened to be around at the time to give it a whirl. And the only set-up for this monumental gamechanger is a scene last season where Jon lets one of the dragons smell his hand and doesn’t get eaten.
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) does some classic Jon Snow-style brooding.
At least the actual flying montage gets some time, as Jon slowly goes from flailing about and screaming to…not flailing about and screaming. But when they park their dragons near some northern waterfall, there’s no moment to consider the monumental thing that just happened—instead, Jon and Dany immediately fall into awkward banter about keeping queens warm and having an even more awkward kiss. It also has to pull double-duty to remind viewers that the two are super in love, which also undercuts a lot of the impact that Jon literally riding a dragon should have. The scene has no pomp, no circumstance, and no real gravity to it, and it’s such a major moment—or at least it should have been.
The scene containing one of the series’ most important revelations—arguably the most important revelation—had the exact same problem. I’m sure we’ve all imagined what it would be like when Jon learned who his parents are and that he’s the true heir to the Seven Kingdoms. I doubt that anyone would have guessed that Sam would bring it up only after he got through the much more important business of complaining to Jon that his new queen burned his family alive and maybe that wasn’t so great. The show barely gave Jon the time to be flabbergasted at the revelation before Sam had moved back to trash-talking the Mother of Dragons. I’m not saying characters can’t advance the larger story through their own minor agendas, of course; that’s 98 per cent of what Game of Thrones is all about. But if there was ever a moment that deserved all the space and prominence the show could give it, this was it.
Instead, it’s given almost the exact same amount of time as the scene where Qyburn hires Bronn. (Seriously—see “Assorted Musings” below.) Guys, that feels messed up. I know the show only has six episodes for its final season, but come on. Jon learning who his parents are doesn’t even get the coveted final moment of the episode spot—instead, that goes to Jaime Lannister arriving in Winterfell, and spotting Bran, the kid he pushed out a window in the very first episode, setting all of the events of the series into motion. This was a completely unexpected reunion to me, and I was wowed by it, even though their actual conversation will have to wait until the next episode. Still, I can’t help but feel I should have been more awed by Jon discovering his true origin story than what is basically a preview of Bran and Jaime’s upcoming meet-cute.
I know all this sounds really negative, but I don’t mean it to be. Again, there’s plenty to like. Jon Snow did, in fact, ride a dragon! Cersei hiring Bronn to murder her brothers was a fun twist. The Hound gave a gruff approval to Serial Killer Arya, which was both cool and sort of tragic. Cersei’s repeated disappointment in her lack of war elephants was fabulous. The Tyrion/Sansa scene was especially great, especially when Sansa tells Tyrion he’s an idiot for ever believing Cersei. I also think Kit Harington did a great job when Jon’s learns his real origin. And Tormund Giantsbane and Beric Dondarrion (they live!) pulling a Seal Team Six infiltration of Last Hearth only to discover the White Walkers made a mural of severed limbs and a dead little boy was classic Thrones.
It’s just really hard to judge a show that’s given us so many amazing scenes as Game of Thrones has by anything other than itself. It’s a victim of its own success, to an extent, and the fact that these final two seasons were made under a countdown clock has obviously handicapped its storytelling considerably. With so little time left, it honestly shouldn’t be that surprising the show is having to pick and choose those moments when it’s going to try to blow our minds (presumably with the VFX war-extravaganza later in the season). But that doesn’t make it less disappointing when the show blows past moments we know it could have wowed us with if only it had taken the time.
Still, there’s a lot to be done, and not many episodes left to do it. I’m honestly not sure how many other major story beats the show technically needs to hit before starting the final fight—now that Jon knows his truth, about all that’s left is for Daenerys to find out, and then for them to have a very uncomfortable talk about physical intimacy. If Game of Thrones manages to spend its remaining time wisely, maybe I’ll be equally glad the show didn’t waste more time on Jon’s other milestones.
But I can’t see the future. Only the Three-Eyed Raven can, and he’s busy waiting for an “old friend.”
Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) gets ready for an old friend to stop by.
- Some very nifty new opening credits, presumably made because all the action this season is only going to take place in Winterfell and King’s Landing; seeing the clockwork interiors of both cities is neat, and it’s cool the actual Iron Throne makes it in there. (Given that everyone in Last Hearth is dead by the end of the episode, I don’t expect it to make another appearance.)
- I’m not at all thrilled Jon had to go complain about Sansa to Arya, as it’s just going to give Sansa haters more fuel for their fire, when in fact Sansa’s concerns are incredibly legitimate. (Someone on this damn alliance needs to think about how all these soldiers are going to eat.) I did like Arya defending Sansa to Jon as the smartest person she’s ever met…although that makes the incredibly dumb fight they had last season even more ludicrous.
- The scene of Bronn and his three naked sex workers was so gratuitous it could have counted as an homage to the insanely gratuitous sex scenes of the show’s earliest seasons.
- What does Arya want Gendry to make? Place your bets in the comments.
- Almost forgot! So from the second Qyburn mysteriously appears in Bronn’s sex room to the moment where Bronn’s holding the crossbow in his hands and the scene cuts away is about two minutes—I timed it. The time between Sam finally moving the topic from his dead family to the final shot of Jon’s boggled reaction is two minutes, 17 seconds. If you add the sex workers back to Bronn’s scene it runs 2:44. Yeah.
- There’s some crappy humour in the episode, which happened more than a few time in season seven. The “blue eyes” gag between Tormund and Edd was particularly painful.
- Speaking of: I found the “Drogon looks disapprovingly at Jon while he’s kissing Dany” gag not great overall, but Jon’s one eye open did make me laugh because he looks utterly terrified. But adding Drogon’s stern look like he was Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents sort of killed it.
- I had completely forgotten about the White Walkers’ love of arts and crafts, and I find it delightful they took time out of their march south to annihilate all the living to make a collage they had no reason to suspect literally anyone in Westeros would see. Art is its own reward!