Several seasons ago, you’d watch an episode of Game of Thrones as two characters embraced—wide smiles and tight grips—and you’d think, Oy, am I about to witness another rah-rah, fuck-your-feelings backstabbing murder? Of all the golden age television shows, there were few that rightfully earned this distrust from the simplest of actions—sharp conversations, narrow gazes, and sly smirks. It was a series built on complicated, brawny storytelling. You understood the reasonings behind actions, and you knew what characters wanted. While this level of storytelling hasn’t always been consistent—last season, in particular, felt disappointing, almost like it was a different show—but the premiere of season eight was a return to form in more ways than one.
When you consider that the series is no longer adapted from George R.R. Martin’s books, but rather from the outlines he wrote for his final novel, it makes sense as to why season seven felt like a different animal altogether. As some critics noted, major plots existed simply to exist two years ago—Arya’s beef with Sansa felt forced next to greater concerns, Jon Snow’s repeated evasion from death felt cheap, and Tyrion’s interactions with sister Cersei seemed recycled. And yes, it’s a fantasy show with dragons and zombies, but the series always felt grounded, so when characters and armies suddenly were able to travel hundreds of miles around a continent in the blink of an eye, it pulled you out of an extremely well-constructed world. Sure, you could have blamed the shortened, seven-episode season for a lot of this, but it didn’t excuse that Game of Thrones felt like a good time we didn’t sign up for.
Enter season eight, which, from the starting point, feels much closer to the earlier seasons. The very opening scene even suggests that we ignore the overly ambitious set pieces of season seven for the time being, and instead remember the humble roots of the pilot: a little boy climbing a tree to spot the Unsullied, Dothraki, and mother of dragons marching into Winterfell—a throwback to wall climbing Bran, who spied on the royal caravan in season one. And then there was Arya, a Stark with no patience for royal pleasantries, in both the pilot and last night’s episode, whose whereabouts often alluded Sansa in both the pilot and season eight’s premiere. From the rest of the characters, we have the wisecracks, inside jokes, ample side-eyes, and sharp rebuttals that built GoT into a phenomenon.
You can cite ways in which Thrones built such a enriched character lore—the developing family dynamics, the willingness to off main characters, the confidence treat narrative with an exacting pace—but you couldn’t ignore the rules it broke down before becoming a culturally omnipresent series. It was operating under strict guidelines that had nothing to do with audience expectations. Character arcs were deepened primarily over a chain of conversations that had nothing to do with swords, dragons, or dead people. In the case of the premiere, it was Sansa’s grumbling that felt classically Thrones—how would miss dragon queen find a way to feed her armies and two dragons in a harsh winter climate? Or with Jon, how can he justify leaving as a King with the blessings of his Northerners, only to return with a bent knee to a foreigner, from a family that killed northern lords, no less? And of course, how can Samwell Tarly follow his best friend when his family was torched by the same woman said best friend (Jon) chooses to follow?
These are the simple, bickering moments that season seven broke away from in favor of large-scale battles and javelin-throwing zombies. When everything was made grand and shocking, suddenly nothing was—the opposite to that is what made Thrones excel. There’s probably no better hint to where this series might be going that the very last scene: Jaime finds himself in the Winterfell and spots Bran Stark, the same boy (well, technically the same boy) who he pushed out of a tower window years ago. That scene from the premiere episode was the first time the series announced how ruthless it will be. No one would be safe, no happiness could last, and the honest heartbreak would begin.
It’s only until the final two minutes that we come across the shocking image we normally associate Thrones with: that of a young Umber kid un-ironically named Ned. He’s the head of his house after his father Smalljon Umber died at the Battle of the Bastards. He’s trying to evacuate his home and to bring his men back after Sansa promises to provide him with wagons and supplies to do so. Of course later, he’s re-introduced as a zombie child pinned to a wall, with an insignia of severed arms, a symbol used by the White Walkers. We know he made it home, but was killed at his castle (the Last Hearth, now seen in the opening credits) before he could find his way back to Winterfell, leaving us wondering if Game of Thrones was ready to step (back) into that dark realm of the unforgivable. George R.R. Martin was never one to shy away from a pessimistic view of human existence, and if that scene tells us anything, it’s that Thrones may end in a way we’re probably not ready for. If that doesn’t foreshadow a return to form, I don’t know what does.
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