“My girlfriend's a female and then I had all these friends that were female. So I thought ‘Great! They'll all get along!’
“No. Not even a little at the beginning.” — John Mulaney in “New in Town”
Before he learns one very big thing indeed, the list of things about which Jon Snow knows nothing seems to grow significantly in “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 1, the main one being the following: When you are going to bring your new lady home for the first time, think very, very carefully about how all of your sisters are going to react, especially after bouncing on your kingly responsibilities and bending the knee ... to your new girlfriend.
This episode, a mere 50 minutes, set up the board for the next five weeks. Everyone we needed to see, we saw. Thanks to exceptionally tight plotting (for most part), we learned where everyone was and what they were doing. And most of what they were doing was disliking the Mother of Dragons.
Episode 1 opens with a new credit sequence that almost inverts the what-we-have-seen-before. In what was once a run around Westeros, we now open with a giant hole smashed in the Wall and tiles of frost moving forward.
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Winter is here and so is the Army of the Dead. Instead of flying over the map (from a dragon’s perspective, if you will), we are now in the castles and keeps and tunnels, ending on the Iron Throne. Perhaps this season will be like none other.
Or not. Cut to the start of the episode: In a clear evocation of the first season, when the Starks were little and all lived in the same place and their parents were alive, we see a small boy watching the Unsullied march into Winterfell. Arya gives the boy a knowing look — she was once like him, watching Robert Baratheon and Cersei enter Winterfell the same way.
Dany and Jon are on horseback, he in black, she in an absolutely spectacular white jacket that only the very tiny and queenly can pull off. Everyone in Winterfell looks miserable in dark, muddy clothes. Dany is gorgeous and tanned and blonde and riding in with the king who abandoned them. Nobody looks happy to see her.
And then they see the dragons, which (it is easy to forget) are creatures of myth to these folks. Nobody living has seen one. It would be like unicorns showing up and bounding down the highway. Dany looks a little smug. Come on, lady, read the room.
Everyone else up — Tyrion and Varys; the Hound (whom Arya looks rather shocked to see — when she leaves someone to die, she expects them to be very dead); Davos is there. And hey, there’s Gendry. Someone put the possible heir to the throne to work smithing stuff.
On the Stark side, we have Sansa, Arya and Bran, the Professor X of Winterfell. Sansa and Dany meet. It is frosty, at best. (I will show myself out.)
At the big sit-down with all the Stark bannermen in the Great Hall, brass tacks are rapidly gotten down to. Young Lord Umber is told to go back to his castle, Last Hearth, and get his gosh-danged troops.
Fan-fave Lyanna Mormont, all four feet of her, slaps the taste out of Jon Snow’s mouth for abandoning the North: “You left Winterfell a king and came back … I’m not sure what you are now. A lord? Nothing at all?”
Criminy, just give her the Iron Throne and let’s go home.
Tyrion makes the case that Jon Snow is the reason everyone knows about the White Walkers at all. Which is true (though his absolute faith that the Lannister army is coming north to join them is, as we know, misplaced).
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As Sansa notes, they suddenly have a lot of Unsullied, Dothraki and dragons to feed. Sansa has done the homework while her not-really-half-brother is out bedding queens and being charmingly mopey. While Jon is hugging everyone in sight (the man does seem to give a terrific hug), Sansa is trying to get through the damn winter.
And, hey, remember how Sansa and Tryion are still probably kinda married or something? Welp, that reunion is really unfortunate.
They note that the last time they saw each other was Joffery’s wedding, which Tyrion calls “a miserable affair.”
“It had its moments,” Sansa says. DANG, GIRL.
She also thinks Tyrion is a stone cold idiot for trusting his sister, Cersei. She’s not wrong — Tyrion used to drink wine and know things like a boss but he’s on a (love-struck?) losing streak right now. His advice has been actively bad for some time.
The Jon-Arya reunion is similarly mixed. He is thrilled to see her (and these two adore each other) but still very obviously thinks of her as a very little girl. When she busts out Needle, he makes a wry comment like she’s still 9 years old: “Have you ever used that?”
Arya looks almost sad at how much nothing Jon Snow knows: “Once or twice.”
Him meeting Bran is just as weird as you hope. When Jon notes that Bran is a man, Prof. X gives him that dead-eyed stare and says, “Almost.”
As they say on “Letterkenny”: “Wish you weren’t so (beep) awkward, bud.”
We also get to check in with Bronn, who is amusing himself in King’s Landing with three extremely naked prostitutes, which is the sort of old school sexposition that made “Thrones” was it is today. Like the opening scene, it is a throwback to earlier times ... except then Qyburn walks in and brother, there is no moment killer quite like that freak. (When one of the gals propositions him, all I could think was, “Lady, what about this guy DOESN’T scream, ‘He’s gonna test poison on me via eye-dropper?’”)
But what Qyburn wants is for Bronn to kill Jaime and Tyrion, period. You can use this crossbow, in fact.
Also alive and way less weird is Yara, whom we see tied to a mast and taunted by her idiot uncle, Euron, one of the most annoying men in Westeros. He is absolutely sure he is going to have all of the sex with Cersei. Nobody has ever been more confident of anything.
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But never fear, a few scenes later, Yara is rescued by her brother, Theon, whom she promptly head-butts (presumably for abandoning her) before thanking.
There is plot all over the place in this thing. Davos Seaworth is determined to wed Jon and Dany, which is what a lot of folks thought “A Song of Ice and Fire” meant all along. But it’s such a ham-fisted bit of exposition that it sets up quite nicely ... well, we’ll get there in a second.
In between, we have dragons! Yeah, Dany is finally taking Jon out to dragon-ride and man, this show is never worse than when it actively tries to be cute. For a 50-minute episode and (checks watch) only five left after this, this ep killed entirely too much time with Dany riding like a pro and Jon looking like a scared wolf-pup. When they hug, the dragons look like angry dads. Suddenly, it’s "Eight Rules for How to Date the Stormborn," and it doesn’t really work.
My favorite scene might be that of the three-way meet-up between the Hound, Arya and Gendry. Gendry is making weapons out of dragonglass, the Hound seems oddly matter of fact about running into Arya (calling her a “cold little bitch” almost as a compliment) and Arya getting — wait, is she almost flirting with Gendry? Suddenly, I am a protective dragon. Also, remember, THE HOUND IS STILL ON ARYA’S LIST.
Oh, wait, speaking of King’s Landing, what is Cersei up to? Well, after reminding Euron “Fred Garvin, male prostitute” Greyjoy how annoying he is, she ends up bedding him, after which he has the temerity to ask about his performance against Robert Baratheon and, uh, Jaime.
All of the yikes. Please let this idiot get got next week, Golden Company or no. (Cersei did get one of the show’s actual funny lines. Post-coital, chugging wine, she says, “I really wanted those elephants,” in reference to the rumor than the Golden Company had them and they are a notoriously good anti-horse weapon. Anyway, they don’t travel well. Poor Cersei.)
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And here we come the show’s best-acted scene. Dany and Jorah go to the library at Winterfell, where they find Samwell. Dany thanks Sam for curing Jorah’s greyscale, Sam lets it slip that he’s a Tarly and suddenly Dany, who is just making friends everywhere, has to tell Sam she incinerated his father (with whom he had a very dicey relationship) and his brother (who seemed fine). Sam, displaying the kind of human emotion we never see on the show, just straight up cries and has to leave the room. It’s a lovely bit of acting by John Bradley, who plays Sam, and a sharp reminder that folks die right and left on this show, and we almost never see tears about it.
One of the nice things about the White Walkers is that they get “Thrones” to play with horror tropes a bit, which happens when Tormund, Dolorous Edd, Beric “the one-eyed, flaming-sword guy” Dondarrion and The Fellows What Had To Run Like Hell South When The Walkers Came find poor little Lord Umber nailed to a wall in Last Hearth.
He is surrounded by limbs arranged in a spiral, recalling (for me) Junji Ito’s brilliant horror manga Uzumaki, which makes great use of spirals. Then little Lord Umber wakes up in full zombie White Walker mode and they have to kill it with fire. It is a genuinely unsettling moment in an episode that is not full of them.
Something changes in Sam, one of the show’s better human beings, and he hunts down Jon in the crypt and just straight up tells him that Dany killed Sam's parents (which Jon looks mildly shocked by, to his credit); Jon’s real name is Aegon Targaryen and he’s the true heir to the Iron Throne; and hey, btw man, “You gave up your crown to save your people ... would she do the same?”
As the reaction plays out on Kit Harrington’s face (for a moment, he looks like he’s going to punch Sam), we know the answer: absolutely not. She would incinerate Jorah and Davos and Tyrion if it meant she ran Westeros. If the Night King and Cersei are defeated, it might come down to Jon vs. Dany.
And in one final, kind of hilariously sketchy reunion, Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, shows up in Winterfell, ready to fight ... only to see Bran, whom he pushed out a dang window many seasons ago, still alive. Props to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for a spectacular reaction shot.
Winter is here, and it is frosty!