Game of Thrones Season 8 “Winterfell”: what worked and what didn’t

After what felt like an endless wait, Game of Thrones has returned for its sweeping final run of episodes, six instalments which will wrap up what has essentially been one of the greatest television events of all time. I’ve spent the past week and a half re-watching it all – my fifth time doing so within the past two years – and recently wrapped up my third read-through of the book series. Obsessive? Maybe. Though I’m hardly the most emotionally invested in this incredible world George R.R. Martin has created.

I was excited as any when those gorgeously remixed opening credits finally flashed across my television. Imagine, then, my disappointment when the full episode just wasn’t worth the hype. It was fine, of course, and any time spent pushing certain characters arcs forward is well spent. But ultimately it appears Season 8 just might end up suffering from the same problems as the one that came before it.

The biggest issue here is the truncated story telling; the leap from one moment to the next without much connective tissue to flesh it out. A lot of these developments, some we’ve been waiting years for like Jon finding out his true identity and reuniting with Arya, had almost all of their payoff squeezed out of them, and both the plot and the acting was worse for it.

I remember recently reading an interview with a cast member – I’m sure it was Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) – where it was stated, confidently, that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss chose the exact amount of hours they needed to tell this story the right way. These six episodes and their respective lengths have been decided upon very carefully because they represented the thriftiest way of telling the story without being too overdone or underdone. So far, it’s underdone.

A Little More Conversation

With a budget that’s no doubt spilling out of their pockets, there’s little reason why “Winterfell” had to be just 54 minutes and no longer. A lot happened here that could have been better with extended, more intimate scenes to allow developments to breathe, and for the actors to truly showcase what made the show great in the first place: conversation.

Sure, it were the battle and death sequences that made Game of Thrones the king of serialized television, but the show really got over with critics and lovers of the book because of the witty, energetic conversations sparked between characters like Tyrion and Varys, Littlefinger and Sansa, Cersei and Olenna, Arya and The Hound; dialogue made Game of Thrones what it is, and the best scenes felt like either tense games of chess, or masterstrokes of dark comedy. The best GoT moments were great conversations, often in elegant rooms.

Now, most character interactions are one or two witty lines destined to become Instagram captions, a couple of smirks or shocked looks, and often awkward and rushed transitions to the next sequence. Nothing is stretched because time is running out, and the electricity between these actors, the detail that made this world so rich and compelling, just isn’t there.

A similar thing happened with Damon Lindelof and his (absolutely fucking brilliant) show The Leftovers (also a HBO series). It was always a critical darling and a masterpiece by any measure, but it never enjoyed much commercial success. Hence, it was cancelled after the second season and given a much shorter third season, giving Lindelof, his writers and the (absolutely fucking brilliant) cast only a handful of episodes to wrap this complicated series. They found a way to do it in a very satisfying way once the finale rolled around, though the rest of the season sometimes felt rushed. They even cut out some characters and their arcs, so we could never draw complete circles in this very character-driven story. It was a shame and, like Game of Thrones, doubly so because The Leftovers really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime show.

That’s why I’m a bit worried. As a few other publications have pointed out, this may be the very last time in television history that a big chunk of the world will follow a show so closely, together. It’s the World Cup of pop culture, and the Game of Thrones finale will likely be played to some incredible group-viewing scenarios, from movie theatres to local pubs.

The immediacy of increasingly dominant streaming services means that we won’t be watching things “together” anymore, not on the same scale as these weekly network television events. This kind of must-see TV event happened with Seinfeld, The Sopranos, LOST, and Breaking Bad. It likely won’t happen again.

Though it’s very possible, if “Winterfell” is any indication, that low expectations might be the smarter play for us as viewers.

One Big Reunion

“Winterfell” was very much about reunions and table-setting, and it must have been difficult for writer Dave Hill (who penned the episode where Ser Barristan died, and the one where Jon came back to life at the end) to handle these anticipated meetings while also being mindful of the time. First Jon and Bran, then Tyrion and Sansa, Arya and Jon, Arya and The Hound, Arya and Gendry, Jorah and Sam, Sam and Jon, and finally Bran and Jaime. Some of these were oddly colder (like The Hound and Arya) than expected, uncomfortable and over within a few seconds; they didn’t feel human.

Though the least human part of “Winterfell” was Dany’s reaction to finding out, from Bran, that Viserion has been resurrected as an undead dragon and is now the Night King’s pet. A quick open mouth, a blink, and it’s off to joyfully riding dragons with her new nephew-lover so the CGI team can channel The Neverending Story. Apparently satisfying the kind of lowbrow crowd that “ships” TV couples (the same that probably think every mention of Lyanna Mormont needs to involve the words “boss bitch”, and every mention of Jorah needs to involve the word “friendzone”) is much more important than fleshing out logical, human reactions to big news.

The few action scenes we did get were also incredibly rushed. Season 7’s finale placed a great deal on Theon and his redemptive resolve to rescue Yara. Flash forward to “Winterfell”, and that rescue is a very quick cake walk.

Much more effective was the eerie look at a trashed Last Hearth, re-introducing Edd, Beric and Tormund who find little Lord Ned Umber dead and pinned to a wall, surrounded by bloody limbs as if the Night King was trying to best the violent artistry of Hannibal’s antagonist.

In an attempt to provide symmetry – George R.R. Martin’s favourite technique – to the episode, a lot of “Winterfell” mirrored or played on certain scenes and relationships from “Winter is Coming” (S01E01). The grand arrival, the young boy scrambling to view the approaching army, Jaime noticing Bran. These were all fine echoes of the past, and fit in well with the episode’s so-so attempt at sentimentality.

While much of the episode was set-up for the wars to come, a few interesting developments presented themselves. Euron has successfully brought The Golden Company to Cersei (*insert ‘funny’ where’s my elephant meme*), Jon now knows his true identity and won’t have fun re-telling it to his Queen, and oddly enough, Bronn has now been tasked with killing both Tyrion and Jaime with the crossbow used to murder Tywin.

The latter is particularly interesting because the writers need to find a way to give Bronn more central material. The sellsword is without a doubt one of the most popular peripheral characters in the show, and his arc has always revolved around his love of money. Will he choose money or friendship? It’s a fairly simple way to close out his story (my bet is on friendship – fan service is a big thing now that the show has outrun its source material) before he becomes relatively expandable.

End Game

How will Dany react to the news that she isn’t actually the rightful heir? What did George R.R. Martin mean about a “bittersweet ending”? Will Bran ever be able to show even a smidge of emotion ever again? Will Arya and Gendry unite Stark and Baratheon? What exactly does the Night King want? These will no doubt be there most pressing questions in the coming weeks, let’s just hope they aren’t just answered in a matter of seconds.

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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review, an obsessive hip hop nerd, a whisky drinker, and a lover of all things travel. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter with @chrisdsingh.