Theon and Yara. Jon and Sam. Arya and Gendry. Tyrion and Sansa. Bronn and the brothel. Arya and the Hound. Jaime and Bran. Jon and Sansa. Jon and Bran. And, of course, Jon and Arya. It’s only fitting that Game of Thrones would open its eighth and final season—one that follows an excruciating 20-month hiatus—with an episode full of long-awaited reunions. Titled simply “Winterfell,” in both an acknowledgment of its focus on the North and an ostensible callback to series premiere “Winter Is Coming,” it found all of the surviving Stark siblings (including one unwitting Targaryen) under the same familiar snow-covered roof for the first time since season one.
It was a moment fans had been waiting for since the first Obama administration—and it was frustratingly anticlimactic. Maybe that was because Arya and Sansa’s reconciliation at the end of last season, over the deliciously dead body of Littlefinger, set such a high bar for homecomings. But even under different circumstances, it’s hard to imagine being satisfied with a premiere that broke almost every reunion (plus a few crucial introductions) into either a quick, quippy tease or several minutes of mostly unnecessary exposition. Add to that the cringey awkwardness of just about every scene between lovers, and Game of Thrones has kicked off its final season by amplifying many of the past few seasons’ worst mistakes.
“Winterfell” had some scattered highlights: As skeptical as I am about any attempt to embroil Arya in a romance plot (she’s a fighter, not a lover), the repartee between her and Gendry was pretty sweet. That exchange where Jon asks Arya whether she’s used her sword cut deep; in his mind, she’s still just the innocent kid she should be. Though Sam’s bathetic summation of the news that Jon is actually Aegon Targaryen, a newly incestuous heir to the Iron Throne —”I know it’s a lot to take in”—was silly, I found some resonance in the question he posed to his new friend: “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?” It almost justified the interminable tête-à-tête between Sam and Dany, in which we had to sit through a story we already knew about her killing Sam’s father and brother just so we could know that he knew.
But, with the exception of Cersei’s amusing disappointment at the Gold Company’s failure to sail with elephants, the portion of the episode set at King’s Landing was a bust. It wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without a gratuitous trip to the brothel, but were we supposed to be shocked by the news that Cersei wants to see Tyrion killed with the crossbow he used to assassinate their father? Is there anything less interesting than watching the queen, now a cartoon villain who can’t stop making self-evidently stupid decisions, come to life under Euron’s snarling bad-boy touch? Is there any ickier sentence in eight seasons of this show than “I’m going to put a prince in your belly”? Actually, come to think of it, the dialogue in the scene where Jon and Dany make out, just to remind us that it’s gross for them to make out, is worse: “It’s cold up here for a Southern girl.” “So keep your queen warm.” Blech. Game of Thrones has always had a problem depicting romance, even when it’s between two people whose union is not for one reason or another repulsive. Here’s hoping the writers realize that there’s no longer any suspense around who’s sleeping with whom and move on to storylines with stakes.
That doesn’t just mean battles and dragons; it means capitalizing on a dense web of characters whose collective history we’ve been observing since that time Jaime pushed Bran out a high window. Instead of throwaway fan-service scenes like the one where the Hound calls Arya “a cold little bitch” or extended expositional passages devoted to relaying one small piece of information (how much time did it take for us to find out that Theon was going to Winterfell instead of the Iron Islands?), I’m longing to see these character and relationship arcs pay off in a meaningful way. Ideally, the show would stop trying to give us an unsatisfying glimpse of everyone, every week, and start taking its time with all of these resolutions.
Can that happen in just remaining five episodes? Sadly, I doubt it. As in season 7, the big problem with “Winterfell”—the reason it felt more like an unlucky videographer’s rendering of an exceptionally dysfunctional family reunion than like a carefully crafted story—was the pacing. (Another problem was that horrible image of an undead child ringed by a spiral of severed legs, but I’m afraid to write too much about that scene because nightmares.) For some reason, Game of Thrones has spent its last two seasons trying to accomplish in 13 episodes what should have taken at least 20. An epic that excelled when it embraced patience, character development and detail is now hurtling full-speed toward its finale like that army of White Walkers charging through the remnants of what used to be the Wall.