Game of Thrones: Winterfell

Six episodes over two months to close a story the author hasn't been able to finish in 20 years.

It could work.

As 'Winterfell' kicks off the show's ultimate season, I can't imagine I've been alone in a certain trepidation that Things Might Just Go To Hell. George Martin has only delivered "sporadic verses" pertaining to the saga over the last seven years, and I couldn't help but feel certain parts of last season uninspired, as if the showrunners were treading water through key parts of the storyline, hoping against hope that George might finally get his thumb out of his... ehm, and actually deliver.

Surely after one paltry episode it's too early to tell, but my feeling is that David and Daniel have given up that hope, and the show might be better for it. While hardly a perfect installment, sometimes even a bit clumsy in execution and dialogue, what I am left with is a true sense of urgency and a driving force set in motion.

By now it's painfully clear that George has painted himself into a corner – twisting not one but two dozen knots on himself and finding it impossible to reach the end in any graceful fashion. Fortunately, the producers have not. It's always been stated that safeguarding against a disaster (as in Martin relocating six feet under,) the producers were provided with an outline of how the show must end. Some people doubted this. I was mildly skeptical. Now I'm certain.

George may be tasked with his own impossible standards. While I'm certainly no world-class author, considering my own erratic output lately... I could relate.

The writing team of Benioff, Weiss, Sandhu, and Antonucci – the second pair both young and remarkably scoring their very first writing credits at this super-heavyweight event – are not similarly burdened. They are television writers and producers; their job is to write scripts and produce, and from what it seems they're hellbent on doing it. Also, their task is to work towards a known end, and that might be a rare luxury for people in the business. The whole essence of 'Winterfell' is purposeful setup, as they are dealing the hands for the final run.

This review won't talk about the great scenery, the music, the technical aspects of the direction or any of that. You've all seen that and I may not even be qualified to say much on some of it. The main reasons being I don't watch anything for technical aspects or to count the occasional missteps or insignificant blunders. I watch for content, and 'Winterfell' serves plenty, some not even quite that obvious.

Thus this review will just focus on a few key scenes of the episode.

You used to be taller.

The first one would be the reunion of Jon and Arya. The show's been pouring these sentimental moments over us lately, to the point where there's gone inflation in the Stark hugfests, but even if they aren't really that important, this one had merit. For one, it's the one reunion scene all fans of the show have been rooting for since the very first episodes. For the other, this has to be the first time we get to see Arya smiling and happy, almost acting like a little girl again, since her father was decapitated. Even her look of awe as she first lays eyes on her brother again, heading the giant army marching into their home, is absolutely fantastic.

The second, less pleasant and more significant, involves Cersei's decision to task Bron with murdering both her brothers, veering dangerously close to putting her in comic book villain territory. Killing Tyrion? Sure, I can buy that, I'm wondering why she hasn't been harder at work on it for years.


Jaime? No. True, they did not depart on the best of terms, but this is the closest thing Cersei's had to that "one true love" in all her life. Furthermore, I can't even think of an earlier time where Jaime's openly defied her will, and his motive isn't even to spite her – it's to make good on his word. One could argue that's an extension of their unofficial family motto. Making sense of her reaction, you might be forgiven for assuming she isn't capable of entering any real emotional relationship where the counterpart isn't her slave and she isn't in total control of everything.

Crossing this line strips her of all redeeming qualities as a person, and her subsequent bored hookup with Euron – arrogant and self-assured like the Jaime of old, but also a perverted and sadistic thug with no moral stature or higher calling whatsoever, but a shade or two removed from Ramsay Bolton – feels both earned and appalling.

I don't know why the show takes this step. It could be a catalyst to bond the two feuding Lannister brothers together, or maybe the writers are prepared to sacrifice some of Cersei's believability as a character for some central purpose. That doesn't make it good, and I'm left on the fence on this one.


The third scene is Jon and Dany's romantic getaway with the dragons. Like Jon and Arya, this is heavy fan-service – the kids want dragons, we got to give them dragons, and hey look, how cool, Jon's riding a dragon!

Reducing it to that would overlook the dramatic purpose of the scene, which is easy and something I've tried to hammer in for years when it comes to writing couples in conflict. Jon and Dany need a happy moment. The audience needs to be shown they're in love and know what they're fighting for as well as what they have to lose.

...shippin' it.

And this brings us to the fourth scene, namely, Dany's standoff with Sam over her murder of his father and brother. Now, this was truly heartbreaking, and its importance cannot be overstated, as this may mark the beginning of her undoing.


It could be exaggerated or plain wrong as things play out – though I really don't think so – but I'd wager that dramatically, this is the episode where Daenerys the Protagonist dies. At the very least, the poison's in the wound. She started the victim, progressed the hero and is now found out the would-be tyrant.

It's true, other people considered both noble and worthy by the show have killed many men by the law of their lands, but what Dany is guilty of is executing prisoners of war in order to scare her foes into submission, and that's hardly noble. Through this episode, circumstances cause the perfect storm to have her cruelty come back to bite her – in a rare occasion for Game of Thrones, this is the one bad deed that won't go unpunished.

Anyone who'd think this could go away, consider – we've never seen Sam truly angry before, hurt to his very core and using all his guns to punish someone as he does Dany through the revelation of Jon's birthright. For such a gentle soul, this is quietly frightening. He's both clever, determined and arguably even righteous in his hatred. This will only solve through the destruction of the other party, and Sam's been Jon's best friend since the very first episodes.

Some people thought the show was sweeping Dany's flaws under the rug to keep her the shining figurehead. That was wrong. On the contrary, the way the scene plays out shows a nuanced understanding of the spirit of the source material on the part of the screenwriters. It doesn't even matter if it isn't the same understanding as the author's, since it's now the show's ultimate job to succeed on its own merits.

While I guess nobody really cares, one month ago I developed a case of serious loathing of American television and cinema, their overused tropes and painting-by-numbers morality, to the point I could no longer stand to watch any.

Remarkably, Game of Thrones, the biggest American show of the decade, broke through, simply through the virtue of understanding and staying true to itself.

Thanks for that.


13 comments:

TheShadowKnows said...

I think it'll turn out okay. I certainly have no confidence that Martin, who in my opinion wrote three good books and then choked like a yellow dog on the fourth (with little improvement in the fifth), would likely do any better - even in a hypothetical world where he actually finishes them.

As for Daenerys, for a long time I believed the books and show were setting up a shocking twist where she would be the final villain of the series. But with so little time left, I don't know that the show can really afford to go there. There barely seems enough time for a confrontation with the dead and then Cersei. I do expect Daenerys to die, possibly by assassination. I also expect Jon to die and Sansa to end up on the Iron Throne (if anyone does - the show may end with the Seven Kingdoms broken up again).

magritte said...

I'm with you on Cersei going after Jaime not really making sense, and if I were her, Bronn would not be my choice of assassin to go after them. Maybe it's a desperate attempt to bring out a Jaime killing Cersei ending that many have predicted since we heard Cersei's prophecy. Though I still think the "valonqar" could be satisfied by Arya killing Cersei wearing Jaime's face: they are both on her list aren't they?

Anybody else think that Cersei slept with Euron to make it plausible that he's the father of her son? That's assuming she is really pregnant, of course.

The brewing conflict over the true Targaryen heir is an interesting development. I'm not sure the the order of succession between Danaerys and Jon Snow is really that clear. Unless Jon Snow was born before Aerys died, the thone should have passed to Viserys, and Danaerys would be his heir.

Anonymous said...

Im not Daenerys biggest fan but her decision to execute the Tarlys isnt nearly as bad as everybody makes it out to be. Its just that it wa Sams family. Dany for all her flaws always has the consequences while characters who do equally controversial actions do not Lets not forget the Tarlys betrayed the Tyrells. They sided with Cersei in direct war with Dany not a political debate. They helped extinguish a house. I think Jon is the only leader we have seen in this series who may have spared them.

TheShadowKnows said...

The Targaryen succession isn't really clear, because the rules haven't been spelled out. If it works anything like many European countries, it may strictly follow the line of the eldest issue. To use a modern example, Charles is (nominally) the heir to the British throne. If he were unable to take the throne, the succession wouldn't go "sideways" to the brother of Charles (Andrew) but rather to the oldest child of Charles (William). If he were unable to take the throne, the succession wouldn't go "sideways" to William's brother Harry, but rather to William's oldest child George. ALL of the children and grandchildren of Charles would have to be disqualified before Andrew would take the throne. If the Targaryen system is similar, Jon (or rather "Aegon"), as the eldest surviving child of the heir Rhaegar, would take precedence over both Viserys and Danaerys regardless of who was born when.

Even if the Targaryen system grants the throne strictly to the eldest surviving child of the last king, Danaerys also was born after her father's death. It's not clear to me whether Jon or Danaerys was born first. Has this ever been nailed down on the show or in the books? Given the nebulous nature of Jon's parentage until very recently, I'm guessing not. In any case, I guess the final judge of legitimacy will be the sword... sad, but true to life.

Logan Cox said...

First off, excellent review, despite the GRRM bashing. Much as I adore the "technical details," I enjoyed your focus on the content. I liked how much they accomplished without making things feel too rushed. They manage to make it flow pretty well and not just seem like we're jumping from plot point to plot point. I'd probably be fine if this is the sort of pace they're setting for the whole season, as opposed to the last one, which had a very confused pace.

I feel like you can easily write off Cersei wanting Jaime dead with the fact that she's a crazy bitch. As far as simplifications go, I'd say it's pretty minor. And honestly, I don't think she ever really had good qualities; the best you can say is that she's capable of acknowledging what a monster she is, especially with the way she ruined Joffrey. Even the one redeeming quality the show made pains to specify -- "Hey, she may be a lot of things, but she loves her kids" -- doesn't hold up. Cersei was a toxic, manipulative mother and all three of her kids died because of situations she created. But you're right about her new dynamic with Euron being its own poetic justice; Euron's like Cersei's version of Daario Naharis (no relation).

While it's a little disappointing that the show has vindicated Melisandre of Asshai's prophecies by boiling the story down to binary choices -- ice or fire, light or darkness, living or dead, good or evil, the man who uses a sword to grimly but dutifully decapitate prisoners or the woman who uses dragons to burn prisoners alive with a rapturous Mona Lisa smile on her face, a stellar and timeless literary masterpiece delivered in piecemeal over the course of decades or a slightly cheesy, style-over-substance adaptation that manages to actually finish the job -- I'm still excited for (and dreading) what's to come.

termef said...

I thought it was significant that we didn't see Cersei giving the task to Bronn herself. What if this was the maester's own initiative? Cersei's been very unwise with the people she's trusted in the past, and I never thought Qyburn was necessarily 100 % behind her.

BrianN said...

Dany's choice to execute the Tarlys is terrible not because it was Sam's family (which shouldnt matter at all)...its because she's always painted herself as a "just and fair" ruler not out to use terror as a weapon. Go ahead and throw the Tarlys into prison (heck, even a simple beheading is less terroristic than dragonfire), but to execute them by dragon fire in broad daylight to "show what happens to those who do not bend the knee" is precisely the type of unnecessary cruelty she views herself as fighting.
HAS the show boiled the story down to binary choices? Im hoping that it blows it up by giving the power in the end to Tyrion and/or Sansa.
In terms of GRRM, he has dropped the ball these last several years with his semi hands-off approach. He should either give the TV show direction to compliment it with his books, or just let the TV show go free. To poke your finger in from time to time (and not commit to one course or the other) is damaging and unfair to the showrunners AND the story.

Anonymous said...

Its funny. if you look over the series Dany has never been just or fair or claimed to be. She had a soft spot for slaves having been sold herself and slavers where her opposition so we cheered for her even when her methods were brutal. What she is, is better than all the other alternatives until Jons heritage becomes known. Also she is more rationale and willing to lusten to council than people give her credit for. Although she has recently stopped listening to Tyrion because of his failures so that along with the Sam debacle has actually made the political plot interesting again. I always ask people what all the other rulers would do in Danys position not just with the Tarlys but in general . Is it a surprise her ego is abit out of control when she has two of the best armies ever who follow her out of love fear and the strength she has directly shown them. The same show of force and strength she showed killing the Tarlys . Not to mention her dragons. We thought the death of her Dragon would humble her but she still remain as smug and entitled as ever. Which are not the worst flaws compared to every ruler except Jon.

1130am said...

First, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading these reviews written by all of you. I rewatched the whole series over the past few months to prepare for this season and truly enjoyed having Doux's reviews and comments and threads and spirit as I was rewatching. You all helped keep me excited, and I just wanted to say thanks!

I'm so glad you mentioned the paternity plausibility for Cersei's potential baby, magritte. I've been thinking that since I watched the episode. I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere, but I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking it. Now that Cersei is "done" with Jamie, she needs for there to be a question about paternity or at least a possibility that the child could be Euron's. I also think she needs for both of those fathers to be dead so that she can write her own story.

Looking forward to 5 more episodes and the reviews that come along with them (and hopefully one by Sam T. Cat)!

Sam T. Cat said...

To review or not to review. That's the eternal question.

Anonymous said...

Of course they had GRRM tell them how to end the series. It wouldn't be a surprise at all. I hope Euron winds up dead cause he just isn't that interesting. I bet Cersei wouldn't mind. Also..Dragons!
mazephoenix

Anonymous said...

The thing about Danny is how her political motives changed when she decided to go to Westeros. In Essos she had no legal claim to power anywhere, so she presented herself as the Liberator, the Breaker of Chains. But in Westeros her claim has a legal, dynastic basis, and she is obsessed with making sure every body recognizes it. Refusing to "bend the knee" means denying that she has a right to the throne.

Oliver Queen said...

"Crossing this line strips her of all redeeming qualities" - but she'll still have her cheek bones (Tyrion voice)