'Game Of Thrones' Returns To 'Winterfell' With A Busy Hour Of Table-Setting And Doomsaying

Game of Thrones is back with its eighth and final season...which means that a series known for its unwillingness to take any prisoners no longer has a reason to let the castles stand and keep heads on their shoulders.

The season premiere, "Winterfell," follows the grand series tradition of moving pieces into place before the proper storm begins. And there are many, many pieces, even as the game table itself has shrunk to only two key locations: Winterfell, stronghold of House Stark, and King's Landing, stronghold of House Lannister. Oh, and the army of the dead, wherever they happen to be at the moment.

/Film's resident Westeros experts Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson will be examining these final episodes together, discussing the merits, debating the issues, and maybe even harmoniously agreeing on this grand conclusion. Join them below.

Invasions of the North

Ben: Northerners don't take kindly to strangers, and it's hard to blame them: Ned Stark's father and brother were murdered by Daenerys's father, the Mad King, before the show began, and they've heard tales of the Targaryens and their dragons torching cities (did you notice that imagery on the astrolabe during the show's slick new title sequence?). So it stands to reason that Dany would receive an icy reception from Sansa and the rest of the North, especially when paired with the fact that Jon has now renounced the King in the North title they thrust upon him. But while the Northern suspicion struck me as valid (the Queen does have a Lannister among her ranks, after all), I couldn't help but shake the feeling that we've heard all of these suspicions voiced before. I'm wondering how much of that repetition was because the showrunners knew it's been almost two years since an episode has aired, so they're just hammering home the dynamics as they kick off this season. Did all of the strategic conversations in the North – even between Sansa and Jon – strike you as overly familiar?

And a bit farther up the map, Tormund Gianstbane and Beric Dondarrion somehow survived the collapse of the Wall (shh, don't worry about the specifics!) and made it to Last Hearth, the ancestral home of the Umbers. There they meet up with Jon's old pal Dolorous Edd, the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and discover the Night King has sent them a message in the form of one of this episode's most memorable visuals: Ned Umber's blue zombie eyes opening over Tormund's shoulder. Why would the Night King think to leave a message for anyone when all he's concerned with is marching south and wiping out humanity? The show doesn't seem interested in questions like that...at least not yet. But a flaming little boy with appendages attached to the wall in a circular pattern around him sure makes for an arresting image. What did you make of these two different Northern invasions?

Jacob: I think that lil' Umber turned into flaming pinwheel zombie was one of the most unsettling things the show has ever put on screen and ties right into what we've heard before: the White Walkers have a thing for being "artists." So I'll allow it, even if I'm not sure who the intended audience was for such a spectacle. Honestly, I'm just happy that Tormund lives to breathe another day, at least for now. His glorious beard gives me life, Ben. Life. And while we do see him and Beric dive away from the collapsing wall in he previous season finale, you are correct: how the hell did they climb down the wall in record time, especially with Eastwatch, and presumably its lift system, decimated? Call this the season 7 hangover – the show ain't got time to bleed, er, deal with questions like that anymore.

As for the other northern invasion, I feel like I'm going to be more positive than you on this one. This is the first time we've ever seen a Targaryen (well, besides Jon) in the North, and it's a big, historic, monumental deal. Even if some of this feels familiar, I can't help but feel like it's also totally necessary. We've heard of the Northern distrust of anyone from the Southern kingdoms before, but this is the first time we see that distrust, which feels entirely justified from their point of view, actually play out among everyone and not just a select few. With that said, I can't say I'm looking forward to Daenerys vs. Sansa this season. She's rightfully suspicious of the Dragon Queen, but damn it, an army of zombies is coming!

Greyjoy Shenanigans

Jacob: Hey, Euron Greyjoy is back! And no one, not even Cersei, is happy to see him. Part of me appreciates this guy's role on the show: the man with so much power (that navy!) that he cannot be ignored, but also a man so vile and irritating that even his staunchest allies can't stand to be in the same room for very long. To me, Euron's punchable face is a feature, not a flaw – it emphasizes how few allies Cersei has left that she has to literally sleep with this son of a bitch to keep him happy. I'm still not sure if I totally buy Cersei letting him into her bedroom (I'll get into that more below), but I love that we've reached the point where so many people have died that the Queen has to ally herself with this guy to ensure victory...and to transport 20,000 mercenaries across the Narrow Sea. Ben, did Cersei's repeated, hilarious line about her disappointment with not having elephants feel like a meta-quote from the showrunners? Because you damn well know something had to be cut from the budget and elephants feel like the first thing that would go.

Of course, the bigger news here is that Theon finally gets his act together and rescues Yara, a mission that goes off without a hitch and ends almost too cleanly. She'll go retake the Iron Islands, giving Dany and Co. a place of safe harbor if necessary, while Theon will return to Winterfell to fight alongside the Starks and presumably face his demons. Honestly, this felt more like an excuse to get Yara out of the way and to position Theon in a place where he can get a redemptive death. Am I being too cynical about this?

Ben: I have a feeling we're dealing with a case of Chekov's Elephant here: the show can't in good conscience mention them that many times only for them never to materialize, can it? Maybe Daario and the Second Sons can find a way to transport elephants over to Westeros and join up with Team Dany, because the look on Cersei's face would be priceless.

And I don't think you're being cynical about Theon and Yara, just practical. The show is fully in the endgame now, and this is one of its last opportunities to move those chess pieces into place. Everyone's focusing on Winterfell, but Yara's thinking one step ahead. I loved her plan because it's a nod to the show's bread and butter: ancient houses jockeying for position, swooping in for a power grab when the moment is right. But yes, Theon's totally going to die.

Dany and Jon

Ben: After temporarily defusing tensions from Lyanna Mormont and the rest of the Northern lords, Jon and Dany take a walk through the Winterfell grounds, where Dany expresses concerns about their situation. The pair have grown comfortable enough around each other that the Breaker of Chains can shoot Jon a subtle look, one that means, "Hey, boyfriend, I can only do so much here, so help me out, won't you?" But intriguingly, Dany ends the conversation by saying, "If [Sansa] can't respect me..." just before they're interrupted by Dothraki riders. That's one hell of a thought to be left unfinished, especially considering how the Mother of Dragons has treated those who oppose her.

That interruption, of course, leads Dany and Jon to their big dragon flight moment. The only dragon riders in Westerosi history have been Targaryens, and that still holds true in this episode, even if our characters don't know it yet. But while the visual effects look better than they did during the escape from Meereen's fighting pits back in season 5, this struck me as something the showrunners wanted to be a fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing moment...and I kinda wasn't feeling it? Maybe it's because the dialogue leading up to it didn't land for me, or maybe it was that their final destination, while a great place for a kiss, didn't seem to provide any answers to how to feed Drogon and Rhaegal, which was ostensibly the reason for the trip in the first place. What did you think about that moment? And here's a curveball follow-up question: do you think Varys's ominous observation from the battlements ("Nothing lasts.") could be planting a seed for an inevitable split between this "handsome couple"?

Jacob: Oh, I'm starting to think this couple is doomed. No romance lasts on this show. At least, no happy romance. The final scenes (we'll get there soon enough) really send that home, too.

I liked the dragon flight more than you, mostly because Kit Harington does a fine job of riding an amusing line between exhilaration and terror. While the scene doesn't exact answer any questions, it's my kind of cheese: two pretty people kissing in front of a waterfall, complete with a wacky animal reaction shot! Look how happy they are! Which translates to "look how doomed these fuckers are" in Westerosi.

The New Adventures of Bronn

Jacob: Ben, as you know, Bronn is my guy. He's straight-up one of my favorite characters on the show. Jerome Flynn is the perfect blend of charming, hilarious, and menacing. He offers a necessary blue collar and brutally honest view of the upper crust lead characters. And like the best folks on this show, you can't trust him for a second. So, here's the big question: why am I dreading his newly introduced subplot?

In some ways, this is very much where he's been going for the entire show. The sellsword who has always taken the higher offer no matter what is given an offer he can't refuse from the queen herself. He must hunt down and kill Tyrion and Jaime, the queen's treasonous brothers. You know, the only two people Bronn has spent a significant amount of time with on the entire show. The only people who could even be remotely called friends. And this path leads to a fork: either Bronn betrays Cersei to side with the men who have so long employed him and becomes the hero he's always avoided, or he lives up to his usual standards and tries to murder them, proving that he is exactly who he says he is. Honestly, Ben, I'm not sure this is a question I needed answered about Bronn. Forcing him to make this moral choice feels almost too clean, too black and white, too much like traditional fantasy. It's like the show desperately needed Bronn to have something to do and nothing else materialized. So color me concerned right now. I think it's going to be entirely about execution.

I did, however, enjoy Qyburn's pitch. That guy is a creep, but he's a compelling example what it means to side with the winning team. What do you think?

Ben: I'm a little shocked Cersei asked Bronn to kill both of her brothers. Tyrion? Sure. The crossbow makes sense. Poetic justice, etc. But Jaime? After all of their grand speeches about how they're the only two people in the world who matter? She must have been incredibly stung by Jaime ditching her plan and riding north at the end of last season.

As for Bronn, I think he's going to come down with a case of The Best Reward Is The Friends We Made Along The Way syndrome. But wouldn't it be amazing if he just straight up killed Tyrion with that crossbow, and then got into a one-on-one sword fight with Jaime, bringing all of their training sessions full circle? I'm not convinced it'll happen, but it would be a nice surprise in a narrative that's feeling more and more conventional as its ending approaches.

Remember That Time...?

Ben: I've spent most of this off-season anticipating the show's biggest character reunions – like Jon and Arya, which didn't disappoint – but this episode also provided a treasure trove of smaller, equally satisfying reconnections. Arya's gruff reunion with The Hound really worked for me, and it seems like he doesn't hold too much of a grudge against her for how they previously parted. Once he walks off with his new dragonglass axe, he leaves Arya and Gendry to awkwardly flirt in the forges of Winterfell – another satisfying encounter in a show that rarely makes time for moments like these. Everyone knows the easiest path to a girl's heart is to make her a custom-built weapon.

I'd also somehow forgotten that Dany's arrival at Winterfell would mean that Tyrion would reunite with Sansa, so it was a nice surprise to see the two of them together again – even if Sansa wasn't exactly ready to extend him a warm welcome because of Tyrion's deep allegiance to the dragon queen. But while Sansa spent most of this hour internally scheming (she learned from the best, after all), she ended up with the best line of the episode when she said Joffrey's wedding "had its moments." But beyond reminiscing, the more pressing subject matter involves the supposedly imminent arrival of the Lannister army – which Sansa knows isn't happening. She's disappointed that Tyrion was fooled by Cersei, but at least the show laid the groundwork to make that deception believable: Tyrion thinks Cersei has a new baby to live for (although whether or not she's actually pregnant is still being hotly disputed, even after this episode). So Jacob, do you think Cersei is really pregnant? And does the answer to that question ultimately matter with only five episodes of Game of Thrones left?

Jacob: At the end of the last season, I was convinced Cersei was actually pregnant and, well, I'm still convinced. What else does she have to fight for? She's put out a hit on her brother and her brother/lover, her only companions are a creepy old man, a walking corpse, and an annoying pirate, and the normally-packed throne room has become a tomb-like cavern ever since she took over the kingdom. I feel like every scene with Cersei is shot to highlight not only her immense power, but her total isolation. She's managed to obtain everything she has ever wanted while losing everything she has ever loved. Ouch. Having a child, one who could be passed off as the son of Euron Greyjoy, gives her something to actually fight for. And we all know that Cersei is at her most dangerous when she's protecting her own. A fake pregnancy, at this point, would seem silly.

And I'm glad you talked about Arya/Gendry/The Hound, because that was one of my favorite scene in the episode. That's such a perfect example of what this show does best: three characters with a long, strange history with one another thrust into the same room after years apart and having to find a way to reconcile everything they have been through. However, you didn't mention the reunion that was the longest in the making: Bran Stark and Jaime Lannister, in the same room for the first time since the latter pushed the former out of a window and kickstarted this whole series. Of course, they're very different men now. Will Jaime ask for forgiveness? Hell, can Jaime ask for forgiveness, as in "is he even capable of that?" And will Bran, this season's new pacing device (with this supernatural powers, he can literally scream at people to stop wasting time and remind them of the ticking clock), even require such a request since he seems so far above petty human problems these days?

Honestly, the only meeting I wanted to see was Jorah and Lyanna Mormont. Surely she has something to say about the former head of their family who sold men into slavery and fled to Essos years before. I want her to chew him out, Ben. I need it.

Samwell Tarly and Hard Truths

Jacob: Can we talk about my favorite corner of the show this week? That would be everything involving Samwell Tarly, the show's resident conscience and good heart. And naturally, the show takes that good heart and squeezes it till it bleeds by forcing him to confront two painful truths: one that is dropped on him like a load of dragonglass and one that he must drop on his best friend.

First, there's that scene where Daenerys and Jorah visit him so she can thank the maester-in-training for saving her Number One Advisor's life. Aw! And then Sam, the lovely fellow that he is, asks for a royal pardon for the books he stole from the Citadel and the theft of his ancestral sword. Aww! And then, punch in the gut number one: he learns that the Dragon Queen had his abusive father burnt to a crisp. And then, punch in the gut number two: he learns that the Dragon Queen had his perfectly decent brother burnt to a crisp. I genuinely appreciated the show just coming out and saying this and not dragging it out into a mystery. Dany respects Sam enough to be straight with him, knowing it will hurt. And it is here that actor John Bradley breaks our hearts. His eyes fill with tears for the family members, even those who hated him, and he rushes away before he can weep in front of his new Queen. Sam – soft, sweet, and braver than he knows Sam – cries for the man who would've seen him dead before he saw him at the head of the family. Family has always been a complicated thing on Game of Thrones. Sometimes we arm mercenaries with crossbows to kill our brothers. Sometimes we weep for those who destroyed our lives.

Filled with emotions he doesn't know how to handle, Sam meets Jon in the crypts beneath Winterfell and spits the truth at him. He is Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. This is another one of those long-time-coming scenes (and another one I'm glad the show didn't drag out) and it lands like a knife to the heart. This could've been a celebratory moment, but the show treats it like a tragedy. Jon is fated, doomed even, to take up a role he never wanted. And it makes him a direct rival, and relative, to the woman he loves. Yikes. Ouch. Oof. Ben, did this scene hurt you as much as it wounded me? I was ready to pump my fist and then the show immediately reminded me, "This is not simple – things are so much worse now."

Ben: This stretch was the highlight of the episode for me, too, and I was also thankful that both of these reveals weren't held for later episodes. The spectacle of Game of Thrones has always been impressive, but scenes like these are what I love most about the show: character moments that reveal hard truths. Sam's "look on the bright side" tone gutted me as he talked about how at least his brother was still alive, and Bradley's reactions to the bad news were perfect. (This is also a great example of Dany being forced to confront the human consequences of her hard-line approach to ruling.) And Jon's reaction to his true heritage didn't disappoint either. I loved watching the calculus going on behind his eyes: you can see him realizing in real time that Dany is probably not going to react well to the news that she's not the rightful heir to the throne.

Final Reaction

Ben: I don't know how else to say this, but seeing a new episode of Game of Thrones, one that has now gone so far beyond George R.R. Martin's books...it's kind of weird, isn't it? That ineffable observation aside, the more I think about this episode, the more I like it. "Winterfell" has the shape of a typical season premiere, but the show's compressed timeline means we got several satisfying moments in one hour instead of having them parceled out throughout the season.

But Jacob, here's the biggest question? Who do you think is currently "winning" the Game of Thrones? With all of the discord in the North, and since Cersei doesn't have those elephants that she really wants, I'm inclined to think that The Night King is in a pretty good position right now. After all, he just added all of the humans at Last Hearth to the army of the dead.

Jacob: It's definitely odd. And unlike season 5, this is a good, comfortable kind of odd. I like no longer being ahead of the show and I don't mind being completely in the dark when the storytelling is this assured. "Winterfell" managed to do the whole "four episodes of set-up" thing that previous seasons used to in one skillfully written, beautifully directed hour. Honestly, there are subplots I'm hesitant about (like Bronn), but there were no serious red flags. This is a confident step into the endgame, an hour that juggles the massive cast and knows just where to place everyone for the most impressive, moving, and hilarious impact. Man, I'm glad to have this show back.

As for who is currently winning the Game of Thrones...Well, I'm tempted to say Yara because she's the only one smart enough to be on an island at the moment, but sitting on an island is not how you win a war. And with those dragons not eating, and Jon about to have some serious problems with Dany, everything's coming up undead.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: The Night King