Game of Thrones, season 8 episode 1 recap: a trip to Winterfell changes Jon and Daenerys forever

Ed Power
Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington in season 8 of Game of Thrones - ©2019 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the propert

This recap contains spoilers for episode one of Game of Thrones, season 8

The excitement was of course uncontainable as Game of Thrones returned after 595 days away (we’ve been counting – as have you). But as season eight – the only season that matters, now that we’re in the end game – swooped into view, it seemed Game of Thrones was keen to mute our joy. 

This was a grey, stoney-faced episode – serious about its business and brusque as it brought together characters we’ve yearned to see reunited after so many years apart. So the meeting of Jon and Arya had a sting in its tail as the adorable little assassin made it clear that, should push come to weapons drawn, she’d side with Sansa over Jon and Daenerys

And on the subject of the Targaryen cuddle bunnies – what a massive Dragonglass spanner Sam chucked into their romance when he a) pointed out that Daenerys could have been a tad more regal and not burned alive his father and brother and b) that Jon, aka Aegon Targaryen, was the rightful heir anyway. Will Daenerys agree with Sam’s assessment? Two dragons and a legion of the Unsullied says she will not. 

Fears that the final Game of Thrones series would be a triumph of spectacle over people in dimly lit rooms planning awful things meanwhile felt overblown. 

We all know that a battle for the ages between the Winterfell forces and the advancing Walkers is to come. But ‘Winterfell’ was very much Game of Thrones at its talky, conspiratorial finest. They even threw in some gratuitous nudity to remind us of the olden days. The CGI overkill is surely to follow yet, as it stepped gingerly back into our lives, it was clear that Game of Thrones was determined to be as darkly, deliciously Machiavellian as ever. 

Will the truth about Jon’s parentage destroy his romance with Daenerys?

“You are Aegon Targaryen – true heir to the Iron Throne,” revealed Sam (John Bradley), delivering the Mother of Bombshells to an already deeply stressed Jon Snow (it can be a long day when your new girlfriend and your sister are really, truly Not Getting On). 

Jon (Kit Harington) took the news as a blow to the gut. If anything he appeared more upset that Ned Stark had lied to him about his parentage than that he was Aerys II’s heir – and ahead of Daenerys in the regal pecking order. 

“It’s treason,” he blurted as Sam pointed out that Jon rather than the Mother of Dragons was the rightful occupant of the Iron Throne. Yet the ripple of ambivalence across his face confirmed that he was thinking through the implications of what he’d just learned. 

He’d bent the knee to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), alienating many of the Northern Lords in the process. But now here was evidence that it should have been the other way around, with Daenerys swearing fealty to Jon. Their next cutesy dragon flight together is going to be awkward (and that’s even without Drogon casting jealous looks at Jon). 

What does the Night King’s message mean? 

Beneath the Wall, the Leader of the Walkers had scrawled a bloody missive for the benefit of Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and the survivors from the watch (Dolorous Edd finally had an excuse for looking downcast). The Umber boy was pinned to the masonry, surrounded by a tasteful spool of lopped-off limbs. 

This raised several questions. For instance, having taken so long to reach the Wall shouldn’t the Walkers have focused on plunging the Seven Kingdoms into a new era of darkness rather than taking time out for arts and crafts? And what did it all add up to anyway?

Obviously the circular symbology was a callback to the pattern in which the soon-to-be-resurrected Wildlings had been set way way back in season one, episode one. So the Night King was referencing one of his earlier hits. But what does it portend from a general whose communication strategy has generally been the knock-Wall-down-first, ask-questions later variety? 

The assumption going into the latest series was that the Walkers were to be a faceless generic threat – evil embodied – and thus less engaging than the flesh-and-blood baddies of previous years. Yet the horror show at the Wall raised the possibility that the Walkers are a mystery as well as an implacable foe – and that Game of Thrones is interested delving deep into their mythology. 

The teary reunions were not as teary as we’d hoped for 

“You’re a man!” exclaimed Jon Snow as he embraced baby brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) “Almost…” said Bran-who-isn’t-actually-Bran-anymore. Clearly nobody had found a moment to inform Jon that his younger sibling is now a time-travelling, mind reading weirdo. 

Arya (Maisie Williams) meanwhile took her time to greet Lord Snow, from whom she’s been separated this past nine years. She eventually crept up, creepy assassin style, in the Godswood. 

“How did you survive a knife through the heart?” she wondered – an obvious question that nobody else in all of the North has taken the trouble to ponder (then they aren’t as intimate with death as Arya). 

They did embrace and it seemed heartfelt. Nonetheless, both had changed beyond recognition since Winterfell all those years ago – the old Jon and Arya were gone and it would take some time for the new ones to get to know one another.  

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark Credit: HBO

One immediate source of contention was Sansa’s hostility toward Daenerys. “You’re defending her,” said Jon to Arya of their sister and he sounded truly shocked. Foolishly he still thinks Arya and Sansa (Sophie Turner) are squabbling junior siblings rather than steely allies who have gone through hell and back. It’s a flourish of naivety to rival that of Noble Ned Stark (remember how that ended, Jon?) 

More satisfying was the meeting of Sansa and Tyrion – still technically wife and husband. “The last time we met was at Joffrey’s wedding,” pointed out Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) with a whiff of accusation. “It had its moments,” shot back Sansa, whose disappearance from the nuptials had of course fuelled suspicion that Tyrion had killed the King. She seemed past all that – Tyrion, less so. 

Yet perhaps the most emotional reconnection was that of Yara (Gemma Whelan) and Theon (Alfie Allen). True she head-butted him after he crept aboard Euron's ship and untied her chains. But this turned out to be a gesture of mutual respect – yes those crazy Iron Islanders – and off they went. 

She was bound for the Iron Islands, determined to reclaim her birthright (also the distant outcrops would make for a useful fallback for Daenerys, if and when the dead overran Winterfell but had not yet got around to learning to swim). Theon was headed for his true home, however – for Winterfell and the Starks. 

Do not adjust your astrolabe, they’ve changed the credits

With our heroes no longer scattered to the four winds, Game of Thrones has had a title sequence makeover. Rather than a raven’s eye view across the Seven Kingdoms and Essos (always our favourite bit) now we started at the broken Wall and then whooshed south for a tour of Winterfell before finishing off at King’s Landing (to your left the skull of Balerion the Dread, to your right the Iron Thorn). 

It’s so much darker too – winter really, truly is here –– while the gleaming astrolabe no longer tells the tale of Robert’s Rebellion. Instead, the carvings reference the Night King and his march against mankind. The final clue that the great war really is here. 

Is Jon Snow repeating the mistakes made by Ned Stark?  

“We named you King in the North,” said tiny-but-formidable Lyanna Mormont. She was speaking on behalf of many of the assembled Northern Lords, deeply uneasy over Jon Snow arriving at Winterfell as supplicant to Queen Daenerys . 

“What do dragons eat anyway?” wondered a prickly Sansa, earned her the Mother of all Side-Eye from her alleged Queen. Assembling an army large enough to resist the Walkers is one thing – but will the North accept a foreign force in its midst?

And should Jon have actually thought all this through before marching on Winterfell? Later, talking to Tyrion, Sansa expressed her doubts, to put it mildly, that Daenerys had the well-being of the North at heart. Jon, by contrast, seems to believe that simply by looking on the bright side and trusting to human decency, everyone will get along. 

As already pointed out, it was just that idealistic naivety that led to Ned’s head on the chopping block. It is right that you admire your father (pssst not your real father) Jon – but please don’t try to be so much like him. It will not end well. 

Does Game of Thrones know what it’s doing with Cersei? 

Cersei (Lena Headey) was never agreeable company but has gone full evil maniac this year. How triumphant her smirk as Qyburn (Anton Lesser) revealed the Wall had fallen, the Walkers marching south. She was far more upset about the glaring lack of elephants among the 20,000-strong force of Golden Company mercenaries.

 And then in waltzed her only remaining ally, the still fundamentally obnoxious Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), for some top level innuendo and leery looks. Cersei was always the biggest viper in the writhing nest of King’s Landing. But now it’s just her, Qyburn and Euron, is her storyline going be the season’s one true plodder?  

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister Credit: HBO

Oh look – more Game of Thrones nudity

In later seasons, Game of Thrones, perhaps mindful of changing climates, has dialled down its gratuitous nudity. But it dialled it right back up as Bronn (Jerome Flynn) prepared to sport with three unclad admirers. 

He was, however, interrupted by Qyburn, who tasked the Sellsword with bumping off Jaime and Tyrion. We know Bronn won’t do this – but that it’s going to be tremendous fun watching him track the Lannister boys and then wrestle with his conscience (poetically, Cersei has furnished Bronn with the crossbow Tyrion used to slay the family patriarch, Tywin, on the Privy of Death). 

Less explicit was the romantic assignation between Cersei and Euron. “You’re the most arrogant man  I’ve ever met,” she said, not disapprovingly after the deed was done. “But now I want to be alone.” She threatened to put his head on a spike half a dozen times during their interactions – but who will ultimately come out worse from this toxic relationship? 

Dany and Jon join the dragons

Jaime meeting Bran was as gloriously awkward as we’d hoped 

The Redemption of Jaime hit a snag as he rode into Winterfell, pulled down his hood and took it all in. The one-person welcoming committee took the form of Bran Stark, from whom Jaime had parted on awkward terms when pitching him out a window in season one. The gaze Bran threw the Kingslayer – calmed yet with prickles beneath the surface – indicated this was going be a difficult reunion.

Jon rides a Dragon …and Game of Thrones Turns to a rom-com 

“I don’t know how to ride a dragon – what do I hold on to?” wondered the King (sort of) in the North, as Daenerys watched wryly. Soon enough, however, Jon and Rhaegal and Daenerys and Drogon were playfully swooshing above the snowy mountains – the Game of Thrones equivalent of a loved-up montage from your favourite romantic comedy. 

“You’ve completely ruined horses for me,” Jon quipped as they arrived at a picturesque waterfall, where they enjoyed a sneaky cuddle. When the world’s about to end, you take your stolen moments where you find them (but did you see that look a jealous Drogon threw Jon?)

Will Daenerys’s torch your enemies first, ask questions later strategy turn to ashes? 

Cuddly Samwell struggled to contain his shock – and no little outrage – as Daenerys mentioned almost in passing that she’d torched most of his family during the Loot Train attack. 

“She executed my father and brother. They were prisoners,” he told Jon in the crypts. “You’ve spared men…when they refused to kneel.” Meanwhile, Sansa was openly incredulous that Jon would bend the knee to a Targaryen and go so far as bring one to Winterfell. 

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen Credit: HBO

It’s plain what’s happening. Daenerys has only just arrived in the North but already potential enemies are massing against her. It will be in her interest that the Night King shows up without delay to remind everyone why they’ve struck up an alliance the first place. So cut out the gory doodling at the Wall Night King – and get thee to Winterfell asap. You are Daenerys's only hope.

 Game of Thrones Seasons 1 - 7 are available to watch on NOW TV  (with a 7 day free trial), along with the new season