Game of Thrones, season 8 episode 1, Winterfell: how the episode was made

Amy Jones
Lovers, or rivals? - HBO

The end is coming. The final season of Game of Thrones season 8 has begun, and only five episodes remain before the story we’ve been following for seven years finishes. Mercifully, there are plenty of things to obsess over until then. In the wake of the season opener, Winterfell, here’s a look at how it was made.

There were numerous call backs to the pilot

If you were getting déjà vu while watching, don’t worry – you aren’t imagining things. Writer Dave Hill confirmed that “a lot of it is mirroring the pilot,” harking back to the very first episode of Game of Thrones.

To start, we have a monarch arriving at Winterfell, but Hill told EW that “instead of the king’s arrival, we have the queen’s arrival. We start off with a little orphan boy, to see what to a commoner, to the people on the ground where it’s the most exciting thing they’re ever going to see in their life.”

It’s a nice touch, and also shows some character progression – in the pilot it was Arya Stark who was the little kid scrambling around to get a glimpse of the procession, but now she’s a grown woman stepping aside to let the child see what’s going on.

And if it looked more spectacular than the procession in the pilot? There's a reason for that, too, although it’s far less sentimental. “We now have the budget and the crew to do it properly with a lot of crowds,” Hill explained.

But those weren’t the only callbacks. There was also another instance of the White Walkers pinning a dead child (which later reanimated) to a vertical surface and making a weird symbol out of bodies. Once again, the episode closed with a dramatic reunion between Jamie and Bran. It’ll be interesting to see if the writers continue mirroring previous episodes in the same way over the course of the season.

Reunited, and it feels so good

There were a lot of reunions in this episode, and some of them were happier than others. Show runner David Benioff said on HBO’s Inside the Episode, “We’ve been with these characters on a pretty regular basis all the time for the past however many years. The fact that they’re coming back together again for the first time means more to them than it may mean to us.”

One of the most gratifying meetings was between Tyrion and Sansa, who last saw each other four seasons ago at Joffrey’s wedding-slash-murder. Sansa fled, with the help of Littlefinger, while Tyrion (technically still her husband at the time) ended up being put on trial for his murder and losing everything he held dear. “You have to address the elephant in the room of her abandoning him,” said Hill to EW. “There’s that awkwardness and yet also Tyron realises how far Sansa has come, she’s no longer that scared little girl, that she’s very much a player.”

Jon and Arya: together again at Winterfell Credit: HBO

But the one reunion that fans had been really looking forward to was that of Arya and Jon Snow. As Benioff said on Inside The Episode, “Jon Snow and Arya are two of the most important characters in the story and they love each other very deeply.”

However, that scene was a challenge for episode writer Dave Hill who, speaking to EW, described the process as “tense because you want to do right by these characters, but you can’t have them do what they would naturally do – ‘tell me what happened to you’– because it would be boring for everybody. You have to emotionally convey that information without having to detail it.”

Apparently, there’s more of this to come next week. “The first two episodes, in particular, are tough because they’re so contained and have so many characters,” Hill explained. “It’s hard to script when you sometimes have six or seven characters all in the same room and to give each their due while having it progress organically and not be 10 pages [long] and a lot of recapping information.”

The flight of the dragons

Although Jon and Dany riding the dragons together was visually spectacular, that scene wasn’t just for eye candy. “We wanted to re-anchor their relationship,” show runner DB Weiss explained on Inside The Episode. “It seemed important for it to involve the dragons since the dragons play such an important role.” Benioff agreed. “It’s a major thing for her when she sees they have some kind of connection to him… when he flies up with her and where he used to hunt as a kid I think she falls even further in love with him.”

Jon and Dany approach the dragons Credit: HBO

But as well as fulfilling the dreams of thousands of Jon/Dany shippers who wanted to see them flying through the air together, the fact Jon can ride Rhaegal should be a hint to the characters that there’s more to Jon than meets the eye. “It’s a Jon and Dany moment but it also seeds in the idea that these creatures will accept Jon Snow as one of their riders,” said Weiss. Benioff added that, “Only Targaryens can ride dragons and that should be a sign for Jon, but Jon’s not always the quickest on the uptake but eventually he gets there.” Rude, but also: fair.

The Jon reveal

The most exciting part of the episode by far was Sam telling Jon the truth about his parentage. Hill described the emotional impact this would have on him. “One of the things Jon always clung to is that at least his father is Ned Stark – this incredibly honorable beautiful man,” he said. “Ned was his idol growing up. Now 'My father is not my father, my father lied to me, and I’m actually the thing I want to be least in this world – an heir to the Iron Throne and a rival to the woman I love.’”

For Harrington, the key to playing the scene was showing just how much of a blow to Jon’s world the revelation is. “Jon would disown this friend and beat him up if he was trying to lie to him about this,” Harington told EW. “He’s quite threatening: You’re telling me this, you better be f------- right, and if you’re trying to play me – that was the way to play that scene I think. I hope it was.”

Jon Snow in Winterfell, learning the truth about his parents Credit: HBO

“That’s the thing I love about Jon, his purity,” Harington added. “He has no ambition for the throne. He’s never wanted that. The end of the world might be coming soon but at least he’s in love with somebody and knows who he is, and then comes this sledgehammer.”

Never one to let things lie, Sam quickly follows this with another sledgehammer to Jon’s world. When Jon says it’s treason to say he’s the heir to the Iron Throne, Sam immediately replies, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

Jon has been so convinced that Dany is a good leader, the right choice as queen — but would she give up her crown? Compared to Jon, who doesn’t want to lead but does it for the good of the people, is she really a good leader? And, more importantly for the rest of the season, how will she react when she finds out about Jon? All, undoubtedly, will be revealed as the season progresses.