Ned is gone. Catelyn is gone. Robb is gone. Rickon is gone. But their ghosts definitely linger throughout the episode, and even though Jon Snow is now one of those leading the procession to his boyhood home, it doesn’t make the danger one whit less keenly felt or make the collection now assembling in the North any more comfortable.
As the reverse flow reaches its maximum in “Winterfell,” and characters who have not seen each other since the second episode of season one are once again pressed together, all the requisite reunions are present … but not one of them provides the kind of emotional satisfaction that might be expected. They can’t. Arya Stark is not the scabby-kneed tomboy who left the castle holding fast to the sword Jon had fashioned for her. When they meet again in the godswood, it’s with a good deal of trepidation and distrust rather than whole-hearted joy. They can’t have that moment, because they are no longer those people.
They are home again, but you can’t go home again. This is what it means to have a character arc in which the people involved genuinely evolve and grow. Arya has seen far too much to idolize Jon, no matter how much she may want to.
Even more stark (small S) is the reunion between Sansa Stark and her one-time husband-by-force, Tyrion Lannister. Once upon a time, in an age that seems far longer ago than just the years that have passed since, Sansa was forced to marry Tyrion as a means of demeaning them both, and Tyrion did his best to shelter his young, unwilling bride.
Now Sansa, who in the first season was a dreamy young girl so in love with a romantic idea of life outside her home that she allowed herself to be used as a pawn against her family again and again, is the Lady of Winterfell, not just because she’s there, but also because she has earned it. In between her being tortured, raped, and generally treated like property through season after season, far too many people seem not to have noticed that Sansa has been learning. She’s taken the hard core of instructions that came from her parents, and overlaid that determination with lessons in strategy from Littlefinger, and even harder lessons from Cersei Lannister and Ramsay Bolton.
When Sansa dismisses Tyrion’s insistence that his sister is going to send her armies north to join in the fight with “I once thought you the cleverest man in the world,” it’s not just a measure of how far she’s grown; it’s a measure of how far she’s come relative to everyone else. As Tyrion acknowledges, a lot of people have underestimated Sansa … and a lot of them are dead. But Tyrion is among those who are still underestimating Sansa.
At King’s Landing, Cersei is most definitely not sending her army north—or if she is, it will only be to attack the host at Winterfell from the rear. Instead, Cersei is dealing, and dealing, with Euron Greyjoy and hiring the Golden Company, a mercenary troop from across the sea headed by Harry Strickland, to bolster her forces. Both of these deals would seem to make Cersei’s position more tenuous rather than stronger, as either man would quite obviously crawl over her corpse to take the throne the moment it seemed remotely possible. But then, Cersei probably realizes this. A lot of people who have spent the series underestimating Cersei are also dead.
The trip down south allows Game of Thrones to indulge in another bit of nostalgia, with a sexposition scene like those of yore: “Hey look! We can still put three naked women in a scene for no reason at all!” In this case, it’s Cersei hiring Bronn to kill her brothers, both of whom he’s saved in the past. Irony. It’s still a thing.
Oh, and Theon returns to save his sister and the two sail off. Or do they? At this point, it’s honestly hard to be all that engaged with Theon’s arc of self-redemption. If he also shows up at Winterfell, don’t expect it to go at all neatly.
Because nothing really will. Yes, all the surviving Starks are home again. And Dany and her dragons are there. And they’ve brought a huge, apparently unstoppable (and, as Sansa rightly points out, unfeedable) force with them. But to get that force and those dragons, Jon has surrendered the fierce independence that his countrymen value above all else. He left Winterfell a king, and returns … a what? The queen’s consort? Despite Daenerys’ troops encamped outside the walls, the houses of the North are already beginning to peel away as they realize that even winning this fight will likely mean losing their country to just another Big Deal in the South.
But for all the big reunions that are crammed into this first episode of the dwindling final set, it’s a discussion between Sam and Jon that really puts the whole thing on the point of explosion. And that conversation is Dany’s fault. A season ago, when Daenerys Targaryen came to Westeros and scored her first victory over Lannister forces, she took Sam’s father and brother, Randyll and Dickon Tarly, prisoner. When told they could keep their lands and titles if they knelt and acknowledge Dany as queen, they refused. So she burned them alive with dragonfire as an example to others. Lots of kneeling followed.
For the viewer, this may have been satisfying. Daenerys demonstrated a willingness to “get her hands dirty,” her army scored a victory over some not-all-that-likable characters, and Sam’s father had been abusive to his son in multiple ways. Seeing him die looked a good deal like justice.
Except Sam doesn’t see it that way. For Sam, it’s not just a matter of Dany killing his relatives. It’s also that she killed prisoners who should have been under her protection. To Sam, this makes Daenerys unworthy of being the ruler. In a rush, Sam spills out to Jon what he has learned about Jon’s true history and proclaims that Daenerys must step down because Jon is the real king.
This isn’t going to go well with Dany. It might not go over well even with Sansa, or Arya, or any of the northern houses. It is, in fact, hard to think of anyone other than Sam who will welcome this news. Pushing Jon forward as the rightful heir to the throne because he’s the successor to the guy we killed back before the beginning of season one in a rebellion that has since touched off a million deaths seems like a great way to have the Night King arrive at Winterfell to find that everyone is already dead.
Remember back there in season one, episode one, how everyone was together and united? Now everyone is together again, but no one is in the same place.
And speaking of everyone, slightly less in-his-own-world than last season, Bran spends the whole episode waiting for someone’s arrival. Not Jon. Not Dany. Not Tyrion. Not even dragons. Nope, at the very end of the episode, Jaime Lannister de-hoods in the middle of Winterfell’s courtyard under Bran’s oh-that-burns stare. How he possibly expects his presence to be helpful is an open question.
- Gendry is forging dragonglass? You can forge dragonglass? But it’s nice to see him doing something other than rowing, and the meeting between Gendry and Arya is probably the closest thing to a “sweet” reunion we get. Gendry may be the best remaining hope to touch something human in Arya. Don’t let that boy get hurt.
- Arya vs. the Hound is probably the closest thing to a perfect confrontation that we get from any of the reunions. “You left me for dead.” “I robbed you first.” There was a perfect balance in this meeting between the thoughts that they might start either stabbing each other or hugging each other. And having it end squarely in the middle was just right.
- Arya’s thrill at seeing a dragon for the first time looks like genuine wonder. Good for that dragon.
- Arya was the best in episode one. She’s still the best. Sansa may be the smartest … but you could probably survive being locked in a room with her for more than 10 seconds.
- The waterfall that Jon and Dany visit is very, very similar to the one where Jon and Ygritte got busy in Jon’s first lifetime. Surely not by coincidence.
- Tormund Giantsbane and Dolorous Edd deserve their own show. Thoros can come if he brings his sword.
Some open questions:
- Did we get a scene of Jorah Mormont meeting the new Lady of Bear Island? Or of Jorah being confronted over his non-welcomeness in the North? If we did, I missed it.
- Where was Brienne? She’s owed at least two surprising reunions. Make that three.
- How is it that we can afford a dragon-flight sequence with Jon and Dany that goes on so long I was waiting for them to break into “Magic Carpet Ride” from Aladdin, but we can’t get a few seconds of animation for Ghost?
- Just what is that spiral symbol the Night King keeps making? It looks a good deal like the Targaryen family crest, but even if it is, what does that mean? Or maybe it’s the Karstark symbol, because someone took the time to make that symbol very obvious. And if it is, what does that mean?