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Game of Thrones: It’s All Happening

A TNR roundtable discusses “Winterfell,” the first episode in the final season of the HBO fantasy series.

Courtesy of HBO

Each Monday, members of The New Republic staff will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones, now in its eight and final season. Join Josephine Livingstone, Alex Shephard, and Ryu Spaeth as they contribute their little drop to the ocean of Game of Thrones content, which this week will feature Oedipal revelations, furious scheming, and, of course, dragons.

Ryu: The first episode of every season is usually a dutiful exercise in setting up the show’s myriad pieces before the action really gets underway. And if, like me, you remember little of the last season except the ice dragon and Jon and Dany’s incest sex, then there were several pieces that came as a sight for sore eyes. Gendry! The Hound! (Who’s alive? Oh yeah, he’s alive!) The Starks reunited at last! Though no show in the history of television has killed off so many of its characters, last night’s episode had the feeling of the whole gang getting back together again. It helped that it was largely set in Winterfell, echoing that inaugural episode all those years ago when we met many of these characters for the first time.

However, there were also some major plot developments, as the long-ripening series finally starts to bear its promised fruit. The foremost of these was Sam Tarly revealing to the bastard Jon Snow that he is, in fact, the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, making him the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms—though I’m not sure that shook his world more than the realization that he is also the unwitting lover of his aunt. Which seems as good a place to start as any.

Alex: I was a bit surprised that the whole incest thing didn’t factor in more! Jon seemed to be much more concerned about the fact that Ned Stark was not his father than that he and his girlfriend are related. This makes some sense, given that Jon revered Ned and self-consciously modeled himself after him. For his part, Sam, heartbroken over the death-by-dragon-fire of his father and brother, was focused on Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne—and his now ironclad belief that Daenerys does not deserve it. I’m sure that the fact that Daenerys is Jon’s aunt will come up at some point but ... it just didn’t seem like that big a deal at the moment.

Ryu: Just want to restate my longstanding belief here, if Game of Thrones won’t, that incest is very bad, no matter how hot the people doing it.

Alex: But last night’s episode helps explain why the show, for now, is more interested in other matters. The residents of the North do not take kindly to outsiders and are upset that Jon has bent the knee to Dany. Sansa Stark, meanwhile, is upset that Jon continues to be a huge idiot, making rash decisions without considering their political ramifications. This has been a consistent issue with Jon—a reminder that he really is Ned Stark’s son, even if not biologically so. Sansa already seemed to suspect that Jon had unnecessarily given the kingdom away to an untrustworthy ally, and this new information will only drive a larger wedge between Dany and her new boyfriend’s family.

Jo: I think the biggest change in season eight is that it takes a broader civilizational view. The cast is now stripped down, through death and alliance, to its superpowers. All past internecine plots have been absorbed into a few hegemons, coming together to defeat an existential threat (death itself—good luck). It as if the Night King is Hitler, and Daenerys is Truman because the dragons are the atomic bomb. That leaves Jon Snow as Stalin, which means that a vast proportion of the residents of the North are going to die muddily.

The second big change is in the show’s humor. Game of Thrones has always indulged in the indecent—the whole show starts with a handsome chap kicking a lad out the window. But in this episode, it’s turned way up. When Jon kisses Dany, he locks eyes over her shoulder with one of her dragons, who gives him a look prised straight off the face of a sitcom dad.

Ryu: The scene had all the makings of the world’s most logistically challenged ménage à trois, yes. Well let’s talk a little about that civilizational threat. It has traditionally been cast as an allegory of climate change, but I think you’ve hit on something with the World War II comparison, which instead suggests a kind of mutually assured destruction. There are, after all, dragons/nukes on both sides of this conflict. And then there is Cersei Lannister down in King’s Landing, who seems intent on undermining the human side in its war against the White Walkers.

Alex: One of the things I find strangest about the show as it races toward the endgame is that Jon Snow is seemingly the only person taking the White Walker threat really seriously. His one-note response to literally everything—I LOOKED INTO THE NIGHT KING’S EYES—has become a kind of in-joke, but it does get at the fact that, you know, nothing matters if they don’t defeat the threat to the North. While I think that Sansa is the only person left in the show who wields power in a smart way, her bit about not having enough food to feed everyone seemed a bit immaterial. They’re going to have to fight the White Walkers soon—who cares if you have enough grain!

Cersei has decided that the existential catastrophe the White Walkers represent is an opportunity: Let the White Walkers wipe out the Starks and the Targaryens and then she can wipe out the White Walkers. This is obviously foolish—even with the Golden Company she doesn’t stand a chance. There’s almost no one left in King’s Landing. Things have gotten so bad that she’s turned to Euron and Bronn. And there is absolutely no way that Bronn is going to kill Jaime and Tyrion! Not for all the gold in the city.

Ryu: Bronn’s heart is pure gold already.

Jo: I absolutely adore the new Sansa. She’s looking good, she’s feeling good, and I would bet you all my dragonglass that she’s going to be a key strategic figure in season eight. And I wouldn’t write off Cersei just yet; although all of the queens of Game of Thrones owe something to our imagining of Cleopatra (especially Dany), I think that Cersei, now that she’s alone, will pull some surprises out of her gown, like Cleopatra switching between Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar depending on who was most politically expedient.

Which brings us back to the historical imagination of Game of Thrones. I resisted watching the show for so long because of this very aspect of its writing. While sort of based on some medieval military history (Shakespeare fans will see it), Game of Thrones really presents a modern conception of negotiation and warfare, overlaid on medieval-flavored fantasy styling. This will be the season where we find out whether it works or not, in the final analysis. If it doesn’t, and the show continues to follow this vague WWII template, then we’ll just end up with a boring old Cold War—albeit a very cold one indeed.