Four stars for Game of Thrones

1 week ago
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Warning: contains spoilers about episode 1 of series 8.

How do you solve a problem like the end of Game of Thrones? Wrapping up any much-loved TV drama is challenge enough, but in the case of the fantasy saga, it would be a truly super-heroic feat if its final stretch can satisfy everyone.

After all, one of the most appealing elements of the George RR Martin epic has always been the seeming infinitude of its world: no other show has had such a vast, expanding array of characters and plotlines, all chaotically intersecting with each other. But more recently, as the end has loomed into view, it has suffered from having to narrow its focus and get on with the business of providing a resolution. 

Certainly, the last series was marked by erratic pacing as time was sped up for the writers to work through the necessary narrative beats. So, as it now seeks to finish things off in a mere six episodes, there is the worry that the end result will be all plot and no depth.

It’s good to report, then, that this opener is an economical but unhurried scene-setter, which carefully lays out Westeros’ fragile new network of alliances before the explosive action certain to come. Chiefly, the setting is Winterfell, where, in the opening scene, we witness the return of Jon Snow along with Daenerys, her two armies and two remaining dragons in preparation for the battle against the White Walkers. 

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Uneasy meetings abound. None as icy as the haughty face-off between Khaleesi and Winterfell’s ruling lady Sansa Stark – the latter understandably put out by the idea of having to bow to the former, given the Starks’ traditional enmity with the Targaryens. Indeed, this episode is a reminder that Sansa is the surviving character who has undergone the most profound character development, from simpering ingenue to flinty politicker, which has been served well by Sophie Turner’s increasingly strong screen presence. As her husband Tyrion notes in his own tetchy reunion with her: “many underestimated you – most of them are dead now.”

Game of Thrones has always given devilishness the best lines, so it has sometimes struggled with sincere emotion

Meanwhile, down south in King’s Landing, an equally pointed, although rather more temperature-raising, confrontation takes place, between Cersei and her one key remaining ally, Euron Greyjoy. He turns up with mercenary force the Golden Company in tow, as he promised at the end of the last series, and asks euphemistically for a “private” audience for his efforts: she eventually concedes, but not before threatening him with execution for his cheek. 

This pair of swivel-eyed sociopaths are ultimately too dastardly not to betray each other, you suspect, though one hopes their partnership lasts for a while longer, if only for their delicious psychosexual back-and-forths. “You might be the most arrogant man I’ve ever met,” declares Cersei, after he post-coitally insults her dead husband. “I like that.”

Just as Game of Thrones has always given devilishness the best lines, so it has sometimes struggled with sincere emotion – and never more glaringly so than with the newly-established romance between Jon and Dany. The low-point of this episode is certainly their cringe-inducing dragon ride, a kind of impromptu ‘activity date’ which ends with them having a snog in the snowy wilderness while the dragons look on irritably in full comedy ‘uh, mum’ style. 

Given this is Game of Thrones, one can never be quite sure of any particular character’s sexual ethics

It certainly doesn’t helped that Dany’s teasingly flirtatious use of his full name at one point echoed his dearly-departed former lover Ygritte’s iconic line “You know nothing, Jon Snow”. It has to be said that Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington have always been two of the show’s more one-note performers, and their chemistry is regrettably not much more than a meeting of luscious hair.  

We may not have to bear their burgeoning relationship much longer, however – for this episode deploys the truth bomb we’ve all been waiting for. The increasingly self-possessed Samwell Tarly, having learnt that Daenerys butchered his family, went on to enact a revenge of sorts by telling his best mate Jon the truth about his parentage – so revealing that he, not the Queen of Dragons, is the true heir to the Seven Kingdoms. The exact contours of Jon’s shock at this news are hard to decipher, though we imagine the revelation that he has been sleeping with his aunt may prove a tricky one to process. Then again, given this is Game of Thrones, one can never be quite sure of any particular character’s sexual ethics. 

And speaking of incestuous heroes, before the credits roll, there was time for one final awkward encounter. A hooded man riding into Winterfell is revealed as Jaime Lannister. And the first person he saw? Only Bran Stark, the boy he disabled by pushing out of a window in the show’s very first episode. Given Bran’s all-seeing mental powers these days, we fear the ‘Kingslayer’ may not be able to brush over this one. 

There were no particular fireworks, then – though we did see a screeching, newly-undead boy burn to a crisp, in one particularly horrifying moment – but the episode was all the better for that. Now though, after such relative restraint, let the real games begin.

★★★★☆

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