Written by Dave Hill and Bryan Cogman respectively
Spoiler warning??? ...except, not really. (Just read the first paragraph if you're unsure)
'Duh duh, duhduh-duh duh, duhduh-duh duh, duhduh-duh duh, duh-duh...'
Before I had chance to watch the first episode, I went out of my way to ensure that no spoilers could sneak into my news feed or be heard in passing on the bus or at work. Despite some concerning memes involving elephant trunks I managed to be quite successful in this venture, and so watched the episode with absolutely no knowledge of what to expect. Turns out I needn’t have bothered; There wasn’t really anything that happened significant enough to be considered a spoiler in the first place.
So, to start with, the title sequence has changed. It’s been more or less the same since it first aired in 2011, but for this last season they have built an entirely new one from the ground up. As you well know, in every other season the camera would float from city to city showing all the key locations that would be visited in each respective episode. Whether it be The Twins or The Eyrie, Braavos or Pyke, the intro would give some inclination for which character’s stories would be continued this time or which new places would be visited. It worked well to display these contrasting proud cities and identities in a way that felt both effortless and epic. It has become as iconic as the show itself. So, why change it? Well, unless you loop the Winterfell section five times over, you can’t really keep this concept the same if all your key players are in the exact same place.
Indeed, by the end of the second episode, and for most of the first, almost all the main figures are in two locations. Cersei, Qyburn and Euron are down in Kings Landing; while Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Jaime, Tyrion, Daenerys, Missandei, Grey Worm, Varys, Jorah, Brienne, Tormund, The Hound, Theon, Gendry, Davos, Beric, Dolorous Edd, Samwell, Gilly, Podrick and the no-nonsense voice of The North Lyanna Mormont are all up in Winterfell. Now, here comes the issue. That’s close to two dozen main characters and more than ninety percent of what would be the book’s POV characters. The cast has been around the same size for the past few seasons now, though never has it felt this crowded.
In previous seasons there would be small clusters of two to six characters each in their own locations and following their own individual, albeit overlapping, plot threads. For big casts like GoT, this works well, as the dialogue is limited to be between whichever characters our protagonists are currently travelling with or living amongst. For each extra person added to a group, the number of potential conversations between characters increases exponentially. Yes, that doesn’t mean these characters necessarily have to have a scene of dialogue together, but in the case of the current inhabitants of Winterfell, every character has met at least half a dozen of the others. These characters have history, and it would come across as odd for the writers to not acknowledge even one of them.
This is what these first two episodes are; each known character pairing taking turns in having a scene together. And when you consider there’s two dozen characters with half a dozen connections each, that adds up to a lot of these scenes. To even fit these in, each conversation is limited to a handful of lines and no one line consists of more than a sentence. It ends up just feeling like speed dating with all the characters on a dialogue rotation. You get ten lines with your partner and then you swap. ‘Weren’t you dead last time we met?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Fair enough.’ *ding* ‘I know you! Your relative killed my relative.’ ‘Yes, but we got zombies now so let bygones be bygones.’ ‘Sure, fine with me.’ *ding* ‘Ah hello! I have heard tales of your deeds.’ ‘As I have yours. And I apologise sincerely for burning your family to death.’ ’Sorry, what?’ *ding* And almost every one of these feels like its there because it would be odd if it wasn’t. Beric and Arya don’t need to speak to each-other to progress the plot, but Beric is on Arya’s kill list: to not mention it would come across as bizarre.
Now I can understand why the show-runners would start to join everything together like this. There are a heck of a lot of plot-lines to tie off, and they all must come to an end somehow. Much of the past few seasons has involved culling exterior plots and characters. All significant members of the houses Baratheon, Martell, Tyrell, Bolton, Frey and Tully have been killed off or written out along with their respective plot threads (Though I’d argue that even if there are no Martell’s, there are still Dornishmen, and the same as all the other houses. There are many lords and armies within the lands of The Riverlands and The Reach who have been forgotten by the show. Where do these people’s loyalties lie? Surely they still have some grievances to settle).
Now it’s fair to trim the fat, but even Arya’s quest to kill everyone on her list seems to be no longer important, which has been the core motivation of her character since season two. In fact, there appears to be only three main plots left that we are to care about: The approach of the Night King; Jon’s parentage (and the conflict with that brings with Daenerys), and whatever Cersei’s up to. There may be more that arise in later episodes of course, but in these first two, which are entirely made up of every person talking to every other person and no real ‘events’ occurring, I’m surprised how small the internal conflicts within Winterfell are.
There is little to no beef between any of the couple dozen characters that looks to cause any real tension in a way that could affect the immediate battle (With the lone exception being that of Jon and Daenerys). The duplicity and opposing goals the show is known for are nowhere to be seen and all your favourite characters are sat around a fire having a conversation, whereas a couple of years ago just being in the same room as one another was reason enough to cross swords. As it is, there are no more morally grey characters: each and every one of them has been redeemed and is fighting the good fight while the ‘bad guys’ are separate and plot from a distance.
This has never been what Game of Thrones is about. I fell in love with this series because there were likeable yet often morally questionable characters on every side of the conflict. Trust was always dangerous to rely on too heavily, as exemplified with Ned Stark at the climax of the first season. At the end of episode two, I didn’t want for the Night King’s army to arrive when the heroes were at their strongest together; I wanted them to arrive when the protagonists were at their most desperate, when the northerners were at the wildling’s throats, when Sansa and Daenerys were at the greatest odds with one another, when some of the more fearful people had already run and fled south.
I don’t think it was a good idea to have all the characters in one place. I think it’s wish fulfilment and does little to benefit the story. There are plenty of cities in The North, and Jon and Dany know that many of their followers aren’t the best of allies, so why not separate them? Why not have five to six characters in each city defending a different stretch of Westeros? Have the appointed leaders of each city have to make an attempt to keep the peace amongst their respective people. Focus on more important plot-progressing conversations rather than forcing every single one the audience may want into it. Have a sense of increasing tension and drama between characters.
I will say there are some good interactions amongst these. Brienne of Tarth does get a shining moment, and it is good to see some of these characters meet after being apart for so long. Though this could have all been done in a more interesting way that kept the momentum going as well as bring these select characters back together.
This is only the start of the series, and I’m sure the next episode should be more action and event oriented, with more character driven choices to be made and sacrifices and whatnot, but for me, these first two episodes have been a bit lacklustre. I miss Littlefinger. The only ‘players’ of the game of thrones left are Varys and Cersei, and with the Dorne plot ignored, Varys has little to do anymore; No more need for spies if everyone’s fighting for the same ends.
I give these episodes a 3/7 for not really achieving much as far as driving the plot goes, though I actually quite like the new intro