It’s been nigh 20 months since the last episode of “Game of Thrones,” so you can hardly blame me for hankering for a really good, gruesome death. The bookies placing bets on who would get offed set easy-money odds for Yara Greyjoy as the first to go — and if not her, Euron. Or Theon. Or Ellaria. Somebody!
But blood barely trickled in the premiere. Even Yara (Gemma Whelan), bound and beaten at the start of the episode, escaped unscathed, save for a score-settling tete-a-tete with her brother, Theon (Alfie Allen). However, even in an episode where everyone who’s anyone survived, something bigger was laid to rest: “Game of Thrones’s” entire modus operandi. For seven seasons, the show has driven its characters further and further apart from one another, splitting them between continents, between allegiances, between life and death. Now as the show hurtles toward its conclusion, it has to gather all these threads in hand again. With this much exposition to tend to, there’s no time for gore; we’ve got reunions to watch.
The episode opens with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) riding into Winterfell for a glut of reconciliations. It’s an exercise in combinatorics: Jon and Sam (John Bradley), Jon and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Jon and Arya (Maisie Williams), not to mention Arya and Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann), and a buzzer-beater Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bran. Each is exciting in its way, and many of them are uncharacteristically funny — another shift for the show. Bran’s preternatural calm is played for laughs when Jon embraces him for the first time in years. And who knew a flirtation between Arya and Gendry would get more play than Tormund’s (Kristofer Hivju) lovesickness for Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)?
The most consequential of these is the reunion between Jon and his people. The people of the North sent Jon southward as their king; he returns having bent the knee to Dany. Despite his and Tyrion’s explanations that his decision was necessary if he is to save the North along with the rest of Westeros, his would-be subjects are still leery. “I’m not sure what you are now,” says Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey). “A lord? Nothing at all?”
Daenerys’s presence isn’t helping the matter, either. Even the ever-loyal Samwell confronts Jon after learning that he is now the lord of House Tarly, given that Jon’s new queen roasted Sam’s father and brother when they refused to bend the knee as Jon did. He asks whether Jon would have done the same. Jon equivocates, and Sam presses. His challenge is clear: Why do you think this brutalizing stranger to whom you’ve bent the knee is so worthy of my loyalty — and yours?
At least not all of the heads of house bunking in the North are so wary. A “we’re not mad, we’re just disappointed” takedown of Jon Snow in the hall of Winterfell ends when the prepubescent Lord Umber (Harry Grasby) assents to Jon’s request for him to gather his men from his family’s Last Hearth, the closest real settlement to The Wall.
Jon is again caught on the wrong side of a changed dynamic when he makes a crack to Arya about her sister, Sansa. It used to be there was nothing to bind the young women, save the technicality of blood. Just two episodes ago, Arya was threatening to add Sansa’s visage to her bag of faces. But now, each having learned what the other has gone through — and having together slain Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) — all antipathy has fallen away. “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met,” she retorts when Jon takes his potshot. It’s nice payback for Sansa telling Arya she’s the strongest person she knows in last season’s finale.
Seeing these two women as a united front is a striking instance of the show’s departure from sequestering its characters emotionally. The women of “Thrones” in particular have often been isolated, particularly from one another. Going back to the first season, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) was set adrift by the belief (however false) that her husband had been unfaithful to her, and bitter about Jon, the supposed result of his infidelity. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) hates almost everyone, but her enmities with women including Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) have been particularly bitter. Daenerys’s relationship with Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) is warmer, but it remains a subordinate relationship between a queen and the slave she freed and elevated.
Still, bringing the characters together geographically doesn’t necessarily eliminate the distance and complicated power dynamics between them. Though Dany has taken Jon as her lover and invites him for a joyride on one of her dragons, she still doesn’t quite see him as equal, however much Tyrion, Varys (Conleth Hill) and Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) might encourage her to, if only to bolster her ties to the Seven Kingdoms. The three wise men might just get their wish for a happy couple in the Red Keep if Jon shares with Dany what Sam told him about his true parentage and Dany decides that the best way to protect her claim to the Iron Throne is through matrimony.
Down in King’s Landing, Cersei has also taken a man whom she sees as no match for her strength. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) swaggers his way into Cersei’s bed with a bravado that telegraphs that he’s trying to get himself killed. The arrogance attracts Cersei. But when Euron vows to put a prince in the queen’s belly, where she is already carrying Jaime’s baby, she realizes that that arrogance isn’t all that performative. Euron sees himself as no subject, but the man to master Cersei where many others have failed. However, whereas rightful-heir Jon might give Dany a run for her money, Cersei, should she choose, will have no trouble dispatching the blowhard who promised the Iron Fleet and promptly lost the Iron Islands.
And of course, bringing the sprawling cast back together just puts it in danger of the biggest separation of them all: that between the living and the dead. “Game of Thrones” makes a brief (and rare) joke of the threat posed by the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) when Edd (Ben Crompton) mistakes Tormund’s always-blue eyes for those of the undead when they check in at Last Hearth. But the laughs don’t last when they find the Umber boy, who has been killed, staked to the wall … and wighted. His transformation is a stark reminder that the characters on “Game of Thrones” may stand together, but they may well die together, too.