There was a question after Season 7 of Game of Thrones as to whether the show was losing its way in the storytelling, just as the final act spectacles seemed to be taking off. All manner of bizarre character choices and motivations from the very lean previous season suggested the show was heading into its finale ass-backward: sure of where it was going but uncertain of how it was going to get there.
And for all the spectacle of ‘Winterfell’, it doesn’t seem so much has changed. The plot lurches its way onscreen, heaving its clunky, creaking storylines from one scene to the next, hoping that the bits of string and wire that keeps them together will hold just long enough to get us to the next battle. Because really, not a lot of what was onscreen made much plausible sense.
Yes it all looks good, and my isn’t it nice to have all these characters meet each other once again after so long. But to what end? What do we get out of a sarcastic remark from Sansa to Tyrion about their long-forgotten marriage, or the strained re-meet-cute between Arya and Gendry that speaks more to fandom than to actual storytelling? Just that warming glow that people whose faces we like are interacting and someone recorded it for posterity, complete with nice costumes and fanciful scenery.
But what is the story here?
It was always Bran.
But Bran was forgotten, for a whole season at one point. Easily the best episode of the entire show was Bran-centric (Season 6’s ‘The Door’), and as much as it’s easy to lament his mythological-laden obscureness in becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, ultimately this is the goddamn story.
It’s not sorting out who’s queen or who’s king or who owes allegiances to whom or who left who for dead but not before stealing their money. The episode spends so much time raking over long-cold coals, suggesting that there is uncertainty as to who we should hitch our wagon to, when in amongst it all Bran tells them that it’s not important: they’re wasting time.
But we don’t follow up on that point because half an hour goes by before anyone bothers to talk to him again (seemingly having left him out in the courtyard, in the clearest sign of how Game of Thrones loses sight of its priorities), and then it’s a reminder: oh yes, while we’ve been watching Jon and Daenerys fly around and forcibly try to concoct some romance into their scenes, there’s a huge question mark over Jon’s identity that Bran has the answer to. And as soon as he gets Sam to convey this to Jon, stuff happens. Actual drama.
Again: this is the story.
And again: Jaime rides into Winterfell and sees Bran. Here, alive, and aware, after all those years since the whole story kicked off when Jaime pushed him out a window. This is the story.
(Disappointingly, if the promo for next week is any indication, we’re to spend a portion of time raking over more coals to work out if Jaime is worthy of inclusion in the merry band of northerners, instead of getting on with the blasted story.)
Intersecting these two scenes that rely on Bran’s knowledge, is the scene with Edd, Beric and Tormund at Last Hearth, and the discovery of young Lord Umber’s body, arrayed in yet another whorl of dismembered limbs. This is the story.
Look, it’s understandable. The very nature of adapting a show from words to images changes the audience’s relationship with characters, and therefore how they are shaped in characterisation from then on. And it’s impossible to read the Season 8 incarnations of these characters without audience reactions built into them. And obviously they need to remind us who these people are so that we care more as they’re thrown into jeopardy in the remaining few episodes. Fair enough.
But a lot of this seems to also reflect the nature of the story they’re adapting. A series of novels written with close, limited third person narration alternating between a cast of characters across chapters can easily be reflected if you separate all those characters early in a TV show so that we retain that close, limited perspective. But as soon as the characters start to meet up again, the question needs to be asked: whose story is this?
Think of last season’s silliness with the Stark sisters and Littlefinger. All of that would make sense if it was Littlefinger’s POV, but it is stupid verging on incoherent when we are given perspectives for all three characters, leaving us seeing everything but also nothing.
Indeed, if ‘Winterfell’ was written into the novels, would this be a Jon chapter? Or Daenerys? Or Bran? Or Sansa?
Don’t forget that the TV relationship with Robb Stark was vastly different because we were granted insight into his perspective, unlike the novels where he remained at a distance, usually relayed to us through Catelyn. And the problem the show now has is it can’t quite work out whose story to tell, and so the characters start behaving oddly because they’re in service of some other cause in any given scene, rather than from their own consistently developed psychology and motivation.
And with the way the episode is structured, it’s easy to divide things up into the good guys in the north and the bad guys in the south (plus the very bad guys further north). But this clear division of morality was never really part of the show in the beginning, nor is it part of the books. Game of Thrones lives for murky morality. Jaime heading to the north seemingly allows us to feel guilt-free affection for an extremely murky character because he is heading over to the good side. But is that so? If this were the books (and please don’t mistake this for some weird adherence to the books or anything) but the murkiness would be clearer, as illogical as that sounds. The show has, partly by design and partly by accident, inured us to problematic actions from characters in favour of feeling affinity toward their quippy, cynical existence. So rather than seeing things as north = good, south = bad, it’s apparent (if not exactly clear, because of aforementioned storytelling choices) that after whatever happens at Winterfell happens, we’ll be heading swiftly back into murky territory, and those who we’ve become accustomed toward feeling sympathy may suddenly appear as morally unsympathetic.
But as far as analysis and speculation goes, we’re left with a narrow way of reading the text as it appears to us. We know they know the ending. And we know that at some point they had to abandon certain plots in favour of others because of this ending. And so we know, no matter how pointless or weirdly inconsistent certain scenes and plots seemed to be over the last few seasons, that they were there for a reason, which is this ending.
So Arya bagging faces becomes important, even if that plot was handled poorly. We know that Sansa’s newfound cunning (we got at least three reminders this episode from other characters about her intelligence) is critical in some way to the ending, even if it’s a case of everyone ignoring Sansa to their detriment, and her downfall. And we know that the consistent showing of the White Walkers penchant for limb design is echoed in a number of ways, from the cave drawings that relate to the Children of the Forest, to the array of stones around the creation of the first White Walker by the children.
Interestingly, this isn’t quite how the books relay things, where the bodies are dead, but oddly arranged, almost as if in a weird distortion of how people might look alive (although one corpse is found up a tree). So because of this constant intent from the show, we can only deduce its significance, and that this will somehow become clear later on.
Most tellingly as well, the episode spent a lot of time de-legitimising Daenerys. It’s weird that the show had to manufacture some affect from Sam to his hateful father that he then drives a wedge between Jon and Daenerys later on, telling Jon that he is the rightful heir, but Game of Thrones has been about weirdly manufactured character motivations lately. However, literally every moment that might otherwise be used to show Daenerys in power was trying to undercut that, a reminder that though she may not appear to be like the Mad King, she has been known to burn anyone who doesn’t swear absolute allegiance.
So if the show is setting us up with a cast of characters who might for a time support Daenerys, will their doubts leave them at risk of death-by-dragon? And is this threat indicative of someone not deserving of being a ruler? Don’t forget that last season spent a great deal of time making us feel something for Dickon Tarly, only to immolate him, and then this episode reminds us of that fact yet again. And particularly, that Dickon was kind of okay and not a bad guy? And with that memory comes the witness to it: Tyrion. Who not only objected to the execution, but also walked gingerly through the horror of what Drogon did to the Lannister army. This is the weird thing with Daenerys’ long-isolated storyline. It was easy to paint her as a character heading toward the good against morally inferior opposition. But now that she’s around the other characters, do they feel the same allegiance? And do we?
Furthermore, what comes next? What do you do with a dragon (or two) in peace time? I do wonder if the rise in mythological happenings in Game of Thrones is tied to the return of the White Walkers, and that with their end, so too do all the other fantastical aspects of the show’s world disappear once more back into legend.