A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for the Season Eight premiere, “Winterfell,” coming up.
Narratively, there is no good reason for the scene we’re spotlighting this week, a brief interlude where Arya catches up with both the Hound and Gendry. Yet no scene better encapsulates the goals and strengths of Game of Thrones‘ final season premiere.
Early in “Winterfell,” as the bulk of the show’s surviving hero types assemble at Winterfell, Bran protests that there really isn’t time for all the formal pleasantries that Sansa, Dany, Jon Snow and the others want to engage in. The Wall has fallen, the army of the dead is marching south through Westeros and the endgame has already begun. Best get to it, right?
Suffice it to say, Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss aren’t on Bran’s side in this particular argument. There are only six episodes left (albeit some of them close to feature-film length) and a whole lot of story still to cover: the war with the Night King, the ongoing battle with Cersei for mortal control of Westeros, whether Jon Snow will embrace both his lineage and the Targareyan tradition of incest and, most importantly, whether Bronn finally gets a castle he can keep. Yet “Winterfell” is in no particular hurry to get to most of that. Sam finally tells Jon who his biological parents were, but that’s about it for major plot advancement. (Unless you’re one of the three people hung up on whether Euron Greyjoy would get to fulfill his fantasy of having sex with a queen.) The Night King didn’t even appear, with a Hannibal-esque tableau of the murder victims at House Umber used as an economical way of establishing how close the zombies are getting to Winterfell.
Instead, Benioff and Weiss treat the premiere as an epic calm-before-the-storm outing, taking advantage of one of the largest gatherings of major characters they’ve ever had. (Only King Robert’s arrival at Winterfell in the series premiere and the zombie demonstration for Cersei in the Season Seven finale are in serious contention, depending on how you define “major.”) This was virtually every Game of Thrones reunion we’d been waiting years to see. All the surviving Stark siblings were finally under one roof (even if Bran would differ with describing Jon that way) and Arya was so happy to see Jon that she actually smiled for several seconds! Former spouses (and technically still married under the eyes of Westerosi law?) Sansa and Tyrion got to chat, and Sansa realized she’s grown smarter than the imp! Sam and Jon hugged it out, and Sam blurted out the truth about Rhaegar and Lyanna’s secret marriage! And, in the episode’s spine-tingling concluding scene, Jaime Lannister returned to Winterfell and was immediately confronted by the boy he threw out a window at the end of the series premiere!
All in all, it was an hour filled to bursting with closure and full-circle moments involving characters who hadn’t seen each other in years. (Or, in cases like Dany telling Sam about his father and brother’s deaths, had never met at all but shared important history.) This was not only the first chance in forever for many of these duos and trios to catch up, but arguably the last chance. Given what we know is coming from both the Night King and Cersei (who finally gets her army, the Golden Company, but not her elephants), a lot of these people aren’t going to survive the remaining episodes, and even the ones who do are liable to be awfully busy fighting and negotiating and rebuilding from the wreckage of the war(s) to come. Some characters have more plot armor around them than others, but the odds of, say, Arya and Jon sharing another quiet moment together before the end feel slim.
Surely, some viewers sided with Bran and screamed for Season Eight to get on with it already, but Thrones has always been defined as much by the calm as by the chaos that follows. For every big moment we talk about for years after like the Red Wedding or the bombing of the Sept of Baelor, there are dozens upon dozens of scenes like the ones here, involving characters telling stories and taking each other’s measure. It’s those scenes that build the foundation on which the spectacle gets to stand. Ned Stark’s death means far less if we haven’t gotten to see him having so many small conversations with his daughters, his friends and his enemies.
Which brings us to one daughter in particular, and two of her former traveling companions.
Four seasons have passed since Arya left the Hound to die in a lonely field. Five-plus have passed since she and Gendry were separated by Melisandre’s desire to harvest his royal blood. Every reunion Arya has had since returning to Westeros has been striking because of how much she’s transformed since each person saw her. But she and Gendry went through a lot together during their shared time as prisoners and then fugitives. Ditto her and the Hound while she was simultaneously his hostage and his apprentice. So even though Jon Snow knew her for far longer, these guys understand her better, and would never be oblivious enough to wonder if she’d ever had opportunity to use the sword that Jon gave her.
The scene is fairly brief compared to others in the episode, like Jon and Dany’s long (and entertaining) dragon joyride, and the Arya/Hound part of it even briefer within it. But the diminutive assassin and the hulking bodyguard are people of action, not words. They’re not the type to stand around and reminisce about that time they massacred Lannister soldiers at a pub. Instead, they bring up the basics of their previous farewell — He: “You left me to die.” She: “First, I robbed you.” — swap a few insults that double as compliments (or vice versa) and nod with respect before he exits with the spiffy new dragonglass axe Gendry made him. Any more conversation would have been utterly superfluous, and perhaps out of character, but it’s the kind of exchange I’ve been hoping for since the Hound turned up alive a while back.
Relatively speaking, Arya and Gendry’s conversation lasts much longer, a reflection on how much more she likes the company of Robert Baratheon’s true heir. It is, like her meeting with Jon at the Godswood, warm and playful in a way Arya hasn’t allowed herself to be in a long time. It is a huge relief to see her put aside her Faceless Man demeanor for a few precious minutes to enjoy the company of her blacksmithing buddy. They flirt. They banter about her great wealth and privilege, which he used to give her a hard time about while they were on the road together. They have a nice time before the fighting begins.
And that’s ultimately what the premiere is about. A lot of bad things are about to happen to people we’ve grown to care about over the past decade. That’s how this show has always worked — and how it seems particularly built to work here at the end. It would be untrue to Game of Thrones‘ ethos, and to the story that it’s been building towards, for the good guys to all hold hands and defeat the bad guys with the Care Bear stare. We understand that this is part of the deal, and have at least since the Red Wedding, if not since Ned died. But we’ve also been waiting a long time for most of the characters in this episode to cross paths again, or (in the case of Sansa and Dany) to have their long overdue first meeting. Benioff and Weiss didn’t exactly owe it to us, but it’s nevertheless a kindness before the inevitable cruelty hits.
Of the hour’s various reunions, Arya’s brief journey into the forges at Winter could have most easily been excised. Almost every other one had some kind of bearing on ongoing story arcs. Sansa and Tyrion, for instance, butt heads on Cersei’s current intentions, while Jon and Sam’s reunion is prelude to talk of him being the true heir to the Iron Throne. Nothing happens between Arya and the Hound, or between her and Gendry, that seems likely to have a huge impact on the battles ahead. (Even the Hound’s new weapon didn’t really need an introductory scene, though it did serve as an efficient reminder of how Jon expects humanity to be able to defeat the White Walkers.) But it’s inessential quality is also what makes it special. It’s not there because Benioff and Weiss needed it to help set up the endgame. It’s there because they knew we’d want to see it, and likely because they wanted to see it, too.
“You’re a cold little bitch,” the Hound tells Arya with grudging admiration. “Guess that’s why you’re still alive.”
Game of Thrones can be a fundamentally cold show, particularly now that Winter has come, and the army of the dead with it. But this last rush of warmth couldn’t have been more welcome. Things are about to get a lot worse, so cherish those minutes when they were briefly much better for characters who’d earned their share of peace and reflection.