“We don’t have time for all of this,” says Bran Stark, five minutes into Game of Thrones season 8. It’s an ominous line, without context. With multiple storylines to wrap up and just six episodes this season, there was always a fear it would feel like a headlong plunge into the deep end and a race to the finish as compared to the slow-burn of the earlier seasons.
In context, Bran’s deadpan line comes at the end of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow’s arrival at Winterfell. The visual is both, a portentous sign of things to come and a callback to the moment that sparked the series into motion. There’s a promise of the impending war, the hordes that will band together to fight the undead, of fraught alliances and unspoken tensions. But the way Jon and Dany are being watched by a young boy, who pushes his way through the Winterfell crowds and up on to the landing, parallels the show’s first ever episode in which the young Bran looks out at the royal procession led by King Robert Baratheon and his wife Cersei.
Arya and Gendry have a warm moment in the forge moments after the Hound, who she left for dead in season 4, calls her “a cold bitch”. Former spouses Sansa and Tyrion reunite, with her cutting him down to size almost instantly for his misplaced faith in his scheming sister.
Much has changed since – Robert is dead, so are Cersei’s three children. And Bran’s legs (sorry, couldn’t resist). New alliances have been forged, more wars waged, the death toll mounts. Bran’s not one to let the implications of the moment sink in or savour the bookended proceedings. In a single line, he encapsulates the breakneck speed at which the new episode unfolds. At least three reunions are teased in the first five minutes and come to pass shortly after. There are at least half a dozen more spread out over the rest of the episode. Arya and Gendry have a warm moment in the forge moments after the Hound, who she left for dead in season 4, calls her “a cold bitch”. Former spouses Sansa and Tyrion reunite, with her cutting him down to size almost instantly for his misplaced faith in his scheming sister. Dany thanks Samwell Tarly for saving her right-hand man from certain death, only for him to be confronted with the knowledge that the two men she burnt alive last season were his father and brother. There are big reveals: Sam tells Jon he’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and Bran himself goes on to deliver what could’ve been a whopper of a moment – Viserion turning into an ice dragon – in two loaded sentences.
It could’ve easily felt like the writers were ticking items off a crowd-pleasing list. Familial reunions? Check. Badass Lyanna Mormont speech? Check. Jon mounting a dragon? Check. But in a remarkable feat of storytelling we’ve come to expect (and even demand) from the show, it manages to dial the emotional resonance of these scenes up to 11, all while deftly wrapping up character arcs and setting quite a few more in motion.
We’re deprived of a satisfying fight when Theon storms the Iron fleet to rescue his sister Yara, but the ensuing speech and cathartic resolution of his identity crisis that’s been brewing since season 1 makes up for it. Jon and Dany’s abrupt and sometimes stilted relationship gets a touching scene that recalls Jon’s past love, with Dany’s “We could stay here a thousand years” paralleling Ygritte’s “We should’ve never left that cave.” There’s brevity in Arya and Jon’s long-awaited meeting, but her declaration that Sansa’s the smartest person she knows effectively quells decades of bitterness between the two.
In spinning most of its webs around family, who constitutes one and the responsibilities we owe to ours, this episode retains has the heart of its previous ones, where each action is weighted by its consequences. Every glance has a depth of meaning and careful words can forestall disastrous fates.
There’s also banter, quips about balls (or the lack of them), and in true GoT style, even gratuitous sex. Well, a scene that gets interrupted midway. Because we don’t have time for all this.