Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1 Deconstructed

With the return of Game of Thrones for its eight and final season comes the return of Across the Margin’s GOT Guru who, week in and week out, makes sense of the madness in Westeros now that Winter has finally arrived!

by: Geoffrey Golia (aka — ATM’s #GOTGuru) and Michael Shields

MCS: Welcome back! It’s been a long time coming, but Season Eight is finally upon us. How did it feel digging back in as troops amassed in the North within an episode simply, and appropriately, entitled “Winterfell,” after the long hiatus?

G.G.: I can’t believe it’s been two years since last we discussed everyone’s favorite erotic swords-and-sorcery dramedy. I have to admit, up until a few days before the premiere, I wasn’t sure if I would watch, let alone reprise our very popular and sophisticated dialogue on the show. We’ve been beyond the books for a while now, and every new season since has brought the same dilemma: to watch or not to watch. Aside from the sheer ubiquity of the show and its twists and turns, and the inescapability of learning about the plot secondhand, it’s also a really well-made show about characters I happen to care about…so here I am, like a schmuck or a hero (take your pick!) ready to learn what happens at the end, fully cognizant that the final books may be decades away.

This brings us back to where we left off, back in the North, on the precipice of a war that will decide the fate of the entire continent, if not the world. In the immortal words of that famous meme: “my body is ready.”

MCS: Speaking of the North, with your knowledge of the hardened people of the region, can you shed some light on why so many of them would be so bent out of shape Jon bent the knee, keeping in mind the tremendous challenge they are facing?

G.G.: There are a number of characteristics of the North that help explain their negative reaction to Jon’s changing allegiance. It is the most decentralized region of the Seven Kingdoms — followed, I would argue, by Dorne — and is home to a breed of people who are fiercely independent, value their self-determination, and are deeply mistrustful of outsiders and those who would seek authority over them. Northerners possess a near-fanatical sense of honor and loyalty; they are, for the most part, devoted to House Stark — the Great House of the North — and hold sacred the Guest Right and the ancient laws of hospitality. These attributes are characteristic of fairly rigid and inflexible people (some might even say, icy).

It’s also objectively frustrating to swear fealty to a King, only to have him turn around a say, “JK, I’m with the dragon lady who, by the way, I’m also banging” (exact quote from ep. 1!). The banner makers have to now change all the banners, the goldsmiths and metal workers have to change all the commemorative coins, potters have to create all new commemorative plates, woodworkers have to change all the ornate “JS” carvings around Winterfell, and the medieval graphic designer has to redo the org chart — it’s a lot of work! And wait until they find out she’s his aunt. Actually, that probably won’t register, frankly.

I’m glad they, for the most part, come around to it. Remember when the Night’s Watch, most of whom had seen the wights first-hand and knew the White Walkers turned dead people into wights, were deeply skeptical of Jon’s radical and progressive Wildling refugee policy and ended up fragging Jon Snow? It was so frustrating. Also, and this is a nice segue to the next question, remember what Jon “the Greatjon” Umber said to Robb Stark and his bannermen at Riverrun a few seasons back:

“Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we bowed to! And now the dragons are dead! There sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to: the King in the North!”

Well, the dragons are back, and every knee shall bend.

MCS: Umm…how did you know what the next question I was going to ask…no matter…but I must now ask, what was happening at the abandoned Castle Umber? GOT really let its freak flag fly there. Was that Ned Umber impaled amongst a spiral of severed arms? What’s the takeaway there…and when will that image stop haunting my thoughts?

G.G.: Castle Umber, known officially as Last Hearth, is — duh — the seat of House Umber, one of the more entertaining Houses sworn to House Stark. Earlier seasons of the show introduced us to Jon “the Greatjon” Umber who, during the War of the Five Kings initially underestimated Robb Stark’s ability to lead, and threatened to take his men home rather than follow House Glover into battle (demonstrating some of the rivalries between the Houses of the North).

Robb, as prone to honor as his father, Ned Stark, told the Greatjon he’d arrest him if he abandoned the cause of the North. The Greatjon, not one to think through his actions, decided he’d threaten Robb with a knife and subsequently lost two fingers because it’s not a good idea to pick a fight with a guy with a direwolf. As someone who respects strength and seems to have little regard for his appendages, the Greatjon became one of Robb’s biggest supporters, and was the first to name him ‘King in the North’.

Here the books and the show diverge fairly drastically. In the books, the Greatjon and his son, also named Jon, and nicknamed — anyone, anyone? — the Smalljon, are present at the Red Wedding. The Smalljon, part of Robb stark’s personal guard, is killed, and the Greatjon is subdued and imprisoned. In the show, neither of the Jons are present at the Red Wedding, but in what I can only presume was an “oh, shit, what do we do with this guy?” moment, the writers decide to kill the Greatjon off and introduce the Smalljon as both contemptuous and disloyal to his father and House Stark, and allied with House Bolton. Remember, in the show, it’s the Smalljon who delivers Rickon “I don’t know how to run in a zig-zag to avoid being killed by an arrow” Stark to Ramsay Bolston, and is subsequently killed by Tormund Giantsbane in the Battle of the Bastards.

There is no Ned Umber in the books. In the show, he is presumably the Smalljon’s son…but I can’t help but wonder why the the Smalljon, who has no great love for House Stark, would name his son after the much respected former Lord of Winterfell. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but it is also worth mentioning two other colorful members of the Umber family, who happen to be younger brothers of the Greatjon. Mors struggles with alcohol dependence and wears a snow bear cloak. Nicknamed Mors Crowfood, he lost an eye to crow who took him for dead while passed out on the side of road. Hothor, also known as Whoresbane, is best known for disemboweling a sex worker in Oldtown who he accused of attempted robbery. A colorful bunch really!

So, on to your question: I don’t know that Last Hearth was abandoned as much its inhabitants were killed and turned to wights, with a few losing their limbs for the White Walkers’ problematic, avante garde art piece. Ned Umber was heading back there to muster his troops to defend against the invasion of the White Walkers and their army. Clearly, he ran into them sooner than he would have liked. Yes, that is poor Ned Umber at the center of that spiral…which, to attentive fans, should look familiar. In the show, the White Walkers have made this spiral-made-out-of-dead-people-and-their-limbs on a few occasions. To extend the art metaphor, New York Magazine would probably tag these pieces as Highbrow/Despicable on the Approval Matrix.

I think it makes sense to treat the White Walkers as, among other things, terrorists. This is not so much as a comparison to any real life terrorist group, but rather as a manifestation of the definition of terrorism — a force guided by an overarching mission and using as one of its tactics the instillation of fear and insecurity. That certainly describes how many of those who have encountered, first-hand or second-hand, the White Walkers and the wights. It is why the image stays with you. They want you to feel fear, and to think that they are so cruel that resistance is futile. To me, as a New Yorker, its overkill, as just the sight of snow in April fills me with despair.

MCS: Sam wasn’t pleased at all of the news of his father and brother being scorched by Dany’s dragons…do you think his enlightening conversation with Jon (where Jon learned he is sleeping with his aunt) will forge a wedge between Jon and Dany in any way?

G.G.: I don’t see this issue creating any kind of wedge between Jon and Dany. I’m also not sold that their familial relationship will be an obstacle for them either. Remember, the Targaryens practiced the ancient Valyrian custom of marrying brother to sister, a tradition that lasted until well after the Conquest. The opposition of the Faith of the Seven to brother-sister marriage eventually led to a decline in the practice. But with the Faith Militant blown to pieces, and with Dany possessing Dragons, organized opposition to their eventual union seems unlikely. Besides, they are not brother and sister.

That’s not to say that issues won’t come up, but my knowledge from the books is of little help this far out from the storyline.

As for Sam, he was clearly more upset by Dickon’s passing than Lord Randyll’s, which really doesn’t require any further explanation. I will say though, Dickon, in his final act, reached a Ned Stark level of “stupid-honor” that should be noted. I don’t know if Dany should have taken this tact, but there it is…

MCS: We know with Bronn ‘it’s all about the Benjamins,’ but I am curious, with what you know about him, will loyalty and/or friendship factor in with the task he has been given by creepy Qyburn to kill Tyrion and Jaime?

G.G.: This is a tough one. The Bronn of the show is clearly more likeable and, to some extent, demonstrates more personal loyalty to those with whom he’s aligned. There’s a real sense that he likes Tyrion and Jaime, and while he talks a good game about being focused purely on wealth and titles, he intimates that there is some kind of emotional connection. (Conversely, in the books, there’s a strong sense that Bronn maintains a personal loyalty to Tyrion, but so much of that can be chalked up to the way Tyrion helped Bronn move up the social and economic ladder.)

Personally, I don’t want Bronn to play a Judas role. He doesn’t pay a lot of lip service to honor, but he also doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would play turn cloak, stabbing a friend in the back. To me, he’s a stab-you-in-the-front kind of guy, which isn’t the nicest thing you can say about someone but an improvement, for sure.

MCS: Looks like all-knowing and all-lurking Bran has been holding a grudge against Jaime this whole time, which makes sense as one would surely never let go of beef with the person who pushed you out a window…

G.G.: I used Judas as a metaphor above in the traditional sense — as a turn cloak who betrays an innocent party. However, I think there is another reading of the Biblical text related to Judas that is more apt for thinking about the Bran-Jaime relationship. Bear with me for a moment…

Whether you’re a believer or not (and I am not), if you look at the message of the Gospels, Judas — along with others — is the material agent of Christ’s death, and thus his fulfillment of his messianic and divine mission. In the stories, Jesus would not be able to complete his mission without Judas’ “treachery.” To Christians, Jesus was required to die and be resurrected in order to demonstrate his godhood. In this way, Judas was merely acting in a way that established Christs’ divine nature. In other words, his act predicated the greatest act in human history — so why is he vilified.

In the same way, Jaime’s attempted murder of Bran set in motion the events that led to him becoming the Three-eyed Raven. Like the Gospel narratives, these was a kind of divine plan of which Jaime was a necessary player. If Bran’s transformation is ultimately positive, and contributes to him, along with others, saving the world, can Bran really hold the grudge? I think Bran and Jaime will squash their beef.

Also, and I think I’ve mentioned this in the past, Jaime’s redemption arc, which is far more apparent and convincing in the books, makes him a sympathetic character to me. He is flawed, and he was, for a time, a real asshole. But Jaime has demonstrated a desire to help humanity, not merely his family, and is risking his life (both from the oncoming army of the dead and from his sister, who seems more and more interested in becoming the Night’s Queen).

So let’s see how this plays out …

MCS: Real quick, to close this week’s #GotGuru session down— I am curious how you feel about the new opening credits? They stepped their game up…

G.G.: And now we come to what I hope is my only unpopular opinion of this discussion: I’ve never liked the credits to Game of Thrones. I always thought they looked cheap and undermined the sense of awe that we’re supposed to have from a big-budget, epic masterpiece of medieval murder and mayhem.

The one redeeming quality to the credits, aside from Peter Dinklage’s name appearing first, is that if gives you a sense of geography of Westeros and some of Essos…though they completely throw out that geography by seemingly magically transporting characters to places it would take them months to get to in the books. Ah, the magic of television!


Circle back for next week’s deconstruction of Season 8 Episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” at Across the Margin!

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