Warning: This post contains major spoilers for the second episode of Game of Thrones final season.
Game of Thrones has been undergoing a personality crisis since season seven, which was so different from everything that preceded it that the series felt like a totally different show. There were two primary reasons for that. 1) Characters started acting totally out-of-character (mostly by being really dumb). 2) Everything was rushed, both distance traveled and the pace of episodes. Those problems continued with the season eight premiere, “Winterfell.” Petty fights, silly dragon rides, and a lack of focus on the coming Great War were so frustrating, we asked if the living even deserved to win. It also had us worried the show might not stick the landing on one of the most anticipated final seasons ever.
We can stop worrying now, because this week’s Game Of Thrones returned to greatness. The final season’s second episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” focused on what has always been the driving force of the show and what has always made it great, the characters and their relationships.
Huge set pieces, epic battles, Red Weddings, and face swapping men are cool and vital to the show’s success, but we only care about any of that because we love the characters. Game of Thrones might be a fantasy series, but it’s one anchored by empathetic people facing a harsh world. That’s why it has always been engrossing to watch two enemies sit across from one another, sharing a drink together as they size each other up, like Littlefinger and Varys would, or Tyrion and Cersei. Olenna Tyrell never picked up a sword, but her sharp tongue was riveting no matter whom she spoke to. Those were the scenes that used to take up the majority of episodes and entire seasons, not the spectacles those seasons built toward. The show created a fascinating world where the political ramifications of people sitting around a table felt more important than the war those moments led to. When those people experienced a crushing loss, or yet another beloved person died, it meant so much to us because the show invested in their personal stories and so did we.
That’s what this week’s episode did so perfectly, like during its best seasons. We got to slow down and reinvest in these people. Whether a bunch of former enemies sat around a fire and drank, waiting to die together, or friends stood on a wall making jokes; this episode’s moments were better than any of season seven’s action sequences. That room, those glasses of wine (and one horn of wildling…something), the old stories and the long silences–all had more weight than any Loot Train Attack ever could.
When you think of everything everyone has been through together – Brienne and Jaime, Arya and Gendry, Jorah and Daenerys, Jaime and Bran, Tyrion and Daenerys, Grey Worm and Missandei, Sam and Jon, Sansa and Theon – it’s remarkable how much they’ve endured to be here in this moment of reckoning. Spending a few quiet, unrushed moments with them–as Jaime knighted Brienne, Jorah defended Tyrion, and Tormund tackled Jon in a hug–was a chance to feel the gravity of everything that has brought them–and us–to this moment.
After a disappointing season premiere followed the show’s worst season, we feared the Game of Thrones we loved was gone for good. This week the show finally remembered what made us love it in the first place.
When we’re watching the Battle of Winterfell next week, we’re going to enjoy the spectacle of it, just like we always have. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the same without ice demons, special swords, and fire-breathing dragons. But we’re going to care about the episode and what happens at Winterfell for the reason we’ve always loved the show: we care about the people.