This review contains spoilers for episode one of Game of Thrones, season 8
What a moment. The look on Jon Snow’s – or rather, Aegon Targaryen’s – face. The way he stared. Stepped back. Frowned. Blinked. Then stared some more. He was dumbstruck.
The sudden shock of learning his true identity. Of learning that he’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
Or perhaps just the realisation that he’s been having sex with his aunt.
It was the most dramatic moment of an otherwise restrained scene-setter, largely composed of reunions and introductions. With only five more episodes of the show left to come, the lack of urgency did feel slightly frustrating.
“We don’t have time for all of this!” snapped Bran Stark, as everyone else dithered and wittered. His newly acquired powers of omniscience apparently allow him to read the viewer’s mind, too.
Not that the episode was dull. It was good: tense, ominous, and prowling with menace. There was something especially satisfying about the almost universal resentment of Daenerys from the people she’s spent seven seasons preparing to rule.
First Sansa, then various northern nobles – but finally, and most crucially, Sam Tarly. When Daenerys confessed to Sam that she’d executed his father and brother, he whimpered like a kicked puppy – before erupting, once out of the room, in a fit of wholly uncharacteristic rage.
This was important. Sam is the show’s moral centre, its heart. Of all its hundreds of characters, he’s the most generous, the most sympathetic, the most forgiving. Yet his first impression of Daenerys – he’d never met her, till now – was one of disbelieving horror. And that matters. It invites us to pause, and reconsider her.
Daenerys may be a self-styled liberator of slaves and overthrower of tyrants, but Sam’s right: she’s also brutally, mercilessly, murderously self-interested. Not to mention haughty, affected, entitled – and curiously lacking in warmth, or charm.
This nagging distrust of her is something that I suspect most of us have had at the back of our minds, throughout the show – but we feel as if we’re not supposed to dislike her. After all, she’s meant to be the heroine, isn’t she?
Her path to the Iron Throne is inevitable, surely? So it’s interesting that the writers chose Sam to denounce her. Normally, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone – even his late father, who bullied him remorselessly.
Yet Sam – kind, soft, innocent Sam – is the one the writers have selected to say to us: no, actually. Daenerys isn’t some spotless, quasi-holy saviour. She, in her way, is a tyrant, too.
I wonder whether the writers themselves have turned against her. It might explain why they keep making her look so smug about her dragons (that awful smirk whenever anyone sees them for the first time, and trembles). And why they’ve started giving her such terrible lines. That pitifully soppy scene in the latest episode, when she took Jon Snow on a dragon ride over the frozen mountains of the North, and ordered him to kiss her: “Keep your queen warm!”
Your queen. If I were a writer on this show, and I were gearing up to have Daenerys killed, that’s exactly the kind of line I’d give her. So presumptuous, so preening, so self-satisfied. All right, so strictly speaking she is Jon’s queen – or at least, so she thinks, at this stage. But she doesn’t need to keep on saying it. Unless she’s only doing it to convince herself.
Then again, maybe the writers are just setting up another twist. In the previous seasons, Daenerys has only seemed truly relatable when she’s exacting furious vengeance on her persecutors: most obviously, in season six, when she burns alive the Dothraki chiefs who have taken her captive, and have just outlined, in leering detail, their plans to gang-rape her.
So perhaps the writers are deliberately making Daenerys seem vulnerable, weak and hated – so that, once more, she can rise up, and defy the world. And this time, us too.
This latest episode may have been thin on action, but there was an unusually high concentration of good one-liners.
For example, Tyrion, to the eunuch Varys, who’d been complaining about the cold: “You should consider yourself lucky. At least your balls won’t freeze off.” I haven’t been able to decide whether or not the writers meant this to sound ironic. Since going to work for Daenerys, after all, Tyrion himself has effectively been neutered, his chief remaining purpose on the show being to crack gags like that one.
Unusually, almost every significant character was given their moment on screen – the most obvious exception being the Night King. Then again, perhaps the Night King doesn’t really count as a character. After all, we never hear him speak, or do anything much more than glare and kill. In fact, over the seven seasons to date, he’s had remarkably little screen time at all.
It’s strange: the show’s other villains are presented in hideous, teeming detail. Yet its biggest villain of all is a two-dimensional fairy-tale bogeyman, with no more depth or substance than the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. The Night King is just a baddie, who does bad things, because he’s bad. That’s it. There is, apparently, little more to know.
A far superior villain is the glitteringly malignant Cersei. In this episode she was hardly seen herself, but was still the best, and most alluringly awful, thing in it. “What would she do,” murmured her adviser Qyburn, handing a crossbow to Bronn, “for the man who rids her of her treasonous brothers?” Note the plural. Cersei doesn’t just want Tyrion killed. She wants Jaime killed, too – no matter that she’s currently pregnant with their fourth child.
Of course, in the final episode of season seven, she did warn Jaime that she would have him killed – but, since she didn’t order Ser Gregor to crush him on the spot like an overripe watermelon, the threat rang hollow. So Qyburn’s message, in this episode, came as a gentle, softly spoken shock. Perhaps, even after all Cersei’s done, we’re still as naive about her as her brothers are.
“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” sniffed Sansa with contempt, on discovering that Tyrion has been taken in by Cersei’s pledge of military support against the White Walkers. There was a lot of that, in this episode: reminders of how far each of the main characters has travelled, and not just literally. In seven and a bit seasons, Sansa has gone from gullible to wise. Tyrion, it seems, is moving in the opposite direction.
The real action, presumably, will begin next week. Someone is going to have to break it to Daenerys that she has an unexpected rival to the throne she assumed to be hers. And that it’s her boyfriend. Who’s also her nephew.
Still, if I were her, I wouldn’t give up hope. From the beginning, after all, this is a story that has revelled in pulling the rug from under us. A story that killed off the man we took to be its central character – Ned Stark – before the first season was out.
Jon, or Aegon, is suddenly the favourite for the throne. So now he’s bound to die.