“That fucking family.”
The line is spoken by Bronn (sorry—Ser Bronn of the Blackwater) of Cersei’s (sorry—Queen Cersei’s) assignment to execute her brothers via crossbow, the very weapon one of them used to murder their father. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, but also because it could have been spoken at virtually any point in Game of Thrones about one of the many would-be dynasties it chronicles. In the premiere of its eighth and final season, Thrones has returned to its roots: internecine squabbles and the cold, hard realities that govern them.
The penultimate season of HBO’s fantasy saga earned skepticism from critics, this one included, for its break from the modus operandi of previous chapters. Led by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the writers appeared to be taking narrative shortcuts in stark contrast with A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin’s famously methodical plotting. This shift manifested itself in the nuts and bolts of how Thrones characters navigated their shared universe; some traversed entire continents in a single episode, a practice fans derisively termed “jetpacking.” But it also took its toll in how players behaved toward one another. Conflicts were forced. Consequences were shrugged off. Loose ends were compounded.
Given that Season 8 was set to run for just half a dozen episodes, albeit supersize ones, concerns mounted for the epic story’s conclusion. Not only did the show have more material than ever to cover or simply explain—it now had less time in which to do so. All evidence pointed to the shifts of Season 7 trickling down into the very DNA of the show. There’s no room for human-on-human conflict as the Great War against the dead looms over Westeros, and there’s no space to fill plot holes as the Titanic of prestige television races toward an almost literal iceberg.
And yet, alongside fan favorites like Jaime Lannister and Tormund Giantsbane, a familiar presence made itself known Sunday night: logistics. As Daenerys Targaryen’s army of Unsullied marched its way into Winterfell, Sansa Stark grumbled about a lack of resources to feed them. When the Golden Company made landfall, Cersei demanded its commander itemize the forces he’d be contributing to her war effort. And despite a plot device like the seemingly omniscient Bran in their midst, the Winterfell contingent still suffers from the old-school Thrones affliction of an information gap. Cersei has opted to betray the truce forged in last season’s finale, but Tyrion still thinks her armies are on their way. All of this is a far cry from those giant chains the ice zombies managed to rustle up out of nowhere in “Beyond the Wall.” In any other saga, such nitpicks would serve as impediments to the primary action and be treated as such by viewers. Only on Game of Thrones do the brass tacks of major land wars come as a welcome return to form.
That’s because Game of Thrones lives in the frictions these hang-ups create. Daenerys Targaryen wants to be treated as a conquering hero by the people of the North and their rulers, who are also her de facto in-laws. Instead, she’s just one more headache for the overburdened and underestimated Sansa to work through. Which feeds directly into the timeless Thrones theme that Bronn condenses into just three words. Family is supposed to be a source of stability in an unstable world. More often than not, though, it’s the very thing that weighs you down, or stands between you and your goals.
There’s probably no better example of this than the painful revelation of Jon Snow’s, or rather Aegon Targaryen’s, true parentage. Jon thinks he’s found a soul mate in Daenerys and recovered long-lost siblings in Arya, Sansa, and Bran. Tragically, he’s only managed to alienate the Stark side of his lineage for the sake of a girlfriend who turns out to be his aunt—though in deeply Thronesian fashion, the incest implications of this reveal get a lot less immediate consideration than the political ones. Jon technically has a better claim to the Seven Kingdoms than Dany does, which means his girlfriend is now automatically his rival, whether he wants her to be or not. It was so much simpler when they were tied together by attraction instead of blood.
Jon’s predicament is certainly the most dramatic example of family complicating allegiances instead of clarifying them, but it’s certainly not the only one. Samwell Tarly hated his father, with good reason, but hearing of his violent, dragon-induced death reduces him to tears and pushes him to tell Jon the tough news. He may have had an easier time picking sides than most other Thrones characters, but Sam still has a family—and still has to pay a price. Meanwhile, Arya wants her reunion with Jon to be the joyous occasion many fans had anticipated, but the split between him and Sansa means she’s forced to choose sides. When Jon is incredulous that she’s backing the refined lady she always resented over her former sparring partner, Arya explains, “I’m defending our family. So is she.” Letting family guide your decisions doesn’t necessarily make them easier. Even Euron Greyjoy seems a little bummed that Yara and Theon are the only kinsfolk he’s got left.
But the harder the choices are to make for the characters on Game of Thrones, the better the show is. More and more of the cast has arrayed themselves against the White Walkers, a frustratingly unambiguous threat to human civilization. Coupled with a rapidly approaching deadline, this realignment risked ironing out the wrinkles that have distinguished Game of Thrones from its genre peers. Thankfully, in “Winterfell,” Thrones remains knotty as ever. In Westeros, the ties that bind tend to get very tangled indeed.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.