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The ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Premiere Exit Survey

Discussing dragon-riding, the Night King’s message, Bran’s comic relief, and waterfalls as a potential aphrodisiac

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

After every episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, staff members at The Ringer will gather at the nearest weirwood to discuss the most interesting moments, developments, and theories. Without further ado, here’s the exit survey for the premiere episode, “Winterfell.”

1. What is your tweet-length review of the Season 8 premiere?

Kate Knibbs: Needed more Gilly, but a promising start.

Andrew Gruttadaro: I was told there’d be elephants.

Ben Lindbergh: In an hour full of fraught, flirtatious, and tearful reunions between characters, the most welcome reunion was the one between Thrones viewers and the fantasy world we’ve been missing since summer 2017.

Zach Kram: The final season’s premiere mirrored the show’s pilot throughout, but with enough twists to the familiar framework that the episode seemed both nostalgic and fresh. It was a solid table-setter—and a welcome change from last season’s hiccupy affair.

Victor Luckerson: As a person who attends one or two family reunions per year, along with a fish fry, this episode was very much my brand.

Sean Yoo: The season premiere basically seemed like a 10-year high school reunion where you try to make nice with all the people you have horrible memories of, even though everyone knows that you probably won’t see or talk to each other once the night is over.

Katie Baker: I always watch Game of Thrones with the closed captioning on in order to best understand what the heck is going on, which is how I was treated to the textual description “[Flesh squelches]” Sunday night.

2. What was the best moment of the episode?

Kram: I could have watched a full hour of solely the elaborate new credits.

Luckerson: It’s gotta be Jon learning about his true heritage. All the hugs and knowing smirks as major characters reunited could have turned to pure fan service, but watching the worlds-colliding excitement of Dany and Sam’s first meeting turn sour when she revealed she executed Sam’s family, then having that negative interaction inform the aggressive way Sam made the Targ reveal to Jon, was a fantastic payoff of the reunion theme.

Gruttadaro: When Ned Umber’s eyes opened, I slapped my cheeks with both hands like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

Lindbergh: This episode alternately amused me, scared me, and made me tear up, but the most satisfying experience was watching an inconspicuous Arya react as Jon, the Hound, and Gendry filed into Winterfell. Not only did it efficiently establish the setting and reintroduce much of the core cast featured in the premiere, but it reminded us why we were awaiting this season so eagerly. There’s so much history here—both between characters and between the show and invested viewers—that Thrones can evoke more memories and elicit more emotions in a single wordless sequence than most series succeed in doing throughout their entire runs.

Danny Heifetz: Drogon staring down Jon for kissing his mom was the best “if you have sex with her, I’ll kill you” moment since Will Smith drunkenly pointed a gun at Reggie in Bad Boys II.

Yoo: Anytime Bran was being Bran. From immediately cutting off the hellos by telling everyone that the Wall is down and shit is about to get real, to staring down Jaime right as he arrived to Winterfell, Bran was at the right place at the right time all episode long. The Three-Eyed Raven might be the most awkward person in the kingdom, but he also might have the best comedic timing.

Knibbs: I never thought I’d say this, but Bran as comic relief was a delight every time.

Bran Stills via HBO

Baker: One time when I was visiting Ringer HQ, I booked an Airbnb based pretty much entirely on the fact that it had an old-timey record player and a collection of #vinyl. I’m not even a music person or anything—it just seemed quirky and fun! I had sweet dreams of the crackling acoustics and needle drops that awaited me. Then I got to the Airbnb, and there was no record player in sight. When I complained to the host (you’re goddamn right I complained to the host!), they were just kind of like, “Eh, it’s broken.” Anyway, my point is that I completely—like, almost too completely—understood Cersei’s disappointment that the Golden Company didn’t bring along their fightin’ elephants. Just a masterful portrayal of one of her life’s biggest bummers.

3. What was the most frustrating part of the episode?

Baker: That Dany-Samwell scene was harder to watch than any of the torture/slaughter/incest I’ve seen on this show. I feel shaken to my core!!!

Knibbs: Like Cersei, I wanted elephants. Aside from that, as much as I loved seeing Jon ride a dragon, I thought it was weird how casual Daenerys was about suggesting that he mount. She has made a big deal of her knowledge of Targaryen traditions over the years, and it seems like she’d realize that Jon becoming a dragon rider was something monumental. Maybe she was too horny to remember her lore, but her lack of awe over another human being finally being chosen to ride a dragon was a little anticlimactic for me.

Kram: Jon’s first ride atop Rhaegal should have been an enchanting moment, but it was instead bogged down with confusion—namely, that it made no narrative sense. In the books, it seems that Valyrian lineage is necessary to bond with and ride a dragon. If this requirement is also present on the show, Dany should know about it, so her exhortation that Jon should try would be nonsensical, because she doesn’t know he’s a Targaryen. And even if the requirement is not present on the show, Dany has never once entertained the prospect of another rider mounting one of her children, so her exhortation would similarly make little sense here. Either way, Jon doesn’t seem to question his newfound ability; he just accepts that he can ride a dragon without questioning what it might mean. So for all the musical swells and innovative cinematography involved in the making of this scene, it fell rather flat emotionally—a problem that could have been easily fixed if only Sam’s revelation of Jon’s parentage had come before this scene instead, and thus allowed Jon’s dragon bonding to serve as proof that he is, in fact, a Targaryen by blood.

Gruttadaro: I, too, thought Daenerys was weirdly shallow about Jon’s riding Rhaegal—it was a big frickin’ deal! But overall, Dany behaved frustratingly throughout the episode, showing zero empathy as she rode into town. We get it, Dany, you have big dragons that can kill stuff—but if you’re going to be a “great” queen like everyone says, you have to be feared and beloved.

Yoo: “Elephants? That’s disappointing. I was told the Golden Company had elephants.” Me too, Cersei …

Luckerson: Cersei’s being stuck in King’s Landing without any more interesting characters to spar with. Her final scenes with Tyrion and Jaime last season were two of the most memorable in the series. It’s a bad look for Euron when the Queen’s most interesting partner in the episode is her glass of red wine.

Lindbergh: The character roster of Game of Thrones has ceaselessly swollen and contracted over the years, but there’s one constant we can count on: The show is always worse when Theon plays a prominent role. That’s no less true now that he’s a Navy SEAL. The head butt helped, but those parting words with Yara portended more Theon content to come.

I also found Dany’s preflight safety instructions somewhat lacking. So much for seat belts, exit rows, and warnings about how the plastic bag will not fully inflate. Targaryen Airlines makes Spirit look like it pampers its passengers.

Heifetz: Thrones is once again focused on logistics. How do we feed our army? Do dragons like the cold? Yet there is one glaring logistical issue that has gone unanswered: How do none of these people have hats? Dany is a classic Southerner because she doesn’t understand you have to WEAR LAYERS. Ned Stark was out here wearing a dozen foxes around his shoulders, and Dany has a quarter zip. And if Dany doesn’t have a hat or layers, neither do the thousands of Unsullied soldiers. Yes, they have helmets—metal helmets. Have you ever worn a metal helmet on your head in winter? No, because that would be stupid.

4. Pick your favorite reunion.

Knibbs: Arya and Jon! Seeing the show’s biggest sourpusses happy was heartwarming.

Lindbergh: Jon and Arya. After the squabbles between Arya and Sansa and Sansa and Jon, not to mention the one-way warmth between Bran and, well, everyone, it was refreshing to see a Stark reunion in which both long-lost siblings were genuinely overjoyed. Honorable mentions go to Arya and Gendry, Sam and Jorah, and Bran and Jaime.

Luckerson: Sansa-Tyrion, because she dragged three Lannisters (including the one she was talking to) in the span of about 90 seconds. My favorite one-liner of the episode was her remark about Joffrey’s wedding/murder: “It had its moments.”

Yoo: Yara’s immediately head-butting Theon when they reunited was delightful, along with the Hound calling Arya a “cold little bitch.” But I’ll have to go with Sam and Jon here, because the weight of their conversation was massive in the context of the series. There was no better person to deliver the news to Jon than his best friend Sam, and it hit on all the right emotional cues.

Kram: Jaime and Bran. They didn’t even need to speak, but rather just stare across the Winterfell yard—67 episodes after the former pushed the latter from a nearby tower for love—to pack more complex emotion into their reunion than any other in this episode.

Gruttadaro: The unspoken respect between Arya and the Hound was a joy to witness.

Heifetz: Jaime and Dany in the 12 seconds of promo for next week’s episode was way cooler than anything that happened in this week’s episode. Is Jaime-Dany technically a reunion? No. Is it 10 times more interesting than the other reunions? No. It’s 100 times more interesting. Jaime and Bran will get over their beef in 10 seconds. Jaime’s having to explain why he killed the Mad King will take much longer.

Baker: Feeling torn between the Hound’s telling Arya, “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive,” and Tyrion’s telling Sansa, “Many underestimated you. Most of them are dead now.” Someone’s a sucker for those Mitch McConnell–Elizabeth Warren vibes!

5. Honest question: Do you think Jon Snow is sexually aroused by waterfalls?

Jon and Dany

Gruttadaro: That thunderous sound the water makes as it crashes down … it’ll do stuff to you. And then you throw the adrenaline of a dragon ride into the mix?!

Knibbs: I think his thing is actually the caves beneath the waterfalls …

Baker: [Extremely Euron Greyjoy saying “… and the Kingslayer?” voice]: … and the Hydromancer?

Lindbergh: Considering how he lost his virginity, it would only make sense for him to have a waterfall fetish. But Dany decided on the destination, and maybe the man was just happy to have a secluded spot. Caves, boats, snowscapes that seem too cold for naked comfort (remember what Tyrion said about balls freezing off?): When Westeros is at war and you’ve been both a brother of the Night’s Watch and, briefly, a corpse, you can’t be too picky about the settings of your sex scenes. Honestly, as the owner of a highly possessive pet who doesn’t appreciate being banished from the room during, um, intimate moments, Jon’s attempt to ignore a protective Drogon—who also indirectly ruined the mood in Bronn’s bedchamber—was incredibly relatable. Incestuous, dragon-riding royalty: They’re just like us.

Heifetz: Do you remember that episode of The Office where Jim trains Dwight to expect an Altoid every time he hears a noise on Jim’s computer? That’s Jon Snow now. Every time he sees a waterfall his sword will be unsheathed.

Yoo: Look, those were some beautiful waterfalls. I’m not going to judge a man for wanting to get sensual near such magnificent scenery. But I will judge a man for trying to kiss someone in front of dragons—that’s just rude to the dragons. They deserve some warning before you get your PDA on.

Kram: He’s currently canoodling with his aunt. The guy’s apparent aquaphilia (or water fetish), whereby he has sex only in caves next to pools of water, on boats, or next to waterfalls, is the least of his carnal concerns.

Luckerson: More important question: Are dragons sexually aroused by waterfalls?

6. Why is the Night King leaving signs for the living?

Heifetz: I just assumed this is how people left notes before cellphones were invented.

Yoo: The Night King is a marketing genius. My guy has been waiting years for his arrival and is just making sure everyone is aware that he’s nearby. Build that hype, NK!

Gruttadaro: It of course ties back to the Children of the Forest, as our colleague Riley McAtee pointed out, but beyond that I have no concrete answers. That the Night King maybe wants to communicate with the living, rather than just destroy them, is highly exciting in and of itself.

Knibbs: I have no idea, but I do think it lends a lot of credence to the idea that the Night King actually has a mission beyond Death for All. It seemed pointed. Also, didn’t it look like the Targaryen sigil?!

Kram: Hopefully not just to say, “Watch out, I’m coming!” but to instead share some deeper meaning about his character’s motivation. It’s now down to five episodes to figure out what exactly that still-secretive motivation might be.

Lindbergh: Maybe the Night King’s corpse-centric arts and crafts are just his way of processing his history with the Children of the Forest. But whether the primary purpose of his living installation/Bodies exhibit is symbolic or therapeutic, his taste in wall art doubles as an effective intimidation tactic.

Luckerson: He’s got an ice dragon and an open path to Winterfell. Every supervillain needs a monologue before they launch into their evil plot, and since he can’t talk (god don’t let him talk), a frozen crop circle was the next best thing. This was his “Be Prepared.”

Baker: The Night King is just a bored Pinterest Mom using body parts like they’re Babybel cheese.

7. How will Daenerys react to the reveal that Jon is actually Aegon Targaryen?

Gruttadaro: She’s going to take it very badly. We’re talking about the woman who just subtly implied to Jon that she’d be willing to burn Sansa alive if she doesn’t bend the knee. This is not a rational person we’re working with. (I also think Jon’s gonna keep the secret for a little bit, because he knows deep down that all of the above is true.)

Luckerson: She won’t be happy but Jon will want to keep it under wraps anyway to avoid political squabbling before the fight against the Night King. Then Bran will blurt it out when he appears mysteriously just outside the camera frame during a totally unrelated conversation.

Baker: Presumably the same way I reacted to this tweet:

Knibbs: She’ll be mad for a single episode’s annoying story line and they’ll be engaged either right before or immediately after the Battle of Winterfell.

Heifetz: She’ll burn him alive. Then when he walks out of the flames it will be awkwaaarddddddd because that is totally her thing!

Yoo: I think Dany will be less disappointed by the incest thing and more annoyed with the fact that she’s not the true heir to the Seven Kingdoms. Incest is pretty normal among the Targs, and she seems very much in love with Jon at the moment, so I think the real struggle for her will be when she realizes that the throne she’s been desiring her whole life is not actually meant for her.

Lindbergh: If the past seven seasons are any indication, not well? Reclaiming the crown she believes to be rightfully hers is the quest that’s kept her alive, carried her across the world, and earned her an army. She’ll be bothered much more by the thought of bending the knee to her nephew than by the revelation that she’s been banging him.

Kram: Jon might not want to believe it, but at least he knows he has reason to believe Bran and Sam. Dany hadn’t met either of that pair before Season 8; she has no first-hand experience with their trustworthiness and would likely require further proof than the word of a teenage boy and the transcribed diary of a clandestine septon. Perhaps further exploration of the crypts—now a part of the opening credits, and the location of many key scenes—would reveal just such an item. Might Rhaegar Targaryen’s harp appear in Lyanna Stark’s tomb?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.