Reviewed by Tania Evans
Savvy Game of Thrones fans will have noticed that the eighth season begins by echoing the first episode of the series, “Winter is Coming”: a sovereign arrives at the snowy Northern castle Winterfell as a young child scampers to get a view of the party and their leader. Where the first episode saw the feisty tomboy Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) dressed as a boy while trying to catch a glimpse of then-king Robert Baratheon and “the Imp” (Peter Dinklage), season eight begins with a nameless boy trying to see Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her lover/ally Jon Snow (Kit Harington) as they forces join Winterfell ahead of the battle against the white walkers, a large army of magical ice-zombies headed by the Night King (Vladimir Furdik). “Winterfell” echoes “Winter is Coming” in terms of both shots and musical score, and it is very much intentional: repetitions, reconsiderations, and rememberings are all key themes that run throughout the episode.
A large part of “Winterfell” is spent on Daenerys, Jon, and her army and advisors convening in the North, and all of the (re)connections and tensions involved. There is an awkward familiarity between a lot of the reunited characters, and while many are exciting and heartfelt – such as Jon and Arya – others feel slightly undercooked – Arya and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann). Perhaps the strangest moment was Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) animosity towards Daenerys, which is neither explained nor well founded. It is possible she is holding a familial grudge against the Targaryens because the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, murdering her uncle and her grandfather, but this seems somewhat childish given the whole army-of-the-living-dead-on-her-doorstep situation. I can only assume that this a ploy to make Jon look better in comparison, as the wise champion of we-all-need-to-work-together-ness, much like the previous seasons where Daenerys’s political capability is watered down so that Tyrion has something to do as Hand of the Queen.
Possible sexism aside, “Winterfell” also saw Jon’s true parentage and claim to the Iron Throne revealed by his friend and scholar Samwell Tarly (John Bradley). At the end of season seven the longstanding fan theory “R+L=J” – that is, Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark are Jon’s parents, making him the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne – was confirmed. Sam’s partner Gilly (Hannah Murray) happened upon a record of Rhaegar and Lyanna’s secret marriage and Jon’s brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) had magical visions confirming that Jon is in fact Aegon Targaryen, who was thought to have been murdered as a baby when the Targaryen dynasty fell some twenty-odd years ago.
The most interesting and important part of this scene is not Jon learning about his claim to the throne though: it is the way that the revelation is couched in a discussion around violence, masculinity, and power. The conversation begins with Sam telling Jon that Daenerys “executed my father and brother” for refusing to bend the knee and asking, “would you have done it” if he were “king of the bloody Seven Kingdoms”? In a previous episode Jon executed the traitorous Lord Janos Slynt, who was involved in Eddard Stark’s death, out of anger and a desire for revenge. Jon was later killed by his fellow Night’s Watch recruits for similar reasons: anger and revenge over allowing the wildlings to pass beneath the magical Wall to escape the white walkers. Since Jon was brought back to life he has not used interpersonal violence in this way: apart from battle scenes he has only used violent threats on two occasions, and both were tempered through his connections to others. But now, as potential ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, he is faced once again with the question, as Judith Butler says of gender subversion, of deciding “how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very norms that enable the repetition itself” (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 148). As I have argued elsewhere, the Martinverse has clear ideas about how violence should and should not be used. Jon’s own failed sovereign violence is echoed in this moment, as well as a long lineage of misused sovereign violence that is suggested by the scene’s setting, the crypt at Winterfell, where the statue of Eddard and the spectre of Robert Baratheon looms over the conversation.
Jon is not the only character whose future power and violence are foregrounded in “Winterfell.” In the city of King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the “vile, scheming, evil bitch” Queen of Westeros, seeks to maintain her power in multiple ways: she purchases The Golden Company, an army-for-hire from Essos, (briefly) gains political hostages in the form of Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), cements her alliance with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) through sex, and commissions the knight Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to murder her brothers Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion. As Cersei’s Hand of the Queen, Qyburn (Anton Lesser), gives Bronn this task, he offers him the same gilded crossbow that Tyrion used to murder their father Tywin, and Joffrey used to murder prostitutes and abuse Sansa Stark. Qyburn comments that Cersei “has a keen sense of poetic justice,” drawing the audience’s attention to these violent echoes. However, unlike Jon, Cersei does not deign to question her own violence. Rather, she appears content with repeating the patriarchal order as a means of maintaining her personal power – even though this means she is maintaining a system that empowers her as an individual as opposed to re-working the patriarchal feudal system.
Cersei and Jon are positioned in markedly different ways, but it is significant that both characters have their violence, masculinity, and repetition highlighted and interrogated in “Winterfell.” This first episode sets up the season as one that will be fundamentally concerned with the past and the future, of being constituted within the matrices of power that we work to dismantle. The question for Jon, for Westeros, and for this final season of Game of Thrones appears to be, how do we move forward from our violent past? How do we escape the destructive wheel that empowers the minority while disenfranchising the majority? What is the relationship between feeling, power, and popular Fantasy texts, and how is it being put to political uses? And finally, how can we imagine a masculinity in the Fantasy genre and, by extension, the real world, which is both intelligible as masculine and refuses to reproduce the domination of others through violence?
Butler, Judith. (1990) 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed. Routledge: New York.
Tania Evans is a cultural studies researcher at the Australian National University, Australia. Her PhD on masculinity and Fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - current) and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011-2019), was recently passed and she will be graduating in July 2019. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika Journal, Masculinities, and Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. She teaches literary studies, film, and feminist theory.
Read more of Tania’s work on Game of Thrones here:
- An article on Cersei in Aeternum: https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
- A meme version of this article: http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/10-memes-explain-how-game-thrones-cersei-lannister-blowing-patriarchy
- A book chapter on Shireen: https://www.palgrave.com/jp/book/9783319964560