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Game of Thrones Recap: Where’s the Night King?

The Night King, shrugging.

Game of Thrones returned for its final season on Sunday night, and although there are still several episodes left for the show to redeem itself, it’s hard to see the season premiere, “Winterfell,” as anything but a step backward. The episode exemplifies one of the most frustrating things about Game of Thrones: Whenever it seems to find its focus and start moving the plot along (see, e.g., “Hardhome” or “The Dragon and the Wolf”), the writers almost immediately plunge back into internecine quarrels between the villains, which, as the show itself keeps reminding us, don’t matter at all in the face of the Night King and his army of the dead. The Season 8 opener wasn’t all jawing and moving pieces on the board around, but many significant moments happened off screen. And it’s never a great sign when an episode’s most thrilling scenes—soldiers encircling a group of wildlings, a majestic dragon in flight, White Walkers on the march—all come during the “Previously On” section.

Still, someone’s got to set the dominoes up before they get knocked over, and director David Nutter and screenwriter David Hill do a superb job of establishing a sense of impending conflict in the opening scene. It’s sort of a riff on the “All Gold Canyon” chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: We see a beautiful pastoral landscape—snow on the quiet forest floor, a stream that’s just about to freeze—invaded by a single child, sprinting across the frozen ground. As the camera follows him, more and more of the natural world is replaced by signs of man, until he encounters other people, first individually, then in groups, then in an impassable crowd. The camera finally pulls back as the child climbs a tree, revealing a vast army of the living marching into Winterfell. The shot evokes the end of Ivan the Terrible, Part I, which doesn’t speak well of the mental state of Winterfell’s leadership, and the crane shot from Gone With the Wind, which doesn’t speak well of anyone’s chances against the White Walkers. It’s an extremely efficient machine for producing dread.

Unfortunately, that’s one of the last sparks of excitement in the episode. Hill and Nutter seem to know they’re going to have a hard time keeping the audience interested while very little is happening, because they have a character interrupt two other characters’ pointless exchange of formalities with this preview of coming attractions:

We don’t have time for all this. The Night King has your dragon. He’s one of them now. The wall has fallen. The dead march south.

But nobody listens, least of all the filmmakers, because there are still 50-odd minutes of the episode to fill, and they’re mostly filled with squabbling. It’s important for Game of Thrones to establish that the fractious human factions in Westeros are ill-prepared to face a unified, disciplined force like the Night King’s army, but eight seasons in, the point has already been made. And “Winterfell” is so dedicated to presenting every conceivable character pairing that it sometimes feels like watching a Punnett square. It finally seems like something is going to happen when fan favorite the Mountain—easily the most likable character south of the wall—moves to interrupt an assignation between two other characters. But it’s a cruel fakeout: Not only does the Mountain not kill anyone, the very next scene is a return to the show’s absolute worst Season 1 tendencies: It’s set in a brothel for no discernable reason besides filling the frame with creamy, unmarred, warm human skin, without a single exposed rib cage or dangling jawbone to keep things decent. There have got to be better ways to evoke the horrors the Night King rides against without this kind of gratuitous exploitation.

It’s not until a visit to Last Hearth, the ancestral home of House Umber, that Hill and Nutter find their footing. The lighting is finally as dark as it should be, and after an episode filled with warm hearths and flickering candles, it’s a relief to see a snowy courtyard take on a welcoming blue tint in the freezing night air. The scene takes place shortly after a battle, which strongly suggests that some of the money that paid for hours and hours of incomprehensible human muttering would have been better spent getting the Night King’s victory at Last Hearth on screen. Nevertheless, it’s still stirring to see pools of blood staining the snow red, and it was a smart move, particularly in an episode as grim as “Winterfell,” to reassure the audience that the series isn’t going to spend the entire season wallowing in miserabilism.

Better yet, after an episode dedicated to old enemies, Hill and Nutter give the audience a new friend at last, a blue-eyed charmer of perhaps 12 years of age who lives on a wall in the basement of Castle Umber surrounded by a gorgeous spiral of severed limbs. But Game of Thrones didn’t get its reputation for narrative cruelty for no reason, and if you were expecting a happy ending, you probably should have watched Melancholia. Seconds after the show introduces the most promising character in several seasons, he is run through with a flaming sword and dies in the worst way imaginable: warm, surrounded by people who care about him, and miles from the nearest wight or zombie. It makes sense to emphasize human cruelty as the show heads toward its final confrontation between good and evil, but it’s brutal to watch a life end so painfully when it had only just begun. Sadism toward the audience aside, however, the main point of a season premiere on a highly serialized show like Game of Thrones is to provide the heroes with motivation for their battles to come. When the Night King finds out about the atrocity at Last Hearth, his righteous anger should be enough to power an entire season. Let’s just hope the good guys get a little more screen time next week.