By: Daphne Olive
Recording a podcast about Game of Thrones Season 7 put me in the perfect frame of mind to be more excited about the beginning of Season 8 than I have been about Game of Thrones for a while, and I really enjoyed these first two episodes of the season. I had been vocal about wanting more of what I originally loved about Game of Thrones at every opportunity - on panels at Con of Thrones, in the podcast, to friends and pretty much anyone who would listen. My favorite version of Game of Thrones is that which centers characters and relationships. These episodes were very much that; likely before we move on to a whole lot of bombast, which is also fun, but not my personal favorite.
!! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS !!
From this point on there will be spoilers for Game of Thrones through and including the first 2 episodes of Season 8. Stop here if you do not want to be spoiled. I will offer you a delightful gif of Brienne and Jaime giving each other what would be in the world of Black Sails the most emotional of Pirate Hugs:
I am not planning on recapping this season. I just wanted to bring up one aspect of the beginning of Season 8 that has really struck me. I love the Starks. Seeing the remaining Starks back together and in their home, Winterfell, coupled with the many call backs to the first episode of Season 1, we naturally find ourselves thinking back to earlier parts of the story and the emotional distances the characters have traveled.
And now I am laughing at myself for saying “emotional distances” when I need words so much stronger but can’t think of an umbrella term to describe all of their varied roads of horror. Each Stark survived in their own way and their survival tools had personal costs. Season 8 has them inhabiting their childhood home again, but they are each so very different from the people they were. The Stark children are not only not children any longer, but also exist in spaces somewhat separate from the humanity around them. That separateness takes a different form for each of them that matches the lives of survival they have led since they parted from each other so long ago. The time since their reunion in Winterfell has also offered each Stark opportunities to inch closer back into the world of human community and connection.
The Starks have had a connection to magic from the beginning. They found their direwolves early in the story - long before Daenerys hatched her dragon babies. Still they always felt like the highborn family that was most ‘of the people’ for me, perhaps from the time we spent with them at Winterfell in the beginning of Game of Thrones. We saw Ned and his family interact comfortably with the smallfolk around them. Their family always felt very grounded in the more mundane world of humanity. Winterfell is messy and less glamorous than the other locations we have seen in Westeros and Essos. The people who would be framed more as servants in other settings feel almost like family when interacting with the Starks. Perhaps Winterfell is the key to the hints of personal transformations in Season 8. Perhaps it is the reassembling of the pack, but also the influence of the rootedness of home. I am not sure yet the catalyst. I am interested in the parallels that struck me in the very different stories of the four Starks as we see them shift from their Season 7 to Season 8 stories.
Let’s start with Arya. Her separation from humanity is encoded in her choice to become No One, and even before that she had been forced to deny her identity to survive after Ned was beheaded. Her early and continuing traumatic conditions took her from a little girl with a death list to an older girl serving the God of Death. She did not completely leave behind her humanity: she did save Lady Crane. Still, when she comes back to Westeros, we see her inability to function in the most basic human interactions when she meets up with Hot Pie again. His warmth towards her contrasted with her weirdness really highlights Arya’s separateness.
Then she arrived to Winterfell and has been gradually coming back to the world of life. Arya is still a fascinatingly strange person. I enjoy not being able to predict what form that strangeness will take in her interactions (I am going to ignore the way they used her strangeness to trick the viewers in Season 7 - listen to the podcast episode for that discussion) Her two meetings with Sandor Clegane show her process of thawing. In Episode 8.01 Arya shows him almost no recognition, and then in 8.02, she is still her prickly self but in a way that recognizes their connection. We watch Arya turning towards life; towards relating to people again. Of course the most significant turn is towards Gendry. We can almost see the child she was in looks she gives him. Gendry was the person she told of her true identity when she was Arry. It makes sense that reuniting with a trusted friend would help Arya turn away from Death (want to fight Death even) and renew her connection with humanity, community, and pursuits that don't involve murder; one that even can lead to new life (not that I am at all even remotely suggesting that is where the story is going! Seriously, that is not going to be a thing or I will not be happy at all)
Sansa has become my favorite character. Her response to trauma has been to learn and build around herself fortifications of practicality and smart strategic analysis of potential dangers. Heartbreaking and so beautifully developed in the story and through Sophie Turner's flawless performance. Fortifications are also barriers, and her self preservation has required separation from community even when she returns to the home of her people, surrounded by her people. Sansa’s story follows her increasing isolation at the hands of smart and brutal enemies who pretend to offer her benevolence at first. She has value for her tormentors throughout the story as an object - as a key to power through her lineage. In every stage of Sansa’s subjugation, the most human aspects of her personality become tools for her enemies to use against her: her romanticism, her nativity, her longing for love and acceptance, her status as a woman. We then see her wrap herself in the emotional armor of rejecting those human vulnerabilities as she carefully chooses which of her enemies’ lessons to adopt. Sansa's initial stage of return to Winterfell was part of her story of separation from humanity and community, and also part of what allowed her to reconnect. Her abuse by Ramsay Bolton went way beyond anything Joffrey, Cersei, and Littlefinger could do.
During the period of Ramsay’s abuse, a tiny opening in that armor that would allow her to start finding her way back remained, fostered by the quiet support of the smallfolk around her. The Sansa who left Ramsay to his hounds is almost unrecognizable from the naive girl she once was. Her early time as Lady Stark was an image of a stoic figure, so smart, so practical, but also so alone, even when surrounded by people. At the same time, she was connected to the community around her through her care and service to her people underneath that veneer of stoicism. Sansa’s Season 7 connection to her people flowed from her heart but could not break the protective barriers she had built around her. I had a vision of Sansa's connection as the non-magical, emotional version of how the Three Eyed Raven connects to the world. Both seem disconnected through lack of visible emotionality, but have invisible tendrils of connection: The Three Eyed Raven through his mystical ties to the eyes in all of the weirwood trees and Sansa through her service to her people that manifests in thoughtfulness about things like stores of food and proper padding of armor for winter. Each sibling reunion allowed her to soften the barriers she had built, until in 8.02, her reunion with Theon broke through completely. It took reconnection with a character who could touch her through shared experience and understanding of the reason for the fortress to melt its walls enough to widen that opening. Seeing Sansa with Theon in Episode 8.02 gave me such hope for her.
The male Starks have stories that involve transformations more magical by nature than psychological. That feels like a topic for me to think about going forward....
Jon died and came back to life. That is a pretty big separation from the rest of humanity. His return to Winterfell has reconnected him to humanity in an odd way. Finding out about his parentage and claim to the throne feels like a swift turn off the very magic-centered path he has been on of possible Azor Ahai / Fire Wight / Dragon Rider super prophecy-imbued story. Being a Targaryen is not without connection to magic, but a claim to the Iron Throne is also firmly based in the mundane world of politics and actually ruling people. We know Jon is pretty good at ruling people, despite his reluctance to do so (because of it?) His new identity coupled with his reunion in 8.02 with his Night's Watch brothers, who he had ruled well, feels like a bit of grounding for our broody hero.
Bran is the Stark most obviously distant from the person he was and the human world around him. This one is pretty obvious. He has spent a lot of time telling people he is not Bran anymore. When Jon says he is a man, he says "almost" (cue Sansa's smirk). When I decided to write about this my plan was to pass over the idea of his reconnection with humanity, but his speech about the Night King hunting him as he had past Three Eyed Ravens changed my mind. Bran's connection to humanity is abstract and certainly doesn't show on his face, but it is profound: "He wants to erase this world and I am its memory." Whether inspired by or merely coinciding with his homecoming, Bran also sees his place as one of service to humanity: he seems to see benefit in having become the Three Eyed Raven when speaking to Jaime. He wants to potentially sacrifice himself as bait for the greater good. He is still quite disconnected and truly not entirely human himself, but that is as close as we are going to get, and the idea of being the embodied memory of the world is cool enough for me to stop there.
It is impossible to know where this story will go in the last four episodes. These two episodes were a gift both tonally and in the sense of hope more generally that I got from seeing the Starks reconnect with their humanity to the extent that each did. I hope that the philosophical and thematic conversation between the magical and the mundane in the world continues in the story of Game of Thrones to the end. I feel that the developments of the first two episodes of Season 8 imply that the Stark family will continue their interesting place in that conversation - you know, if they survive :)
Here is the link to our podcast episode on Season 7 of Game of Thrones: click here
with cohost @kiippinsk and many links to other sources of great Game of Thrones content creators.
Thank you Meghan for your editing excellence 🖤