Note: Be warned, for this post is long and full of minor spoilers.
Readers and watchers have waited in anticipation, counting down the days when Game of Thrones would return to the screen. Theories and speculations bombard Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media outlets, some reasonable, others extremely far fetched but still fun. It's hard not to see some advertisement or merchandise about GOT when you get online.
Finally, on April 14th, we returned to the iced-over world of Westeros.
And responses to the show were lackluster.
In fact, many people have complained that the first two episodes were merely full of dialogue and nothing actually happened. There was no fighting, no epic dragon battles, nothing that entirely felt like GOT except for the random sex scenes and witty banter. With the trailers promising epic fights, it's not surprising that people would feel a little disappointed that they didn't get that action immediately.
However, I think people fail to see what GOT did do for us.
The show demonstrated a common theme of the "calm before the storm" of battle. Before everything goes to hell, the characters get their final moments together. For anyone who has seen the show or read the books, we know that George R. R. Martin is pretty merciless. No one is safe, so this may be the last time we get to see our beloved characters that we've followed over the years.
Episode 1 does a wonderful job of bringing characters together again who haven't seen each other since the first season. All the still-living Starks are finally back at Winterfell. Arya and Jon reconnect for the first time since the tender moment in season one when he gave her Needle. Jon gets to see Sansa and Bran. It's heartwarming and something many people have wanted to happen. At the same time, we get a lot of call backs to season one:
Arya leaping in Jon's arms to hug him
The Starks greeting a ruler (Robert/Dany) at the front gate
Jamie and Bran sharing a moment at the end of the episode, an echo of when Jamie shoved Bran out the window
A boy climbing the walls/tree of Winterfell to see the approaching royalty
It's a nice reminder of something we haven't seen for so long.
Episode two goes deeper into character development, giving them a chance to share one last moment together before the coming battle. For the first time, enemies-turned-allies break bread together. Think of the scene around the hearth with Tyrion and Jamie (Lanisters), Tormund (Wildling), Brienne of Tarth (once a knight for the Baratheons then a protector of the Starks), etc. This is a profound moment, especially when Tyrion jokes to Jamie about how he'd love to see the look on their father's face if he knew they were willing to fight and die at Winterfell. There are no Houses at this point, just people coming together to fight for the living.
You also get many special moments for individual characters:
Brienne is officially knighted by Jamie
Arya has sex for the first time with Gendry
Arya and the Hound reunite after she left him for dead (which is just a funny scene)
Jon, and then Dany, learn about his true heritage
Theon returns after leaving Winterfell in shame and pledges to fight for them and protect Bran.
Sansa shines as the Lady of Winterfell and a defender of the north, despite Dany's claim to the throne.
Brienne and Jamie share a tender moment when he promises to fight for her.
Podrick sings a song to pull the episode together (wonder if Ed Sheeran will cover that one too)
Missandei and Grey Worm pledge their love and a future with one another
Yes, the episode is filled with dialogue. No, there aren't action scenes or daring quests for us to talk about. But the depth in what we do receive with the characters can't be ignored.
Books and movies are known for this "calm before the storm" so writers can make the readers/watchers feel and care about the characters before the inevitable battle. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Harry talks with his deceased loved ones before his fight with Voldemort. It's a slow, quiet moment where he has to face his fear and he knows he has his family to back him. Likewise, he talks with a ghostly Dumbledore to understand his purpose in the battle, and in the world, before the final fight at Hogwarts. In Lord of the Rings, we get moments with the characters preparing for battle and saying final goodbyes or offering encouragement. In the Hunger Game series, more than once Katniss gets quiet time with her family or Gale or Peeta before everything goes to hell. Think about Katniss and Peeta kissing in the cave before they threaten to both eat the poisonous berries. These scenes are what helps us connect with the characters and makes us care what happens to them. Game of Thrones has done this many times like when Rob and Talisa sweetly agree to name their unborn child after Eddard Stark just before the horrible Red Wedding scene.
So why such a negative reaction to GOT season eight? Could it be because fans had to wait over 500 days to see a brand new episode? Is it because we've just gotten so use to the blood, guts, and death that we're not used to character development anymore? Who knows. I personally enjoyed the episodes because I know when the battle comes, and the characters fall, I'll at least have had some closure in their relationships with each other. I'll care what happens. And I'll mourn deeply for them.
I do this in my own writing, not just for my readers, but for myself. I know who isn't going to make it, and I want to make sure they have a chance to say what they need to say before they die. It's closure for me as the writer as well. Here's a character I've spent months writing about who's no longer going to be with me. Of course I'd want to find a way to say goodbye, and I do that through the "calm." In the same way, I want the chance to say goodbye to the characters I've watched for several years before they pass (and before the show ends).
You'll get your battle next week, I'm sure. And I think, in the end, we'll appreciate the two episodes we got with our characters before the series comes to a close.