In the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones, it often felt like the show wasn’t really about a competition for an iron throne, but instead, a kind of epic fantasy version of Jerry Springer, where everyone was trying to prove their family is the most fucked up family. In the season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones — “Winterfell,” the word “family” suddenly seems more important than swords, dragons, or all that constant worrying about the weather.
At the end of Game of Thrones, we’re back where it all started: Winterfell. In the very first episode of the show, way back in 2001, we opened with the Stark and Lannister families gathering in Winterfell. The players were then immediately split up, and over the course of seven seasons wandered the four corners of Westeros (with even some side trips into Essos) before finally finding their way back. Now, all of the Starks and Lannisters are back together—well the ones who are still alive—as the army of the dead approaches with the sole exception of Cersei. Even Theon, the Stark family ward, is returning to his adopted family.
Family is the keyword for this final season. Yes, there will be dragons and White Walkers and lots and lots of bloodshed. But as the season premiere hammered-home, family is at the core of the series. Proof? People couldn’t stop saying the word “family.”
“I’m defending our family. So is she,” Arya tells Jon Snow when he complains about their sister Sansa’s attitude toward his girlfriend slash queen. “I’m her family too,” Jon says. “Don’t forget that,” Arya responds. Elsewhere, when Yara Greyjoy asks her uncle Euron why he doesn’t kill her he says, “We’re family. The last Greyjoys left in the world — the last ones with balls anyway.”
Bronn has no real family that we know of, and Jaime and Tyrion may be the closest thing to family he has. Still, at one point, he takes the crossbow, shaking his head. “That fucking family.”
So, who is the most fucked up family in Westeros?
Well, you’ve got the Lannisters, who were headed by an abusive patriarch and have spent the series committing twincest, patricide, and attempted fratricide. You had the three brothers Baratheon who were all big old jerks to each other, and after the eldest’s (King Robert) untimely death the middle child (Stannis) murdered the baby brother (Renly) with a magical smoke situation. The Iron Islanders can never seem to decide whether to murder or abandon each other. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane burned his brother Sandor “The Hound” Clegane’s face as a young child. King Joffrey ordered the murder of all his bastard half-siblings. Daenerys’s brother Viserys was such a crappy bro that her Dothraki husband poured molten gold over his head. The point? It’s kind of a draw in terms of family shittiness in Game of Thrones, but the new season seems to be not-so-subtly aware of that fact.
At least the Greyjoys siblings get a happy reunion this new episode. Theon, last seen abandoning Yara as she was captured, returns and (with improbably little difficulty) frees her. Yara says they can “take our home back” now that Euron is occupied, but Theon has never felt at home on the Iron Islands. That isn’t really his family. He was raised from a young child at Winterfell with the Stark boys. When Yara sees he needs to be with his adopted family, she tells him simply “Go.”
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And yet, despite all the familial horrors we’ve seen so far, the Lannisters do in fact take this episodes crown for “Most Fucked-Up Family in Westeros.” Tyrion is up north trying to reclaim his honor—lost after murdering his own father while fleeing the charge of murdering his own nephew (that one was false at least)—by saving the living from the dead. Jamie, too, comes to the North looking to reclaim honor lost from his variety of messed up deeds including pushing the young Bran out of a window and raping his sister at a funeral. Cersei isn’t happy about either of those facts. She sends her Hand of the Queen, the mad scientist Qyburn, to the sellsword Bronn with an offer: murder Cersei’s “treasonous brothers”—preferably with a crossbow—and get a whole bunch of gold.
As for the Starks, well, they get a wrench thrown into things. The Starks are squabbling because Jon Snow, recently proclaimed King in the North, has already given up his crown after a bit of cuddling with the Mother of Dragons. Sansa doesn’t trust anyone beyond her family and her people—and given all the abuse she’s suffered from other rulers, that’s more than understandable. Still, the remaining Starks look like they’ll hold it together, even if their brother Bran is doing his weirdo wizard stare every scene.
Sam—after taking a moment to absorb the information that his own complicated family situation was resolved by dragons burning his father and brother alive—goes to Jon with some news. He isn’t a Stark at all, not technically. “Your mother was Lyanna Stark. And your father, your real father, was Rhaegar Targaryen. You’ve never been a bastard. You’re Aegon Targaryen, the true heir to the Iron Throne.”
Jon doesn’t know how to take this news, not yet. But he’ll have to figure out how to work it out with his lover (slash aunt) Daenerys while simultaneously keeping his brotherly bonds with Arya, Sansa, and Bran. The themes of the rest of the season seem set into motion by all of this: Winter is coming, the dead are marching, and family may be all that can save the living.