Warning: this article contains major spoilers.
Sunday night marked the long-awaited return to Westeros with the season eight premiere of HBO's "Game of Thrones." The season opener was fittingly titled "Winterfell," with most of the episode taking place within the walls of the titular northern castle as the Starks work to assemble the noble families and prepare for the approaching onslaught of the Night King and his army of the dead.
The episode was shorter than many fans expected at only 54 minutes, following reports that the condensed, six-episode season would consist of longer episodes that felt more like films. Despite fewer episodes, the budget for the eighth and final season is the highest it's ever been -- which was noticeable in the premiere with an expanded Winterfell set and a lengthy CGI dragon race.
Following a revamped title sequence, the episode begins with former King in the North, Jon Snow, riding into Winterfell alongside his queen/lover/aunt Daenerys Targaryen and her army of Unsullied and Dothraki. It's a beautifully done sequence that is reminiscent of the 2011 pilot episode that featured Robert Baratheon riding into Winterfell to meet the Starks. We see the army march in through the eyes of a small child struggling to see the convoy, harkening back to Arya Stark running between the legs of the crowd and Bran Stark climbing a building to see the Baratheon army in season one of the show. Arya now stands in the front of the crowd, made older and wiser by the years, and we're reminded of just how much has changed in Westeros since the beginning of the series, and how much the characters themselves have grown.
There were many connections in the episode to the seven-season history of "Game of Thrones," and it feels overwhelmingly like a culmination for the series. Characters who we never imagined uniting are now squeezed under the same roof in Winterfell, and characters who have been apart for seasons come back together in either heartwarming or awkward reunions. The surviving Starks are finally all together (if we count Jon), Arya has an encounter with both the Hound and Gendry, Sansa and Tyrion rehash the end of their ill-fated marriage and Theon Greyjoy makes amends with his sister Yara. The beginning of the end has been set in motion, it seems.
This is the first time we've seen a number of characters in the northern setting, and it becomes a clash of two very different worlds. We quickly pick up on the northerners' uneasiness in welcoming a foreign queen, which will presumably be one of the primary conflicts over the final episodes. Daenerys remains rigid and commanding in her ruling style, which doesn't win over the hearts of Sansa Stark or the other northern families.
They aren't too happy with Jon, either, for giving up the title they had bestowed upon him. This is an issue that could prove difficult to fix before the Night King arrives at Winterfell's doorstep in only a few short episodes.
Bran wastes no time in reminding everyone about the impending danger of the dead, interrupting the reunions with news of the fallen wall and the Night King's new dragon. He also doesn't hesitate to make people uncomfortable with his knowing stares, and spends the episode making his rounds in Winterfell with, as Sam Tarly puts it, "whatever Bran has," referring to the young Stark's eerie abilities.
We do leave Winterfell for King's Landing during a few scenes in which Cersei Lannister watches her hired Golden Company army arrive (without elephants, unfortunately) and later gets a start on the "arrangement" she'd made with Euron Greyjoy. Her big battle has yet to arrive, but she doesn't have to worry about that until its likely occurrence at the end of the season.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the episode involves Sam revealing the truth about Jon Snow's parentage to Jon in the Winterfell crypts, a wonderfully ironic setting for a scene we've been waiting for since the finale of the seventh season nearly two years ago. It will be exciting to see Jon come to terms with his newfound claim to the throne and how it will relate to his relationship with Daenerys.
We're left with a shocking last few minutes of the episode, as survivors of the Wall come across one of the Great War's first victims, courtesy of the White Walkers in their terrifying, cryptic style. We also see a certain one-handed rogue brother come face to face with "an old friend" in Winterfell, which could be bad news for him, especially when he'll have to answer for his crimes of killing Daenerys' father in the next episode.
There are still a few characters (and direwolves) that have yet to make their promised appearances and showdowns that have been seven seasons in the making, so there is much to look forward to in the final five episodes of "Game of Thrones." We'll have to hold our breaths until we are finally able to answer the question of who wins and who dies in this ever-changing fight for the throne.
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