I cannot recall any television series in my lifetime that has entered its final season with as much hype and as much punishing pressure to satisfy millions of fans as HBO’s Game of Thrones. That’s a daunting task, but if any show can pull it off, it feels like everyone is rooting for this one to do it.
Like many of the show’s premiere episodes, the eighth season starts off with a slow ramping up of plot and intrigue. This one has no action scenes and only one minor character death. That’s not a criticism, per se, except that a shortened episode count this season (only six installments) means that we don’t have a lot of time to wrap up the tremendous amount of story left to tell.
Of note right off the bat is that the series’ opening credits, although in the same style as usual, have been given an extensive makeover to reflect the changing plot developments.
In an effective mirroring of the series’ original pilot episode, which saw a procession of King Robert’s army marching into Winterfell, the final season opens with Jon Snow arriving back home, bringing Daenerys Targaryen and her massive army with him. Dany’s two dragons make quite an impression on the watching crowds.
Initially, Jon rides right past his sister Arya without noticing her. He runs to embrace Bran, but the emotionless boy throws a wet blanket over the family reunion by immediately bringing up the fact that one of Daenerys’ dragons is now under the control of the Night King. Sansa (now Lady of Winterfell) also receives her brother coolly. She acquiesces to his wishes and formally pledges Winterfell to Daenerys, but isn’t happy about it.
Many in the North are suspicious of the Targaryen queen. At a meeting of leaders, Lyanna Mormont speaks up about her disappointment at Jon Snow’s subservience. She pledged her fealty to the King in the North, not to a Targaryen. Tyrion attempts to calm tensions by pointing out how their forces will grow even stronger when the Lannister army joins their ranks, but that idea is met with even more derision from many. Sansa says that she’s worried about the practical matter of how they’re supposed to feed all these soldiers. Winterfell’s food stores will not last long with so much demand.
Later, Tyrion gets a moment alone with his former wife. Sansa chides him for being naïve enough to believe that his sister Cersei really intends to send her army. “I once thought you were the cleverest man in the world,” she says dismissively. The words sting.
Arya finally gets her reunion with Jon Snow in front of a weirwood tree. He’s thrilled to see her, but it’s clear that he has no idea how much of her life he’s missed. He still sees her as his scrappy but helpless little sister. He barely even knows the person he’s talking to.
Now with the Greyjoy’s Iron Fleet at her disposal, Queen Cersei is pleased to hear news that the White Walker army has broken through the Wall in the North. Her plan is to let the undead and the other armies wear each other down and then send her own forces to mop up whatever’s left. However, she’s disappointed when representatives from the Golden Company mercenary army inform her that they were not able to transport any of their famous elephants overseas. She really wanted elephants.
At the instruction of Cersei, Qyburn enlists Bronn to assassinate Tyrion. He doesn’t refuse, but I suspect that he won’t go through with it either.
A cocky Euron Greyjoy attempts to seduce Cersei. She seems resistant to his charms, but allows him into her bed anyway. He promises to put a baby in her, unaware that she’s currently pregnant with another child by Jaime. She must be using him as cover.
Euron holds his niece Yara prisoner on his command ship. He keeps her alive mainly to taunt her. She remains defiant, scolding him that, “You picked the wrong side.” While Euron is cavorting with Cersei, Theon and a small raiding party board his ship and set Yara free. Rather than thank her brother, she knocks him down with a headbutt for abandoning her in the first place. However, she then helps him back up again as if to say that all is forgiven. Even with just three ships, Yara believes they can take the Iron Islands back while Euron is off fighting in Cersei’s war, but agrees to let Theon leave to join the Starks in Winterfell.
More in the North
Informed that her dragons are hardly eating because they don’t like the North, Daenerys brings Jon Snow to see them, and encourages him to hop on one and ride. That the dragon allows him to do this ought to be a clue about Jon’s true Targaryen heritage, but neither of them puts that together yet. The flight is terrifying but thrilling. Jon remarks, “You’ve completely ruined horses for me.” They land in front of a beautiful, remote waterfall and make out, but Jon is a little weirded out by the dragon staring at him.
Arya meets up with her old friend Gendry the blacksmith, who’s busy forging dragonglass weapons for the armies. She gives him some plans she’s drawn and asks him to make a special weapon for her. He admires the Valyrian steel dagger in her possession.
Arya also runs into the Hound. It’s the first she’s seen him since she left him for dead. He grumbles, “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” Coming from the Hound, that’s actually a huge compliment. That he doesn’t try to kill her surely means that he’s happy to see her again. That she doesn’t try to kill him must mean the feeling is mutual.
When Jon Snow returns, he’s greeted by news that House Glover has refused to send its army despite having previously pledged itself to Winterfell. Sansa blames Jon. She also lets him know that she’s aware that he’s in love with Dany.
Daenerys introduces herself to Samwell Tarly in order to thank him for saving Jorah from his greyscale disease. Sam is initially excited by the meeting, until she pieces together that he’s the son of Randyll Tarly, and then has to break the news that she executed both his father and his brother when they refused to submit to her rule. His dick of a father may not be a great loss, but Sam takes his brother’s death very hard.
On his way out of that meeting, Sam is approached by Bran, who pressures him to tell Jon Snow what they learned about his true parentage. Sam finds Jon visiting his father’s grave in the underground crypt. Sam no longer a fan of the woman, they argue about Daenerys until Sam blurts out the truth about Jon being a legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and the true heir to the Iron Throne. Jon is stunned and instinctively refuses to accept this at first. As the information sinks in, it must occur to him that this means he’s been sleeping with his aunt.
We last saw Tormund Giantsbane and Beric Dondarrion on top of the Wall as the zombified dragon blew it to pieces, leaving their fates uncertain. Fortunately, they survived. We catch up with them, as well as Eddison Tollett (Jon and Sam’s friend in the Night’s Watch), at Last Hearth, the home of House Umber. The castle, which was directly in the path of the Night King’s army, seems eerily quiet and abandoned. As they creep through the place, they come across the body of young Lord Ned Umber, pinned to the wall with a sword and surrounded by a really unnerving spiral pattern made out of severed limbs. It’s quite a sight, all the more disturbing when the corpse awakens and snarls at them. Beric immediately sets it on fire with his flaming sword and the undead wight screams as it burns.
The episode ends with Jaime Lannister inauspiciously arriving in Winterfell, hiding his face under a hood. As soon as he gets off his horse, who should spot him but Bran Stark, the boy he tossed off a tower in the show’s first episode. This doesn’t bode well for Jaime receiving a warm welcome.
As momentous as this season has promised to be (and frankly needs to be), it gets off to a pretty low-key start. The episode is mostly a series of reunions and much-belated introductions between characters it almost seems surprising have never met before. That said, what it lacks in action fireworks, it makes up for with plenty of fascinating political maneuvering and intrigue. I really appreciate that uniting behind the common threat of the White Walkers hasn’t exactly made everyone friends. The many different players in this game still have their own agendas and goals.
The season looks to be off to a good start to me. I’m optimistic that this story will have a satisfying end.