In the weeks and months leading up to the release of Game of Thrones’ final season, many (including myself) have been looking back nostalgically to where the fantasy series started way back in 2011 – so it’s perhaps appropriate that the first episode of series eight does the same.
Like Thrones’ pilot Winter is Coming, early scenes of this new episode see a huge royal party tramping to Winterfell –watched over by an excitable, climbing boy– ready to meet the amassed Stark family (missing Maisie Williams’ Arya, at least initially). Even the music is the same, with Ramin Djawadi’s ‘The King’s Arrival’ acting as a great audio Easter Egg for fans.
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This time, though, it’s the newly-allied Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) riding in style through the gates, and it’s not Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) clambering for a better look, but a random Winter’s Town boy. Plus, when the royal party does complete its journey, they receive a far frostier welcome than Robert Baratheon did back in season one.
Because of course, things have changed an awful lot since the last time a King and Queen rode to Winterfell, just as things have changed a lot in the last eight years of Game of Thrones.
The pilot’s first scene warned of the threat of the deadly White Walkers, and after years on the sidelines that storyline is now the main focus.
Meanwhile, the bright-faced Stark children of 2011 are now hardened by their experiences into ruthless politicians, deadly assassins or lifeless sages; Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is a beaten-down shell of his former upbeat self; and dishonourable, handsome villain Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is now a more rugged, well-rounded and even heroic figure. While we don’t see much of him in this episode, its closing moments (which also intentionally evoke the end of the pilot) suggest that the contrast between his former and current self will be a source of conflict in upcoming episodes.
Personally I love all the callbacks, and the episode’s introduction – a childs-eye view of Unsullied soldiers tramping through the snow, followed Jon and Daenerys’ slow reveal into shot – ranks as one of my favourite Thrones scenes in years.
However, the comparison also can’t help but remind us what a different show Game of Thrones has become, long divorced from George RR Martin’s source novels now and telling a much more streamlined, arguably less morally complex story.
As preparation for the series’ return I recently rewatched all of Thrones from the start, and it really is striking how different it feels to watch this new episode compared to the sprawling, rarely overlapping masterpiece of season four (my favourite series) and the years before it.
It’s still incredibly opulent and enjoyable storytelling, of course, but just as ‘Winter is Coming’ and ‘The Kingsroad’ (the episode that followed) marked the slow spread outwards of characters to different locations, the story widening every moment, this episode (still untitled at time of writing) pulls the plot threads closer together, keeping characters in close proximity and diminishing what made Thrones such a different and compelling series in the first place.
Of course, this was an inevitable problem faced by showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss – at some point, the diaspora of different characters had to band together against the Night King et al – and it’s to their credit that a lot of these reunions do feel satisfying.
Sansa and Tyrion’s reminiscences about Joffrey’s wedding ere a personal favourite – “It had its moments,” Sansa quips, remembering the vicious King’s painful death – although Maisie Williams probably has the best range of reunions overall.
Arya and the Hound! Arya and Jon! And, laced with a sexual tension that definitely wouldn’t have been appropriate the last time they shared the screen (when Williams was around 14 and he was 24) Arya and Gendry (Joe Dempsie)! It’s almost an overindulgence of what the fans have been hoping for over the last few series, but the charm of Williams and her co-stars pulls it off.
And it’s lucky they do, because in an episode this stuffed full of material a lot of these reunions don’t have much time to be enjoyed before we jump into another mini-storyline.
I’ve already written around 700 words and not mentioned Cersei’s storyline down in King’s Landing, Theon’s rescue of Yara, or even the bit where Jon Snow flew a dragon (!) AND a possible Ed Sheeran reference, which says a lot about just how much happens in 54 minutes of screentime.
Yet these were some of the weaker parts of the episode for me. Theon’s raid to free Yara was a bit of an anti-climax, while the baffling decision to have Euron (Pilou Asbaek, sadly a bit more restrained than last series) and Cersei (Lena Headey) sleep together confused more than it enthralled, and is bound to be controversial.
And then there’s the dragon flying. While it’s a cool pay-off to Jon’s Targaryen heritage (read more here if you’ve forgotten all that) to see him ride Rhaegal, the dragon named after his father, having Jon say “woooaaaahhhh” in Kit Harington’s northern accent and wobble around on a CGI dragon feels like an odd tonal shift given the existential threat facing our heroes in this series.
Similar high-jinks follow as Jon and Daenerys try to get romantic under the watchful eye of her protective “children” the dragons, and along with other comedy beats in the episode it begins to feel faintly embarrassing.
Thank goodness, then, for John Bradley, who brings the episode home with some of the best acting he’s ever had to serve as bookish Sam Tarly. Finally learning the truth about Daenerys executing his cruel father and largely innocent brother last series, Sam is a mess of tears and barely-repressed sobs as he excuses himself from the Queen – and then heads down to the crypt to reveal a ruler he knows would never do something like that.
As with a lot of huge moments in this episode (Daenerys is quite chilled out about her dragon becoming a zombie) Jon’s discovery of his true heritage could stand to have a little more space to breathe, but there’s definitely power in the moment that Game of Thrones’ biggest secret is finally aired in the open.
Jon is the rightful King – he always has been – and with Sam’s new doubts about Daenerys, it seems like the game of thrones hasn’t been completely settled after all.
“She shouldn’t be [our queen],” Sam tells his friend.
“You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”
Clearly, there’s still some political manoeuvring left in the series even as the dead march on Winterfell – and given Arya’s loaded warning to Jon about the importance of family, I’m more than intrigued to see what happens when the remaining Starks learn that Jon isn’t the close kin they once thought.
Overall, as is to be expected, this is an episode of set-up, just like the first season story it intentionally harks back to. There’s a lot to get through in just six instalments this year, and with at least one episode (the extra-long episode three) focusing entirely on a battle against the Night King and his forces, the writers have to shove in the character development where they can between big set-pieces.
I didn’t love absolutely every aspect of this episode, but so much of it – particularly the opening – is done brilliantly, and even the less enjoyable parts of Thrones are more entertaining than most TV out there. There’s a reason it’s become the biggest show in the world, after all, and now there’s sure to be an explosion of discussion as fans debate and sift through every aspect of the episode for crucial clues.
Personally? I’ll leave the episode haunted by the sight of poor little Ned Umber (that really is an unlucky first name in this show) crucified in his home within a swirling collage of severed limbs before rising again as a screeching, blue-eyed wight, reminding us all what this show’s REALLY about in creepy and imaginative fashion.
When it comes to heart-stopping moments, from the first episode to the very last, Game of Thrones will always be king.
Game of Thrones continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am and 9pm