The season première of “Game of Thrones” began with pre-show hoopla, like fanfare introducing a monarch. A zesty reel of other HBO shows we might enjoy—winter won’t last forever!—was followed by a thanks-for-the-memories montage: crossbow-on-toilet patricide, teen-wedding regicide, green-wildfire kaboom. The opening credits had the same spinning gears-’n’-spheres—but, thrillingly, instead of the Sunset Sea, the map sequence began with ice, the broken Wall, and the freezing menace it portends, ice dominoes tipping ever southward. We’re back!
The scene opens at Winterfell, where a Bran-in-Season 1-looking boy, scrambling to watch an approaching procession, ends up climbing a tree, as little Bran once climbed a castle wall. (Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be warg-boys.) In Season 1, the visitors were the Bad News Baratheons; in Season 8, it’s Queen Daenerys and friends. As the Northern menace descends, gaggles of armies and families and whatever stone-soup defenses they can rustle up are heading to Winterfell to prepare to fight the army of the dead. When Arya sees Jon ride beside Dany, she’s proud, happy, then sad: he doesn’t see her. Meanwhile, Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, Grey Worm, Gendry, the Hound, the dragons—the gang’s all there. I sigh to remember a time when I was dismayed to realize this show had dragons in it; I loved the wonder in Arya’s eyes, and the wariness in Sansa’s, as Drogon and Rhaegal swooped around in the sky.
In those long seasons when we watched the Stark kids wander all over Westeros—skulking around pubs, warging under tree roots, encountering Ed Sheeran by a campfire—we’ve waited to see them reunite. Now they do. When Jon first sees Bran, he embraces him and kisses his head; he doesn’t know that magic has ruined his personality. “You’re a man!” Jon says. “Almost,” Bran says, impassive. Jon is puzzled. (Hang on—I’m the zombie in this relationship!) Sansa makes a mental note to explain Bran’s new vibe later.
Dany and Sansa do their best to get along, but tedious knee-bending foofaraw will ensue, and Sansa is crabby about feeding the extra people, and dragons. (To the grain reserves!) Later, she catches up with her sometime husband, Tyrion. (Did these two ever get annulled, or what?) They’re up on the balcony, staring off into the courtyard. (The Winterfell balcony is to “G.o.T.” what the lido deck was to “The Love Boat.”) “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding,” he recalls. “Miserable affair.” “It had its moments,” Sansa says, fondly remembering Joffrey’s poisoning. Then, ever the skeptic—hey, she’s earned it!—Sansa pffs the notion that Cersei will send her armies north, as promised. Tyrion seems startled: things that make you go hmm, his face says. And hmm again—there’s Bran in the courtyard, staring. Hello, oddball!
Meanwhile, nutty Euron and the hot-rod Golden Company ships-for-hire are heading to King’s Landing, and Yara, Euron’s captive, is tied miserably to a pole. Upon arrival, Euron, ever the swaggering sword-swinger, announces to Queen Cersei that he’s marshalled an army of two thousand horses and twenty thousand men. “No elephants, your grace.” What? For once, Cersei and I agree. “That’s disappointing,” she says. You’d think that denying your queen a proffered herd of elephants would give you pause sexwise, but Euron gives seduction a shabby old try—and succeeds, though Cersei is still brooding. “I wanted those elephants,” she says. With great, grody relish, Euron ignores this and asks if he’s better at sex than Robert and Jaime, then tells her, “I’m going to put a prince in your belly.” I’m rooting for this couple.
Elsewhere in the capital, and in another hat-tip to Episode 1, a man with official business to discuss (originally, Jaime) interrupts a guy in a brothel, covered in naked ladies (originally, Tyrion). Here, it’s Qyburn and Bronn, respectively. I think we can agree: nobody wants Qyburn showing up at your foursome. Qyburn gives Bronn a crossbow—yes, that crossbow—and suggests that he murder Cersei’s treasonous brothers: the very same pair from that first brothel scene! What a fun bunch of Easter eggs.
Out in the harbor, somebody’s shooting up a boat. It’s Theon! He’s made quick work of his pledge to rescue Yara from Euron’s clutches. The writers don’t make him struggle for this act of heroism—you can practically hear them yelling, “There’s no time! Go, go!” Yara headbutts him. If I had to choose a family to join in Westeros, it might not be the Greyjoys. Briskly, Yara vows to return home and gives Theon permission to go Starkward and fight the Ice Things.
As other Westerosians trickle in to Winterfell, Tyrion admires the Carstarks’ sigil. “Beats an onion, anyway,” he tells Varys and Davos. Themes of Northern loyalties burble in their conversation and as Jon and Dany stroll to the dragon lot. She wants to take them out for a spin. “I don’t know how to ride a dragon!” Jon cries. But soon enough, there Jon zooms, clinging to Rhaegal’s spikes, his fur-collared Stark cloak flapping in the breeze. It’s like watching Superman ride Godzilla: extremely exciting. It’s enjoyable to see these two mighty loners, Dany and Jon, finally have a friend. They’re like a duo supergroup. As they kiss beside a waterfall, growling is heard: the Stepfather of Dragons will take some getting used to. Drogon’s glowering face is straight-up hilarious.
As we’d hoped, Gendry, secret bastard prince, has hung up his dragonglass-blacksmithing shingle. An early customer is Arya, with a special order: a diagram of a weapon, like something Leonardo da Vinci might sketch if he were a hit man. I’m charmed to see Gendry and Arya bonding again, and slightly unnerved when they tell each other they look good. How old is Arya? I’m going to assume “good” means “healthy” for now, or “alive.”
Reading her mail, Sansa is vexed: Lord Glover, peeved about leadership, is staying in Deepwood Motte! She and Jon bicker about Dany’s rule. “Did you bend the knee to save the North or because you love her?” she asks. Oh, snap.
Samwell Tarly, MD, also encounters some Targaryen complexity. Dany thanks him for curing Ser Jorah of greyscale, and it’s a nice moment—but soon enough they realize she’s murdered his family. (With dragonfire, natch.) Sam, crying with dignity, takes his leave and runs into Bran, who’s hanging around the courtyard, waiting to freak people out. “It’s time to tell Jon the truth,” Bran says. Jeez, kid! By this, he means that Sam has to tell Jon about his secret parentage, and, ipso facto, the aunt-humping. The best place for this conversation is in a crypt. Sam tearfully tells Jon that Dany has burned his relatives to a crisp, then artfully segues to the theme of good leadership. Jon should be king—“of the bloody Seven Kingdoms!” Also, Jon’s parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Jon is dumbstruck—not just about the parentage but about the lies, man. “My father was the most honorable man I ever met,” he says. “You’re saying he lied to me all my life?” Oy! We’ll give him some time to reflect.
Good news! After the Wall-and-dragon Armageddon, Tormund, Beric, and friends are alive, somehow with nary a scratch. But bad news: the Night King has left them a message. It’s not “Scram” or “Surrender, Dorothy” but a boy, Ned Umber, mounted on a wall, thrashing around screaming atop a creepy pinwheel-like symbol made of severed limbs. Compared to that, the child-harming of the series’ first episode—a glibly executed tower defenestration by a young man in love with his sister—seems positively quaint. In the final scene, Jaime, the defenestrator—now valiant, bearded, and hubba-hubba—arrives at Winterfell and takes a thoughtful look around. Guess who’s in the courtyard? Yep: Bran. Here, after everything, they meet again. Jaime looks at Bran; Bran looks at Jaime. Cue the cellos.