The eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones” has begun, and a story nine years in the making is coming to a close. Who will live? Who will die? Who will claim the Iron Throne? After a sedate but intriguing opening episode, we’re still none the wiser…
Let’s talk first about the stunning new opening credits. From the redesigned astrolabe and the ice flowing across the map to the incredible journeys we take through the interiors of Kings Landing and Winterfell, this new title sequence doesn’t put a foot wrong and gets the new season off to an exciting start.
The episode itself opens in the same way Winter is Coming did all those years ago: with a procession arriving at Winterfell. Just as she did when King Robert visited, Arya (Maisie Williams) stands at the front of the crowd, watching the newcomers arrive. What better way to start off the final season than a callback to the first one?
Much of the episode is taken up by characters meeting and reuniting at Winterfell, and, while it does slow the pace somewhat, this is necessary ground to be covered. My favourite reunions were those between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa (Sophie Turner), which was delightfully awkward, and between Arya, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and the Hound (Rory McCann), which saw these old relationships from back in seasons 3 and 4 spark back into life as if no time had passed at all.
And, of course, a special mention must go to the reunion between Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at the end, which promises to cause some interesting drama in the next episode.
One thing that struck me about this episode was just how funny it was. From Tyrion and Varys’s joking in the opening moments of the episode, to Daenerys’s deadpan “the dragons have barely eaten” after being told her scaly children had just devoured 18 goats each, Winterfell doesn’t just focus on the doom and gloom of the incoming White Walker attack, but remembers to lighten things up too.
The episode does, of course, delve into some darker territory, with many of the characters entering into disputes with one another. The Jon/Sansa arguments and Daenerys/Sansa feud not only shows off some of Turner’s acting skills, but shows that things aren’t all fun and games now that everyone’s united. I’ll be interested to see how these ructions develop over the course of the season.
The darkest moment of the episode has to be the scene at Last Hearth, where we see Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) reunite with Edd (Ben Crompton) and, in the process, encounter the reanimated corpse of poor Ned Umber. This scene is delightfully spooky, and the screaming, thrashing inferno that was Ned’s demise is an image sure to stay in my mind for a long time.
One of the two moments this episode will be most remembered for, I think, is Jon’s first time flying a dragon. As revealed in the behind the scenes video on YouTube, this part of the episode was shot in Iceland, with a helicopter filming the aerial footage, the actors riding bucking dragon models and CGI putting it all together in post-production. The result is just astonishing; the combination of the flawless dragon FX with the stunning Icelandic scenery brings the scene to life perfectly.
The other moment is, of course, Sam’s revelation to Jon that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, and the heir to the Iron Throne. Kit Harington and John Bradley act their socks off in this scene, bringing all the expected emotions to the fore while taking it in a direction that nobody could have imagined. Jon’s immediate reaction being to defend Ned Stark as an honest man is absolutely perfect, while Sam’s usage of this moment to vent his anger about Daenerys made sure that this was a scene about both characters, rather than just Jon.
Winterfell does a good job of setting up the season to come, while still being a compelling story in its own right. Each of the characters gets something to do, no matter how small, and Dave Hill balances darkness and levity brilliantly. Overall, a great season opener let down only by its rather slow pace.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday at 21:00 on HBO