Game of Thrones is back! The first episode of the eighth and final season has aired and    in a new short series, I’m going to be reviewing each episode as they release. In addition to giving my thoughts on the episodes, I’ll be talking about character motivations, how they’ve evolved over the past seasons and what direction they might be taking. This season will be somewhat shorter with only six episodes however, four of those episodes will be around 80 minutes long. Let’s take a look at the themes and events of the season’s premiere, Winterfell. Here’s my Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1 – Winterfell review.

The episode opens with a young boy scrambling to get a better view, as the Unsullied and Dothraki armies march to Winterfell, led by Daenerys (Emilie Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). In addition to a child climbing to better view the incoming procession, this scene also features a reprise of the music from Winter is Coming, the first episode of the entire series. With House Stark once again assembled to greet those arriving, it brings even more similarities to mind and is overall a great way to open up again. After Jon and Daenerys arrive, there’s a fairly frosty reception, as the Three-Eyed Raven formerly known as Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) isn’t keen on anyone wasting time and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is none too happy about the new queen or Jon having given up his crown. She and Daenerys both trade barbs and with a possible rivalry brewing, I’m interested in the direction it’ll take. They have a necessary alliance for now and both seemingly want Jon to come to their aid.

Further character interaction sees the Northern Lords none too happy about Jon giving up his crown, despite him bringing a massive army and two dragons to the defense of the North. Lord Glover even decides to stay in Deepwood Motte. I’m not sure how this drama will play out but if they have any hope of survival, the doubters and naysayers will need to get this nonsense sorted after the fight is done.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa Stark get a chance to talk, both affirming how even after all their struggles, they’ve made it. As the Lady of Winterfell and Hand of the Queen to Daenerys continue talking, Sansa doubts that the Lannister army is really coming north to help. Tyrion insists that his sister has something to live for but Sansa is far more skeptical. I’ve got to side with Sansa here, as it’s a little puzzling to see someone as smart as Tyrion actually take his sister’s words at face value.

We also got the much-anticipated, much-needed reunion between Arya (Maise Williams) and Jon Snow. This is one of the highlights of episode for me, as Kit Harington and Maisie Williams do a phenomenal job conveying the sheer, overwhelmed joy they are feeling. There’s not too many words exchanged, just some comparisons of their swords and visual shots that bring their last scene together to mind, all the way back to the second episode of season one. It’s a powerful, warming moment.

After a brief talk, Jon and Daenerys take a dragon ride together. Rhaegal takes to Jon, doing impressive aerial maneuvers and flying sideways, almost as if he’s trying to impress him. If for some reason Jon and Daenarys split up later in the season, I can see Rhaegal staying with Jon. It’s by the far the most lighthearted, whimsical part of the episode and servers as a nice reprieve from the tension, as well as likely being one of the last warm spots before the looming battle against the dead.

In King’s Landing, the Golden Company have arrived, minus their elephants since they weren’t well-suited for the voyage. Despite an initially strong pushback, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) ends up giving into the advances of Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), telling him she admires how arrogant he is. This aspect of Cersei is interesting to see unfold, especially since it mirrors some of her trysts in the books that had been cut from the show. There’s an air of tension underneath it all, with Lena Headey continuing to turn in a fantastic performance. Just how the relationship between Cersei and Euron evolves – and who’s truly reliant on the other – is something I’m very interested in seeing through the remainder of the season.

We get to check in on Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who seems to possibly be dealing with a bit of fallout from the Battle of the Goldroad, getting increasingly uncomfortable every time his ladies of the hour mention the dragon attack. Qyburn interrupts him and offers him a crossbow (the same crossbow once wielded by Joffrey and used by Tyrion), telling him Cersei has a sense of “poetic justice” and wishes for her “treasonous brothers” to be disposed of, should they somehow survive the coming battle in the North. Bronn’s response of “That fooking family” is probably the best three-word summary of Game of Thrones I’ve ever seen.

Theon (Alfie Allen) rescues his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) in a fairly quick sequence. The reunion is short-lived, as Yara wants to take back the Iron Islands so it can serve as a fall-back position for Daenerys. Theon opts to head to Winterfell and aid the Starks. It’s a solid move that continues his redemption arc, as he aims to fight for the family and castle that he once invaded, even after living there most of his life.

We also get to see Arya, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound (Rory McCann) all reunite. The subtle displays of grudging affection between Arya and the Hound were great and the mild teasing between Arya and Gendry could be setting up a post-war relationship.

All of these reunions are great, so I have to ask: where is Ghost? Jon’s loyal direwolf was last seen greeting him as he was resurrected, all the way back in season 6. Apart from an offhand comment from Sansa in season 7, there’s been no sign of him. Even just a few seconds of him greeting Jon, or sitting at his feet while the meeting with the Northern Lords took place, would’ve meant a great deal.

Daenerys takes some time to talk to Sam (John Bradley) and thank him for curing Jorah Mormont (Ian Glenn) of his Greyscale. Over the course of the conversation, Sam learns that his father and brother were burnt alive. John Bradley’s acting here is phenomenal and is easily THE highlight of the episode. His mixed emotions at learning of his father’s death morph into outright sorrow at being informed of his brother’s death, something that isn’t easy to convey but is done here spectacularly well.

Sam catches up with Jon in the crypts of Winterfell, and John Bradley continues doing a remarkable job conveying torn emotions of anger, sorrow and hope as he tells Jon what Daenerys did to his family, slowly introducing the truth of Jon’s parents in the same conversation. That Jon Snow is really Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, is a world-altering internal reveal. Kit Harington does a remarkable job displaying anger, doubt and confusion as he insists Ned Stark was his real father. Sam’s question of whether or not Daenerys would give up her crown to save her people, as Jon/Aegon has, is a harrowing note to leave on.

Beric, Tormund and a handful of Wildlings survived the collapse of the Wall and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Investigating Last Hearth, the seat of House Umber, they find plenty of bloodstains but no bodies. They bump into Edd and a few survivors from the Night’s Watch, where some humor helps to lighten the mood. Continuing to wander through the castle, they find poor little Ned Umber pinned to a wall, surrounded by limbs arranged in a spiral shape we’ve seen throughout the series, another callback to Winter is Coming. Ned reanimates as a Wight and is quickly burned by Beric. As he and the fleshy artwork are consumed by flame, his shrieks distort into an unearthly screech straight out of The Thing. This entire sequence is like something out of a horror film and makes for an excellent change of pace. It’s also a horrifying reminder at the end of a somewhat tense, somewhat heartwarming episode of reunions – the White Walkers are coming and things are only going to get worse. It’s easily one of the most unnerving sequences in the entire series and sets the ominous tone for what is to come perfectly.

In praising this section, I do find myself also having to critique the logic setting it up. Frankly, the more I think about it, the more this irritates me. Sansa, Jon and the rest at Winterfell know the Wall has fallen and the Army of the Dead are on the march. Last Hearth is closer to the Wall than it is to Winterfell. Couldn’t Bran warg into ravens and scout ahead? Maybe the little Lord would’ve insisted he go back to try anyway, but still. Unless he had some sisters that were already back at Winterfell, the Umbers are now extinct, a grim end to one of my favorite houses.

As we close, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally arrives at Winterfell. He’s tired, worn, grizzled and tense; a far cry from the knight in shining armor who visited Winterfell at the beginning of the series. As it turns out, one of the Starks is there to greet him: Bran, who has been waiting in the courtyard “for an old friend.”

Summary

Overall, Winterfell is one of the stronger season openers, though I think Season 7’s first episode, Dragonstone, remains my favorite opening to a new season. (Admittedly, having Arya dispose of almost the entirety of House Frey before the credits roll is hard to top.) The reunions that we got were needed, since there won’t really be any time for them after this.

The many callbacks, parallels and musical reminders of Winter is Coming all worked well.  Jon riding Rhaegal and learning the truth of his parentage in the same episode was a great surprise. Bran’s stares have inspired countless memes and his sheer weirdness is making him rapidly skyrocket into the list of my favorite characters.

While it’s a great episode, it definitely places pressure on the remaining five episodes. Even with four of those episodes being longer than usual, there’s a lot to cover and a lot of plots to wrap up. I can’t wait to see how they all unfold.