Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 1 of Game of Thrones Season 8. Not seen it? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
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“What do dragons eat, anyway?” “Whatever they want.” That’s the sound of fire meeting ice, as Game of Thrones Season 8 finally arrives on our screen – and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finally arrives at Winterfell with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). We say Jon Snow, of course, but he’s not really Jon after all: he’s Aegon Targaryen – something we learned during the finale of Season 7. Just as Jon – sorry, Aegon – was sleeping with his aunt.
It’s been a long wait since that revelation, one that has left fans on tenterhooks eagerly anticipating the final six chapters in this fantasy epic, one that promises to be as bloody as it as, well, bloody. Episode 1 of Season 8, then, is a surprisingly quiet, restrained affair, choosing to play things slow and steady, rather than blow its fiery breath too soon. And so the real drama comes not from shock deaths, surprising betrayals or violent ambushes, but from one man learning his real identity – and the fact that he’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. It’s a realisation that follows a dizzying mini set piece, as Dany and Jon ride her winged children, How to Train Your Dragon-style, into the North’s snowy wilderness and make out by a waterfall.
“We don’t have time for all of this!” declares Bran, as the Targaryens – complete with Dothraki, Unsullied and Tyrion Lannister’s small band of brothers – rock up at Ned Stark’s former gaff. But the fact that Game of Thrones does have time to set its scene, methodically, confidently, amusingly, is what makes it such a compelling watch; this is an hour of reunions for the characters as well as us, and those renewed connections and half-forgotten friendships only help to charge the atmosphere with a brooding inevitability (present right from the stunning new opening credits) and an electric tension.
There’s the sparky resistance and wariness of the North, as everyone from Sansa (Sophie Turner) to Samwell Tarly (John Bradley – never better than here) greet Daenerys and her clan with scepticism and even anger. For Sansa, and the other nobles, it’s a mark of betrayal, after Jon left the North a king of the people and returned with a queen in charge – one they don’t know, trust or even like. All those swooping shots of Daenerys rising above her enemies and followers for seven seasons have given the Mother of Dragons a lofty air, and it’s fun to see that called out so explicitly. It’s less fun, on the other hand, to see poor Sam discover his father was killed by Daenerys. What about his brother? Killed too. Best not ask about the pet goldfish, Sam.
It’s a chilling reminder that Dany’s a brutal ruler, as entitled and ruthless as Cersei, down in Kings Landing. Speaking of which, there’s a brief chance to get reacquainted with Lena Headey’s deliciously nasty Queen, who now keeps company not with Jaime Lannister, but with the weaselly Qyburn (amazingly, now Hand of the Queen) and the lascivious Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek). (“You want a whore, buy one; you want a queen, earn her,” she snaps, in one of the episode’s many brilliant lines.) There’s Bronn (Jerome Flynn), too, but he’s swiftly ordered away from Kings Landing to go and kill Jaime and Tyrion, branded traitors by their sister, armed with Joffrey’s old crossbow.
It’s a long way from the passionate union that existed between Jaime and Cersei at the very start of Game of Thrones, when Jaime pushed Bran out of a window to stop him telling the world of their incest. And, as Jaime rides into Winterfell, met with an unblinking stare by Bran, there’s a real sense of things coming full circle – and a sense of how much that circle has changed since the show’s early days. There’s Theon (Alfie Allen), no longer a Greyjoy-raised-as-a-Stark but a brother saving his sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), so she can reclaim the Iron Islands from the distracted Euron. There’s Arya (Maisie Williams), a bad-ass assassin who is still seen by Jon and others as an innocent wee girl – a side we see, briefly, once more, as she flirts with good old Gendry. (“I always knew you were just another rich girl,” he quips. “You don’t know any other rich girls,” she deadpans in reply.) There’s Sam and Jon chatting in the crypt, recalling Ned and Robert in Season 1. There’s Harington’s Jon, actually smiling for once.
And, at the heart of it all, there’s Sophie Turner’s Sansa, who has grown to become a formidable leader in her own right – and now sees through those who still have some growing up left to do. “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive,” she laments to Tyrion (Peter Dinklage – still the MVP in a cast that wonderfull inhabit their characters), when he reveals that he believes Cersei’s lies about riding north to help save Westeros.
It’s that line, most of all, that hits home what this episode is doing. One by one, it’s giving us a chance to remember how much we enjoy the company of all of these fully rounded people – “You’ve got blue eyes,” the Night’s Watch survivors cry at Tormund, fresh from the collapsed Wall. “I’ve always had blue eyes!” he roars back – before reminding us that they’re all going to end up fighting each other at some point. (In a masterstroke, the only character we don’t catch up with is is The Night King, who is waiting in the wings to make his deadly first appearance this season.) Season 7’s thrilling, but agonising, trial by fire, which saw Bronn take on a dragon, was only a taster for much our emotions are going to be torn this winter; this is the main course. And dragons, well, they eat anything.