By James Hibberd
April 14, 2019 at 10:01 PM EDT
HBO
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Twenty months of waiting. So many cryptic photos. The trailer we watched endlessly. The actors who gave such exciting yet vague teases. Finally, the biggest show in the world is back — and EW’s deep-dive recaps along with it. In the Game of Thrones season 8 opener, Arya reacts to things. Sansa is totally unimpressed. Daenerys looks like she’s itching to torch Winterfell. And Jon gets bad news/much worse news in a stunning premiere full of epic grandeur and major confrontations.

Let’s dive straight in: The season starts with two surprises. First, the credits. You expected a tweak or two in the animated pop-up map for season 8. But the changes just kept coming. The Wall is broken. Winter is “freezing’ the titles across the map. We go inside the crypts of Winterfell! How many new Easter Eggs are in this? It’s a major overhaul and quite cool. When the premiere episode screened in New York two weeks ago, fans weren’t the only ones shocked — top people who work on the show didn’t even know about the title sequence makeover.

The second surprise is otherwise how traditional the season opens. There’s no pre-credits “cold open” scene set someplace unexpected or a surprise flashback to mark the final six episodes. Instead, we jump right into the arrival of Daenerys at Winterfell. We see a little boy jockeying for a view between the legs of grown-ups, just like Arya did in the pilot when King Robert’s procession arrived.

Arya sees the boy and smiles (perhaps she’s having the same memory we are?). She’s eager to get a view of the man she thinks is her brother, Jon Snow. She peers darkly at the arrival of The Hound. She’s pleased by Gendry. She’s delighted at the flying dragons. I already want to watch a whole hour of just Arya reacting to things.

We get an epic shot revealing Jon and Dany, swaggering on their horses, a badass-sexy-lethal power couple. Ice and fire, side by side. The grubby commoners glare at Dany. Don’t worry, she won’t force you to bathe and/or commit incest. “I warned you, Northerners don’t trust outsiders,” Jon says.

Courtyard: Jon embraces Sansa and immediately asks where’s Arya. “Lurking somewhere,” Sansa drolly replies, her eyes going to Dany who waits for attention nearby. Then we get the meeting we’ve been eagerly awaiting.

Dany (formal, yet making-an-effort warm-ish): “Thank you for inviting us into your home. The North is as beautiful as your brother claimed, as are you.”

Sansa (after a pause, looking Dany up and down, with a hint of snark): “Winterfell is yours, your grace.”

That’s some icy Northern frost right there. What are they all thinking?

Dany: Your father helped murder my father, the rightful king, then sent me into exile. After years of heroic struggle, I’m back to reclaim my throne. When I saw the Night King and his army, I could have returned to Essos to wait out the winter, or headed south to King’s Landing to capture the Iron Throne. Instead, I marched up here — where it’s freezing, by the way — to try and save your ungrateful butts. And this is the welcome I get? 

Sansa: Your crazy father burned my grandfather and uncle alive. We thought we got rid of your family, and now you’re back. You used your petite blonde hotness to woo my dumb brother into giving up his King in the North title and gods know what else. Now I’m supposed to pretend like you’re my beloved queen and help your massive army when I can barely feed my own people. Also, your coat is totally bougie. And shouldn’t you really update that three-headed dragon pin?

Jon: Please like each other. I love you both. Can’t you get along and just go braid each other’s hair or something? The Night King is coming! Oh for f—k’s sake…

Bran: 110010101001011000101010….

Speaking of the Bran-Bot 9000, he interrupts their greeting to give the courtyard a breaking news seer alert: “The Night King has Dany’s dragon. The Wall has fallen. The dead march south.”

Dany looks at Bran like: Who the hell is this guy? And can he tell me what’s going on back in Meereen? Has it fallen into chaos since I left? It’s not like I care, but I am curious.

The Great Hall: We learn Sansa has called all the Northern Bannerman to Winterfell. There’s what seems like a cute moment when young Lord Umber is told to go back to his castle, Last Hearth, to bring his men. But there are very few throwaway scenes in this tightly plotted final season, and his character returns later for a key piece of the action.

Lyanna Mormont gives an adorably disapproving speech, blasting Jon Snow for giving up his King in the North title to bend the knee to Dany. “I’ll always be grateful for your faith,” Jon says (Lyanna is like, Sure…). “I had a choice. Keep my crown or protect the North. I choose the North.”

Jon is always risking his popularity to make selfless tough choices for the greater good that just so happen to get him into bed with inappropriate women.

Then Tyrion steps up to speak because, okay, a Lannister serving Daenerys is the best person to sway the Northerners. “I know our people haven’t been friends in the past,” he says in a rather extreme understatement, then promises Cersei’s army will arrive soon. Nobody in this show or watching this show actually believes him. (One of the few complaints I’ve had the last couple seasons is that Tyrion, who — as Sansa points out, was so clever in the early seasons — has been forced to make one unwise decision after another in order to advance the storyline. Sure, Cersei’s pregnant, but his faith in her seems rather naive for somebody who knows her so well).

Pragmatic Sansa complains about having to feed Dany’s army and her dragons. You can just feel the Mother of Dragon’s temperature rise at this. How dare Sansa treat her children like a burden, after all she’s gone through to acquire them? “What do dragon’s eat, anyway?” Sansa asks, totally setting Dany up to fire back: “Whatever they want.” Dany doesn’t need dragons to throw down a burn. Jon is literally stuck between them, practically tugging at his collar.

Godswood: Jon Snow goes out to pray that his sister and girlfriend start getting along as Arya stealthily sneaks up behind him. Jon is rightly impressed she managed to keep Needle (“Have you ever used it?” he asks, which drew a big laugh from the premiere screening crowd). They have a moment together that isn’t particularly as warm as might be expected, with Jon having to assure her regarding Sansa, “I’m her family, too” and Arya warning “don’t forget that.”

King’s Landing: Cersei gets some “terrible” news from her creepy mad scientist Qyburn: The Army of the Dead have broken through The Wall. “Good,” she says, because she’s simply that evil — literally everybody in Westeros can die a horrible death as long as her enemies are likewise defeated. This is a rather neat way of re-introducing her character with a single word.

Captain Guyliner Euron Greyjoy has made good on his promise to return with the Golden Company (a mercenary army for hire) plus horses for Cersei’s war against Dany. No elephants, however, much to Cersei’s disappointment (war elephants could be used to crash through an infantry line and panic horses — they would have been useful versus the Dothraki).

The loathsome Euron wants to bed Cersei, for a couple of reasons. One is strategic — Euron wants the Iron Throne and becoming Cersei’s lover is a step in that direction, particularly if he gets her pregnant (obviously he doesn’t know her womb’s currently occupied with a pending fourth bundle of joy via Jaime). The second, as he states, is the guy wants to have sex with a queen. You get the impression that for Euron, any queen will do.

Cersei resists, trying to keep Euron firmly in her “true friend to the crown”-zone. But Euron throws down a combination of arrogant charm, pleas, and vague threats. Cersei cannot afford to lose Euron’s support. He’s the last useful ally she’s got. She reluctantly agrees. (Actress Lena Headey, by and by, has some thoughts about this scene, and there’s a link to that interview at the end of the recap).

Later, Euron seems rather proud of himself and is one of those dudes who insist on knowing exactly how he ranks vs. each of her previous lovers (at least, the two he knows about, there was also cousin Lancel). Cersei doesn’t seem entirely displeased (“you’re not boring, I’ll give you that”) yet doesn’t exactly want Euron to stay with her either. Notice Ser Pounce is nowhere to be seen.

Brothel: Bronn mingles with prostitutes who are chatting away about Dany’s fearsome dragons, a memory that isn’t helping his performance. There’s one exchange about a wounded Lannister soldier in here that, again, sounds like a throwaway, but you be the judge whether it really is:

“That boy Eddie.” “The ginger?” “That’s him.” “Came back with his face burnt off.” “He’s got no eyelids now.” “How does he sleep with no eyelids?”

I haven’t been able to get a GoT writer to admit this, but I’m convinced the ginger “Eddie” is a sly reference to Ed Shereen’s singing Lannister soldier, who made a much-mocked cameo in season 7, and was last seen alive by Arya before the devastating “Spoils of War” dragon attack. (Sure his character could have made it from the Riverlands down to the Loot Train attack west of King’s Landing that quickly — just ask Gendry).

Qyburn enters and makes Bronn a lucrative offer from Cersei: If Jaime and/or Tyrion survives, she wants him to murder them with a crossbow. Not just any crossbow, but the same Tyrion used to kill their father Tywin on the loo. So while Jaime is going to Winterfell to try to save Cersei and their child, Cersei is plotting to kill him if he manages to succeed. “That f—king family,” rightly groans Bronn.

On one hand, you’d think Cersei could find at least one killer who isn’t Tyrion and Jaime’s only friend, but, then again, Bronn may be the only person who could get close to both.

The Silence: Speaking of crossbows, Euron’s men are effectively killed by Theon Greyjoy’s Kraken Team Six commando squad. He makes good on his promise to rescue his sister Yara, who gives him a semi-affectionate headbutt for cowardly yet wisely abandoning her last season.

They depart for the Iron Islands where they could wait out winter in the soggy grey misery of their not-so-beloved rocky joyless island homeland. No wonder Theon wants to return to the Starks. The North is more fun even when gloomily facing certain death, plus it’s a shot at the one thing he’s wanted for so long: Redemption.

“What is dead may never die, but kill the bastards anyway,” Yara says, putting a zombie-invasion spin on the Iron Islands expression.

Winterfell: Back at the castle, the background is filled with busy workers preparing for what’s to come, a constant reminder of the pending battle.

Advisors Tyrion, Varys, and Ser Davos are on the ramparts. Davos thinks Jon and Dany should marry and unite the Starks and Targaryens. After all, Jon and Dany are perfect for each other and there’s no reason at all that this wouldn’t be a great idea. The trio also contemplates their usefulness in the face of the young lovers’ passions and get all existential.

“[They] keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth,” Varys intones. “Nothing lasts.” Varys is the only character who can out-brood Jon Snow.

Meanwhile, Dany is concerned about Sansa’s obvious disrespect. “Your sister doesn’t like me,” she tells Jon. “She doesn’t know you,” Jon assures, as if they’re on a Bachelor hometown date. But I’m pretty sure even if Sansa did know Dany she would still not like her — hell, Sansa knows Jon Snow pretty well, and doesn’t like him half the time. “I am her queen,” Dany bristles. “If she can’t respect me…” To quote Bran: We don’t have time for this, Dany.

Jon and Dany go out to check on her dragons after hearing they’re not eating enough. They don’t like the North either. This news ends up having nothing to do with anything that actually happens next because it’s just an excuse to give us what we want: Jon riding Rhaegal, the dragon named after his father.

Dany tells her boyfriend to mount up, and he’s understandably anxious. “What if he doesn’t want me to?” he asks. I love that Jon wants to get clear dragon consent.

“Then I’ve enjoyed your company, Jon Snow,” Dany cooly replies in an utterly perfect Queen Daenerys line.

Jon gets on and what happens next is a wonderful sequence as Jon gets his bearings amid a wild ride (my favorite bit is the dizzying plunge into the canyon).

“You’ve completely ruined horses for me,” Jon says afterward as they stop for a break. They notice a dark cave nearby. “We could stay 1,000 years,” Dany notes wistfully. “No one would find us.” Her statement is rather reminiscent of another conversation Jon had, years ago, while inside a different cave, with another girl… The duo begin making out and Jon hilariously is distracted by a Drogon gawking at them. (Once again Dragon is probably thinking: Girl, you know he’s your nephew, right? Not that we judge).

I just wish Dany would have taken Sansa out for a dragon ride as well, because I bet the Lady of Winterfell would still be totally unimpressed (“Can’t this dragon go any higher? Do they always smell like this? Can’t it breathe more fire?”).

Later, inside the castle, Sansa is perturbed that House Glover is going to sit out the war and gives Jon grief for abandoning his King in the North title. “I’m telling you it doesn’t matter who holds what title,” Jon insists. “Without her we don’t stand a chance … She’ll be a good queen. She’s not her father.”

Sansa shoots back: “Did you bend the knee to save the North? Or because you love her?”

They’re interrupted before Jon can reply, but I bet he’s thinking: Would saying ‘Both’ be wrong?

Elsewhere, Dany’s diplomatic rounds continue by seeking out the lovely Samwell Tarley in order to thank him for curing Ser Jorah’s greyscale. Privately thinks Dany: This Winterfell meeting, at least, should go swimmingly!

Sam awkwardly notes he could use a pardon for borrowing a few books from the Citadel. He doesn’t mention that one of those books proves she’s not the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and that she’s sleeping with her nephew. He leaves that bit out, but you know it’s racing around in his mind like a squirrel.

Then Sam casually drops his family name, surprising Dany, who then has to admit that she burned his father to death for not bending the knee after the Loot Train battle. She can’t even tell poor Sam she’s sorry, because being queen means standing by your decisions.

Sam takes this pretty well — why, he never liked his jerk father much anyway. But at least he’s still got his cool brother Dickon, right?… Right?

At this point Dany just wants a trap door to pop open under her so she can get the hell out of this room: Yeah, you see, about that… your brother…I kind of burned him too?

Hey Sam: Is there anybody else you care about that you want to mention to Dany right now? Your sister perhaps? Go for three out of three?

This is now hugely awkward for everybody and Sam can barely contain himself and asks to be excused to put them all out of their collective misery. I think this might be my favorite scene in the premiere as it’s almost high comedy played very dramatically and it gives John Bradley (Sam) a chance to really shine. Also, notice how it segued right from Jon reassuring Sansa that Dany is not like her father (who, again, was known for burning people alive as punishment) right into a scene where Dany has to face her own prisoner burning.

Whew. So after that, Sam really deserves to not have another painfully difficult conversation for the rest of this episode. But no.

Last Hearth: Remember that Lord Umber moppet who popped up in the Great Hall at the beginning? Here Tormun — having survived The Wall collapse — is with Dolorous Edd and Beric Dondarrion at Last Hearth. This is a location just south of Castle Black (and far north of Winterfell).

Beric lights up his sword, because that’s what Beric does. I bet Beric does this when just hanging out in pubs. The trio are wary as everything is barren and spooky. They discover little Lord Umber chopped into one of those spirals the White Walkers love to leave behind.

(“These are patterns that have mystical significance for the Children of the Forest,” Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff has explained. “We’re not sure exactly what they signify, but spiral patterns are important in a lot of different cultures in our world, and it makes sense that they would be in this world as well.”)

Suddenly the dead little lord screams (the premiere audience jumped) and the trio of heroes set him ablaze. Just a little reminder of the threat to come (also, it’s yet another callback to the pilot; the opening scene where the Night’s Watch trio find the White Walker’s dismemberment of the Wildlings in the snow).

Winterfell: Sam goes to have a talk with Jon in — where else? — the Stark family crypt, where his secret mother Lyanna is entombed nearby and his secret father is decidedly not.

Jon is thrilled to see his good buddy, just as Dany was happy to greet Sam earlier. Nobody is making anything easy on Sam. He gives Jon the big news: “You’re the true heir to the Iron Throne.”

And how does Jon react? Jon — er, Aegon —  is … pissed.  Jon doesn’t want the Iron Throne. He never wanted it. And that means his father — or Ned Stark, rather, “the most honorable man I ever met … you’re saying he lied to me all my life?”

Jon has gone from feeling shame in his identity in the first season, to gradually accepting who he is and eventually taking some measure of pride in it. Now that’s all been ripped from him, including a father figure who means so much.    

And hold up … um, just one thing here. If he’s Rhaegar’s son … and Rhaegar was the brother of Daenerys … then that makes Dany his …

Oh s—t.

Before Jon has time to dry heave, he adds, “It’s treason.” And Sam shoots back: “It’s the truth. You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

And with that line, the whole central conflict at Winterfell in this episode — tension created by Jon giving up his title to join Dany — pivots around to starkly contrast the leadership of Jon and Dany in a brand new light. Because we don’t think Dany would give up her crown, do we? That’s some next-level writing.

So is Jon going to tell Dany? If he does, how’s she going to take it?

Even scarier: How would Sansa take it?

Scariest: How would Lyanna Mormont take it?

Courtyard: A hooded figure comes through the castle gates and dismounts.

Here’s Jaime Lannister, looking pleased to have arrived undetected and spots —

A young man in a wheelchair.

Why’s he staring at me? He looks familiar. WAIT.

Again: Oh s—t.

The episode that opened with a scene calling back to the pilot, closes with a scene that heralds back to the very last scene of the pilot, when Jaime shoved Bran out the window. And though we’re all thinking about how is Bran going to treat Jaime, perhaps a better question is how is Daenerys going to treat Jaime — she’s not particularly proud of her father, but he was still her father, and Jaime murdered him.

Overall this hour set the table for the rest of the season while also having a few major moments. Like two others this season, the episode directed by the great David Nutter, who shot it in an epic and compelling way yet managed to rarely draw attention to itself. So many dramatic hooks put in place for the rest of the season. More thoughts about the episode in the podcast coming Monday.

We have some interviews for you:

Kit Harington reveals exactly what Jon Snow was thinking when he found out his parentage: “It’s the most upsetting thing in the world…” (live now). Also an explainer: Why Jon has a better claim than Daenerys.

Premiere writer Dave Hill breaks down all the big moments.

Watch the promo for season 8 episode 2 and the new opening credits online.

Lena Headey discusses her initial reluctance to have Cersei sleep with Euron.

And Nikolaj Coster-Waldau reveals what Jaime is thinking when he sees Bran.

Monday afternoon we’ll have a new episode of EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast where Darren Franich and I will discuss each episode plus reveal behind-the-scenes tidbits from being on set. Listen on iTunes or on Spotify.

Also: We’re doing a Game of Thrones season 8 gift giveaway! Each week during the season we’re giving away three bundle packs of multiple goodies from the HBO Store. This week: Bundles of four Daenerys items. Just answer a trivia question that will be in the recap. This week’s question is an easy one: What ranger did Jon have to kill beyond the wall? To enter: Head over to Twitter and tweet @EW your answer along with the hashtag #EWGOTGIVEAWAY and the hashtag #sweepstakes (Full details).  

Note: While the first episode was screened in advance, the remaining episodes will not be. So this recap will shift into “live recapping” mode starting next week, where I’ll post some initial thoughts after the episode and then continually update throughout the night.

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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