Review: “Game of Thrones” Premieres Eighth Season

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1. 

The much-awaited eighth and final season of Game of Thrones started strong this week with a character-driven episode that set up the epic battles soon to come. While the episode was light on action, it had plenty of feel-good moments, finally bringing all the characters we love back together as Jon Snow returned to his hometown of Winterfell, with his new lover-aunt Daenerys in tow. The episode also stepped up the horror quotient, taking the visceral imagery of the White Walkers to new, gruesome levels.

In the early seasons, Game of Thrones was largely character-driven, focusing on developing a vast array of protagonists and following their individual journeys and histories. Very few other shows can claim the same attachment or following that Game of Thrones inspires in its viewers. Despite the complex character relationships and giant cast, faithful viewers are invested in characters’ futures, relationships, and conflicts. 

When viewers see Arya reunite with Gendry, or watch Jon meet Bran for the first time in years, we vicariously feel these characters’ joy because we understand them well enough to know what this journey has cost them. It is these interactions that the premiere really coasts by on. While Game of Thrones of late has become associated with epic battles and large spectacles, this episode in many ways takes the show back to its roots by focusing on the characters and their multifaceted relationships.

Yet even this character-centric episode cannot escape the nature of the series’ recent plot. While the show once focused on political intrigue, it is now much more of an epic fantasy; even the characters are quick to point out that family reunions and squabbles over who the true ruler is will have to wait. “We don’t have time for this,” says Bran in the episode’s first scene, a sentiment echoed by the numerous characters who are more concerned with the fight between the living and the dead than who sits on the Iron Throne. While this episode, much like the show’s early seasons, may center more on intrigue and characters, we are no longer in a world where that is the primary concern, and sooner rather than later, the show will pivot back to focus on the imminent war.

While having an episode like this one may seem discordant with the show of late, it was necessary to set things up before getting into the season’s action. In many ways, the episode served as a refresher and a catch-up, reminding people where things left off last season before the White Walkers destroyed the wall. For much of the show, Game of Thrones has been extremely spread out, with characters scattered across the continent’s seven kingdoms and farther. Now, the show’s characters are congregated in two central locations: Winterfell and King’s Landing. From the show’s opening credits, it is clear that the story is nearing its climax; the usual flyover of all Westeros is condensed to just Winterfell and King’s Landing, the Wall, and the Last Hearth — the final obstacles in the White Walkers’ path. The episode establishes characters’ loyalties and tensions before the height of war.

While those in the North are preparing to fight the army of the dead, in King’s Landing, Cersei prepares to take on any survivors, having hired the sellswords named the Golden Company to fight for her. Cersei seems to have little to fight for since Jaime left her, which we see when she relents and invites Euron Greyjoy into her bed, an idea she had previously refused to entertain. While she claims to be pregnant with Jaime’s child, the show has shown us no evidence of this being the case, and Cersei seems to increasingly be fighting a battle from which she cannot emerge victorious, for, were she to win, there would be little left for her to return to.

I would be remiss not to mention the many callbacks in this episode. From musical reiterations to running jokes between characters, the show continuously rewards its long-time viewers. The show recognizes that its audience derives no small amount of enjoyment from seeing these characters and locations again after such a long time, and capitalizes on that to great effect. Ramin Djawadi, the show’s Emmy-awarded composer, has done an excellent job remaking themes from early episodes to better suit the current characters and tones of the world. This episode is also successfully humorous when it tries to be, with plenty of pithy one-liners and situational humor making it one of the series’ funnier episodes amid the tension.

The previous season of Game of Thrones was a little disappointing, becoming less nuanced and more spectacle-driven as it strayed beyond the books’ storyline. This episode, however, hearkened back to the character-driven episodes of the early seasons while setting the stage for the imminent epic conflict. It gives me hope that this season may be one of the best yet, and I eagerly look forward to the next installment.