Winter is here, and it’s taking us deeper into the world of Game of Thrones than ever before … in the opening credits, anyway. For its final season, HBO’s era-defining fantasy saga has given the famous clockwork map that accompanies Ramin Djawadi’s unmistakable opening theme a complete makeover. Instead of simply gliding over the various lands and castles of Westeros, the title sequence now takes us inside them — from Winterfell’s crypt to the Red Keep’s throne room.
The premiere that accompanies the new credits, however, is content with surface-level pleasures. Rousing, crowd-pleasing and often very funny (how many GoT episodes can you say that about?), the kickoff for the show’s eighth and final season brings long-estranged characters together at an unprecedented pace, like it’s checking off items on a shopping list for a fan-service speed run. It’s great fun. But is it, you know, great?
We begin with the return of Jon Snow to Winterfell, accompanied for the first time by his new queen Daenerys Targaryen — plus her entourage of advisors, super-soldiers and two enormous dragons. What follows is like a combination family and high-school reunion. Jon sees his sister Arya for the first time since he gave her her sword at the start of Season One. (“Have you used it?” he asks. Oh, my sweet summer child.) He’s also thrilled to see his brother Bran, who was comatose when he left Winterfell and is now some kind of telepathic higher being.
Then there’s his best friend Samwell Tarly, whom Snow sent off to become a maester. He returned with the revelation that Jon is, in fact, King Aegon Targaryen, true ruler of Westeros. It’s the night’s most deeply satisfying moment — even if it comes at the cost of learning that his beloved “father” Ned Stark was really his uncle, his long-lost siblings are his cousins … and, er, his girlfriend Daenerys is his aunt.
Elsewhere, Tyrion Lannister reunites with his ex-wife Sansa Stark for the first time since the late King Joffrey’s wedding. (“Dreadful affair,” he says. “Had its moments,” she replies.) Arya also meets up with the Hound, who she left for dead, and Gendry, her first crush; she handles both encounters a lot more smoothly this time around. And the episode ends with the most awkward reunion of all: Bran and the repentant rogue knight Jaime Lannister, the guy who threw him out a window way back in the pilot. (In all fairness, the Kingslayer feels pretty bad about it.)
But it’s not just a getting-the-band-back-together affair. A new supergroup is forming, with characters who’ve never met before finally standing face to face. Foremost among these are Sansa and Daenerys, whom the suspicious Lady of Winterfell greets with a cold courtesy that would make Cersei Lannister proud. Dany also meets Sam; she thanks him for saving the life of her old friend Jorah Mormont, then admits to taking the lives of his father and brother when they refused to bend the knee. If it weren’t for that, the most uncomfortable encounter would be the one between the Khaleesi’s trusted advisors Missandei and Grey Worm and, well, the people of Winterfell, who view these darker-skinned strangers with distrust and disgust.
Down in King’s Landing … well, it should probably be renamed Queen’s Landing, because Cersei has remade the place in her own awful image. Her Queensguard have gone from wearing white cloaks to black, in emulation of the monstrous Ser Gregor Clegane. Her Grace’s heart remains as dark as her taste in clothing, too. It’s not like anyone would expect her to forgive her brothers Tyrion and Jaime for turning on her; assassination was always going to be on her agenda. But hiring their mutual bestie Bronn to do the deed? Not even actor Jerome Flynn’s deadpan panic about catching a fatal STD from one of the women he’s having sex with can lighten the mood.
It gets to the point that when Euron Greyjoy, the swaggering nihilist commander of Cersei’s fleet, finally convinces her to fuck him, you’re almost worried for him. (Almost.) She certainly won’t be thrilled to learn that her new bedwarmer let his niece Yara escape from imprisonment aboard his flagship, courtesy of a daring rescue by her traumatized but slowly healing brother Theon.
In the episode’s most spectacular and romantic sequence, Jon — er, Aegon — goes for a dragonride with his queen for the very first time. Holding on for dear life, he soars along with Daenerys through the wintry wasteland, until they arrive at a beautiful waterfall grotto and, uh, make out. (The way Jon’s dragon stares at them will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to have sex under the watchful eye of a pet cat.) It’s a beautiful moment, one that feels like the show took its hero’s subterranean waterside hookup with his wildling girlfriend Ygritte and brought it up into the bigger, brighter light of day.
In scene after scene, the episode takes the series full-circle like that, often all the way back to the show’s beginning. Think of long-separated best friends Jon and Sam in the crypt, echoing Ned and King Robert. Or Sansa and Tyrion observing the Winterfell courtyard from a balcony, like her mother and father once did. Or Arya visiting Lord Snow at the heart tree, just as Catelyn visited Eddard. Or the little boy who clambers up trees and rooftops for a better look at the royal procession’s arrival, Bran-style. Then there’s that ending: Does a cliffhanger cut to black after a chance encounter between the young Stark and a Lannister ring any bells?
To wit: This long-awaited return gives us wish-fulfillment fantasy imagery, reunions that the audience has been waiting years for, satisfying storytelling symmetry with previous seasons, jokes, wisecracks and enough Sansa sideye to keep Twitter stocked with snarky reply gifs for the next 20 years. The episode’s one truly horrifying image — Tormund Giantsbane, Beric Dondarrion and Lord Commander “Dolorous” Edd Tollett discovering a zombie child pinned to the wall like a cockroach in the middle of a mandala of severed limbs, lighting it on fire as it screams — doesn’t happen until the final two minutes.
It’s all so conspicuously fan-friendly that it almost makes you wonder: What is this show, and what has it done with Game of Thrones? However much attention the series has paid to the squalid, sordid politicking of its human players, it’s still an epic fantasy. The very first scene of the pilot told us that whatever else was going on, this was always gonna wind up being a battle of life against death, good against evil, ice demons against dudes with swords and women with dragons. To end that story properly, you need the feel-good stuff: reunions, comebacks, camaraderie, handsome kings and beautiful queens riding around on giant flying nuclear dinosaurs.
But even if that’s what this series was ultimately and inevitably going to be about, it’s not what it felt like all this time. It’s never flinched from showing the the bleak, brutal side of sweeping pseudo-historical fantasy conflicts that similar genre works largely ignored. That’s why so many millions of people tuned in each week—to praise it, critique it, debate it and just generally soak up its grim, gutsy conviction that you need to see humanity at its worst to truly appreciate humanity at its best.
Now there are only five episodes left. To paraphrase Jesse Ventura, we ain’t got time not to bleed. Kickass team-ups, dragonfire takedowns, and Sansa snark? Wonderful things one and all. But as Game of Thrones prepares for the final battle between ice and fire, let’s hope it remembers that a spoonful of poison will help the sugar go down.