This is a review of Season 8, Episode 1: Spoilers Below!
Forget winter. The Great War is coming. Armies are marching. Evil queens are scheming. There is no time to waste. The end is near, just five episodes away.
The urgency was palpable at the start of "Game of Thrones'" eighth and final season, which arrived Sunday after a near two-year absence that had fans deconstructing everything from the artful arrangement of corpses in Season 1 to the gentle drift of a tiny snowflake in Season 7 for clues about who might capture the Iron Throne.
Carefully laid theories blew apart Sunday as the paths of key players finally converged, and at a rapid clip, in the most dynamic and eventful season opener in the HBO drama's nine-year history.
Within minutes of the lengthy cogs-and-wheels title sequence, the arduous separation saga of the Starks came to an end when Arya (Maisie Williams), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) reunited in Winterfell for the first time since the series began in 2011.
Dots were connected at a brisk pace Sunday in the episode directed by David Nutter, but not at the expense of eloquently cut dialogue, ongoing character development, stunning scenery and an often wicked sense of humor.
When Daenerys Targaryen, or Khaleesi (Emilia Clarke), urged Snow to climb atop the fire-breathing Rhaegal for a joyride above the Northern wilderness, he was reticent.
"I don't know how to ride a dragon," said Snow.
"Nobody does until they ride a dragon," she replied.
"What if he doesn't want me to?" he asked.
"Then I've enjoyed your company, Jon Snow," Khaleesi said, and took off in a bluster of wind and wings.
The brief exchange unexpectedly led to the most breathtaking moments of the season opener. The dragons soared and dived at breakneck speeds over frozen peaks and forested valleys. She laughed as he held on for dear life, their capes flapping furiously behind them. The couple appeared victorious before ever stepping on, or flying over, the great battlefield.
But even when riding the low-tech option of horses across the North, the power couple staged a formidable entrance when they first arrived at Winterfell. The Targaryens had a massive army of Unsullied soldiers and Dothraki warriors in tow and were flanked by a cabal of advisers and swordsmen that included the queen's hand Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and The Hound (Rory McCann).
Khaleesi was a vision of chilled beauty in her white tunic and silver hair. Snow, the King in the North, was the perfect swarthy counterpart in his dark leather and furs. Too bad the lovers will probably end up killing each other for the throne.
Bran broke his million-mile stare to greet Snow and his new queen, though it wasn't their arrival he'd been anticipating. He'd been parked by the gates for days awaiting "an old friend." When the visitor did eventually materialize in the last few seconds of the show, it was a signal for "Game of Thrones" fans that this season is going to be an explosive if not vengeance-filled delight, and it promised to avenge or heal wounds inflicted as far back as Season 1.
Even in the course of one episode, the smallest of actions contributed to a butterfly-effect chain of events that kept moving the throne from one character's pocket to the next.
Before the show's halfway mark, an altered Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) finally reclaimed his manhood after years of powerlessness by taking action against those who betrayed him and captured his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan).
And by the 54-minute episode's close, Snow learned what we've known for years _ that he's not Ned Stark's son but Aegon Targaryen, a descendant of the mad king and direct heir to the Iron Throne. It's a lot for Snow to process, especially since it means his lover and queen is also his aunt and direct competitor for the realm's ultimate seat of power.
The common goal of all the characters left standing should be to unite and fight the encroaching Night King and his army of White Walkers before they literally devour mankind. Season 8's action, however, shows how the characters' singular motivations for power may prove a bigger threat to survival than the undead, especially since the throne's current occupant, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), isn't exactly a team player.
It's also, of course, Westeros' year of the woman since so many of the female characters in the show are poised to seize power. But that doesn't mean they get along in Season 8.
Lady of Winterfell Sansa affected a cold, hard stare when Snow introduced her to Daenerys. She doubts the Dragon Queen's loyalty to the North because the Targaryens are sworn enemies and looks as though she'd rather be in the company of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), the ex she fed to a pack of starving dogs.
Other leaders of local houses were also uncomfortable with the presence of Dany and Tyrion Lannister during a war council. She assuaged their nerves by reminding the angry crowd that only allied forces can beat the White Walkers, and she brings legions of fighters and two full-grown dragons to the game.
Sansa, who's unimpressed and a bit disgusted at the mention of the giant lizards, asked "What do dragons eat?"
"Whatever they want," replied their protective mother.
A new battle begins.
Snow, meanwhile, got in hot water again thanks to his earnestness and valor. It must be exhausting to be so honorable. "You left a king and came back as what?" asked locals who were upset he pledged his loyalty to the Targaryen queen.
"It's not important," said Snow.
"It is! We named you King in the North!"
"I had a choice to keep my crown or protect the North. I chose the North," he responded.
His steadfast conviction, however, was later shaken when Sansa caught him alone and asked if he bent the knee for the North or for love? He was flummoxed.
Mini-battle No. 3: Snow's internal tug of war.
Snow's best friend, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), also made an appearance, and within seconds of his return on screen he's torn between loyalty to his former Night's Watch mate and his late family. Blacksmith Gendry (Joe Dempsie), the bastard son of the late King Robert Baratheon, also threatened a fissure between Snow and Arya.
Meanwhile at King's Landing, Queen Cersei was also focused on the approaching zombie storm, but she's not lifting a finger to stop the Night King. She's hoping his decomposing troops wipe out the dragon queen, Snow and her "traitor" brother Tyrion. She wishes the same fate for her recently estranged brother, Ser Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a.k.a. the father of her children and unborn baby. Let the ghouls eat him too.
Psychopath Euron (Pilou Asbaek) also had conquest on his mind, and his target was Cersei. He wanted to bed her (he used decidedly saltier language). She was both repulsed and amused by the cocky foreigner, even after she had sex with him.
Wildling Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) was also set up for a potentially pivotal role in the forthcoming season, as was mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) in a fast-moving collection of shifting alliances and narratives.
Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' attention to detail, and the way they stack and seamlessly connect those specifics, is largely what pushed the drama from a fantasy series for George R.R. Martin fans to the cultural touchstone it is today.
A huge budget, stellar cast and the gravitas of HBO certainly didn't hurt either, and it all came together in this long-awaited return of the show.
"Game of Thrones" is still playing with dozens of potential outcomes, despite what little time there is to spare. The night is still dark and still filled with infinite possibilities.