This review contains mild spoilers for episode one of Game of Thrones, season 8
When HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s series of fantasy novels, A Song of Fire and Ice, launched in April 2011, the real-world chess set looked a little different. Barack Obama wasn’t even into his second term in office, while Donald Trump still presided only over a reality show; Britain was several years into austerity; and the most famous cast member of the epic, colossally expensive new television show was Sean Bean.
In the eight years since the series first aired, Game of Thrones has become the only show whose levels of drama have matched those erupting off-screen, whilst simultaneously making global superstars of its young and hitherto unknown cast, including Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner.
But now, after 67 episodes, over seven seasons, earning a record-breaking 47 Emmy awards, the world’s favourite tale of dragons and Dothrakian is raising its sword of Valyrian steel for the final time. The 81 million people who logged on to watch the trailer in the first 24 hours suggest that appetites for information are running high. If you didn’t get your fix last night though, be prepared: this review contains spoilers. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Unlike some previous season openers, which have spent time carefully arranging its players into place, season eight dives headlong into the action. Its creators, David Bennioff and DB Weiss, no doubt felt a sense of urgency, since not only is this season only six episodes long, but, some fans felt, the show rather lost its momentum last season. The pressure is firmly on to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the multiple, mind-bogglingly complex storylines.
Westeros’s most A-list romance ever is still apparently going strong; the action opens with Jon Snow (Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Clarke) arriving at Winterfell, extensive armies in tow. But if the Northerners are cool towards the regal blonde blow-in, Jon’s (supposed) half-sister, Sansa Stark (Turner) is positively sniffy.
And there’s more bad news for Daenerys – the wall has been ruptured, one of her dragons is dead, and the two remaining are struggling to adapt to their new environs as much as their mistress.
There are reunions more touching and emotional than most self-respecting Northerners would permit – Jon and Sansa, Jon and Arya (Williams), Jon and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose charged Three-Eyed Raven stares are only marginally more intense than those constantly passing between Jon and his new queen.
And there are reunions of a less tender nature too: Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann), whom she presumed she’d left for dead three seasons ago, and Sansa and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the potential power couple that never quite was, who last laid eyes on each other in the chaotic wake of the Purple Wedding at the start of season four.
Over in King’s Landing, Cersei (Lena Heady) is, characteristically, delighted by the news that the wall has been breached, and further heartened by the arrival of Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek), accompanied by Strickland (Marc Rissmann) and the Golden Company, with armies of men, weapons and horses, but, alas, not the elephants she’d requested.
His failure to secure the animals, however, does not impede Euron’s (surprising) success in his stated mission of bedding the queen (but Cersei not being one to let things lie, she does bring it up again post-coitally).
The gruesome Lannister-Greyjoy coupling helps crank up the sex quota in an episode otherwise struggling to reach anything like the show’s previous levels of fornication and death. Bronn (Jerome Flynn) looks, at one stage, like he could be counted on to help, but has his four-way rudely interrupted by Cersei, handing him a crossbow and ordering him to murder her "treacherous brothers’" Tyrion and Jaime, with whose child she is pregnant.
After 20 months off the air, the resolution of season seven’s biggest cliffhanger, and the show’s Biggest Secret – Jon Snow’s true lineage – is not laboured either, dispatched in this opening episode with an admirable absence of drum-rolls.
A final, late arrival at Winterfell, almost bumping into the credits, is Jaime Lannister, whose nostalgic glance around the courtyard is interrupted by a thousand-yard stare from Bran. If looks could kill, one imagines, he’d have Jaime pushed off the wall before he even got his armour off.
But this is, of course, Game of Thrones, so no episode could be entirely death-free. At Castle Black, creeping around with flaming torches, Tormund, Berric and Ed come upon a scene to send Thrones fans wild: a child, pinned to a wall, surrounded by mutilated limbs.
There is, we can safely assume, plenty more death to come – The Great War, we are frequently reminded, is almost upon us, and one battle sequence for this season took 55 days to film. And yet, in stark contrast to the real world, in Westeros, many of the previously power-crazed adversaries are cooperating and collaborating, uniting in the face of a common enemy: the Night King.
The old question of who will end up on the Throne seems almost irrelevant now… except to Cersei Lannister, of course.