‘Game of Thrones’ returns! 8 takeaways from Season 8 premiere (spoiler alert)

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes the return of 'Game of Thrones' (Jason Fraley)

AUTHOR NOTE: The following report contains spoilers in order to project what might happen.

How did you spend the past 20 months? Breathing fire waiting for new episodes of TV’s hottest show to drop? Binging the entire series all over again because that’s all you could do? Or introducing new loved ones to the epic saga in all its sexy, violent, complex, shocking glory?

At long last, “Game of Thrones” ended its excruciating hiatus Sunday night by returning for its eighth and final season. We haven’t seen this level of anticipation since “The Sopranos,” thanks to a Season 7 finale that was HBO’s most-watched episode ever with 12.1 million viewers and a Season 8 trailer that was viewed a record 81 million times in its first 24 hours.

So without further ado, what did you think of Sunday’s long-awaited Season 8 premiere? Let’s just say that the 54-minute episode flew by, which means the show is firing on all cylinders.

Here are my eight takeaways from the Season 8 premiere:

1) New Opening

Right off the bat, we realized that something was already different. The famous opening credits — a motion graphics package moving across the map to that epic theme song — was updated to show The Wall collapsed by the reanimated dragon and a wave of ice creeping across the land. This is obviously to denote that winter is no longer coming, it’s here baby.

Most fascinating are the relief symbols on the logo’s armillary sphere. At the :01 mark, we see an image of the dragon Viserion frying the Great Wall. At :54, we see direwolves decapitated (Ned Stark) and slain by arrows (Red Wedding). Finally at 1:33, we see a giant dragon with two little dragons appearing just before the logo, suggesting that Dany may ultimately triumph.

2) Brilliant Parallels

Once the show itself starts, viewers may have noticed some brilliant parallels to the very first episode of Season 1. The Season 8 premiere opens with a boy climbing a tree (symbolic of Bran’s ill-fated climb up the tower) to get a good look at the new parade procession. While it was Cersei Lannister and Robert Baratheon riding into Winterfell on horseback in Season 1, this time it’s Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Also, rather than Arya scrambling to get a look like in Season 1, she now stands confidently, making way for another young kid to look.

Likewise, the end of the episode also features a goosebump-inducing echo as Jaime Lannister arrives in Winterfell and stares down Bran for the first time since pushing him out of the tower in Season 1. Bran may seek revenge, but not quite yet. Jaime will first complete his redemption arc by helping the Starks, having been alienated from Cersei over her pregnancy lie. Bran could find it in his non-hypocritical heart to overlook Jaime’s incest after discovering Jon and Dany’s secret, but if Jaime does indeed die, it should be Bran pushing him off a ledge.

3) Burning Grudges

The showdown between Bran and Jaime wasn’t the only grudge teased in the premiere. We’re also picking up on major bad blood between Sansa and Dany in the form of verbal jabs and eye daggers. It appears Sansa does not appreciate Dany riding into town as the new queen, let alone doing so by wooing her adopted brother Jon Snow. Their bad blood is confirmed when Arya asks Jon, “Did you bend your knee to save the North? Or because you love her?”

On the antagonist side, there may be tension between Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy, who was introduced in Season 6 as the sinister new leader of the Iron Islands and is now betrothed to Cersei. Cersei calls him the most arrogant man she’s ever met, before smiling, “I like it.” He’s her kind of evil, but could this romantic tension bubble into an internal rivalry?

4) Epic Reunions

While the aforementioned grudges showed tensions between characters on both sides of the battle, other reunions provided heartwarming and cathartic moments. We saw Theon Greyjoy free his sister Yara, who initially headbutts him to the ground, causing us to cheer (surely the jerk deserved that after his brief nasty rule of Winterfell). Then, she picks him up as a renewed ally (Ramsey Bolton’s torture of Reek couldn’t help but renew some sympathy for Theon).

We also enjoyed the reunion of Sansa and Tyrion, who greets her by saying, “The Lady of Winterfell.” She replies, “The Hand of the Queen.” They banter about not having seen each other since Joffrey’s demise, smugly saying the Purple Wedding “had its moments.” Similarly, we saw Jon reunite with Arya, who asks, “How did you survive a sword through the heart?” He replies, “I didn’t,” referring to that famous cliffhanger death scene before his resurrection. Best of all is Jon’s reunion with Sam for the big reveal of his heritage (more in a minute).

5) Shock vs. Setup

If you came into the Season 8 premiere hoping for bloodletting, you should have managed your expectations. The early episodes are traditionally used as character-driven setups to the violent battles later in the season with shocking deaths often in the second-to-last episode. As a result, the Season 8 premiere was a rather bloodless affair, favoring dialogue over demise, and leaving other anticipated smackdowns (The Hound vs. The Mountain) on the sidelines.

However, screenwriter Dave Hill didn’t want thrill seekers to come away empty-handed. He did provide one memorable jumpscare as the northern troops discovered a White Walker warning of a young boy’s dead body strapped to a creepy symbol on a wall. Director David Nutter smartly keeps the body in focus in the background behind the men, causing us to jump out of our seats when the body suddenly jolts awake like the sloth victim in “Se7en.”

6) Soaring Moments

Even if action fans were let down by a lack of violence, they at least got the soaring moment of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen flying on the backs of dragons. As the giant creatures swooped through the sky, dodging jagged mountains and landing at a beautiful waterfall, it was the ultimate realization of the show’s fantastical elements all in one inspiring sequence.

However, there was also a major clue that fans might have missed and that Jon and Dany overlooked at their own peril. It has already been established that Targaryens are the only ones who can successfully ride a dragon, but Jon is able to accomplish the feat. This should raise a red flag to the characters about the secret that we the audience already know — that Jon is himself a Targaryen. The dragon seems to know the truth, growling in jealous disgust.

7) The Big Secret

Which brings us to the storyline we’ve all been wondering about since the shocking revelation at the end of Season 7. Few moments in recent TV history were as shocking as the moment where Sam and Bran’s research at the Citadel revealed Jon Snow’s true identity. Not only is he not a bastard (as claimed by Ned Stark in a coverup to keep him safe), his real name is Aegon Targaryen, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen (Dany’s brother) and Lyanna Stark (Ned’s sister).

Taking a page from the Luke and Leia twist of “Star Wars,” it became apparent that Jon and Dany are actually related, made all the more mythically tragic by the fact that they had already consummated their romance. After that shocking revelation in the Season 7 finale, the Season 8 premiere brilliantly shows Sam revealing the news to Jon. The acting here is superb, as Jon first processes the bastard news (his daddy issues with Ned run deep) and then we slowly see his face process the ancestral ramifications of his now-tainted love for Dany.

8) Final Predictions

Optimists hold out hope that Jon and Dany will share the throne together, but a more tragic finale fits the show’s dark tone. Expect something bittersweet, as Jon and Dany sacrifice themselves amid angelic visions of their respective lovers, the Wildling girlfriend Ygritte (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”) and the Dothraki hubbie Khal Drogo (“My sun and my stars”). In their dying breaths, they’ll leave their newborn Jonaerys to be protected by the temporary king Tyrion (the show loves rewarding the underdog) until the child is grown to take the Iron Throne. That’s right, Jon and Dany’s child is the “Song of Ice and Fire” teased in the book title.

As for the other incest lovers, I predict Jaime will strangle ex-lover Cersei with his golden hand. In the books, the Valonqar prophecy states: “Three [children] for you. Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds. And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.” In Valyrian, “valonqar” means “little brother,” which she assumed meant the imp Tyrion, but I think it means twin brother Jaime as Season 7 mise-en-scene showed them standing on the map’s symbolic “neck” and “fingers.”

At this point, the show has far outpaced George R. R. Martin’s novels, so we’re all flying blind, which is way more exciting than knowing the outcome. Just five episodes remain, so we’re running out of time. Next week’s episode will run 58 minutes with other episodes clocking in at close to two hours, which is fine by us diehard fans who think it’s impossible to drag on.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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