the beginning of the end

This Is the Best Game of Thrones Premiere Since the Pilot

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

It is hard to pull a juggernaut into port. For Game of Thrones, its immense size — sprawling plot, colossal cast, long cultural show — makes that task a particular challenge. It has to create the sense that this huge world is ending, that characters who’ve been scattered across the map are now, at last, reuniting in meaningful and conclusory ways. It has to feel satisfying, an elusive and unmistakable quality in narrative that relies on a combination of being expected and feeling surprising, and often hinges on long-developing character arcs. And yet, even as the show starts pulling the levers to make this whole thing feel like it’s shutting down, it has to maintain some momentum. Slowly and carefully may be the best way to dock an enormous ship, but it’s pretty boring to watch.

Given the Goldilocks-esque task (fast, but carefully! Expected, but also surprising!), the first episode of Game of Thrones’ final season does an impressive job of landing in that elusive middle place. It works because the episode relies on a grab bag of familiar tropes from fantasy epics and some tried-and-true devices to signal that this story is approaching an end. But it also works because the episode is a self-aware reflection of where Game of Thrones began. After eight seasons spread over as many years, it’s a good idea to go back to the start.

All of that is at work in the opening scene of the episode, where an unnamed boy cranes his neck to try to see the queen and her armies marching into Winterfell, scrambling up a tall tree to get a better view. It’s a callback to the pilot episode, when Arya was the young kid clambering on top of a wagon so she could see Cersei and Robert Baratheon marching into Winterfell. But it’s also just standard fantasy trope 101 territory, a tried-and-true device because it works — that kid’s excitement becomes a proxy for ours, and his frantic scramble so he can see the main characters becomes the sweet, simple visual metaphor for our own anticipation. His desire to see Jon and Daenerys is our desire. It is Game of Thrones saying, “We know you want to see it, and we’re gonna give it to you.” And as promised, Jon and Dany rise into the frame, surrounded by soldiers as though they’re being presented together on an image destined for commemorative T-shirts.

That sounds like cheese, but it’s what a premiere episode for a show like this should be doing. So many of the best moments in this episode feel broad. Sansa’s unbelievably pronounced side-eye, Jon keeping a wary eye on Dany’s watchful dragon while he makes out with her in the snow, Sam Tarly’s direct, no-nonsense, finally-we-say-it-out-loud summary of Jon’s parentage: The time for messing around with directionless side plots has passed. There’s a lot of story left to tell, and many of the most appealing moments are about arriving at some major reunion, often told briefly but with a hearty dash of joyful oomph to give the moment its due. Theon rescuing Yara Greyjoy comes to mind, but also Jaime riding into Winterfell, hooded and shot from behind, the camera lingering cheekily on his fully obscured silhouette to make sure everyone has plenty of time to register that Someone Exciting Is Under That Hood.

But what makes this premiere work is the way it combines necessary plot milestones with sequences of straightforward indulgence. The scene where Dany and Jon soar around the North on dragons is long, some of the longest dragon footage the series has ever given us. In moments like this, you can almost feel the amusement-park ride that will inevitably be designed around it. Jon clings to the dragon’s spine, his legs sliding off its neck while the monster swerves sideways to test Jon’s strength. They bank sharply over Winterfell, echoing the visual map scale of the opening credits. The downward plummet into an icy canyon is pure roller coaster, and it’s a reminder of why “our hero finally rides the giant mythical monster” is such a potent, effective fantasy device.

From the perspective of just needing to end this story, that scene has no reason to exist, or at least, certainly not at the length that it does. But it has lots of genre precedent. Harry Potter leaping onto a dragon (or hippogriff); Paul Atreides finally calling a sandworm; Bastian climbing onto Falkor in NeverEnding Story; Susan and Lucy riding a resurrected Aslan — in some of these examples, the mythical beast is a deus ex monster, who arrives to help the good guys win. But the trope works for reasons that go beyond plot. There’s a deep brain-stem-level physical impact in the way earthbound characters are lifted off the ground, in the way they soar over the fantasy map we rarely experience from up high. It is triumphant and epic, and it’s the rare direct collision between human and fantasy on Game of Thrones that manages to make the humans seem more human, rather than less. Jon’s legs swinging over the side of this dragon’s neck, his feet scrambling for purchase, on a show that sometimes forgets its people have bodies — it is a moment that works.

It’s not the first time Game of Thrones has pulled this move. Every time a dragon makes a significant appearance, we get a taste of that dramatic dragon-to-human scale. But Game of Thrones’ dragons have almost always been machines of war, and Dany usually rides them into battle or as an act of intimidation. This “do you dare” courtship scene is just fun, with Daenerys testing Jon’s courage, and the dragons acting like lizardy leviathan chaperones. As much as anything else, when Jon and Dany arrive at the beautiful, desolate winter waterfall and embrace as though they’re the only two people left in the world, it looks like a late-season desert-island date from The Bachelor, with dragons swapped in for the helicopters.

That sounds like a dig, but it is not. Game of Thrones has always worked best when it operates in more than one generic register, when it allows humor and romance to pulse alongside its world of political machinations and the encroaching Army of the Dead. This premiere episode feels like an acknowledgment of that. It is just funny enough, and just self-aware enough (without being too sly). It feels generous. And it feels balanced between the most pressing plot work that has to get done in this last season, and the knowledge that twists and deaths and throne-acquisition will not be enough to pull this ship into harbor. It will also require some serious attempts to wrestle with scale, to let the humans be humans sometimes, to remember how small and vital they are against such a big and merciless fictional geography. The Game of Thrones premiere gives me hope that this final season will be a return to what made the series work so well at the start. The night is dark and full of terrors, and winter is here, and the apocalypse is nigh, but our heroes are still just people. We’ll have to hope that will be enough to save them.

This Is the Best Game of Thrones Premiere Since the Pilot