'Game of Thrones' Season 8 Premiere Review: HBO Proves There's Still a Game to Play

The armies of the living make a strong initial charge in the first episode of Game of Thrones's Season 8, but the storylines lost in the war preparation might be the greatest tragedy to befall Westeros so far.

Warning! Spoilers for the Episode 1 of Game of Thrones Season 8 ahead!

Game of Thrones kicked off its eighth and final season on Sunday with an hour-long episode. At first glance, the contents of this installment are a delight. After all, fans have waited years for some of these events, like the reunion between Jon Snow and Arya, or for Jon to learn his true parentage. However, as the armies of the living gear up for their impossible war against the White Walkers, many of those emotional beats were shortened in this episode, likely to make it look like there is still a grand Game to be played.

In many ways, this is an ingenious choice for the writers of Game of Thrones. The entire series has explored the loss and sacrifice of war, for everyone from a high-born lady like Sansa to a low-born baker’s boy like Hot Pie. It is a cruel but fitting punchline that all of the heroes who have survived until now should get to drop their scheming, their duties and their pretense, only to have their lives subsumed by the looming spectre of war.

This is most apparent in the reunion of Jon and Arya. They were perhaps the closest of any of the Stark siblings, and their meeting at the weirwood tree is the closest to a joyful homecoming the family has gotten so far. Still, after a hurried hug and the comparing of swords, they get right to the business of circling each other like wolves from unfamiliar packs. They are so close, yet so far from each other, and there is no time to rebuild the trust that used to bind them together. Winter is here.

The same is manifest in Arya’s reunion with Gendry and The Hound. A complicated relationship that helped shape her adolescence on the run is reduced to a growled one-liner from Clegane, while her conversation with Gendry only re-establishes their smirking rapport before turning to the business that is really supposed to catch our eye — the dragonglass weapon she asks for. Hopefully, these are seeds planted for more satisfying scenes later on, but for now the effect is one of dulling emotion and avoiding tough confrontations.

One of the best-done reunions is undoubtedly the one between Sansa and Tyrion. The former husband and wife play off of each other flawlessly, yet in a brand-new way, reflecting all their growth since their last conversation. This scene flies in the face of the analyses saying that the “Game of Thrones” is over. These two master politicians have plenty of maneuvering left to do, and no army of wights is going to stop them.

That is where this episode of Game of Thrones triumphs. It shows us that, as different as the series feels now, as far as we might feel we’ve come, nothing has changed. There is still war, there is still duty, and there are still games to be played. As frustrating as it might feel to see potentially cathartic moments pass by, it is what Game of Thrones has led us to expect, and it is necessary for mankind to hold out against death for one more season.

That makes it almost sad that the show is dedicating so much time instead to Jon and Daenerys instead of the rich and complex relationships that have been building for years. Their budding romance has had so little screen time to play out, and this week includes what almost amounts to a montage of other characters weighing in on it just in time for Sam to come along and, in all likelihood, shatter it. Tyrion, Varys, and Davos sound like paraphrases of themselves as they form a Greek chorus, wishing that Jon and Daenerys would get married, while Sansa lashes out at Jon in a predictably single-minded monologue.

Meanwhile, Jon’s historic solo flight on Viserion — the first, as far as we know, besides Daenerys in generations — is encapsulated in a few breathtaking CGI shots and never spoken of again. If even a flight on the back of a dragon cannot distract the people of Winterfell from the coming war, then it is hard to believe that they’re really so upset about the King in the North bending the knee.

As sad as it might be for fans to watch these abbreviated milestones, this is one of the few things left to keep tension alive in this final season. At this point, all but a few of the main characters are in the same place — namely, Winterfell — and the writers have taken a liberal time-skipping approach to travel around the continent. In addition, there is no mystery about what is going on in the enemy battle camp, or anywhere else for that matter, as Bran can warg over there whenever he wants and report back. This leaves precious few sources of intrigue for our heroes, and the writers have found ways to milk what they can get.

With that in mind, any feeling of incompleteness at the end of this first episode should come as a sign of encouragement, proving that there is a game left to be played, even in a war zone. Hopefully, the show will continue to braid and twist what few plot threads remain as the season goes on. As exciting as the War for the Dawn is, Game of Thrones genuinely doesn't feel like it was ever meant to boil down to one side against the other.

Instead, it feels like it should continue to become denser, with thousands of different strands entwining to have an effect on the final outcome. We know these characters intimately, and that earns us a level of depth and nuance which would be wasted on a whole season of flat-out war. It would be an insult to the show to start simplifying everything now in order to air a Hobbit-style three-hour battle scene. Instead, let us watch them play The Game.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Game of Thrones airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Season Eight, the last season, is set to run for six episodes.