SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones.”
The final season of “Game of Thrones” began with an episode that does much of the table-setting to which fans have become accustomed — “Thrones,” more than most shows, tends to dole out its big moments deeper into its annual run. But it does something new, too: Hitting the accelerator and delivering major plot developments, hurriedly, in its home stretch.
The scenes in which, first, Samwell Tarly learns of his father and brother’s death at Daenerys’s hands and, then, confronts Jon Snow with the fact of his true identity are nicely done: They’re well-acted (particularly by John Bradley, who, as Samwell, has delivered an increasingly fine performance over the course of the series). They certainly portend change ahead, as Jon, no matter his loyalty to Daenerys, cannot erase from his mind the fact both of his birthright to rule and of his blood relation to the woman he loves. And, on a show that had historically worked differently, they might seem a bit rushed but necessary to deploy information.
“Game of Thrones,” though, had been in its early seasons a show with an elegant ability to, brick by brick, construct stories methodically. The suspense of waiting for moments of chaos, when they inevitably broke out, was part of the joy. Now, perhaps, the conflagration is here — as the Dead march south, there’s not a moment of respite, so perhaps the jarring suddenness of moments towards the end of the season premiere, the inability to let story points breathe or land on their own, makes sense. But it saps the moment of some of its power to have it raced through, and is a reminder of aspects of the show that have fallen away as “Thrones” left behind its published source material, and became something bigger than a hit.
“Thrones,” as the biggest show in the world, has certain obligations to its fans now that it didn’t when it was a smaller surprise hit in its first few seasons. Among them are the need to convey the biggest pieces of information as plainly as possible, as with the Jon and Samwell conversation. (That scene’s clear design to move the story forward is both universally legible and a sign, perhaps, that saving quite this much story for the final six episodes might have been a slight miscalculation.) Another obligation is a growing emphasis on wisecracks, to lighten a mood whose oppressiveness is rather the point; further still is the expedited delivery of dragon footage. The two come together as Daenerys takes Jon for a reptilian ride, telling him, first, that nobody knows how to ride a dragon, “until they ride a dragon.” The sequence that follows, with Jon and Dany’s scaly chariots doing midair flips, is dazzling visually, upping the ante yet again for what the show can achieve as spectacle, even if its presence in the episode makes little sense other than as reward for fans before the more difficult material to come. (Love can change people, sure, but if we’ve established that Daenerys’s beasts hate the cold, snowy north and are physically weary, would someone so protective really risk their health by taking them on a joyride? And where’d her newfound sense of humor come from?)
The show’s broadening out has taken a toll, as the dual Samwell info-dumps indicate. But it has brought with it rewards, too, for those willing to find them. Lena Headey, always among the very strongest performers on the show, has embraced a sort of Disney-villainess grandeur as her character is written more and more delectably evil. “You might be the most arrogant man I’ve ever met,” she tells Euron after bedding him. “I like that.” It’s a line that clomps with unsubtlety, but it’s also carried across with relish. Similarly, Tyrion’s declaration to Sansa that “many underestimated you; most of them are dead now” is tough to take on the page, but is carried across with a thrumming charge of excitement. Tyrion and Sansa are back together again!
That’s an advantage this season of “Thrones,” in its first hour, is capitalizing on amply — even disillusioned fans’ excitement at the prospect of the show clicking into its endgame. If you have been watching this show since 2011, you have a crystalline sense of the ways it’s changed; you’ve also devoted so much time and thought to it that basically any aspect of the endgame will be graded on a bit of a curve by dint of it happening at all. As a viewer who has not always thought the Jon and Daenerys seduction tracked in every particular, I still felt a thrill as the pair rode horses side-by-side in the grand episode-opening procession of what seemed to be hundreds of soldiers, or on their dragon ride. Both sequences existed in part to make the case for the show’s unique ability to make grand visual statements; they achieved that goal. Both, too, help make the case for the relationship currently at the center of the show’s action better than dialogue could. Jon and Daenerys, both, seem (and are) born to power. Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke, cast when they were neophytes, have both grown into talented screen performers over the “Thrones” decade, and their progression rhymes with their characters’ learning how to bear themselves with grace and élan.
The most pointed moment in the premiere may be Varys’s declaration that the young use “respect” as a mechanism to keep their elders at a remove, “so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth: Nothing lasts.” It’s a concept that seems to have more applications than solely to goings-on at Winterfell. Not merely will “Thrones” be ending in five weeks — but various shows it has been before its current, hyper-assured, brisk and brusque mode have already ended, too. “Thrones” is doing absolutely stellar work within the bounds set around its current era: Highly burnished entertainment that lingers on no story point a beat more than strictly necessary to communicate the idea. Dwelling on the shows it once was and no longer is seems perhaps beyond the point. After all, this is a drama that, since those early days when episodes stretched out leisurely and when an end was not in sight, has always been about seismic change.