'Game of Thrones' Final Season Premiere Raises the Iron Throne Stakes

Game of Thrones S08 Premiere_Jon Snow 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Helen Sloan/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for the final season premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones, "Winterfell."]

Once upon a time, a king came to Winterfell. Several seasons later, a new royal party has arrived in the Northern seat of power: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), all but hand-in-hand with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the former King in the North now pledged to serve the Dragon Queen — though his plans may change in light of recent revelations.

In any event, Game of Thrones charted a full-circle journey with the first new hour of its six-episode final season. The season premiere called back to the very first installment, "Winter Is Coming," with Daenerys playing the role of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), albeit with much chillier reception from House Stark. Indeed, fractures are forming between the Northern family and the Mother of Dragons, even as Jon and Daenerys grow closer in some ways, with the promise of an inevitable distance in the hours ahead.

Far away from Winterfell, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) still presides over King's Landing, with an eye firmly on defeating the recently formed Targaryen-Snow alliance. She has some new help, too, in the form of a sellsword company cobbled together by the brutal Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek). Little does he know that his own control over the Iron Islands has once again become a contentious deal.

In the end, Cersei isn't the only Lannister with her eyes on the North, as seen in the episode's closing moments: Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arriving in Winterfell, albeit undercover — though even a hooded disguise isn't enough to fool Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a far cry from the boy Jaime once pushed out of a window.

Read on for how the premiere plays out, beat-by-beat.

The Dragon and the Wolves

Following a revised opening title sequence (which focuses only on Winterfell and King's Landing, albeit in exceptional detail; an immediate visual acknowledgement of the storyline's narrowing focus), the action quickly launches into Daenerys and company's arrival in Winterfell. A young child runs through the crowds to see the royal procession, not unlike how young Bran climbed the towers of Winterfell back in the series premiere. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) watches in awe as the dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal, soar overhead, frightening man, and causing some small alarm for Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). 

In actuality, the Lady of Winterfell is mostly annoyed at the grandeur of Daenerys' debut; she reluctantly welcomes the Dragon Queen to the North all the same. Meanwhile, Jon takes a moment to enjoy his reunion with Bran, not fully understanding his younger sibling's new nature as the Three-Eyed Raven. Any confusion is quickly cleared up when Bran spouts out the full update: the Night King and the White Walkers have breached the Wall, with an undead ice dragon in tow. 

During a meeting in the great hall of Winterfell, Jon orders young Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) to return to Last Hearth, one of the strongholds closest to where the Army of the Dead has made landfall. Soon, the discourse gets heated, as several attendees (including Bella Ramsey's Lyanna Mormont) openly question Jon for swearing allegiance to Daenerys. They didn't agree to work with the Targaryens; they agreed to fight for the King in the North.

The awkwardness continues beyond the meeting, in the form of some reunions, such as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa. He tries to sell her on the need for an alliance with Daenerys, and even more, he tries to sell her on the need to work together with Cersei; last he checked, his older sister still planned on helping out in the war against the dead. "I used to think you were the cleverest man alive," says Sansa, obviously understanding Cersei's true motivations in a way even Tyrion doesn't appreciate. In the godswood of Winterfell, another reunion occurs: Jon and Arya, leading to this amazing exchange about her sword, Needle:

Jon: "Have you had to use it?"
Arya: "…once or twice."

Beyond the laugh, the scene between Jon and Arya is oddly tense. After their struggle in season seven, Arya is clearly all the way in on Sansa now, fully backing her sister's plays — which is why Arya is not exactly thrilled at the prospect of teaming up with Daenerys. Jon rightfully looks concerned about how Dany's approval numbers are shaping up with the rest of his family.

The Lion and the Krakens

In King's Landing, Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser) comes to Cersei with "terrible news." The White Walkers have entered Westeros, he says. The Lion Queen smiles: "Good." Some things never change.

Later, Euron Greyjoy returns to King's Landing with an army, as promised: the Golden Company, one of the most notorious groups of sellswords in the known world. Marc Rissmann makes his debut as the Golden Company's leader, Harry Strickland, the spitting image of Cersei's brother and lover, Jaime. But it's Euron who winds up filling the void left behind by Jaime, as he finally gets his wish: a night alone with Cersei Lannister. 

Elsewhere, another series regular is enjoying some adult entertainment: Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who is doing his best Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) impression by sleeping with multiple women at once. It isn't going well, thanks to some awkward conversation, not the least of which involves Maester Qyburn showing up for a late-night discussion. He comes to Bronn with a gift and a task. The gift: a crossbow. The task: use the crossbow to assassinate Tyrion and Jaime, on Cersei's behalf. ("Our queen is not without a sense of irony," says Qyburn, referring to the weapon's use in the season four slaying of Charles Dance's Tywin.) If Bronn complies, he will be more handsomely rewarded than he can possibly imagine — and knowing Bronn, he can imagine quite a lot.

In other evening activity news, Cersei and Euron clearly enjoy each other's company. After the act, the pirate king asks, "How do I compare?" Cersei calls him the most arrogant man she's ever met — which is not an insult, apparently. Euron places his hand on Cersei's stomach and promises to give her a prince. He's later to the punch than he realizes.

As it turns out, Euron isn't the only Greyjoy burning the midnight oil. Outside King's Landing, out on the Blackwater, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) sits, tied to a mast aboard her uncle's ship, Silence — and silence is very much the name of the game as a group of Iron Islanders infiltrate the ship, stealthily killing all on board with the use of bows and arrows. Leading the crew: Theon (Alfie Allen), clearly taking inspiration from his last conversation with Jon Snow; the bow-and-arrow attack is absolutely a callback to Theon's youth living alongside the Starks, when he was one of the most skilled archers in the North. 

Yara responds to Theon's rescue effort with a swift punch to his face; well earned, considering Theon's own cowardice the last time they met. She quickly helps him back to his feet, and the two promptly escape. Out on the open sea, Yara states her intention to return to the Iron Islands, to take it back while Euron is distracted; what's more, Daenerys may need a stronghold to retreat to should the war with the White Walkers escalate beyond her control. For his part, Theon feels his place is with the Starks in the fight against the Night King. Yara gives him permission to leave, along with some confidence-boosting parting words: "What is dead may never die — but kill them all anyway."

Dungeons and Dragons

Back at Winterfell, an excellent meeting of the minds occurs between Jon Snow and Daenerys' topmost advisers: Davos (Liam Cunningham), Varys (Conleth Hill) and Tyrion. They acknowledge the obvious difficulties between the Northerners and the Targaryen loyalists, with Davos offering a solution he feels everyone can rally behind: Jon and Daenerys' marriage pact.

Even though they aren't present for the conversation, Jon and Dany's actions strongly suggest their favorability to the pact. At Dany's suggestion, Jon joins the Breaker of Chains on an epic dragon ride through the Northern skies, riding on Rhaegal while she races ahead on Drogon. When they land, Jon and Daenerys share an intimate kiss, far away from their royal responsibilities — though way too close to the two dragons, both of whom awkwardly linger as they watch Jon and Dany's kiss. Hey, at least they approve of their mom's new boyfriend?

Sparks are flying elsewhere in Winterfell, literally, as Joe Dempsie's Gendry works hard in the forge manufacturing weapons from dragonglass, including an ax for Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann). Lo and behold: Arya Stark, whose return is of interest to both the Hound and Gendry. Arya and the Hound share a sweet, if subdued, appreciation for one another's survival. Arya and Gendry's reunion, however, is a little bit more loaded, as there appears to be some romantic chemistry between the two. Love in the air or not, at the very least Gendry is on board to help Arya create a new weapon: a dragonglass spear, one that's fashioned much like the fighting stick she used to wield during her Faceless Men days.

Later, in another dark corner of Winterfell, another meeting of the minds: Daenerys and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley). It begins with Dany expressing appreciation for Sam's role in curing Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) of his greyscale. It ends on much less appreciative ground, as Dany reveals she executed Sam's father and brother during the loot train battle. A heartbroken Sam leaves the castle and runs into Bran outside, with the new Three-Eyed Raven encouraging Sam to tell Jon the truth about his true roots as a Targaryen. 

Sam takes Bran's advice, heads to the crypts of Winterfell, and reunites with Jon for the first time since season five. The warm reunion quickly turns awkward when Sam tells Jon about how Dany opted to kill two unarmed enemy combatants, rather than take them prisoner — let alone the fact that they're his family. Sam suggests Jon would be a much better person to rule Westeros, leading to this intense and highly anticipated (and slightly edited-down) exchange:

Sam: "You've spared men. Thousands of wildlings…"
Jon: "I wasn't a king."
Sam: "But you were. You've always been."
Jon: "I gave up my crown, Sam. I bent the knee. I'm not King in the North anymore."
Sam: "I'm not talking about the King in the North. I'm talking about the King of the bloody Seven Kingdoms … your mother was Lyanna Stark. Your father — your real father — was Rhaegar Targaryen. You've never been a bastard. You're Aegon Targaryen, the true heir to the Iron Throne."

It's a heavy reveal, obviously. While Jon has a lot to process (not the least of which is the still unspoken acknowledgement that his new girlfriend is also his aunt), his principal concern hones in on how it's going to impact the political relationship with Daenerys. To be determined on how that's going to play out.

Further north than Winterfell, the action cuts to Last Hearth, where Eastwatch survivors Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) reunite. In the northern stronghold, they find poor young Ned Umber nailed to a wall, with the flaming insignia of the White Walkers burning behind him. Ned briefly springs to undead life for a quick jump scare, before being burned to true death by Beric. The trio of survivors determine that the Night King is trying to send a message: they're on the way to Winterfell. 

The premiere's final scene brings the action back to Winterfell, but the Night King is nowhere in sight. Instead, the scene centers on his arch-enemy: Bran, the Three-Eyed Raven. The all-seeing mystic sits in the middle of the Winterfell courtyard as a hooded stranger arrives in Winterfell: Jaime Lannister, making good on his promise to fight for the living. How will Jon, Daenerys, Sansa and the rest welcome the Kingslayer when he comes to them with tidings of Cersei's true intentions, not to mention the likely revelation of his own role in paralyzing Bran Stark? Mercifully, the answers are only one week away.

Follow THR.com/GameOfThrones for more coverage of the final season.