'Game of Thrones' Season 8 Premiere: TV Review

For a big show, 'Game of Thrones' sometimes works well small.

The final season of HBO's hit kicks off with an episode that's predictably heavy on place-setting, but still features some big twists, good character moments and soaring dragons.

[As this review was embargoed until after the Sunday, April 14, premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones, it contains some spoilers. Fewer than a recap. More than a pre-premiere recap.]

"We don't have time for all this!"

Those words come not from me, an impatient TV critic, but rather from Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) early in the eighth and final season premiere of Game of Thrones, and if you don't trust me, surely you can trust the Three-Eyed Raven. He knows things.

Bran's interruption came as seven seasons worth of characters were arriving at Winterfell — an homage to the royal procession arriving at Winterfell in the series premiere — and were being greeted with the enthusiasm and wariness one would expect from tentative interactions in a kingdom long at war with its myriad factions and families. Much of it was long-awaited and some of it was long-overdue and yet …

We don't have time for all this.

With Game of Thrones only six episodes away from taking its place in a pantheon of popular television, the series has places to go and people to see and, more importantly, a zombie — white walkers if you're opposed to the z-word — uprising to crush and the power atop the Iron Throne to consolidate. That's why I'm not sure I buy any "But Game of Thrones premieres are always place-setting episodes!" assertions. There's no question that a show with as many pieces as Game of Thrones requires those pieces and their placement on the board to be stated and restated and that that's doubly or triply true when the show's last new episode aired all the way back in August of 2017. But are the rules different when you have only six episodes remaining? Are the rules different when the show has narrowed its focus down to only a few locations and to a small set of conflicts and narrative imperatives?

Those questions will probably be the determining factor in what I anticipate will be the two primary responses to Sunday's premiere: If you think that the premiere needed to actually start the business of stalking the invasion of the chilly undead because we don't have time for dithering, you probably were frustrated and perhaps even annoyed by the episode in the same way that a subset of Mad Men fans were infuriated that the second half of its final season began with a couple episodes that felt more meandering than they needed to. If you're just happy to have these characters back and interacting with each other and you were hoping for some laughs, several well-earned verbal skirmishes and a few series-shifting revelations and meetings, then the episode was an assortment of little pleasures, with a handful of thrills, one fright and some high drama mixed in.

In this instance, I disagree with Bran. I'm not a destination-driven Game of Thrones viewer. Despite having read all the books and watched the series with general-but-not-rabid enthusiasm, I have no investment in who ends up on the Iron Throne or what gadget play or deus ex machina gizmo will enable the end of zombie encroachment. You give me 50+ minutes of Arya reacting to things and I'm reasonably satisfied.

That's how I'd describe my response to Sunday's premiere: reasonably satisfied.

Reviews normally include some plot summary, and that's both irrelevant and pointless when it comes to Game of Thrones. Basically, after having spent the better part of six or seven seasons with the characters spread out across the Seven Kingdoms, last season was primarily spent consolidating. So we have Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his incestuous, dragon-toting queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) arriving at Winterfell, stoking Sansa's (Sophie Turner) insecurity. It's a vast army now amassed at Winterfell and the characters present at this location include (but surely aren't limited to) Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), The Hound (Rory McCann), Sam (John Bradley), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), various aligned outside families and, perhaps not clear on her place in this whole situation, Arya (Maisie Williams).

Down in King's Landing, then, we have Cersei (Lena Headey), current occupant of the throne, pregnant with her brother's baby and generally uninterested in threats to and from insurgents in The North, waiting for Euron (Pilou Asbaek) to arrive with a mercenary navy to support her reign.

Given time, the premiere reveals the whereabouts of characters including Theon (Alfie Allen), Yara (Gemma Whelan), plus Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) and several of the figures who were at The Wall when the zombie dragon came in the last finale.

Plot summaries for Game of Thrones are, at this point, silly. The only summary that matters: Armies are configuring. Winter has already come. The dead are marching and they're vicious.

Even with a fully reasonable running time of under an hour, the premiere wasn't without scenes that captured the epic scope of what we all expect will be a berserk final season. The marching battalions streaming into Winterfell seemed to go on forever, and we also got what was probably our most sustained stretch of dragon footage to date. The second half of the episode, which I'm taking pains not to spoil here, had one scene of extended suspense. None of this is the same as a prolonged battle scene, but I get the sense that we'll have plenty of that as the season progresses.

If you want answers or revelations, the premiere had several of those as well. Several characters learned things that I feared might take multiple weeks to play out and I was glad at the expeditious approach the writers took and the emotional corners they didn't cut in letting those scenes unfold. I'm being coy, but in an episode with very little to spoil, that's as close as the premiere comes to being spoilable and that, again, is something that some fans will be displeased by.

Want to know the kind of Game of Thrones action sequence I most enjoy? I loved the steady stream of characters entering Winterfell on horseback, each passing by Arya, hidden unnoticed in the crowd. Who needs an extended "Previously on Game of Thrones …" recap when you can watch Maisie Williams' abnormally expressive eyes take in each passing character, using her as the filter to remember where we left every character and what their relationship to Arya was when we last saw them. She expresses so much while doing so little and she's a screenwriter's best friend, with Dave Hill as the primary beneficiary here. Probably a bit too much of the premiere was dedicated to dialogue exchanges that Hill must've thought felt like witty banter — and some of them are — when Williams can have a witty rejoinder with no words and a half-smirk, when she can create an emotional swell just with a smile at a remembered kindness from three seasons ago. In many ways, I'm less sure about what Williams' post-Game of Thrones career looks like than some of her fellow castmates, but she's secured my vote as the cast's MVP no matter how close she ends up to the Iron Throne in the end.

It is not, of course, just the Arya show — though her Daria-style animated series spoofed in last week's SNL was the only one of those fake spinoffs that I'd actually watch — and the premiere was full of satisfying exchanges with other characters as well. I'd rather watch Sansa and Tyrion tiptoe around each other for two minutes, remembering fully when they last shared the screen, than watch people in armor hacking at each other on the battlefield. I cherish each episode's 20 seconds of Lyanna Mormont: Teenage Truth-Teller more than I could ever get a charge out of a CG dragon. I could watch Cersei sneer, watch Tormund get exaggeratedly flustered, watch Sam stutter in well-meaning earnestness, watch Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) tower over everybody and get grossed out watching Daenerys and Jon flirting (or more) endlessly.

So I'm not going to be the person saying, "Ummm … There are zombies coming." I know some people will. And I know where Bran is coming from. And I may get there myself in these next few weeks. Perhaps we don't have time for this. Still, Game of Thrones may be the biggest show on TV, but for 55 minutes, what I relished was how small it could be.

Season 8 of Game of Thrones premiered on Sunday, April 14, on HBO.