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With White Walkers on the march and new Iron Throne contenders rising at every turn, the stakes on Game of Thrones have never been higher — and yet, the world the HBO drama occupies has never felt so small.
Sure, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) just found out he’s a whole lot more important than even his King in the North title once suggested. Yes, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought her dragons to Winterfell, causing several Northern heart rates to race uncontrollably. Characters the audience know and love already are just now meeting for the first time, while others are reuniting for the first time in years and years. Big events, all of them. But if there’s one thing the final season makes immediately clear, it’s that their physical space is shrinking to its tightest form yet — a sentiment that’s perfectly expressed in the brand new opening credits sequence.
Watch the sequence above.
In previous seasons, Thrones has been all over the map, quite literally. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) began her journey in Westeros, but eventually wound up in Braavos. Daenerys began in Pentos, before moving over to Qarth (the less said, the better), Meereen in Slaver’s Bay, and eventually trekking forth to Dragonstone. These are just two of the countless adventures characters experienced throughout the first seven seasons, taking them all over the world of ice and fire, so lavishly created by author George R.R. Martin, only to be fantastically realized on television by creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss and the entire Thrones crew. (Indeed, Benioff and Weiss’ army could put up one heck of a challenge to the Night King’s own forces.)
Even when there wasn’t much happening on the show, the epic opening credits sequence always crawled across the sprawling continent of Westeros, if not to the lands in Essos and beyond. Starting in season seven, the map’s focus tightened, thanks to the abandonment of all the storylines in the fictional universe’s eastern continent. But the final season makes its immediate predecessor look gigantic in comparison, as the opening sequence has undergone a massive makeover.
The new credits sequence begins somewhere we have never seen here before: beyond the Wall. In the past, Game of Thrones would only go as far as Castle Black (and Eastwatch in season seven) in order to account for stories set in the land of the White Walkers and wildlings. Here, it begins just past the ruined Wall, on the wilder side of Westeros’ frozen barrier, before swooping into the realm proper — not unlike the warpath carved out by The Night King at the end of season seven.
Next stop: the Last Hearth, yet another new locale per the map, and potentially one we won’t revisit in the future, based on how it factors into the premiere. The seat of House Umber is a ghost town when Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) arrived, governed by its poor zombified Lord Ned (Harry Grasby). It’s the biggest landmark standing between the Wall and Winterfell, but having outlived its usefulness, it may not remain on the map far into the future.
Which brings us to the first big stopover: Winterfell. The seat of House Stark gets treated like it’s its own continent, as rich, vibrant and diverse as Westeros itself. The viewer is taken through all the nooks and crannies of the cold castle, from the courtyard through the crypt. Viewers are advised to do more than look at the place in awe; study its features closely, because we’re going to see it all up close and personal when war comes to Winterfell. Based on the trailer for episode two, the big battle with the White Walkers looks likely for episode three, the longest installment in Thrones history at a staggering one hour and 22 minutes — a likely site for the loss of countless characters.
What’s left after Winterfell? The series will likely follow the opening credits’ path, as the focus shifts south to King’s Landing, where Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) still sits comfortably on the Iron Throne, far away from the frozen dead. Our tour through the Red Keep isn’t quite as extensive as the new look at Winterfell, but there’s a key detail worth zoning in on: an enormous crossbow, not unlike the one designed to kill Daenerys’ dragons in season seven. The weapon managed to put a dent in Drogon, even if it wasn’t fatal; are we being set up for a successful second shot at some point down the line?
More importantly, one wonders how the opening credits may evolve even further if the forces of the living lose against the forces of the dead at Winterfell — a very likely outcome, given that the battle is set to take place at the midpoint of the final season. If the surviving heroes are forced on the run, will we still spend so much time in the ruined husk of Winterfell? Will it be occupied by the castle’s new blue-eyed invaders? Will we instead follow Jon Snow and any other survivors as they take their cause south toward King’s Landing — either a closer look at the open road, or a deeper dive into King’s Landing, should it be the final setting of the story? The possibilities are wide open right now, and the drastic overhaul to the credits sequence leaves one to wonder just how wide we’re talking about.
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William Jackson Harper