Game of Thrones returns to television after an agonizing nineteen months. The much anticipated season eight premiere, "Winterfell", was filled with reunions and revelations. Characters that had spent much of the series apart were brought together by the looming army of the dead. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) arrive at Winterfell, but are not welcomed by the northerners. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) fulfills his promise to Cersei (Lena Headey). Sam (John Bradley) learns of his family's fate, then tells Jon the shocking truth of his heritage.

The first surprise is an entirely new opening sequence. Previously the opening credits had been of an astrolabe leading to the different locations of events in Westeros and Essos. The astrolabe adds three new murals: The Wall, The Red Wedding, and The Dragons Birth. The map has become much smaller. We are lead to the Wall destroyed at Eastwatch, followed by Last Hearth, the seat of House Umber. Winterfell is next, but now we're taken inside into the catacombs. The credits end at a more imposing King's Landing, through the castle, and finally to the Iron Throne itself.

Winterfell begins with a young boy running through a crowd of northerners to get a peak of the Unsullied marching by. He passes Arya (Maisie Williams), watching on the side of the road like the common folk. The boy climbs a tree to see the thousands of soldiers coming in the distance. Arya looks as Jon and Daenerys ride by without noticing her. She's tempted to yell for Jon, but does not. She's stunned to see the Hound (Rory McCann) and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) in the procession.

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Tyrion (Tyrion Lannister) and Varys (Conleth Hill) are riding in a wagon. Varys is upset at Tyrion's vulgar eunuch joke. Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) are behind them. The northerners look on with disdain and fear. Daenerys also notices the cold reception. Jon reminds her that the north people do not trust the southerners. The crowd gasps in astonishment as the dragons fly overhead. Sansa (Sophie Turner) is also amazed from her viewpoint on the wall of the castle.

The procession arrives at the courtyard. Sansa, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), and the north lords are waiting. Jon leaps off his horse and embraces Bran. He kisses his brother on the forehead, before engaging Sansa. Where is Arya? She's "lurking" somewhere. Jon introduces Daenerys to Sansa. They are polite, but Sansa is obviously not happy to see her. Young Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) glowers at the interlopers. Bran breaks the pleasantries with a dire message, the Wall has fallen, the dead march south, and the Night King has the dragon Viserion.

In the banquet room, the reception is chillier than the winter outside. Sansa updates Jon that she recalled all the houses and their men once she heard of the Wall's breach. Young Lord Umber (Harry Grasby) needs more horses and wagons to bring his men. He struggles to correctly title Sansa, Jon, and Daenerys before him. Lyanna Mormont, acerbic as ever, chastises Jon for bending the knee to Daenerys. They made him a king, but what is he now? Jon acknowledges the "honor of his life", but chose to give up his crown to save the north. As the crowd continues to bristle, Tyrion comes to his defense. If anyone survives the war to come, they have Jon Snow to thank. Tyrion lists the power of their numbers, dragons, and to gasps, that the Lannister army is joining as well. They must fight together or die. Sansa asks how will they feed the armies and dragons. She wonders aloud what dragons eat. Daenerys acidly replies, "Whatever they want."

Gendry oversees the unloading of wagons filled with dragonglass. Tyrion interrupts a conversation with Sansa and Lord Royce (Rupert Vansittart). They recount the events of the Red Wedding. Tyrion congratulates her on surviving, and being smart. She mocks him in return. She had thought he was the cleverest man in the world. How could he believe that Cersei would ever send her army to join them?

Jon is at the Weirwood tree when Arya comes up behind. He's impressed she was able to sneak up on him. They embrace lovingly after years apart, then show each other their swords. Jon asks for her help in dealing with Sansa. Arya reminds him that Sansa is acting on behalf of their family.

At King's Landing, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) brings Cersei news of the wall's breach. She scoffs, admiring the approaching fleet of Euron Greyjoy; carrying the mercenary army, the Golden Company of Essos. On his ship, Euron banters on deck with the mercenaries leader, Captain Strickland (Marc Rissmann), before going below to taunt his prisoner. Yara (Gemma Whelan) is still alive and tied up. Euron tell his niece they've arrived at King's Landing. Her response, "You've picked the losing side." Euron casually replies that he'll just sail somewhere else, but first has to f*** the queen.

In her throne room, Captain Strickland and Euron update Cersei. They brought all of their soldiers and horses, but no elephants. Euron slyly demands his reward from Cersei. She tells him that it'll be after the war is won. A queen is worth waiting for. As she leaves, he reminds her how he as succeeded where everyone else has failed. Cersei reconsiders and beckons him to her chambers. A delighted Euron prances by the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson).

Bronn (Jerome Flynn) is having an orgy with three prostitutes. The women gossip about the dragons burning the Lannister soldiers. Qyburn enters the room with an offer of gold up front. Cersei wants her brothers killed, if they survive the war against the dead. Qyburn gives Bronn the crossbow Tyrion used to kill their father.

In Cersei's chambers, Euron quizzes her how he rated as a lover. He brings up Robert and her brother. Cersei brands him the most arrogant man she's ever met, but congratulates him on his sexual performance. As he leaves, he taps her belly, whispering that he will put "a prince" in there. Cersei grins, as she's already pregnant with Jaime's (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) child.

That night on Euron's ship, Theon (Alfie Allen) leads a raid to rescue his sister. They quietly kill all the guards, then Theon cuts Yara free. She viciously headbutts him for leaving her behind, then offers her hand. They escape on their ships. Yara plans to retake the Iron Islands while Euron is gone. She wisely knows that it's the perfect fallback location for Daenerys. Yara gives Theon permission to return and fight for the Starks.

At Winterfell, Varys, Tyrion, and Davos (Liam Cunningham) watch as the Karstarks join their forces. They walk through to the wall overlooking the vast encampment. Davos reminds Tyrion that the north's trust must be earned. They see Jon and Daenerys walking below. Davos hints that they make a handsome couple.

Daenerys expresses her doubt in Sansa to Jon. The Dothraki ride up with news of her dragons. They are not eating. Daenerys and Jon visit the subdued dragons. The beasts are getting ill in the cold. Daenerys jumps on Drogon and goads Jon to ride Rhaegal. They lift off, soaring over Winterfell, then through a snow covered canyon. Jon clings on for dear life. They land by a majestic frozen waterfall. Jon exclaims that she's "completely ruined horses for him." Daenerys commands that he keep his queen warm. As they embrace, Jon looks nervously as Drogon glowers.

In the Winterfell forge, Gendry is leading the production of dragonglass weapons. He's made an axe for the Hound, who's criticism is interrupted by Arya. She and the Hound have a reckoning. He calls her a "cold bitch", but it is a compliment for surviving. Arya and Gendry catch up with more flirting. He mocks her for being a rich girl. She gives him a design of a weapon to create. They both look back at each other when Arya walks away.

Jon joins Sansa in her chambers. She reads a message from Lord Glover. He is not joining the fight. Jon is furious at his betrayal, but Sansa reminds him that Lord Glover swore an oath to the King in the North, not Daenerys. The siblings have a long simmering argument about Jon bending the knee. Jon tells her the hard truth. They will not survive without Daenerys help. He asks if she has any faith in him. She does. Jon comforts her by saying Daenerys will be a great queen for all of them.

Jorah (Iain Glen) takes Daenerys to meet Sam Tarly. She wants to thank the man that cured Jorah. The meeting becomes emotional when Sam learns that she killed his father and brother. Sam begins to weep and asks to be excused. Daenerys is aghast at what has just transpired.

Sam walks outside overcome with grief. He sees Bran, who tells him that it is time for him to speak to Jon. Sam is the man that Jon trusts above everyone else. In the catacombs, Jon is lighting a candle for Ned Stark. Sam recounts how Daenerys killed his father and brother. He reminds Jon how merciful he was to the Wildlings. Sam gently tells Jon that he is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. His real name is Aegon Targaryen, the true leader of Seven Kingdoms. Jon is floored by this revelation. He asks why his "father" lied to him his entire life. Sam says Ned Stark promised his mother to protect him. Jon would have been killed if Robert Baratheon knew his real identity. Jon gave up his crown to save his people, would Daenerys have done the same?

Beric (Richard Dormer) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) enter a burned down Last Hearth. They search in the dark until they bump into the Night's Watch. House Umber has been annihilated. They find young Lord Umber, nailed to a wall, with arms and legs arranged in a spiral sequence around him. He shrieks to life as a wight. Beric burns him as the grotesque spiral arms blaze. It is a message from the Night King. They must ride hard to Winterfell to arrive before the army of the dead. The episode ends with a cloaked Jaime arriving at the castle. When he dismounts, he's horrified to see Bran looking at him.

"Winterfell" was loaded with valuable exposition. While it lacked action, it laid the groundwork for the last six episodes of the series. Daenerys was not welcomed as a hero. The northerners and Stark family don't trust her. While Jon makes the valid case for help, there is bound to be conflict between Sansa and Daenerys. Cersei's bedding of Euron was a wise move, just like she duped Robert about their children. Yara's plan to retake the Iron Islands is pivotal. It makes me think the final showdown will be at Dragonstone.

The division between Daenerys and Jon has been laid. Sam's honest appraisal of her ambitions versus Jon's claim to the throne is startling. The difference is that Jon has no desire to be king. He's now a dragon rider, but it seems unlikely that Rhaegal and Drogon would follow his command...unless something happens to Daenerys. As the Night King threatens, the political intrigue continues to be brilliant. Episode two has Jaime facing the wrath of Daenerys and the Starks, with the army of the dead at the door. Game of Thrones returns next Sunday on HBO.

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Julian Roman at TVweb
Julian Roman