Game of Thrones season 8 episode 1 review: "A stunning reminder of what makes Game of Thrones special"

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GamesRadar+ Verdict

A simply stunning episode that recaps all that’s gone on without treading the same ground, while pushing characters forward in new and slightly worrying ways

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This Game of Thrones season 8 episode 1 review is spoiler-free, so if you haven’t seen the episode you can reader further without fear!

Game of Thrones is back at last, and the premiere doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s a stunning reminder what makes Game of Thrones special, with tense moments where you’ll find yourself going a bit light-headed from holding your breath for a bit too long intertwined with delicate conversations where allegiances visibly shift with every word. With so many characters meeting for the first time since they did such bad, bad things to each other in previous seasons, Game of Thrones season 8 (opens in new tab)’s first episode had to get everyone on the same page - or at least the same side (ish) - without feeling like it was rushing major character revelations. Seven Hells, it managed to do all that and more.  

Queen and King 

Daenerys deserves her own mention, hands-down. Or should that be claws-down? Emilia Clarke’s portrayal of the Targaryen queen seamlessly blends aspects of both the empathetic girl Daenerys is under her hard, scaley exterior with the ruthless ruler she’s grown into. One moment Daenerys is beaming with her warm disarming smile, while the next she’s uttering sentences that are laden with a light foreboding. Frankly, in a couple of points both Jon and I did a simultaneous double take. Clarke’s ability to depict both sides of Daenerys without it being jarring is a feat, and shows us that the Targaryen is struggling with how the reality of her desire to rule Westeros clashes with those who have lived there for decades. Plus seeing her mother her dragons lets us see Daenerys as a caring, confident parent, a factor that would have been sidelined in lesser series. Mind you, those vulnerable depths are in danger of being overcast by her unrepentant attitude, and episode one is already setting off some very quiet yet persistent Mad King-style alarm bells. Gulp. 

On the other side of Daenerys is Jon. Loyal, more-or-less honorable Jon. Previous seasons have seen some rather unsubstantial scenes with the former King in the North, yet even this early on in season 8 Kit Harrington has already shown that there’s far more to Jon than a northern accent and a bewildered look. Anger, joy, surprise, as well as terror all grip Harrington, and it’s refreshing to see a character convincingly react to the developments around him with the same what-have-I-gotten-myself-into look on his face as I think most of us would have in his shoes. Harrington’s Jon Snow is still a man of the people, but that proves to be a double-edged sword in his inability to appreciate the political subtleties that go into keeping your followers content. Just prepare yourself for seeing Daenerys and Jon’s various royal management techniques clash at some point… boy, it is not going to be pretty. But it’ll make for good television, right? Right?!

Family above all (?)

Speaking of political subtleties, Sansa has more of the Littlefinger about her this season. She’s all the better for it. While we haven’t seen the quiet machinations she might have going on in the background, Sophie Turner’s dry-witted Sansa oozes certainty - and a very slight aura of danger. Picked up upon by all those around her, even Tyrion is seemingly stunned by her capacity to rule, plus even considering how carefully Sansa chooses her words she always appears to be completely in command of whichever scene she’s in. I’m sure Daenerys is going to have an issue with that at some point, but frankly just from their two brief scenes in this episode the power play between the pair are almost definitely going to be this season’s most thrilling scenes. 

Although Sansa’s in her element, the same can’t be said for Arya. That doesn’t mean that she’s lacking in any way; rather we get to see Arya being torn between the joy of being part of a family again and being uncomfortable with confronting the girl she was before she travelled across the ocean. While her allegiance remains with Sansa, Maisie Williams’ almost unsettling coldness towards certain characters hints that she only thinks in terms of black and white, good and evil, the names that are on her list and those that aren’t. Although this clear-cut approach will suit Sansa’s purposes, one brief look showed that Jon is already having problems with it. Family loyalty is doubtless going to be a continuing theme in season 8, as with so many other Houses either extinct or on their last legs characters are going to have to decide just how highly they prize their own blood. Let’s just all hope the Starks end up on the same side… 

Watch out for Samwell

Stealing the episode is, surprisingly, John Bradley as Samwell Tarly. Often it’s easy to just paint Samwell as Jon’s sidekick. If you think that’s still the case, you’re wrong. I won’t say why, or how, but during the short scene he’s in Bradley reminds us all of the toll that’s been paid to get this far. Samwell is becoming one of the easiest characters to identify with (I know I wouldn’t mind researching ancient tomes instead of fighting on the front lines), and he might even be realising himself just how powerful his influence over Jon is… not that he’d do anything underhand. I think. 

Game of Thrones season 8 episode 1 exceeded expectations without a shadow of a doubt. While there weren’t any massive, season-altering revelations, it’s thrilling how a handful of quiet exchanges between characters feel like the small rocks that fall before a groundslide. Although the threat of the White Walkers remains present, episode 1 subtlety showed us how divided Westeros’ Kings, Queens, Lords, and Ladies remain while paradoxically the distinction between Houses is the smallest it’s ever been. Game of Thrones season 8 is going to be one hell of a ride, and the premiere has made it clear that the wait has absolutely been worth it. 

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While here at GamesRadar, Zoe was a features writer and video presenter for us. She's since flown the coop and gone on to work at Eurogamer where she's a video producer, and also runs her own Twitch and YouTube channels. She specialises in huge open-world games, true crime, and lore deep-dives.