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'Game Of Thrones' Season 8, Episode 1: 'Nothing Lasts'

Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) smiling that smile of hers on <em>Game of Thrones.</em> Shoulder pads courtesy of Julia Sugarbaker.
Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) smiling that smile of hers on Game of Thrones. Shoulder pads courtesy of Julia Sugarbaker.

We're recapping the eighth and final season ofGame of Thrones ; look for these recaps first thing on Monday mornings. Spoilers, of course, abound.

Welcome back, everyone. It's been two years since last we gathered around the flickering electronic hearth to feast our eyes on this world, and these characters, many of whom – I'm thinking here of the dragons and the ice-zombies mostly – would happily feast on our eyes. Because Winter is Here, and it's shaping up to be a long, cruel one, and Sansa didn't pack away enough provisions for everyone.

This first episode back is stuffed to the gills with great big thick chunks of plot – reunions, recriminations, spilled secrets – because the show's sprinting toward the close and there's no time to waste. I mean, sure, the Euron scenes drag on forever, but that's because Euron is so one-note and dull that time slows as you approach him. He's an event horizon of boring, is our leather-panted sea slug.

But everything else? Zipping along at a pace that surprised me, though I knew we've been nearing the exit for the fireworks factory for some time. Again and again, we get set-ups for the kind of conflicts that, in seasons past, would simmer over the course of four or five episodes. Now, instead, they boil over in the very same scene they're introduced. It's not immersive, no – but it's efficient.

Let's begin.

Opening credits! With a considerable upgrade! First off, that spinning sun-mobile thingy that flies over the clockwork map of Westeros has traded its galloping Baratheon stag for a Targaryen dragon immolating the Wall. We zoom down over the map, through the gaping breach in the Wall (nice touch). There's a neat effect of encroaching ice as we approach a location we've never visited before – Last Hearth. Then it's off to Winterfell, which has gotten a serious makeover – and so has our point-of-view, which takes us through the castle and down into the crypts. We soar down to King's Landing, also looking freshly spiffy, and into the catacombs complete with a few facsimiles of Qyburn's ballista and some dragon skulls. We finish in the throne room, as the Iron Throne itself rises out of the floor and pokes out its pokey swords like it's a frilled lizard in courtship display.

We're in a small town just outside of Winterfell's walls. A young kid is running frantically – we're meant to think he's in danger, running from White Walkers, perhaps – but it turns out he's not running away from something, he's running toward it. The something in question: He wants to get a glimpse of the endless line of Unsullied, marching through town on their way to Winterfell. Arya is among the townsfolk lining the street – she looks impassive, they look worried and resentful.

Also on the march: Daenerys and Jon Snow, The Hound (Arya's face falls at the sight of him), Gendry (slight smile), Tyrion and Varys, bickering contentedly, as is their wont, Grey Worm and Missandei. So, most of the call sheet, basically. Also? Not for nothing? Two great big honkin' dragons, which do a screeching flyby, buzzing the townsfolk, who scatter like startled antelope, if antelope wore ratty cloaks and looked like they smelled like feet.

Both Arya and Sansa, who stands atop the Winterfell battlements, get the chance to goggle at their first sight of a dragon. There's an emotional reunion between Jon Snow and Bran Stark, though Bran being Bran, the emotion in question is Jon's. At one point Sansa shoots Jon a look like, "No, yeah, Bran's weird now, bro. And Arya's got her own trippy death-cult vibe going on now, too, just you wait."

Sansa welcomes Daenerys to Winterfell, albeit coolly — nay, icily; she's still sore that Jon swore fealty to Daenerys, giving up his title of King in the North. Also peeved: young Lyanna Mormont, unless that hilariously intense scowl on her face means she needs to get more fiber. Daenerys opts for a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth opening salvo, but they are interrupted by Bran, who brings everyone up to speed: The Wall is down, the dragon that she lost fighting the Night King is now the kind of dead that's un-, and the White Walkers are on the move.

(See what I mean? Eleven minutes in, and the characters have learned all the information that we know. Efficient.)

In Winterfell's Great Hall, they decide to send word to the other Houses of the North to take refuge in Winterfell, and dispatch li'l Lord Umber off to his family's castle, Last Hearth (from the credits!) to retrieve them. Jon sends for the men of the Night's Watch as well. Lyanna Mormont seizes the moment to call Jon out on abandoning his crown in favor of Daenerys, because "calling folk out" is Lyanna Mormont's entire, magnificent deal.

Jon attempts to defend himself, but only succeeds in sending the scruffy assemblage to muttering "peas-and-carrots, peas-and-carrots." Tyrion tries to weigh in, but as soon as he mentions that the Lannister army is on its way to join the good fight, the muttering blossoms from "peas and carrots" into an entire Birds Eye frozen vegetable medley.

Gendry heads to the Winterfell forges with wagons loaded with dragonglass while Tyrion has an awkward, wry and respectful reunion with Sansa. Some air gets cleared between them — enough for him to see that she's been changed by everything she's been through. ("Many underestimated you," he says. "Most of them are dead now.") Sansa correctly surmises that Cersei lied about sending the Lannister armies to help and mocks Tyrion for believing the lie in the first place.

The show has placed Sansa in a tough position here at the start of the final season. She resents Jon's partnering with Daenerys and is not afraid to get salty about it; this makes her an obstacle in the Dany-Jon-Tyrion story path. So to make sure we stay on Sansa's side, the producers do things like have Tyrion remind her (us) that people underestimate her, and make her able to see things that Tyrion can't. Good for Sansa, but it does seem like they could have found a way to build up Sansa as a savvy leader without making Tyrion look stupid.

In the Winterfell Godswood, another reunion: Arya sneaks up on Jon, acting all cool and distant and Faceless Mannish, before dropping her guard and offering a glimpse of an Arya we haven't seen in years. He asks if she's ever used Needle, the sword he gave her back in Season 1. She, um, has. (Has he not been debriefed by Sansa? Or did Sansa figure "Our little sister is a skilled assassin who collects and wears dead people's faces" is the kind of news Jon should get from the source?)

Jon starts to complain about Sansa, only to get slapped down: "She's the smartest person I've ever met," says Arya, and geeeeez okAY we GET it, show.

Down in King's Landing, Queen Cersei receives the news that the Wall has fallen with that same close-mouthed, lizardlike, humorless smile she greets most things with, and she welcomes Euron Greyjoy and his Iron Fleet, which has ferried 20,000 mercenaries ("The Golden Company," in point of fact), 2,000 horses and — to the Queen's disappointment — exactly zero elephants across the Narrow Sea. (The Golden Company is led by the symmetrically featured, swoopy haired bohunk Captain Strickland, whose name reads less "George R.R. Martin fantasy character" and more "Delta co-pilot," but let that go.)

Euron Greyjoy is also here, because he's got to be somewhere, I suppose. First he gloats and smarms over his captive Yara Greyjoy, who seems as over him as I am. Next, he prattles on before the Iron Throne, where Cersei cuts him down to size before inviting him up to her room, mystifyingly enough. Knew she was evil, but I thought she had taste.

Bronn cavorts with a trio of sex workers who can't seem to stop talking about how weird it is that dragons are back, which seems like the kind of thing that would happen. He's then given new marching orders from Cersei, by way of Qyburn – he's to hunt down his former besties Jaime and Tyrion Lannister and kill them with a very familiar crossbow.

There's a post-coital scene between Euron and Cersei that, yes, has a lot of Euron in it, but this unpleasant fact is largely ameliorated because it also features Cersei guzzling red wine and smiling that smile, which will always be peak Cersei, and for which I will always be here.

Theon rescues his sister Yara; she decides to head back to the Iron Islands to wait there, in case Daenerys loses her battle in the North and needs to retreat to somewhere safe from the Army of the Dead, who, famously and conveniently, cannot swim. (No word on whether they can boat, though. I mean, they managed to work together to haul a full-size dead dragon out of an icy lake – they can definitely pilot a Sunfish.)

Theon heads up to Winterfell to join the fight, because his redemption arc needs a button.

At Winterfell, several of the other Houses are showing up for the fight. Davos Seaworth raises the possibility of a marriage between Jon and Daenerys. "They do make a handsome couple," says Tyrion. "Nothing lasts," says Varys.

(Team Varys, always, again, some more.)

This is followed — again, astonishingly quickly — by the sight of Jon Snow hauling his mopey yet no less exquisite butt onto Rhaegal the dragon's back and taking the beast for a spin. Or getting taken for a spin, technically.

Look, we knew it was gonna happen, but how many of us had "minute 34 of Episode 1" in the pool? It feels like the show's burning through the stuff it knows we're expecting so it can start doing the stuff we aren't.

We get a three-minute "Whole New World" sequence as Daenerys and Jon swoop and sway through the air, alighting beside a picturesque waterfall to make out – while the dragons look on ... warily? Approvingly? Distrustfully? Hornily? It's tough to tell with dragons.

Back at the forge, Gendry supplies the Hound with a dragonglass ax, and there's a tense reunion between the Hound and Arya, who suddenly appears behind him like some kind of tiny, fantastically eyebrowed Batman. She does that a lot. Arya commissions Gendry to build her a weapon. Watch this space.

Not all of the Houses are agreeing to retreat to Winterfell. Sansa is still seething about Jon and Daenerys, and you'd be forgiven if you found your eyes starting to roll at any point during her dressing down of Jon. But look at it this way – coming as it does here, now, we're only gonna get one episode's worth of it. If this was back in Season 5, this whole Resentful Sansa thing would fuel a six-episode arc. You know it would. The scene ends with Sansa asking Jon if he bent the knee (ugh) to save the North, or because he loves her.

And here I'd so hoped we'd left "bend the knee," as a phrase, back in Season 7. Lord knows they beat it to death back then. But then, dead things don't tend to stay dead in Westeros nowadays.

Daenerys and Jorah visit Sam in the Winterfell library, to thank him for curing Jorah last season. Their talk comes around to the subject of Sam's father and brother, the late Randyll and Dickon Tarly, whom you'll recall Daenerys, not for nothing, flash-fried in dragon breath last season. She comes out and tells Sam what she did without wasting any time (because six episodes and counting, guys let's go let's go let's go), and Sam reacts. And reacts and reacts and reacts. John Bradley, stealth MVP of Game of Thrones, strikes again: He's got a lot to play in this scene; you can watch his baseline comic mien giving way to waves of successive emotions, as shock and anger and sorrow play across his features.

Sam runs into Bran in the Winterfell courtyard; Bran urges Sam to tell Jon about his true lineage right away. It's clear that Bran has acquired the Three-Eyed Raven's bossiness as well as his impassivity.

Sam finds Jon in the Winterfell crypts and tells him the truth: He's the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and the true heir to the Iron Throne. And following Sam's conversation with Daenerys, he's become convinced that Jon deserves to rule the Seven Kingdoms more than she does, as Jon has demonstrated restraint and mercy countless times, while Daenerys ... fricasseed Sam's father and brother, for example. (To be fair, Tyrion did warn her not to.)

Tormund and Beric, looking astonishingly hale and hearty after the Wall crumbled around them last season, enter the ruins of Last Hearth, home to li'l Lord Umber. Clearly something very bad has gone down here, but there are no bodies to be found (hint). They run into Dolorous Edd and a few men from Castle Black; together, they find the dismembered body of li'l Lord Umber, stuck to the wall and arranged in the spiral formation we've come to associate with White Walkers. Suddenly it screams, they scream, they light it on fire, and this whole piece of business is disturbing.

Back at Winterfell, which should really be the name of the episode, Bran is still waiting in the courtyard. Waiting, we learn, for the rider on horseback who arrives and wearily removes his hood: a newly beardy Jaime Lannister looks around and catches the eye of the boy he tossed from a tall tower, years ago.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.