Winter and War Are Here for the Final Season of ‘Game of Thrones’

The winds and snows of winter have arrived as well as the final, epic conflict to top them all for the final season of “Game of Thrones.” HBO’s crowning achievement has spent seven seasons crafting one of the great modern fantasy sagas, and one of the key television series of our time. This eighth and final journey is both a milestone for fans and an event in pop culture. Fittingly, the season premiere wastes no time in jumping into major twists, grand revelations and reunions.

The season opens with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) marching into the North with her army of the Unsullied and Dothraki alongside Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Hovering above are Daenerys’s two dragons. But as they enter the Stark grounds of Winterfell, all local eyes are suspicious. Jon Snow, who can now use the Stark family name, has made an alliance with the Dragon Queen in order to face the onslaught of White Walkers and their leader, the Night King, who have recently broken through the Wall with one of Daenerys’s dragons, now converted into a soulless slave of the dreaded enemy. But Jon has also relinquished his title as King in the North, bowing to Daenerys’s authority, which rattles his people. Tagging along is the queen’s trusted advisor, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) who is confident his notorious sister Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) will soon send troops from King’s Landing to reinforce the armies facing the White Walkers. But the Starks, in particular Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) , don’t trust the Lannisters after all they’ve been through, and they also don’t trust the foreign invader Daenerys. Sansa suspects what we viewers already know from the end of last season, that Jon and Daenerys are lovers, which might explain his quickness to bend the knee. Meanwhile, Cersei has no intensions of helping the Starks or the Targaryen usurper, she has her own plans in store to come out the winner of the coming war and retain control of the coveted Iron Throne.

With so much anticipation for this final round, the team behind “Game of Thrones” deliver a stellar season premiere, directed by show veteran David Nutter and written by Dave Hill, that closes some plot threads while creating new cliffhangers. As with the last season, this one is no longer dependent on the novels by George R.R. Martin. The wordsmith is still composing the final volume of his saga but was deeply consulted by the showrunners as they close up the TV series. But thus far this season flows beautifully out of the last one. We are re-introduced to all the main players as they now prepare for a cataclysmic showdown, yet intrigues and plots are still being hatched in the shadows. Some of the best scenes are full of the emotion of characters finding each other after long separations. The Starks were essentially blown all over the map after Ned Stark’s execution in season one, and now they can finally be together again. Arya and Jon’s reunion is particularly emotive, yet she whispers in his ear that he mustn’t forget they are family and family comes first, in a subtle jab at Daenerys. Tyrion and Sansa also see each other for the first time since season four, when she fled King’s Landing after the much-welcomed poisoning of Joffrey. But here too there is tension, as she scoffs at Tyrion’s trust in Cersei’s promises (“I used to think you were the cleverest man I ever knew”). Later Arya will also Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), whom she once left for dead. At first the moment is awkward, but then there is a gruff recognition among two strong killers that it’s their character that has helped them survive.

And what of the diabolical Cersei? Rarely has there ever been a more appealingly cold and ruthless villainess in modern television. She smiles when informed that White Walkers have crossed the Wall and laments that her new allies, the Golden Company, cannot provide elephants for her own forces. Her other key ally, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), sniffs at the prospect of being her husband, and while she warns him to wait, she will still sleep with him before tossing him out of the room like a toy. Yet her most nefarious moment in this episode comes when she offers Bronn (Jerome Flynn) riches if he goes into the North and assassinates Tyrion. One is eternally grateful every season not to have a family like the Lannisters.

When there isn’t a plot afoot in “Game of Thrones,” the story will then make room for matters of the heart. For all its blood and fire, this is a true epic in that it has scenes of pure romanticism. Daenerys pushes Jon Snow into going dragon riding with her (the dragons are not eating well, seems they don’t like the North). They land in a secluded, snowy waterfall and embrace, with her wondering if they could stay there a thousand years. Of course, the question is what kind of relationship does she have in mind? She’s quite content with being the sole ruler. The greatest wrench to their love happens in the Stark family crypt beneath Winterfell, where the plump and bookish Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), upon discovering that Daenerys executed his father and brother when they refused to bend the knee, tells Jon Snow the shocking truth about his lineage. Always considered the late Ned Stark’s bastard, he is actually a Targaryen and the true heir to the Iron Throne.

If that is not enough of a cliffhanger for the season premiere to end on, the final scene finds Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arriving at Winterfell, having left Cersei last season over her treacherous ways even in the face of the White Walker threat. He dismounts and turns to find Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) staring at hime from his wheelchair. It was Bran who Jamie pushed out a window long ago in season one, initiating the cycle of conflict, wars and intrigues that have led to this very moment.

“Game of Thrones,” medieval and fantastical, strikes a chord because in its deeper aspects it speaks to how real life is complicated, violent and rarely ever a fairy tale. These characters live in a world of wonder, yet have endured very real brutality, loss and heartbreak. Now the stage is being set for the greatest conflict of all. One of the episode’s final moments features a group of Wildings and Night’s Watchmen coming across victims of the approaching White Walkers, who have left body parts arranged in an occult-like spiral, a poor child at the center. For seven seasons clans and houses, kings and underlings, have been fighting for one throne. But there is always a greater threat that can consume it all.

Game of Thrones” season eight premieres April 14 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.