REVIEW: ‘Game of Thrones’ returns with an emotional opening

Based on the book series “Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, “Game of Thrones” began its final season Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO)

The fight for the Iron Throne has begun again — and this time, for good.

On Sunday, “Game of Thrones” released its final season premiere on HBO and cut right to the chase. Westeros is in danger. Winter is here. The White Walkers are marching south on a blood-hungry killing spree. And despite the impending doom of fighting the Army of the Dead in the Long Night, political tensions across the Seven Kingdoms continue to rise — with the smug, ruthless queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) perched on her throne, relishing in her newfound power.

In the Season 8 premiere “Winterfell,” the different roads paved throughout the series lead to the same castle. Since the Starks took control of Winterfell from the Boltons in the Battle of the Bastards, Winterfell has transformed into a thriving hotspot. Once the timid, idealistic girl who wanted to live in a perfect fairytale in King’s Landing, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) now serves as Lady of Winterfell, handing down orders for all the people of the North and their allies to rally together and fortify the castle against the White Walkers when the time comes. At her side are her younger sister and assassin Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her younger brother-turned-Three-Eyed Raven Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) — the last remaining Starks — and together, they are here to defend Winterfell.

Much to Sansa’s skepticism and the North’s frustration, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has renounced his title of King in the North to bend the knee to Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), and has fallen in love with her. Unbeknownst to both of them, it is revealed in the seventh season by the omniscient Bran that Jon was never a Stark bastard as everyone believed; he is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, Daenerys’ older brother, and Lyanna Stark, and therefore the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. In “Winterfell,” when best friend Sam tells Jon the truth about his Targaryen heritage, Jon is shaken up, torn between his duty to Westeros and love for Daenerys.

The episode is marked by the emotional reunions between characters. Arya and Jon, who bid farewell to each other in the first season, share a hug at the godswood. And along with sharing a friendly exchange with Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Arya is shocked to see Ser Sandor Clegane, or “the Hound” (Rory McCann) alive and well in Winterfell, as he was minutes away from his death the last time she saw him. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), now Hand of the Queen to Daenerys, greets former wife Sansa after years of separation following King Joffrey’s death in the fourth season.

And, to close the episode off, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is greeted at Winterfell with a cold stare from Bran, whom he shoved out of an abandoned tower upon Bran’s discovery of his and Cersei’s incestuous relationship in the pilot.

“Winterfell” strikes multiple parallels with the series pilot. Just as in “Winter is Coming,” during which the Starks open their doors to the Baratheons, the family in power at the time, Daenerys Targaryen and her lover-slash-nephew Jon march into Winterfell with their combined armies, with both scenes cemented by the same thrum of strings and drums composed by Ramin Djawadi. Additionally, viewers learn that the Night King, the leader of the White Walkers, has left the same message as he did in the pilot: a Fibonacci spiral of mangled limbs. And within its perimeter, a child has been turned into an icy blue-eyed wight — a reanimated corpse under the spell of the White Walkers — slowly creeping up to passersby and screeching until its final death by fire. It was clear that the creators intended to pay homage to the pilot; at the start, Westeros was on the brink of dissolving into the game of thrones, and winter was an impending but seemingly harmless threat. But now, winter is here, and houses are scrambling for safety come the Long Night.

But even though most of the plotlines in “Game of Thrones” wrapped up by the seventh season, there are a few too many loose ends that have yet to be resolved. There are two critical plot points viewers are anticipating — battling the White Walkers and seeing who claims the Iron Throne — everything else is rightfully irrelevant. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) and the Iron Islands seem too detached from the rest of Westeros, and him intruding on King’s Landing and laying with Cersei is rather misplaced. Harry Strickland (Marc Rissman), the captain general of the Golden Company, is also introduced when he comes to Cersei’s aid. But with only five episodes left, why continue with these trivial plotlines now?

Also, illustrating the Jon-Daenerys duo as star-crossed lovers is too forced. The relationship already escalated quickly in the seventh season, and while the lovers have seemed to come together by means of fate (after all, the book series the show is based on is fittingly titled “A Song of Ice and Fire,” elements that can be attributed to the two), the two seem out of character when they interact with each other. Clarke’s cheerful demeanor seeps into Daenerys’ normally stone-cold personality when she embraces Jon. And when Jon and Daenerys ride her dragons Rhaegal and Drogon across Winterfell, the scene seems all too reminiscent of a romantic flight ripped out of “How to Train Your Dragon.” Perhaps the creators are drenching this episode with Jon-Daenerys love to somehow bend it into some tragic love story, but only viewers will see how their romance unravels later.

But overall, this first episode has responded to fans’ anticipation with a bold opening to what looks like an unforgettable final season. The next few episodes will only expand on the chaos engulfing Westeros as the White Walkers take charge south.

Will Jon have to kill Daenerys when he dutifully claims the Iron Throne? Or will Daenerys’ hubris get the better of her as the Dead marches on? Viewers cannot help but just watch, listing their predictions for who will die and who will win the game of thrones.